Chapter 1: Good old days
He was swearing to himself, trying to hold the goddamn nag still while he got the last nail in. The horse had been refusing to stand still the entire time and by now his patience was wearing thin. At last he managed to get the nail in and could let go of the leg, sweat was pouring of him and he felt how his shirt had started to stick to his back. If the owner didn’t pay well he would face the evening in a very foul mood indeed. The horse was the type who is likely to try to take a piece out of you so he didn’t go near the head, to the dark with such high strung thoroughbreds. He usually only got ordinary riding horses and some plow horses and he had rarely put shoes on something this expensive but he did his job well and he was the only farrier in this village. The noble man had stayed at the local inn when he discovered a lose shoe and wanted all four replaced by new ones. The job could have been a swift and easy one if the Akhi cursed gelding hadn’t been plain vicious.
The owner waited outside and he smiled widely. “You are done, excellent. You are fast indeed, my usual farrier uses half a day when this horse needs shoes”
The farrier sort of smiled but was thinking that it would have been nice if the owner had informed him of this beforehand. The noble man opened his purse and pulled out some gold coins and the farrier immediately felt better, five coins were placed in his palm and that was the best payment he had received in years. This area was quite poor and some copper shillings were the most he could ask for from the locals. The nobleman was a rather young fellow, perhaps in his early thirties and he had a rather sweet face which was clean shaven, it made him look like a half grown boy and perhaps he was used to exploiting that. “I am very grateful, I am in a bit of a hurry you see, a wedding”
The farrier smiled again, he was way taller than the nobleman and most believed that he was an apprentice, not a trained farrier and blacksmith. “Well he is good to go now”
The nobleman smiled and pulled on his riding gloves. “Brilliant, he is my fastest horse, a handful no doubt but valuable. I would hate it if he went lame”
The nobleman got the horse by the reins and brought it outside of the smithy. The animal looked as if it was contemplating taking a bite out of its master too but the noble man gave it a solid punch to the chest and the horse looked like a sulking kid. The farrier liked this man, he knew how to handle horses for sure. “The work looks excellent my good man, by which name should I remember you?”
The farrier sent the noble man a swift smile. “I am Phraan, just that”
The noble man did look puzzled for a few moments. “Phraan? Hmm, I could have sworn I have heard that name before, anyhow, I better be on my way!”
Phraan bowed and the noble man turned the horse and rode out of the yard in a rather brisk pace, it was very clear that he was impatient. Phraan put the coins into a secret little compartment in the very forge itself, nobody would look there but he kept one in his purse. He needed an evening off and the inn had excellent beer and wine. The autumn was setting in and there wasn’t that much to do anymore, just smaller repairs and farrier work. He made sure that there couldn’t be any fires and returned inside. His living quarters was in the same building as the forge and the stable and he had a tiny room with a narrow bed, a table and a small closet. That was all he needed. He got a bucket of water from a container built into the wall on the other side of the forge, it would keep the water hot at all times and he stripped down and washed himself thoroughly. He didn’t have a mirror but he did know how he looked these days.
He was way more scarred than before, and he was perhaps leaner than he once had been. But he was still showing his mixed heritage and he sighed and pulled on some clean clothes. He didn’t look much like his mother at all, that was the truth. Most times when a child was born of a human mother and an elven father it would be simply elven, but creatures like him were extremely rare. There was barely a trace of human in him except from the fact that he was broader and more muscular than most full blooded elven males. Children born of elven females and male humans were more common, but it was very special when a human female got pregnant by an elf and then survived the pregnancy. The reason was simply that an elven pregnancy last for a whole year and with an elven father the mother would have to endure at least two extra months and in most cases that became fatal. A human body couldn’t support an elven fetus since its demands were way greater than that of a human one.
He could remember his mother, she had been a huge woman with wide hips and she had been strong as an ox. Perhaps that had been the reason why she had made it when many others hadn’t.
The noble man had almost remembered his name and he had to grin again, a somewhat melancholic smile. Once his name had been on everybody’s tongue but that was decades ago. Now he was just a common blacksmith and perhaps it was for the best. They had been too good at what they had been doing and they had ruined their own business. Back then nobody had believed that it was a bad thing, but it was. The balance of nature had been disturbed and he had seen the results with his own eyes. Too bad the humans didn’t see it that way. Most had forgotten. What had been a frightening reality was now just bed time stories for children. He took a peek into the stable before he went to the inn, put some hay into the stall where his horse stood. He owned just one horse now, an ageing mare. She was of good breeding and had been very valuable once but now she was way past her best years, she was limping and thin and only old habit had made him keep her. At least she was company. Once he would have ridden great destriers, born and bred for their job and worth more money than the entire village but these days he had very little and didn’t need much neither. The mare whinnied and he petted her white coat, soon she would be too old to move and then he would have to put her down but he feared the day.
He was welcomed into the inn by the keeper, everybody knew him and he was given a jug of ale and sat down by the hearth. A traveler had placed himself on a solid table and he was telling everybody of the things which happened in the wide world. This place was isolated and some news was always welcome. The innkeeper shouted to the guy, he was probably a travelling salesman for he carried a huge sack with ribbons and cloth and he wore a silly cloak in so many colors it hurt looking at it. “How about old King Vhandar, is he still around?”
The salesman shook his head. “Unfortunately no, he went to his forefathers two years ago, during the wedding of his youngest daughter, peace be with him.”
The innkeeper scoffed. “At his daughter’s wedding? What happened?”
The salesman did swing his cup. “Oh everybody knows that the old bloke loved his ale, and his beer, and mead and wine and liquor. Heck, if it could be ingested and contained alcohol he would drink it. He got into a drinking game with one of the groom’s knights and didn’t want to lose, so he kept chugging them down. When you are more than seventy winters old that is rarely a good idea”
The innkeeper chuckled and some of the guests there laughed. “My old man lived until he was ninety and five and he drank to his last day, never harmed him”
The man who spoke was the local baker and he sat there with his arms across his formidable chest and looked very important. The traveler nodded. “I am sure he was strong as the very mountains themselves, but these born of noble blood are more…fragile!”
That last word made everybody there burst into laughter, everybody knew that the noble families were fond of marrying their children off to relatives and the results could be horrifying at times. A woman spoke up. “Are there any news from the north? I have heard that the king has ordered more troops up towards the mountains?”
The salesman nodded eagerly. “Yes, that is correct madam, he has ordered more troops into the northern territory. There have been some problems up there, dragons some say”
Phraan tensed up, dragons? That was impossible! One of the younger men there stared at the salesman with wide eyes. “Are you sure? Everybody says that dragons went extinct fifty years ago, there haven’t been any sightings since then. They just disappeared all of a sudden.”
The salesman smiled widely. “I am sure, believe me, there are dragons up north once more. Not many I think but the king is always such a careful man who likes to take care of a problem before it grows into a big one”
Phraan held his breath. He didn’t really know what to feel right now, a part of him was relieved that they hadn’t wiped an entire species off the face of the earth and another part of him felt that his old instincts came back to life. “Have anyone said anything about the type of dragons?”
He kept his voice low and almost indifferent and the salesman shrugged. “A soldier I spoke to claimed that they were greybacks, but surely nobody knows for certain”
Phraan swallowed hard. Greybacks? He remembered that subspecies, they were flightless and very vicious, capable of transforming a herd of cattle into a heap of bones in a very short time. If there were greybacks alive the army could be in trouble, nobody knew how to slay dragons these days. Well, very few did. He felt a sudden urge to get up and leave, borrow a horse and ride to the city to ask if his skills would be needed but he decided against it just as fast. He had once sworn to live a peaceful life, he wasn’t gonna break that promise just because of a silly whim. The king had skilled men, and it was probably just a small pack, perhaps not more than two or three dragons. No, no need for him this time. The salesman started talking about the type of gowns the ladies of the courts wore these days and Phraan listened with half an ear. He got another jug of ale and a plate with some good stew and he enjoyed the food. Afterwards he enjoyed flirting with the barmaid and then he walked home in the night, half drunk and a wee bit lonely and he fell asleep as soon as he let his head touch the hard pillow.
The next days were busy, the miller needed a new mechanism for the mill and had to replace a lot of the parts he had ordered from the city with better ones and Phraan was a very good blacksmith. He managed to make the pieces needed and felt a sting of real pride. He had been trained as a blacksmith by his mother’s father, a strict and harsh man who did have a good heart behind the brusque façade and he had been taught well too. He did take great pride in his work. He used an entire week finishing the mill and then there were a dozen or more smaller jobs which needed to be done. Housewives needed their kettles mended, some plowshares had to be fixed before the winter came and he kept his mind busy the whole time. He had forgotten about the salesman and his tales.
He was standing by the forge hammering out some pieces of raw metal when he heard hooves and he put down the hammer and dried the sweat from his brow. He always wore a sort of hood while he was working with heat, he didn’t want his hair scorched and it got very hot sometimes. Sweat was pouring from him and he turned around, wiped his face with a wet cloth. The forge work always left him looking rather dirty, covered with sooth and he didn’t want to scare off a potential customer. He straightened his back and saw that a very tall brown horse trotted into the yard. It was ridden by a man wearing the uniform of the king’s personal guard and he frowned. What the hell? Nobody that high ranking had ever come to this forsaken place? The rider dismounted the very fine horse and turned around and Phraan gasped, he stared with huge eyes at the man.
The man grinned widely and stepped forth, before Phraan really had time to react he was pulled into a hug and had to gasp for air, Fastonar was just as strong as he had been. “Yes old friend, it is me! Not some phantom.”
Phraan had to swallow, he hadn’t seen his old partner for decades, not since their group had been dissolved. Fastonar had gotten a few grey hairs but he did look almost unchanged. He was a so called soul-sworn, a priest as much as a warrior and it kept him young way longer than normal. He was about a hundred by now but didn’t look as if he was a day over thirty. He could probably live for as long as a dwarf if nothing got to him first. “Ah, I am glad to see you, but what in the name of all the gods are you doing here?!”
Fastonar grinned again and petted Phraan across the back, the half elf cringed, his friend had hands the size of hams and he didn’t know his own strength. “That is a question which is easy to answer, the king wants us to gather the group once more. They have a huge problem up north”
Phraan frowned. “Huge? I have heard of a few greybacks?”
Fastonar scoffed. “A few? Call it the second coming of the plague, there are swarms of beasts streaming into the valleys and over the plains, all sorts of types.”
Phraan didn’t understand. “How is that even possible? I though all dragons were extinct? Where do they come from?”
Fastonar smiled. “Now there is the mystery, the king wants us to find out. Isn’t it exciting? It will be like the good old days”
Phraan did look as if he had his doubts. “Really? I remember those good old days, when we almost got killed and had to spend weeks and months out in the wild, hungry, scared and sick. It was great fun indeed, just as much fun as dancing in a field of thistles.”
Fastonar had to laugh. “You are the same old pessimistic fool Phraan, you always see problems where we others see possibilities. Hear, remember that inn, by the lake? Remember that bar maiden you were so fascinated with? She really found the title dragon slayer thrilling didn’t she? Or the ladies of the courts? They were all over us like bees”
Phraan grimaced. “Oh yes, and quite a sting they had too some of them. But seriously, the king wants us to return to duty?”
Fastonar put an arm around Phraan’s neck. “Yes, as of immediately. Of course you can decline the offer but I think you want to find out where those pesky dragons come from now don’t you? Come on, you were the best, you were the one true dragon slayer among us, our leader, our idol. It won’t be the same without you”
Phraan took a deep breath, it did tempt him, it truly did. “So the dragons are a nuisance?”
Fastonar rolled his eyes. “Nuisance? You can say that again, they have leveled two villages already”
Phraan stiffened. “What? But…!”
Fastonar nodded. “I know, dragons usually don’t attack settlements but now they do, the death toll is great, men women and children alike, and cattle of course. People are losing everything they have, and the troops are helpless. They have no idea of how to bring down such a creature, the reports I have read claim that more than a hundred soldiers are either dead, severely burned or injured in other ways”
Phraan moaned. “Morons, that is what they are, they have no clue about what they are doing right?”
Fastonar nodded sternly. “Exactly, they sort of think that they know everything and the soldiers have officers who weren’t even born the last time there were dragons around. And they think they are oh so skilled when in reality they are dumb fuckers too nervous about getting stains on their uniforms to even follow their men into the field.”
Phraan took a deep breath, stared at the smithy and its surroundings. It had been some good decades and a part of him still didn’t want to be involved but he did know what carnage a whole pack of dragons can unleash. People were defenseless, even more so now than back then, it was a bit unnerving to say the least. “I will do it, but first, who is left of the group? Have you contacted everybody?”
Fastonar nodded. “I have, we have lost Ulbar and Aishrin but that is expected, they were both normal humans and both above their best age too. Ulbar died just four years after we quit in a bar fight but Aishrin lived to the ripe age of eighty.”
Phraan had to sigh, the mortality of humans made them fade so fast, like shining gems that were there and then gone, they had been the groups healer and mage. “The others?”
Fastonar smiled, a wry smile. “Dhokay was ecstatic when I asked him, he said yes right away, Kapha too, he couldn’t wait. It took some time finding Vitile and she almost declined but then she agreed and Shaluun did join the group again too.”
Phraan sighed. “With us two that makes six, that is too few goddamn it. We need at least four more, and we do need a healer, and a mage too!”
Fastonar nodded and leaned against the door. “The king has promised us a healer and a mage, and I think he will find some good ones. Vitile too had a couple of trackers who may want to join us and the mayor did promise to hand over a couple of convicted criminals. They are suitable as bait I guess.”
Phraan had to scoff. “Yeah, if they don’t run away first that is, well, we can make it, but like I said, we do really need a healer. I do hope the king has one available, and a mage who knows how to ward off fire. Where do we meet up?”
Fastonar made a grimace. “In the city, tomorrow. I have been given quite a lot of money from his majesty so the others are already out shopping for equipment. You are the last one so I guess you can pick whatever you like. I bet the king already is busy trying to find someone who can step in as a healer, he has lots and lots of people available.”
Phraan took a deep breath. “Great, tomorrow. You will stay here in this village I recon?”
Fastonar nodded and straightened his cloak. “Yes, so get your stuff ready, we leave at sunrise”
Phraan took a deep breath, he had to think. “Alright, I recon you are staying at the inn? I have things to take care off before I leave”
He saw that Fastonar understood and the tall officer left the yard and Phraan leaned against the wall, feeling strangely torn apart. This had been his home now for decades, the life there had been peaceful and built on routines. Maybe it really was time he moved forth again, challenged himself once more. The people needed him, that was the truth which made him change his mind. He went over to the neighbor, an elderly man who made a living from painting stuff and managed to convince him that taking care of the old mare would be a good thing to do. Then he found the only other man in the village capable of being a blacksmith and let him know that he could use the smithy until Phraan returned. In fact he wasn’t sure he would return at all, anything could happen out there. Phraan didn’t own much, he had a casket under the bed with his most precious belongings and he pulled it out and stared at it, then he took a deep breath and opened it for the first time in many years. It didn’t contain much, a pouch containing a necklace which had belonged to his mother, a few drawings a friend of his had made, some coins and a cloak with his own insignia on it, embroidered in red upon black. A kneeling dragon, it was fitting back then, now he didn’t know anymore.
He pulled out the last objects, two long dirks forged from a very special alloy, almost priceless and so sharp they would cut a falling hair. A long knife, made the same way. An elegant set of throwing axes and some spearheads and then at the bottom his old swords. He lifted them out of the crate with reverence, stared at the still shiny black leather covering the sheaths and let a hand glide along the handles. These were elven swords, elegant and lethal, slightly curved and with a sort of almost vibrant energy in them. He pulled them free, the blades stainless and shiny, almost glowing in the faint light. These were among the best blades ever forged and their origins had been lost in the sea of time but he knew of few other blades like these. They were unique and very dear to him. He put his stuff into a bag and pushed the crate back under the bed, then he found some bread and cheese and sat down to eat.
His mind was already preoccupied with the things he had heard, scores of dragons? So suddenly? That could mean that there had been some sort of hidden breeding area up north, somewhere unknown and now the beasts had started migrating south to find food. It could mean that this was just the beginning and he felt a sort of eager nervous energy building up inside. He finished his work, let the forge cool down before the night and then he went to bed. He did fall asleep rather fast, in spite of it all.
The next morning he did awake rather late, he got up, ate some, washed himself and put on his best clothes. Then he gathered his stuff, locked the door and left. The neighbor had already come for the old mare and he knew she would be well taken care off. He walked to the inn and Fastonar was up already, grinning widely. He smacked the behind of the barmaid as she scurried by him and he did look very eager to go. “Have you eaten? Yes? Good, then we can go right away”
He gave the innkeeper a very generous amount of money and then he whistled as they went outside. The brown horse was there but so was a long legged grey mare too and Phraan frowned. “Have you bought that horse?”
Fastonar shook his head. “No, it belongs to the army, I borrowed her when I realized that I had to go and fetch you. Hurry up”
Phraan sent the tall man a swift glance. “What’s the hurry?”
Fastonar smiled and got in the saddle of the brown one. “We have to get to the horse market outside of the city early, before the best horses are sold”
Phraan frowned. “Fastonar, how much money did the King give you?”
Fastonar just made a gesture with his hand, “Enough, I know you want to pick out your own horses so let’s go, before our butts grow moldy”
Phraan got in the saddle and they rode off, it felt odd being on a horse again after so long but he soon got used to it once more and relaxed. The city was a couple of hours ride away and these horses were fast so there wasn’t much chance of talking. Phraan just hung onto the saddle and let the mare pick her own pace. They slowed down when the massive walls of the city started appearing behind the trees and hills. Here the road was packed with people travelling to and fro and Fastonar pointed towards the area to the west of the city where the markets were being held. The city itself was huge, the largest city in this part of the realm and also its capital. They said that the population was too large to be counted but the more educated minds guessed that about half a million souls had a home there, or at least something resembling a home.
The city had its own smell and Phraan sort of felt a wee bit disgusted by it, he would get used to it soon enough but right now it was too overwhelming and he sneezed and felt like an idiot. He wore such old fashioned clothes and looked like a vagabond compared with Fastonar. His friend grinned. “Worry not, we will get you an armor soon enough, and some clothes too. The King doesn’t spare any expenses now, we have free hands.”
They rode down towards the market, it was a large area filled with paddocks and you could find all sorts of animals there. Fastonar smiled. “We are early, good, I bet we can find a good destrier for you here”
Phraan felt a bit excited again, a good horse, he had missed that a lot. They did take a round and found the part of the market reserved for horses, there were plenty of salesmen there and Phraan knew that some did try to fool their customers. It was against the law of course but often there were no evidence that the animal in question had been tampered with. He had to use his eyes well to be able to find a horse brave enough to do what he would ask of it. They sort of rode through the area, using every trick they had learned to determine whether or not the animals were healthy, of good behavior and were well broken. There were destriers there, many in fact and they were excellent animals but Phraan didn’t like any of them. Most were too young and inexperienced or too hot blooded. And some were way too old or too docile to be useful in a fight. He was ready to give up and tell Fastonar that they could go meet the others when he heard the sound of whinnying coming from outside of the market area. It was more a scream than a whinny and he heard shouts and screams from people too. He spurred the mare and rode towards the racket, something was going on and he wanted to find out what it was.
He reached the outer fence and rode through a gate and there he saw more paddocks, people who had been too late to buy access to the main marketplace. The sound came from one of the smaller paddocks and he clenched his teeth. It was a scream in anger and he rode forth again, the mare tensed up but he got her to move. The paddock was a cheap one and a rather obese man stood in it, trying to control a giant of a horse. Phraan had seen that race just once before, when he had visited the south coast. These horses came from the continent to the southeast of this and they were very hard to come by. He had to stare, the stallion was a blue roan with a white blaze and socks and it was exquisite, why a horse like that was taken to a cheap market like this was beyond him until he saw that the horse clearly wasn’t easy to handle. It was trying to attack the man and it reminded Phraan of an angry dragon more than a horse. He had to grin, he had found his perfect mount. He got off the mare and walked to the fence, the man did notice him and waved his hand. “Take care sir, this animal is mad!”
Phraan stared at the horse, it had to be more than twenty hands in height with long hard legs and a majestic appearance. The tall arched neck and the short back told of great strength and he saw that this was one animal which never would surrender. “Where is he from?”
The fat man panted. “South, I was told to sell him on behalf of his former owner, apparently this beast have killed three men already. How am I to sell something like this ha? Not even the butcher wants him, he cannot sell the meat of a horse that has killed people!”
Phraan smiled, a slow grin. “I will take him off your hands, how much?”
The fat man blinked, looked a bit dumbfounded. “Ha? You want to buy him? Well, it will be your funeral I fear but ten gold coins, not a shilling less, and that is by my mother’s sideburns cheap!”
Phraan nodded. “Very cheap, a horse like that is usually worth a thousand times that much.”
Fastonar had caught up with him now and sat on his gelding, just staring with huge eyes. Phraan jumped into the paddock and the stallion bared his teeth and threw his head, a threatening gesture. This horse had been abused for sure, and Phraan started speaking to him in elvish, soothing melodic words that made the long ears clip and move and the stallion snorted and pawed at the ground. Phraan grasped the rope from the fat man and handed over ten coins, that was all he had but he knew he would get refunded by the King now. The stallion nickered and started dancing around him, tried to figure him out and Phraan stayed calm, the horse was proud and spirited and very intelligent and he was also very brave. He could see that on its body language, this one wouldn’t shy away from anything and Phraan smiled and let the stallion get close enough to sniff him. “You are a beauty, but have been treated like a beast. That will change from now on, I promise you that.”
The stallion just sniffed him and Phraan adjusted the halter and stroked the mighty neck. He was so tall he had no problems handling such a huge animal but others would need a ladder to mount him. The fat guy looked as if lightening had struck him. “Damn, that was…impressive”
Fastonar chuckled. “Oh you haven’t seen anything yet, you are looking at a man who kept a dreklugnin as a pet for two whole years so yes, he knows how to deal with animals”
Phraan had to make a grimace. It was true, he had managed to tame on of the small dragons of that species but after two years he had let the beast run off, he couldn’t stand the job of cleaning up after it and it did stink too, like few other things. The stallion had calmed down and Phraan made a swift movement and was on its back with a jump. He grinned to himself, the horse was loaded with power and he petted the neck and turned it around. “You will serve me well I am sure”
Fastonar opened the gate to let them out. “What will you name him?”
Phraan smiled, a somewhat crooked smile. “Drake, what else?”
Fastonar got back in the saddle and tied the mare to his own horse, Phraan waved the fat man goodbye and he felt that the newly named Drake had to have been well trained. The horse did obey as long as you didn’t push it. They rode into the city and stopped by a tack shop, bought a new saddle and equipment for the destrier and Phraan made sure that everything was of the best quality available. He was starting to feel proud of the horse and Fastonar made them stop by the royal armories to get armor and clothes. When they were done Phraan was dressed in black and red as back in the days, carrying a light armor and he now wore his blades on his back, like he had back then. It felt weird but good too and when he had visited the barber and had a small haircut he did look pretty much the same way he had. It felt like stepping through a wall and into the past. Fastonar grasped his shoulder. “So, are you ready to meet the old gang?”
Phraan nodded. “Ready as ever”
Fastonar smiled and he did look very happy indeed. They rode towards the merchant’s area of the city, that was where taverns and shops were and Phraan looked at his friend. “So, what have you been up to since the group was dissolved?”
Fastonar sighed, a very deep sigh. “Well, for the first decade I was of course regarded as something rather special, war hero you know. All the nobles wanted to be seen with me, and I was popular, hell, I was more popular than a piece of fresh dung to flies”
Phraan tilted his head. “That didn’t last?”
Fastonar made a nasty grimace. “You can say that again, no, it didn’t last at all to be honest. People started to forget and soon I was back to square one. Guarding the citadel, training recruits and doing my duties at the temple. By every deity, it was boring as fuck!”
Phraan had to grin widely, Fastonar hadn’t changed at all, he had always preferred the heat of battle to the tranquility of the temples. “So there wasn’t much action to be found?”
Fastonar shook his head with a bit too much energy. “Exactly, except from when some young fool tried to sneak out of the training camp at night, or someone managed to insult the high priests”
Phraan smiled to himself, Fastonar had always been the one with the strongest faith of them all, he had never doubted their mission even once nor had he ever doubted that they would emerge from the war victorious. For it had been a war back then, one fought with tooth and nail and every available resource and the outcome had always been uncertain. The packs of dragons of every size and sub species had threatened to ruin the northern areas completely and people had fled by the thousands. Back then he had been proud to be a part of the army fighting to eradicate the threat, no he wasn’t so sure anymore. It had taken less than a decade for the farmers to rebuild the farms and regrow their herds but the damage had become visible not long afterwards. The once thriving herds of wild animals gradually dwindled and disease and other problems had brought many herds to near extinction. And the livestock too became ill since there weren’t any wild animals grazing the hills, removing all the toxic plants. It was a rather terrible effect of having removed the top predator from the food chain. There had of course been way too many dragons back then but the hunters had taken it to the other extreme, none at all and look what they had gotten. The small dragons had been hunted mercilessly and the larger ones had simply vanished into thin air, some said that they had fought each other to extinction, that the aggressive males had ended up killing each other. And with no males left there would be no more dragons. The few dragons which had been living up north before had been dangerous but no more of a problem than the occasional bear or wolf pack, people respected them but didn’t fear them.
The fertile areas weren’t fertile anymore for the herds of deer and other grazing beasts had exploded and then eaten themselves into a rapid decline and now there were dry and sandy hills and meadows where once it had been lush and green. Some said that the northern areas had become cursed after the dragons disappeared, that the loss of life force had been forced through by dark magic but the king’s counselors meant that it was just natural, some sort of cycle and that the fertile years would return soon enough.
The city streets were crowded as always but people did move out of the way and Fastonar did lead them to the tavern where the others waited. He was humming and looked incredibly jolly and Phraan guessed that he had disliked the last decades intensely. As a soul-sworn he was gifted with long life and great strength but there was little use for that here in the city and Fastonar had never been the type of person who is fond of routines. He craved excitement and drama and Phraan had to snicker. “So, any fair ladies in your path?”
Fastonar laughed out loud, a rather deep and full laughter. “Oh Phraan, you ought to see them all, high born or not. I have met plenty of fair ladies my friend, and some who cannot be called ladies at all. But I have had my fun, it has made life worth living for sure. How about you?”
Phraan blushed slightly. “Oh, not many ladies out there, I have made my living as a blacksmith remember? Sooty, dirty, smelly and not very wealthy, that doesn’t attract the females very well”
Fastonar scoffed. “Are you telling me you have lived in celibacy this entire time? Akhi burn you man, you used to roll in the hay almost every night if I don’t remember it wrong”
Phraan swore under his breath. “I can hardly remember it thus my friend, yes, I was lucky a few times but…”
Fastonar scoffed loudly. “A few times?! Phraan, you got laid more often than the whores at old Bilaum’s brothel, don’t try to deny it, you were damn popular back then”
Phraan sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine, okay, I was popular but that type of lifestyle never suited me, not truly”
Fastonar almost giggled. “No, of course not, for you are the romantic type right? Who dreams of finding your one true love and settle down and have a dozen or more kids and just sit there and let your swords rust”
Phraan sighed, he felt a sting of anger and tried not to show it. Fastonar had probably forgotten that people like Phraan rarely were able to reproduce, it was like trying to mate a mule, it simply wouldn’t happen. His friend stopped his horse in front of a rather huge tavern which appeared to be among the more posh ones. He nodded. “I hope we aren’t too early, and I do hope that Vitile has managed to find those trackers she spoke of.”
Phraan nodded, without proper trackers they didn’t really stand much of a chance, they had to be able to determine the number of dragons if they attacked in a pack, and the species. The tavern was indeed one of the more expensive where the customers were mostly people who were rather wealthy, the fine furniture and lack of grease stains and dirt told that very clearly. Phraan saw the four former members of their group right away, they sat by the huge fireplace and he saw that none had changed that much. He felt a lump in his throat, it felt good to see them again, and to see that they all were alright.
Vitile got up and ran over, hugged him firmly and Phraan returned the hug. She was a wood elf, of the shures race and not very tall but slender and agile and very brave. She had long brown hair braided tightly and wore leather and wool like most of her kindred. Vitile was an archer and lethal with any bow, she was rather phenomenal with a blade too and Phraan knew she had felled more dragons than any other of her profession. Dhokay too got up, he was of the luptay race, a species of elf like very tall beings with a set of elegantly curved horns which indicated status and age. He was very muscular and most people found his race to be pretty but frightening too. Right now he had his thick bluish hair pulled back into a pony tail and he was grinning so Phraan saw all the sharp teeth. He hugged Dhokay and the warrior returned the hug with glee. “You have gotten more tattoos since I saw you last”
Dhokay nodded. “Yes, at least ten. It is good to see you Phraan”
The next to greet him was Kapha, he was a half dwarf half human hybrid and he looked as if he could run through a brick wall unharmed. He was short but not as short as a dwarf and he was the most lighthearted person Phraan had ever met. He didn’t appear to have changed for he laughed and gave Phraan a smack across the bottom. “You do still favor the ladies ha? Too bad, I have dreamt of that pert little rear of yours”
Phraan blushed and Vitile giggled. “Kapha, don’t you dare scaring him off, go find yourself someone else to seduce. Phraan has no interest in you and you know it!”
The half elf had to grin, they were the same and it felt wonderful really. Shaluun was the last one to get up, the tall mountain elf was impressive as always, three inches taller than Phraan, not as muscular but very wiry and extremely tough. He carried his twin axes across his back and bowed deeply to show his respect. His people were very polite and very quiet, they hardly ever spoke but when they did you listened. A mountain elf rarely wasted a single word. He had a deep dark tan and long flaxen hair and was clad in leather and furs. Phraan was glad he had agreed to return to the group, Shaluun was the one they all relied upon when they had to bring down larger dragons. He was strong enough to cleave the skull of almost anything as long as he managed to get up onto the head.