Laying in another strike with his barbed whip, the stable hand continued to lead the drake out of the enclosure. This late in the evening, there was no good cause for a dragon to be out of the pen. However, the drake knew precisely why he was being led out into the cold moonlight, there was only one reason they would bring him out at this time. Still, he fought the groom, pulling against his chain and gaining himself lash after lash until he was finally broken.
They walked him just beyond the city gates, once there, the groom undid the collar, letting the drake free. With one last crack of the whip, the stable hand sent the Dragon flying, his job was done, the beast had been released. Lifting off and soaring away, the drake looked back only once to eye the city that had been his home for almost all of his life. As he did so, he glanced the fire-haired man with his dark armor. Their connection ached the drake, he wanted to immediately fly back for the knight, but he knew at once what this event meant.
When that silver scaled youth was brought into the stable, the older copper drake knew his time was running short. There were but twelve Dragonriders, therefore, there was no need for thirteen dragons. He had not grown too old, wasn’t injured beyond restoration, and still was of much worth, his fault was more glaring. The dragon knights needed their mounts to listen, to be loyal, and above all, follow their commands, this drake had failed in that last respect. He was being set free for foolish behavior, for following instinct rather than discipline, he was being punished for that cardinal misdoing. Lingering on it, thinking of what he should have done rather than what he did would do no good. For the time being, the drake just hung on the breeze following it where ever it led.
The winds meandered through the forest and down the brook, over the ruined stone bridges the stonemen had erected in times long passed, and finally broke against a cave in the far reaches of the forest. Setting down before the mouth of the cave, the drake considered entering, certain that he would need a home of that sort now in his exile. But the stench of death hung heavy in the air before the cave, it was likely already occupied. Were he a wild dragon, one that could still blow fire or cast lightning from his horns, there would be no issue in taking the cave less it already was occupied by one stronger than he. However, his horns were halved, smoothed down to flat ends, a symbol among the human that he had been domesticated. And if the horns did not give away the creature’s nature, surely his diminutive stature would. Like any other kept dragon, the drake had never grown to full size, only to that of about two caravan horses and only a little taller than two stacked. Seeing nothing for him in that cave, the drake continued on, no longer having any breeze to follow.
The moon was beginning its rise into the night sky, casting its aquamarine glow across the landscape. So near to full, its light dwarfed the pale, ivory dots that punched holes of illumination in the abysmal curtain hung overhead. The drake kept his head low as he stalked on down the river’s edged. There came those usual hunger pains that would grip him at this late hour on the occasions he would underperform and receive the most meager share of the day’s food. He’d need to keep quiet and as unseen as possible, somewhere out here was prey, and he couldn’t let it get away. Some instincts had not been thoroughly beaten out of him, hunting was among them. But, it was likely that the drake only could assemble the proper method to hunt as it was not so removed from helping the dragon knights. Seeking their targets was very much the same as seeking prey, only that the drake would be able to sink his teeth into the creature and not let go. His stomach rumbled, shifting his focus from his surroundings for only a second. In that brief lapse of time, a bright orange light roared up in the distance.
At once, the drake fell back onto his tail, the immediate fear that it was a wild dragon abounded in his mind. However, the trailing streams of flame were too condensed and moved too freely for it to be a dragon’s fire. No, the drake knew he had seen something like this before; it had been called, then he could not be sure, but it was no new entity. Bounding after the flaring orange blur, the drake moved from a run to a glide as the trees around him fell away into open plains. The flying light carried on across the field into the next copse. Just before the treeline, the drake set down and carefully knit his way through the great evergreens that grew so close to one another. Once inside, he could no longer detect the vibrant flare of light; however, within there was a creature who’s feathers looked like dying embers.
Fluttering and adjusting its feathers, the narrow beaked raptor eyed the drake for a moment before settling. Seemingly as confused as the dragon that had pursued her, the bird asked, “After something, are we small drake?”
“Food. You not food enough, bird,” the drake growled back, a tone of accusation in his broken and poorly developed speech.
The ember-toned bird felt a touch humored by the dragon, “I would think not, I’m too small a bird, not to mention, even for one who should be able to breathe fire you would find phoenix feathers too hot. What is a domestic doing out so far without a rider?”
“No rider- sent away. No good for riders no more,” he grumbled, dropping any air of anger with the phoenix.
Now the bird’s eyes became soft, sympathetic, “Oh, poor orphaned drake, too big to climb back in a nest and never will be you large enough to be well enough alone. Do you have a name, red one? No, no, I suppose you wouldn’t if you were one of their pets.”
“What is name, bird?” the drake, asked, befuddlement evident in his voice.
For a short while, the phoenix stared at the dragon before cackling out a laugh. Though she hadn’t intended any cruelty, the bird noticed the dragon’s anger at this response, “My apologies, friend, it is just that what you ask is so absurd. A name, it is what others call you, what identifies you from another of your kind. I am Occylia.”
“What is my name, Oc-c-c cy-lia?” the drake stumbled over the name, the sounds too complicated for his simple tongue.
Occylia merely shook her head, “I don’t know your name; you never had one in all likelihood, and if you did, you never had a chance to learn it. But you need a name; all creatures should have a name. Now, let’s see, what’s a good dragon name? Can’t very well name you something old-fashioned like Scorch or Cinder, you’ve got no fire. Not endowed with any other of the traditional gifts of a dragon beyond those wings and rather unbecoming claws. What was that dragon’s name? There was an ancient dragon who wasn’t unlike you, having no fire, thunder, or even claws but his name... Slygorath! Slygorath, the Serpent of Silver, who carried off the treasures of the seven great kingdoms, that was the dragon. How about that red one? Care for the name any?”
“It is good name?” the drake questioned the phoenix, genuinely unsure if it was, in fact, a proper name.
Flitting her feathers, Occylia remarked, “I know little of what dragon names mean or what would be a ‘good’ name for you, but I know Slygorath was not unlike you. Only, I do believe the old stories say he lost his horns when little more than a hatchling.”
“I want this name, this Slyg-gorath,” the drake remarked, thinking his answer over even as he gave voice to it.
The bird grinned and resituated herself on her nest, “Very well, Sly, should we meet again I will know your name, and you shall know mine. However, for the time being, I do think you should be off, I can feel the eggs beginning to shake, and I’m sure there is little in the way of food around here for you. You were a dragon of men though, you should be a fancy enough flyer to spear yourself a grand fish from the estuary. Those great gold and silver ones often come close to the river but never up it. The claws should be able to snag one, and I hear they’re a delight.”
“Ok, Occ-cylia,” Slygorath answered as he began to bow out of the trees. The bird whistled a sweet tune as the drake left the copse and wandered on towards the sea.
There was a little joy in the dragon’s heart, the phoenix had given him something that had never been offered to him before, not even by his rider. Yet, having a name, even one of a great dragon that he was similar to, did little for Slygorath. What he had wanted, more so than food, was some form of kinship with that fiery bird. Slygorath may have been foolish, even so much to think to chase the flying spark in the first place, but he felt far more idiotic for holding that hope. He had known it was no dragon; moreover, he knew not even another dragon would desire him as a companion. Without horns, so little in body, and dull of mind, Slygorath was sure that he was an unappealing cohort for any to take, even one so weak and small as that bird. What ached him more was knowing that other dragons of men would not desire his friendship after what had happened.
The fire-haired man, his rider, had ordered him to pursue the target, to hunt down his enemy’s dragon, and take it. This was not a trick nor practice of any kind but a true battle. There was to be no mercy and no flinching from their goal. From on high, he plummeted after the ashen scaled dragon before pulling up just above the treetops. It took only moments for Slygorath to pick up this other dragon’s trail. Blood was pouring from the spear wound his rider had inflicted it with. Floating over the trees, Slygorath pinpointed his enemy and dove straight down into it. Claws met the strained patches of scales around the rider’s saddle. Blood rained onto the foliage and lower creatures too fool enough to not skitter away as a dragon
flew through. They tumbled to the ground, Slygorath and his rider atop the downed and dying dragon while its rider pulled free from his mount. As he stumbled up, Slygorath saw the crystal-edged dagger and knew this one was not going down without a fight. There was that eternal instinct that came, an urge to pour fire down on his foe, but Slygorath, of course, could not perform such an action. Instead, he lunged forward, teeth ready to crush and impale to not only protect himself but his rider. Before he could plunge fully into the man, there came shouts and cries from a tongue Slygorath could not understand. His rider called out to stop, demanded Slygorath not take the opportunity, but it was too late. As the fire-haired man’s voice struck the drake, his teeth had already closed around their foe. The glimmering dagger lie in the dirt, blood dripped onto it, but Slygorath saw no wrong, the blade had not touched him nor his rider. However, somewhere along those lines, Slygorath figured he had erred.
The golden and silver fish wriggled about on the shore as Slygorath looked it over, trying to understand what he should do next. It was an easy enough catch; the dull things were prone to breaching in clusters leaving the drake enough chance during any pass over. But now, as its mouth opened and closed and its body spasmed against the sand, Slygorath was confused. Sure, he had caught many a prey for the red-haired man, felled the great elk and other creatures, but he did little more than wound it and knock it to the ground. From there, the rider would dismount and do what needed to be done. Even had Slygorath watched closely, he likely wouldn’t be able to perform those precise actions the man’s hands could. And still more of an issue, Slygorath could not recall a single instance wherein they had captured any form of sea creature. So busy was the dragon in trying to make heads or tails of what he had to do next that he did not hear the approaching hooves.
“Dragon! What is your like doing out here? And this late in the night? Where is your rider? We know your kind, know that look. Where is your rider?” called a strident, though feminine voice. Slygorath craned his head to see a number of centaur cresting the hill leading back into the valley. He paid no heed to the woman and went back to his catch, trying to decide if he should simply skewer the fish once with his claw to end its suffering. The centaur was clearly not about to let him be, “I said dragon, where is your rider!?”
The group, six in all, began down the slope at a trot, their apparent leader who moving with a vigorous gallop. As she neared, Slygorath put the fish beneath him and thrust forth with a fierce growl that slowed the woman to a stop. She looked him over, waiting to see if he was going to attack or if he was nothing but noise. Placing a claw over his meal, Slygorath hissed, “My meat!”
“Where is your rider? Your rider should be tending to your food and not leaving you to wander, that’s how your kind gets in trouble. Whoever calls you their mount should be ashamed of you but more so of their ignorance,” the swarthy woman remarked, throwing the spun gold from her face to reveal evergreen eyes.
Sneering, Slygorath neglected the woman’s odd showing, “No rider, Slyg-gorath, need no rider.”
“No rider you say? Then why not fly back home, leave the wildlife to those who need it? Or are you of the type who are so greedy they would build a mountain of good flesh and gold only to sit upon it as a throne?” she condemned as the rest of her pack joined her.
A bit uncertain and somewhat distraught, the drake muttered back, “No home. Need food, get on alone. Slyg-gorath, good hunt, catch gold and silver fish, first try.”
“It’s an impressive fish, but how does a dragon eat a fish? Your scales can serve as great armor on the outside, but when one of those bones gets lodged inside, what then?” a bearded centaur asked.
Slygorath considered this but had little in the way of reply, “Bones? I have fish, no bones. Slyg-gorath need meat. No chew bones like hound.”
The centaurs fell into a fit of laughing, the only one not entertained was their leader, “Silence the lot of you. Well, ‘Slyg-gorath’ I hate to be the one tell you this, but fish are filled with bones. Little, tiny bones that stick in your throat if you don’t clean them right. I don’t think you have the ability with those big claws of yours to strip the bones out of a fish, even one of these monsters. So, a deal, how about? We will prepare the fish, even cook it for you, but you need to catch us about three more of them. Now you said you’re good at catching, it shouldn’t be hard. What do you say?”
“Me catch, you cook? Slyg-gorath not know. Slyg-gorath very hungry, not want bones... Yes, Slyg-gorath catch gold and silver for the horsies,” the drake grumbled before letting up his grip on the fish already brought ashore.
Regarding her tribe, the centaur boasted, “You see, and that’s why all of you follow. We’ll eat fine enough tonight and not need to have a senseless fight with a surprisingly sensible dragon.”
In no more time than it took the centaurs to set up camp and light their cook fire, as well as allowing their leader to clean the first fish, Slygorath had brought ashore four more. As she stripped out all the bones she could from the first, the centaur regarded the pile of fish, “That’s more than enough for us unless you need three for yourself?”
“I bring three?” he asked, looking to the heap of dying fish that sat between the two of them.
Perking an eyebrow, the woman asked, “Yes, you brought our three and one more, that’s four, that should be enough. Two for you and three for us, because if you bring up any more than you’ll be eating, I won’t be cleaning them.”
“Slyg-gorath bring up no more? You want no more of gold and silvers?” he asked again, the concept of numbers very clearly foreign to him.
A bit humored by the dragon, she patted his cheek, “You’ve done well, Slygorath, rest now, we’ll cook up some of these, and all of us will eat.”
Taking the request more as an order, the drake meandered up the shore, just past the camp and settled in the sand. It was an odd position he lay in, almost like a cat, but his wings sat open as though he were ready to take flight at any moment. The bearded centaur galloped over and called to his leader, “Elryn, you’re not really going to feed that beast like its one of our own, are you? It’s a curse-bitten dragon, not a gryphon or a band of dwarves. Once we’ve eaten our fill, he’ll fly off, and once we’re asleep, he’ll come back and devour us all.”
“I don’t think so, he doesn’t seem the type for such foulness. Look at him, he’s docile and tamed, the brand behind his ears could tell you that much, but I wouldn’t believe it until seeing him like his now. After all, he doesn’t seem like other dragons, certainly not as dangerous or as bright as a wild one. The poor child can barely speak and, well, can’t count for a thing. If I didn’t think it sounded crazy, I’d say we should have him join us,” Elryn remarked, meeting her underling’s look of skepticism.
Shaking his head, the beads in the man’s beard jingled, “You really are the seed of your old man, but that doesn’t make you your old man. Had you his trident, perhaps then I’d say you’re in your right mind, but there’s no way we could take on a dragon. He could catch us a dozen schools of the gold and silvers, but you wouldn’t win over anyone with that.”
“You’re probably right, but I don’t think we need fear him. Slygorath is too domesticated. His rider clearly beat every last wild nerve out of him, and it’s clear he can hardly defend himself out here. We’ll feed him tonight, and he’ll go on his way,” she remarked, saddened to know that such a union would nerve be a solid and steady one.
Suspiciously, Slygorath watched the centaurs from a distance. Trusting them seemed a poor choice, but the rumbling from his stomach was all he could hear when he thought to change his mind. Of course, were his suspicions of them correct, it would not entirely be the worst thing, he considered. There was much use he could be to them, and even if that meant he would be collared and leashed, it would still mean some semblance of a place in the world. After all, once he had satisfied his hunger, was that not his next goal? To find somewhere he could belong or one who could replace that bound formed by his dragon rider? Still, Slygorath could feel that pulling from his tie to that fire-haired man, it was faint but present. Were these centaurs to take him and cage him, he could become bounded with them, perhaps even their leader. It would not be the same as a rider, but in so many ways, it would be comforting, like again, being in his pen within the city. Yet, they could be treacherous, looking to incapacitate him by overfeeding him and then taking his life. He had only seen one dragon among his peers slaughtered, her parts harvested, and sold for whatever purpose men would put them to. Again, Slygorath saw the silver-lining, to die peaceful and warm, believing he belonged would be preferable against dying alone in the dark. After ample time had passed, the centaur leader carried over an elk skin with sweet-smelling meat spread across it.
Elryn set the heavy load down before Slygorath, “That’s the most part of one of your fish. You holler for me, and I’ll bring you more. Just try not to eat the pelt while you’re at it.”
“All this for me?” he responded, analyzing the thick chunks of fish, realizing he had never been offered this much meat at one time.
Wiping sweat from her brow, Elryn nodded, “Yes, of course, and if you need more, I’m sure the others won’t eat every last bit. You call on me, I’ll get more, we owe you, after all, tonight was lousy hunting on our part.”
“Your dragon, young? No good at hunt yet?” Slygorath asked, disregarding the meal
before him to inquire on more dire matters.
With a chuckle, Elryn shook her head, “No, most of us living outside of the emperor’s wall do not have dragons. We do our hunting ourselves, bows and arrows, slings and stones. It’s not always easy, but suppose we should be so lucky to be so good of runners.”
“Mmm, you no dragon, one to catch long-horns and fast runners. Catch food, like fish, for your horsies,” he remarked in a grumble, as though weighing the thought himself.
With a pleasant smile, Elryn began back towards the camp, “Well, if ever you find one Slygorath, feel free to send them our way.”
Slygorath watched as the centaur stepped away, feeling a warmth and hopefulness in his breast, unlike he had known before. By sheer accident, he thought, he had found not only an answer to that simple problem of hunger but in finding his place in the world. Fetching prey for a bunch of centaurs did not seem close to the glamorous and honorable way he had lived before, but it was something. To have that connection, to join their group, and bound with their blood in the way he had with his rider, Slygorath knew he could not complain. But as he mulled the idea over, his eyes began to close despite all he did to keep them wide. As the fish filled his guts, Slygorath was struck with an immense lethargy before falling into a deep sleep.