Chapter 4 - Tannon and the Dragon
An Excerpt from The Epic of Tannon
In those days in the region of Germande, warriors treaded carefully. Under the double suns, the stark valley sat still and reached far. The dragons lived in Germande, feeding on chaupple and engrots. For millennia they had walked, swum and flown all over the wide world, availing themselves of whatever prey they so desired.
But as the Fire-Hearts rose in prominence and gathered together, they beat back all manner of like beasts to the hills, the valleys and plains of Dragorong. They hunted the animals and used their flesh, including bones, rinds and horns until they could only be found in the much smaller Germande.
Fire-Hearts took up residence and built towns, citadels and kingdoms encircling the great valley, ensuring that none of the accursed kind could escape its borders. Dragons fly low, and they walk and swim high. They cannot hide from any who seek them. Only a very few ever do, and those brave warriors specifically seek out the blood of those creatures.
Tannon, on the third leg of his journey around the world encountered a border kingdom to Germande, named Nimblas. He regaled his Nimblan hosts with tales of Ofwal Kukooz from the forest and Ang Angs of the desert.
They in turn told him about the dragons to their east, who live in the perilous valley and constantly threaten the precarious peace there. They informed Tannon that in order for a member of their warrior class to reach the level of Master, that Nimblan must go across the border and kill a dragon. In order to prove the deed was done, the warrior must drag the sawed-off thumb of the vanquished foe.
As reward for the prize, the warrior would receive laudations and a ceremony upon their return, where the rank of Master became official. It had been thirty-eight years since the last victory and Domo, the king of Nimblas, was openly afraid that the dragons would be spawning and gathering strength in the intervening time. Should they repopulate, they would outgrow their current allotted habitat and would surely mount an attack upon them.
Domo, in his capacity as sovereign commanded Tannon to embark upon the hero’s journey, one that for the best of four decades had seen the deaths of all who ventured to go there. He promised his guest that he would receive the kingdom’s highest honor, to be installed as a Master Knight who, wherever he may go upon his travels, could always return to Nimblas in a position of great power and respect.
Much to Tannon’s chagrin, Domo also ordered the confiscation of his guest’s Arric rune stone, an item that signaled the way to finding a map. That map, Tannon hoped, would lead him to finding a treasure of vast importance - the location of Captain Siib’s gold. He could not risk telling Domo what the artifact did, but the sly king was acutely aware that his guest valued it very much.
No matter, he thought. “I will give you back your stone and lavish the greatest prizes of my kingdom upon you. But you must come back carrying the nail of the thumb of your foe. Of course, should you fail to return here by nightfall tomorrow, a great parade will be held in your name. Now, go to the blacksmith to be fitted with the appropriate armor.”
It was customary for the warrior Nimblans to wear the extremely hard exoskeletons of native, boulder-sized Scorpions, few of which were left in the area’s receding forests. The slowly growing beasts began to return and replenish their numbers over the past four decades as the warrior class waned and the protection of their shells was less needed.
Tannon, understanding what was at stake and not wanting to die in battle, requested that the dragon quest be postponed until such time that he could procure a shell from a live creature. Though the kingdom may have had a great stock of Scorpionwear, most were obtained dozens of years in the past. The more recent, the harder the shell would be, giving Tannon a better than average chance of surviving his encounter with the dragon.
Domo acquiesced to his guest’s request, and gave him two days to seek out a proper exoskeleton. Upon its procurement, Tannon was to drag the dead animal back to the blacksmith so he could fashion armor out of it. As soon as the armor was forged, Tannon would go to Germande.
The reluctant warrior had a trick up his sleeve, however. He knew that heating and then hammering the skeleton would make it tougher once it cooled off, and he also knew that adding a special mortar that could be made from local rock sand would increase the chitinous shell’s hardness by a factor of twenty. Still, it was no guarantee of effectiveness against a creature the size of Nimblas’ palace. But, it was better than having no plan at all.
The stranger set off into the forest wearing light mail cut into armor from the very last thumbnail in the kingdom. Domo and Tannon were roughly the same size, so the king gave it to him as a royal gift. He wielded a blade cut out of the same material, known to be very hard but also very light. The material did not make good heavy armor and would be insufficient on his main quest. But it was perfectly fine against the person-sized insects he was seeking among the purple trees of Nimblas.
Tannon, being peaceful by nature, had a small trick up his sleeve. He did not want to kill either the brown leathery Scorpions of the forest or any dragons of the valley. He sought a way around that possibility if he could find one. For this reason, he needed to be as clever as he could muster.
He skulked and stalked around the tree-dense Nimblan woodlands. Scorpions were ambush predators that mostly lay in wait in fallen trunks or under piles of leaves. Their main prey were kruxill and fish that they caught at river’s edge. They were notoriously intelligent, far beyond the level of Ang Angs or cauddle. It was well known that they could be trained to perform complicated tasks for rewards and were even observed to mourn their dead.
@ I come to you as a friend, Scorpions of the woodlands! I wish to communicate with you, to ask your help! Please come show yourselves, I have no weapons with me! I am not Nimblan, if that might be a relief to you. @
Tannon let out a powerful mental scream through his telepathic megaphone. It should have reached any and all telepathically sensitive creatures in the area. Though animals did not tend to speak in a codified language, the most intelligent of them would understand the gist of the intent through mental signaling. Tannon blared out his message over and over again, but none of the insects approached him in hours and he was beginning to tire.
The forest was quiet, its violet tinge appearing to stain across the landscape so that it became difficult to discern direction. Soon he was lost, unable to return whence he came. So, he did what he was taught to do and tried to find water. He strained his ears until some constant, faraway sound became clearer. He regretted jettisoning the dragon-nail sword, since he knew he could have used it to mark trees he’d already passed and thus making it easier for him to find his way back. But he also knew how important it was to appear harmless to the giant arthropods in order to get concessions out of them.
He continued to blare his mental horn as he walked ahead, finally arriving at a meadow. It was a vast clearing surrounded on all sides by trees. There were four thousand different ways to get lost re-entering the woods. Meadows with long grasses were also places where Scorpions liked to tread, often migrating through it and hunting small animals as they passed.
Tannon thought it odd that he received no reply from anyone at all. He was sure that he was within range of several creatures, and didn’t think they would have ignored him. Tired, he sat down on a rock beside a short tree for shade. He’d brought enough rations and water for a single day, one which was beginning to fade into evening. Soon he heard a rustle from far ahead. It was an odd sound, definitely not the wind. It was followed by what sounded like cauddle hoof-beats but with far more legs. The galloping creature was moving from side to side, gaining speed but still remained unseen. Tannon could hear it getting closer, closer, unnervingly closer.
He forced as much of a mental effort as he could in order to halt the creature’s advance. His efforts were in vain - the animal kept coming, undeterred. Strange, Tannon thought, hastily climbing the slender tree under which he’d been sitting. It doesn’t heed my call and yet I’m unable to arrest its nervous system.
A similar rustling sound came from behind the tree. Oh no! Two Scorpions are after me! he thought. Making himself as small as possible, he undid his knapsack and tossed out bread and boiled cauddle, hoping the hunters would take the food and go away.
First, he saw the one behind him jump into view. It was an enormous beast, but did not look at all like what he expected. The Scorpion’s skin was pinkish blue and did not have a shell. Shortly after, the galloping behemoth from straight ahead, blackish brown and smaller than the first, emerged from the tall grass. Upon seeing the pink Scorpion, it stopped moving. It began to clack its mandibles back and forth and swung its tail from side to side. The pink Scorpion’s tall hovered far higher in reply, an obvious warning that the hungry intruder did not heed.
It looked up in the tree and then down at the fallen food. It shimmied to one side of the tree and then made a leap to begin climbing when the pink Scorpion knocked its balled stinger straight into the shelled one’s mouth, whacking it far out of the tree. The brown Scorpion straightened, gathered itself and then ran back into the forest.
The pink one, with coal-black eyes, looked up to Tannon and began to speak telepathically.
$ My kind are insulated from any psychic penetration. Materials in our outer layers block any messages in or out. You are lucky that I’ve recently molted, and have been scrounging in this clearing as I wait for my own shell to slowly grow back. We have not been hunted in a long time, so we are growing larger than ever before. I am older than most of my kind, and can remember the bad days. Is it true that you are not a Nimblan? $
@ Yes, it is true. @
Tannon climbed back down the tree in order to show the creature that he trusted him.
@ I have been looking for exactly a Scorpion like you. One who can speak to me about the dragons to the east. And luckily, one who has a molten shell hidden away somewhere that I might bargain for. @
$ With what can you bargain, Fire-heart? What do you possess that you believe I might want too? Though you may not be Nimblan, your kind still tramples over mine every chance it gets. I saved you out of sheer curiosity and boredom. It gets lonely during this growth phase. But do not think that I lack hunger, for I will eat you as readily as the next, should I desire it. $
@ In truth, I seek to bargain with something I do not yet possess, but I have been seeking it on my journey from Rangor. @
$ Your names of places mean little to me. $
@ It is far. Eleven months journey tomorrow. The Nimblans took from me a treasure map, and will only give it back when I deliver them the thumbnail of a Germandian dragon. I will share with you some of the treasures I find as proof of my friendship, and with it I will pay for your protection. I can ensure that no Fire-Hearts ever poach against your people again. @
The Scorpion wiggled its mandibles and moved its hooked mouth slightly opened and closed.
$ Even if you are good, you are still only one person. You cannot speak for an entire world. No one can. I do not want anything in return. I want you to know that I helped you without desire for recompense. I want you to think about that. Maybe you will tell your kin about it, maybe not. But you will know that a creature of the forest showed you more compassion than your people show one another. Come, my shell is this way. And my advice to you when you go to the east is this: spare the dragon as I have spared you. $
Tannon thanked him profusely and dragged the creature’s heavy shell along with him towards the east, as reckoned by the waning light of the double suns.
The next day, Tannon learned to mold the shell into a makeshift suit of protection, although it lacked the finesse and skill that a blacksmith would have used. A blacksmith would have tempered it with heat more adeptly and beaten it to fit to a perfect mold. But its usefulness was not as protection; Tannon knew that a hundred Scorpion shells would not have been enough to weather a dragon’s wrath. Instead, he changed course and chose to employ it as a ruse.
Dragons were believed to have less than average vision, so although he was tired Tannon crossed the border into the great valley during the night. Not wanting to stir trouble in such a condition, especially as the temperature sunk low near freezing, Tannon found a small grotto in which to huddle and sleep, covering himself with the insect’s remains.
The night passed quickly, and the sun rose faster that day than ever it did before. Tannon awoke and made sure to move about under dense vegetation, so as not to draw the beast’s attention from above. He continued to follow trails of trees with big leaves, occasionally encountering several cauddle and one limp Ang Ang in the distance.
He looked about for the perfect spot for what he wanted to do. He looked left and right and also up in the sky. He checked about his immediate area and found all the animals and large insects behaving normally. They did not detect any predators in their midst, ergo he was safe. For now. He lay his “trap”, putting the stuffed shell out in the open of a clearing. Then Tannon went out of sight, finding a hollowed-out log fallen to the ground near other trees and entering within. He peeked out through a small hole in the log at the shell arranged in the form of a Fire-Heart, filled with rocks with a brown hat on its head.
It did not take long for him to hear animals scurrying. An Ang Ang shrieked loudly, followed by the hoofbeats of cauddle and angrimots. There was a loud whooshing, whirring sound getting closer, increasing in pitch. Soon, the sky went dark above him, the large shadow getting smaller, smaller, and then - thud!
A green Dragon landed in the clearing, shaking the very world with its arrival. It bent its head but sat up straight, wings sheathed and legs tucked under it. It gave the shell a passing glance and then turned back its countenance in the other direction - towards Tannon.
+ Why did you put a false warrior in this meadow? + the Dragon asked telepathically, directing his thoughts right at his uninvited guest.
+ You obviously think me a fool...Tannon. I’d ask you what you want from me, but I already know. You want my thumbnail. Or a worthy replica. You want to claim to the Nimblans that you slayed a beast of Germande so you can have your Arric rune stone back. + The large behemoth - incredibly large even as behemoths go, squinted his right eye at the intruder. It leapt in a flash and landed with a quake directly in front of the log in which Tannon was hiding.
Tannon made himself visible. It would have done little for him to remain hiding, for the beast could have destroyed the log with a swat of its talon.
@ The others. The Nimblans. They could not hear the minds of the other dragons, the ones that they slaughtered. They did not know the depths of their thoughts, nor the shudder of their fears. @
The dragon footed slightly closer. + I am not moved by your understanding, sorrow, or pity. It was not just the people of Nimblas that have hunted my kind into this small valley. To extinction. No, that took many thousands of years by all Fire-Hearts. It does not surprise me that some of you are good people. But I have no use for conversation with you. Nor will I help you lie to your captors to claim that you were the first in forty years to kill one of us. I would not embolden my reluctant neighbors. +
@ Then why let me live? Surely you are angry. You are also a powerful telepath. Can you not see my sincerity? A Fire-Heart true to his word has far more value than -- @
+ A rock. But only slightly. The suns feed the grasses, ferns and trees. Ofwal Kukooz eat maggots and other insects. The cauddle eat the plant life. I eat both the cauddle and the Kukooz. And when I die, the maggots, insects, Kukooz will eat me and fertilize the plants with what remains. The only ones in this chain that do not benefit are the suns. What I am saying is that when I kill, it is for a reason - a reason with a greater purpose within the chain of life. But your kind does things as an aberration to this chain. And that is why I am letting you live, Tannon. Because I am not hungry. +
@ What should I do, then? @ Tannon asked.
+ Return to Nimblas and take your runestone back. Pick up that suit of Scorpion armor, find the dragon nail sword you jettisoned in the forest earlier and raid the home of the king. Cut his arm off if he clings to the stone. But do not give them hope, for they have taken that very thing from me. I am the last dragon in the world, after all. +