Heln’Or came down to breakfast and surveyed her motley companions gathered about the table out of cool, silver eyes.
“Where’s Korthin?” she demanded.
“Probably still snoring in his pit,” exclaimed the giant, Greybeard, disdainfully.
Hen’Or turned to the old wizard seated beside him. “Elramuin, go and fetch him. The rest of you, make haste. We have wasted enough time here already.” She put down her pack and staff, perched on a corner of a bench, and nibbled disinterestedly at a dry breadcake.
Sherel, faith healer and warrior woman, stretched and yawned. “I am wearing all my possessions.” she commented, then sighed contentedly. “So finally, we are off! The Quest begins. I am looking forward to this!”
“Then you are a fool,” snapped Hen’Or, laying aside her half eaten breadcake.
“We are all fools to follow you into this danger,” observed Sherel, unperturbed.
“The only way to defeat this enemy is to strike at his heart. He won’t be expecting that,” explained Heln’Or, as if talking to a child. “We must take the battle to him.”
“Well, I’m only going along for the adventure, remember?” Sherel reminded her. “Your enemy is not mine.”
Heln’Or glared at her. “You think so? I would not be so sure, if I were you.”
Sherel paled. “What are you saying?”
Heln’Or turned away. “I’m just saying that no one is safe from him, he is everyone’s enemy.”
Without a word, Sherel got up and left the room. The priestess knew she had gone to the stables to seek the company of her blue-eyed mare, Belazur. She leaned back against the wall with a sigh, and tried to cast her mind’s eye into the future. Heln’Or was a Seer; sometimes she had visions, and sometimes she just knew things, strange things, which were yet to happen. Bad things were happening in the land. It had fallen to her to lead a rebellion. But now, as usual since the Battle of the Silent Plain, the future was blocked from her view. She shook her head in annoyance.
A worried voice broke into her thoughts. “It’s Korthin,” exclaimed Elramuin, running a hand through his already dishevelled, thinning grey hair. “He’s gone!”
“Gone? What do you mean, gone?” Heln’ Or sat bolt upright, staring at her uncle in alarm. “Gone where?”
“Just gone,” groaned Elramuin, collapsing onto the bench beside her. “I promised his father I wouldn’t let the boy out of my sight. I promised to take good care of him.”
“It’s probably just another of his boyish pranks,” she replied hopefully.
“Not this time.” Elramuin sank his head into his hands. “He’s taken his sword and his horse.”
Greybeard silently left the table and returned a moment later, frog-marching a very nervous inn keeper towards them.
“Tell them!” roared the giant, folding his arms and looming threateningly over the fat, sweating little man.
He jumped as if prodded with the point of a spear, and blurted out miserably, “I think… I think he’s g-g-gone after the dragon.”
“Dragon?” cried Heln’Or, looking at her uncle in sudden fear.
He cursed vehemently. “He did mention a dragon last night,” confirmed the sorcerer, “but I was too concerned about you to pay much attention.”
“He’s got to be stopped,” she announced, rising to her feet. “It’s too dangerous. We have to stop him.” She turned venomous eyes on the inn keeper, as if he was to blame. “What time did he leave? Why didn’t you stop him? Why didn’t you at least tell us?”
“I rose at dawn, as always. He must already have left, for there was food missing from my larder,” he replied, trembling under her gaze.
“Then we are too late,” moaned Elramuin. “He’s only a boy.”
“Exactly,” put in Greybeard with a chuckle. The others turned to stare at him. “He is an untried boy seeking fame and glory. What is so unusual about that? He has been mollycoddled and protected all his life. How old is he, fourteen years? More? Most youngsters his age have seen battle, proved themselves, and returned men! Korthin is full of righteous anger, desire for revenge, and battle-lust. He has to prove his worth, and here he finds the ideal opportunity.”
Heln’Or gazed at the giant appraisingly for all of three seconds before dismissing him with contempt. “We ride after him.” she decided. “Now, before he is fried for the monster’s breakfast.”
“Hey!” yelled the inn keeper, waddling after them as fast as his fat little legs would carry him. “Who’s going to pay for the stolen food?”
Korthin was almost unseated by the sudden nervous prancing of his trusty mare, Elria. He patted her neck, damp with sweat, soothingly.
“Be still there, my pet,” he murmured, looking about. I must be close to the dragon’s lair now, for Elria is fair trembling with fear.
It had not been difficult for the young prince to find his way to the dragon. The scorched and blackened earth, the charred half eaten bodies of previous victims soon pointed him in the right direction.
He was filled with fear, but committed to his task. There was no going back. He had never seen a dragon, nor suspected that they really existed. Now, his mind was filled with notions of glory. They called my father ‘the Great’; well after this day, everyone would call Thiorton’s son ‘Korthin the Great’.
A thin double stream of smoke drifting skywards caught his eye. He rode forward, halfway up the next hill, then dismounted and led his horse cautiously to the top. It ended abruptly in a steep rocky cliff, and he peered carefully over the edge into a stony ravine. There, in full view, he sighted his quarry.
He dodged back out of sight, heart pounding. This was it then! Excitement flooded through his veins, beating back the fear which threatened to overwhelm him. He risked another glimpse into the valley.
He had expected dragons to be somewhat larger. The stories had always claimed they could fly, but this one didn’t even have any wings. It looked rather like an overgrown lizard.
In fact, it stood roughly as tall at the shoulders as his horse, only three times longer. Its body was lean and powerful, squat about the shoulders and neck, with a deep broad chest. The hide was similar to that of a snake, only thicker and tougher. Korthin noted the tiny weaving head, the tight snapping jaws, and the mighty tail which coiled angrily to and fro. The beast certainly looked capable of bursts of great speed and agility, which surprised him. His spirit sank. It looks like it will put up a good fight.
Korthin tore his eyes away from the dragon and studied the layout of the valley. It had only one entrance. The other end rose steeply and was covered with loose, rocky scree. Was it possible to trap the brute somehow, he wondered. He turned his attention back to his enemy. The animal settled on a bed of scree, head drooping, baleful yellow eyes blinked half closed. Korthin gagged as its movements revealed the bloody mangled remains of some poor unfortunate half–devoured creature curled beneath it. Now, the dragon dozed, sleepy after gorging its latest meal. This seemed as good a time to attack as any, he realised.
But how? To enter the ravine could well prove fatal, if the creature managed to manoeuvre him away from the only exit. From here, he could use his crossbow, but he doubted the bolts would penetrate that thick, rock-hard hide. His only option was to enter the valley. Or could it be enticed to leave, perhaps?
Korthin swung back into the saddle, and dug heels to Elria’s quivering flanks. As he rode, he readied his crossbow. He urged his mount into a gallop. He needed the exhilaration of speed, the feel of the wind in his face and the strength of Elria’s muscles bunching beneath him to lend him courage for this fight.
They charged into the valley. There was no point in using stealth. Curled up in sleep as the creature was, it proffered none of its vulnerable parts to Korthin’s attack. He needed it to move.
Elria’s hooves rang clearly through the air as they hit the parched rocky ground.
They were upon the beast almost before Korthin could act. Elria whinnied loudly in terror. The tiny head jerked upwards at the sound, its beady yellow eyes regarding the intruder malevolently, the thin trails of smoke escaping from its nostrils turning suddenly thicker, blacker. The tail twitched violently as if it possessed a life of its own.
With its head held high, Korthin could see that the neck and belly were a slightly paler colour, obviously an area with less armour. He let fly with his crossbow, and heard the satisfying thump as a bolt plunged into the dragon’s throat. A tiny trickle of blood escaped; it was red, like that of any other living creature. It reared backwards, and a huge angry roar erupted from its throat. Clouds of noxious smoke and vapours issued from its gaping jaws. Korthin coughed and choked, eyes watering, vision blurred. He sent another bolt after the first, to lodge in the upper chest. Another tiny stream of blood emerged. Korthin realised with dismay that the bolts were piercing no further than the depth of the great hide.
The fire drake lowered its head and neck as it crouched. Then it launched its bulk energetically forward at surprising speed. Caught unawares, Korthin just had time to urge his mount to one side as the scaly monster lumbered past them. Its shoulder caught Elria’s rump and knocked her to the ground. Her body twisted and landed heavily. Korthin rolled from the saddle and fired a bolt, but it went wide, sending a shower of rock flying from the cliff wall. He swore as the drake turned to face him. It stood between him and the exit. He was trapped.
“Come on, Elria, get up!” he yelled at his horse. She struggled wildly to get to her feet, but was unable to move. Her rear legs were shattered. Blood spattered her flanks where the dragon’s scales had ripped open her flesh. She squealed, panicking, as she watched her enemy ponderously approach.
“No!” screamed Korthin in horror, but there was nothing he could do to save her. He watched, mesmerised, rooted to the spot, as the dragon belched its lethal vapours and sprayed its flame over its struggling, screaming victim. The vile creature’s eyes glared defiance at him as it made a show of ripping open the charred carcass that had once been his beloved Elria.
It lurched purposefully towards Korthin. Horrified, sobbing angrily, Korthin turned and fled, dropping his crossbow in his haste. All thoughts of victory and glory had faded as he watched the death of his faithful companion. They had practically grown up together, he had selected her, broken her in and trained her himself. She had been a gift from his father, and now another link with him was lost.
Stumbling past the site of the dragon’s nest, Korthin’s attention was arrested by the sight of a rather large, shiny greenish-yellow object. He stared at it in astonishment. An egg! Without pausing to think, he stooped and grabbed it as he ran past. A furious roar filled the air as the creature realised what he had done.
The young prince wrapped the egg in his cloak and fastened the bundle to his sword belt as he ran. He struggled up the steep scree slope, gasping for breath. He heard a rattling of stones behind him as the dragon reached the scree and began climbing up after him. Its tremendous weight forced its feet to sink deep into the loose gravel, slowing it down. Korthin increased his efforts, chest burning as he fought to draw breath. With every step he sent a small shower of stones bouncing down the slope behind him. He wished fervently that he could shake the whole mountainside loose and bury the monster.
He reached the first boulder which supported the overhanging cliff above, and took hold of it, intending to haul himself up over it, but the movement of all the scree had undermined its foundations, and it rocked dangerously in his grasp. He flung his weight against it in an attempt to maintain his balance, but it was too late. With a deafening grinding noise the rock came loose and bounded down the slope. Without its support, the cliff crumbled and tumbled after the boulder, and the whole rock face began to slide downwards.
Korthin was thrown from his feet and carried down with the landslide, his eyes, nose and mouth filled with thick, choking dust, his ears full of the groan of the earth as it collapsed. An anguished roar from the dragon told him that it too had been dislodged by the rock fall.
And then all was still. The dust began to settle. Korthin began to dig himself free, and dragged himself to his feet. He was battered, bruised, bleeding from numerous cuts and gashes, and covered with white dust.
He hobbled painfully for the nearest cover, and looked about cautiously. The whole cliff side from which he initially spotted the dragon had completely disintegrated, leaving a great raw gash in the side of the earth. Piles of scree littered the valley floor, and buried beneath it lay the dragon.
It was obviously in some distress. It lay prone on its side in a pool of blood. Its eyes were closed. Its sides heaved, as if it was struggling to breathe.
Korthin stepped carefully over the rocks and made his way towards it. As he drew nearer, he saw that one side of its rib cage was caved in. A yellow eye blinked open and fixed on him. Startled, he jumped back, but he was not quick enough. There was a rattle amongst the stones, and the mighty tail broke free and flicked forwards, sweeping Korthin off his feet. He landed heavily with a crunch, several feet away and lay there in agony, winded, unable to move, desperately trying to gulp in air.
Despite its injuries, the dragon managed to pull itself clear of the rocks. It dragged itself laboriously over to the prostrate prince, billowing great clouds of searing fumes that scorched his flesh. It loomed over him, screeching its pain and hatred to the sky, as it prepared to destroy its last victim. Korthin fumbled to unsheathe his sword. A burning white light flashed from the weapon and danced along the blade like tiny tongues of fire. Korthin felt himself fill up with renewed energy and a desire for battle. With all his remaining strength, he grasped the hilt in both hands and thrust the point of the blade upwards into the soft breast of the dragon as it crouched above him.
Screeching, the creature reared backwards, lost its footing and fell. The blade remained lodged in its heart, and the momentum of the fall pulled Korthin back onto his feet. He stumbled weakly forward, crashing into its chest.
The dragon drew a last shuddering breath, and then its smoke faded away with its life, and ceased.
After a while, Korthin found the energy to drag his sword from the pale scaly chest. He attempted to clean the blade, then gave up. Reluctantly, he approached the tiny head, still menacing in death, and forcing the jaws open, hacked away until he had freed a tooth, his keepsake and token of proof, which he secreted away amongst his clothing. He sheathed his sword, still bloody, and wandered away on wobbling legs, lost in delirium, and then everything went black…
Sherel stood up in her stirrups. “I see him!” she cried excitedly.
Hen’Or stared doubtfully at the burned motionless body of her youngest companion, lying unconscious on the ground in the mouth of the valley. Was he dead? Her quest was doomed without him.
Sherel got to him first. She flung herself from the back of her horse, and bent over him. “He’s still breathing,” she said, looking up at the others, “but he’s in a bad way. One of you please make me a fire. I need to prepare a poultice for these burns, and some salves for his cuts.”
Elramuin waved a hand, and a flame instantly sprang up at the healer’s side.
“I don’t think this is the safest place…” began Rand nervously, glancing towards the ravine entrance.
“This boy needs tending now!” snapped Sherel. “If we try to move him, we could make things worse.”
The other companions dismounted and drew their weapons, prepared to defend the healer and her patient from dragon attack. Greybeard stalked off into the valley to investigate, returning several minutes later brimming with excitement.
“You should see what your little Prince is capable of,” he called. “He’s only gone and done it! He has killed the dragon!”
“Are you sure?” asked Rand doubtfully.
“Quite sure! Come and see for yourselves,” returned the giant, beckoning them forwards.
Heln’Or, Elramuin and the bard followed him cautiously into the valley. Sure enough, the great grey-green beast lay quite dead on its side in a dark pool of blood, revealing its pallid underside and cruel death wound to the sky.
“He did it,” exclaimed Elramuin proudly, and capered a little foolish dance of exultation, before shame-facedly catching his niece’s stony eye.
“Let us just hope he survives,” she replied curtly, turning on her heel.
“He’ll be immortalised in my songs, at any rate,” declared Rand heartlessly. “Everyone will hear of the brave deeds of Korthin Thiorton’s son, Dragonslayer of Denric!”
“It wasn’t a dragon, it was a fire-drake,” Elramuin reminded him, as they returned to their little camp, where Korthin was now sleeping peacefully, all traces of fever drawn out by Sherel’s ministrations.
Greybeard said, “Of course, we’ll have to go to the King’s Court now, so he can claim his prize.”
“Prize? What’s his prize?” Rand wanted to know.
Greybeard raised his eyebrows. “Why, hadn’t you heard, Bard? The King’s youngest daughter. What else could it be?”
“Wow!” Korthin gave a low whistle. “Lucky old Korthin,” he exclaimed enviously. “I just hope she’s beautiful and willing, then!”