It truly is impossible for twenty soldiers in new leather armor, longswords strapped to the sides of their horses, to ride into a town unnoticed. Fortunately, I had the foresight to have the wagon carrying the shields and other supplies be covered, so if anybody who assisted the dragon watched us, they couldn’t be sure of our intent. The extra tall and wide shields would give our mission away for even a slightly keen eye.
Once behind the charred but standing walls of the town’s military barracks, we closed the gate and dismounted. Burned out hulls of buildings surrounded us. None of the soldiers here had been prepared for the dragon. “Set up camp,” I began. “Keep your shields nearby at all time. We’ll have screams to warn us with all the other standing buildings around these barracks. I’m going into town to get more information if I can.”
A chorus of “Yes, Sir,” followed me out of the door next to the gate and I turned left to head south towards a tavern I knew nearby. Two and three story wooden buildings lined the packed dirt street, wide enough for wagons to pass each other. The canvas walls flapped here too, a light breeze catching them, a constant presence. One and a half blocks south of the barracks I came to The Joker, a court’s jester painted on the swinging white sign barely above my head.
My usual spot in the corner farthest from the door had a very handsome man sitting in it. Bright jade eyes carefully examined every person who entered, his slightly dark skin glistening in the torch light ever so slightly. Even sitting I could tell he would be average height, but that would be the only thing average about him.
The innkeeper kept me from staring, as the slightly overweight man behind a low counter on my left said, “He’s been there for the last few days, only leaving at closing, My Lord,” the man said in a low voice. He was careful to be loud enough to not be suspicious but too quiet to be made out. Yet, something told me the strange, beautiful man heard every word. “Comes back not long after we open.”
“I’m going to join him. Please bring me some ale, Innkeeper,” I responded.
Crossing between the ten tables that filled the wood paneled room, only half of them occupied, I sat down at the table in the corner, facing the stranger and my back to the walk in fireplace where a large black pot of soup bubbled over a low fire. My chair creaked under my weight as I leaned forward and in a low voice said, “What is it you wait to walk in those doors, dragon?”
Surprise spread across his face, tinged with a little bit of amusement. “Ah, so there are humans that know this dragon secret,” he responded quietly. “Well played, Aquendar of Concrof.”
“Then it’s not an accident that a town in Rambestar, the kingdom I currently serve, is the target of your aggression,” I said, barely hiding the surprise in my voice. Silence followed as the innkeeper brought my ale. From behind the pewter mug, I continued, “You meant to draw me here.”
“My cave is to the northeast of here, half a day’s ride for you and your men. Yes, the news of your arrival beat you here on the loud lips of these pathetic villagers. Their smell is excruciating when not baked in my breath. Tell me how you knew so surely that I am the dragon?” asked the red.
“The vanity of reds is well known, and shared with me by the gold dragons I’ve met. Only a red dragon would think size is all that makes you average, while making the rest of your features set you apart as beyond handsome. You couldn’t resist, could you?” I said.
“Hmm, my master warned me not to underestimate you. Honest, but careful to only border on insulting. Now that I know you’ve arrived, I’ll return to my cave. Don’t wait too many days, though the sun sets on this one. I haven’t eaten a human in a week, but I suppose twenty one would be too many for one meal. I know you’ll last longer cooked.” The dragon stood with the grace of a high noble, his chair making almost no noise. As he dropped two copper coins on the table, he said, “Don’t tarry, champion, or I’ll find some farmer’s daughters to feast on.”
As I watched him glide out of the room, his feet seeming to barely touch the floor, I wondered who he considered master. There could be only one being a red dragon would submit to, and then grudgingly. The fact that Rangdor wanted to draw me to my death, he hoped, meant the arrival of the one I wait for should be close. I downed my ale to draw the innkeeper back. “Tingen, have there been any reports of extra activity by evil creatures, such as credarils or forangen or xanineft, in the other kingdoms?”
“Just yesterday, My Lord, a report came from Seftrel that the xadineft had become more aggressive and kidnapped some kids,” he answered. “How did you know?”
“Something that stranger said. Any others?”
“Not yet, My Lord. Should I pass them on to our contacts in Rambestak if I hear of more?”
“Yes, I will be staying where I can be found for the next few months.” Dropping two copper next to the dragon’s, I stood. “I am at the barracks, for now. If I’m not there, send it on to Rambestak.” As I left I wondered how well Ofeldar withstood her testing.
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