'One more lays dead at our feet, my brothers!'
A company of some thirteen armoured men stood at the foot of the dragon corpse. They looked on with a combined anticipation, each of their expectant faces trained eagerly on the man who now paced the length of the creature's motionless spine with jubilant ease.
'Another treacherous beast is slain by our hands!' Baronur threw his arms wide as he addressed his men triumphantly from atop his latest kill. His usual deep and foreboding voice was now laced with the unmistakable high-spirited mirth of victory. He crossed the dragon's body and with great strength pulled out the gleaming sword that he had previously buried deep in the creature's skull.
'Rejoice, my brothers, for today we have given of ourselves that this blighted land might be freed from the tyranny of dragons, if only for a short while.'
For a moment the men shared looks of confusion and bewilderment, each one regarding Baronur with a worried uncertainty.
The dragon slayer surveyed every member of his company carefully through narrowed eyes as a dark and all too familiar grin spread slowly across his face. Suddenly he cast his sword upwards, holding it high above his head as he proclaimed: 'and soon our pockets shall weigh heavy with coin!'
The men that surrounded the dead dragon suddenly came alive, erupting in a rippling wave of raucous cheer that and echoed down through the mountain lined valley.
Gaelis of Evanaer was perched atop a large boulder at the farthest possible point of the group's edge. A mere boy at only fourteen years of age, Gaelis was often excluded from these juvenile, ritualistic celebrations. But such seclusion did not grief him; for the most part he preferred to isolate himself from their unsavoury business and he welcomed the quiet peace that their indifference awarded him.
It had only been a matter of days since he had been plucked violently from his village but the longing tug of home was ever present in his heart. Already they had travelled a great many leagues and Gaelis' homeland was beginning to grow unfamiliar to him, the sloping grassy hills now giving way to a jagged, rocky wasteland of towering mountains, treacherous ravines and sparse growth. But however bleak and unforgiving the landscape became, the company that kept Gaelis was even colder.
Gaelis shifted his uncomfortable position on the boulder, pulling his knees up close to his chin as he continued to watch the men with growing disgust. Adult men dressed in layers of battle scarred iron plate danced and cheered around the dragon corpse, punching the air and jeering at one another like privileged brats vying for their master's fickle favour. Gaelis scoffed silently, he had amounted far more civility in his fourteen years than any of these heathens could ever hope to muster.
Granted it was no small feat to down a fully grown dragon but greatness of deeds is not equal to and should never be confused with honour. Their prowess with a blade aside, these men were nothing more than barbarians, dangerous men with loose intentions. Even their most sacred alliances were strained, holding with all the integrity of moth eaten cloth. This was not the first dragon they had slain nor would it be their last.
Gaelis watched carefully as Baronur leapt down from the dragon's lifeless body and approached his men with confident purpose.
'Come, there is one last duty that must be observed before such wealth is promised us,' he declared. His voice was changed now, no longer exhibiting the same playful tones that had stirred the company previously.
A sudden silence fell as Baronur reached to his belt and withdrew a small leather pouch with a cork stopper. All eyes fell on the waterskin as he held it out before him; there was no mistaking his intent this time. Not a word was spoken; a nervous apprehension took them rendering some men unable to as much as look at Baronur.
'Who here would claim this great honour?' Baronur demanded as he walked amongst his men. He offered the waterskin to every man he passed, some looked away while others visibly flinched at the mere suggestion. 'Which one of you, my brothers in arms, will carry out the bloodletting?'
Gaelis watched safely from afar, trying to hide the curious amusement that surely played across his lips. It was the same after every dragon kill, these men so practiced in murder held no qualms about killing a dragon, a fire breathing beast some sixty feet in length, but when it came to the bloodletting there were never any willing takers.
But however Gaelis tried to hide it, his entertainment ultimately betrayed him. Baronur's search for a volunteer ultimately brought his gaze to bear on the boy. When their eyes met, Baronur twisted his mouth into a cold and sinister grin.
'You there, boy!' He bellowed, gesturing ominously at Gaelis with a gloved hand.
Gaelis swallowed hard, his smirk vanishing in an instant as he quickly averted his gaze and pretended not to have heard the calling. But Baronur was stubborn and persistent, already marching purposefully towards him.
'I'm talking to you, boy,' Baronur barked. 'Stand and look at me when I address you.' He grabbed Gaelis by the scruff of his tunic and threw him roughly into the centre of the crowd where the boy fell painfully to the jagged, stone strewn ground. Gaelis could feel the eyes of every man burning into his back but never once was their sworn silence broken in favour of laughter at his cost.
'For many days now you have travelled with us, during many nights you have sheltered in the safety of our numbers but what have you given us in return?' Baronur barked, circling Gaelis like a predator that toys with his weakened prey. 'What recompense have my men received for bearing the burden that is your useless hide?'
Baronur was a large hulk of a man, imposing in all the right ways, at least for a man in his line of work. But Gaelis did not fear him or the men at his command. For some reason they needed him; at least that was the only explanation he could fathom.
Since Gaelis' capture the company had forced him to perform menial tasks and generally treated him as nothing more than a slave. But not once had they seen fit to cause him lasting harm, aside from the odd back handed swipe to the skull. Gaelis was confident that he was more valuable to them alive, whatever their reason may be. This baseless hunch brought him a misplaced and somewhat dangerous confidence.
'I did not ask for this life. I owe you nothing,' Gaelis uttered through gritted teeth as he began to push himself from the ground.
'Is that so?' Baronur said sourly. 'Then clearly I have been uncharitable in my hospitality.' He struck out suddenly with his boot and kicked Gaelis hard in the side, forcing him to fall to the hard ground once more and lay gasping for the air between dirt and rocks.
'I shall never have it said that I am anything but a gracious host,' Baronur continued.
'Come, I offer you the chance to prove yourself a man amongst men.' He held the waterskin out, offering it to Gaelis with a sneer.
Gaelis heaved his body from the ground once more and looked to the waterskin with horror. There was no way he could do it; already far too much had been lost. To take the blood of a dragon would be one risk too far. He turned away from the waterskin, and immediately felt the overbearing shame of his refusal as the company's mocking cries suddenly filled the air.
'He is craven!' came one particularly loud shout.
'He is no man, just a mere boy!' another cried with malicious glee.
'Weak, just like his father!'
Upon the final insult Gaelis rose unsteadily from the ground and turned to face the heckling crowd, a familiar anger quickly rising inside. 'My father was a great man! He was no coward.'
'Now now, my men speak only of what they have witnessed,' Baronur said calmly as he placed a hand on Gaelis' shoulder, his voice filled with a sneering mock sympathy. 'After all, it is clear that this land is rife with cowardice.'
'My father was no coward!' Gaelis seethed, pushing Baronur's arm away in disgust.
Baronur laughed, 'you try to hide your true feelings with anger but I can see that there is a fear in your eyes also.'
'I do not fear you,' Gaelis said bitterly.
'Indeed, you detest us greatly but you do not regard us with the horror that I would expect. So then boy, tell me, what is it that you truly fear?'
'He fears the blood!' Someone within the company cried.
'Quite right,' Baronur agreed, turning to his men. 'For we are not humble men of the mortal realms if we do not fear the blood of a slain dragon. I have seen it here this day and every day that came before. But true strength lies in overcoming such a weakness, as every one of you has proven.'
'I am given no cause to hate these mighty beasts in life and I will not fear them in death,' Gaelis insisted.
'Then surely no earthly reason should stay your hand,' Baronur replied, his voice as smooth as silk. Once more he held out the waterskin.
Gaelis glared at the leather pouch for a moment, his eyes narrowed in thought. 'If this act shall prove my father's honour, then I shall gladly accept,' he said, snatching the waterskin from Baronur's grasp.
But Baronur did not release the waterskin; instead he tightened his grip and pulled Gaelis roughly towards him, holding his face close to his own. 'Nothing on this earth could prove that now, boy,' he growled as he pulled a gleaming dagger from his belt, bringing the sharpened point to bear on the boy. 'But perhaps you still have time to free yourself from the taint of his dishonourable name.' He shoved Gaelis away, releasing the waterskin and forcing the dagger into his hands.
Gaelis took the waterskin and dagger firmly in hand and approached the dragon corpse with a hesitant trepidation. The dragon appeared quite small for one of its species or so Gaelis initially thought. Perhaps it was only a youngling and had not yet grown to its full size or maybe the mighty beasts simply gave the illusion of great size when they were in flight, swooping and diving, showering their prey in great swaths of flame. Even so, despite having fallen on its side the dead creature still remained higher than three grown men and towered considerably over Gaelis.
The dragon was covered in glimmering bronze scales as wide as a man's shield and far thicker than any armoured plate crafted by human hands. The jaw hung open, revealing a gaping maw lined with jagged razors that could rival even the most deadly human steel. As Gaelis made his way to the head he caught a glimpse of a tiny, deep-set eye as perfect as a precious gemstone that gazed blindly skyward. Already the brilliant amber hues faded, enshrouded now by the clouded grey veil of death's sombre embrace.
It was a well documented fact that blood taken from a dragon is imbued with many mystical properties, born from a most potent and powerful magic contained within. As such, dragon blood was considered a rare and highly valuable resource with alchemists across the entire continent willing to pay large sums for even the smallest amount.
The rarest substance of all was known as white blood. As light as the moon in full and as fine flowing as liquid silk, white blood was said to grant it's bearer near godlike powers. But such a powerful liquid could only be obtained if its dragon host gave of it willingly. Given the animosity held by dragons towards humankind and the likelihood that they would attack at the slightest provocation, it was widely disputed whether or not white blood ever existed at all.
Gaelis had always believed that the dragon race was meant for a much higher purpose, one that humankind still remained too infantile to fully realise. The gods had created a creature so magnificent as to be impossible and imbued them with the unlikely gift of flight. Truly such unimaginable creatures were no accident. And yet these savages, these self proclaimed slayers of dragons, saw fit to cut them down from the sky and label their heinous acts as victory.
Gaelis readied the dagger, reorienting it expertly in his hand when he suddenly recalled the words that had been spoken to him all those years ago. He could still hear the old woman's voice whispering inside his head, her warnings as clear now as they had ever been. He closed his eyes briefly and prayed to the gods that she had been wrong, that somehow her divine knowledge would prove to be nothing more than misguided farce.
Pushing the old woman's voice from his mind once again, Gaelis brought the blade down in one deft movement, striking an area between the scales, driving the blade deep into the creature's flesh and burying it almost to the hilt. Dragon scales were said to be among one of the strongest materials in existence but the vulnerable skin that lay beneath could be pierced as easily as that of any living being.
Placing both hands on the dagger's hilt, Gaelis summoned all his strength and wrenched the blade downwards, cutting a small gash in the skin between the dragon's tough armour. He quickly reached for the waterskin, pulled the cork stopper from its housing and held the nozzle at the very base of the buried blade.
In no time at all a liquid as thick as tar began to trickle slowly from the open wound, crawling at an agonisingly slow speed along the short length of the dagger blade before eventually falling like lead into the waterskin Gaelis so carefully held beneath it. Black blood, blood stolen from a dragon without remorse or regret, was a deep scarlet colour in truth. But at a brief glance it was so dark as to appear black, a property which earned it such a grim name.
The process of bloodletting was a long and arduous one due to the sheer viscosity of the relentless liquid but it was important to remain vigilant and keep the containing vessel steady. Gaelis wasn't aware of Baronur's approach until his entire body was jolted forward by a blow from one of the man's massive hands. The waterskin shook off course just as the next droplet was preparing to fall. Had Gaelis not managed to realign the nozzle in time the blood would have fallen to the skin of his hand.
'Careful now, boy, that's liquid gold you're handling there,' Baronur purred deviously beside him. 'With every drop of blood wasted these men will doubtless feel lighter in pocket and you can be sure that women and ale don't come cheap in these barren lands. I would hate to be the one to explain why they should be deprived of their simple pleasures.'
Gaelis gritted his teeth and resolved to ignore Baronur's attempts to goad him into failure. But this was how the dragon slayer got his amusement and he did so enjoy having fun. He leaned in close and spoke in a voice so low that only Gaelis and the dragon could have hoped to hear his words.
'You think you knew your father, boy? Well let me tell you something. You cannot profess to truly know a man in life until you have taken from him that which he holds most precious.'
Terrible visions suddenly flashed behind Gaelis' eyes, scenes of a desperate struggle playing out like a waking fever dream. A flash of shining steel cut across his burning eyes but he was not blinded, a splash of blood fell across his face but he could not feel its heat. The crackle of fire filled his ears and he saw the flaming effigy atop an empty funeral pyre, a smoking sigil for all to see. A warning of danger and a gravestone for the mass dead.
'Stick a man with cold steel and the mask will fall. Plunge yourself deep enough inside his body and you will feel the agony of his soul and the inevitable waning of his life; all that he is and ever was will be laid bare before you.'
Gaelis closed his eyes to banish the visions but instead they were replaced, the old woman's voice suddenly filling his head once more; her words of prophesised doom ringing in his ears, calling him with the most dire knell. Already one of her warnings had transpired, far sooner than anyone had expected, far closer than anyone had dreamed. But he could ignore her words no longer for they spoke the divine truth and he could deny his identity no more.
'When I took your father's life I felt nothing but the pitiful, pleading grasps of a desperate coward,' Baronur whispered gleefully. 'A craven to the very end.'
Gaelis acted quicker than he had ever thought possible. Releasing his grip on the waterskin, he reached for the dagger that still protruded from the dragon's flesh and swung it backwards in a furious, wide arc. Baronur seemed to anticipate Gaelis' reaction and the blood-blackened blade slashed wide, cutting nothing but the cool air. But it wasn't the pierce of cold steel that brought the dragon slayer to his knees.
Baronur spun, falling heavily to the ground with an agonised howl of pain. His hands crept shakily to his face where they groped blindly at the skin, faltering when their desperate touch caused him to recoil from pain. Eventually his arms resigned, slowly returning to his side, each hand curling tightly to fists. But it was not until the fallen man had turned to face Gaelis that the boy realised the truth of what had happened.
Baronur's skin broiled; the dire taint of the dragon's blood searing angry lines across his face. A deep black poison crept outwards, burrowing scorching tendrils of relentless fire beneath his skin. Some of the dagger's blood had glanced one of his eyes and already Gaelis could see the dead creature's blood swirling within, claiming Baronur's sight and turning his eye a grotesque black.
But when Gaelis' eyes fell upon Baronur's he did not see any form of pain or anguish there, nor did he witness the sort of deep-seated anger that oft proved common amongst men of violence such as he. No, Baronur's face was etched with something else, a wholly unexpected shock and a look of intense disgust that was directed at Gaelis, or rather, at his hands.
Gaelis glanced down apprehensively before throwing the dagger to the ground with a sudden cry. The entire length of his arm had also received an errant spray of blood. Large droplets of the thick black liquid peppered the surface of his skin but it brought no pain, nor did the virulent poison scar his skin as it had done to Baronur.
'What trickery is this?' Baronur gasped, his voiced now cracked and broken. 'No mortal man can withstand the blood of a dragon.'
Gaelis turned his hands slowly, watching with mounting curiosity as the black orbs of blood slithered across his skin, moving in smooth arcs like ivory serpents. He could not feel their effortless passage across his skin and they left no visible trail. As they continued to curl and flow, they began to intercept each other, merging with liquid ease until eventually every droplet had pooled into one.
'What are you?' Baronur rasped; every word spat through ragged breaths.
The question was not an unfamiliar one, for Gaelis had searched for answers in vain many times before this moment. Only now did he finally come to realise that the truth had been known to him all along.
'I am just as the old woman prophesised,' Gaelis replied as he lifted his head to meet Baronur's now terrified face. 'I am my father's son.'
And from behind Gaelis the dragon that everyone believed to be dead began to rise once again.