Breathing in the chilly morning air, Beddigan ran his paw over the mare’s cheek and clucked softly to the horse.
“That’s a good girl.” He murmured as he placed his foot in the stirrup of the worn, leather saddle, and mounted up. Once he had found his seat and was settled comfortably, he reached back to check the saddlebags one last time; to ensure he hadn’t forgotten any of the supplies he may need for the journey. He hadn’t ridden since his time with Her Majesty’s Royal Sapphire Brigade, but one never really forgot how to sit proper and control a horse, once they’d learned it.
It hadn’t been an easy sell to his companions, but the Lord Regent had at least been on his side; after he had met with the Lion and given him the sealed letter from the Rams, noting their agreement and terms to assist in the war efforts. They had clearly hit a wall in trying to decipher this oath and magical barrier that currently held them from ever getting home. Even so, it had taken much convincing for his friends to let him go; especially since he insisted on going alone. It had come down to him pleading that he could not put any of them in such danger, and reminding them that he had the most experience with Dragons. It could all be a fool’s errand anyways, as no one had seen a Dragon in these lands for generations. They didn’t even know if they still inhabited the peaks and valleys of their old piece of the world to the northwest. Few ventured there in fear of what they may find.
But he knew he had to try. And the Lord Regent had agreed that it was quite likely their last hope. If he could not find the Dragons and convince them to lift the barrier, there was no chance of saving his home from the Wolves. All would fall to their crushing military; all would be lost. So, the leader of the Empire had provided him with passage via ship to the nearest edge of the uninhabited lands to the northwest, the Olgrinn Peaks mountain range lying close beyond its shores. The Lord Regent had also provided him with a horse and supplies which came with him on the small, Mage-guided ship. He had nearly come to blows with William when he refused any of his companion’s accompanying him even as far as the voyage across the Bintack Oceania to the Dragons lands. Finally, his friends had realized that he wasn’t going to back down and had let him go with hugs and fierce wishes for his safety.
Digging his heels into the sides of his mare, who had a formal name of Winshelle, but he called Winnie, Beddigan set off over the rolling tundra that stretched out in front of him, towards the looming peaks in the distance.
As he rode along he marvelled at the ruins that dotted the land. Some looked very much like groupings of stone houses, fallen down and apart by disuse, weather, and time. Ghost villages with little more than the odd fountain or building that remained reasonably intact. And then there were great, giant stone walls; or rather pieces of the walls, fallen and broken, savaged by time. Remembering his close encounter with Galantus, he could envision what those great walls would have been attached to, were they castles fit for Dragons, as the lore of the land said they were.
He kept Winnie at a pace that wouldn’t wear her out as the terrain became rougher and the ruins few and far between. It had taken most of the day but they had reached the beginnings of the foothills, and to their good fortune, what had once been a small village lingered there to provide shelter for the night. It had been built around a stream that ran down from the mountains, which provided them with fresh water to drink. Beddigan even gave himself a quick wash-down with the icy water, after letting Winnie drink just a bit of the water. He still remembered the basics of horse care and knew if he let her drink her fill she could become quite ill. He took the saddle off, and gave her a quick rub down and grooming before tossing a thick horse blanket on her. He filled a small pail with stream water for her while letting the mare eat the oats he had brought along for her.
Once the horse was tied down for the night to a broken piece of wall, he set the bucket of water within reach and set about getting himself a ration of the food he had brought. The northern chill was seeping in under his clothing and he desperately wanted to use his fire crystal, but feeling the looming mountains just behind them, he worried about attracting anythings attention. So instead, he rolled out his bedroll, and wrapped himself tightly in his cloak, trying to get some rest for the night.
He woke early, just as the sun was lightening the sky with the first touches of dawn. He took his time feeding, watering, grooming, and saddling up Winnie, wanting to wait for the sun to get up a bit higher before they departed into the mountains. He ate a quick breakfast of bread and cheese, and drank as much water as he could before re-filling his main and extra water skins, attaching them to the saddlebags, and then mounting up.
They rode into the hills, and Beddigan was ever watchful for any sign of movement in the nooks and crannies of the cliffs. He strained to hear over the gusting wind the sound of the leathery flapping of Dragon’s wings. But he heard nothing and saw nothing that would prove anything lived among these peaks.
By midday he was feeling disheartened, so they stopped in a small meadow for a rest and some lunch. He split the water from his second water skin with Winnie and gave her another small serving of oats. They would need to find the source of that stream soon to refill the nearly empty skins, as they had just one portion of water left. He ate a handful of nuts and some berries that had been packed up for him by Serina; a delicacy of the Pantherlands she had said. They were tart and lusciously sweet at the same time, bursting with flavour, and eating them heightened his mood a bit.
“Come on, Winnie, time to get moving.” He said, patting the mare’s neck before tightening the girth of the saddle. They rode until the sun was beginning to dip low behind the craggy peaks, and in the dimming light Beddigan realized then that the terrain was becoming too jagged and rocky to be safe for the horse. They reached a clearing that was very near a waterfall from what he could tell by the sound of rushing water. There was a stand of sparsely branched and needled evergreen trees along the clearing’s northern edge for shelter.
Leaving Winnie there to rest and eat some more oats, he set off with his water skins in search of the source of the sounds of rushing water. He climbed over rocks in the dark, deciding against using his light crystal for the same reason he didn’t use the fire crystal the night before. The trees were becoming more densely packed together and the sounds of rushing water increasing. And then he saw it, through the brush; the eerie glow of green light. He froze and ducked down, watching for any movement of the light. When he had been still long enough to see that it wasn’t flickering, he crept forward. He stepped through the trees and stared in awe at the tall, rushing waterfall, that deposited into a basin pool at the bottom, all lit up brightly with crystals. They were much larger than those he had seen growing at home and they all elicited the eerie green tone that was common of the light crystals.
He moved to the pool’s edge and crouched down to inspect a cluster of glowing green crystals that grew along the rocky edge of the basin of water. He ran his paw over it and it abruptly turned a dark blue, and so cold that he yelped and fell back against the hard ground, clutching his paw to his chest. Breathing hot air onto his frosty paw he leaned forward again, marvelling at the crystal.
“Well, isn’t that interesting…” he murmured. The water around the now dark blue crystal was beginning to freeze. Bracing for it, he touched the crystal again and this time yelped when it turned bright red and hot as fire. The water misted and steamed, hissing as it changed from freezing to boiling. Bracing once again, he touched the crystal and was relieved when it neither burned nor froze him, and turned back to the eerie green glow of light.
He circled around the edge of the pool, and found a place near the waterfall’s cold spray to fill his water skins. Then, taking a small knife out, he began to carve a piece of crystal free from an out-cropping near the falls edge. It fell free and he caught it in his coin pouch, careful not to touch it. He tightened the drawstring to hide the glow and made his way back to the clearing.
Winnie was standing near the edge of the stand of trees, dozing and he filled her bucket with water for when she woke, thirsty in the night. He didn’t bother to tie the horse up as she couldn’t get very far if she decided to wander, and rolled out his bedroll.
Sitting down on its plushness, he made himself a sandwich from some vegetables and bread and cheese he had brought along and mulled over the discovery of these multi-use crystals while he ate. He racked his brain for any mention of them he may have come across back home but found nothing in the depths of his memories. When he had finished eating he laid down, tucking his cloak and blanket tightly around him in the cold mountain air. Staring up at the stars as they pierced the velvety black sky, he considered this new development; what it meant for the people of this land, how these crystals had come to be, and how they may be related to the Dragons. He also considered what it could mean if he told others of the spoils of this abandoned piece of land, which would leave him with much less to offer the Lions and Rams as reward for their assistance with the war against the Wolves. He knew he would not sleep well that night.
The next morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, Beddigan took Winnie’s bucket through the trees and over the rocks to the still eerily lit pool, and filled it with crisp, cold water. After depositing it next to the horse, he filled the food bucket with oats from the saddlebags and set it beside the water bucket. He stroked the mare’s neck for a few moments, making soothing sounds.
“I won’t be too long, Winnie.” He said, rubbing the horse’s muzzle one last time. He then gathered a selection of food from the saddlebags into his day-pack, and headed off to the waterfall again to fill his two water skins.
He began his trip up into the steeper areas of the mountains by climbing the rocks near the waterfall, careful not to slip on the moss that covered them. It didn’t take him long to reach the top. He peered down at the green glowing water and the crystals that clung to rock’s edge. I wonder what else I’ll find here, Beddigan thought, as he began following the stream through the towering evergreens, picking his way over the rocky terrain.
He climbed steadily up into the mountains, sometimes at a reasonably easy incline, and other times coming to smaller waterfalls and cliffs that he had to find a way to traverse. Quite often he found himself having to head west to find a way around a sheer cliff, and then circle back to find the stream again. The long section of rope he always carried with him came in handy as usual. He smiled as he moved carefully down a section of rock, remembering his father intoning in a very serious voice about how one should always carry a length of rope when travelling.
The forest was eerily quiet, no birdsong or insect noise. The trees looked healthy enough but for all intents and purposes, it seemed like everything was dead. Not even a light breeze so high in the mountains was troubling, especially since the wind had gusted most of the way up to that final clearing where he had left Winnie. He looked around as he made his way higher into the mountain range for signs of any animal, or creature who may have followed this makeshift path. But there were no tracks in the underbrush, no defined pathways. No ruts left from carts of another time. It was as if nothing had ever lived in the mountains. Well, nothing that isn’t a Dragon, he thought.
Around midday, Beddigan sat on a rock next to the stream and ate some of the food he had brought and drank most of the contents of a water skin, filling it up from the stream when he was finished. The tallest peaks of the mountains now loomed directly above him, blocking out the sun as it travelled down to meet the horizon. He continued to follow the stream and subsequent waterfalls as he climbed up in between the peaks, through meadows; higher and higher.
Near nightfall, after circling through the brush to avoid a tall, sheer cliff, he stepped out from a cluster of trees to find that which he had been seeking: a cave. It seemed that the stream originated within its depths, though it was mostly just a trickle at this point; a narrow ribbon of water making its way down the mountain side.
Beddigan crouched low and remained silent, peering into the dark mouth of the cave. A shudder rippled through him as he remembered being trapped in the cave with Galantus. His tail twitched remembering the Dragon-fire which had scorched it. The fur had never grown back. He had no urge to repeat that terrifying ordeal again. And yet, he had come all this way to find a Dragon. As he crouched there, waiting with baited breath for some stir of movement within the darkness, he realized there was wind again. Not a particularly strong wind, but enough to give everything around him the stirring brush of life again.
“Now when in this Warbler’s Cursed world did that happen?” he muttered, straightening up and moving out from the edge of the trees. He crept along the rock-face to the cave’s opening and peered inside. It was now nearly as dark outside as inside, and he could see nothing beyond the few feet in front of him. He weighed his options as he stood there in the chill breeze, staring at the darkness. He could use his light crystal, explore the probably empty cave, and have shelter for the night. Or, he could make camp back in the stand of trees and wait for the light of morning.
He loosened his light crystal and affixed it to his gauntlet. No risk, no reward, he thought as he set it to a very low, dull glow. Holding his arm in front of him he entered the cave.
He stepped carefully, and cringed every time his boot struck a loose pebble and sent it skittering over the uneven floor. He peered into the darkness, and saw nothing at all. Just more darkness, as the cave stretched out and narrowed from the dome shape near the mouth, to a pathway leading deep into the mountain.
Turning up his crystal to a much brighter setting he got a good look around the cave. Aside from the few pebbles and rocks, scattered about, and stalagmites hanging from the ceiling, there was absolutely nothing inside. No sign of use at all. No scotch marks from a fire; no bones.
Beddigan breathed a sigh of relief and sat down with his back against the smooth cave wall. He set his fire crystal on the ground and activating it, cuddling close near its warmth. Once he had warmed enough that he could no longer feel the bone-chilling weariness of a long journey with no fire, he set about using a bit of water from his water skin and some dried soup mix in a mug to make his dinner. He sighed contentedly as he sipped at the flavourful meal.
A sudden rumble in the mountain side vibrated through him and Beddigan leapt to his feet, sloshing soup over the rim of the mug. The shudder rolled and thundered through the cave, the echo reverberating through him. He rushed to turn both light and fire crystal off. The darkness fell over him like a blanket as the shudders of the mountain dissipated. He finished is soup quickly in the dark and packed the mug away.
After quite some time standing still in the silence, he set his light crystal on the lowest setting and surveyed the cave. Nothing seemed to have changed. He considered going outside to look up at the mountains for signs of a rock slide, but in the dark of night he would have to turn his light crystal up enough that he would be a beacon to anything out there that may be watching. He turned away from the mouth of the cave and peered into the darkness that lead away from the dome-shaped opening. He felt a twist in his gut again, with a flashback to be trapped in the dark with Galantus.
Swallowing the lump of fear that formed in his throat, he turned his light crystal to a moderate setting, and started out down the corridor at the back of the cave. He stepped carefully as he made his way through the narrowing and widening pathway, past outcroppings of rocks, and other smaller dome-shaped rooms.
He was starting to think that he was being lead straight through the mountain, when another great shudder, pitched him against the cold stone wall of the narrow corridor her was in. Fear set his heart racing.
“Breathe, Beddigan. This corridor is much too small for a Dragon to fit in. You’ll be all right.” He whispered to himself. He waited until the shudders had again dissipated before he ventured forward again. He could see a large opening at the end of the narrow corridor and took the opportunity to lower his light crystal to its lowest setting, before again creeping forward. As he neared the mouth of this new cave, he could see faint glowing light in a myriad of colours. Green, red, blue, orange. A silvery white that almost sparkled in the darkness.
Beddigan turned his light crystal off entirely a few yards back from the mouth of the corridor. Steadying himself, he took a deep breath and stepped carefully towards the lights. He stepped out into a massive cavern, that soared up and out. There was an expanse of open cave, with the ribbon of a stream cutting through it, and a couple of different corridors leading away, both much larger than the one he had emerged from. Large enough to fit a Dragon, he thought. The most interesting of all, though, was the far side of the cave, which held a latticework of other, smaller caves built into it. It went four rows high and six rows wide, narrowing as it soared towards the cavern’s ceiling. The top row, almost out of sight in the darkness, had none of the dull, coloured lights emanating from inside, and held just three dark caves.
That bottom row of caves is at least twice my height from the ground, he noted silently as he picked his way across the stream, hugging the edge of the cavern wall. As he got closer to the wall of caves he noticed the coloured lights remained the same brightness. It was peculiar that it would appear just as bright from a distance as it would from closer up.
Now, standing directly below a cave with a soft yellow light coming from it, Beddigan searched the cavern wall for dips and curves to climb. Luckily, the walls were not worn smooth here like they had been in the corridor, and he began to make his ascent. He moved slowly, ever-cautious of how much sound he was making.
He gripped the bottom edge of the cave, just above him, and pulled himself up. Hauling himself to a sitting position he looked up in awe at what lay before him. Nestled near the back of the cave, entwined in a patch of sticks, moss, and strips of fabric, lay a pile of glowing fragments. Beddigan squinted against their brightness, and crept forward. As he got closer to it, he felt his mouth dry up, recognizing the pattern and sheen of Dragon scales. Kneeling next to the nest he looked closely at them, puzzled.
“They are so much smaller than…” he murmured, voice trailing off as the realization hit him: these were scales from a not-fully grown Dragon. A… child. He started to crawl back to the opening of the cave when another rolling shudder shook the cavern. Laying down flat on his belly he waited for it to stop. But it didn’t. The shudders just kept coming.
To be continued…
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