Ordric Forkbeard searches for his daughter in the land of dragons
The Dragon Master’s Daughter
Crows were sent out over the storm-ridden precipices of the Roost to seek out the remains of that fateful child.That it would only be remains by that hour was a certainty, though an unspoken one, by men whose throats bled from calling that name.
No man yet had the courage to look a father in the face and tell him it was no use,thought Ordric Forkbeard, gazing ahead with a hollowness that had hounded his heels for many heavy hours.
All about him swarms of flaming torches still flickered across the moors and woods of Northworth, lighting up the dark wherever men were solemnly combing the Isle.From every point desperate calls were still echoing over the cliffs, dissipating into the spray and folding into the bitter waters which battered the rocks. He shuddered. It was enough to wake Mograwr.
Trudging home, he hunched his shoulders against the wind, keeping his fists shoved deeply into the recesses of his furs; a habitual defensive stance against the elements. The metallic taste of a percolating squall could not be swallowed and sat heavy on his tongue, laced with the scent of brine carried by the gales.
‘We can still find her Master Forkbeard, Sir,’ said the towering shape to his left with a blind certainty in his voice that was beginning to grate on Ordric. ‘Just because the crows are flying, doesn’t mean she ain’t still well and hiding out somewhere, we must keep hope.’
Ordric cast his gaze upward. He could not see them but he knew they were there; born on black wings, scenting the air for death. He had seen hounds on the continents used the same way in search parties. A murder of crows he thought, not a merriment, and certainly not a miracle.
‘I must see my wife.’ He muttered.His throat was raw and hoarse from having to pit it against the relentless westerly winds that would snatch the sound right from one’s mouth if you did not bellow hard enough.
Beside him, Bluejon nodded.The uncanny blue markings that stained the behemoth’s face etched deeper eldritch shadows on his shaggy head. The man had not left Forkbeard’s side since the search began. He hovered over his master with his great shoulders squared and a stubborn look in his small, wide set eyes, as though he could somehow prevent the tragedy that threatened.
Ordric knew the man had been instructed to stay by his side, to intervene if grief should make him lose his wits. In case he should scream and rip out his beard. In case he should curse the gods and beat his fists bloody against the rocks. But he could summon no grattitude for this minding by one of his own men.
Besides, he was calm. He viewed the world about him with astounding clarity. In fact, he felt slightly removed from himself, as though he were watching it all from some point outside of his own body. As though it was not really happening to him, but to some other man, in some other time.
His mind turned to his wife.
She was waiting for news.
His boots left a pile of muck where he stamped them with dull, heavy thuds outside his cottage before entering. Bluejon shut the door behind them; giving them a reprieve from the howling wind outside. Blessed warmth emanated from the crackling hearth where a chipped, copperkettle hung, whistling steam. He took a moment to cup his hands to his mouth to heat them with his breath and closed his eyes, savoured the familiarity of home. He tried to picture it briefly the way it should be, with brass crookery hanging from the low timber rafters, smoke stained walls by the hearth, his three children sprawled upon the bear rug near the fire.He inhaled the scent of bushels of rosemary and thyme hung from the wall to dry, mixing with the odour of smoke and people. His people.
He opened his eyes.
Two women sat at the fire. The elder, body bent and bowed with age, shifted her thick woollen skirts, snatching something reflective from view. He looked toward the younger one.
For an instant his wife’s face was alive with hope. It must have become that way when he entered. Her faith in him was strong, but the moment her eyes met his, the brightness drained away. She again became frail and drawn with worry. Loose strands of hair had torn free from their ribbonsand struck out wildly around a face as pale aswatered-down milk. At her feet his two young sons crouched, both wide-eyed and unnaturally quiet. It was all the worse since they looked so much like Gwynneth; dark haired and slight of build. None of his children had inherited his big boned dragonfolk brawn, nor even his red hair.
What good was he if could not even keep such wee babes safe?
Gwynneth rose to meet him, ‘ Anything?’
He shook his head.
‘I should go.’
‘She’ll be wanting me.’ Gwynneth insisted. ‘She’ll be cold and scared, and she’ll be wanting me, I should be out there...’
Her words began flooding as her panic grew.She cupped her ears with her hands as though she was blocking out the sound of something awful only she could hear. Ordric saw the signs of brewing hysteria and drew her to him, crushing her head against his chest.
‘Hush’ he said ‘hush now.’
‘We’ll find her Missuss.’ offered Bluejohn behind him with plodding stoicism.
Ordric ground his teeth and wished the man would be quiet.Who did not already know the odds? A whole day, with the wind, and the growing cold... helplessnessand fear welled up in his chest and he clamped it down by turning his gaze upon the huddled figure of the old woman still standing near the fire.
‘Why did you come?’
Pale grey eyes peered placidly at him. Small as she was, Mertha Mirkwood did not cower easily.
‘Mertha has been trying to scry...’ Gwynneth started to explain.
‘I know what she was doing...’ Ordric spat, ‘Come to strike fear into my wife with more of your old hags’ tales, have you?’
Bluejon’s great brow furrowed; ‘Sir, you shouldn’t talk that way...’
The crooked woman raised her hand.‘There’s no need, Bluejon.’
Her voice was soft but her eyes did not waver from Ordric’s glare.
‘Tis not anything I have to say that your wife has to fear...’ she said to him, ‘It’s what is out there...’ One pale, withered hand motioned towards the window overlooking the moors. In the distance lightning lit up the skies swelling with storms which swept across the seething seas.
‘The water’s rising, Forkbeard’
‘I’ve heard the stories’ Gwynneth murmured, her cheek wet against his tunic ‘about how they call up the hordes...Ordric you don’t think...?’
This time Mertha intervened.
‘Hush, your husband is right. It’s not the time for such thoughts, dear, not tonight’
The wise woman’s eyes became fixed on something outside, beyond Ordric’s line of vision. She muttered something else, something just beyond his hearing. Instantly his anger was replaced by forboding. He moved his left hand almost imperceptively to make the sign warding off the Grimsmith, while cursing his own superstition.
Mertha turned towards him. Even across the room he imagined he could see the glow of the flames reflected in her eyes.
‘You are very fortunate tonight, Forkbeard, Master of Dragons.’ Her voice echoed unnaturally in his tiny kitchen.
The frontdoor swung open. His father Griswald’s wizened face appeared in the doorway; watery eyes brimming with news. Ordric’s thoughts derailed as his heart flipped over.
‘They found her!’ The old man rasped.
He jerked as his breath caught in his chest.
Ordric barged past his father and took off in a dead run, Gwynneth at his heels, shouting to Bluejon to watch the boys.They stopped for no one, though in their wake searching men began to follow them andthe news spread. Calls travelled back and forth. They found her. They found at her the rookery. They found her at the rookery.
Heart pounding in his ears Forkbeard charged across the cobbled sky bridge barely glancing up at the shadowy geometries of the Rookery towering over it.
Two men stopped him in the courtyard.
‘Somebody left a gate open sir’
‘Where is she?!’ he thundered, but his men dithered with the answer, wanting to offer the excuses before the news. Wanting to exempt themselves from fault when it came to the reckoning that was sure to follow. It set his teeth on edge. His fists clenched reflexively.
‘We can’t get to her, it won’t let us near...’
‘Where is she?’
This time he took a step forward, ready to shake it out of them. One of the men shrunk back and went quiet, but his longtime captain, Dedwulf, met his glare.
Tearing past them, Ordric bounded into the cavernous dark passages, barely pausing to snatch a dying torch from the walls before hurrying along into the labyrinth which webbed throughout the primeval monolith. Of all the peaks that jutted from the swollen belly of the Pheonice Ocean, the cylindrical rookery was one of the tallest. Open lairs pockmocked its exterior, conjoined inside with passageways he knew too well.
Grimgroyle. His heart beat a gaping hole in his chest. Behind him he could hear the clattering of boots and shouts of men, but the only thing he could think was; Grimgroyle.
He rounded the corner of an upper passage and skidded to a halt outside a door of solid iron. His breath caught when he saw it was standing slightly ajar.
Heads will roll he swore and oath to himself as he edged around the gate, heaving it a little further open so that he could fit his generous frame through. The stench of fish and smoke prickled his nose and his torch cast only a weak glow in the consuming dark.
‘Ordric..?’ Gwynneth was behind him.
He edged further into the lair.A deep rumble stopped him. There was a hiss and the sound of scales scraping stone.
‘Grimgroyle...’ He whispered.
A pulsing in the air washed over him and a near sub-audible hum grew louder, like the shake of a rattlesnake’s tail. He thrust the torch forward and caught a glimpse of coppery scales.
Dedwulf stepped lightly into position beside him, coming to his aid by seconding his light with another torch so that together they could see the dragon.
The reptile had coiled about itself, leathery wings drawn close to its body. Hooked fangs the length of a man’s arm, were bared at the intruders. Its head snaked back and forth in warning.
‘There...’ the captain pointed one gnarled finger at a cluster of dark curls peeking out from beneath the dragon’s wing.As the men locked eyes on it Grimgroyle snarled and drew his limb closer, hiding his treasure from view.
Ordric breathed in deeply, expanding his chest. Grimgroyle was his own beast, had been since he was a boy. But dragons were dragons. You could train them, chain them, do all you could to bend them to your will and you could ride aboard their broad scaled backs every day, but all the while, in the back of your mindtiny voices would still say;
Those Teeth...That flame.
‘That,’ he told Grimgroyle, meeting the great slitted eye; ‘Is mine’
Grimgroyle hissed at him, flame beginning to dance at the edge of his nostrils.
‘Mine’ He repeated, fear turning again into simmering rage. He issued the ancient command for release in a voice dripping with menace.His stance dared the beast to disobey.
The dragon regarded him for a long moment. It gave a sullen growl and turned its head away.
Grudgingly, it raised a wing to allow his master access to his prize.
Ordric sunk to his knees, his fingers crawlinginto his beard; pulling, yanking and ripping. An inhuman sound tore from his lips. Beside him Dedwulf was rapidly whispering a prayer to the Allfather.
It was over.
The child slept sprawled against the warmth of the dragon’s belly, her head lolled to one side. The dark curls inherited from her mother tumbled across her face and shoulders. Tiny bubbles of drool gathered at the corner of her lips. As he watched,long eyelashes fluttered open and a rosebud mouth blossomed into a yawn.
She gazed up at him and smiled.
Ordric Forkbeard would see that smile in his dreams many years to come, dreams were he would wake, lost and sweating, the smell of smoke in his nostrils and flames in his mind. For in his dreams Forkbeard knew something of the fate of the dragonfolk.