Eyes the colour of storm clouds peered through the thick undergrowth into the clearing beyond. A leather gloved hand moved aside the glossy leaves to get a better view. The watcher and his companion moved with absolute silence as they emerged into the clearing, which had proved free of anything larger than a few insects.
The taller elf signed to his companion, his hands a blur to lesser eyes. Nothing there, again.
Well there was, I saw movement, clear as day.
“It’s gone now, if there was ever anything here.” He spoke this time, his voice barely above a whisper. It was better to be safe than sorry; the trolls and orcs that infested these mountainous forests had very good hearing.
“Why do always say that? I saw something I tell you.” The second elf, Alagwen by name, stamped the end of his bow on the ground to emphasise his point.
“A big red thing that looked like a baby dragon?” Gaeruildir replied.
“I didn’t say it was a baby dragon, I said it was small and scaly, like a baby dragon.”
“So you’ve seen a dragon then?”
“Not a real one, but I’ve seen pictures.”
“The dragons have been gone for centuries. Not even grandfather has seen a dragon, and he’s so old he planted the acorn that grew his house.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Then explain, cousin, where did the baby dragons come from if the adult dragons have all gone.” Gaeruildir set off along the trail they’d been following earlier, hoping to re-acquire the deer they’d been stalking. “I’m assuming of course that you know where babies come from.”
“Don’t be insulting. Besides, that doesn’t change the fact. I saw something, in that clearing, and it went up the hill. If we carry on in that direction we might pick up its tracks.”
“And what about the deer?”
Alagwen sighed. “All you think about is your stomach.”
“I’m not eating berries and jaw-breaker nuts again. I need meat.”
“I sometimes wonder if you have some Dwarf in you, always demanding meat. You’ll be drinking ale next and singing about caves and…”
He froze mid sentence as Gaeruildir signalled from up ahead. Both melted into the undergrowth at the side of the trail. A few moments later both were invisible to all but the closest observation, as if they’d never even been there. Only seconds later, a large stag dashed down the trail, whipping by their hiding place and disappearing in a flash of brown fur and wide eyes.
The two elves cautiously emerged from hiding, looking up and down the thin game trail, but saw nothing. “Great, that’s supper gone,” Gaeruildir said in annoyance.
Did you see its eyes? It was frightened by something. Alagwen signed, his own fear awoken by the animal’s.
“Yes,” Gaeruildir replied, “Scared by a wolf, or our scent, the wind’s changed, if you’re paying attention.”
“It was frightened by something more than a wolf. Big stag like that, wouldn’t panic on seeing a single predator.”
“Oh, I suppose it saw a baby dragon then?” Gaeruildir laughed, examining the trail.
“It’s no laughing matter!” Alagwen replied, his voice raised.
“Will you be quiet!” Gaeruildir hissed. “I want to eat today, and you’re frightening the game away, as well as drawing the attention of who knows what.”
“And don’t use the D word again, right?”
“What, ever again? I can’t say Dragon ever again my entire life?”
Gaeruildir shook his head. “For someone who’s nearly two hundred years old, you can be so immature at times.”
Whatever Alagwen was about to reply was interrupted by a high-pitched scream from somewhere up the slope. The two elves’s eyes met. What was that? they both signed.
Gaeruildir set off up the slope. Let’s go and see.
“What, are you crazy? What if that was the dragon?” Alagwen whispered loudly.
Gaeruildir stopped. He stood still for several seconds, his body tense with anger. Finally he turned around to face Alagwen, and said through gritted teeth. “There. Aren’t. Any. Dragons.” He turned back to face the trail and set off again towards the sound. Alagwen had to rush to catch up, all the while thinking it wasn’t a good idea. His cousin was thinking with his stomach again.
The two elves moved silently through the thickening undergrowth, always going up hill. The game trail soon faded out, forcing the elves to make their own. But they were experts at this kind of thing, and had soon found their way to a ridge over-looking a bowl-shaped valley. On the opposite side to the elves was a natural cave, well known to them from previous outings. The ground in front of the cave, previously overgrown with plants, was flattened and covered with a thick, reddish mud. The rest of the valley was in a similar condition. The creatures responsible for the destruction were still there, rolling in the mud, playing like puppies, or just sleeping.
Gaeruildir looked at the creatures, took in their image, and was even able to describe them. They were the size of ponies, had four legs, a long neck and tail, and a serpentine body covered in dull red scales. A pair of vestigial wings sat just over their shoulder blades. Yes, his mind prompted him, they were…
“Dragons,” gasped Alagwen, a mix of awe and horror in his voice and expression.
As one, the beasts looked up at the elves’ hiding place, the sleepers awoke, the players stopped playing. Two dozen liquid amber eyes fixed on the same target. Two dozen wide nostrils flared. They all stood, muscles trembling, ready to move.
“Oops,” Alagwen whispered.
Gaeruildir didn’t waste time berating his cousin or questioning where these things had come from. He knew a murderous look when he saw it, he’d faced enough orcs to know what happened next. With the experience of almost two centuries of practice, he unslung his bow, nocked an arrow and let fly before his cousin could protest. He was already loading another, and wondering if he had enough, before the first one took the nearest dragon through the eye. It dropped into the mud with a dull thump. The remaining dragons stormed the slope, trampling their dead comrade underfoot without a care.
Beside him, Alagwen was almost as quick to react. Despite his misgivings, he too knew the look, the gaze of eagles, his father called it. His arrow was just as successful, and another of the creatures hit the ground dead.
But there were plenty more left alive, and they were rapidly closing in, their powerful legs driving them up the slope. Two more arrows took down two more dragons, but they were dangerously close now. The elves stood their ground shoulder to shoulder as they had done many times before. Luckily, the ridge had a steeper slope near the top, which slowed their attacks, a little.
More arrows flew down into them, and more fell. But still they came on, practically running the last few feet straight up, their razor sharp claws having no trouble gripping the dry soil of the ridge.
The young dragons were impetuous and inexperienced in battle, and it seemed their scales were not yet hard enough to protect them against the elvish arrows. But their sheer numbers and speed had allowed a handful to crest the ridge and dive open-mouthed at these new playthings.
With their bows now useless, Gaeruildir and Alagwen switched to hunting knifes, short but with wide blades, deadly in the right hands. Gaeruildir slashed his blade across the snout of the first to reach him, cutting away part of its face. It screamed, then retreated back to the cave, leaving a trail of thick, dark blood.
Alagwen waited until the last second as his attacker lunged at his thigh. He pulled back and swung the blade into its head behind the jaw, killing it instantly as the knife entered its brain. But as it fell he was unable to pull the blade out, and he was dragged down with the corpse. He kicked out at the next to approach, but his bent-over position robbed it of much force. He wiggled the blade desperately as the dragon recovered and snapped its jaws at his foot.
Gaeruildir saw his cousin’s peril, but had two attackers of his own. They came for him simultaneously, but with little coordination, merely opening their mouths and running forward. With the remarkable agility of his race, Gaeruildir leapt high into the air and landed on the lowest branch of a tree.
The two dragons, eager to rend their prey, collided and began to fight, screaming and slashing with their claws. Blood flowed, and more, until one lay dead in the leaf-litter. The victor had little time to enjoy his kill, as Gaeruildir dropped from the tree, knife first, and pierced its brain to the hilt with all his weight.
Alagwen, still unable to retrieve his knife, grabbed the attacking dragon by the snout, leapt on its neck, and wrapped his feet around it as tightly as he could. The baby dragon, completely unprepared and unused to this method of fighting, thrashed around screaming and clawing at the ground. It tried to back away, but was blocked by a tree. It reared up on its hind legs, then smashed back down against the ground. Alagwen was winded but clung on desperately, knowing what it was to let go.
Gaeruildir saw his cousin’s predicament and laughed. It was his own fault after all, leading them here and giving away their position. Alagwen was tiring now, and in danger of losing his grip. Gaeruildir grabbed up his bow and his last arrow, and shot the beast through the heart.
Alagwen took several moments to realise the thing was dead, still clinging on to it as it slumped in the undergrowth. He looked up at his cousin. “Is it dead?”
Gaeruildir looked at the spreading pool of blood. “I think so.”
“Did we get them all?”
“Looks like it.”
Alagwen untangled himself and stood up, breathless but alive. “Well, don’t just stand there cousin. Help me skin this thing, we need to take proof back to the city.”
Gaeruildir worked silently at the corpse, all the while waiting for his cousin to say what he would be saying, probably for the rest of his life. “Told you so.”
For the moment, Alagwen refrained. There was plenty of time to remind his cousin of how wrong he’d been on the journey home.
Inside the cave, a bloody shape moved through the darkness, the wound on its face rapidly sealing over. After several minutes, the low tunnel opened into a large chamber. In the centre was the huge brood mother, surrounded by eggs and hatchlings. The young dragon felt the presence of many new minds, ready to burst forth and feed.
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