There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. In fact, its original name had been the Valley of the Grass Sea because that’s all there was of note, and it led down from the mountains to the ocean. Farmers had lived on the hills above the Valley and had used the grasses to feed their livestock. They were the first to be slaughtered with arrival of the infernal Drakes. Now called Helldrake Valley, a once peaceful and prosperous region had been absolutely decimated by the beasts who had made it their domain.
No one is sure where the beasts came from; there were so many rumours as to their origins that no-one could be sure of the truth. Each story had slightly different details through each new telling which muddied the waters further. The world was just lucky that most of the creatures had remained in the valley. The next threat is they discover there is a wider world for them to explore.
There are several distinct species of Dragon; not all of them had wings or fire breath, but that didn’t mean they weren’t all dangerous. Some of the wingless species were a lot more terrifying than their airborne counterparts. They are cunning, masters of disguise. They are known as Wyrms and can lay in wait for days, if needs be, to spring the perfect trap upon unsuspecting prey to kill them as quickly as possible or to catch as much of the herd off guard. As far as the categories of dragons went, they had discovered three main categories so far, as well as several uncategorised species whose existence had yet to be confirmed. The three main categories were winged beasts with four legs, winged beasts with only two legs and non-winged beasts with no legs. Some of the different species of dragon winged or not, breathed fire, some did not. There were stories of some dragons being able to use other types of magic, but these stories were yet to be verified, if it were ever possible to verify them.
One theory is that they returned to Gaia during The Alignment. So many things had happened during that astronomical event, bringing utter chaos to Gaia, that Sir Hart Gorman believed that to be the most likely reason this threat is now the bane of his knightly orders existence. The order of Flaming Sword was one of many knightly orders that had existed before the dragons, that had undergone some major changes when they had come into being. Their primary operation was now the slaying of dragons and guarding convoys through Helldrake Valley.
The valley had been such an important trading route for centuries - it was the fastest and easiest way through the Gellation Mountains and there weren’t many alternatives. Other routes had too many derelict forts and watchtowers from wars past, for bandits and other criminals to hide in; or they were too dangerous or arduous to be able to get large convoys through. Sure, you might be able to get small numbers of fit and willing soldiers through in an emergency, but not civilians like those that Sir Gorman and his men were guarding. They wouldn’t get halfway on some of the passes up there.
There was a monumental effort required of every person involved in the convoy. Even the merchants had to get involved and be more hands on than they had been in the past when it came to defending the caravans. All merchants now had rudimentary martial training, especially with crossbows and the bolt launchers. Mages, wizards, and other learned people had joined convoys now too, to study the various types of dragons that were in the valley.
Based on the studies that had been done, the scholars, mages and wizards believed that the numbers of dragons were not expanding and staying relatively stable. Within the three categories they had established, as far as anyone could tell, there as many six different types of dragons. The two categories of winged dragons had the highest number of fire breathers and people had apparently come across ice breathers and dragons that could turn you into stone. All Sir Gorman hoped was that there were no more types or categories of dragons to be discovered. He had had his fair share of fighting or trying to survive the different species that they already knew about.
So many convoys had been lost in the valley due to various failed attempts to learn about the dragon’s behaviour in the early days after The Alignment. As soon as the reports of dragons in the region had been verified, various kings had decreed that as much as possible was to be learned about them. Scholars, Mages and Wizards had done what they could with the few resources that were available to them. So many men had died gathering whatever info they could about the fell beasts. Their flight paths, their hunting grounds, how they brought up the younglings. All these details and more were studied to try and work out if the valley would ever be safe again for travel. It was such a scramble to try and get this information, because there were so many unknowns. It was hard to pick out one thing to research; made worse by the conflicting reports of how the dragons lived and their day-to-day activities.
Most importantly, particularly for Sir Gorman, were they vulnerable? Some of the smaller and younger dragons could be brought down by multiple well placed crossbow bolts, but this required too much luck or too many crossbow bolts. The wagon mounted bolt throwers had come in handy on more than one occasion but took more time to reload.
What had eventually proven to be more useful and effective at keeping most of the beasts at bay, was having a volunteer force, of skilled and brave riders, drive herds of sheep or other animals a safe enough distance away from the convoys to keep the dragons distracted, in the hope that they would go for the seemingly easier meal, rather than the one that might fight back.
Sir Gorman felt as though they had almost learned as much as they could for now and he didn’t really want to know much more about these creatures. To be able to know more about these things they would have to capture a live specimen and that was not likely to happen, even with an immense amount of luck and all the weapons in the world on their side. He recognised more research needed to be done, but he did not hold up much hope that it was ever going to happen.
As Sir Gorman walked through the camp, he made sure to check in with key merchants, to make sure they had all made the correct preparations for the start of their journey at first light. They had to make sure nothing was loose or likely to fall off in transit, as any delays could prove costly. Gorman made sure he knew which guards were assigned to each merchant and their trailers. He made sure that all their weapons were ready, and he tried to calm any nerves. There had been a big influx of volunteers for guard duties recently and Sir Gorman wondered what had caused that. Why would so many guardsmen and civilian militiamen suddenly want this kind of convoy guard duty? It worried Sir Gorman that another storm was brewing. That some new unseen threat was rising, as if Dragons weren’t bad enough! The additional volunteers made the convoy a bigger, more attractive target. Or was it just men full of bravado and ego, searching for glory and fame, thinking they are going to single handedly bring down a dragon, as if they were hunting game. People had no idea just how colossal some of these dragons had been rumoured to be. Was this a move by various leaders, trying to claim the valley, and the land beyond it, for themselves? The valley lay close to the borders of three countries, but more than a few of the local barons and lords were what some people might describe as overly ambitious.
Having so many moving parts made things especially complicated for Sir Gorman and his fellow knights. Meticulous planning was required for what used to be such a simple trip. They all had their parts to play and people to manage - so many extras make the journey so much riskier. The only real hope is that somewhere along the way, they could find places to garrison the extra troops that they now had. If they could re-establish some of the small forts and redoubts, that could potentially solve an awful lot of problems. Although the resources, time and personnel required to do that, did not fill Sir Gorman with hope. It had been suggested that other routes through the mountains should be made safe now that the Valley of the Grass Sea had been compromised. Sir Gorman knew that if he moved the traders and any others out of the valley, that would encourage the dragons to forsake their current hunting grounds for other pastures. If the dragons ever spread further, what sort of chaos and destruction would follow in their wake? The damage done could be irreversible, Sir Gorman’s dilemma was does he sacrifice the few to protect the many. It was important to reinforce the area around the valley to try and keep the dragons in check.
After finishing his wander around the camp, Sir Gorman was as satisfied as he could be with the ongoing preparations and he felt they were ready for their journey through Helldrake Valley, starting the next morning. He started making his way back to his tent to wash and eat; if he was going to die, he would like to at least do it clean and full of food. He knew the journey would be extremely difficult and it was likely that part of the convoy would be lost, but very few journeys were ever the same, so it was impossible to predict. On the odd occasion they had got through unscathed, despite sightings of dragons. It was so hard to tell what was going to happen, while they were still learning about these creatures.
After he had washed and eaten, he pulled out his maps to study them. They had been marked with details from previous journeys - where they had encountered dragons, what type they were, where had they attacked from and fled to if injured. Sir Gorman was slowly painting a picture for himself of what could be the safest route through the valley. He could also see where it might be possible to not only retake old forts to bolster defences along the route, but as hiding places should they be attacked by dragons. He was not particularly optimistic about the idea, but it had been mooted by people he respected, so Sir Gorman would come around eventually, if the right ideas were presented.
There had been ancient stories of dragons, but Sir Gorman had thought them to be myths and fairy tales told to children to get them to behave. He never thought he would ever see one. There were so many things he didn’t understand about their sudden appearance or what had happened during The Alignment. Sir Gorman wasn’t even sure it was his place to understand; he wasn’t a scholar or a wizard or mage. He had some training in various areas of magic, as part of growing up in a knightly order, but it was a very generalised learning. He knew enough to loosely follow a strand of conversation if it ever came up in court and he could build a foundation of knowledge on what he knew, but he was certainly no expert.
He had seen many strange and terrifying things in his life. It was practically an occupational hazard in his line of work. Many of the more uncivilized races and creatures around the world spooked him in ways he couldn’t really put into words; but he would never forget the first time he saw a dragon. The sound it made as it flew overhead was like a hurricane, the beat of its wings, the bellowing roar it made as it spotted its prey. Sir Gorman took a long time to get over that day, seeing the devastation that one dragon had visited, caused wounds no amount of healing spells or potions would ever alleviate.
Hart Gorman had tried to rationalise everything that had gone on since The Alignment and how some of the events had come to be. He knew the significance of it for those of a spiritual or religious nature but had no sense of how drastically it would change the world around him. There was a rapid increase of people who suddenly had abilities that had not had before, particularly magic users. Even people with martial training could suddenly do things they had not been able to do previously. There were reports of people pulling off feats of strength and speed that no person would have been capable of prior to The Alignment.
The Alignment itself was an incredibly rare event where certain celestial bodies all suddenly lined up in a particular order. Scholars had studied the night sky and had discovered more than just stars - something not originally mentioned in previous reports of the sky at night. Trying to predict when the next alignment might happen had worried many people and was almost too much to take in for some of the simpler folk. When it finally happened, people were expecting to commune with their gods, or their deceased loved ones. But no! The chaos that followed caught everyone off guard. Although the dragons were the most significantly dangerous creatures to return, they were not the only ones. Certain species of Fae Folk had also returned, and they ranged from friendly to outright hostile, to every race on Gaia, even the Aelvey had problems with some of the Fae races.
But that was not Sir Gorman’s main concern now. Based on the data given to him from fore riders, scouts and the few brave souls who still live on the border of the valley, he needed to get this convoy through, and he needed to plan the route and where to stop. He had to make sure they were going to make the trip with as few losses as possible, even with the extra troops. He had a bad feeling about this trip, there had been too many relatively quiet trips recently. Sir Gorman felt like they were overdue a trip, where if it could go wrong, it would. He studied the data and his maps for about an hour and a half until he was certain he knew which route to take. He decided how the convoy should be setup, where each cart needed to be, and which knights should be positioned where. He had also come up with an idea for some of the excess volunteers in the militia guards.
He had noted some of the smaller holdings along the route, where he might be able to garrison some of the volunteers. He would send them ahead with some of the front riders and they would be used to fortify an area where Sir Gorman thought they were more vulnerable to attack, by something other than dragons. Having these militia men stationed at certain places might also be useful for their return. They could pave the way for a safer passage home if they could clear and fortify small checkpoints and centres of research within the valley, laying foundations for a permanent route through. He thought he was getting ahead of himself at this point, so Sir Gorman wrote out his orders and left his tent to distribute them among the traders.
He went to each cart and caravan, explaining his plan to them. The majority of them agreed there were too many extra volunteer guardsmen, so he felt that his plan to leave some in the old the forts with some supplies was justified. They always carried extra just in case of an extended stay at one of the quieter, better manned forts along the way. If he could convince the guard and militia captains, that leaving people behind in such a dangerous area was better for the long-term security of the region, he would certainly feel a lot more at ease about doing it. He knew there would be resistance to the idea, but he felt it was for the best. Sir Gorman put out the word that he wanted to meet his fellow knights and all the guard commanders, in the command tent. He would brief the knights first, so they got a clearer image of what the plan was, before including all the other commanders. Sir Gorman suspected the commanders would have a lot to say and could muddy the message, shouting over each other to try and stamp their own ego on the proceedings.
Once all the knights were gathered, Sir Gorman explained his plan and why he felt that garrisoning the old forts was important. “Any questions? I know some of you might be surprised, but I think with the high-volume of extra volunteers for this run through the valley, we might as well find a better use for them and make us a smaller target”
Sir Trendle Shorgern was the first to stand to make his voice known “While I agree with you that we are over subscribed with guards and militia men, I am unsure as to whether this is the best use for them. Leaving them behind in a region where so many have perished, seems like a waste of men and resources”
Sir Gorman nodded “I understand the trepidation, but we must reclaim this region at some point to restore some calm and stability to the bordering countries. All it takes is for one overly ambitious Baron or Lord to send in troops to try and reclaim land, to bruise another’s ego and could lead to the sort of escalating accusations that start wars. But if a neutral party like us start to repopulate and restore the region, we might garner some sympathy for the idea. I spoke with Her Highness Queen Alibetar before we left and proposed the idea to her, and she agrees. She feels it is important to diffuse the tension in the region, so that people are thinking with their brains and not their egos; you know how King Akifer and King Touste can get with each other at times”
Sir Shorgern didn’t respond at first “Kings and their egos aside, are you certain we can leave these militia volunteers behind on route? How are you going to decide to who stays and who comes with us? They will see this as an almost certain death sentence”
“I am certain about this; I do not make this decision lightly. I have put plenty of thought into this and I will not force people to stay. I will be asking for volunteers, and I will make their bravery more than worth their while on our return journey. We will provide reinforcements and supplies on our return to start the process of clearing the valley of dragons. Is that not something you would like to see happen, Sir Shorgern? Do the people of the valley, who were brave enough to stay, not deserve to live in peace? And without fear of Dragon attack? Do those who left to preserve their lives and the lives of their families do not deserve to return home?” Sir Gorman said resolutely “We have an opportunity to start something good for these people and besides, we cannot keep making these convoys in these conditions. The losses we make each trip will become unsustainable in the near future. I think we all knew retaking the valley had to happen eventually. It is not easy to make the first step in these circumstances, but it needs to be now, and it needs to be us. I believe we will be successful in this endeavour” Sir Gorman looked at Sir Shorgern who sat back down seemingly satisfied and then he looked around the table at the other knights “Anyone else?”
Sir Theurtra Stayne stood “What about Queen Alibetar? You have proposed this plan of action to her. Is she offering any other support to your plan other than agreement? Will she be sending troops or supplies?” she asked
“Yes, she will be sending troops and supplies through from her end of the valley, but as you can imagine there are a few political hurdles to get over first, she will be negotiating on our behalf. She will be convincing the Kings and their lords to let us put our troops in forts along the valley and to send in troops and supplies of their own as well” Sir Gorman replied. Sir Stayne sat back down after that. Most of the others seemed fairly satisfied with the plan that had been presented to them. It was time to inform the troop and militia commanders of the plan for the passage through the valley. Sir Gorman had the feeling they would not be so easy to convince.
He was right. There was more than one accusation that he was trying to sacrifice ordinary people so the merchant and knights could get through untroubled. There was plenty of arguing and shouting back and forth about who should be left behind and why the extra troops were not just being sent home. It was only down to the intervention of Sir Shorgern and a few of the other Knights that they eventually calmed down enough to be convinced by Sir Gorman that this was a sound plan.
Sir Gorman sent for one last group for some advice on the plan. They entered just as the hubbub of the meeting was subsiding and calming down. Arch Mage Trendos Enthus, Head Scholar Oldor Yuchin and Head Wizard Krenag Donjei all were very important people, who should have been including in the previous meeting, but it had slipped Sir Gorman’s mind. They had been informed of the plan, by messengers, as they had been called to the tent so that Sir Gorman did not have to explain it for a third time.
“Are there any objections to the plan? Any Questions?” asked Sir Gorman looking to each leader in turn. They looked at each other and shook their heads. “I think it is certainly a bold one Sir Gorman” said Arch Mage Enthus “If there is any way the mages can help, I would like to offer it. We also picked up a couple of extra volunteers on our way through here; for some reason they seem extra keen to see dragons and what the fuss is all about”. The Head Wizard nodded along with the Arch Mage “We too picked up extra stragglers that could be useful in rebuilding and defending some of the forts”
“That is lucky for us and what I was about to ask, we need as many skilled people as possible to help defend and rebuild these forts, so any extra hands will make lighter work” said Sir Gorman. He turned to the scholar “Are there any people in your company who have any martial training or weapons at all?”
“There are some who are a bit more adventurous. They have studied some of the other creatures who appeared during The Alignment and now want a chance to study dragons as well. However, without a solidly fortified base of operation and little martial and weapons training between them, I’m not sure how much use they would be” she said
“That is fine, fighting won’t be their primary directive. We will need to collate all reports about the beasts from the soldiers, as and when we get them. The best people to get them written as concisely and clearly as possible are those from your background and the better the records, the more likely it is that we can start clearing this valley of those infernal dragons” Sir Gorman responded.
Turning to address the tent, he looked around and took a deep breath “I understand that everyone has concerns about this plan, but I believe this can be the beginning of something great, not only for the people of this valley, but also for us. The more we know about these beasts and how to defeat them, the easier and safer our jobs become. It will take a lot of hard work and sacrifice, but I am optimistic that we can get this to work in our favour. Once we get the local lords and leaders on our side it will only get easier”. The crowd’s response was a mute one. They had a feeling he was right, but it did not make the task at hand feel any less insurmountable. It felt almost impossible to imagine the effort required to complete this task. “If we pull this off each and everyone one of you will be heroes and legends. Your names will go down in history as the people that started something incredible here. You will be the ones who dared to hope, that will allow others to hope, and it will like a rockslide down a mountain that continues to build up momentum. This momentum will allow us to take this valley from those monsters and to right the wrongs they have committed”. Sir Gorman was never good at speech making but he hoped that the people listening had got the point of what he was trying to say. “Is there anything else anyone would like to add?” there were no responses “Ok, everyone is dismissed, go, and relay orders, and gather volunteers to stay at each fort. Make sure you are ready for what is to come. Tomorrow is a new beginning. So, get ready! Get rested and fed! Tomorrow, we ride!”