The Hunter of Treagough
Chapter 1: The Dragon and the Queen
There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Legend tells that the first of them came with the Morbock raiders. In the last thousand years, they had completely overtaken the fertile lands below the Graumsturn Mountains, which stood like sentinels above the plains of wheat and sorghum; once a blockade against the horrors of the wide world beyond, they now served as an obstacle, a reminder that any attempt to leave the Valley of Treagough would surely end in failure. It was in these mountains that the dragons nested and passing through them meant certain death.
As the sunlight peeked over the mountains, it fell upon the hunter’s sleepless brow, that was already covered with the sweat from a humid, windless night. The weight of the chains that were fastened tightly around his wrists made them dig into his skin each time the carriage hit a bump in the road. The dragons of this valley had been the source of his greatest profit. He thought that it was fitting that they would be his demise. This year he had gone too far and taken more than his fair share of hides. Although it was easy this year since there weren’t many hunters left in Treagough.
The wagon rattled down the road kicking up dust, which seeped through his cage and filled his lungs. He hacked and coughed on it, at one point grasping the bars of the cage to stabilize himself. The cage he sat in was barely large enough for a dog, let alone a man.
“Stop” a voice yelled from outside, and the rattling cage halted abruptly.
“Brother, we have an offering for the young one” came the raspy response from the jailer.
The hunter set his face to the side of the cage and pushed his hand through the bars to move the cloth covering his cage so he could see.
“To enter you must show your mark” he said.
“Gladly.” replied his captor.
Through the veil, the hunter only caught a glimpse of the two. His captor extended his arm and pulled up his loose burlap sleeve to expose something on the man’s arm, although the hunter could not see what it was.
“The star of Hlodazul, supreme light of the Odazulte”. The guard averted his eyes and quickly bowed.
“You may enter” the guard said.
“Thank you and good day to you brother. May Hlodom ignite your soul”.
“Same to you brother” the guard replied.
The cage rattled on. The hunter gathered his wits. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he knew it wasn’t good.
A few minutes later, the carriage stopped abruptly again. The noise of the street had ceased. The door opened swiftly, and the hunter was dragged out into the silence. A dark and musty tunnel extended before him. The hunter kept his eyes to the ground, but he felt the sharp spears press against the flesh of his back.
“Move vermin!” yelled his captor.
He suddenly felt a sharp blow to his spine, and the weight of it knocked him to the ground. The hunter got to his feet and trudged along the winding path, following it up a flight of stairs that were carved into the rocks. The sharp edges of the tunnel were appeared soft through a translucent haze of smoke. In the damp air, their footsteps barely penetrated the silence that hung over the cave. The two guards would occasionally jab their blades into the hunter if he wasn’t moving fast enough.
His captor coughed and wheezed on all the smoke. The echoes of the halls became amplified the depth of the cavern. A dim red light shone in the distance.
“Where are we going?” asked the hunter.
“To your destiny, vermin.” came the reply.
The faint red light grew brighter and brighter. The smoke became thicker until the four men came to another door guarded by cloaked figures holding halberds. The captor pushed the hunter aside and again revealed his arm to the guards. Upon seeing it they dutifully moved aside.
“Now the hard part is over” his captor sneered as he opened the door. “No more waiting. From here on out it all becomes quite simple.” The guards grabbed the hunter and dragged him through the doorway. In front of him were an audience of hundreds. The flames of the torches on the walls flickered and the air was filled with whispers. Heavy black chains were lowered down from the ceiling. Pangs of fear shot through the hunter’s body. The guards dragged him to the chains, and his captor fastened them. He jerked each hand to its shackle as the guards held spears to both sides of his body.
“Do you really want to do this, Keslem?” the hunter asked as he looked his captor in the eye.
“What a stupid question” his captor replied. The hunter laughed and looked away.
“So where’s the queen? This is her party, isn’t it?” he asked, scanning the room.
“Her majesty is here, eagerly waiting to deliver you to his holiness”.
Keslem stepped back and gave the guards a signal. The chains raised the hunter’s hands above his head, and his body was spread out.
The whispers of the crowd were driven out of the room by a low moan.
The Keslem turned to one of the guards. “I need my bounty brother” he said softly.
“Very well” he replied.
The guard left and came back with a tall woman in flowing white robes.
“Here brother, it is all there. But it is a paltry sum compared to what awaits you, for you do the work of Hlodum”.
“It is the work of my heart, dear sister, and I would do it for free. But this” he tossed the bag in the air and caught it, “is much appreciated”.
“What is your name, noble brother, that we may look for your next coming?”
“They call me Keslem” he said as he bowed, “and I’m forever in the service of the Brotherhood of Dragons,”.
“If you would be so kind, brother Keslem” the woman replied, and motioned towards the back.
Two guards turned the hunter towards one side of the stage. The crowd began to speak again, this time all in unison. He couldn’t make out the words, but they were chanting together.
It was from the corner of his eye that he saw a thin girl appear in a red dress. Her blonde hair was topped with gold crown dripping with pearls and rubies. Despite her regal outfit, she coyly made her way to the other end of the stage. She pulled a white silk cloth off a large metal cage. From within the cage, the unmistakable serpentine gaze of a dragon caught the hunter’s eye. The snout of the beast sniffed the air, caught the hunter’s scent and then the slit of its iris widened. The hunter frantically pulled at his chains, but to no avail. The tall woman in white robes sauntered on to center stage.
“Behold!” she addressed the crowd. “The dragon slayer!” . The crowd again fell silent. “This rogue has been killing our saviors for years, profiting off of their hides and feasting off of their flesh.”
She turned to the hunter “Disgusting heretic!” she yelled and spit at him. “Fortunately, the end of your life will be of so much greater value than the rest of it was. You are here to satisfy one of the newest of the brood” as she motioned to the dragon in the cage.
“May your death inaugurate his arrival; may his fire purify your soul and may your flesh give his holiness sustenance.” Frantic drumbeats echoed from the corridors.
“My queen” the woman said as she bowed towards the girl. “Ready the prisoner so that we may release the dragon and rid the world of this disgrace”.
The girl walked to the center of the stage, dipped her hands in a bowl of oil and spread some on her forehead. She then walked over to the hunter and did the same.
The moment she turned back towards the dragon; she heard the sharp clink of the breaking metal followed by a thud behind her. Her arm was suddenly pulled behind her back, and she felt a sudden, tight grip around her throat. The hunter had been released. He pulled her close and held a dagger to her back. “Do as I say little one” he said in a gruff tone.
“Insolent worm!” screamed the woman in white robes, grabbing a dagger from robes and walking towards them. From the darkness, an arrow flew into her back, and she fell. She wailed and crawled towards the crowd. Another arrow struck her. Then another. The crowd flew into a frenzy and began rushing the stage until Keslem darted from behind and pointed his bow directly at the terrified girl. “Stay where you are, or your queen dies!” he shouted.
White smoke went up in all directions and filled the room. The hunter sheathed his knife and grabbed something from his belt and through it under the caged dragon. A fiery explosion rocked the stage, and the young dragon was engulfed in flames. It let out a blood-curdling screech as it wriggled inside of the cage, enwreathed in flame, unable to get out.
“Move towards the door!” ordered the hunter, as he shook the queen. Her eyes filled with tears, but the girl obeyed. Keslem pointed his bow at the crowd and waved it back and forth. The kidnappers went out the door and hurried down the tunnel. Keslem dropped his bow and unsheathed his sword, stabbing one of the guards at the door and sending the other running.
The kidnappers hurried the girl to the entrance where they could see the carriage waiting. When they arrived at the exit, it burst into flames. The three stopped.
“Well, what now?” asked Keslem.
The hunter dragged the girl behind a pile of rocks and put his hand over the queen’s mouth. “Keep quite your majesty” he whispered. Keslem dove across the tunnel and hid behind an outcrop in the wall. The light from the carriage was overshadowed by a large figure entering the cave. A low growl grew into a terrifying shriek. In their way stood an enormous dragon, much larger than the one they had just killed. He sniffed the air, peered around the tunnel, and focused on the pile of rocks behind which the hunter and the queen hid. But the hunter had already decided, he was not going to meet his doom. Not today anyway.