“I’d be happy to call you by your given name!” Like that morning at Sapphire Bay, I could see my confusion reflected back at me in the friendly, wide, tidepools below the bush of gray and black tufts that could only grow on the face of a gnome. His deep smile lines betrayed the youthful optimism behind the wise-warm smile he greeted me with and he squeezed my fingers between both of his rough, comforting, hands as if to reassure me.
“Boy is a name many have given me and I don’t mind answering to it,” I smiled back at him. His hair was going in nine different directions and his clothes were full of rips and darns. As he leaned back up from our greeting my eye caught a glint of something bright like vibrant mithril beneath his tattered tunic. His wooden cart looked older than me and slightly more than slightly uneven. Bottles and tins hung from crooked nails and sang like temple chimes even after the cart stopped.
“Well then, it’s a pleasure to meet you, boy. The people in these parts gave me the name Doc Ramble,” the folded ears of the mule pulling the cart perked up like a hound at the name of his rider. The mule’s attentiveness was rewarded with a carrot, a gentle smile, and a pat between the eyes, “And this is my noble steed, beast of burden, and fearless cart-guard, Remy.”
“Greetings Doc-” I rubbed the mule’s nose, “Remy.” and then made eye contact with Doc Ramble’s riding companion. On foot he’d be no more than three feet tall but his mount afforded him room to look down his lance at me. A charismatic grin painted his face and I could hear his calloused fingers on his sandstone cheeks as he eyed me and rubbed his chin. He rode without a saddle, perched between spikes of bone on top of what looked like a cross between a giant tortoise, a buffalo, and a dragon. More than five and a half feet tall and nearly as wide. “And what do they call you, small man on a large…”
“Dragon! See these scales, boy?” The halfling pat the mottled red scales beneath him and chuckled, “She’s Molly and they call me Yod – Sworn lance of the brotherhood of us! You look like you could use a night of drinks and good company – care to join us for camp tonight?”
As I’m sure you would guess, I accepted. While Doc Ramble and Yod set up their camp, Remy grazed on the roadside grass and Molly the “dragon” lumbered around the perimeter sniffing and snorting at the ground. Heavy, sharp, exhales kicked dust up above the scaled skull strapped to the beast’s head and settled in her exposed fur between the helmet and scales draped over her back. Yod hummed a tune setting a tent up and Doc Ramble bobbed his head along pleasantly as he built a fire. I offered to mend Doc’s clothes but he assured me he would be fine in the morning. Yod explained they had just finished a quest for a hermit by the sea and slayed a powerful warlord that had been terrorizing villages nearby and only needed some rest before the gnome had his “divine resources” back. I cooked dinner and asked if they’d be willing to share a story with me while we drank.
“We’d love to,” Doc smiled and looked to Yod
“You want to hear the tale of the dragon we slew? Or the tale of when we allied ourselves with an eyeless orc archer and saved a beautiful human lass? Oh! Or would you like to hear the tale of how we came to form The Brotherhood of Us?” The halfling’s beady eyes lit up as he listed the options and filled my horn with wine.
“Those are all fantastic sounding, I couldn’t possibly just choose one. I’m also a collector of stories, do I have your permission to wri-”
“Oh! A bard! Doc, you hear that? We have ourselves a night with a bard! Glory is this fortune! Clearly we need to tell you about the dragon first. Every bard needs a good dragon story. You will tell our story to all those you encounter and the legend of The Brotherhood of Us will spread and inspire!”
Some mountains keep their snowcaps like proud brides through the summer. Some wear them until the first blossom. Some have never known winter’s touch. The Everstone Peaks, though, were different. Every year the white lady would dance across the neighboring ranges and cascade through the valley they all sentineled, but the Everstone Peaks rejected her touch. Pools collected and trickles transformed into streams finding their way down the granite mountains. Even winter’s tears had precious little time on the peaks before finding themselves in the valley fields and watercarts.
“The Everstones, m’lar. Da great crimson beas’ commin down from’ere and takin ar women and burnin ar goats!. We canny tank ye’nuff for mendin ar lads broken bones and makin ar water clean again but be wary on da peaks. Not a one survive a day up dere.” The villager’s cracked hands trembled as he pointed to the naked mountains.
“Well, Doc, the hunter in the cabin said it would be clear when we found where the dragon was dwelling. Stolen lasses and burnt livestock sounds less like hiding and more like an invitation for heroes, wouldn’t you agree?” Yod climbed back on top of Molly’s smooth brown shell and dusted her fur off before sliding down to straddle her neck and shoulders.
“I’d certainly agree that we can’t leave these folk helpless.”
Six hours travel on an old, overgrown, path up the peaks and the diminutive duo found themselves facing a mouth into the mountain. Hanging moss decorating the doorway danced and shivered from the hot subterranean breath pushing out into the cold winter air. Yod squinted and leaned forward on Molly’s skullplate, as if even smaller eyes could help him see into the depths of the cave.
“You think we should go in here or keep going up in search of another entrance?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the habits of red dragons to know how they dw-” A deep, unmistakable terrifying, roar echoed out from the mountain tunnel. Remy stomped uncomfortably and Molly let out a sharp exhale and took a determined bite from the hanging moss. Yod and Doc Ramble looked at each other and smiled.
“Don’t know if it’s your divine luck or a severe lack of it, but that was perfect, wasn’t it? It’s almost like he’s in there inviting us in, just begging for our justice, isn’t it? You ready, Molly? It’s time.” Molly snorted and bobbed her head in a nod and started into the cave. Remy stubbornly refused to step toward the hot air. Another roar shot out from the blackness and the mule took two steps back. Doc hopped off his cart, gave his steed an understanding nod, opened a small sack of carrots and succulents, and left it in front of Remy. The mule lowered his head and the two touched foreheads as the gnome scratched behind the mule’s ears.
“I know, Remy. You’ll be safe here. Watch the cart” Doc’s friendly face turned toward the tunnel and grew determined as he waded into the darkness with Yod and Molly. Labyrinthian tunnels coursed through the peaks, the pitch black interrupted only when the tunnel became a ledge-path above a river of lava bubbling and pouring deep into the heart of the mountain. As they traveled further, the stink of death, or a dragon’s den, became more and more potent. The air was hot and dry and Molly drank through her three day supply of water in the hours they had been searching for the dragon’s lair. Doc Ramble prepared to cast one of his orisons to create extra drink for the thirsty mount but as he opened his mouth for the first incantation, a large scarred green hand reached around from behind him and covered his mouth.
“Not in here. Dragon doesn’t know you entered. No spells. Spells sound alarm. Alarm goes – dragon flees. We can sneak.” A tall, lithe, man stepped out from a nook to reveal himself. The green hue of his flesh would give away his orcish blood even if the small tusks protruding from his bottom lip didn’t. Smooth skin, a well kempt beard, and slender muscle, however, signaled his human heritage. Despite having a cloth tied around his bald, burnt, head and covering his eyes, the half-orc looked directly at Doc Ramble and Yod as he spoke to them, as if he could see through the blindfold. He drew his bow and nocked an arrow. “Dragon close. I can hear his heart”
“Kag? Kag Kradu? How the hell are you? What are you doing here? How long have you been here? If Doc can’t make any, might you have a drink for Molly? How close is the dragon? Wait. Only answer the last one. We can talk more when we’re not nearly in the belly of a beast.” The joy of running into an old friend wasn’t lost on these three, and they all smiled even in the face of danger.
“Forward. Then left. Then left again. Then right. Dragon sleeps now. I have dwarf friend here too. He showed me the way. We worried you were ambush. He’s waiting for signal to strike dragon.”
“Will it be safe for me to use my magic once we’ve engaged?” Doc asked. Kag nodded in response.
“Good. Time for us to go get some glory then, yeah?” Yod grinned and readied his lance, “I’ll be the signal for your dwarven friend” The trio rounded corner, revealing the dragon’s main chamber to them. A vast room, rivaling any king’s greathall, art and golden relics hung from the walls and gathered in piles. Dimly lit torches mounted on the wall revealed six naked women in shackles, huddled together, looking up with wide-eyed silent fear. On a ledge above them a dwarf in dark leather perched with two long dagger drawn. His fierce black eyebrows clearly aimed at the dragon’s neck.
The halfling looked back to Doc Ramble and then to Kag. They nodded. Kag added a second arrow, drew his bowstring and aimed. Doc whispered a word into his shield and it floated out of his hands and moved in a zig zag, covering his body. Y’odyoddle Nitkeenzoddle lowered his lance, tightened his legs around his mount, and Molly charged toward the dragon. “Straight to the heart of evil!”
The beast opened its catlike eyes but remained corpse-still. The dwarf leapt off the edge, daggers pointed downward. Kag released his arrows and the whistled over the shoulders of the charging knight. A devious slight smile escaped the dragon’s mouth as it winked at Yod.
“No! A trap!” Kag cried out as the dragon whipped its neck up, letting the arrows fly under him into the torsos of the terrified women, opened his maw and snatched the dwarf out of the air. Blood rained down on Yod and covered the women in dark red. Shrill screams of panic echoed off the gilded walls as the halfling’s lance landed under the dragon’s collar. The dragon reared back, lifting Yod off Molly by his lance, and roared in pain as the bottom half of the failed assassin spilled out of its mouth. Doc Ramble swirled his hands in an intricate divine pattern, mumbling to himself, and clapped his hands together.
“Blessings to those of righteous fervor!” and a gust of energy coursed from him into his allies. Kag nocked another arrow as the dragon taunted them.
“You hairy ones think you’re smart enough to surprise Xerengthir in his own palace!?” The dragon spat the rest of Kag’s friend at him before unleashing a billow of flame onto the gnome and the archer. Yod barked to his mount, swung from his lance onto the dragon’s back, and drew his blade, glancing it off the dragon’s hide. Kag shot another arrow into the flames engulfing him and with an arrow piercing his neck the dragon screamed out in pain again. “Here to save these women, are you? Meet failure before death!” A heavy scaled tail slammed hard into wall and only a brief shriek escaped the group of prisoners before the dragon’s muscular tail stole their lives. Doc Ramble whispered to his shield again before moving forward. As he stepped, his floating defense let out a brilliant light and the dragon hissed, “Even blind I’ll roast and eat you this day!”
Doc’s hands dashed through the air to cast another spell. Xerengthir cocked his head at the fabricated sounds of battle coming toward him and released another plume of flame into his greathall, missing all of the heroes entirely. Kag loosed two more arrows into the dragon’s body and Molly pounced on a wing, tearings bits of scales and tight-stretched flesh from bones. Xerengthir tucked his wings in and rolled like a giant crocodile, dislodging the lance and dismounting the halfling that put it there.
Kag ran into the room, a thick cloud of mist developed around him, and more arrows flew from the cloud into the dragon. Yod trembled as he brought himself to his feet and searched for either of his weapons. Doc noticed the blood spilling from his brother’s crooked boot and ran to him murmuring a divine chant. Yod gave a nod of gratitude as Ramble laid his hands on the bloody leg, dove for his lance, and barked again. Molly barked back and ran behind the dragon, using her earthmoving claws to scratch where tail meets back as she trampled over the red beast.
“Maneuver nine?” Yod yelled out as he hurled his lance toward the dragon’s face.
“Ready!” Doc Ramble’s fingertips outlined a figure in front of him and as he rasied his hands, a being of light formed at the feet of the dragon. Wielding a large spiked shield, the armored warrior of light slammed into the dragon’s front legs. The dragon easily batted the lance away from him. Yod tumbled under the lifted leg to grab his scimitar and Molly jumped into the air toward the hind leg providing support. Long claws slid down the dragon’s back and the halfling’s curved blade slid into exposed underthigh. The warrior made of light pushed up with his shield, exposing more of the dragon’s chest and belly.
With unnatural speed the cloud surrounding Kag Kradu released a volley of arrows into the beast. Yod lept onto his mount as she moved toward the front of the dragon. Doc Ramble ran to the bloodied mess of flesh chained to the wall, and asked if there was anyone still alive. A muffled cough of blood from the pile signaled he had to take his attention away from combat. He knelt down next to the hand reaching for aid and his eyes rolled back as he began his divine chant. Yod rode by his lance and snatched it back in time to ready it under the dragon.
A deep inhale from Xerengthir announced the coming of another conflagratory burst but as his front feet lowered to steady himself on the ground Molly, Yod, and his lance were ready and waiting. Through his throat and out the back of his neck, the dragon’s heavy head slid down the lance and enough flame to singe the halfling’s short beard escaped before the flame flickered out and Xerengthir’s eyes lost any sign of intent.
Doc Ramble and Kag worked together to heal and unchain the two women that survived their captor’s rage. They both wept in Doc’s small lap as he rubbed his hands on their back with quiet sounds of comfort. Yod took his cloak off and draped it over one of them while Kag did the same for the other. The gnome looked up at his friends from under his bushy eyebrows and nodded slowly. Yod understood there was nothing more to be done for them, elbowed Kag, and together the two of them searched through the dragon’s hoard.
“Y’know Molly, donning dragonscale armor is a rare privilege. How’d you like to make all the boys jealous?”