Of Dragons and Magic
"No!" a voice cried out, but it was soon drowned out by the sound of an inferno roaring into life. A figure came scrambling down a set of rickety wooden stairs. "Fire," the figure, a young woman, cried out just as flames came rolling down the stairs after her. Had the tavern below not been half empty and most of the patrons scrambling for the one doorway, some one may have noticed that the fire was following on the woman's heels like a lost puppy, but as it stood, most of the patrons were out into the cool autumn air before the fire reached the bottom. The young woman turned her emerald colored gaze to the fire that was swirling at her feet, disgust and fear warred on her face. A simple fire in her room upstairs was what she has attempted to conjure. She had just wanted to get warm, and this raging destructive force was not what she had wanted. Fear made her stride from the tavern with a wave her hand the fire stayed where it was consuming the tavern as payment for it's call.
Outside the people of the town were milling about. There wasn't much to do to combat the flames that were seen lapping along the edges of the two story wooden structure. The young woman's emergence went unnoticed as she slipped into the crowd pulling the hood of her thick purple cloak over her blonde curls. Syndra had only been in this town for a day to restock her supplies before moving on. Her powers had been growing increasingly unstable over the last few years, and today's fire had been one in many accidents that seemed to follow her. Tears sprang to her eyes, but she refused to allow them to fall. The crowd around her was growing in size and agitation. Unexplained fires were not common place, and people were speculating what could have possibly caused it.
"'Ey! Where'd that lass go?" a voice called from closer to the building. The barkeep was scanning the crowd now, and to Syndra's horror there was a man in golden chain mail standing with him. A knight of the King's Own was out of place in a back water village this far from the capital, and it meant more trouble for Syndra since these knights were so close to the King they were considered to be judge and jury when asked to look into a crime. No one but the King had the authority to override their judgments, and to Syndra, that meant a swift decision and a slow death. Fear made her slip further back away from the crowd with hopes of reaching the tree line before they spotted her. The fire leapt higher suddenly, sensing her fear. As a conjured construct, even an element like fire was inclined to follow the summoner, but with the unpredictable changes her magic was making the fire seemed to a living thing to Syndra. It was as if she could feel the presence of its mind pulsing at the edge of her own consciousness. The crowd was buzzing with idea of a girl doing something like this, and Syndra risked more disaster by pulling magic around her using it to blend in more efficiently as she hurried her pace to the trees.
'A witch did this,' someone was saying.
'Why would she do something like this? What did Bulfar ever do to deserve something so horrible.'
'You know witches are evil. She probably saw the opportunity to destroy a good happy man.'
Syndra wanted to argue with those nameless voices who were whispering about the evils of magic, but she knew better.
Centuries ago magic was revered, and those who wielded it were revered and, in some cases, feared. There were nations built upon the foundations of magic whose wonders were glorious and lost forever. Human history has forgotten what exactly caused the cataclysm between them, but the magic users were shunned then hunted. Those nations who once profited from the witches and mages turned their backs as their patrons were hunted and killed. Human sympathizers faced the same fate. Those very few who survived went into hiding and carefully trained their next generations the need for secrecy. All the while, the humans did not forget their hatred; they even allowed for it to grow. Any man or woman accused for practicing magic was give a brief and condemning trials before they were killed, so the centuries passed with humans slaughtered any they suspected, even killing children. That fear still dominated humanity, who for unknown reasons, still wanted to destroy the unknown.
Syndra had been taught these things her entire life as well as to never reveal her powers to any one to never use them at all. Her father had been harsh when it came to her strange abilities, but it had been out of fear for her life since the punishment for wielding even a minuscule amount of magical power was harshly dealt with. Because of this, he had done everything within his reach to keep Syndra as isolated as possible. They had lived on the outskirts of a small vale in the foothills for a large mountain range, but she hadn't seen that vale in over two years now because of the magic.
As the seething crowd behind her started edging its way to a mob, the forest welcomed Syndra with its concealing foliage. Nature was something she could understand, and she even liked to think that it understood her. There was order in the beautiful chaos of nature, and Syndra could understand this while human nature seemed to constantly allude her. Try and she might, she would never fit in with people, and a home and family were dreams she gave up on long ago. Even contact with her father was lost to her.
With a disgusted sigh, Syndra looked around as she tried to make her way in a circle around the small town. Her horse was stabled and safe away from the blaze, and she had enough sense to grab her leather pack. Blaze, her young mare, was her first priority, so she could be on her way before the town got enough people interested in a witch hunt. Leather boots crunched softly as she moved further from the town. The thought of a hunt made her worried enough to want to leave now, and come back in a few days for Blaze. Fear was an emotion that was always looming over her. It was an emotion that her father had instilled in her regarding humanity and their need to place blame. While she regretted being the cause of the tavern owners misfortune, she did not want to died for a simple mistake. This fear spurred her to veer away from the sound of people and hurry away from the town, trailing swirling leaves to hide her footfalls.
It was a time of intrigue, disaster and allegations. The King was dead, and slowly, the word was getting out. The Knight of the King's Own had ridden all night, using his influence of his position to get the most agile fresh horses from each of the inns he had stopped at. Thereby he had outpaced the traveling merchants and traders who usually carried this kind of news. When Ottokar had arrived in this backwater town, news of the awful crime had not reached yet their ears, and Ottokar had planned to this to his advantage, even though he was most certain the king's murderer was not here.
A few reports had come in of odd happenings in this town, and it was believed that a witch lived here. Though usually the Crown did not send her agents out because of rumor alone, at this moment rumor was all they had to go on. It was a strong belief in the court that magical means had coerced the wild dragon to eat the king. Otherwise, why would such an aloof and proud creature come to the center of the country's largest city? Wild beasts did not make a distinction between a lowly sheep and a great king, but human beings did. While Ottokar did not completely believe that this witch had caused the crime, he knew that by interrogating her he would discover more about witches. About how this crime could have been done, and who had probably done it.
He was still wearing his traveling armor when the fire had broken out. The gold mail was heavy, but in dealing with innkeepers and other travelers, it may as well have been a golden ticket. All he had to do was to appear in the striking clothing and coachmen would pull their horses to the side of the road; inn keepers would run to fill his every need. No one crossed a Knight of the King's Own. Sometimes it was good to have connections.
Not that those connections had come cheaply. Ottokar had earned the old king's trust as a young man, and had spent the elder's life either by his side or promoting his goals elsewhere. Ottokar had been heavy hearted when the king had fallen, but Cuthbert was sick, and had been sick for a long time. To Ottokar, King Cuthbert had been like an older, wiser cousin. But Ottokar had taught Cuthbert's son Gideon how to choose and shoot a bow. To the knight, the young man's violent and sudden death had cut deep.
Ottokar saw the flames spewing from the roof of the inn from the road into town, and he spurred the stallion under him to gallop. By the time he got through the cluster of the village with its unplanned roads and its dead ends, all four walls of the rickety building were ablaze, and a crowd had swelled around it. When the crowd got so thick that his horse was more of an encumbrance to him than a help, he left the animal and walked through the crowd. Even though the witch and the fire was a source of excitement, their eyes were still drawn to Ottokar's distinctive mail and they moved out of the way.
Now slowly the rumor that one of the Kings Own was present in the village was spreading the rest of the crowd, and Ottokar scowled inwardly. This not the way it was meant to go. Ottokar was to change clothes- to take on the persona of a traveling worker in order to get into the taverns and sniff out the witch on his own. Now everyone in this crowd who saw him would match his face with his mail from now on. His cover was blown before it was even realized.
On he other hand, the witch was here, in this very crowd, and Ottokar had no better chance of catching her (for the general consensus of the crowd was that she was a she). If she escaped through his fingers now, she would certainly leave town and, perhaps, use any number of magical tricks to conceal her tracks or confuse Ottokar from the scent. There would be no point in "sniffing her out". The knight had to act immediately.
By snatches of heard conversation, he put together some details about his witch. Her name was Syndra, she was a young woman, still unmarried, who worked- or rather, had worked- at the very inn she had scorched to take of herself and her father. Why had she struck tonight, and why had killed her employer in such a brutal way? Many rumors popped up to answer these questions, but nothing seemed concrete. He found a man in the crowd who was trying wildly to get his attention.
"Ey," Ottokar growled as he reached the man covered in soot. He must have been inside when the enchanted fire had begun "Where'd the lass go?" He almost shouted the last part, as he had to speak over the crown. The barkeep pointed out a woman in blond curls on the other side of the crowd, trying to back up into the mass of bodies. Before Ottokar could get a very good look at her, the flames jumped out from the building into the empty space between the knight, the barkeep and the witch. The knight had to shield his eyes from the bright blaze and, by the time it died down, he could see the woman no more. It had been a good trick, but Ottokar was not going to give up so easily.
He ran back to his horse, which was grazing some sprigs of grass, apparently bored by all the commotion and the fire. Clearly a horse trained for war- an animal not spooked by anything. He jumped on its back and spurred it into motion. The animal ran around the crowd, in the direction that Ottokar was sure the witch had gone.
Another set of eyes had been watching the happenings- these ones round, and golden yellow. Far set in the trees, the stripy pattern of green and black kept the creature not obvious in the dense forest. The scent of the fire drew it, as it knew that fire in these amounts was an unusual thing in a village such as this. So it stood, completely still, under the foliage, sharp eyes noting as the humans moved toward the burning inn, their interest distracting them from all other projects.
It had but minutes to strike. It had learned its lesson not to get seen before, as the gash on its tail proved. Not drawn by the inn, the animal moved around the outside of the village, briskly, but without too much haste as to alert people to its presence. It finally came to a stable on the edge of town, where the scent of animals was strong. Of course the dragon himself also had a scent, and as he came within feet of the stable doors, some of the animals within began to shuffle their hooves and whinny uncomfortably. The dragon hesitated.
They're trapped in there...this is no sport.
He shook his head and banished the thought of honor in the hunt. Honor would lead him to starvation, the precipice of which he was rather close right now. The dragon eased up to the stable and unlatched the door. This far from other cities, the village folk knew all their neighbors, and most felt it unnecessary to lock their own doors. Once he slipped into the stable, the animals inside started to snort and whinny frantically, some rearing in their stalls. The sound of them will draw the villagers! The dragon tried to shush them a couple of times before he realized it was useless.
He had but seconds to make his decision. He had come in here. Bad decision that it had been, he way as well try to make the best of it. A quick kill he decided. He chose a stall arbitrarily to lesson his guilt- the closest one. There was mare in there. He unlatched the door easily, and maneuvered his body to step in, but the fleet footed creature inside outsmarted him and muscled her way out of the outward swinging door, pinning the dragon momentarily between it and the wall.
He was shocked that that a horse had outsmarted him, but he was only allowed to be shocked for a moment, because he heard voices, and the two footed cadence of humans coming his way. Panicking a little, the dragon glanced around and realized, sinkingly, that the only exit was the door in which he had come in. He swallowed, and dove for that door. For a moment, he stood half in and half outside of the livery stable, eyes on the two men coming toward them. Indeed, the sight of a real dragon- long, stripy body paired with leathery wings and long, swooping antlers- stopped them dead in their tracks.
It was all the time the dragon needed, and he darted for the woods at a four legged gallop. The horse had already beat him to the tree line, but when saw him coming for her, she increased her speed, running wildly into the relative safety of the forest. She didn't realize that the dragon now had worse things to worry about, and was himself running for his own life. Luckily enough, he and the horse to put much distance between themselves and the town quickly, but he kept running in full knowledge that soon someone he didn't want to deal with would be in hot pursuit after him.
The forest around her was silently aggravated about something, and had the young woman not been fleeing for her life and terrified of the magic that stirred within her soul, she may have taken the time to see what was causing the natural balance to skew in such an odd way. This, though, was not the reason Syndra paused in her flight. As her initial panic receded, she regretfully realized that she would not be able to return to the village. She had gotten close with a few of the people, including the barkeep who was now accusing her of purposefully destroying the place she had temporarily called home. How easily they were to accuse and betray her made the woman sad, but sorrow was not an emotion that she had the luxury to indulge in.
Instead, she changed her course the the underbrush. Her light, leather clad feet barely making a noise as she hurried along. Her purple cloak would have been an out of place if she hadn't spelled years ago it to adapt to the scenery around her. This cloak had been with her since childhood, her father had given it to her with a mournful smile and told her it had been her mothers. That had been the only time he had mentioned her mother willingly, and beyond telling her it was once her deceased mother's, he had never said anything more. The girl had cherished it as the only connection to her lost mother. The rest of the young woman's attire was as nearly out of place as the cloak, but not in color since they were all muted browns and cream. No, she wore men's clothing, brown linen britches with larger guards patched onto the thighs and knees which disappeared into her knee height leather boots. She had stood out in her choices of clothing, but it was mainly her odd ball personality that had made most of the people naturally suspicious of her.
As she approached the town from the other side, she wondered why they hadn't turned on her before this. There had been a few odd happenings that had been blamed on rumors of witches. The town was still collected around her magically fire, or at least from what she could tell as she passed around that area of the tree line. Her senses were heightened that left her fiery creature mewling at the fringes of her mind. Syndra did not have time to deal with her magical creation which was starting to have more than just reactions to her emotions and was starting to have the beginnings of conscience thought. The fireling was clamoring for her attention as she slid into the stable where Blaze should have been waiting, but the horse was missing and the others were nervously pacing their stalls.
Syndra swore and dashed back out of the stable, her saddle and tack for Blaze slung over her shoulder. Fear making her panic, she reached for the wellspring of magic swirling within her and strung it out searching for the familiar presence of her mare's aura. It was crashing through the unfamiliar cloud of the forests with sheer terror spurring her. Syndra's eyes flew open, and she dashed after the trail that her panicking horse was taking. There was something eerily wrong with the forest around her, and Syndra wasn't sure what was causing it. Her presence, her fireling, or some other unknown entity.
With Syndra's attention drawn elsewhere but traces of her power now in the air, her fireling grew larger. The tavern had been reduced to ash in its attempts to follow Syndra, and with more power even small portions, it was able to free itself from its prison. In a rush of smoke and ash, the heart of the magical creature exploded skyward on fiery wings and a trail of sparks. It screeched its freedom in the way of fire, in crackling and whooshing roars all of it unheard to the humans below who were staring after it in awe.
Briefly, the dragon considered flying. Flying would get him away from the town and its angry inhabitants a lot quicker, however it also got a lot of attention from people who weren't aware of him yet but would become so when they saw a large dragon in the sky. Besides; just because he was a fast flyer didn't mean he was a good one. The dragon lacked control in the air. No, best to use flying as a last resort. As he was, he could probably get away from this village before the townspeople could organize a hunting party.
To speak of flying...it wasn't long after he had begun running when was aware of something in the air. The dragon sense it more than he saw it- the way you see a light or a movement out of the corner of your eye without being sure that you saw anything. He turned his head on his serpentine neck, meaning to give the briefest of looks. However what he saw warranted looking back again.
Still running forward, his antlered head facing back, the dragon's eyes were on the thing in the sky. He saw firey wings and a tail of sparks, and was reminded of the tales of elementals that took animal shapes. The bird of fire flew over the tree line, threatening to burn the forest. Then, suddenly, it dove for a place between himself and the town, becoming lost from the dragon's view in trees.
The dragon blinked, as if unsure he had seen what he had. An elemental...he might have shuddered, but he was closer to a reptile or a bird than a mammal. Elementals worked with witches. And witches...well.
Somehow he had come to a stop and, a little self indulgently, he lifted a four fingered claw to look at it. No soft human pads but, rather, something hideous and twisted, topped off with cruel black claws. He swallowed. He could not tell exactly where the fire elemental had dived, but if he fly above the treeline a bit, he might see some singed branches or something. But he could head in that general direction.
The question was whether he wanted to. Did the prospect of finding a witch really beat out the danger of staying near the village? Not to mention that the dragon hated witches, and he was not likely to want to beg one for assistance.
He huffed and turned abruptly. The angle at which her turned was an odd one, and he had been carrying his head too high once more. The tree next to him swayed a little as one of its branches was pulled slightly by the dragon's movement. The dragon was caught of balance a little and, to compensate, set his foot and pulled his head down a little. This had the effect of locking his antler into the nook of the tree branch.
His antler had caught on the branch. The dragon lifted his head and pulled it too and fro, and forward and back. And still the tricky branch stuck with him despite all his movements. The dragon groaned, and stood on his back legs to try to untangle himself with his foreclaws. As he was working out the knot, his panic grew, the more his panic grew, the more he was sure he heard hoofbeats coming toward him.