For days he wandered the vast caverns that had housed his kin for thousands of years. Inspecting each tunnel, each crack that led upward through the catacombs of rock to the surface. Always searching for damage caused by Brann’s brutal attacks.
Not that the dragon could truly affect the den from its limited contact, but Verdräskinn knew of his brothers cunning.
Brann would enlist help.
Sure enough, faint signs and lingering scents of the dragon’s minions were discovered.
Chipped stone. Lingering enchantments. Traces of discarded food.
“Therrin,” Verdräskinn sniffed, “Tauku…”
The intruders had tried to enter the sealed caverns. Caverns bound by magic so ancient, no mortal could speak its language. Unsuccessful, they had been careful to conceal their presence. Yet they did not anticipate one with ancient knowledge discovering their presence, traces of gate magic embedded in stone in the hopes of returning to try again.
With a powerful swipe of a claw, each symbol was rendered useless.
“If it takes the rest of eternity, I will find you, Brann,” Verdräskinn hissed. “I will find you and tear your heart from your treacherous chest!”
Little had been affected deep within the den, but the capping of the great springs had caused a collapse deep within the underbelly of the mountain. The sheer force of the water had burrowed a new route to release its pressure, pushing through rock and eating at the caverns underbelly. It wouldn’t take long before the water would resurface throughout the forest in new locations, seeking a way to be free.
Unfortunately, without its natural pathway, the water would surface only to create swampland and marches at best.
The trees were gone. It would take thousands of years to replenish what once stood.
As for the den, new rivers had been formed, allowing Verdräskinn to partake of fresh water without having to return to the surface. Cavities of food still existed, allowing him to hibernate. So much destruction. So much loss. Perhaps it would be better to seal the mountain to all living and sink into slumber? the Dragon Lord wondered. A century or two would allow the land to rest. To change. For the ground once more to become fertile and ready for…
For what? That was the question he could not answer. This crime of sheer hatred had consequences that would be felt forever.
Climbing to the surface, Verdräskinn stretched out under the night sky. Innumerable stars glittered in the expanse of heaven, sharing their life and light with countless worlds beyond. He looked upon them with eyes that knew the world long before mankind had awoken. It was during that short eternity, when only animals and plants inhabited the world, that Verdräskinn learned only love could prevail.
Only love could heal all wounds.
To heal the land…and make his people whole once more.
“There must be a way,” he whispered to the sky.
For a moment, Verdräskinn thought the stars had spoken back—twinkling brightly, first a flicker, then another—bouncing their light against the roaming clouds overhead.
But the screams soon followed.
Like the waves of the ocean, the sound grew, swelling the closer they came to the mountain.
Again, the screams followed.
“Leave me be!” Verdräskinn cried, then softer, “Do not torment me further, foul spirits. I will give my last breath to make this right. Do not seek revenge from he who was also victim!”
Light flashed overhead, followed by the distant rumble of thunder.
Yet no cloud touched the sky.
Jumping to his feet, Verdräskinn sprinted across the bridge and along the side path leading to higher ground.
The screams multiplied.
Women in rags, clinging to bundles of swaddling cloth, poured through the jagged remains of the forest. Smaller silhouettes mirroring their movements, trying to keep up.
Behind them, droves of men shouted to one another, some pausing to fire arrows at the exploding flames following them.
For a moment, Verdräskinn’s heart beat strong and a grin appeared on his grizzled face. Had Brann returned to finish the fight?
Light flared again, but this time, revealing its source.
Great lizards weaved in and out of the dead trees, thick robbed figures perched atop their backs. One raised a thin staff and from its tip, lightening arched through the air, exploding a nearby trunk…and with it, one of the humans.
A howl resounded and in an instant, wolves sprinted out ahead of the lizards, lunging at the fallen prey and tearing it to pieces.
No, thought Verdräskinn, not wolves. “Therrin have entered my domain,” he snarled. “With their foul Tauku masters!”
Setting his jaw, the Dragon Lord sprinted down the mountainside.
The Gypsies say it was an angel that saved them that day. Descending from the Great Mountain in robes of brilliant white. Verdräskinn called to them, his voice penetrating the screams and chaos so that every man and woman could hear him. They will tell you that it was a voice they heard with their heart.
A voice bidding them to run—to enter the mountain, where they would be protected.
When the men of the tribe reached him, it is said Verdräskinn’s face was bright as flame. That his eyes burned yellow with the vengeance and hatred only the betrayed can know.
“Flee to the mountain!” he bellowed. Then, with a roar that cracked the very stone he stood upon, he cried aloud, “The enemy is MINE!!”
Some say Verdräskinn cast off his mortal shell, taking upon him his true form to rend the dark army to pieces. Other speak of the night immersed in dragon flame, unhindered. Another tale speaks of the Dragon Lord dashing through the fleeing Gypsy like a wild man to engage the enemy as he changed, rending the flesh of anything but the wounded trying to escape.
Terrin paused, holding his breath, eyes flowing flowing from child to patron.
What we do know, is the enemy was utterly destroyed.
The Dragon Lords body was found amidst the ashes of battle, his flesh pierced with many wounds.
When he awoke, he did so in the gentle comforts of his den.
Wounds washed and tenderly bound, Verdräskinn found himself surrounded by grateful smiles and gracious hearts.
These were faces the Dragon Lord recognized.
The Gypsies had lived along the edges of the forest for nearly two generations. Andle’s lush resources hid the roaming people and had allowed them to escape the persecution of the world. On many a new moon, Verdräskinn had seen the peaceful folk move among tree and stone, leaving no trace nor mark upon the land and only consuming what life they needed to sustain their own.
All they sought was to live their lives in peace.
When the fires had started, the Gypsy had nowhere to go.
As the smoke cleared, they had been spotted by invading armies from the west.
When the Dragon Lord questioned the elders, they fell silent. The women still mourned more than half their number, who perished by giving their lives so the young and feeble could escape deeper into the only home they had known…Andle Forest.
Verdräskinn looked over the worn and desperate faces as compassion touched his ancient heart.
Hated by the world and all they want is to be left alone to live their lives with those they love. The thought pierced his heart. We aren’t so different.
There was a kindness in the eyes that stared back at him. A wisdom and willingness to sacrifice…to do whatever it took to ensure their people endure and survive.
A small hand gently touched his bandaged arm.
“We brought you a gift,” a child whispered.
Verdräskinn turned to find large, dark eyes studying him. Eyes that reflected the firelight around them, supported by a wide, genuine smile. The dirt and soot upon her cheeks only heightened the child’s beauty and innocence.
What almost startled him, was the lack of fear.
This people…this child, knew who he was—had seen his true form—and yet none of them showed any sign of discomfort or fear…something only the woodsmen of the east had ever displayed.
Reaching behind her, the child brought forth a small bundle of worn and gathered cloth. She cradled it to her, like one would a babe, moving slow and deliberate.
She placed the bundle upon the Dragon Lords chest.
Verdräskinn felt the pulse of life through his skin and bone.
“What…,” he started to say, but his words failed him as he pulled back the folds of the cloth.
Gathered in a cluster of moist soil, was a single sprout of an Andle tree.
“Where did you find this,” he choked, a new hope rising in his breast.
The child smiled brightly, her people mimicking her expression. “We harvested it…for you.”
Verdräskinn looked about him. Worn, dirty and even bloody—they smiled with joy and pride in their gift. “How…?”
“The Verrdrä taught only the woodsmen to harvest and plant the sacred trees,” cut in an older man, his peppered beard covering most of his chest, “but only the woodsmen showed our people kindness in a world seeking our extinction. They took us in and fed us, welcomed us into their homes and taught us how to live in these woods without violating the balance of nature. When we asked what we might do to repay their kindness, they said ‘be fruitful and multiply and replenish the land, that all might live in the fullness thereof.’ They taught us the ways of the woodland shepherds and charged us to do along the western boarders what they have always done in the east. Grow the forest.
“When we saw the flames upon the horizon, we knew something was wrong.”
For long moments Verdräskinn stared at the tiny seedling. His fingers tenderly caressed the delicate stalk and single leaf, which one day, would grow to a limb three times the thickness of a man.
“It will take centuries for this to mature,” he looked up, a grateful smile upon his own face, “to take root and regrow this land—but this forest will grow again, thanks to you.”
Again the tiny hand rested on his arm and the child’s face leaned in to whisper near his ear, “That is why we brought you more…”
Other bodies waded forward, each carrying a gathering of cloth in their hands. One by one they placed them around the dragon lord’s body.
Dozens of seedlings and saplings, all carefully bound and protected.
A grove that would become a forest.
The dragon lord slowly rose to his feet…and the people knelt as one.
“No. Do not kneel before me. I am Verdräskinn, lord of beasts, not of men. The Verrdrä have only ever sought friendship, not dominion among your people. Rise, my friends…please.” He reached out a hand to the man who had spoken, “What is your name?”
The Gypsy grasped Verdräskinn’s hand in a firm grip. “I am Iyl-Tandril.”
“And you lead this people?”
Iyl-Tandril nodded, “Aye. Like my father before me.” He glanced around him, his expression falling, “All that are left of us.”
It was then Verdräskinn noticed the Gypsies had nothing but the clothes upon their backs. There were no supplies, tools and only an occasional bundle sitting among them. Nothing more than what they could carry. Most had sacrificed what they had owned for the sake of saving the saplings.
Verdräskinn walked among them, smiling and nodding to each, until he had reached the back of the cavern, Iyl-Tandril by his side. “We have lost too many of our people.”
“Yet you carried the fate of this forest with you, instead of provisions?”
Iyl-Tandril did not answer, his eyes lingering to where his people huddled together.
Verdräskinn reached out and grasped the mans shoulder. “Come with me,” he prompted, “I may have an answer for us both.” Lifting down one of the glowing orbs of water, he stepped up to a small opening and slipped between the rocks.
Through the maze of tunnels they walked, the sound of rushing water growing about them. The narrow passage eventually opened to where they could walk side by side, the path riddled with stalactites and stalagmites that looked like giant teeth, waiting for something to sink into.
“Within these chambers is enough food and water to sustain a thousand people, Iyl-Tandril. With some careful work, maybe even more.” The path beneath them was rugged, but worn. “Once, when my people numbered more, we dwelt together, ate together, laughed and labored together, as a family ought to do.”
They stopped at the base of great stone stairs. At the very top was a chiseled opening the width of five men, a soft glow illuminated the stairs. Iyl-Tandril blinked curiously at the stars winking back at him.
“But the call of the world was too strong for many of the young and inexperienced. They fell to the persuasions of men and left our den, never to return. Though we cherish our young, we cherish the right to choose even more. Thus we dwindled in number and as a consequence, we dwindled in strength and the ability to care for one another.
“When the traitor Brann hunted our children down, we could not protect those who had chosen another life. Those who had left the protection of this den. Many sought to protect their young by flying to their aid, which led to their own demise.”
Leading Iyl-Tandril up the flight of steps, they both stepped out into what the Gypsy thought at first, was a clear night sky.
Millions of luminescent snails covered the vast cavern ceiling and walls, casting their glow.
“What you see are Setanä. Sun Snails that can be eaten. They feed upon the rich minerals in the stone and multiply higher up in the mountain. As they grow bigger, the descend to this cavern and others like it.” He smirked at the open mouth expression on Iyl-Tandril’s face. “Do you know of the ‘bane’ plant?”
Nodding, “Aye. It’s a moss. Very potent healing herb. Only grows in open caverns during months of spring.”
“Not so,” Verdräskinn corrected, “It grows year round, but only where there is enough moisture and again, high enough mineral content. In this mountain, it grows in abundance.”
Iyl-Tandril nodded, “It’s good feed for animals.”
“Yes, but it can also be harvested when young and used for man.”
Iyl-Tandril frowned, “You would have us…live here?”
“I would have such a peaceful people safe, Iyl-Tandril. This is an invitation, from one outcast to another.” Stepping over some rubble, Verdräskinn led them down a narrow pathway along a wall. “I can teach you lore no mortal knows of. Equip you with the means not only to survive, but to thrive as a people. As the woodsmen did.”
The path led to another set of etched stairs, but these descended down into a narrow hole chiseled into the ground. Unlike the rest of the cavern, a brilliant light peeked out from the opening.
Iyl-Tandril hesitated. “My lord Verdräskinn, your offer is kind, even merciful to us, but man cannot live on snails and moss alone. There are needs that must be met for children, the old, for those with child.”
Verdräskinn grinned wide and motioned for the Gypsy to follow into the opening. “Then we shall make sure you have whatever it is you require…”
With each step the stairway widened.
“But my lord, we have no means to secure…,” but his words fell short.
And Iyl-Tandril froze.
Stone fell away from the stairs, sloping downward to reveal a chamber glittering with mountains of gold and silver, diamonds and rubies. A sea of wealth one could swim in…and drown. Hanging from hooks along the walls were robes of brilliant white and scarlet, canary yellows and polished silver suits of armor. Racks of spears, swords and tables overflowing with artifacts of curious workmanship.
Stepping closer, Verdräskinn held out his hand palm open. “I am without family. You are without a home. Perhaps we may find a way to become whole together.”
Again the Gypsy hesitated, though this time, out of amazement.
Verdräskinn kept his hand outstretched. “This is nothing to me without my own kind. I would share it freely with you.”
Iyl-Tandril looked him in the eye and said firmly, “At what price?”
“Price?” Verdräskinn’s gaze never wavered.
“There is always a price to be paid, my Lord, and as you just said, this is nothing without your own kind.” Iyl-Tandril frowned soberly, “But we are not your kind.”
Verdräskinn grinned then. Unlike the woodsmen, the Gypsy’s were a hunted and hated people. They were unaccustomed to kindness or mercy. It occurred to the Dragon Lord that there would have to be a greater reason to seal such an agreement, until a natural trust could develop over time.
“Then my price, Iyl-Tandril, is your service,” he said boldly. “I would hire the whole of your people to be my eyes and my ears in the world and my protectors while I sleep. You will guard my treasure and in exchange I will provide a home, resources and a portion of all you see here.”
Again he offered an open hand.
This time Iyl-Tandril filled it with his own.