Butter & Rum

The ignorant are always ready to believe a lie.
— A Bard Saying
  All eyes locked upon him.   …and Terrin smiled.   This time he’d promised dragons.   Child and patron alike gathered at the Roadkill Tavern. Human, Gypsy, Dwarf, Elf and other races took their seats to hear the Master Bard tell his favorite tales. The great hall was overflowing, differences between races momentarily set aside to enjoy the weekly event. Youth gathered particularly close, forming a rough semi-circle around Bard and hearth, bodies sitting upon the rough stone floor three rows deep.   Gypsy maidens moved silently among the crowd, serving drinks and offering small treats to the children while the tavern owner, Wood, welcomed new arrivals and assisted them in finding the few remaining pieces of floor to stand.   At the far end of the hall, hundreds of candles encompassed two pieces of furniture and the old Bard.   Terrin waited patiently, his body a faint shadow centered within a deep red leather high-back chair. Slender fingers rested upon the ornately carved dragons claws protruding from under each of his arms, his back resting against two folded wings. Hovering over Terrin’s own scalp was a dragons head, leaning out towards the crowd in anticipation, its opal eyes glowing in the dim light.   Letting silence grip the room, the Bard looked up to meet the waiting faces of the gathered. Once assured of their attention, he leaned forward ever-so-slightly.   "This is not a happy tale, my friends.” His voice just above a whisper, he eyed the young children, walking his attention around the arc of bodies. “It is a tale of one who wished to die” his brows arched upward in a semblance of pain, “but could not.”   All conversations died within the hall.   Slowly rising from his chair Terrin held his arms outward to his sides, a soft glow emanated from the tiny rings worn upon his pinkies. “And as with all tales of trial and tribulation, it began in darkness.” With that last word all flame atop candles and within lantern of the Tavern leapt in a wild arc over the heads of the spectators, and into the palms of the bard.   Patrons gasped as Terrin clenched his hands tight, plunging the hall into sudden darkness.   One child let out a tiny shriek.   Terrin grinned again.   “What I share this night is more than a story.”   Curving his shoulders forward, the Bard waved his hands outward and gave life to the small sea of candles surrounding him. Again the audience gasped as the light of the candles cast eerie shadows of the Bard, who now looked more like a giant with wings upon the Tavern walls.   “It is a secret kept within these cavern walls.”   Wisps of smoke rolled up from the burning hearth, showing a will of their own. Taking his place once more within the ornate chair, Terrin sat back calmly, folding his long legs as he grinned wide at his audience. Slithering over the dragon back chair, smokey serpents wound down the carved wood and over his shoulders. Patrons gasped as the smoke curled along his arms, pausing to sit up and seemingly stare at the people around it, then wrap around his limbs.   “THIS is new,” squealed a child. He shook his little friend beside him in excitement.   Smoke gathered over Terrin’s right palm, swirling and growing, forming the detailed figure of a winged serpent, much to the delight of the children. Along his fingers, trees of smoke formed around the dragon, the candlelight dancing off the shapes for all to see. With a wink to the children, the Bard tilted his head and blew lightly. The trees of smoke fell in on the dragon, burying the winged shape as Terrin began his tale.   “The Dragon Lord awoke to a searing heat clawing his back and arms.”   Terrin looked to the children with eyes wide in concern, “He tried to rise, but could not. He struggled and pushed, but a great weight lay upon him, pinning him beneath the world above.”   Several children placed hands over their mouths.   “Air, the Dragon Lord shouted within himself, I must have air!”   Terrin gripped the arms of the great chair as he slowly pushed himself upward, “With a strength of will no mere mortal knew, Verdräskinn forced his body to comply. Every muscle screamed in rebellion, but he pushed, calling upon the strength of his ancient kind.”   Smoke hovered around the bards face and chest, shaped like fallen logs as Terrin clawed at his own throat. “With his last breath, the Dragon Lord roared, thrusting bloodied fingertips up through tree and ash. Grasping stick and stone Verdräskinn pulled himself from the mound.” Reaching up to the ceiling with one hand, the Bard then gasped as he broke free of the smoke.   The children cheered.   Clenching his eyes tight, Terrin made strenuous motions. “Inch by inch he pulled his body free, once more born into a world that had cast him out.   “The late Autumn breeze cut like ice, pellets of rain sliding across his charred flesh like razors. Exhausted and gasping for breath, he pulled his legs free of the rubble and collapsed upon the mound.”   Looking out to the audience with a glare of determination, the Bard wrapped his arms around himself. “Mortal men would have cast themselves down and died, but he was Verdräskinn. A skin-changer. A Verrdrä, one of the ancient race.”   With a sudden motion of his hand, the tiny gem on Terrin’s hand flared, startling the audience in its wake. A shadow settled onto the bards face, where light could no longer touch his left eye. In its place, a gaping hole of darkness.   Terrin leaned his head to the side and rotated his face to look out over the Great Hall.   “For long moments he lay still, listening…and refusing to open his one good eye.   “There were no cries for help. No cries of pain. No sound of fear or weeping for the loss of loved ones.”   The Brad paused, straining his ear, “Gone were the voices of birds and beasts. Even the crickets of the forest were silent.” Another pause, “He waited for the sounds that would never return.”   Some of the patrons looked about, disturbed. The children reached out for one another in fear.   “The embers of the great fire cast a sinister glow, eyes of blood peering over the landscape, peeking through soot and smoke. Verdräskinn blinked until the tears washed his eye clean, then ripped at the frayed end of his tunic.” Terrin reached down at his own tattered cloak and tore at the end thereof, ripping free a long strip of cloth. “Taking the cloth, he wrapped it around his head, covering the socket where his eye once sat.”   Wrapping the cloth around his own head, the Bard staggered back from his audience. “No, he quivered. Please no.” Terrin’s body shook as the words fell from his lips, his good eye darting about him wildly.   “The great trees which once towered over the village were gone. In their place were fingers severed from a giant hand, smoldering in the streets. Huts once white and vibrant green now crushed and burned black.”   Terrin knelt in front of the candles, “Verdräskinn stooped and lifted a piece of charred wood. Blood smeared the grain as he caressed it. It had once been painted white.   “The melons were ready for harvest, he told himself. The garden fence was a decoration throughout the village—one he’d always admired.   “It would have been a good harvest this year.”   Throwing down the phantom piece of wood, the Brad stood up sharply, “The attack didn’t make sense. Against him and his kind, yes, but not aggression against the Woodsman.” He looked out to the patrons, hurt. “These were loving, kind, peaceful people! The woodsmen had always been the friends of Verdräskinn.”   The Bard froze.   For a long moment, his gaze locked on something no one else could see, tears slowly forming in the corner of his eye.   His voice cracked.   “Huddled together…behind the remains of a tree trunk, two bodies leaned against the charred husk. ” The Bard choked, but his gaze did not break. “One larger than the other. Arms wrapped about the child in a protective embrace, the tiny head turned into its protector's chest. The ground around them was scorched black beyond the ash.”   It was then the children swallowed roughly and gritted their little teeth.   One of the little girls gripped her doll protectively and whispered, “Dragon fire.”   The tiny stones on Terrin’s rings shimmered, tears streaking down his face like silver. “The village had been celebrating the fall harvest. The Woodsmen had been in the open.”   Terrin threw his head back and wailed. “THESE WERE OUR FRIENDS!”   The audience flinched.   “Shuffling to the trunk, Verdräskinn dropped to his knees before the bodies. With all the laughter and music, the loud merrymaking, no one would have heard the traitor approach.”   The Bard gasped and once again looked upward, gritting his teeth, “Damn you, Brann, Verdräskinn cursed. Damn you by any god that can hear me!”   Turning back to the audience, Terrin raised his arms ever so slightly and the candles around him burned brighter, illuminating the room more fully.   “He awoke to the brightness of an unfamiliar sun. Sharp rays which once danced among the delicate leaves of Andle trees now cut through the dead spires jutting out from the ground like spears from the back of a dead animal.   “Verdräskinn stumbled to his feet, squinting as he let the shovel fall among the graves.” Terrin then looked into the faces of his audience, his own expression softening, “For centuries, the Verrdrä had lived in friendship with the shepherds of the forest. He had known every one of them by name. Mortal lives dedicated to the prosperity of the land. Not out of obligation or duty, but out of love for the forest and every creature that lived within it.   “Such love and compassion did not go unnoticed. The Dragon Lords had walked among them, traded with them and over time, revealed their true nature.   The Bard smiled down at the children around him, “These people did not fear the Verrdrä. They did not shun them. They opened their arms and accepted them, unhindered and without expectation. It was a friendship the Verrdrä cherished.”   The children all smiled, nodding agreement that the Woodsmen were good.   Even the Dwarves sitting at the center table nodded approval.   “The woodsmen prospered under the watchful eye and protection of the Verrdrä, generation after generation,” nodded Terrin.   “But they were betrayed,” growled a patron from the back.   The Bard snapped his head up and pointed at the angry patron, “Yes they were! Even those whose bodies could not be found, a small marker now pierced ash and ground, a name etched out in remembrance.”   The smoke from the fire once more snaked up the Bard’s back, forming a wispy shadow of a dragon behind him. “I envy you, Verdräskinn whispered aloud. For I would surely join you if I could, my friends. His hand went to his facial wounds, claw marks already beginning to heal. My people will join you in the next life and guard you there. Fingers tenderly inspected the bloodied socket, ‘…while I seek justice for this evil thrust upon us all.’   “Hefting the scavenged supplies and a woodsman axe, he kissed his fingers and touched the etching, ‘I must take the long path for now.’”  
  “By mid day, the clouds threatened to smother the land, providing a downpour a little too late. It was a welcome sight, for Verdräskinn had found enough food among the root cellars to take him home, but the water was gone. The rivers were dry, which made no sense.   “Kävedet, also called the ‘Two Waters’ was the great spring at the heart of the forest. A spring which fed the spiderweb of rivers throughout the Andle.   “It deeply puzzled the Dragon Lord. Debris could be found along the riverbeds near the village, but the great waters should have pushed such annoyances aside.   “The rain fell hard and fast, kicking up ash like puffs of smoke—popping as it doused the last of the forest embers.   “Too weak to change to his true form and fly home, Verdräskinn followed the riverbed towards the mountains. Get to higher ground, he told himself. Leave the charred lands behind. In time it will heal. In time the animals will return and…   Stumbling back against the dragon chair, Terrin collapsed to the ground, his face turning frightfully pale. “‘No!’ he gasped. ‘What have you done, brother. What…have you done!’   The bard stared through the audience, locked onto the invisible landscape. “Homeward Peak the woodsmen called it. The last great ridge of the southern most part of the forest. A landmark that showed you where you’d been…and reminded you that home was close. A peak so high, you could nearly see the whole of the Andle Forest on a clear day.   “Verdräskinn had spent countless nights perched upon this spot, looking out across the landscape, guarding over his domain.   “Not a single tree was left. Exposed stone and woodland stubble lay before Verdräskinn, as far as his eye could see. Storm clouds rolled across the sky like a blanket, hiding the barren land in shame from the sun.   “In the distance, he could see the heart of the forest.   “Kävedet.   “His home.   Terrin collapsed to his knees, hands gripping the arm of his chair.   “Without the lush covering of the forest trees, the mountain jutted up from the valley like a broken corpse, bones protruding where the flesh of foliage once lay.   “…and no water flowed from the spring.   “Brann had destroyed more than home and family.   “The black dragon had destroyed the world.  
  “The sun rose and fell. Verdräskinn leaned against the cold stone, unmoving. The chilled wind kicked up dust and rock across his face and chest, rain soaking the bandage about his head.   “This cannot be the end, he told himself. There must be a way.   “There had always been dragons in the forest. The forest survived because of the dragons…and Brann, the black dragon, had forgotten that.   “Gripping his pack, Verdräskinn pulled the flask from a pouch and held its mouth along the crevice of the rocks. Water trickled down into the flask.   Terrin smiled like a fox, winking at the children. “Down the scorched mountainside, over bumps of stone and through cracks the water ran, ignoring the land. For the nature of water could be channeled, but not stopped.   “It was then that Verdräskinn smiled. You are powerful, my brother, but not that powerful. This is not over.   “Into the night he pushed.”   “But it’s dark at night,” cried out a little girl, “and my mommy says you get hurt when you wanted in the dark!”   The bard grinned wide, his eye following suit. “Then it is a wonderful thing that dragons can see in the dark!”   All the children threw their hands up in a cheer, getting a few chuckles from other patrons.   Terrin wagged his finger thoughtfully, “His keen eye was able to cut through the darkness as if it were noonday. Fury and the need for justice fueling every step. ‘I will make you pay for this, my brother,’ Verdräskinn cursed, ‘I will make you pay with your life.’   “For two days he pressed, his focus ever upon the next ridge. There were no birds to sing, no rabbits or deer…”   “Were there butterflies?” a tiny boy asked, followed by a sea of wondering eyes.   Terrin raised his hands, palms up, “Not even a beautiful butterfly could be seen, for the black dragon have burned all the flowers.”   “The black dragon needs to be punched in the nose!” cried one child.   “…and Verdrapsken should step on his tail too.”   All the children nodded in agreement.   The bard nodded also. “The call of Verdräskinn’s home pulled at his bones, giving strength to each step. He caressed his wounds as he walked.” Terrin lightly rubbed his own arms, “Though the cuts had sealed, the fight with Brann left deep wounds that would take time to heal.   There would be no sign of Brann, for the coward had fled.   At least for now.   Brann would not be able to heal his wounds so easily. Unlike those he betrayed, the black dragon, once called Vebranmiekka—the dragon of the Fiery Sword—could no longer take mortal shape or call upon the healing powers of nature around him.   Verdräskinn frowned then.   Which is why I am yet weak. You sought to cripple me, brother, didn’t you, burning the very life of the land around us? To cut us off from our most sacred magic?   During their combat, Brann had taken his eye, but Verdräskinn, the oldest of their kind, had torn a wing from his enemy’s back.   Lightning flashed.   Verdräskinn sniffed the air.   Red eyes peered out from behind a distant outcropping.   Then another.   Slowly, he let the pack slide from his shoulder, his hand grasping the woodsman axe.   “Let me pass, brothers,” he spoke aloud, maintaining a deep, yet firm voice. “I know you are hungry,” he added, “but you will not find anything but trouble with me.”   The growls rose in volume as several more wolves joined the pack, appearing from behind rubble and stone.   Range Wolves.   Large and powerful, the beasts looked more like bears than their smaller cousins…gleaners of the forest, who now had nothing left to hunt.   Verdräskinn inhaled deeply, expanding his chest, and emitted a growl so low and deep, the stone rumbled beneath him.   For a moment, the wolves hesitated.   In his true form, Verdräskinn could command even the most irate or rebellious beasts, for the Dragon Lords were first and foremost rulers of the animal kingdom. While trapped in his human form, he was left to reason with the will of any animal.   Saliva dripped from gaping maws, yellow teeth jutting out like daggers as crimson eyes shifted, watching each shift in his posture.   It’s more than hunger, Verdräskinn realized, now noticing the singed fur and skin—and two wolves with extensive facial deformities. Every beast of this forest knows of my kind. They think this is my fault.   The problem was, the wolves would be right.   Brann had violated the laws of their race and betrayed Verdräskinn himself. Yet he had extended mercy instead of exacting justice, and in consequence of that offering, their race had been betrayed. Instead of the death of a traitor, Brann murdered all but three of his kind in his rage and revenge. Then set the heart of their world aflame.   “This is not over,” Verdräskinn repeated aloud. There will be justice.   Raising the axe defensively, he let out a final growl in warning. “Let…me…pass my friends. Do not force my hand.”   Another flash of lightning.   Verdräskinn threw his head back just in time to evade the snap of wolfs teeth—a lung for his throat. Spinning his shoulders, he took advantage of the momentum and punched the beast in the neck with a clenched fist.   A loud snap resounded as the body flew backward, landing roughly and then sliding up to the feet of the pack, lifeless.   “I’m sorry—but you will not have me today, or any other day.”   There was a single snarl…and the darkness erupted.   Teeth and claws lunged through the night, snapping and spinning, trying to sink fangs into the prey, while others formed a circle to prevent escape.   Too many, Verdräskinn gasped, rolling over the back of one beast to set up a kick to the face of another. I’m too weak to subdue them all in this form. Even now his muscles strained with each exertion.   As if on cue, the sky erupted with a rapid succession of lightning, arching high overhead and lighting the landscape.   Just outside the ring of wolves, a narrow ravine dropped down between two boulders. It looked far too small for the Range Wolves, yet not too compact for a man.   Using the slick stone to his advantage, Verdräskinn grasped a handful of fur along the ribcage of a wolf he’d dodged and pulled hard. The force of the tug threw the beast off balance, slinging the armed man under the beast and between its legs. Pulling his arms into his sides, he slid between the stones and out of view.   Confused, the wolves danced about, yapping and snarling, looking for their prey.   Almost home, he told himself, jumping out the other side of the ravine. Kävedet towered before him, the ground slowly sloping upward. It was the riverbed, once roaring with mountain spring water, now dried out and unmoving. It was too late to turn back and use gentler paths to get to the cave. He’d have to climb.   With the axe gripped firmly in one hand, he swung as he lunged upward, catching the steelhead along a ridge of stone.   Just need to get up this…   Teeth bit through flesh.   “ARGGGH!”   Verdräskinn gripped the axe with both hands, arms, and shoulders straining against the power of the beast, as jaws yanked at his leg.   A second set of teeth sank into his flesh and pulled.   Bellowing in pain, Verdräskinn hit the ground face down, knocking the wind from his lungs. Fangs clenched tighter, blood seeping from wounds as the wolves dragged him back into the fray.   Hands flailed about, fingers desperate for a ledge or lip of stone to hold onto.   The canines danced about Verdräskinn as he slid across the ground, growling and snapping at the smell of blood in the air, eager to rip him apart.   A large stone brushed against his forearm.   Yapping and howls echoed through the night, the sounds of a triumphant catch that would now end in bloodshed.   Surrounded by wolves once again, Verdräskinn’s prone body was dropped within the circle.   …and the feast began.   The largest of the Range Wolves lumbered forward and took one sniff of the Dragon Lord, lips rolled back in a snarl, before Verdräskinn rolled forward, swinging the large stone in his hand. It collided with the beast's skull just under the eye.   With a sickening crunch, the creatures head folded inward, dislodging the eye from its socket and spraying fresh blood through its wound, nose, and mouth. Front legs buckling, the giant body collapsed to the ground.   While a few beasts yelped and hesitated, the remainder of the pack launched forward in a frenzy. Again Verdräskinn growled deep from within, letting his anger surface. An anger which drew upon his true form to thrive.   Should he die, the Verrdrä…his people…would cease to be.   That was not a future Verdräskinn would allow.   Skin drew taut and bones lengthened. Muscles grew to double their size. Knuckles cracked as nails curved outward from his fingertips and ears rotated back as Verdräskinn’s jaw and skull shifted.   It was not his true form in full, but it would have to do.   The second wolf lunged with a snap, but it was too late. Verdräskinn was already rolling closer to the beast, and taking the rock in hand, smashed one of its front paws beyond recognition.   A high-pitched yelp pierced the air, and several of the pack fell back, hesitating.   Verdräskinn did not.   Continuing his rolling motion, he flung the stone with his might, caving in the ribs of a third animal. Before the pack could react, a fourth beast fell, raked with razor claws across its front knee. Fur, skin and blood gave way to openly exposed bone, which was followed by the blur of a second blow. The knee powdered beneath the impact, causing the beasts to collapse.   In one fluid motion, Verdräskinn swung his leg over the wolfs back, mounting it and bit down upon the beast's neck with his newfound teeth. Daggers the length of a man's finger, able to tear through oak like flesh.   Blood sprayed as another howl pierced the night. Legs kicked wildly as the wolf struggled to get up.   …the howl quickly faded.   The pack drew back now, watching cautiously as Verdräskinn fed upon his prey, tearing open the carcass with tooth and claw, fiery yellow eyes glowing in the night air.   Slowly the dragon head rose up.   “I warned you,” he growled, his voice now deep and coarse as the earth. “This fire was not of my making, but of my enemy. Your enemy…,” he looked down at the bloodied corpse between his feet. Already the fresh blood was coursing through his veins, healing the wounds in his legs. “Let me pass…or die.”   Even in his partial form, Verdräskinn knew the pack could fully understand him now. It was a dragons natural ability to project emotions and complex concepts to lesser creatures than its own.   One by one, the pack turned and left…leaving the Dragon Lord in the cold rain, amongst the dead. He stared out into the night until the last lumbering beast vanished into the downpour. The rain washed down his chin, neck, and chest, taking the blood with it.   Rain. Water.   He gasped. Water!   Sprinting towards the cliff face, Verdräskinn lunged upward, his now transformed legs carrying him further than before. Sliding his palm within a crack between two rocks, he created a fist to anchor himself, then reached down to retrieve his axe.   Placing the wooden handle between his powerful jaws, he climbed.   Up and up he scaled the mountainside, swinging from one ledge to another, fingers straining with exertion until he reached the peak.   The perching ledge was gone.   A place where he had stretched in the sun, expanding his wings to their full length, it was where he could watch over his domain. Now melted away, it was no more than a crumpled hunk of black slag, folded into the side of the mountain.   It was here, beneath the ledge, where the twin springs of Kävedet gave life to the forest—and hidden from sight, the entrance to his home. The waters came up from the inner spring chambers and poured over the cliff face, bursting forth from the mountain like fire from the belly of a dragon.   Yet the falls were completely dry. Only the fainted traces of moisture could be found in the recesses of the rock, leaking out into the onslaught of the storm.   If the waters are not flowing outward, he worried, then they must...   Pulling a scorched log from the hillside, Verdräskinn braced it between the hillside path and the lower ledge, forming a small bridge.   Crawling along the lip of the waterfall, he inspected its openings. Dragon fire was hot enough to melt stone, creating magma.   Long fingers traced the flow of blackened rock, dripping and curling inward. “You sealed off the path of men,” he growled, “but you failed to destroy me so I could not return.”   Turning the axe handle around, Verdräskinn struck the layers of melted stone with the thick back of the metal head. Blow after blow the mental rang out in protest, but in the end, the rock relinquished its hidden treasure. Each strike cracked the newly formed barrier, causing pieces to fall away.   Verdräskinn smiled to himself triumphantly.   Turning his broad frame, he slid between fallen rock and rubble.   The entrance opened up to a single chamber, clean and bare, with stairs leading downward, cut into the stone.   “Ah, the frustration you must feel, my brother, to come so close to the prize—unable to walk these halls.”   Kävedet was the den of a dragon, but only a man or woman could walk through its entrance. The stairway descended between solid stone, hundreds of feet below the surface—immune to even dragon fire. Without the means to skin-change into a mortal, Brann was powerless to get to the treasure all Verrdra would die to protect.   “Yet they are all gone,” Verdräskinn whispered, the painful truth causing him to reach out and steady himself. Powerful fingers clawed at the smooth stone walls, “I will never see my siblings, my friends…never hear their laughter or fill the night sky together with our wings.” He choked, “Never fill the forest with the song of our voices!”   Deeper into the mountain Verdräskinn sprinted, darkness eventually giving way to light.   Clear globes, filled with tiny illuminating fish hung from webs of delicate silver—shedding light upon the growing cavern. The stairs gave way to a bridge, branching off into three different tunnels. Verdräskinn listened.   If the water is not pouring from the ledge, it must be trapped, he queried. The springs have not ceased for a thousand years, so it must have gone some…   No, no, no, no, he panicked, heart beating wildly. The gods have mercy, no!   Pushing around bends and leaping over ledges as fast as his feet could take him, Verdräskinn slid up against a giant polished wedge of stone. It stood the height of six men, a wedge surrounded by arcane symbols not known to man, nor to the oldest of mägo.   Placing his hands upon the wedge, he cried aloud, “Minä sinulle auki!” Crystal blue light burst forth, flaring in obedience from the symbols,…and the stone wedge rolled aside.   Bright light filled the space from all directions.   His hands shook violently as he wept openly.   Verdräskinn collapsed as exhaustion.  
  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 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 borders 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.”   “Aye.”   “And…family?”   “Yes.”   “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 man's 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.  
  Terrin lifted his wine glass and took a sip.   “Wait,” cried a little boy, eyes as wide as saucers, “what happened next?”   A smirk appeared on the bards face as he set the glass down. “The agreement was sealed. What began as a business arrangement matured into a lasting friendship between the Dragon Lord and the Gypsy’s that has lasted centuries. Verdräskinn sent for the greatest mägo throughout the land, while those able assisted the Verrdrä to sift through the burnt forest and salvage enough logs to fashion this tavern you now sit in.   “A door was fashioned from the finest of the wood and then enchanted. Placed in every major city, the Roadkill Tavern became a hub of industry, exchange, and secrets. In tribute of the Woodsmen of the East, the Dragon Lord took upon him their name and opened this establishment.”   The Bard took his time, making eye contact with those closest in the crowd. “Though Wood has grown his spy network across the world, he has yet to hear of any rumor concerning his brother, the Black Dragon.”   “Poppycock,” chimed a patron, “that’s the biggest crock of lies I’ve heard since my own father tried to tell me I was adopted!”   The room burst into laughter.   “You’re saying Wood…as in our brilliant tavern owner, is the Dragon Lord?!? BWAHAHAHA!”   Patrons laughed and chided Terrin, but the bard kept his composure.   “Oh, wait,” cried another listener, “that would also mean Iyl-Tandril is hundreds of years old! You screwed up your own story old man!!”   Again, the laughter.   “Hey Wood! How’s it feel to be hundreds of years old?” shouted a patron.   The big burly tavern owner wandered out from behind the bar, carrying a large empty platter and several rags tucked into the string of his dirty apron. He smirked and shook his head, “Is THAT why I feel so worn out all the time?”   Laughter.   “Well I’ll say this, Terrin,” burped a middle-aged merchant trying to stand erect, “you tell a marvelo…mirverl…*hic*…you tell a great tale!” and he placed a shiny silver coin on the end table.   “Why thank you, Barnaby. Always a pleasure to be complemented by a man of the world like yourself.”   Barnaby tapped his nose and winked. “I won’t tell these idiots about the doors if you won’t.”   Terrin nodded, “Probably wise.”  
  Wood let the last patron slump onto the tavern porch to sleep off his binge drinking and locked the door. It had been a good night, packed—as always, but he was already shaking his head.   “You keep changing that story, old man.”   Terrin grinned to himself as he poked the coals in the hearth. “Some stories have to be refreshed and updated to keep the attention of a new generation.”   Wood laughed then, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to get someone to actually believe that I am a Verrdrä! Then where will you be? Even worse, where will that leave me?”   “I do apologize if this has made you uncomfortable, my friend.”   The tavern owner snorted, “No, not at all. I’d just be a bit careful about how you spin the Gypsy portions or interpret any rumors you hear. There is magic in this tavern, but it’s a far stretch from merchant doors to an information network, endless treasure and Gypsy’s teaming up with dragons!”   The bard chuckled and slipped his pipe into his vest pocket. “You have a point. Don’t want to ruin an endless flow of copper and silver, nor a comfortable place by the hearth.”   “Exactly.”   Terrin grabbed his cloak and walked to the stairs, “Goodnight, my friend. May peace ever find you and yours.”   Wood kept wiping the table, not looking up. “And you.”   It wasn’t until he heard the click of the bards' bedroom door close that the tavern owner looked around the Great Hall and sighed.   Setting the platter of dirty dishes in the basin, Wood wiped his hands on his apron and pulled the string over his head. Tossing it onto the bar counter, he pushed the swinging door aside and walked through the kitchen. Working his way around the barrels of wine and mead, he opened the door to the storage area.   For as long as he’d owned the tavern, Wood had never thought to keep one of the bedrooms for himself. He looked down at the roughly carved bed, stained and worn blankets and single pillow of goose feathers. Tonight of all nights, it sounded like a good idea for a change.   Stepping behind the bed, he tugged on one of the wall sconces.   A panel slid open in the wall, revealing a narrow set of stairs.   Pulling a small lever, the panel slid securely shut behind him.   Wood yawned deeply as he wandered down the steps. It had been days since he’d slept, but tomorrow the girls would take care of the breakfast crowd and he could enjoy a leisurely rest until the evening crowd drifted in.   Pulling a fat coin purse from his belt, the nights' profits in gold, silver, and abundant copper he tossed it onto a long, narrow table.   “I think I’m going to have to have a conversation with Iyl-Tandril,” he yawned again, pulling his tunic up and over his shoulders, “before this becomes a problem.”   With that, the tavern owner stretched out his arms and legs, nestling into the sea of gold, amidst the small grove of potted Andle saplings.


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