Chapter One

Cravan idly swirled the last bit of his beer around in the bottom of his flagon. It was a weak brew, wholly unsatisfying. It also represented the last of his coin, however, so he had been nursing it for almost an hour. Adventuring was not always the profitable endeavour that he had imagined it was in his youth. With a little luck, that would soon change.

He stroked his beard as he debated whether to ask his companion for yet another loan. On his left, Mor stared into the empty firepit, as though entranced by flames only he could see. He would sit like that for hours sometimes, lost in his own thoughts. Craven mulled that he would have preferred the company of young woman of questionable morals, or even a bog troll to slay – anything to cut through the boredom of sitting here waiting. He tossed his head back to drain every drop from the cup before bringing it slamming down on the wine-stained tabletop.

“Dammit, where is she?”

“Right behind you.” It was Rieki, the mysterious elven thief and vagabond. She wasn't the girl of ill-repute that he had been hoping for, but at least there was finally hope of some excitement and, more importantly, profit. As she slipped into the chair across the table from the two men, Mor continued his absent-minded staring at the hearth. Craven snorted at his disinterest and turned back to the girl.

“Did you find her?” asked Craven. “Are we in business? What took you so long?”

“One question at a time, my friend,” she answered. Her voice had the lilt and musical quality that all her race possessed, but she added a sarcasm that was all her own. “I have located a girl with mark Mor described. She works as a milkmaid on a farm on the far side of the next valley.”

“A milkmaid!” His outburst filled the common room and heads started to turn in his direction. Rieki flashed him a stern and mocking glare, but he had already realized his mistake. He leaned in close to the elf and whispered hoarsely, “Not a warrior? Or even a mage? Just a run-of-the-mill, gods-damned milkmaid?”

“So it would seem,” said Rieki. She tipped the empty flagon towards her and peered inside. Frowning in disappointment, she set it back down.

Cravan folded his brawny arms across his chest. “Maybe Mor has missed the mark again.”

“The prophecy is true,” said Mor. “The girl is our salvation. She will slay the beast and deliver us to prosperity. It is written.”

“Oh, decided to join us finally?” asked Craven, but Mor continued his glassy-eyed stare into oblivion. He turned back to Rieki to mock his friend. “It is written. You can't argue with that.”

“Now, now,” she said. “You know as well as I do that the wizard's aim leaves something to be desired, but when it comes to interpreting dusty old scrolls there are few who can match his skill.”

“Aye, I'll give you that,” he said. “But a milkmaid?”

“Sometimes great destinies are born from humble beginnings. Who can say what the fates hold in store for each of us.” Rieki stood up and moved behind Cravan to whisper over his shoulder. “Speaking of humble beginnings, I assume you bought the supplies we need before you drank your purse dry?”

“I did.”

“Then let's be off,” she said. “I want to be back at the farm before the sun gets too low.”

“Oh? Good-looking was she?”

“On the contrary, she was rather plain and smelled of the stables.” Reiki paused for a moment and then smiled. “However, with the right lighting and a good bath…”

“You'll never change,” said Cravan. “Need I remind you that's how you nearly ended up in the gallows in Homelyn.”

“How was I to know that she was the magistrate's daughter?”

“Your lusting will be the end of you,” said Cravan. “I swear you'll hump anything that moves.”

“That's not true,” she said. “I would never touch the likes of you, for instance.”

“Fortunate am I to be spared the plague between your legs.” He gave Mor a rough shove to roust him from his daydream. “C'mon. Let's go before Lady Firecrotch starts groping the innkeeper. We've got a dragon to slay.”

They got their horses from the stable, plus the two extra nags that Cravan had bought just bought - one for supplies and the other for the girl. It was a long walk to the dragon's lair, and the time until the alignment was short. The stars would not be in this particular pattern again in their lifetime. Not that such things mattered to Cravan, but Mor was the expert in things mystical. If they needed to spend all their money on a couple of mangy ponies then so be it.

They made good time across the valley. The roads were practically empty and the lack of rain had not muddied the trail. Rieki led them to a place where they could hide and watch the farmhouse. “I’ve seen only the farmer and his daughter, the one with the mark. According to the locals, however, there were usually three other men around, but the two eldest sons are in the next town selling their extra cheese, and the youngest is sick in bed. The wife has apparently been dead for years.”

From his vantage point in the bushes, the girl sweeping the porch seemed unremarkable. Cravan studied her for some hint that indicate a great destiny waiting, but all that he saw was a farmhand with a dirt-stained, sackcloth dress and greasy hair tied up in braids. She could have been any of the thousand of farm girls he had seen in his life. “Are you certain she's the one?” he whispered.

“If there's one thing I know it's women,” answered Rieki.

“Aye, and men,” he said. “And probably dogs and horses from what I gather.”

“Jealous?” she quipped. “Look there, the five pointed star on her neck poking out above the collar.”

“Looks more like a rash than a mystical sign of prophecy,” he said.

“You would be the one to ask about rashes,” quipped Rieki.

“She is the one,” said Mor. His monotone pronouncement was apparently meant to end all debate. He strode forward from their hiding place directly towards the girl. Rieki looked at Cravan and shrugged before following the slender man towards the farmhouse. Cravan felt stupid sitting alone in the bushes, so he had no choice but to go after them.

The girl leaned on her broom as the three approached and she frowned. “Good evening to you,” she said politely. “What business do a dwarf, an elf, and a mage have on our little patch of dirt.”

“I'm not a dwarf,” insisted Cravan.

“Oh gods, here we go again,” Rieki muttered at Mor.

The milkmaid looked perplexed. “I'm sorry…what?”

"I'm not a dwarf," he repeated. “I'm five-foot-two. That's a respectable height for any man, if a wee bit on lower side of average.”

Rieki turned to Mor again and said, “Aye, but four inches of that is in his boots.” Mor broke from his usual taciturn expression to giggle at that one.

The girl continued, “I'm sorry, but what with the beard and the axe…”

“Now that's just racist,” said Cravan. “Let me tell you…”

“I'm sorry to interrupt,” said Mor, “but we are on a mission of some urgency. It seems you have been selected by the Fates to perform a sacred duty and rescue the land from its torment.”

She looked at Rieki and asked, “What's he saying now?”

All she could do was shrug before Mor went on. “We need you to come with us and slay a dragon.”

She burst out laughing. “No, I don't think so.”

Cravan's face turned an even brighter shade of red. “What do you mean, ‘No’? It's a bleeding prophecy! It's like it has already happened. You can't just say, ‘No, thank you. I'm a bit busy at the moment. Could you come back next week?’ You're the chosen one, for gods' sake!”

“Your gods, not mine.” She resumed sweeping the porch, purposefully pushing the clouds of dust towards the three adventurers. “Me, I've got a decent life here with a lovely family. I've caught the eye of Torn, blacksmith's son, and he's likely to propose any day now. Why would I want give up all that to go tromping through the forest with you lot and get myself killed?”

“She makes a good point,” said Rieki.

“Quiet, you,” said Cravan. “You're not helping.”

Mor stepped forward. “In the time of Tragain, when the Lands were at war and the mystical beasts first walked in our world, it was written that a woman who bore the Mark of Cilandil would free the western wood from a great evil.”

The girl pulled up her collar to cover the blemish on her neck. “What, that? It's just a birthmark. It doesn't mean anything.”

Mor pointed a long skinny finger at her. “The stars are aligned, and the Mark is revealed. It only remains that you accept your destiny for it to be realized.”

“Bloody hell, this one's going to talk me to death,” said the milkmaid. She pushed her head in the open doorway and called out, “Hey, Poppa. There's another bunch of religious nuts at the door.”

In moments, a large, burly man in his forties emerged from inside the home. Brandishing a huge meat cleaver, he stood between the trio and his daughter. “Clear off you lot. We don't worship snakes or spiders around here. Nobody wants any part of your silly cult.”

Cravan, still flustered, was looking for a fight. He twisted the shaft of his axe in his hands, feeling the weight of it. Rieki drew her bow and notched an arrow, ready to let fly if things went bad.

But Mor was still determined to solve the situation peacefully. “Good sir, I assure you that we have no such intentions. We merely bring word that your daughter is needed for a quest…”

“There's not going to be any quests,” the man bellowed. “Nor adventures nor missions, neither. Now get of my land before I carve you up and feed you to my pigs.”

Cravan marched forward in front of Mor and stood only a few paces from the enraged father. “I'd like to see you try!” Suddenly he was falling down to the ground. As Cravan had readied himself for the attack from the front, he had missed the elf sneaking up behind him. Before he could even start to complain, a wave of purple mist passed above them and struck the farmer and his daughter. They both collapsed on the farmhouse's porch, fast asleep.

“Dammit, Mor,” said Cravan. “I had it under control.”

Rieki was already on her feet offering her hand to help him up. “If by under control you mean about to have your ass handed to you by a man twice your size, then yeah, I'd say you had that one.”

“Killing these people will not help us,” said Mor. “I suggest we gather up the young lady and be off before they wake.”

Cravan slapped Rieki's hand away. “Go and get the horses. I don't want to have to carry her all the way to the wastelands.” She waited until he was half-standing before she put a boot to his rear. Cravan lost his balance and fell face first into the mud. Grunting and panting, he managed to stand back up using his axe as a crutch. Rieki had already vanished so he turned to Mor to vent his anger. “And you. Your aim's getting worse all the time. You almost hit me with your sleeping spell by accident.”

“Yes,” murmured Mor. “By accident.”

When Rieki had returned with the horses in tow, Mor and Cravan lifted the sleeping girl up onto a horse, and Rieki tied her to the saddle so she wouldn't fall off. For good measure Cravan gagged her mouth with a wad cloth torn from the hem of her dress. It was going to difficult enough smuggling the girl out of the valley without her calling out for help. When they were confident that she was secure they left the farm and headed west, sticking to animal trails and unused back roads to avoid attention.

It was almost nightfall when they came to an small clearing in the woods where they could camp. The girl had woken an hour or so before and had immediately tried to get free of her bonds. Mor couldn't magic her again without knocking out the horse as well, so they left her to struggle in vain. Rieki knew a thing or two about tying people up; the girl was not going anywhere soon.

Cravan made a passable stew from the supplies they had brought. He did all the cooking, not because he had a great love or even skill for the culinary arts, but because he didn't trust either the thief or the mage not to put something in his food. Mor and Rieki had pulled the girl down off the horse and were guarding her. When Cravan approached her with a bowl and a crust of day-old bread, Mor pulled the gag from her mouth.

“When my father and brother find us, your skulls will decorate our fence posts. Let me go now and there's a chance you might get away with your skin intact.”

Mor took the bowl from Cravan and set it on the ground beside him, tossing the bread on top to soak in the juices. He turned to the girl and said, “I apologize for the manner in which we came to be here, but if you'll give me a moment to explain…”

“I don't want to hear it,” she said. “You're all crazy. Just cut me loose and I'll find my own way home.”

“I first would like to point out that calling the people who are holding you hostage ‘crazy’ may not not be the best strategy. But that aside, once I have had my say, I will cut you loose and you can do anything you choose.”

“What kind of trickery is this?” she asked.

“No tricks, my dear,” he answered. “Only truths. As I was saying before your father interrupted, there is a prophecy that the one who bears the Mark of Cilandil will slay a great beast at such and such a time and such and such a place…that much you know. What I didn't get to say is that there is a great sickness sweeping the Lands and its only cure requires the blood of a dragon.”

“I don't see what any of this has to do with me,” she said. “I'm no dragonslayer.”

“Then many will waste away and die,” said Mor. “If you cannot complete this task, I'm sorry to say that your younger brother will be one of the first to perish.”

“What? Not Jerald!”

“Yes, I'm afraid so,” said Mor. “It would seem that you are left with an impossible choice. Either you do nothing and watch your brother, possibly your whole village, die from a plague, or you accept that there is a higher power that has a plan for you.” He pulled a knife from his belt and cut the ropes on her wrists and ankles. “I leave it to you to decide which is the worse fate.”

Mor stood up and walked towards Rieki and the cooking fire. She leaned close to him and whispered, “Was any of that true?”

“Well, dragon's blood is a powerful curative in skilled hands.”

“And her brother?”

Mor hesitated. “Probably has grave rot from watching witches dance naked under the full moon. It's a common enough affliction in boys his age. He should be fine in a few days if he stays in bed. Witches are occasionally spiteful but rarely cruel.”

She flashed him a wicked smile that went from pointed ear to pointed ear. “Is that wise to let her go like that?”

He turned his head to look back at the farmgirl. She was quickly devouring the bowl of stew that he had left next to her. “She's not going anywhere. She thinks she's the saviour of her entire village. Still, keep an eye on her. If she tries to run, put an arrow in her leg.”

Mor scooped a helping of stew and handed it Rieki before taking one for himself. Cravan, already having finished his portion was reclining against a fallen log picking his teeth with a twig. “You're a devious bastard,” he said. “Lucky you're on our side.”

It wasn't until the next afternoon that they reached the scorched earth that marked the edge of the dragon's territory. While it would range over a hundred leagues when hunting, it always kept to the fire-blasted crags of the wasteland while it slept off its last meal. From the sightings by the nearby villagers, Mor had concluded that it was a newly matured adult, probably a male. That meant it would hunt every fortnight, on the new and full moons. Last night's moon was two days past full, so the timing was perfect. The beast should be fast asleep.

The lair was easy to find, marked by the charred bones of the monster's previous meals. The horses would go nowhere near the place, so they were forced to tie them to the remains of a tree a mile back down the rocky trail. As they approached, the smell of brimstone grew stronger, and the ash that was stirred up by their steps stung their eyes. A cluster of boulders overlooked the the flat plain in front of the cave entrance, so they took cover there to plan their next move.

“So what happens now?” the girl asked.

“Now you go down there and kill the dragon,” said Cravan.

“What?” she protested. “I'm not going down there alone. I'll be killed.”

“Trust me,” he said. “It'll be fine. Mor says he's asleep. Just sneak in and stab him in the eye.”

“With what?” she asked. “I don't even have a knife.”

Cravan looked around until he saw the remains of an unfortunate previous adventurer. He pried the sword from the skeleton's grasp, shattering a few of the finger bones in the process. He forced it into the girl's quivering hand. “Here you go, lass.”

“Uh…thanks,” she said. “That didn't do him much good though, did it?”

“He wasn't the chosen one,” said Mor. “You have destiny on your side.”

“If it makes you feel better,” said Cravan, “you can dress the part.” He turned back to the skeleton and grabbed the poor soul's chainmail armor by the shoulders and shook it until the dead man's arms and rib cage fell out of the bottom and rolled down the incline.

The girl covered her mouth with her free hand. “I think I'm going to be sick.”

“What? It's good armor.” Cravan held it up in front of him to model it like it was a debutante's ball gown. “It's nice, isn't it? I wish I'd had this when I started adventuring.”

“I think that might be too heavy for her,” said Rieki.

“Hmm…maybe you're right,” he said. “How about the helmet though?” There's always falling rocks and low-hanging stalactites in caves.” Cravan reached into the headpiece, pulling out the skull that was still inhabiting it. He tossed the grinning head over his shoulder before shoving the helmet down on the milkmaid's head.

The brim came halfway down her nose, so she leaned back and squinted from underneath. “I can't see a thing in this.”

“Trust me,” said Cravan. “I've been in many battles and you're far better of not knowing what's going on around you.” He picked up a fallen, half-burned shield from the ground and strapped it to her arm. “There you look like a proper warrior princess now.”

“I can't believe I'm doing this.”

“Just think of all the lives you'll be saving,” said Mor.

“And we'll be right behind you,” added Rieki.

“All right. Here I go.”

She slid down the embankment to the flat ground in front of the cave. After taking a few steps forward, her nerve started to fail. She turned around to see Cravan, Mor, and Rieki give her encouraging smiles as they motioned for her to continue. The girl took a few more steps before she heard a hissing and a rumbling noise coming from inside the cavern. “Forget this,” she said. “I'm getting the hells out of here.”

She turned back again, but this time the three adventurers were nowhere to be seen. Either they were hiding behind the rocks or they had fled entirely. It was then that she felt a hot breeze against her back. When she span around, she was face to face with the monster. Its body was the size of a house; the head alone was bigger than a carriage. The dragon eyed her hungrily. Its serpentine neck drew the beast's gaping mouth back before it rushing forward again. The girl' screams were abruptly cut off as the wyrm swallowed her up whole.

“Okay, that didn't work,” said Cravan. “Anybody got any more bright ideas?”

“Poor…did anyone catch her name?” asked Mor.

“What a waste of a perfectly good farmer's daughter,” said Rieki.

“I don't understand,” said Mor. “The prophecy was true. I'm sure of it.”

Below them the dragon began to cough and spit fire, seemingly at random. After a few moments it started to thrash violently, knocking over piles of rocks and smashing bones. It bucked like an enraged bull and then spread its wings out to their full extent before it finally collapsed on the ground in a heap and was still. The three adventurers clung to the side of the rock until they were sure it wasn't going to start up again.

“What happened?” asked Mor.

“I think it choked on the milkmaid,” said Rieki. “Let that be a lesson to always chew your food, Cravan.”

Mor rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “Well technically she did kill the dragon, so…prophecy fulfilled?”

“The fates can be cruel,” said Cravan, stifling a laugh, “but they can also be hilarious.”

“That blacksmith's son that she was going to marry is going to need some consoling,” said Rieki.

“Leave that poor boy alone. Hasn't he suffered enough already?” joked Cravan. “But I think we're forgetting the most important thing. There's an unprotected dragon hoard down there somewhere. Tonight the drinks are on me!”

Next Chapter: Chapter Two