A birthday gift for Arcalika.
A tale of a small town in the middle of nowhere.
The small town of Eldham was both well-known and held little interest for anyone. The nearest king didn’t even bother sending ambassadors to declare his sovereignty. The town had sprung up beside a well-passaged road – many travellers and merchants slept within the inns and browsed the farmer’s market, but none of them stayed nor set up shop.
Well, almost no-one. The locals were few enough in number that they knew each other, and knew when some youngster decided to try their luck at big city life, which one of the butcher’s sons did last year – or when the rare traveller decided to join their ranks, such as Old Man Roran.
The folk of Eldham were not sophisticated – what little currency merchants left them with was often pooled together to buy supplies essential to the upkeep and running of the town and its inns. If there were no inns, there would be no business – and the small town of Eldham would be forgotten.
Unfortunately, as is with many roads in these times, bandits and highwaymen abounded. The small town of Eldham had had to hope that the wealthy merchants travelling to or from Golssam brought enough of their own guards – for the town’s meagre defences and self-trained guards stood little chance against any determined raiders.
That is until Old Man Roran arrived several years ago. He spoke with an accent unknown to the townsfolk of Eldham. He did not like to talk about himself much, but the villagers had pieced together some of his story. His still-strong build despite his age and his battle-scars spoke volumes on their own.
He had spent his first few months in the town drinking to the point that the innkeepers had had to source alcohol from passing merchants. The villagers were not fond of him, but he did not disturb them overly much and he supplied them with coin, so they tolerated him.
Things changed the night he broke down. At first innkeeper Johan was preparing to throw him out until he sobered up, until he realised that this was not a drunken rage but a drunken mourning. Johan led the drunk to the room he rented and spoke to him – partially out of concern for the previously stoic old man and partially in the hopes of learning more about his past.
Gossip of what was said quickly spread through the town. These rumours, although not the most accurate, gave the villagers an idea of his past and softened their hearts to him.
As many had already been certain of, he came from a far-off kingdom. The gossip varied greatly on what exactly he had once done for a living, but the townspeople knew what had brought that to a stop: thieves had killed his wife when he was not there to defend her. Sometimes he had had children, sometimes he had only a wife. He tracked down the thieves and killed them, each telling of the story added more creative methods of killing. Some say that upon returning home once his bloodlust was sated, he found something precious that his wife had hidden. But the empty home was too painful, so he travelled. Various recitations of the story told about how he crossed kingdoms, barren wildernesses and navigated much of the known world in search of somewhere he could call home – only to find himself still restless. Eventually, he had arrived at Eldham, bordered by deep forests on one side and mountains that touched the sky on the other, and had given up his search and fallen to drink.
Before returning to his duty as inn host, Johan had told the old man that anyone who could contribute to the town was welcome. To Johan’s surprise, he found Roran’s room empty in the morning. The old man was not seen in the town for a couple of weeks, but he was eventually spotted returning to the town with a determined look on his face. He spoke to the elders and offered to help the good people of Eldham defend themselves from the increasing bandit activity. After some discussion and him conceding that his only pay would be lodging in an inn and free food, they agreed.
He spent the following months training the town’s few guards, recruiting a few more, overseeing major overhauls to the town fortifications, and also eating more food than Johan thought possible.
Eldham quickly saw the benefits of Roran’s work. The defences, more skilled guards, and Roran’s fierce fighting in the town’s defence quickly made it clear to raiders that this town was no longer a soft target. Attacks on the central town ceased soon enough – but it became clear that travellers and the village’s farmers were still having issues, albeit somewhat lessened. Roran began setting up patrols, but they were not very effective due to how little population Eldham could spare for its defence. He would have to settle for having made the core town a safer place.
Nonetheless, the bandit attacks steadily decreased in frequency and the villagers were grateful for his help. Eventually, the elders donated some land to him and the town came together to help him build something he could finally call home again. With this act, he was considered part of the village.
This was all years ago. Although Roran spent large amounts of time out of town, presumably on patrol for signs of bandit activity using his astounding tracking skills, when he was in town he worked hard and made himself a valued member of the community. He soon joined the town elders in decision making, considering his wizened age and considerable contributions to the town.
Tonight, the town was buzzing. Activity had been increasing over the past few weeks. The people who now overflowed the inns were not ordinary travellers or merchants – they were knights and their entourages. There were tents pitched outside town and the occasional knightly quarry.
What could cause all this excitement, you may ask? Well, one of the town guard patrols claimed to have had spotted a dragon. Although this claim seemed ludicrous, as dragons had been exceedingly rare for many generations, the patrol members were trustworthy and nothing could stop rumours from spreading. Those rumours eventually reached the ears of travellers and merchants, who spread them yet further. Despite there being no other sightings from trustworthy sources, supposed evidence of dragons came out of the woodwork. Once the first knight arrived, this attracted the attention of others. Eventually, it became a sort of competition to see who could find the dragon first and claim its loot. Even some poets and bards appeared, searching for source material.
Weeks of search parties turned up empty handed – even the town guards’ search parties found nothing. Interest would begin to wane, but every now and then a search party would vanish – reigniting the excitement and focusing searches in that area.
At nights, the inns and taverns were jam-packed. Knights were sharing discoveries and looking for hints that might give them an advantage over their competitors. Villagers also participated in this somewhat but were more there to devour and spread any gossip of what the knights found.
On this particular night in Johan’s inn, one of the patrol group who had spotted the dragon was again being questioned by a newly-arrived by a knight. This knight was somewhat different to the others – his family had cultivated the reputation of being dragon-slayers. Despite not having killed a dragon since his grandfather’s time due to the decline in the beasts’ appearances, this still lent Lord Dellworth the air of an accomplished fighter.
“I swear, Tom and I saw it bright as day.”
“How come it did not see you?”
“We know how to move stealthily through the forest and when to not get too close, you can take my word for it.”
“Hmf. And how big was it? Please save the exaggerations for the poets.”
“Not all that big. Its shoulder height was probably a little greater than a horse’s.”
“Oh… that’s fairly small. It must be only several years old. I doubt this beast has accumulated enough wealth to be worth all the rah-rah, especially if it has spent all its time in these parts.”
“You’re welcome to leave it to us, Lord Dellworth,” piped up another wealthy knight – Lord Hemington. “I’ve lost a squad – all seasoned fighters. No way a monster that small could have got them. I think there is a bigger fish to fry.”
“Hmm, my family did observe in the past that younger dragons are occasionally watched over by what is presumably their parents. My apologies Lord Hemington, I think I shall stay.”
“No need to apologise. I believe it would be in the spirit of healthy sportsmanship for me to share information. Additionally, if we were to work together somewhat, this could also be of a benefit to our – and our men’s health.”
The whole inn seemingly quieted and collectively leaned in to hear what was being said.
“Yes, I must say that the ‘competition’ the lesser knights have been holding here had been rather counter-productive.”
“I concur. So, the squad that I mentioned? They were searching in the direction of the mountains. A later squad found charred rock and shrubbery, but I have no means to confirm what caused this. I imagine that your family’s ‘research’ has discovered that dragons prefer to live in caves?”
“Yes, but the peasant here says he saw the creature in the forest.”
“Dragons are mobile creatures!” Added a sundry knight.
“But the most reported disappearances I have heard of were in the direction of the mountains,” countered Hemington. He turned back to Dellworth. “I say we search more systematically than the hodgepodge that has preceded us.”
“The mountains are dangerous for anyone not prepared,” warned Old Man Roran. “If this is the dragon rather than naivety, it could be doing this on purpose to lead you astray. I’ve also led parties that way and we’ve found nothing.”
“Indeed…” muttered Dellworth, “They are remarkably intelligent for beasts. Has anyone drawn up a map of the area?”
A map was offered to the knight by another, and the rest of the evening was spent planning search patterns. It seemed that the knights, at least those present, were finally planning on working together.
The following morning, the town was woken by shouting watchmen. Groggy-eyed knights and soldiers emerged from the inns and tents, trying to find out what the commotion was about. They soon discovered it for themselves.
A massive golden dragon – far taller than a house – easily stepped over the town walls and, with massive strides, soon arrived at the centre of town. Only utter shock, at the sudden appearance of the quarry they had spent weeks searching for, and the sheer size of said quarry, prevented a fair number of knights taking up their swords and charging to their deaths. Though they quickly started gathering the courage to do so.
The dragon’s scales glittered like freshly-minted coins in the morning sun, fitting together to make the strongest chainmail. Its wings were furled sails, and its horns the finest ivory. Fire burned in its eyes and its belly. Yet, it was not without flaw. There were chips on its horns, chinks in its chainmail and scars on its wings. Those shining eyes also held great age and a weathered countenance. This dragon had fought before.
“Knights!” The dragon called in a voice so powerful and deep, vibrations could be felt in the knights’ equipment. “It is clear to me that you do not wish to cease your search for me. Your hearts are full of the greed your stories so often depict us as having. Let it be known: I have no treasure for you monsters. Not unless you were to kill, butcher and sell me like barbarians. I protect my offspring and I protect the small town of Eldham along with the good people who reside within it. Any who wish to do harm to either shall face my wrath. If, having heard there is no mountain of gold, you have set your gluttonous eyes on me – you are welcome to do battle with me. There is a large clearing in the forest half a day’s march from here. Head southeast until you find a stream, then follow it downriver until you find yourself at the edge of the clearing. I shall wait there for three days for any who wish to challenge me. After this, I expect you to abscond from here or swear upon your honour that you shall become defenders of Eldham. Be warned, however, ye who wish to battle me. I am not unpracticed in fighting humans, Dellworth.” That last, pointed, statement being said, it took a deep breath and spewed a pillar of intense flame skyward, causing all those nearby to shield their faces from the heat. It then unfurled its wings, leapt to the air and flew away – the downward wind knocking over all the knights who had been slowly approaching. The dragon swiftly flew away, vanishing from sight surprisingly quickly.
The dragon had struggled with the enunciation of the human vocabulary, but its message was clear. The town sat in silence for some time in the dragon’s wake, before erupting into debate.
Tales of what happened next are not all in agreement. Some say that most of the Knights quietly and cowardly dispersed with only a few fighting the dragon. Others say that they all banded together to attack the dragon. Yet more claim that the village elders decided it would be beneficial to have a dragon as the town’s guardian, and drove the greedy knights out of the town.
Where the stories do agree is that the Dellworth family line ended in flames the next day. Two days following that, the small town of Eldham officially accepted the dragon and its children as their guardians. Protectors that defended their treasure fiercely. In the decades following that, the town became not so small, a lot more scholarly and a centre of trade rather than a forgettable pause on the trade route. His job now taken care of, Roran said his farewells to the town – saying it was high time to see his kids. Very soon Eldham was no longer a worthless settlement that King Dezari could ignore and, seeing the benefits reaped so far, he decided it would be mutually beneficial to declare the dragon an earl of the kingdom.