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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

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Triton stopped at a secluded watering hole high amongst the stepped canyon walls of the Condorion cliffs before heading to Dimsbrough. Warmed by the midday sun, the water washed down the face of the canyon, slapping and splashing against rocky outcroppings before it cascaded into pools that dotted Triton’s favorite ridge.

After cleaning his clothes of rotting fruit and laying them on warm rocks to dry, Triton rested his aching body in a large pool rippling from one of the many waterfalls. Dagger emptied several of the pools in an attempt to quench his thirst. He waited for them to fill back in, again and again, emptying them several times before he finished.

Triton was determined to make the best of his situation. Sitting in the pool, he wondered about his future. What would he be doing at the hatchery and for how long? He was still surprised the king had allowed him to keep Dagger; especially since another supply of thresher dragons would not reach maturity for five sun cycles. He knew the hatchery was finding thresher eggs much harder to come by now so close to the monsoon season, but he had no idea of how and from where the eggs were obtained. Only rumors of the shortages had been spoken of around the kingdom. It was not an urgent problem in these phases free of war since threshers often lived to a ripe old age that extended beyond that of their riders. But good, battle-worthy dragons ranged in age between twelve and sixty cycles. Dagger was only twenty; considered in prime condition, a gift worth more than his weight in gold were a war to breakout. Most of the other threshers of Antheon were now far into their forties and fifties, a situation that had been allowed in light of the reduced threat of other kingdoms. But King Gabriel was on his side. The king knew taking a guardian’s dragon was like cutting off his legs. Triton would be faced with a life restricted by the slow pace of land creatures, of which the panga was the swiftest. It would be a severe step down to say the least.

Triton climbed out of the pool and checked to make sure he had cleaned himself of every last stain that marked his body. Satisfied that he was clean, he gave Dagger a hand signal to gently flap his wings. The breeze rid him of the remaining water he was unable to shake off, but not having thought things through, he nearly lost every stitch of clothing over the side of the cliff. Gusts from Dagger’s wings reached his shirt, pants and undergarments. They were sent in a swirl that twisted high over his head. Triton scrambled back and forth grabbing them before they flew over the cliff or landed in one of the many pools. To grab his pants, he leapt to the edge of the cliff stretching his hand over the precipice as he balanced on wet feet. He tore back to the pools to nab his underwear. With his best efforts, he had managed to save all but the sleeve of his shirt from one of the pools.

He dressed himself up to his waist, wrung the water the best he could from his sleeve and promptly slipped it on.

It was only another hundred lagrons or so to Dimsbrough, a trip that would take less than two solars to make by thresher. It would have been a good phase or more by foot. At least with Dagger as his transport, he felt he was still allowed some dignity.

Feeling refreshed, he lifted himself onto Dagger, clamped down his anchor-belt, and headed for Dimsbrough.

* * * * *

The town of Dimsbrough had expanded along the northern side of the Sandgill River at a rapid pace as it profited from the nearby cities of Belladon and Ellendale. But since it was positioned halfway between the eastern Kingdom of Antheon and the western Kingdom of Zendaria, the town had been subjected to the rule of both. Dimsbrough had seen the armies of both kingdoms march down its cobblestone streets many times as the two fought over their ever-expanding border. During its many cycles of changing rule, Dimsbrough’s buildings and streets had taken on the look of both kingdoms as well as displaying many scars from the wars that had taken place between the exchanges. Some buildings were built of large stones, mud, and timbers, resembling the architecture of Zendaria, while others were built of adobe, smoothed and rounded by sun-dried mud topped with thatched roofs, like that of Antheon. Both styles revealed patches of repair thick with mortar. Streaks of black soot from fires set by dragons painted many of their walls.

From high in the air, the varying styles of buildings could be seen as separate sections interlaced by dirt and cobblestone paths. Thickets of trees and bushes lined the outskirts of the town broken by wide expanses of hilly grassland. Beyond was a tame quilted pattern of crops, farmed by independent growers who sold to both kingdoms. It had only been within the last ten sun cycles that Dimsbrough, and those who shared the wide strip of land north and south of the town, benefited from an agreed upon neutral-zone treaty inspired by the wizards. Dimsbrough had become free of governmental rule allowing free trade. It had proven to be a wise decision as all involved profited by the outcome. Many items, obtained from craftsmen of both kingdoms, were sold and traded in Dimsbrough, which brought a wider, more diverse, marketplace. Colorful textiles from Antheon migrated into Zendaria and metal tools, weapons, and bracing for dragons and other beasts from the masterful blacksmiths of Zendaria, found their way into Antheon. Because of this, Dimsbrough had attracted traders from all across the land bringing the promise of wealth to those willing to make the journey. Within ten sun cycles, Dimsbrough had grown along the river being careful not to build beyond the boundaries set by the treaty.

Triton could see the busy streets full of vendors. People of many cultures roamed between carts filled with fruit, clothing, pottery, and even weapons. Moongruns and pangas were the only creatures visible in the middle of town while the larger dragons and thungriles-enormous four-legged beasts with a long necks, four horns (two at the top of their head and two protruding from either side of their upper jaw)-were left at the outskirts.

But this was not Triton's destination, he was headed for the hatchery.

He found it just north of the town; a complex of buildings that sat atop a hill with the northeastern side cut by a cliff. A grove of trees arched around its base in the shape of a crescent moon. A massive wooden barn with a stone foundation groped the cliff with heavy timbers, while another building, an adobe structure of interconnected circles with two round towers sprouting up at one end, framed the northern side of the hill.

As Triton directed Dagger closer, he could see two men repairing the complex thatched roof of the circular adobe building. Young raptor dragons, of no more than a single sun cycle, scurried and hopped around in pens built off of the barn.

Dagger stretched his wings and soared down the final few lags to the dirt-covered grounds. He cupped his wings then flapped them several times to land gently on the rutty dirt modeled, during wetter conditions, by heavy wooden wheels. While folding his wings and crouching, to provide Triton with a shorter leap to the ground, Dagger waddled into a comfortable ball. Triton quickly unclipped his anchor-belt and slid down Dagger’s side. He grabbed the bridle at the right of Dagger’s large head near the bit as soon as he touched his feet to the ground. Dagger growled his disapproval, but many cycles of training kept him from disobeying. With several quick tugs, Dagger followed sluggishly on all fours, using the clawed hands at the upper bend of his wings as feet.

Triton steered him to a grassy location shaded by several trees where Dagger would not block traffic along the main passage leading up to the barn. When Dagger curled up once again, Triton rummaged for the document declaring him a servant of the hatchery. He pulled the scroll from one of the pouches behind the saddle that had been filled with extra clothing and essentials then walked slowly to the adobe building.

He was unsure of what his duties would be, but knew full well the difficult rearing and training procedures that Dimsbrough’s hatchery was famous for. If not for the many long solars of training spent on each dragon during their younger cycles, forcing a giant beast, like Dagger, to do anything would be impossible. Humans would be considered a tasty appetizer instead of a master to be obeyed. Without the hatcheries, dragon-riders would not exist. They were not only essential to all the kingdoms, enabling them to defend against rivals in an unparalleled fashion that only another dragon-riding kingdom could defend against, but they provided speed and efficiency for travel and the transfer of important messages. Of all the hatcheries, Dimsbrough’s was the best; a fact that Triton could be proud of even if it was a long drop from his prominent position as King Gabriel’s personal guardian.

As he approached the main arched doorway, kicking up a cloud of dry dirt as he walked, he noticed many eyes staring at him. Besides those of the men working on the roof, he could see shadowy figures of women and children peering through small oval windows. Triton ignored the attention, continuing toward the door.

A large man wearing a pair of heavily patched brown pants with dark green suspenders stepped out of the building, folded his arms, and stood in front of the doorway. He wore an ill-fitted white shirt that clung tightly to his chest dampened by sweat. His skin was very dark, and his head was shaved bald. His body was a mass of pure muscle. He narrowed his eyes with an intimidating steely glare.

Does he know who I am? What I’ve been accused of, Triton wondered. Somehow Triton could feel that was not the case, but he could not shake his paranoia.

“Hey you! You over there!” came the closest thing to a welcome directed at him from the barns across the open yard. Triton turned to see a tall well-built black man walking toward him. He stepped smartly, with the stride of a learned man. A small hat with a tight brim, widened slightly at the front, clung to his curly black hair. A leather vest hugged his body over a tan shirt tattered and patched from many sun cycles of wear. Tall boots, loosely fit against his legs, covered the bottom of an emerald green pair of pants.

“What is your business here, sir?” he asked as he stopped at a waist-high adobe fence blocking his way.

Triton held out the scroll as he stepped over to the man. “I am Triton, a Guardian of Antheon, sir. This document signed by King Gabriel will explain.”

He handed the paper to the man. He scanned Triton with a curious eye from top to bottom, and then silently read the scroll.

He smiled and scratched his chin then chuckled a bit as he squinted one eye and looked back up at Triton.

“King Gabriel often forgets that he no longer owns or dictates what we do here at the hatchery.” He handed the scroll back to Triton, turned, and walked away. “Our function is profit. We provide for those willing to pay the price for a well trained dragon,” he said turning his face toward Triton as he walked. “The phases when we provided for Antheon’s guardians for a slaves wage are over. Dagmar doesn’t have to honor his decree.” With that, he turned his head away and continued his lumbering pace toward the open door of the barn.

“I’m here to help. A gift from the king to provide whatever services you would like me to perform,” Triton hollered.

The man stopped in his tracks and turned abruptly around. “You, sir, are a criminal, as stated within the document. For you, this is a punishment. For your king, you are a bribe given in the hopes that we will try harder to provide him with a new batch of threshers for his waning airborne army.” He turned around again quickening his walk.
Triton leapt over the fence and followed the man to the barn. “I’m sorry for the way I have been presented to you. Even if your presumption of the king’s intentions is true, you would be foolish not to take advantage of it.”

The man continued walking as if Triton were not there. Triton stopped within the doorway of the barn and barked one last plea. “Look, I probably won’t be here for very long. I have someone working to prove my innocence as we speak. Once I’m cleared, I’ll be on my way. But for now I must fulfill the duty my king has issued me.”

Silence filled the air for nearly a zale as the man chopped and quartered large slabs of fresh meat with a cleaver dripping with blood. He picked up several of the large chunks with his bare hands and tossed them into the sunken stables a few steps away. Grunts and roars from a young raptor dragon sprung from the pen with the sounds of snapping bone and tearing flesh.

“What did you do?” the man asked as he swatted at a swarm of flies surrounding his head.

“What?” Triton expelled, surprised to finally hear the man’s voice as he listened to the vigorous chomping of the young dragon.

“What are you being punished for? Your king didn’t elaborate on the specifics of your crime.” He wiped the blood from his fingers with a dirty rag.

“I will honor the king’s judgment. If he did not explain, I will not either. But I assure you I am innocent.”

Another man, short and stocky, wearing a light brown cloth on his bald head, strapped on by a colorful bandanna, carried out a clothed human dummy from the back of the barn. He laughed loudly, his chortle becoming a hacking cough as he limped past Triton with his awkward bundle.

“Sure you are,” he said with a gravely voice he cleared with a snort. He spat on the ground next to the dummy he had just laid down, and then grabbed a bottle from his belt. “No one’s ever guilty.” He laughed as he poured the liquid from his bottle onto the dummy making sure he hit every limb.

Triton covered his nose from the nocuous fumes. The short man stood up slowly from his crouch then looked directly at Triton.

Triton was shocked to see the man’s eye was missing-a jagged three-fingered claw mark scarring his face from just above his left eyebrow to the left corner of his mouth. A blank white orb filled his missing eye, and the scars, long since healed from an obvious mishap with a dragon, were faint pink grooves splitting his rough pockmarked skin.

“Could you give me a hand with this?” he asked as he took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his brow.

Triton nodded. “Sure.”

He lifted the stinky burlap figure off the ground as the man grabbed a pole attached perpendicularly from the top of a round post. He spun it freely in its stone base swinging a noose, hanging from its end, close to Triton. Triton stared at the noose imagining the thick rope wrapped tightly around his neck; one of many nasty outcomes, he knew, he had averted with the king’s generosity.

“I’m Dagmar. I run the hatchery,” the short, one-eyed man said as he slipped the noose around the dummy’s head. He tightened the noose, gave Triton a nod, and then spoke in an incomprehensible mumble between grunts.

Triton realized Dagmar was telling him to drop the dummy. “I’m Triton from Antheon. King Gabriel’s personal guardian,” Triton returned, letting go of the stuffed dummy.

Dagmar chuckled as he pulled on the opposite end of the rope to raise the dummy to the full height of the post above the dragon pen.

“You mean Triton from Dimsbrough, Dagmar’s personal assistant. Your old life is gone now,” he said with a laugh and a cough. “You can room with Bally, the guard you met at the door, and help Winston.” He pointed to the other man Triton met at the fence. “You can help with the chores around the barn; feed the dragons and clean-up around the stables. And since you said you were the king’s personal guardian, I assume you must be a good marksman.”

Triton nodded.

“We could use a proper guardian for our egg-run tomorrow. I say you can keep your guardian responsibility as well. Bally could use an extra hand fending off the riff raff, thieves and such who make their way here from Dimsbrough with the hope of finding young women to soil. But first you will travel with us to Orthinon.”

He spun the dummy so it hung over the middle of the pen where five young dragons moved about. They were only two or three dagrons tall, none of them over four, as they were all only a single sun cycle old. Two of the small dragons tipped their heads to look up at the dummy hanging above. Spotting the figure, they began to shriek short gurgling cries. In an instant, a group of twenty or more dashed out of a small door at the side of the barn. As the group of small dragons chirped, squawked and jumped, flapping their underdeveloped wings, Dagmar lowered the smelly mannequin.

“You’ve probably never seen a dragon’s natural behavior, as they are in the wild,” Dagmar grunted as he held the weight of the dummy on the rope.

Triton had seen wild dragons, flocks of them on some of his journeys in the past, but he decided to listen and not cut in as his run-ins with the wild creatures where usually from a distance.

Suddenly Dagmar let go of the rope and the dummy fell to the bottom of the pen in a drooped sitting position. The miniature raptor dragon’s scattered. At first they started bobbing and scuffling in a nervous frenzy until slowly, one by one, they snapped and bit the dummy’s floppy arms and legs. Some leaped up and bit the drooping head, catching their teeth within the heavy burlap weave. They would hang for a moment flapping and wriggling until their sharp teeth cut through the material. After they fell down, they quickly jumped back up to have another go at it.

Triton watched in awe at the frightful mass of dragons.

“They’re a vicious little bunch aren’t they?” Dagmar crackled in his raspy voice.

Triton continued to stare, only nodding his response. Winston stepped over to the pen and watched with a smile.

“Pretty soon they’ll be repulsed by the thought of eating a human, even a small bite.” Winston spoke under his breath as he too was enthralled by the young raptor dragon’s behavior. “We cover the dummy with a mixture that is repulsive to the dragon’s. Eventually they associate the awful taste with the human figure. Within a couple of lunar cycles Dagmar and I can even roam among them without the fear of being bitten.”

“So my thresher dragon doesn’t eat me because he thinks I taste bad?” Triton asked, still mesmerized by the small raptors.

“Yes,” answered Winston.

Dagmar laughed and scratched his leg.

As they watched, the dragons had become disinterested. Those who had taken a hearty mouthful of the stuffing shook their heads and spit the nauseating innards from their mouths. Others licked at their wings in an attempt to rid themselves of the bitter taste. After a few short zales, none of them took another bite. The dummy had many gashes but still remained intact.

“We go through about two to three dummies having the girls patch up the old ones before the dragons make the connection,” Winston added.

Dagmar pulled the dummy back up as all the dragons had become disenchanted with it. Many disappeared back through the small door to the barn, while the others still in the pen, scattered as the dummy rose from their enclosure.

Dagmar spun the post and dropped the gnarled smelly figure on the ground next to Triton.

Dagmar pointed his stubby finger at the torn dummy. “As you can see, wild dragons are a dangerous bunch. I’m hoping, with you along on our egg-run tomorrow, no one will have to end up looking like this.”

“How many will be making the trip? The ruins of Orthinon are a good ten to twelve solars southeast of here,” Triton said.

Winston adjusted his brimmed hat and cleared his throat. “A team of six runners, along with you and Dagmar,” he replied.

“If we use your thresher over there,” Dagmar added peering across the yard to the shady tree Dagger was sleeping beneath, “we should only need to use two other raptors to get us to Orthinon.”

“That’s eight people and only three dragons, not to mention the weight of the eggs you’ll be returning with. How do you figure?”

“He’s a quick one,” Winston joked as he returned to the barn to chop more meat.

Dagmar stepped closer to Triton and patted his shoulder. “You and I can use your thresher and the runners can use the raptors,” he explained.

Triton knew raptors, when fully grown, were a fair size, but easily smaller than a thresher. Three riders to a raptor would be impossible, he thought.

The sound of children suddenly caught his attention. He turned his gaze from Dagmar’s ugly grin to the front of the rounded adobe building. A group of ten children ran and played while Bally and two women watched over them. He counted another two children sitting within the frame of a large rounded window, making twelve in all.

“Children,” Triton uttered. “You use children to gather the dragon eggs.”

“Yes. They’re very good at it. Their low profile helps them hide in the tall grass. It’s an arrangement that has worked out quite well,” Dagmar said, his words trailing off into a gravelly mumble.

“Worked out for who? You? How many runs do you make within a sun cycle?”

Dagmar mumbled, “One usually, sometimes two if we get a bad batch. The best harvesting times are short, especially for raptors.”

“How many children have you lost to these egg-runs?”

Dagmar snapped back, angry and red faced. “We’ve done it this way for more than eighteen sun cycles, endorsed with the approval of King Minon of Zendaria during his rule of Dimsbrough. I don’t need the approval of a convicted Guardian of Antheon.” He looked out toward Dagger rustling beneath the tree on the far side of the complex. “Your dragon will benefit us on our run, but I’m not set up to feed such a beast this season. You’ll have to send him out to feed within Antheon’s borderland. That way your king can answer for his hunger when it decides to feast on the livestock of farmers.” He picked up the dummy still reeking of pungent fluid and stormed into the barn.

Winston looked at Triton, smiled, and shook his head, then went back to chopping more bloody morsels for the dragons.

Triton looked back at the boys and girls running and playing. “Children,” he repeated with disgust. “He uses children.”

* * * * *

Morton’s tavern was a short walk from where Rittan left Mizar in the lowland dragon pens to feed. It had become hot and humid, but the streets were still busy with people and pangas, carts and venders, and a few wondering vagrants. Conspiracy, demons, and rumors of the king having pardoned Triton were heard as whispers from passers by. How would he ever find evidence to secure Triton’s innocence, Rittan asked himself. It seemed like an impossible task. Rittan’s only guiding light was his faith and Triton’s word. It was barely enough for him, a close friend, to believe let alone the entire kingdom. He had to stay focused, he reminded himself.

He turned a corner and headed down one of the narrow twisting back streets lined by tall-interconnected adobe buildings. Narrow bridges spanned between them, two, and sometimes three stories up. Only that of the smoothly hewed mountainside, looking as if it climbed clear up to the sky where the kingdom sat, could be seen to the north. From the narrow street, Morton’s tavern was little more than a sunken wall sandwiched between two large buildings. Round beams extended off its front along an uneven roofline above two window openings. Its door, which stayed open throughout the day and night, doused the hot street with the inviting aroma of Rittan’s favorite dish; jamber steak.

A vagrant, cloaked in heavy black robes, sat slumped on a bench set outside the tavern. His long spidery fingers, gray and blotchy, lay folded together on his lap. Rittan, who was sweating beneath his armor, glanced at the man surprised by his ability to endure the heat. He figured him to be one of the vagrants who milled about the streets probably unable to enjoy more than a whiff of a good meal. Feeling sorry for him, he tossed a silver talon onto the bench.

The vagrant’s bony hand reached down to rest on the weathered bench after Rittan slipped into the crowded tavern. The coin, over two arm lengths away, shuddered then magically slid the full distance to rest beneath his gray wrinkled finger.

Inside, a large group of people, for the tavern’s small size, had already gathered for lunch and the company of friends. Rittan weaved through the crowd and ordered his usual, jamber steak, brown root, and smish beans with a pint of Morton’s popular ale. He tossed down a silver talon, two phrons and three copper clags, already knowing the price for his food without looking at the menu, and headed to a small wooden table. He gave his hellos to several acquaintances, dodged one of the many animal skulls decorating the interior, and then sat down.

The table was sticky with powdery orange thangrin spice spilled across it. It wasn’t the cleanest establishment, he knew, but the food was good. The robust smells of cooking meat and spilled beer filled the air as he listened to the stories of the men nearby. A mix of travelers, peddlers, farmers, and guardians all gathered here. The same discussions he had heard on the street were also the topic of conversation in the tavern. Everything from farmers claiming to have seen gorgonons flying over their land the night before the Lord Matriarch’s death to the retelling of old fables of the dark king’s rise to power could be heard. But it was a group of six men, two of whom were guardians, Rittan grew most interested in eavesdropping on. After being served his food by Morton’s plump wife, Rittan listened to the guardian’s story. They spoke of the large gossamers they had found and the bodies of the Lord Matriarch’s entourage of which, they explained, only one young girl had been recovered alive.

As Rittan dug into his lunch, he listened more intently. They were obviously speaking first hand of their experience. The details they spoke of fit with what little Rittan knew to be fact.

“It was I who found Triton,” bragged one of the guardians. “His dragon was laying in the water half-dead. Prodious was sitting on Triton’s dragon, and Triton was laying in the water unconscious.”

“Prodious? Why was Prodious sitting on Triton’s dragon?” asked a short pudgy farmer sitting at the table.

“Prodious said he stopped him. He knocked him out with a punch. He would’ve drowned if I hadn’t plucked him from the water when I did.”

“Would’ve been better that way,” said another.

“Justice would’ve been served as it should’a,” added yet another.

“King’s gotten senile,” shot the pudgy farmer.

The other guardian put down his drink then added what he remembered. “He was pretty beat up when we saw him. His face was red and swollen, and his hair was singed. We never did find his helmet.”

Rittan nearly choked on his food after he heard the last guardian. It wasn’t much, and would have easily been passed over had he not been desperate for the tinniest shred of evidence to prove Triton’s innocence, but it stood out when he heard it.

He stood up from his chair and cut in on the group’s conversation. “Did you say his helmet was missing?”

The young guardian, who suddenly looked worried about being reprimanded, said nothing. He noticed the dragon emblem on the upper left corner of Rittan’s breastplate, indicating his higher rank. The fear of punishment for discussing his experiences openly, after he had been told to keep quiet about the subject, made him think twice about uttering another word. The entire tavern grew silent, as Rittan’s question had been asked so loudly everyone had become interested in the answer and why it was so important.

The young guardian stood dumbfounded, unable to answer. His partner, showed no fear. He had seen Rittan before and knew him to be a fair man.

“Yes. In fact, he was missing his helmet, gloves, and his shield. His shield was found in the water, but we never found his helmet and gloves,” he answered.

Rittan thought for a moment with the entire tavern waiting for his next question.

It was not much to go on, but if he could find Triton’s helmet, he might have his answer. He just wished he could reach Triton to get more details now that he knew what to ask.

He gave the guardians a quick thank you and bolted out the door to the bewilderment of all those in the tavern.

As Rittan raced down the narrow street to head back to his dragon, the cloaked figure stood-up from his nestled position on the bench, watched Rittan for a moment, then turned and walked in the opposite direction.


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