The old grenz stands just outside the inn and takes a long deep breath from his pipe. The innkeeper has tolerated the thick smoke of his pipe on some nights, but after the cup earlier her patience is at her limit for the evening. He holds the smoke in his lungs for a moment, and slowly lets it out in a plume the towns children say resembles dragon’s breath. The grenz knows better.
“Where is Genn?” a little girl standing in the doorway asks.
The grenz frowns, takes a moment to consider the stars, then points out Southeast over the Sea of Sorrows. “Across the sea and down a ways from here.”
“Is that where you’re from?” she asks him.
“Yes and no, little one,” the old one tilts his head back, taking another long draw through the corner of his mouth. He nods up at the stars, “My people came from up there, once upon a time.”
The little girl looks skeptical. “You said stories with ‘once upon a time’ weren’t true.”
“I said you would ‘think’ the story wasn’t true,” the old grenz says smiling. He knocks the bowl of his pipe on the heel of his boot, “I never said it *wasn’t* true.”
He turns round and walks back inside, patting the girls head as he walks through. He returns to his seat, in the corner by the fire. He pats the red cloth bundle once more, making sure the contents have not been meddled with. He settles down and reaches for a cup that has been refilled in his absence. He does not normally tell more than one story a night, but this is a special occasion. He clears his throat and begins again.
The quickest way back to the land of Genn, from the mountain of Teag, led through the Wood that Wanders no More. Knowing the the Wyrd of the Wood had not forgiven her his humiliation, she consulted the raven for the next fastest route. They turned South, the raven deciding to travel with Ayla until she come safely to her home. The road South took them down to the ruins of Xeph, devastated ages ago by the dragon Abrugess. The dragon was long gone, but the devastation remained. No crops would grow there, no birds flew, even insects and things that feed upon decay shunned the wasted land. Raven warned Ayla, that neither she nor her horse, Sathial, should drink any of the water or eat a single blade of grass while in the land of Xeph.
As they trekked across the cursed land, Ayla was overcome with awe. The city that lay in ruins before her was bigger than any she’d ever imagined. It spread as far as she could see. Many of the buildings stood, even as they crumbled, as higher than any building in her village, and some even higher than the castle she’d seen in Teag. The old wide road that cut through the city was broken and choked with foul weeds (the only things which would still grow in Xeph).
Ayla asked, in wonder, “Why did the dragon attack Xeph?”
“Perhaps the riches of Xeph provoked the dragon’s greed, or their arcane knowledge the dragons envy. The motives of dragons are driven thusly,” the raven replied.
“But you don’t know?”
“No one does,” replied the raven, “That knowledge may only be known by creatures as old as Father Ash or the Morrigan.”
They traveled until nightfall, when they made camp beside the road, among the ruins. Sathial seemed to understand the raven’s warning, and made no move to touch the water of Xeph. It was after dark when the traveller came upon their camp.
The traveller had been a simple merchant on his way through the territory. He had not heeded the warning though, and had drank from the tainted water. The dragon’s curse was in him now, and all a dragon’s cruel ambition. He spotted the fire of Ayla and her company, and saw the green hammer of Ayla, glittering like emerald in the firelight. To the traveller’s eyes, the eyes of a dragon, its value was clear. Priceless.
The traveller greeted Ayla warmly, with a friendly smile, and asked to share her fire. Raven’s eyes were far sharper than Ayla’s, and he saw at once that the traveller was not to be trusted. But Ayla was young, and the traveller had many exciting stories to tell of the lands South of Xeph, which Ayla had never heard. Indeed, Ayla had never met anyone from beyond the South of Genn.
The traveller told many tales that night. The tale of Jaydal and his hundred mice, the tale of Sart and the princess, and many stories of the Witch-haven. But into his stories, he wove a spell. Even the raven realized all too late the true danger their small company was in. And the black bird too fell asleep, as the enchantment fell upon them.
Ayla fought to keep her eyes open as the raven and Sathial the mare fell under the spells influence, but in the end, even her eyes fell under the heavy weight of the traveller’s sorcery. He smiled a wide wicked smile when Ayla’s eyes were finally closed, and boasted to the enchanted girl, “Foolish child. How one such as you came by a weapon so grand I cannot guess, but it is wasted on you surely. It should be mine, and so it shall.”
He crossed the camp to Ayla, and wrapped his thin hands about the hammer’s shaft. It is known foul things follow the thief of such a treasure, but a dragon’s greed will hear no reason. For the only words a dragon hears when he sees a thing of such value is, “I want. I want. I want.”
And so the traveller lifted the hammer. He could not take it however, for Ayla’s hand was still gripped around it tightly. He snarled at the sleeping girl, “Let go.”
He pulled again, shaking Ayla, but still she would not give. “Let go!” he hissed again, and he yanked the hammer hard. Ayla struggled and fought, and opened her eyes just slightly.
“No,” she groaned out, “It is mine. It was a gift.”
“I don’t care. You will give it to me,” the traveller said with the force of strong enchantment. Ayla’s eyes nearly fluttered shut once more, but opened when she felt the hammer tugged again.
“I said,” she strained, and turned her head up to look the traveller in the eye, “it is mine.”
The traveller wove more witchcraft into the air, and tried once more to forced the child to give him the hammer. With one final push he poured his will into the child. “Give it to me!”
And Ayla struck him. With all the might she could muster she threw her tiny fist into the traveller’s eye.
“I said no!” she cried. The traveller fell back, and his spell was broken. Raven and Sathial awoke as if returning to life.
“Ayla, what has happened,” croaked the raven.
“The traveller tried to take my hammer. He made you fall asleep, I don’t know how,” She replied. Raven squawked out in alarm.
“Run, daughter of Aster. We must run at once,” he cried.
“Why?” she asked, but even as she did, the traveller stood, and she saw that where she had struck the traveller, there was no bruise or blood. Instead, where she had struck him now shone with a silvery glint of scales, and his eye was black as the night itself. The raven squawked again in fright. The raven knew the curse of Xeph lived in the water and plants that grew in this land. But those that drank the water simply awoke the dragon’s greed and ambition. This traveller had called on powers greater than he could contain though, and when he had failed to take the hammer, something else had woken in him.
“Run Ayla, I beg of you, you cannot fight this thing,” the raven cried as it took flight. The traveller’s eye followed the raven, into the night. Followed it even beyond the firelight where no mortal eye could see the silent black bird. The traveller opened his mouth, and a sound like the screeching of steel on stone was accompanied by a jet of fire spit into the air. Not a plume or a cloud, for it did not behave like an air or vapor, it was like liquid, and it flowed along through the air like a river of fire. A mighty river of burning death, with tributaries branching off, some to rejoin the river later, others to reap their own smaller destruction elsewhere. For a moment, in the light of such a fire, the night was as day in the land of Xeph. The traveller had had a dragon’s greed, and now he had a dragon’s wrath.
Ayla had never run from a fight in her life. She had fought the Wyrd of the Wood, and the Giant of Teag mountain. She ran from the dragon fire.
She threw herself and her hammer over the back of the frightened Sathial and fled. But Ayla’s eyes were not as sharp as the raven’s, and she could not be sure in dark of which way they had entered the city from. She looked behind her, and saw that the traveller’s eyes were following her now. His mouth had burned, but where the skin would have been black and blistered, more silvery scales had appeared. She threw her heels into Sathial, though the mare needed little convincing. The mare picked the direction, and Ayla did not protest, wanting only to get away from the horrid thing behind them.
Ayla heard the screech she had heard before, and pulled hard on Sathial’s reins, turning them down through the broken side streets of Xeph. The pillar of death that cut through the building behind missed them narrowly. Narrowly enough to catch Ayla’s cloak on fire. The old cloak lit up like a torch and Ayla scrambled to remove it as Sathial guided their flight. To the North, in the land of Genn, the sky was lit by strange lights that, while no one could explain why, all would say looked foul. Aster, the mother of Ayla, looked out worriedly from her home, while Ayla Green-hammer, rode as fast as she could. To the South.
The old grenz sets down his cup. There is no round of clapping this time. Those that did stay for the second story is mostly gone already, and it is quite late. He looks at the dying embers of the fire, and yawns. “We will continue again tomorrow night, little one.”
The girl groans, “Can’t you tell just one more? Where did she go to? Why did the traveller turn into a dragon? Does everyone who drinks the water in Xeph turn into a dragon?”
The grenz chuckles as he sighs, “So many questions, and I am too tired to answer all of them. But I think I will answer one. Tomorrow night, we will start with the tale of Ayla’s arrival in the Witch-haven.”