Prologue: The Dragon’s Land
A Time Before the Years Were Named (-400 DR)
Thauglor, King of the Forest Country, turned in a low, banking dive. As the wind’s whistle became a tearing, humming drone, the treetops of the vale rose swiftly to meet him. He let out a deepthroated roar, and the small herd of forest buffalo bolted from their hiding place, stumbling and snorting in panic. Most of the shaggy beasts swerved to plunge back into the forest as Thauglor’s shadow passed over them.
Not good, thought Thauglor. The dragon banked again and cut across the path of the beasts that were still visible, bellowing a second time. The twenty or so animals that remained wheeled in a confusion of dust and churning hooves and headed in the opposite direction, back toward the clearing where Thauglor intended to meet them.
The great black dragon unfurled his wings and beat down powerfully, cutting the heavy summer air in long, steady strokes, seeking to catch the stampeding beasts just as they broke from the forest cover. For a fleeting moment, he could hear the splintering and thrashing of their frantic passage beneath him. Skimming the treetops, Thauglor had to curl the tips of his wings and swerve to dodge the tallest oaks and duskwoods as he rushed to bring death to the beasts below.
Thauglor the Black and the buffalo herd reached the clearing at the same instant.
The expected updraft at the edge of the trees lifted the great dragon slightly as the first of the shaggy brown forms broke free of the forest cover. Thauglor’s great shadow fell across them, the high summer sun shining through his thin wing membranes. The bawling herd tried to turn again, back to the cool protection of the trees, but by then it was too late.
The dragon roared a third time, a roar of triumph, and fell among the tightly packed, frightened animals. They were screaming and bolting in all directions now, but Thauglor swooped among them with ruthless precision.
His great scaled bulk bore down on one luckless beast, snapping the buffalo’s spine and smashing the hapless creature flat. Thauglor’s claws reached out to tear the bellies of another fleeing pair. Even as they shrieked and struggled, the dragon’s jaws closed on a fourth meal and tightened with a splintering of bone.
The dying beast thrashed in the teeth that imprisoned it, not realizing yet that it was dying. It lowed softly, calling for aid and comfort that would not come. The great wyrm shook it as a cat shakes a mouse, then flung it to the ground. The buffalo struck the hard-packed earth with a wet, messy thud, spasmed once, and then sagged into immobility, its struggles done forever.
Thauglor the Black, master of all the forest, looked about in satisfaction. The surviving buffalo had bolted back into the safety of the trees, leaving behind only the four offerings to the dragon’s huntsmanship. Three lay like brown-shaded boulders tinged with fresh crimson streaks. The last of the offerings still twitched and spasmed in its final mortal moments.
Thauglor watched its passing with idle interest. The buffalo was lying on its side, staring up at its slayer with a single blood-filled eye. As the ancient black dragon loomed over it, the bleeding eye widened in even greater fear, and its owner attempted to squirm away, its broken back spasming as it tried to rise on shattered legs. Thauglor ripped open the creature’s belly with a casual claw, and the light in the forest buffalo’s eyes died.
It was time to dine. The great dragon wrapped his jaws around the still-warm body and tilted his head upward. Powerful muscles surged, distending the jaw to widen the passage to Thauglor’s throat. The blood- drenched buffalo, small in comparison with the beast devouring it, slid effortlessly down the dragon’s gullet. Had any creature dared to tarry in the clearing to watch an elder black dragon feed, it would have seen a small lump slide slowly along the throat, corded muscles halting it for a moment to crush it further before the buffalo disappeared forever into the belly of the wyrm.
The first morsel took the edge off Thauglor’s hunger, and he approached the second in a more leisurely manner, taking the time to savor the buffalo’s steaming entrails and stomach, rolling the juicy organs around in his mouth with an appreciative tongue before swallowing. He cracked the skull of his prey with the heavy grinding fangs along one side of his jaw, then plucked out the soft contents within with a deft stab of a delicate tongue tip.
The gentle, wet sound of Thauglor’s feeding was drowned out by a small nearby screech-more of a draconian cough-and Thauglor raised his head from his midday meal, eyes suddenly narrow and dangerous.
At the edge of the clearing, another black dragon was settling out of the sky-a youngling, a runt no more than ten winters old, his scales still soft and shining as if he were newly emerged from the egg. The lightness of his belly plates marked him as one of Casarial’s brood, and he showed all the impetuousness of Thauglor’s youngest granddaughter. The newcomer eased forward, seeking to snare one of the remaining corpses from his elder.
Thauglor’s eyes narrowed to slits, and he let out a low, throaty growl. There would be no sharing this day, at least not until the great black had had his fill. And definitely not with some youngling who showed so little respect as to try to sneak away a few scraps from Thauglor’s buffet.
Thauglor rose on his haunches and spread his wings to their full extent, touching the tips together above his head and eclipsing the youth in his shadow. The young dragon froze in place beneath Thauglor’s stare, and the older dragon wondered for a moment if the youngster would be foolish enough to press the issue.
The youngling’s eyes told the tale. Pools of fear glimmered at their heart as the youth suddenly realized his peril. Slowly the youngling edged back.
Probably when the runt landed he had been thinking about how easy it would be to steal a scrap from the doddering elder, a creature so old that his scale edges were turning a pale violet. Only now would the youth realize that this was no aged and toothless wyrm. Only now might the youth think of stories told of the great and venerable progenitor of the local black dragons.
“Do you have a name, youngling?” said Thauglor, posing the question in the most archaic and exact tones of Auld Wyrmish. The scent that wafted from Thauglor’s scales underscored that this was no polite request, but an imperious demand.
“K-Kreston,” said the youth, stammering slightly, handling the ancient tongue with all the discomfort of a schoolboy in grammar class. “Spawn of Casarial out of Miranatol, grandchild of Hesior, blood of the mighty Thauglorimorgorus, the Black Doom. Sir.”
“Your mother Casarial was often impetuous,” said Thauglor. “Ask her how she gained the scar over her left eye.” After a moment, he added levelly, “You should put that question to her carefully and politely.”
The young dragon nodded, and Thauglor rumbled, “Wait at the edge of the clearing. You may have the remains. Better next time that you watch the hunt and learn to catch such meals yourself.”
Another gulp and nod, and Kreston retreated to the forest’s edge. His eyes still held their fear and never left the elder dragon. Though Thauglor never gave his own name-the youth was wise enough not to demand it-the purple-scaled elder was sure the young dragon had recognized his forefather.
Thauglor cut the choicest meats from the forest buffalo’s corpse, wielding his dewclaw with the slicing skill of a master butcher, and took them into his mouth with a tongue that curled in indolent ease.
Not bothering to glance at the younger blackscales, Thauglor gnashed his old, yellowing fangs once, yawned, and turned to his other kills. His hunger was sated, but the King of the Forest Country deliberately cracked the skulls and feasted on the entrails of the two remaining bodies, gorging himself. As he did so, he cast an errant eye at the young male who waited like a quivering statue at the clearing’s edge, wide eyes recording Thauglor’s every move.
There were more like this Kreston every decade-black dragons of his bloodline whom he did not know personally. It had been at least a hundred summers since he’d last visited all of his descendants, children and grandchildren combined. Most of his own brood were properly deferential, as were their children. But these latest pups were almost insulting in their presumption and the cute boldness of youth would be little protection as they moved into gangly adolescence. Thauglor would see to that.
Others would, if he did not. Perhaps another tour of his forest domain was in order, to put a little fear of their