Elgin faced a difficult battle where he believed his magic was insufficient.
The Dragon of Yellow Wood
by Bill Snodgrass
In The Opus Hari Mountains,
Realm of Yellow Wood
Week 3, Day 1
“Two paths diverge before you, dear Shreg,” Zhalunts declared. He paused for affect, letting his gaze pan away from the warrior to the chamber's opening. He played his eyes over the scenery outside his vast cavern fortress—the expanse of sky above and forest that made up the realm of Yellow Wood.
“You are free to select from either of them,” Zhalunts said after a moment. His lips drew back into a jagged smile, and he bobbed his head, affirming his own judgment. “As I see it, for one from the baine race, you are fortunate. Fortunate to have two choices, and each having claim to certain merits.”
“And each with cost,” Shreg replied. “I may yield my sword to the Dark Council and become their warrior. In return, I would be made wealthy and have a vast army at my back.” He drew up the long arms common to his race and placed his thick, gray hands on his hips. “Or, I may serve you and trade the security of the Dark Council’s army for your promise of power.”
Zhalunts bobbed his head again, once more letting the silence fill the great chamber where he and the baine warrior treated. Shreg turned from him, striding toward the opening and looking out on the realm below. The forest of Yellow Wood grew to the very base of the cliff into which Zhalunts's delving had been carved. Hints of smoke—little more than a thin, gray haze—rose from the forest top in places indicating the locations of the realm's communities that were close enough to be seen from the opening.
A quiet moment passed, then Shreg turned back around. His expression was blank and distant. Zhalunts curled his lips once more and met the warrior's gaze.
“The Dark Council would have your sword as one of their many warrior slaves.” Zhalunts squinted his eyes and, lying belly-down on the floor of the great cavern, folded his arms and propped his chin on them.
Shreg shrugged. The black of his oval eyes betrayed his uncertainty.
“You know they court Clenog the Dark toward their service as well.” Zhalunts cocked his head to one side. “Is he not, like you, considered to be one of the greatest warriors ever? As their servant, Shreg the Watchful would be only one... one of many in their company... and they would turn the threat of your skill at arms to their evil designs while boring you with money and a dull life. Would you so easily take up their cause and join their wicked ways?”
“To refuse them,” Shreg growled back, “is to abandon my history, to abandon my past, and forever be looking over my shoulder for their revenge. I would have to take a new name. I would have to assume a new identity. If I say ‘no’ to the Dark Council, they will give me no peace... they will hunt me forever.”
“What part of your history would you regret losing? You’re a baine. You might have pride in your own, but be sure the elves, humans, and dwarves consider you and all your people without honor. You are barely more than a beast to them.”
Shreg did not find comfort in Zhalunts’s remarks.
“I made the name of Shreg, the Watchful one that strikes fear in the hearts of men, elves, and dwarves alike,” he replied. “I cannot easily abandon that.”
“So, to refuse the Dark Council requires only that you abandon your esteemed reputation as a warrior. Reputations can easily be remade. One name forgotten, another learned. What is the difference to you?”
“I know what you would say. You would have me join you.”
Zhalunts lifted his head, puffing smoke from his mouth as he smiled again. Looking knowingly at Shreg, he scratched his scaly chin with his long forefinger. “You already lean toward making that choice. Why else would you be here?”
Shreg nodded and hung his head sadly. “You’d have me walk away from my past to be your servant?”
“Not so much leave your old name as claim a new name to make great. Take your dead brother’s name, Gonelc, if you will, and join me. Not so much a servant as a partner. I would have you be the face and voice that commands the realm I will make for us. A part of all spoils would be yours. You would have a chance to create a place in history for another great baine warrior, but this one also a great leader. You would have wealth beyond your imagination and command respect due your power at arms, as well as mine.”
Shreg looked at Zhalunts thoughtfully. “I am sorry I cannot choose both.” The baine shook his broad head in dismay.
“Be sure you decide well,” Zhalunts added. “Once you set out on a path, there will be little chance of ever coming back. You will not be free to pass the same junction twice.”
“By choosing one, I make an enemy of the other,” Shreg restated.
“I would hope you accept my offer,” Zhalunts added. “Few people enjoy making an enemy of a dragon.” He puffed just a hint of fire from his nose as he smiled redolently.
* * *
Within days of his discussion, Shreg the Watchful disappeared forever, and Gonelc the Cold stood with Dragon Master Zhalunts as his henchman. Within months, the citizens of Yellow Wood yielded to the wills of the dragon, the baine warrior, and the soldiers they hired. The people there exchanged their abiding peace and contentment for slave service in the mines and foundries.
The passing of six years made Gonelc and Zhalunts rich, and rumors of Gonelc’s prowess spread quickly. More than one champion had been secretly hired by the people of Yellow Wood to dispatch the dragon’s henchman, but none had lived to collect his bounty.
His own growing reputation and his allegiance to Zhalunts afforded Gonelc near unopposed power over the people of Yellow Wood. He had filled the dragon’s lair with gold and silver carefully measured into shares, part for Zhalunts and part for himself. Yet, the people of Yellow Wood never fully conceded to being ruled by a dragon and a baine.
4607, Midsummer, Week 4, Day 2
Gonelc the Cold and a platoon of his human soldiers approached the town of Riversbend, the former capital of the realm before the coming of Zhalunts. Squinting against the bright sunlight, the great baine warrior immediately knew there would be trouble. Though it was midday and their arrival was expected, the stockade gate was closed. Before drawing within bow range, Gonelc paused to survey the situation closely.
Lingering at the edge of the forest, Zhalunts’s henchman surveyed the town and its walls. Scents of the rich forest soil reached the noses of the baine and humans alike, intermingled with the sweet smell of the honeysuckle that grew thick at the forest’s edge. No other smells were present—no smell of smoke from chimneys, no smell of food being cooked for the midday meal. The normal sounds of the community busy at work were missing as well. Gonelc stared across the open space between him and the town, seeking some reason for the odd circumstance.
Turning to one of his soldiers nearby, he said, “Can you see what’s going on? I strain my eyes, but see nothing.”
“My liege, the town looks empty.”
Gonelc took a step toward the town, resting his hand on the trunk of an old tree. Behind him, the forest floor was darkened by shade, except where sunbeams found spaces through the leaves to shine down. Ahead of him, the vast drifts of wildflowers that filled the clearing were flooded by sunlight uninhibited. Gonelc’s eyes discerned no explanation.
“Odd,” Gonelc replied, inwardly cursing the weak daytime vision he shared with others of his race. “They know we come for a tax payment on Second Day each week. This bodes trouble.”
“We have had more than our share of trouble over the years,” replied Captain Corin, the human who commanded the platoon. “Yet of late, things have been peaceful. Have I not said that it has been too quiet and too easy for the last season, my liege?”
“More than once,” Gonelc agreed. “Maybe I should have listened more carefully...”
The great baine warrior let his words trail off and turned to Corin. “Well, let’s see what is going on.” Then turning to the platoon, he declared, “Shields up! Move forward.”
The one hundred human soldiers brought their shields into position to defend against potential arrow attacks, and stepped uniformly forward. Four columns wide, they drew to within a stone’s throw of the town when a figure known well to Gonelc appeared above the stockade where he had climbed to the walk.
“Priest Hethmon,” Gonelc declared. “What treason are you up to today?”
“Bah!” the old priest yelled, rolling his eyes and waving his liver-spotted hand at the accusation. “Just want to tell you that Riversbend is empty. Just me in here. So it will be no taxes for you today.”
Gonelc knew that Priest Hethmon had opposed the rule of Zhalunts from the very beginning, but he had never done anything like this before. Hethmon was a simple man, born and raised in Yellow Wood, but Gonelc knew he was cunning despite his colloquial manners. Worse, he spoke for those of the realm who would oppose Zhalunts rule, hiding ever behind his priestly office for protection.
Zhalunts should have let me kill him long ago, Gonelc thought. He looked the priest in the eye and demanded, “What have you done?”
Hethmon laughed. “What have I done? Me? Nothing. Well, wait.” He laughed again, shook his head wryly. “Would you consider massing five thousand armed men down in Mossy Oak something?”
“You lie,” Gonelc replied instantly.
The priest laughed again, shaking his head from side to side.
“No, I don’t lie, now do I? Wouldn’t be fitting a man in my service to go around telling falsehoods. Sure enough, it was right at five thousand, counting the lads with bows, all gathered down in Mossy Oak.”
He laughed once more, beside himself with delight.
“We’ve been planning this for two years now. All the elders, women, and children have fled into hiding. I suppose if you kill the men, you’ll hunt them down, too. Most likely at night, right? Send out your baine platoons to do your dirty work under the cover of darkness... That’s the way you do it, right? You torment us with your human marauders by day and the baines by night.”
Gonelc ignored Hethmon’s slanders, instead focusing on the matter at hand. He concluded that if the priest were telling the truth, it would indeed be Mossy Oak where the people of Yellow Wood would take a stand. The little town with its stone wall for defense was on the edge of the realm in the foothills of the Opus Hari, some thirty miles from Riversbend, and as far from Zhalunts’s lair as possible.
Five thousand men sounded reasonable for the realm, but as untrained soldiers for the most part, it would not mean certain victory over the four hundred who served Gonelc. His men were armed with good weapons, equipped with chain mail over leather vests, helmets, and shields, and were drilled and practiced regularly. Further, Gonelc could call on Zhalunts and his brood.
The Dragon Master’s henchman turned to one of his soldiers and declared, “Go summon the other three platoons. Have all the soldiers convene on Mossy Oak by sunset tomorrow.”
Priest Hethmon was still laughing as he disappeared behind the wooden wall.
“Old fool,” he muttered to himself. “When this is all done, if Zhalunts won’t let me kill him, at least I’ll toss him in a dungeon.”
Gonelc looked down at the ring shaped like a curled dragon on his finger–a magic ring given to him by Zhalunts that, when activated, would summon the dragon. Gonelc had, in the six years of their rule, used the ring only twice. It comforted him to know he could call in the power and might of a dragon and its brood, but he did not yet deem the circumstances serious enough to do so.
Gonelc and his men battered down the stockade gate and found the town abandoned, just as Hethmon had reported. They wasted only a few minutes looking for the priest before giving up.
With a deep sigh, Gonelc conceded to the task of dealing with the uprising. He hoped for an ending that would leave the realm with able bodies to work the mines and create the spoils, but he had his fears.
Turning away from Riversbend, the Dragon’s Henchman led his platoon west toward Mossy Oak. He once more considered whether his four hundred well-trained soldiers could prevail over the five thousand armed men of the realm. It would be a close call, if it actually came to combat.
My soldiers will have to fight with great order, he thought. I dare say if we cut down a few hundred of them before any significant loss on our side, they’ll give it up.
He rubbed his thick baine fingers over his square jaw thoughtfully.
“I hate the idea of a siege,” he muttered aloud to no one in particular.
“A siege of Mossy Oak would be a fell turn,” Captain Corin agreed. “I’d imagine that many of the slaves would be killed, if it comes to that.”
Gonelc nodded his head. He thought more than once to use the magic ring to summon Zhalunts, but decided to reserve that measure for the case of actual combat.
“Let us hope,” Gonelc said, “that we can make the men see things sensibly. To kill them... to kill merely enough of them to convince the others to lay down their weapons... would waste able bodies who should be working the mines.”
* * *
By noon the next day, Gonelc, Corin, and their platoon reached Mossy Oak. Smoke curled from many chimneys of the town set on the side of the mountain above them, but there were no other signs of activity.
“Looks like they are keeping their heads down,” Captain Corin remarked.
“I would be in their place,” Gonelc replied. “Under a rock if I could. They must know that their little wall will not protect them from Zhalunts’s flight. I bet they are all indoors keeping a watch for us.”
Captain Corin deployed his men forward, out of the range of bows from the town, but well beyond the forest through which the road from Riversbend passed. The afternoon passed slowly, affording no evidence of the enemy, nor any sign of the other three platoons. Gonelc’s nerves were on edge as he waited. More than once, he considered summoning his master, but each time convinced himself to wait a little longer.
Just before the sun kissed the horizon, no longer able to remain patient, Gonelc ordered scouts forward. They picked their way from boulder to ditch as they approached the town. After a few minutes, they slipped over the wall and disappeared.
No more than two minutes passed before the gates of Mossy Oak swung open and the scouts appeared jogging back toward Gonelc and Captain Corin.
“The town’s empty!” one shouted.
“We only saw one person. One of the priest’s helpers!” declared another.
Gonelc looked at Corin, then at the town, and at last back up the road. He placed his hand on his forehead, at loss to find words. He peered into the forest behind them hoping to see some sign of his troops.
Instead, a single figure was spotted marching forward, coming down the same road Gonelc and his men had followed from Riversbend. Gonelc shook his head when he recognized the man. The great baine warrior turned and faced the direction to watch Priest Hethmon approach.
The old priest paused a fair distance away, making effort neither to approach nor remain unseen.
“Hehehe,” the priest chuckled. “I have to be honest, I figured you’d have killed me back in Riversbend.”
“I should have!” Gonelc retorted. “Come closer and give me a chance!”
“No, now, I don’t think that will be happening, today. No, I came here to clear my conscience with you,” the priest replied.
“You know... Conscience.... When you feel bad for doing something wrong. Oh wait. Sorry.... I guess you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Gonelc bit his tongue and let the old priest continue.
“Well, now,” Hethmon declared, barely showing a smile on his lips, “I misled you back in Riversbend. Oh, the five thousand part was true, all right, but as you have seen, the town’s empty. Now, don’t get me wrong.... They were massed here, like I said.... But I led you to believe they were still here, didn’t I?”
Gonelc seethed at the grin on the priest's face. The baine ground his teeth, but continued to listen.
“Truth is, they spent the better part of yesterday hunting down your baine platoons over near Shine Rock, and last night hunting down your other human platoon up north by Hester Keep. That leaves you hear alone with just these men.”
Gonelc could not believe what he was hearing. He glanced over his shoulder at the smoke curling up from the chimneys.
“Just a couple of my acolytes in there running house to house stoking the stoves.” Hethmon nodded his head, a look of contempt fully formed on his face.
Gonelc shook his head. His broad face fell in awe, one thick hand pawing the other. “It cannot be,” he said, squinting his eyes into black slits.
“Oh, it is.”
Gonelc cast his eyes on the ring he wore.
At that, the priest called out excitedly. “Oh! That reminds me. If the plan has gone well, your dragon is dead, too.”
Hethmon was nodding with contentment, a wide smile across his face.
“Might be a good time to call him with that ring of yours, just so we can find out,” the priest added, “but I have a pretty good idea that he won’t answer.”
“You are mad,” Gonelc stammered. “How could you?”
“Well, it is widely known that we have been suffering your worm for a long time. A dwarf calling himself Gahlin, the Fearless showed up with a powerful mage and offered free us from your tyranny. He looked the part of a great warrior, for sure, and had some mighty fine armor and a mighty fine sword as well. I’d guess your dragon is dead by now.”
Gonelc shook his head. The gray skin of his face fell pale as the shock set in.
“Like I said, we have been planning this for two years, now. You should have listened to this old priest, back years ago when I told you to leave us alone.” Hethmon’s tone became soberer. “I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. We learned well from our early, failures... Couldn’t just go after you, alone. It had to be all or nothing.” Priest Hethmon stopped smiling entirely and turned away from Zhalunts’s henchman, striding back toward the woods from which he had come.
At that moment, a sound filled the void between the woods and town–a sound not strange to the ears of the soldiers, but not so familiar as to elicit a reflexive response from most. But Gonelc was not like most warriors, knowing the sound and reacting to it immediately.
“Shields up! Shields up!”
Gonelc’s orders saved many, but the flight of arrows that blacked the sky–uncounted shafts all shot at the baine, the very face and voice of Zhalunts–this cloud of death fell heavy and hard on scores of men nearby. Luck as much as skill and reflex accounted for Gonelc’s survival, but after the first attack, his experience took over.
The second wave of arrows, again directed at the baine, was easily countered by the shield he bore and his finely honed instincts. Around him, the dead and injured fell in piles. Gonelc gave quick orders and led his men toward the woods from which the arrows came.
As the dragon’s army moved forward, the edge of the woods became alive. The thousands from Yellow Wood rushed the scores who fought at Gonelc’s side. They came on the baine in twos, threes, and even fours, but even their combined attacks were no match for Gonelc. He moved through the melee at will, slaying any who neared him. Around him, however, his men were pulled down by the mob. Though hundreds of the men from Yellow Wood fell wounded and dead, the baine's men were overwhelmed by the sheer masses.
Yet, Gonelc stood and fought on. Edging towards the woods, he slew any and all who dared stand in his path. At last, the growing darkness and the confusion of the battle gave Gonelc opportunity to slip away.
* * *
Zhalunts never answered the summon. Gonelc used the darkness to make his way furtively and hastily across Yellow Wood toward Zhalunts’s mountain lair, constantly fearing reprisal from an unknown dwarf seemingly able to slay a dragon and his brood.
Cautiously entering the great chamber, his heart fell heavy. The telltale signs of a battle gone badly for the Dragon Master and his brood were obvious, and the length and depth of the wounds evidenced a sword of great magical power. The head of Zhalunts was entirely gone.
Gone, too, were all the spoils.
Gone, too, was all Gonelc had worked to create. Six years of work ruined in a day. A lifetime before, as Shreg sacrificed to build his position and reputation in the realm of Yellow Wood, and the coming of Gahlin the Fearless swept it all away, like dry leaves blown from an untrodden path.
Gonelc hung his head and mourned. He mourned the death of his master, though little love had ever passed between the two. He mourned his fall from power. He mourned his lost fortune in gold, silver, and other spoils. But most of all, even more than he mourned his lost wealth and power, he mourned his choice, that day in Yellow Wood, and the wasted six years.
Two paths I could have chosen, and the one I took led to this.
Sorrow filled the eyes of the baine, sadness pulling down his countenance.
So many things could have... might have happened differently. So many possible outcomes lay before me. Yet I chose this path, and that has made all the difference.
In tribute to the genius of Robert Frost (1874–1963).