I got the job and a six-month advance. Yes your eyes aren’t lying. Keep them peeled for the receipt of eighteen hundred crowns I’m sending back, and don’t worry about it getting stolen on the way, Lady Kathanhiel has lent me her personal courier.
That’s right, Lady Kathanhiel. I’m her esquire now, which is like a cross between an apprentice and a servant; I do everything she says and occasionally she teaches me some stuff. She’s the most amazing person I’ve ever known. No offence.
Wish me luck, because soon we’ll be going north to find the lair of Rutherford. Poor mother, you don’t even know what that is. Do you still think Elisaad is a type of exotic cheese? You do don’t you. Then be assured your son is going to become the greatest tyromancer in all the lands. You don’t know what a tyromancer is either do you.
Just know that when I get back I’ll be Kastor, esquire to Kathanhiel, slayer of the Rutherford Dragon. Meanwhile, spend the money on something nice. Dad can use some good food for once. And can you finally put some curtains on my window?
Alright this is getting too long.
Kastor, esquire to Kathanhiel, soon-to-be slayer of the Rutherford Dragon.
We spend three weeks inside the winter palace preparing for our journey.
Kathanhiel doesn’t waste a minute of it. Every morning a gaggle of clerks and messenger huddle outside her room awaiting her instruction, which are always oddly specific: withdraw exactly this much money from this estate, go get these items from these merchants, send letters to these lords but not those…
Most of it flies way over my head.
The quartermaster, nice enough fellow if not for his overly long moustache and overly short temper, receives an inventory list that just grows longer by the day, which is disastrous because he delegates everything onto me.
Apparently, Kathanhiel requires exactly thirteen weights of bear fat, six and a half rolls of leather, fifteen pre-sealed envelopes, five waterskins, three unused flints, two boxes of lavender incense, two boxes of dried Island tea, a jar of chrysanthemum oil, something called ‘tundra essence’…
When I ask questions he shouts and spits. Little git, blah blah, direct orders, blah blah, just do what you’re told and fetch those fourteen dust filters from the stockpile. What, they don’t have them? Why are you standing there looking like a little git, go to the postmaster and fill out a requisition, double time!
All part of being an esquire.
At least I don’t have to do the chores yet. The servants of the palace are…should I say eagerly taking care of them? Hard to imagine anyone eagerly scrubbing the floor.
I spend the extra time familiarising myself with the horses, the ones we’ll be using on the journey. These guys don’t shout.
Now, understand this.
The name of Kathanhiel’s horse, the white stallion she received as a gift from the coalition of vassal states, is Bobby.
Why this magnificent animal, with its mane of moonlight and legs more muscular than the jowls of a dragon, has the same name as the slightly retarded boy that shines shoes on the corner of my street, is anyone’s guess. No, actually it isn’t, because Kathanhiel gave it that name.
It was the one she specifically wanted.
Strange isn’t it? You’d think Kathanhiel would name a great white stallion something noble and befitting its fairytale beauty. Nope. Bobby.
I also get my own horse, a reasonable-looking chestnut that must have come from a line of donkeys, because it chews endlessly on anything its mouth can get hold of. Leather? Linen? My gauntlet that just came out of the smithy two days ago? All are welcome.
I named it Killisan, after the world-devouring monster in the tale about the creation of the Realms. That’s how you name a horse. Now chew on this rotten apple you stupid animal.
The King is supposed to be here to send us off, but a week before the departure ceremony the youngest princess, who is rumoured to be the most adventurous four-year-old ever, contracted pneumonia after taking a morning dip in the palace pond.
Consequently, His Majesty has decided to cancel the event so he can stay put and look after his daughter. This is because, of course, twenty royal physicians do not provide enough medical expertise.
Kathanhiel, as it turns out, doesn’t care one way or the other.
‘I think he still holds a grudge for the time I threatened to cut off his head,’ she says. Kathanhiel's Knife, where she borrows three thousand troops from the King by force, is one of the most popular tales. ‘I've stopped expecting things from him since then. He’s building another winter palace too – this one’s grown too small.’
Haylis, on the other hand, won’t be happy at all. I know this because every night she charges into my room, insisting that I give my opinion on whether the lacy dress would go well with the lacy gloves, whether her daily hairstyle change looks nice (she scores one hundred percent on looks, but sadly wouldn’t understand what one hundred percent means), and many other such dilemmas, to which I always say, ‘yeah, you look great.’
Sorry Haylis, be sure not to cry when the King doesn’t show up.
One may wonder what she does while I’m getting my legs toned by the quartermaster. The answer would be lounging around in the garden, ordering her personal troop of servants around much in the same fashion Kathanhiel orders me.
It’s clear now why she didn’t sign the contract: that way she’s not obligated to do anything, and by the looks of it she most definitely doesn’t need the three hundred crowns.
Why is she coming along anyway?
The day before we’re set to leave Kathanhiel calls me into her room. She’s using the royal wing of the palace, which is normally reserved for, well, royalty, so there’s no need to elaborate on the luxury. Just look at that gold-threaded carpet.
See, when I’m in her presence I tend to look at the floor, hence the noticing of the carpet before anything else.
‘Yes my lady?’
‘Come to the window. Let me have a look at my new knight.’
The overcast sky doesn’t do my beetroot-coloured face any favours. The studded trousers chafe against my flabby thighs in very uncomfortable places; the gauntlets jingle, the metal bands clanking as my hands involuntarily shake. It’s been a month! A month! And she still makes me so nervous.
Kathanhiel is wearing a simple white dress. Beautiful.
To stand next to her in my sorry excuse of a knight’s armour – a cuirass of plain leather, drooping, overlarge shoulder pads, and genital-crushing trousers – feels like a poor parody, as if I’ve dressed up to make her laugh.
‘Those trousers seem a bit tight,’ she candidly observes.
‘No – yes, but it’s fine, I’ll – I’ll grow in to it.’ You heard me right, I’ll grow into a pair of trousers that are too tight.
She keeps a straight face and points to a map spread out on her table. ‘Let me show you our road. I expect you to memorise it by tomorrow.’
‘Yes my lady…but shouldn’t Haylis be here too?’
‘She has her own duties to attend to.’
Kathanhiel ignores the question.
‘First we go to the city of Oroville. A friend who has been tracking the movement of the dragon brood will meet us there. Depending on what he tells us, we might use one the three routes leading north.’ She traces three lines on the map. ‘The forest road is out the question. Dragon fire in a sea of kindling – a pyre for fools.’
‘The second is the Imperial Highway, fastest way to the Endless Ranges. However, the open space means the dragons can strike at will.’ She grins – not a smile, but a tigress baring her teeth.
‘The third is by ferry from the Ford, against the flow of the River Hei. Dragons tend to stay clear of water, for they dislike looking upon their own reflections.’
What? Really? Out of all the things they could be scared of…
‘Why? They’re not ugly.’
Kathanhiel smiles, and my heart flutters like a moth.
‘Keep it in mind won’t you? Now, in theory, that makes the ferry very safe, but we’re in the middle of the wet season and the river will certainly be flooded…still, memorise the locations of the docks anyway.’
‘Yes my lady.’
‘We shall resupply at Fort Iborus before going into the Endless Ranges.’ She taps the marker of a little castle at the foot of the mountains. ‘After that...we do whatever it takes to find Rutherford’s lair. I will give you a map of the Ranges. Memorise it, then burn it.’
‘In the past few years the cult of the dragon has flourished in the north. It will not do for them to find the Apex.’
‘What a bunch of idiots.’
She places a hand on my arm. Kathanhiel places a hand on my arm. I think I might perish.
‘Not everyone thinks good of me like you do, Kastor.’
Her hand is still on arm. It’s still on my arm. Still there. On my arm.
‘B-b-b-but what if they f-f-f-follow us?’
She taps the scabbard of the sword leaning on her desk. ‘Kaishen is no stranger to the blood of humans.’
I spend the night pouring over the two maps. The map of the Realms is impeccably scaled and annotated, typical of the Imperial printing press. The one of the Ranges is of Kathanhiel’s hand, which while neat is rather difficult to read. There are no lines of elevation, no legend, only curves showing the shapes of mountains and the paths between them.
It has the vagueness of being drawn from memory, and in place of detail there are lines of tiny text instead.
Between two peaks deep in the north is an obituary of sorts: Here lies Elisaad, he of venerable madness. May he find peace and forgiveness for that which was forced upon him.
The River Hei is a thin dotted line winding through the peaks. At a bend where the river almost doubles back on itself, a small circle had been drawn and labelled: The Stone Graves, sacred to the little giants. The pillars here provide sanctuary against dragon fire, but not the will to fight.
The longest annotation is found on a mountaintop opposite the river. Here, unique among all the markings, is a stick figure wearing a circle-and-crescent hat, like sun and moon.
Here lies he who shall remain nameless until the end of my days. I took from him the Bane of Dragons, and left my heart in its place. One day I shall follow the sound of its beating to his hearth in the evergreen, and muster the courage to ask for his hand. Wait for me. Please, wait for me. Don’t leave me all alone.
This last bit of text is smudged; trembling had been the hand that held the pen.