Gretchen’s warband of five sat around a tiny campfire beneath a rocky outcropping in southeastern Amin. A small, very dead, animal roasted slowly on a spit, as Gretchen scratched in the dust with a stick, a look of intense concentration on her face. She glanced up from her work to assess her team. Too much in the head, not enough in the arm, she thought, as she watched Sai working with his papers. She couldn’t believe he had actually hauled them all with him, all this way. But he was smart, like Dram’s intelligence on the dragons, useful in a way she had not been trained to value, but still appreciated. She looked over at the other two orcs in the group. She had picked them to compensate for the others’ physical weakness, and she had done well at that. Both Krag and Helga were half again as strong and brawny as even Gretchen, and both were good at following orders. Good orcs, Gretchen thought, nodding to herself, as Helga laughed at the size of the booger Krag just picked out of his nose. So why did I stick with Sai and Dram?
She moved a heavy boot across her doodles and started over, frowning as she scratched out her limited knowledge of the local terrain. The desert offered little cover, and recon missions were dangerous. With only five in her band, she could not afford to take many risks. Rock camp here. Hatcheries here. Void mountains here. She continued her work.
As the fire burned low, only Gretchen, Sai and Dram remained awake. Helga and Krag predictably ate more than their share of food and passed out loudly on their bedrolls. So it was only Sai and Gretchen that noticed when Dram quietly retrieved his journal from his pack. The small book was bound in plain, thick leather that appeared to be fastidiously maintained. The script within could never be called flowing, but it was neat and precise, if a bit on the heavy side. Dram’s wakeful companions, then, were also the only ones to know his proficiency on horseback was at least matched by his skill with a pen. One of these days he would have to share all of his thoughts with those two, they were earning his trust and respect at an alarming rate. But not today. Today was for reflecting.
The eggs were unguarded, surprisingly. There was only one nest, sure, but there should have been some kind of watch. Two unhatched golds, by their size and markings, with nothing to stand between them and us. Gretchen allowed my request to be the one to do it. Alone. At least I know it was done right. And quick.
Anybody looking at Dram’s journal entry would have thought that he wrote it during a quick but fierce storm since the pages were spotted with water marks, though nobody could remember any rain that night.
Sai looked up from his research papers and noticed Dram and Gretchen were still awake. Gretchen was predictably preoccupied with planning. Someone had to make sure they didn’t all die out here. And Dram was scribbling away in his journal again. He is the only person who write more than I do. One of these days I’ll have to read his notebook, I wonder what goes through his head.
Sai turned his attention back to the task at hand. He had managed to take some notes on the layout of the nest and managed to gather a few “souvenirs” for his growing collection. Not many since Helga and Krag managed to stomp over everything but enough for him to start to see the pattern in these dragons. By his calculations the dragons should be eliminated in less than 10 years. I wonder if that’s enough time to figure out their magic. I need to figure out a way to capture one live…
Gretchen stood and groaned. “Sleep now,” she said, “Busy day tomorrow.”
The next day, the warband reached the forward base at Fort Vrarag, which was being constructed just a day’s journey from a draconic hatchery on the east coast. Gretchen was less than pleased when her orders arrive.
“We march months through the wilderness,” she fumed, “smash dozens of dragon nests, and get here ahead of nearly every other warband. So they have us guard a construction site? When the enemy is less than a day away?” She clenched her jaw and stared out at the ocean from the top of the rampart of the single completed wall. “I don’t understand.”
Construction continued as the days passed. Countless other warbands streamed in from the north and west, checked in with the major, and headed out the next day for the east. But Gretchen’s warband remained. Dram spent all his time along the ramparts, where even at night the fires from the siege to the east illuminated the small mountain that was home to the hatchery. While the rest of the warband grew antsy, he kept his eyes to the east.
One night, things changed. Sai, ever alert, heard it first: the sound of great, leathery wings flapping quietly in the night breeze. Doing his best not to alert the others, he hurried from the soldier’s encampment to follow the sound. He was surprised to find Dram awake and standing atop the ramparts, wildly scanning ths sky in the torchlight, trying to find the source of the sound. The two orcs spotted each other and locked gazes temporarily before their attention turned to the unfinished western wing of the fort when they heard an unmistakable sound: a dragon landing, followed by the distinctive cry of dozens of whelps.
The orcs locked gazes again, and though seconds tick away, neither sounded the alarm.
But the cries grew louder, and they were soon joined by another familiar sound. Gretchen shouted from the encampment, and the army suddenly woke and prepared for battle. Sai drew his spear and sprinted west while Dram raced along the curtain walls. They both realized the same thing: they had to get there first. There would be no better opportunity.
They arrived to see a badly injured female attempting to care for the large number of whelps. When she saw the orcs approach, she assumed an aggressive position.
“Listen,” said Sai, “I’m pretty sure we want the same thing. I can draw off the female if you can get as many of those whelps away as possible. Take them someplace safe but by the gods don’t let yourself be seen.”
But Dram just stopped and looked at the dragon in confusion. Ash? he thought to himself.
With a sigh, Sai said quite firmly, “If we are going to do anything we need to do it now and I need your help. So move it!”
Dram realized he had been just standing there, mouth agape. He sprang into action and ran to help his friend.
Meanwhile, Gretchen charged out of the fort on Bella, outpacing the cautious trackers and the rest of the army. If it’s guard duty she pulled, she’ll do it right and earn her spot on the front lines. She raced around the fortress towards where she heard the dragon go down, great sword drawn and at the ready for whatever she might find there.
Dram had just vanished into the darkness when Gretchen rounded the final corner. Sai kept the dragon pinned while the berserkers made quick work of it and the whelps. Gretchen smiled as she cleaed her great sword. “It’s good to see some action.” She looked around. “Where’s Dram?”
“Probably out on one of his scouting trips,” Sai said quickly. “You know how he likes to ride his horse around.”
Gretchen frowned and looked up at the ramparts. “At midnight? And he hasn’t left the walls since we got here. Always watching the front lines.”
Sai laughed. “Where else would he be?”
Gretchen studied Sai with a gaze he knew meant she was trying to figure something out, and he said a silent prayer to the Elder Gods that she wouldn’t manage this time. “You’re talking weird for you,” she said.
He sighed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Gretchen frowned at him, looked out into the desert, then up to the ramparts, then back to him. “If you see Dram, tell him I need to talk to him.” Then she turned and headed back to the camps.
Sai heaved another sigh after her back was turned. He too turned to look out at the desert. Then he looked back at the soldier’s camp. Then back out into the darkness. He sighed again. “I wonder if he’s going to come back,” he mused. This was followed by, “I wonder if I should go look for him.” He looked between the camp and the desert once more.
Sai wavered briefly then made his decision. “For now,” he decided, “I need to get back to camp so as not to raise suspicions and trust Dram to get them someplace safe. I’ll have plenty of time to study them in the near future as long as they lay low for now.” He glanced back out to the desert. “Besides,” he mused, “I have no idea where that crazy orc went off to.”