The fading red sun dipped slowly behind the rolling, forested hills in southern Tel’Aran. Aylan admired it from a narrow vantage point atop a small hill, with just enough clearing to grant him access to the spectacular sight. The browning season was beginning, and the heavily forested land was in the midst of changing colors and shedding its leaves for a new year. The colors ran in no particular pattern. Deep red faded to blush, and bright yellow swirled from apricot to champagne, each flawlessly accenting the remaining green groves and reflecting the sun’s remaining light vigorously. The land seemed to be clinging to the last moments of the day, pleading for but a few more moments to revel in the sun’s light.
Then it passed. The hill darkened, and the land was cast into twilight. Aylan forced himself back to reality. The manacles on his hands seemed to grow heavier, and he descended the hill back to the old man’s camp. The slight breeze brushing against his bare chest soothed his inflamed skin, but shortly it brought forth a shiver. The warmth of the sun was fading fast.
Pann was preparing a fire when Aylan returned. The bag of purchases lay next to him, unopened.
“How was the sunset?” Pann asked, barely looking up.
“Breathtaking. I haven’t taken the time to watch one in ages. Not to mention the first one I’ve watched here.” Aylan sighed deeply. “I almost ran down the opposite side of the hill to freedom, I was so deeply moved.”
“You think you could get away from this old man so easily?” Pann chuckled. “I could track you to the corners of the worlds as long as you are wearing those.”
“There are several competent blacksmiths between here and there,” Aylan countered.
“True,” Pann nodded thoughtfully. “But few that could help you, and even fewer that would. You see, if you get yourself thrown in one of those, then you must be an awful lot of trouble.”
Aylan eyed his shackles thoughtfully. “Indeed. My troublesome exploits are known far and wide.”
Pann shrugged. “It really is too bad I have you hindered in such a way. I could really use some firewood.”
“A shame.” Aylan returned the shrug. “Got anything in the bag for me?”
“Of course. Dried jerky and stale bread. Gotta keep you breathing, don’t I?”
“Do you?” Aylan responded, slouching against a nearby tree. He sighed and lowered himself gently into a sitting position.
“It is my duty.”
Aylan was confused by the old man. He could hardly tell when the codger was being genuinely serious, or mocking him outright. He stretched as best he could, and rolled onto his side. The grass smelled sweet, sweeter than any bed he had ever laid his head upon. Sleep was upon him before Pann could finish uttering his offer of a blanket.
An explosion of pain in his side jolted Aylan from his peaceful sleep.
“Seems he’s got a prisoner, Jar. One old man and his half-dead prisoner, in our wood.”
Aylan could make out a face in the firelight looking down at him, scrutinizing. He was far from comprehending the situation. No dreams, he thought regretfully. My chance at peaceful sleep, interrupted. That stings worse than the kick to the ribs.
“It’s not your wood, leech.” Aylan heard Pann’s voice, directly followed by a slapping sound and a grunt from the old man. Aylan forced his eyes open wider and surveyed the scene. There were five men in the camp. Two were watching Pann and Aylan, and the other three were busy examining the contents of Pann’s cart.
“That’s enough mouth from you, old man.” That had to be Jar, the leader. He was half a foot taller than the others, and twice as ugly. He wore two rusty shortswords on his belt, which matched his leather tunic and pants which were in an equal state of disrepair. Tied around his left arm was a faded blue strip of cloth. The other bandits wore one as well.
“Oh, he’s waking up,” the rib-kicker sneered. His teeth were disgusting. It made Aylan dislike him even more. “I thought I was going to have to break a few more ribs to get a rise out of him.”
Aylans side was throbbing, but he wasn’t sure if anything was broken. He gathered his senses as best he could, and stared right back at the green-toothed bandit.
“What have you done, boy, to be stuck in the woods shackled by an old man?” Jar had walked over to him, curious.
Aylan did not answer.
“Must have been bad,” he continued, poking at Aylan’s shackles with his boot. “They don’t put those on just anyone.”
Aylan nodded thoughtfully. “So I’ve heard.”
“What are you worth? I’d wager the old man’s taking you to Essaugh for some reason or another. You gotta be worth a lot to someone…” He trailed off, looking at the dragon emblazoned upon Aylan’s chest. He crouched to get a better look. “One of the dragon cultists maybe? An important one?”
Aylan did not answer.
“Silence it is then.” Jar stood, and whistled. “Pack up boys. We’ll be taking everything except the old man.” He turned back to Aylan. “You’ll have plenty of time to talk between now and Essaugh.”
The thugs nodded. One stepped towards Pann, removing a jagged grey knife from his belt.
“Wait!” Aylan called out.
The thug stopped.
“Unchain me. Let me kill him.”
The thug looked from Aylan to Jar. Jar shook his head.
“We couldn’t release you if we wanted. Besides, watching the old man die should be revenge enough.” Jar motioned for the knife-wielding thug to continue.
Aylan’s shoulders slumped. He couldn’t stand there and let the old man be killed in the night, could he?
What did he owe the old man? Nothing. For all he knew, the old man could be leading him to his death. The dragonslayer could flay him alive when they reach their destination.
But he couldn’t stand by. It was just… wrong.
Aylan lowered his head and charged at the thug with the knife. As best as a man bound hand and foot could charge, anyway. The sight actually brought a round of chuckles from the onlooking bandits.
It didn’t matter. The thug advancing upon Pann had stopped to watch Aylan’s pathetic rescue attempt, and that was sufficient.
“Aprisi abadammoi!” Pann shouted and pointed at Aylan, his face a mask of pure concentration.
The shackles restraining Aylan disappeared. They did not open and fall away. They simply no longer were. Aylan stumbled, nearly tripping over himself as his arms and legs became unhindered.
Freedom. Aylan felt lighter than air. He took another step towards the thug, who was staring at him in shock. Jar was yelling something at them, about the old man. Aylan couldn’t make out what it was.
Suddenly he realized he had stopped moving. The edges of his vision began fading to black, and something hit him hard in the chest. He fell to his knees, lost in himself. Energy rippled through him, filling every inch of him. His aches melted away. The dragon on his chest blazed bright red.
His momentary blindness subsided. He felt new. And strange. And powerful.
The bandits that had thought to rob and kill an old man did not live long enough to regret their mistake. In moments their broken bodies littered the camp. Blood painted the surrounding circle of trees. Aylan stood in the middle of the camp, his face stone.
A long moment passed. Aylan fought within himself, his new power raging inside him. He thirsted for violence. Voices whispered into his mind, telling him where to go, where the killing would be good, rewarding even. Aylan breathed deep, reveling in his newfound power.
Return to your kingdom, the voice whispered. Destroy your father,and claim your rightful place.
Aylan looked up slightly, the corners of his lips slowly turning up into a cruel smile.
All of Tel’Aran will be yours. None can match your might!
The dragon on his chest flared.
Kill the old man, Pann. Then you can start your journey.
Aylan turned slightly, examining the old man who lay crumpled at his feet. The old man appeared unconscious and hurt.
Aylan reached down.
Aylan gently rolled the old man onto his back. Pann’s eyes fluttered.
“I acquired you a shirt.” He coughed, smiling. “It’s in the bag.”
“My desires have shifted to alcohol at the moment, old man. I think I’m going to need some.”
Pann smiled at that. “Me too.”
Aylan sat on the ground next to Pann and ignored the voices screaming from inside his head.