Following that incident, Arnai remained in the forge for as long as he could get away with, venturing out only to get food, train and at night to sleep. The amount of time that he stayed within the forge increased even more when Cormac died, and he was left to keep the fire burning while his father slept, with the condition that Paric or another adult was left with him. Arnai’s eighth and ninth birthday passed quickly, muscles beginning to fledge properly on his body, his features becoming more defined and his eyes more piercing than ever. He learnt more about the Massar – the imperial’s name for their royal blooded kin, and their enforcers – the dark skinned Draconis that had tamed the huge flying lizards known as dragons in order to help eradicate the Tanoi. It was the stories of knights and their quests that fascinated him the most though, the great hunters that rode or flew to dispatch Tanoi remnants, helping those in need along the way and having songs sung about them along the major roads that travelled down the country. His favourite was the story about the defeat of the witch-king who ruled the skies on a golden dragon, far larger than its brethren, and the story was one that he asked Paric to tell often.
“It was during the dark time, under the reign of Tobias III, the great emperor whose decision it had been to rescue the people of these lands from the tyranny of the Tanoi. At first their campaign had been swift and progressed well, however as they neared the centre of the land, many of their number were despatched by what the survivors could only describe as a fiery eyed golden demon that darkened the sky and snatched away its prey in claws that were razor sharp, bearing the unfortunates high into the sky before dropping them onto their comrades and returning without mercy to claim them all, leaving none alive. The emperor’s son, Tiamas came to hear of this demon that was responsible for many hundreds of men and went to his father to request that he take a score of men to hunt down this winged creature. Unwilling to send his oldest son on such an errand, the emperor at first refused, neither truly believing the rumours nor that his men had done else but marched slowly and thus were not where they were thought to be. After a month of men disappearing, a rider bore the emperor a message – that the caravans following the army had been destroyed, and that the empress and other womenfolk who had faithfully supported their men were dead. Full of sorrow at this news, the emperor had no choice but to let his heir set out on the quest, lest more lives be lost. And so Tiamas took his fastest horse, and most able lieutenants, and set out to the location of the most recent tragedy.
When he reached the site that the legion had camped, there was little to be found other than blackened tents and the remains of the good men, some with bite marks in that were the size of a man’s hand. On the ground, which was scorched black and dyed crimson from blood, were a series of gashes, which the knight presumed came from the demon’s claws where it had landed. What interested him more was the set of human tracks that lead away from them, and when he followed this trail into the woods, he found more dead bodies, that of the legion’s mage and commanders included. These bodies had not been gnawed or picked clean, but had more common wounds – slashes and cuts as those he had often seen upon the battlefield, inflicted with a sharp blade. At this, the prince was confused, for it was clear that the demon would not have managed to work its way into the trees, and the slashes were not consistent with those you would expect from talons. It did not take long for him to discover the cause of this strange discovery though, as almost the moment that he returned to his men a rider burst upon them with the news of an ongoing attack not far away, and he begged them to help. Tiamas could not refuse such a plea, and his men rode hard at his back as they sped through the forest. He arrived too late to save any lives, but just in time to see the beast take off, and rise quickly into the clouds, a figure upon its back.
This sight filled the prince with great anger, and he drove his stallion onwards, following the beast’s path from the ground, often travelling for hours before glimpsing it between the clouds again, thanking the luck that the creature flew in a straight line. After half a day’s riding, his stallion began to tire, unable to keep up with the lazy flaps of the demon, and Tiamas had to stop. He was still blessed with that same chance that kept the path straight however, and was able to see where the demon landed, high in the mountains. He slept fitfully, and awoke several times as a roar echoed in the valley in which he was enclosed. The horses were uneasy, and his men equally so but the prince kept his courage and planned instead for the morning attack. Indeed they rose early, some having not slept at all during the night, and set out for the peak that the prince had seen the day before. Mid-day came and went and it was dusk when they finally reached the spot, leaving their horses some hundred metres away and crawling up the ridge to lay eyes upon their foe. What they saw put fear into their hearts.
A giant lizard lay in the stony dip, its face long, akin to a crocodiles although shorter and less stretched given the proportions, its skin covered in scales that seemed to be made of gold, and which overlapped slightly, giving a rippled reflection. Smoke gently wafted from the front of this beast, and the eyes were concealed by scaly lids. The beast’s body was larger than some of the ships in which they had crossed the ocean, with limbs that were powerfully muscled and ended in plated claws. A tail extended from the monstrosity and was curled around a rock some metres behind it, but perhaps the most terrifying of all were the bat-like wings that were currently folded down its side, as long as the body twice over and made of a thick membrane, veins faintly visible within. It was this that would have to be damaged first, Tiamas decided, in order to prevent its escape. He could see no sign of a rider, but would put precautions in place regardless. Sorting his men, he boldly strode into the clearing, and addressed the creature. ‘Demon! I have come to end your killing. Prepare yourself to be sent back into the realm from whence you came!” And with such declaration, as befit a prince, he charged forwards with his sword drawn to kill the beast.
At the sound of his voice, the dragon stirred, as did its rider, who appeared from under a wing and flung himself in front of Tiamas, screaming in a foreign language. The figure wore a circlet of gold in its hair, which was as black as night, and it tore a sword from within itself, a green aura surrounding it. Not stopping his charge, Tiamas thrust his sword into the open eye of the golden beast, pushing it deep into its brain, killing it instantly. Despite this, flame licked out of its jaws and surrounded both its master and its slayer, Tiamas losing his life in the blistering inferno, but not before drawing his poisoned knife and slashing the witch-king across its chest. None of the men went to his aid, too afraid were they of the dying man and beast. The crowned man was on his knees at the beast’s side, and died there a day later, the poison doing its work. Only then did Tiamas’s body get retrieved, and carried back to the emperor along with the tale of his death, and of his brave deed that allowed the campaign to continue and surely saved thousands of lives.”
After hearing this story, Arnai would often spend the rest of the day pretending to be a dragon slaying prince or, more and more commonly, imagining what it would be like to fly above the clouds and wreak havoc on the vast armies of his enemies below. This was a game which Gregor, having been severely told off after his actions when Arnai had run into the forest and wanting only to be friends again with someone who was his own age, enjoyed tremendously, and the two boys would often swap roles (although if Gregor was the witch-king, he didn’t die without first having a monologue about how he was cursing the family of the man who had slain his beast), and play happily. When their imagination was not sufficient, Arani would draft in one of the more calm dogs to be the dragon, although it was always Gregor who was the hero in these situations and Arnai who cried over the dog’s death. The games continued even while Gregor learnt to hunt and Arnai learnt not to leave the metal in the flame for too long, and the angle with which to hit the metal, and how to work the grinder and to polish the iron so that it gleamed. Sometimes the boys would insist that their brother came with them – so Arnai learnt the basics of hunting, and Gregor how to keep a fire going at temperatures where metal could melt. Of course, being part of a fighting clan, both boys also improved their skills wielding a sword, with and without a shield, and a bow or sling, although they would not be taught the small healing cantrips until after their rite of manhood – where they would have the clan tattoo dyed into their skin – crossed swords upon the forehead and a small swirl on their cheek. As they got older and killed more enemies, more swirls would be added until their face was completely covered, like that of their grandfather Ronan, or of Paric. Solaris had few tattoos, like Cormac before him he spent most of his time within the forge and had yet to see battle – unusual for his age of 28, and Arnai also believed he would not have very many, much to his disappointment
The summer of Arnai and Gregor’s eleventh year, precisely three hundred and sixty five days before they would come of age, the harvest failed, and even after what little there was in the lowlands had been brought up to the keep, there was still a shortage. The adults were not worrying purely about that though, in the autumn it would be time for the imperials to come and take their quota, payment for allowing the Samata to keep their lands. The payment this year would take up most of their winter store, leaving them with nothing to live on, and nothing for the people who worked the lands around the base of the hill. Over the next couple of weeks, any able bodied boy or man over the age of 12, who had come of age, was out hunting in the redwoods, and beyond – all the way to the Na’rim caves and Taurin mound in the north east, and Clover copse in the south. As more food was brought daily back to the keep and stored in the large sheds near the south wall, the twins wished that they could be out helping too – after all they were almost 12 weren’t they? They shouldn’t have to stay at home with the children and the old men and women! This annoyed Arnai less, as he was able to help by keeping the forge warm and crafting new arrowheads for the hunters. When one of the men came back with a kill, the arrow in it having a head that Arnai himself made, he was ecstatic, and Paric promised to hear how well the arrow flew when the hunter returned from his latest foraging trip, and perhaps sing a small song about it were it worthy.
Even after a month of hunting, very little food had been brought in – the animals themselves were suffering from the famine and the hunters were wary not to drive the creatures to extinction. Out of desperation, the womenfolk took to the forests, gathering all the edible mushrooms and nuts that they could find during the autumn, but to no avail. The food store had grown, but only to the minimum required level for the entire clan to eat if they did not present their payment to the Massar. It was late autumn when the imperials came, having not found any food in the storage facility that bordered the great north road, they marched stonily up to the keep and camped outside, a great horde of them in tents at the bottom of the hill. Out of courtesy, only 5 of them actually marched into the keep, wearing dark trousers and deep purple velvet jackets they stood sternly outside the chief’s hut, heads back and rigidly to attention. From a distance, Arnai studied their appearances; they were all of similar build with dark hair and pale skin that looked stretched over their features, particularly around their face, pulling their lips tight and thin, and their eyes like thin slits. On their cheek was tattooed the symbol of the Massar’s guard in navy blue– a three pronged trident, the outer prongs rounded so that the top formed a circle, and a line crossing its shaft part way down. The thin golden cord that edged their uniform was the only light colouring that they featured, even their eyes were a dark brown.
Feeling eyes upon him, one of the imperials turned and stared directly at Arnai, hidden though he was behind the mass of people encircling the area. With a gasp, Arnai felt the same prickling feeling that he had when he had stumbled through the forest and into the cave. Fighting the feeling, he pushed his way back through the crowd and sprinted towards the forge, only stopping once he was inside and the door was firmly shut. To his amazement, his father was not within the building, nor was he in the adjoined hut they lived in, and the fire had been left untended, cooling down to the normal temperature of a fire and consuming less fuel in the process. Wanting to take his mind off of the look that the imperial’s face had twisted into, Arnai stripped off his shirt and began to pump the bellows, injecting oxygen into the fire and gradually increasing its roar to the constant crackle with which he was familiar. Only then did he stop and start feeling foolish, sweat dripping from his forehead and down his back.