Something banged up against Revin’s foot, interrupting the image of the blue dragon that stormed through her mind. It had been more difficult than usual to capture the wild beast and get it into Winterheart. Her left shoulder still ached where the creature had knocked her to the ground as it tried to flee. But a few bruises were worth what the rancher had paid her for the dragon. The Blue was spirited but would make a good riding draco and she knew the rancher would treat the beast well—she wouldn’t have sold to him otherwise.
She looked down to what she first thought was a wayward rat on the boards of the tavern floor. Instead, a round object lay next to her foot. She reached down. It was small enough to grasp in one hand. She sat up and examined it. A ball, tanned leather, pale in color, with a seam that ran down the center holding it together. What interested Revin most was the design that stood out against the pale background. It was red and looked like flames running along the seam completely encircling the ball. Revin placed it on the table intending to put it in her pack when she returned to her room.
Someone tapped her on the bruised left shoulder.
She cringed and turned ready to curse the intruder, but a little boy, maybe nine or ten stood there, a grin filled his face, and dimples creased his cheeks. His green eyes were wide open and searched her features as if he had found something new and exciting.
“If you will, can I have my ball back?” the small voice could barely be heard over the din of the half-full tavern. He held out his palm, his grin grew even wider.
At first, she wondered if she knew the boy. Maybe, her mind considered as she looked him over for anything that would remind her, the son of someone I’d sold a dragon to? She had been to the northern trading town of Winterheart many times. Wild dragons were becoming scarcer, and she had been lucky so far in the foothills and mountains of the North. Breeders produced many of the dragons used as beasts of burden, but wild ones still made the best riding dracos.
She shook her head as no memory of the boy came to mind. Revin glanced at the plain cotton shirt and pants he wore. The apparel was more what she would expect from a farmer or a remote villager, not her normal customer. She kept a stern face, leaned close to the boy so she could hear him better, and held the ball up in her hand. “This ball?”
“Yes, Trader.” His grin started to fade along with his little dimples.
“Here you go boy.” She smiled as she passed it back to him.
His face filled again.
“Be more careful so you don’t lose it,” she scolded with the waggle of her finger, but kept a light expression.
The boy nodded vigorously, his dark brown hair bounced up and down.
“Are you in Winterheart for long?” She liked the boy. There was an intelligence that shown brightly in his eyes.
“Oma said we’re leaving as soon as we’re finished.” He glanced back where a couple and an old woman sat at another table.
She followed his look. His Oma, the grandmother, nodded to her. She turned back to the boy. “Finish doing what?”
“Finding the Phoenix.”
He looked at her with his head tilted a little to the side. He had a questioning look in his eyes as if he didn’t understand what she was asking.
Irked, her mouth twisted when he didn’t answer, and she guessed it wasn’t worth the effort.
“Why the flames?” she said changing the topic and pointed to the design along the seam of the ball.
“It’s the time of the Burning. And the Phoenix,” he said with a wide grin, but he didn’t expand on this explanation. Before she could ask further, he turned and headed back to the table where his family waited.
Revin sucked in her breath as she saw the boy hobble across the floor. His right ankle rotated as he walked on the side of his foot.
I’m not surprised, she thought. More and more children, with one type of deformity or another, had unfortunately become commonplace over the last few years. Just another sign of what she speculated was an evil darkness falling over the Kingdom of Reinlanden.
She sighed and turned back to the fire that was off to one side, but still close enough that she could enjoy the heat from the hearth. A chill had set into her bones, even though the full force of winter’s winds hadn’t been felt yet. Frigid weather was one of the hazards of being a dragon hunter and trader. Although they couldn’t fly like mythical dragons of old, dragons seemed to prefer the cold air of the mountains. She had spent the entire day out trying to find if anyone knew—or even heard a rumor—of another free-roaming dragon in this region. A full day’s effort had netted her nothing more than a few wild tales, none with any merit.
She had never been to Winterheart this late in the season and began to think she might have to give up on finding another dragon before winter set in. Instead, she would probably have to make her way south to Finger Bay until spring.
Revin sipped on a tankard of warm ale and let her mind return to the lame boy. Her heart went out to him. It would not be an easy life for him, especially in a small village where life relied upon farming or herding. Hard work requiring a strong back and at least a modicum degree of agility. She sighed again at the futility of the situation. Nothing I or anyone else can do for him.
She chewed her lower lip at the thought, then wondered, What did he mean by ‘the Burning’ and why a Phoenix? She had heard of a Phoenix but thought it nothing more than a fable. Though she guessed a Phoenix and something burning made sense, At least as much as a creature dying and rising from the ashes to a new life. She smirked and imagined the boy had gotten his tales twisted, easy for a small farm boy to do in the midst of a large trading town like Winterheart.
Revin looked at the changing colors of the flames in the hearth and savored the light scent of smoke, that hadn’t escaped up the chimney. As she did, the questions faded, and she sat mesmerized. She could get lost in the flames, which was her intent, but the rising babble of the supper crowd grated on her nerves and her mind returned to focus on the clamor of the tavern. It was a reminder that it was nearly time for her to leave before travelers, villagers, and soldiers filled the room. Crowds made her uncomfortable. Actually, she knew it was people in general.
“Did you find what you were looking for Trader?” A deep female voice crackled to her right.
Revin snapped her head to the side and there an old woman sat sipping from a steaming mug. Where did she come from? Revin looked to either side and beyond the elderly female then returned her gaze back to the woman. It’s the boy’s Oma, Revin realized with a start. Looking over at the table, she saw that a group of merchants now sat where the family had been. The grandmother had settled in and just stared at Revin, evidently waiting for an answer.
“No, I did not.” Revin reluctantly answered, the question raising many unwanted thoughts.
The old woman just smiled in return and took another sip.
Revin didn’t really feel like sharing the table, but it was a public tavern, so she just shrugged, then turned back to the fire and stared into the bottom of her tankard. She wondered if she became a dragon hunter and trader for the solitary life or if it was just her nature to be unsociable.
“How long are you going to keep looking?” The voice cut through the clamor of the tavern like a temple bell. It rang inside her head. Not loud, but as if a tunnel ran from the grandmother’s mouth to Revin’s ear.
Revin shifted her chair so she could face her unwanted guest. “Can I help you, reverend grandmother?” She kept her voice respectful, but other than when conducting business, she preferred her own company and not other’s sad stories. Revin was normally friendly, but she didn’t seem to have anything in common with anyone else. Sadly, not even with the kindly blacksmith who had found and raised her.
“I think it more likely that I can help you, Trader.” A smile revealed a full set of teeth that surprised Revin. The woman held out her now empty mug as she continued to grin.
She definitely isn’t bashful, Revin thought with a smile. She waved at the tavern wench to fill the old woman’s mug.
Resting her arm on the tabletop, she leaned toward the woman. “And what might you be able to do for me?” Revin smiled and thought if nothing else the small woman offered a momentary diversion that she rarely allowed herself. She was surprised she didn’t immediately feel annoyed with the woman. Instead, a warm tingling sensation seemed to fill her and, though unusual, she relaxed in the woman’s presence.
When the mug was filled, the timeworn woman pulled a flask and poured a thimbleful of a golden liquid into the mug. A sharp, pungent aroma reached Revin and she wrinkled her nose. The woman smacked her lips, then smiled and held the mug up to her mouth and sipped on it slowly.
“What would it mean to you to find a golden dragon?” the Oma emphasized the word ‘you’ as she stared over the top of the mug and took another sip.
Revin twitched, rattled by the question. The Clerics said that a gold dragon was the messenger of the Goddess, the Burning Lady, and so rare she had never seen one, or even knew of anyone who had.
“What do you know of a Gold?” Revin spoke quickly, the excitement fading as she guessed the old woman had probably drunk herself into a dream.
Revin swiftly glanced around the room and wondered where the rest of the family had gone and why they had not taken their grandmother with them. Her eyes settled back on the woman. “No one has ever seen one. Just Blues and Browns with an occasional Red. Golds are but a rumor.”
“I’ve seen one.” Through gray hair that hung down in her face, the woman gulped the last of the mug and put it back on the table with a bang. Her eyes went from the mug to Revin and back again.
Revin’s brows furrowed and she absentmindedly waved a hand at the tavern girl without taking her eyes off the old woman. “Where?” She realized she was being abrupt, but if the woman had really seen a Gold…it could mean a purse full of gold talons for Revin and a very comfortable winter and probably set her up for the entire year.
Nodding, the gray-haired woman smiled at the tavern girl, then took the newly filled mug, poured some more from her flask, and held it in both hands. This time Revin caught the scent of several spices floating up from the mug.
“A Youngling.” She looked back at Revin with a thin-lipped expression. “In a village to the north.”
“Are you sure?” Revin could barely control her excitement. A Gold. If she could buy it from the villagers and get it to Westerford, or even to the capital itself, she could name any price.
The old woman placed her empty mug on the table, wiped her mouth with her arm, and began to stand.
Revin grabbed her arm. “Where?” How much would she want? Revin thought. “If you tell me true and I find the dragon, it could be worth a gold talon for you.” Revin pulled one from her coat and held it up for the old woman to see. She only had two more left in the pocket.
“Who were your parents?” the woman asked, dismissing the gold coin without even looking at it.
The question surprised Revin. What does that have to do with the Gold? But the question brought up memories she had tried to repress long ago. Crazy old woman, but if it helped her find out more about the prized dragon, she would answer, “I don’t know. I was a baby found in the woods by a blacksmith.”
“What did the blacksmith see that night?”
How could she know about that? Revin was stunned. Did I say it was nighttime? The blacksmith told her he never mentioned what he’d seen to anyone in the village as he was afraid they might think him unbalanced. He had come home from the tavern one night after too many tankards, a rare occurrence, and confided in her about it before he passed out.
“A fiery light that streaked across the treetops,” Revin replied, her voice faltered. He had only told her once, but she remembered it clearly, as it was the only connection she had to her past. “He said it disappeared into the forest and then another light, as bright as the sun at noon, lit up the night sky. He couldn’t explain why, but more scared than he had ever been in his life, he searched where the light had shown and found a clearing. In the middle of it lay a naked baby.”
“Me.” Old feelings forced their way into her thoughts, Why didn’t my parents want me?
The elderly woman nodded with a smile.
“The Gold?” Revin would just as soon put her meager beginnings behind her.
“The boy, you were kind to him.” The old woman ignored Revin’s question.
“The boy will have enough problems in life. A little kindness might give him a moment’s peace and it cost me nothing,” she answered though she was becoming more frustrated. She was puzzled by the bizarre and unrelated line of questioning.
The woman stood. She was taller than Revin had thought and didn’t seem to have the bent spine Revin associated with someone her age.
“Wait!” Revin grabbed for the woman’s arm. “What do want in exchange for information on where to find the dragon?”
“You’ve already given me everything I need.” The old woman’s smile widened, and she patted Revin’s hand. “Take the northern road for two days, it runs along the Stoney Frost River. You will come to a bend in the river that looks like a hook. If you continue along the river, it will take you to Hillford. But if instead you cross the river, you will find a little-used road that stretches northwest. Follow it for four days and you will reach the village.”
“That’s beyond the border.” Revin pictured the route and realized it would take her out of Reinlanden and into primitive lands deep in the mountains. “There aren’t any villages that far north. Only the Burning Lady would go there.” However, Revin couldn’t imagine why the Goddess would bother.
Before Revin could ask more, the woman slipped from her grasp and disappeared into the growing tavern crowd.
The serving wench stepped up and looked down at the now empty chair. “Is she coming back?”
“I don’t think so.” Revin looked into the crowd and frowned as she considered the old woman’s words and thought about what they could mean. A Gold.