, , , , , , , ,

Proving Grounds

A wind blew across the land and the mid-day sun burned hot in the faded blue sky. With no clouds to darken things everything seemed bright and vibrant. Hauque closed his eyes and felt the gentle warming breeze on his face. He could hear the grass as it moved with the wind, he could hear the tress sway slowly in the distance and he could smell the sweet smell of wild flowers. Everything seemed to fade away, too far away for this young boy to give it any of his attention.

“There are many beasts in this world that threaten to take our home from us!”

A swift, blunt hit to his back sends Hauque to his knees. Suddenly his peaceful escape falls away and he is kneeling before his master, tall grass surrounding him and three other young boys staring from behind the statue of a man who now stands before him. His body becomes stiff as looks into the hard eyes of this towering figure and a cold steel blade is pressed against the side of his neck.  Despite his fear, he does not move as his master begins to speak again.

“Even the slightest mistake will mean the end of your life and the lives of your fellow Dragoons.” The large man frowns as looks down on his student. “Keeping a clear mind while in battle is essential to survival.”

“But we were not in battle Master” Piped a skinny dark-haired boy from behind the Dragoon Master.

“We are always in battle Colin! Now take your axe and get wood for a fire, punishment for talking to your master out of turn.” He points a massive grey finger to a towering narrow tree. “Be sure to remove the needles.”

He turns his attention back to Hauque, who had not moved. A small trickle of blood ran down the side of his neck where the Master’s blade had nicked him.

“Stand.”  Boomed the Masters voice, it carried a grim and serious tone.

As quickly as his Master could finish the word Hauque was on his feet, arms at his side and staring straight ahead. He could not bring himself to look onto his Masters eyes again, not only would it be rude, but he was too far ashamed.

“You disappoint me Hauque, this is not the first time I have taught you this lesson. Do you understand its importance?”

“Master Argos, I do understand. I wish to defend our home and my brother Dragoons. I will…”

Master Argos cuts him off, “At this rate you will kill us all!” He lets out a long sigh, suddenly looking much older than he did moments ago. “You will not train with us tomorrow.”

“Please! Master, I will do whatever it you need of me!” The plea of the student Hauque falls on deaf ears.

“If that is true then you will listen to your master and go home. We will return in two days and I will speak to you then.” Argos reaches down to his boot and pulls a thing, long dagger free. “Take this, practice your close range while you wait for our me to find you.”

Then, the Master puts a firm hand on the young boys shoulder. His shoulder seemed so small compared to the hand of his Master. Surprised by this, Hauque looks up to see his master smiling at him. It was like the cold hard man he knew was replaced by a gentle old wise man.

“You are a good boy Hauque, and you have a strong heart. I am not done with you yet.” His firm pat to the shoulder nearly knocks Hauque down again. “Tell your pop that I send my best, and tell your mother that I look forward to tasting her cooking again.”

The great Dragoon Master then turned to the remaining three students and started making commands to make camp for the night.

Hauque sheathed this Master’s dagger, turned towards home and started walking. It was only half a day’s walk to the village but most of the day had passed.  It would be dark soon and in these times, it was never safe to be in the open after it gets dark. Even though he had been training to be a Dragoon Hauque was only twelve and his training was not going that well.

He started to increase his pace and focus on getting home. If he was quick and did not stop he could be home shortly after dusk. As he continued time slipped away and so did his attention. Thoughts of the day came into focus as he re-played events where he had made mistakes. This started him thinking about what his mama and pop will think when he arrives home a full two days early. Pops was so proud when he knew his son would be a member of the legendary Dragoon Brigade, but now Hauque doesn’t even know if he is going to be able to continue his training.

A sound drew the young traveler out of his concentration. In the time that his mind had drifted it was nearly dark. He knew he must be close to the village but that does not mean he was free of danger. A faint sound of metal hitting metal approached. Hauque tensed and placed his hand on the dagger his Master had lent him. Knowing that whatever waited for him was likely aware of his presence he di not bother to hide. A glow started rising from behind the crest of the hill. He stood poised and ready and found relief as a lantern rose over the crest.

Hauque let his arm drop to his side and exhaled slowly. It was only a Mercer; traders use this road all season long to make a living. The metal sound was only his cooking pots tied to his mule. Slightly embarrassed he waited quietly for the Mercer to come closer.

“Gods’ strength young Dragoon.”

He voice was worn and brittle. No surprise for an older Mercer who had most likely spent the day calling out his goods outside his village all day.  Mercers and most other outsiders were not welcome inside the village these days. They were asked to kindly do business on the outskirts. This was not too bothersome for them since the people of the village still did business with Mercers so it all works out. Times are dangerous and the village is small so they take caution with all that is not familiar.

“Gods’ strength Mercer, how is it you know me as a Dragoon?” Hauque eyes him carefully. The man is quite old, perhaps older than he had thought. He had many quality goods displayed and yet his clothes were dirty and threadbare.

“A boy your age, armed and so close to Kraytan village? I just guessed, but your response validated my suspicions.“ The old Mercer smiled down at Hauque. “May I interest you in some of my fine goods?”

Remaining straight-faced, despite further embarrassment,  Hauque replies as respectfully as he could. “Fine goods indeed Mercer, however I am close to home and have no coin and no goods of my own I can trade.” He looked to the darkened sky, “I will ask you how long to Kraytan if you will share.”

“Very close,” his smile fades to a more sober expression, “but it will be completely dark before you arrive. Perhaps it would be in both our interests to share camp and wait till morning. If you stay to help keep an old Mercer like me safe I would share my dinner.”

It had just occurred to Hauque that he had not eaten since this morning and was quite hungry. Although he knew it was not far to the village and he desperately wanted to sleep in his own bed he also knew it was not safe, even for a Dragoon in training. “You offer a fair deal Mercer, I will stay and share camp in trade for some dinner.” He extended a hand and they shook on the deal, as it was tradition to do with any agreement with a Mercer.

They both unpacked their bed their bed rolls and secured any items they would not need. Hauque gathered wood and started a fire while the Mercer prepared dinner. While the old man cooked roots and some meat, likely to be hare, Hauque pulled a flat stone out and began to sharpen his Master’s dagger.

“That is a fine dagger,” said the Mercer, “I thought you had nothing to trade? I could give you some mighty good items for that.”

“I said I have nothing of my own that I can trade, the dagger is not mine to trade.” His irritation must have been very close to the surface. After that the Mercer did not speak of trades for the rest of the night. The two strangers ate in silence and spoke very little outside of weather and the Grand Order for the remainder of their meal.

Hauque helped the Mercer clean up and pack away his supplies. As they sat in the warm glow of the fire they began to talk again, not of trading or weather but rather of dark times and stories from all over. The Mercer had been to many places where things are even more dangerous. He told of how he and his fellow Mercers do less and less business to the south because everyone is either leaving and dying, and if you neither you would not open your door for anyone even in broad day light.

“That’s odd behavior, why stay? If times are so bad to the south why not leave?” he asked the old Mercer as if it were an impossible puzzle.

The Mercer could tell now just how much of a fledgling the Dragoon was. “For some, it is the only place they have to go. If they leave it now they would quickly become beggars, chances are they would die anyway. If the bandits did not hunger would for sure. At least if they stay they die in their home, on their own terms.”

Hauque became silent in thought. He had never thought about leaving home forever. He knew it was something he would do, at least leave for a long time. It is the way things worked in his village, the home of the Dragoon Brigade. They protected by the Grand Order in exchange for giving them the finest champions. No other village could do what they did and as a young man who was accepted into the ranks he was bound to leave someday. Since his training had begun he had not thought about what was yet to come. Perhaps that was part of the lesson Master Argos was trying to teach him.

More thoughts of home passed in and out of his mind. He talked more of the dark times with the Mercer as thoughts home began to call him. He thought of his mama and pops and how had already started missing them after three days. He wanted to become the best Dragoon in the village but he missed his mama’s food and the company of his pops. He started to think about what he would do to train when he got back and if his pops could give him any advice. Now that he would not be back home until the morning he had even less time to prepare for Master Argos’ return. He wanted to be ready and show that he is a true Dragoon.

As more thoughts swam in his mind Hauque started to drift off. Having been a long day he let sleep take him over.

*                             *                             *

Hauque found himself standing before a tall mountain; its peak was narrow and jagged. All of the land around the mountain, as far as the eye can see, was gray and bare. The air was clear but felt thick like honey. He could smell ash and sulfur in the air and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.  Everything felt strange but at the same time he did not feel like he was in any danger.

When he called out to see if there was anyone around he found his voice was muffled. He tried again thinking that his ears were plugged or his voice dry. He called again, nothing but a soft muffle. Finding this strange and unsettling he felt the need to seek out something to defend himself if needed. He moved slowly and with ease, it did not seem too important to move quickly, he felt some unease but still sensed no danger. As he looked around he noticed he was dressed in armor, and had a sword at his side.

He unsheathed the sword to inspect it, as he held it up to the sky something caught his attention. Red embers, floating up from the mountain peak, he watched them multiply his attention on them undivided. He was unaware that he had started to move forward towards the mountain. The only thing that stopped him was a low rumble, followed by a loud, thunderous crack. Hauque regained his focus in time to see the peak of the mountain splitting down the middle. A blinding orange glow was emanating from within. The smell of ash and sulfur had started to sting his eyes and nose. It was just as he felt he could not tolerate any longer when he realized what was happening. It was not a mountain; it was a dragon, and large one at that.

The great beast pulled back its wings to reveal its head. Locking eyes with the dragon Hauque froze, his body felt as if it were stuck in stone. The ash and sulfur were now so thick that he could hardly breathe. He began coughing, his body trying to rid itself of the thick ash. The last thing he remembered was the eyes of that great dragon.

*                             *                             *

Hauque woke up in a panic, coughing and gasping for air. He swore the air was still thick with ash and sulfur. It was a rather intense dream to have such an impact. It was not long after that he had realized the ash and sulfur were still thick in the air, and he was no longer dreaming. It was early dusk and smoke was rising from the east.

“The village!”