Summary: An innkeeper's son is entrusted with a dragon egg, leading to a quest to restore the ancient race of dragons to their former glory.
Chapter 1: The Greenway Inn
Edmund Lehore leaned on the railing and stared down at the men drinking ale in the common room.
"Is that really a dragon egg, Grandfather?" he asked excitedly. The round, grayish-brown object looked like a rock, mottled with green and red lichen.
"Who knows?" His grandfather rested a large hand on Edmund's shoulder and chuckled softly. "It rather looks like one. But it's been a long time since anyone last saw a dragon in the lowlands."
"Did you ever see one?"
"Yes, long ago." The old man's eyes lost focus. "I was in the mountains in Eastern Kisfaran, hunting mountain goats. I would see them flying high above me." His grip tightened and he shook Edmund slightly. "You had to be careful hunting goats in those mountains because that's what the dragons ate, but they weren't that picky about what they snatched up in their claws, as long as it was red meat."
Edmund's eyes widened.
"But that was a long time ago." The old man sighed. "There are few dragons left now."
"What happened to them?"
"Some say they were hunted to extinction, but I think that was only a part of it. To see the whole truth, you have to understand how dragons reproduce."
Edmund blinked up at his grandfather curiously. The old man had been his teacher and friend for most of Edmund's life. He had turned up at the inn owned by Edmund's parents without any explanation for where he had been or what he had been doing after a years-long absence and Edmund's father had reluctantly allowed him to take up residence. But the old man was strong despite his age and he pulled his own weight. He taught Edmund to read and write and do his numbers. He also taught Edmund how to fight hand-to-hand and how to use a sword skillfully. Of course, Edmund's father did not see the use in these latter skills, but as long as the training did not keep Edmund from getting his chores done, he did not interfere.
But despite knowing more about the wide world than most of his peers, Edmund did not really see himself as anything except an innkeeper's son, destined to manage the inn after his parents passed on. But he was still a curious boy and his grandfather had given him a thirst for knowledge.
"How do dragons reproduce, Grandfather?"
"Well, female dragons are not attentive mothers. They lay their eggs on the slopes of volcanoes and bury them in the hot ash. The eggs are soft when they're laid, about the size of your two fists held together, and continue to grow for three weeks or so, until they reach about the size of a man's head. During this time, they are as vulnerable as any creature's eggs. Many are eaten. Others are crushed by landslides or cave-ins. But once they reach full-size, the shells harden and become as impervious as rock. The baby dragons continue to grow inside the hardened shells until they are fully developed. After that, they hibernate until circumstances cause them to hatch."
"They need high heat in order to hatch, usually a volcanic eruption. When the eggs are buried in hot ash or molten lava, the heat cracks the shell and the dragon emerges. This is another vulnerable time for a new dragon. When the shell cracks, the dragon breaks free and claws its way to the surface. If the dragon hatches in hot ash, the heat hardens and seals its scales, giving the dragon a tough, damage-resistant hide. But if the dragon emerges through molten lava, the searing heat burns its scales away, leaving it vulnerable to injury and disease. Such dragons seldom reach adulthood. Most dragons killed by men in the past few decades were scale-less adolescents."
Edmund frowned. "But why does it work that way? Volcanic eruptions don't happen that often, do they?"
"No, which is why dragon eggs sometimes end up in people's hands. They can get washed down from the mountains by floods. Most people just take them for rocks, but a few who know recognize them for what they are." The old man looked down at his grandson with an affectionate smile. "It is said that the dragons were cursed. At one time, the females could breathe fire and they used their hot breath to harden their eggs and then later to seal the scales of their newborns. But the curse robbed them of the ability to breathe fire and the heat of volcanic ash was the only thing that would cause their eggs to harden and hatch. But it was not a guarantee and despair eventually caused the dragon mothers to cease to care. So they lay their eggs and forget them."
"That is very sad," Edmund murmured. He blinked away a tear as he looked down at the mottled rock that might be a dragon egg.
"Yes, it is." The old man patted his shoulder.
"What do you suppose they'll do with it?"
"Trade it or sell it, most likely. There is always some idiot out there who thinks he will be able to hatch it."
"Have people tried?"
"Yes!" his grandfather snorted. "The lucky ones don't succeed. Even a newborn dragon is deadly."
Edmund's father stepped into the common room and looked up at them. "Edmund! Come down! I need you."
"Yes, Father!" Edmund hurried down the stairs. "Grandfather says that is a real dragon's egg!" he confided excitedly to his father.
Conn Lehore glanced at the egg without interest. "Is that so? Well, they best not try to use it to pay their tab. I've no use for such nonsense." He gave Edmund a gentle shove toward the rear of the inn. "Go give your mother a hand with the roasts. It's time to start serving dinner."
"Yes, Father." Edmund hurried through the door at the rear of the common room and into the kitchen. It was sweltering with the doors of the great ovens standing open, emitting the heat and sizzling smells of the roasting meats. Edmund did not wait for instructions. He had been pulling roasts out of those ovens since he was tall enough to reach inside without burning himself on the edge. He slid his arms into the thick padded gloves and reached into the first oven for a spit loaded with beef roasts. It was heavy but he handled it with the ease of long practice, moving the meat quickly to the wide wooden carving table where his mother used a long fork to push the roasts off the spit. And so it went with roasts of beef, pork and mutton, and whole chickens and geese. The inn boasted a staff of five, in addition to the Lehore family, and everyone worked when it was time to serve dinner. Along with the roast meats, there were boiled potatoes, stewed beets and carrots and crusty loaves of fresh baked bread.
Plate after plate of food was carried out into the common room, but Edmund stayed in the kitchen, preparing the plates and then washing the empty dishes when they returned. It was hard work but he did not mind. Still a few months shy of his thirteenth birthday, Edmund enjoyed the feeling of self-confidence his parents' trust inspired. To his young mind, being trustworthy was its own reward.
After dinner, when the cleaning up was done and guests had gone to their rooms for the night, Edmund sought out his grandfather. Not surprisingly, the old man was standing out in the yard smoking his pipe, a vice he continued to enjoy despite Conn's complaints about the cost of tobacco.
Edmund stopped next to him and gazed up at the stars. "It's so clear tonight."
"Uhm," his grandfather replied absently. "The kind of night when trouble starts."
Edmund blinked in surprise. "You think there will be trouble?"
The old man rested his hand on Edmund's shoulder. "No," he said with a chuckle. "I just find that as often as not, when trouble starts, it's on a clear night. Bad weather drives even the troublemakers indoors."
"But don't listen to me; I'm just a silly old man who's seen too much of the world."
"You're not silly," Edmund laughed.
The sound of a horse's hooves clip-clopping up the lane toward them made them both turn. The bright starlight revealed a person wrapped tightly in a cloak and hood, sitting stiffly on the back of a large horse. The rider came straight toward them and stopped a few paces away.
"Is this the Greenway Inn?"
"Yes it is," Edmund's grandfather said, his tone just short of suspicious. "Are you seeking lodging?"
The rider shifted slightly. "I am looking for someone. A man with a dragon's egg. Have you seen him?"
Edmund drew in a sharp breath but he said nothing when he felt his grandfather's grip tighten on his shoulder.
"Might have," the old man replied with a casual shrug, "but we don't make it a habit of meddling in our guests' business."
"I see." The rider swung down from his horse. "Then perhaps I will stay the night."
"Very well." The old man nudged Edmund. "Run inside and tell your father we have another guest."
"Yes, Grandfather." Edmund hurried inside, wondering why his grandfather seemed so suspicious. There was nothing odd about the traveler to Edmund's eyes. His father grumbled about a late arrival, but there was an empty room and he would rather have it paid for than not, so Edmund took the traveler's horse to the stable while his father took the man to the empty room.
The stable boy was already asleep, so Edmund stripped off the horse's gear, wiped it down and gave it a measure of hay and a bucket of water before returning to the inn. As he closed and latched the main door, a hand suddenly dropped onto his shoulder. In the near darkness, Edmund nearly jumped out of his boots. The only light came from the dying fire in the hearth of the common room. He spun around.
In the faint firelight, a pale face loomed over his head. "Who are you, boy?" came a harsh whisper.
"I am Edmund, the innkeeper's son!" Edmund whispered back, mindful of the fact that his own question had gone unanswered.
"Did a man come just now? A man in a dark cloak riding a raw-boned gelding?"
"Yes, sir!" Edmund shivered as the pale face leaned closer. He could smell ale on the man's breath.
"That man means to kill me, boy!" the man hissed sharply. "If you help me, there will be a big reward for you."
Edmund stepped back but he immediately bumped into the door. "What would you have me do?"
"Take this and hide it." The man shoved something large and heavy into Edmund's hands. "Put it where no one will stumble across it by accident and tell no one about it. I'll return for it in a few weeks and pay you a handsome fee. You have my word on that." He clasped Edmund by the shoulders. "I'm counting on you, boy." Then he released Edmund and turned away, hurrying toward the stairs to the guest rooms.
Unsure what to do, Edmund looked down at the bundle in his hands. It was large and round. Sudden realization made Edmund nearly drop it. It had to be the dragon's egg! Hurriedly, he dashed into the kitchen, grabbed a lantern and took the stairs down to the cellar. At the bottom, he ran straight to the back, where the large casks of wine were stored. The casks rested in curved racks set close to the wall. There was just enough space behind them to squeeze the egg between the bottom rack and the wall. Edmund dropped to his knees and set the lantern down. Carefully, he unwrapped the bundle to reveal the green, red and brown mottled surface of the dragon's egg. He slid his fingers over the surface curiously. It was hard as stone and rough to the touch.
"Amazing!" Edmund murmured. He folded the cloth carefully back over the egg and wedged it into the space behind the wine rack. "He said I shouldn't tell anyone, but I think I'll tell Grandfather." Edmund went back upstairs. The inn was completely quiet. In the rear where his family and the servant's quarters were, it was equally quiet and no light shone under the door of his grandfather's room. "Oh well," Edmund sighed, "I'll tell him in the morning."
Castus Lehore had been a mercenary soldier most of his life. As a young man, an urgent desire to see more of the world and make something of himself had sent him wandering far from home; a habit he had not been able to break even after the birth of his son Conn. His wife had died during one of his years-long absences and guilt had kept him away for still more years afterward. But when he had finally returned, it was to find that his son had married an innkeeper's daughter and become a successful businessman with no trace of his father's wanderlust in his veins. So Castus had settled down and become a part of his son's life, and found fulfillment passing on his decades of accumulated knowledge to his grandson.
But a soldier's instincts never leave him and Castus had difficulty sleeping that night. His thoughts kept returning to the cloaked man who had arrived that night looking for the man with the dragon's egg, so he was only dozing when the acrid smell of smoke pulled him fully awake and he sat up in alarm. Now a faint sound reached his ears and Castus threw off his blanket and leaped out of bed. He dropped to his knees before opening his door and looking out into the hall. Flickering light washed down the hall, bright enough to reveal smoke billowing under the ceiling.
"Fire!" Castus shouted immediately. Hunched over, he dashed down the hall to pound on the door of Conn and Mera's room and then thrust it open. "Conn! Mera! Fire!"
Conn was out of bed in an instant, shoving his legs into a pair of trousers draped over a chair back. Mera threw a robe on over her nightgown as she followed her husband into the hall.
"Wake the guests!" Conn ordered tersely. "We'll start a bucket line from the well."
"Right!" Castus started for the stairs as Mera ran down the hall to wake Edmund and the rest of the staff. Castus charged up the rear stairs to the second floor and ran down the hall, pounding on doors and shouting. As Castus headed up to the third floor, he heard Edmund directing guests down the rear stairs. The inn was not completely full, but there were lots of guests, so after he had pounded on every door, Castus returned to the rear stairs doing a room by room check to make sure everyone was out. But the smoke was starting to get thick and he was coughing by the time he got back down to the second floor.
"Grandfather!" Edmund cried. "Is everyone off the third floor?"
"Yes! Let's get out of here!" Castus urged Edmund down the stairs. They stumbled down with their hands over their mouths, coughing in the thick smoke billowing up from below. The heat from the fire could be felt before they reached the bottom.
"It started in the common room!" Edmund said as they dashed out through the rear door. "It's completely in flames and the fire has already spread to the kitchen! I should have checked the fireplace before I went to bed!"
Castus gripped the boy's shoulder as they hurried around to the front of the inn to join the bucket brigade. "I checked the fire, Edmund. It was properly banked and the screen was in place." Castus said nothing else. There was no need to worry the boy more by telling him he suspected the fire was deliberately set.
Several of the guests were helping pass buckets from the well, but it was already clear that the inn could not be saved. Flames were starting to lick through windows on the second floor. Conn and Mera's faces were grim as they watched their home and their livelihood burn to the ground, but they were innkeepers first and foremost. Once they accepted that the inn was lost, they turned their attention to caring for their guests. Straw and blankets were retrieved from the stable to make beds. The horses were moved into the paddock so that frailer guests could be housed inside the stable. By morning, the inn was a smoldering wreck and only two guests could not be accounted for.
Castus drew Conn aside to speak to him privately about that. "That man who arrived last night is missing, but his horse is gone, too. He was looking for the man with the dragon's egg and that fellow's missing as well. I won't say anything to Mera, but I think one of those men may have set the fire to kill the other."
Conn's eyes widened and his face went flat. "My inn was destroyed because of someone else's problems?"
"It happens," Castus said with a slight shrug. "Let's just be thankful no one else was killed."
Conn frowned as he stared at the blackened ruins of his inn. "You're right," he said finally. "And I can rebuild." He paused and nodded sharply. "I will rebuild. I needed to expand the basement and the kitchen anyway and Mera has been saying that it would be nice to have separate bathing rooms for men and women." He ran soot-stained fingers through his hair. "Do you mind digging some privy holes? I'll have Edmund and one of the lads salvage some boards to make the privies."
The shovels were stored with other equipment in a tool shed adjacent to the stable. The key to the big lock on the shed had been lost with the inn, but Conn had smashed the lock last night to retrieve the extra buckets. As Castus stepped through the open door, he paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the gloom. The shovels were racked with other tools against one wall, but when he reached out to pull one out of the rack, the whole thing started to tip toward him. With a curse, Castus caught the top rail and shoved the rack back against the wall, but something still thudded to the ground near the back of the shed. Grumbling, Castus leaned over to pick up whatever had fallen and stopped with a start.
A man's body lay in a crumpled heap at the base of the wall. It looked as if someone had jammed the corpse into the corner between the rack and the wall, dislodging the rack in the process, but the body had tumbled free when the rack tipped over.
Quickly, Castus retrieved a shovel and closed the shed door. Then he hurried back to Conn and drew him aside.
"I found the man with the dragon's egg," Castus whispered into his ear. "He's lying dead in the tool shed."
Conn drew his breath in and then blew it out angrily. "So it was as you say. Those men brought their fight to my door."
"So it would appear," Castus said with a small nod. "We should contact the authorities and report the murder."
Conn nodded in agreement. "I'll send one of the lads as soon I can. I need to get some supplies anyway. We need tents and food, and changes of clothes for everyone." He sighed and put his hands on his hips. "We'll get through this. Mera and I have good credit in the nearby towns. We'll be able to get what we need and get this place put back together."
Castus lifted an eyebrow. "You plan to keep serving guests while you rebuild?"
Conn smiled grimly. "It's what we do, Father. This location is too good to leave, right on the crossing of two major highways. If I don't rebuild here, someone else will. And guests count on finding a bed and a hot meal at this spot. I don't want to lose business to some opportunist."
Castus smiled and patted Conn on the shoulder. "You're a businessman through and through, my son. I'm proud of you." Conn blinked in surprise as Castus turned away. Castus seldom gave out praise, but he was very proud of his son. Staying in one place with responsibilities and obligations was much harder than wandering the country fighting in meaningless battles. Castus recognized that his son was a much better man than he was.
Some men found digging holes backbreaking work, but Castus enjoyed the mindless exertion. He was almost done with his first hole when Edmund and another boy, a sturdy lad of sixteen named Dob, arrived carrying a stack of rough hewn planks and a tool box.
"You'll want some stout branches and a few stones to brace the walls after you assemble the privy," Castus said.
Edmund nodded. "Yes, sir." He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "There are more boards in the back of the stable. I guess we don't need them for that extra shed Father was planning."
"Not now," Castus agreed with a snort. He kept an eye on the boys as they constructed the privy, but he made no move to help them. Edmund quickly demonstrated that he knew what he was doing. He laid three planks side by side and nailed a forth plank across them at a diagonal, making a reasonably sturdy wall. He assembled three walls and used four square posts for the corners, nailing his walls into a long, open-ended trough. Then he and Dob stood it up over Castus' privy hole.
"We can hang a blanket on the open side," Edmund said as he and Dob braced the structure with tree branches and stones. "When we get some canvas from town, we can put a roof over it." Then he got a scrap of wood, gouged a hole in one end and hung it over a nail that was only partially nailed in. He grinned at Castus. "People using the privy can take that bit of wood inside with them so others will know it's occupied."
Castus returned his grandson's grin. "Good idea." He nodded at his second hole. "Better get started on the next one. I'll rig some kind of seat."
Edmund nodded and returned to his stack of boards. Dob had already laid out three planks for the next wall.
Conn came over to inspect their work as they were completing the second privy. He nodded approvingly. "Very good." He tapped Edmund's dangling "in-use" markers. "I like this."
Edmund beamed at his father's praise. "I still need to put blankets over the entrance."
"Let Dob do that," Conn said. "I need you to go set out trap lines." He turned to Castus. "Fortunately, the garden is intact, but we need fresh meat."
"I'll do that," Castus said immediately. "I suppose now I'll have to thank Mera for insisting that I keep my weapons locked up in the tool shed. Otherwise I would have lost my bow in the fire. I'll go hunting while Edmund sets his traps. With any luck, I'll have meat for dinner tonight and Edmund should have game by morning."
"Thank you." Conn turned to look at his guests, sitting on horse blankets in the yard in front of the still-smoking inn. "When Mera and I took over this inn from her mother, it was half the size it was before the fire. We devoted ourselves to making this inn the finest we could. Though it may seem like we've lost everything, we still have our reputation as the best inn in this region. As long as we continue to look after our guests, the Greenway Inn is still here."
Edmund stepped close and slipped an arm around his father's waist. "We just have to work hard, right, Father?"
Conn put his arm around Edmund's shoulders. "That's right, son. Success comes to those who are willing to work for it."