In the summer of 2015, I was invited to share some of what I had learned about writing with the eight to seventeen year old students during the annual Youth Write Camp. The event took place in the new Jim Pattisan Centre For Excellence at the Okanagan College Campus in Penticton.
For my part, during the five days of sessions, I focussed mainly on character development, while trying to tailor the content and exercises for each of the specific age groups I was working with. As part of the overall course, each student was given an opportunity to submit their writing for inclusion in the Gems anthology. The instructors were also asked to provide a five page sample of their work to be included at the end of the book.
At the time I was in the middle of making my final pass through the Warlock manuscript before handing it off to a proofreader. Pressed for time, I simply looked though my uncompleted folder for something I could use. As luck would have it, I came across some chapters from a prequel to FireDrakes that I had see aside when I started working on Warlock. I reworked part of the first chapter that weekend and created ‘Elves and Dragons’. I have attached my unedited version here as a sample of a very short fantasy story.
Elves and Dragons
As the nameless three year old filly clicked and clopped her way down Jenour’s cobbled street, her rider was very careful not to stare at passers by. Among his own people, a meeting of the eyes, accompanied by a warm smile, was considered good manners, but this ingrained habit provided no end of trouble when outside the borders of Toth. To members of the Carpathian patriarchy’s upper-crust, eye contact by the lowborn was considered an affront, punishable by two days in the stocks. Having learned this lesson firsthand, Rendalt crossed the border into Sidon determined to err on the side of caution.
Under a hot mid-day sun, the streets of Jenour bustled with townsfolk, sailors, merchants and a fair number of Sidon’s ever-present warrior class. Rendalt prudently coaxed his mount aside to make way for a pair of Sidonese Knights riding abreast behind him. The long tuft of sand-colored hair, spouting from the top of each man’s glistening shaved head, danced in perfect harmony with the well-groomed tails of their magnificent mounts as they trotted proudly down the center of the street.
Distracted by their exotic appearance, and his filly’s jitteriness, Rendalt failed to avert his eyes in time when one of the knights glanced his way. The narrowing of the man’s eyes was enough to tell Rendalt his gawking had not gone unnoticed, but when both men continued on their way, he assumed they considered a white-haired old foreigner like himself unworthy of their rebuke.
Once the knights had been swallowed by the press of activity up ahead, the motion of a wooden sign swaying stiffly on its rusty hinges attracted Rendalt’s attention. Though the sun-bleached paint was flaked and peeling, the image of a white dove perched on the back of a black boar was still discernible. It marked Jenour’s most favored inn and alehouse, the very place Rendalt sought. The weariness of a long hard journey gave way to a tingle of excitement. His thick beard hid any hint of a satisfied grin from all but his eyes.
Just past the sign, a poorly constructed stable leaned against the inn’s north wall like an afterthought. Rendalt dismounted before its open doors and paused to calm his nerves. It was no easy task. Half as many years spent in fruitless searching, for what most considered a mythical place, would have given any reasonable man cause to conclude the whole idea a fabrication of strong drink or a weak mind, but Rendalt was obsessed, and for good reason.
According to folklore, this place was inhabited by a race of ageless elves, or demons, depending on who was telling the story, and Rendalt just had to find it, for something very strange had happened to him in his sixtieth year; inexplicably, he had stopped aging. While everyone around him continued to suffer the ravages of time, he remained practically unchanged. In the past fifty years he had aged no more than one or two. When his youngest child died a wrinkled old grandmother, Rendalt set out in search of answers. Only last new moon, Rendalt spent more than he could afford to purchase the name and whereabouts of a Sidonese innkeeper who claimed to have seen it in his youth.
“You there,” a deep voice barked. “What is your business here?”
Forming a pleasant smile, despite his growing apprehension, Rendalt turned to face the same two knights who had passed by moments earlier. Though seemingly at ease, with both hands resting calmly on their saddle horns, they had positioned themselves to either side, effectively blocking any escape.
Forgoing caution, Rendalt simply replied with the truth. “I seek a man who claims to know the way to Penardun. Abel is his name. Abel the innkeeper. Do you know him?”
One of the knights glanced at the other before exhaling a harsh laugh. “Penardun is it?” he asked with a grin.
“Yes,” Rendalt replied. “The place where the elves dwell.”
“Thought I had heard all of Abel’s stories, but that one I do not recall. Tell you what, friend; for a tankard or two we will persuade Able to tell us about this Penardun of yours.”
A lifetime of peace under a normal matriarchal system made the harsh Sidonese feudal regime seem barbaric at best, but in this one instance, it might just work in Rendalt’s favor. How could a common innkeeper refuse a request from such men?
“Done,” Rendalt replied, silently hoping the Carpathian coins in his slender purse would be acceptable, and that the knights were not so thirsty as to leave him without the means to replenish his meager supplies before leaving Jenour.
Once the horses were stabled, the knights followed Rendalt into the inn like a pair of oversized shadows. Finding the table nearest the serving counter unoccupied, Rendalt took a seat. The wooden stools to either side disappeared quickly beneath the sun-reddened flesh and polished armor of his new found friends. The broad smiles spread across their scarred faces did little to alleviate the overwhelming sense of being their prisoner.
“Abel,” the knight to Rendalt’s left barked as he slammed a meaty fist on the table. “Three tankards.”
“And be quick about it,” the other knight added with a big toothy grin as he pounded the table so hard Rendalt’s forearms bounced up and down.
Gripping two pewter mugs in one hand, with a third in the other, a mountain of a man forced his way through a three foot wide opening in the serving counter. “Hurry, Abel,” the knight on the left said, “before my brother and I perish from thirst.”
A pleasant aroma filled the air as three mugs of foamy ale were deposited onto the table just under Rendalt’s nose. “Talked you into paying for their drink, did they?” Abel asked in a tone that bespoke more a statement than a question. Easily the largest person Rendalt had ever come across, at least in width if not height, the innkeeper’s furrowed brow and cold stony stare gave Rendalt pause. The bulging muscles of his forearms and thick neck cast doubt on earlier expectations of capitulation through threat of violence. Momentarily speechless, Rendalt could only nod a reply.
“What they promise you?” Abel asked as he tilted his head sideways and squinted one eye, as if trying to somehow see into Rendalt’s thoughts.
“A story,” the knight on the right replied after wiping the froth from his lips. “Our friend here seems to think you know of a place called Penardun.”
Abel’s big bushy eyebrows disappeared momentarily in his generous crown of thick curly hair, before dropping back down as he pursed his lips. “That be a dangerous place. No reasonable man would ever want to go there.” A smile curled on his thick lips revealing a gold tooth. “Would you not rather hear of the wondrous olive-skinned beauties to be found beyond the southern islands? Now that be a story worth the price of ale.”
“No,” Rendalt replied, having finally found his voice. “Just tell us what you know about Penardun, and don’t leave anything out.”
“Very well,” Abel said with a sigh. The table creaked under his weight as he leaned forward on his knuckles.
“Been there, I have, but that were a long time ago, before I heard the call of the sea. Me pappy were a trader and when I was but ten years old he took me along to learn a thing or two about the world. Traveled clear to the northern ice fields, we did, to trade steel implements for ivory, furs and even a few raw gems, but it was on the way back the story you’re after begins.”
Realizing he hadn’t drawn a breath since Abel began talking, Rendalt sucked in a lung full before gulping down a mouthful of ale. The combination produced a fit of coughing that only ended when one of the knights administered a good natured slap on the back.
“As I recall,” Abel began, “it were about three sun-marks past mid-day when we found the body, except it weren’t a body really. We thought he was dead, on account of his skin being as pale as new fallen snow, but alive he were, though busted up pretty bad from a great fall. Since he was still breathing, me pappy fashioned a litter from a seal skin and two long walrus tusks. We moved him as gently as we could into the back of our wagon and continued on our way. Wasn’t till just before dusk that the great winged serpents came. Three of them there were. Wet my small cloths on the spot, I did, and bear no shame to admit it even today.”
The room had gone deathly quiet. As he lifted his mug to his lips, Rendalt glanced from side to side. Both knights sat motionless, their own mugs poised before gaping mouths.
“Dragons, me pappy called them,” Abel continued. “Near as big as this inn, every one of them. The nearest lowered his spiked head to look me pappy square in the eye. Changed him, it did; he were never the same after that.”
“But what about Penardun,” Rendalt asked.
“I be getting to that,” Abel replied as he leaned in a little closer and lowered his voice. “Another fellow, just as pale as the one in the back of our wagon, slid down the neck of the dragon as pretty as you please. Told us they were all elves, and asked me pappy to take his injured kin to Penardun, on account of him being too bad off for riding dragons. Me pappy agreed of course. Can’t say as he had much choice.”
Rendalt had been holding his breath, hanging on Abel’s every word. When he exhaled, he took a small sip of ale to wet his throat, which felt as dry as sun baked clay.
“By morning the dragons were gone, but the elf remained behind to guide us to their home. Still ten days north of Gurgaon Lake, it were, we turned west and passed between a pair of tall cliffs. Following an ancient river bed, which cut like a snake through the mountains, we entered a small valley about midday. By nightfall we had arrived. A big black fortress it was. Built at the base of a mountain so tall, the top be still covered in ice even in late summer.”
“They carried the injured one inside, fed and watered our horses and even served us a hot meal. Me pappy and the elves talked a while, but I wasn’t privy to their conversation. We left early the next morning, and when we got back, me pappy sold his rig and all his goods to build this inn. He never went trading again. Three summers later, I signed on to a good ship bound for distant shores and adventure. When word reached me that me pappy passed on, I came home to run the inn, and now here we are.”
After a brief moment of silence, two empty mugs slammed down on the table. “That was the best one yet, Abel,” roared the knight on Rendalt’s right. “Better even than the Balorian wild-men.”
“So, another mug then?” Abel asked, looking at Rendalt. After a nod in reply, the innkeeper smiled and went back to get three more.
Mulling over what he had been told, Rendalt sat for a time, just staring into his ale, until the knights finally got bored with his company and went looking for more interesting games. As the room grew dark with the setting sun, Rendalt looked around to see if anyone was looking his way. Assured that no one was, he reached out to the unkindled candle stub sitting in the center of the table. As his hand drew near, a white spark leapt from his fingertip and ignited the wick. A hint of a smile curled in the corner of his mouth, for within the moon he might finally know why he could do such things.