Henry and the Dragon: Chapter One
“Henry! Come here this instant!”
Master Neron’s tone indicated that he was not a happy man. Henry Cabot put down the wheedle brush he was stripping from the thorny bark, much to the regret of his bruised and bloodied hands, and rushed to the front of the shop to see what Master Neron would berate him for this time.
Neron tossed a bundle of fire lilies on the counter. “The lady Jasper claims that these did not work in her stew.”
Henry wanted to say that it was because fire lilies were toxic and ought not be used in stew, but he kept his mouth shut, knowing anything he said would only compound his punishment.
“She is quite vexed.”
She would have been even more so if she’d eaten the lilies and developed the cramps that would make her wish she died. Henry truly did like his job. He had learned much from Master Neron. Unfortunately, he also learned that Master Neron ought not be teaching. He was an ill tempered man, with little actual knowledge of the healing arts. Henry could brew potions and salves that would drain illness from the body, but Master Neron said that what he was making was akin to poison, and destroyed the things he’d made.
Henry had managed to continue his work in secret, and had begun to make stronger potions that he’d secreted out of the shop, and given to the ill after extracting their solemn vow that they not reveal where the elixir originated. To a person, everyone had recovered not only their strength, but also their vitality. Master Neron said that it was due to his work, and no one ever contradicted him.
But the people knew, and that made all the difference for Henry. They greeted him when Master Neron sent him to the town square to fetch things from the markets. Families wanted to introduce him to their daughters. Many would hug him. True, it wasn’t everyone, but most would at least acknowledge him when he passed. They seldom did that for Neron, who seemed a cross between prickly plant and a wet cat. Henry knew if Neron was aware of the fondness people showed to Henry, it might agitate the man, and thereby make him more apt to punish Henry for minor infractions.
“I need you to go to the forest and bring me back a basket of ghost moss.”
The forest? “Master?” he asked, his voice quavering.
Neron’s beady ochre eyes narrowed. “Dare not speak against my wishes, Henry Cabot. You are already without my graces, so you ought not compound that further.”
The forest was a dark and foreboding place, where only the most foolhardy people entered. It was filled with demons and spirits that would drag a man to the other world. Foolish young men from the village had gone in there after a night of mead and taunting dares told chilling tales of bog beasts that chased them with a desire to eat them. Only luck had saved their lives. Henry was not one with whom fortune found favor. If he were, his parents would never have had to give him to Neron when he was but a lad of five years. He held no ill will toward them. It was the only bargain Neron would strike to provide medicine that would save Henry’s older sister’s life. He would have gladly suffered far worse to save Meredith, the light of Henry’s world.
In the two and twenty years he had been bonded to Neron, Henry had learned many things, but most were self taught. Neron didn’t want an assistant, he wanted a servant. It was Henry who cooked the meals, did the cleaning, tended the animals, and was he who oversaw the needs for the alchemy shop.
But the forest? There were other places he could get the moss. Safer locations. If Neron was adamant, though, Henry had little choice.
“No, of course not, Master,” Henry said, hoping to still the pitch of his voice. “I would never speak out of turn. If you have need for me to enter the forest, I will do so without hesitation.”
When Neron pointed to the basket he wanted Henry to use, Henry’s throat went dry. It was by far the largest one in the shop. With ghost moss being so rare, it would take Henry the better part of the day, and into the eve to complete his task. His chest tightening and his stomach clenching, Henry retrieved the wicker herb basket Neron wanted filled, as well as his own satchel, before he made his way out of the shop.
He hurried through the town, nodding at the people who gave him greetings. This would end poorly, he knew. If he died….
No, he would not let that thought consume his mind. He could not. He had a task to do, and he would see it done to the best of his ability. He straightened his shoulders and purposefully marched to the edge of the town, a furlong from where the dark forest lay. He would not be afraid. This was but another task, and Henry would see it done.
As soon as he stepped beyond the borders of safety, however, Henry wanted to turn and flee back to his home. This punishment from Neron seemed far too stringent for the perceived crime. And Henry hadn’t been the one to give the fire lilies to Lady Jasper. That had been Neron’s choice. Henry would have given her verro root, which would have added a hint of sweetness to her dish, without poisoning her. Perhaps she made a comment about Neron’s ineptitude, and that angered him.
Henry turned his eyes skyward. It wasn’t an unpleasant day, though the clouds above could portend rain before the eve. A shudder rippled through Henry. He did not want to be caught in a downpour on his way home, because the ghost moss would not survive the trip. It was far too lacy and delicate, and it would likely dissolve if it got too wet. Maybe that was another part of Neron’s punishment. Set Henry on a task he could not complete, and thereby allow Neron to continue to discipline him.
Or it could be that Neron was trying to force Henry to run away. The king frowned on the indentured fleeing their masters, and he would likely find a way to hurt Henry’s family. A deep sigh rolled out of Henry. He couldn’t flee and he couldn’t argue, so what was he to do?
Maybe, if he were lucky, he’d be eaten by the beasts that inhabited the woods. That would solve all problems, except for the not seeing Neron’s face when Henry succeeded in getting the basket of ghost moss!
He stopped at the edge of the dark forest. It had taken him too long to arrive, and he feared he would be here long after dark, when everyone knew the most voracious of the beasts came out. He steeled his nerve, because to quail at the moment would certainly spell his doom.
The moment—the very instant—Henry stepped into the woods, all sound ceased, and Henry found himself plunged into an all consuming darkness. He no longer heard the birdsong, nor the wind as it tickled the grass. Now it was an oppressive silence that allowed Henry to hear the blood that pounded in his ears. Worst was how black it had become. He could scarcely see his hand before his face.
For several long moments, Henry feared he had been rooted to the spot. His heart thundered and his feet refused to move. Henry wondered if he was to become part of the forest. Perhaps that was where all the trees came from. Souls lost as they entered. He’d heard of houses made of wood from the trees that creaked and wailed. One person described it as the sound of lost souls, and their keening threatened to drive the man mad. Was that what was to become of Henry?
A soft whimper drew Henry’s attention. The first sound he’d heard would, of course, be one of pain. He tried to move, and found himself able to do so. He headed in the direction of the noise, uncertain why he wasn’t fleeing. Though still afraid, he forced himself to keep going. The deeper he went, the more his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He came to a small clearing, and there he discovered the source of the pained sound.
He’d seen the pelts of Virbolg before. Hideous creatures with razor sharp claws that the blacksmith used to prepare leather. Their teeth he forged into a knife, capable of slicing through bone. Even their eyes were of use in alchemy, although Henry refused to dabble in that kind of medicine. He believed nature provided, and that all one had to do was look, and they would find answers that would allow them to heal without the need to harm others.
This Virbolg was comparatively tiny, likely a baby, and it seemed stuck in a fissure. Though still nearly as big as Henry, it shrank back at the sight of him. He could see lacerations on its face, and concluded it had been in a fight of some sort. Another shudder jolted him. What creature in their right mind would attack a Virbolg?
And yet, here was Henry, still getting closer. If he died, he deserved it!
“Good morrow, little one.”
The soft bleating stopped as the baby Virbolg turned in Henry’s direction.
“I won’t harm you, I give my oath. I would like to help you, if I can.”
Closer he crept, and the Virbolg appeared to settle. Henry gave a prayer to the heavens, then knelt beside the creature. He could see the leg twisted in an odd manner, and from that he deduced that the Virbolg had gotten stuck, and a predator had tried to eat it.
“I’m going to try and get you loose, okay? Please, don’t eat me.”
He reached out and touched the leg, only to jump back when a sonorous bellow erupted. He covered his ears, then froze at the realization the noise would draw others to this spot. Henry knew he should flee while he could. Let the animals have the Virbolg, and while they ate it, he could make his escape.
The beast’s burnt umber eyes bored into Henry, almost pleading with him. He wanted to run, but he knew he wouldn’t leave this Virbolg to the whims of nature. Returning to the creature, he stroked a hand over its head.
“I’m sorry that I hurt you. I shall try not to do it again.”
He put a hand on each side of the leathery skin, astonished at how soft it felt. A gentle twist and the Virbolg whined, but didn’t cry out, for which Henry was grateful. He was able to wrest the leg from the hole, and winced at the shape of it. There was no doubt in Henry’s mind that it was broken. The mending of bones was an arduous process, taking several fortnight. This creature wouldn’t survive that long.
Henry opened his pouch and reached inside, pushing a few bottles of yellowish fluid aside, until he found the crimson vial he needed. He had no idea if it would work, but he had to try something. He withdrew the cork from the bottle, wrinkling his nose at the smell.
“I’m going to try and help,” he placated the beast again. He poured the liquid into his hands, then rubbed it gently over the surface of the wound. The soft whimpers lessened, and then the beast made a rumbling chuff.
“Does that feel good?” Henry asked, trying to keep his voice even. When the Virbolg opened its mouth, Henry bit back a cry. So many teeth. He knew what they were capable of, and the thought of it biting his head off resonated within his mind. “Please, don’t hurt me,” he pleaded, though not sure who he was talking to.
The Virbolg nudged Henry with its big, bulbous head, knocking him down. Then it did the most extraordinary thing. It stood over him and flicked out the deep blue tongue, and licked his face! Henry couldn’t help the giggle that burst out of him. The thing was like an overgrown house cat.
The first thunderous footstep echoed everywhere. Henry tried to push free from the Virbolg, but it seemed intent on laving him, despite the potential danger. The leaves on the tree fell as the stomps grew closer, yet the Virbolg continued to partake of Henry’s flavor. Oh, by God, was it tasting him? Was this what they did before the ate their food?
A tree cracked and crashed to the ground. When Henry looked up, he couldn’t help the scream that escaped. It was another Virbolg, but this one was as tall as the trees, and three times as thick. It was at least ten times the size of the pelt the blacksmith had. It opened its mouth and roared. Only then did the one on top of Henry move. Was it preparing him for the other one? He was going to die this day.
Then the little Virbolg did the most curious thing. It stood between Henry and the giant and chittered as it moved side to side, the sounds rapid and high pitched. The larger Virbolg stood, as though entranced, and listened to the little one.
When the larger one moved closer, the little one snapped at it with a menacing growl. Henry tried to scrabble back, but his hands kept slipping on the damp soil.
“She won’t hurt you, you know.”
Henry whipped his head around, and found himself staring at the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. The man who was sitting on the fallen tree was probably around Henry’s age, with golden hair that fell to his shoulders, and eyes the color of honey. When he smiled, Henry was sure his heart would stop.
He jumped down, alighting on the ground so gently, Henry would have thought he’d flown. Perhaps this was an angel from on high, come to see Henry to his final resting place.
“She’s protecting her baby, but he’s telling her you helped him. He said you healed his foot, and how grateful he is to you.”
What? Had Henry already died, and now was lost in purgatory? That would explain the strangeness of this conversation.
“Are you mute? I think not. I did hear you speaking to the little one.”
The big Virbolg bent and wrapped a claw around Henry and lifted him up. The man watched them, but he was obviously not bothered at all by the fact Henry was about to be eaten.
“She won’t eat you,” he assured Henry. “She’s grateful to you for helping her pup. She knows well that anyone else would have slain him, despite the fact he is but a babe.”
How was this man not affected by what was unfolding in front of him? How was—wait.
“You understand them?” Henry called out.
“Of course. Don’t you?”
Before he could answer, the larger Virbolg licked Henry, much like the little one had, only this time he was covered in spittle before he was set on his feet. Then the baby was picked up, and the two moved back the way the big one had come.
“See? She wouldn’t eat you. They don’t eat meat.”
“What? But her teeth—“
“Are for grinding stones, which is where they get their food from.” He moved closer, and Henry could feel warmth flowing from him, suffusing Henry’s body with heat. “Who are you?”
This conversation was strange by any standard. They’d just witnessed Virbolgs, and this man seemed unaffected.
“I’m Henry Cabot. I come from Innernook, the town to the east of here.”
The man’s lip curled. “Aye, I know of that place. It strikes me as strange that you come from there, but you attempted to help the Virbolg. Any others would have slaughtered it without second thought.”
Henry shrugged. “It was hurt, and I don’t like to see things in pain.”
The man smiled, and Henry’s heart thudded in his chest at the sheer beauty of it.
“You can call me Kai,” the man said.
“Kai?” What an odd name. “Where are you from?”
Kai grinned as he gestured to the east. “A place far from here. Over the mountains, and beyond the horizon.”
“Came you here by ship?”
Kai shrugged. “Of a sort, I suppose. Now, what are you doing in the forest? This is no place for one such as you.”
Henry bristled. “What do you mean?”
Kai reached out with a hand and placed it on Henry’s arm. His eyes softened as he peered into Henry’s. “The only ones who come here are the dangerous and the foolish. You, Henry Cabot, are neither one. This forest is not for one such as you. Though the Virbolg would not harm you, there are things here that would certainly do so.”
“I—I am here to collect ghost moss for my master. We—he—owns the alchemy shop in town, and needs it to make potions.”
Henry had no idea if that was true. Ghost moss didn’t have a lot of uses Henry was aware of, and the ones it did were limited to being used as a base for other things.
“Henry… I like your name. It’s very special.”
“I’ve never heard of one called Kai before.”
“As I said, I come from another land. There it isn’t all that uncommon.”
“Oh, I understand.” He sighed. “I should get back to collecting before the evening falls. I have a long way to go before I sleep for the night.”
Kai smiled, and Henry’s stomach fluttered. “Allow me to assist. I couldn’t let one such as you come to harm.”
His words thrilled Henry. He’d never told anyone, but the reason he never took the townsfolk up on the chance to meet their daughter, is that Henry’s heart would never be in it. He longed for the company of men, a crime for which he could be executed. And Kai? He made Henry want things he could never have.
No matter how badly he desired them.