Part 4: A tense encounter
Aledrin looked at the man-dragon apprehensively. Should the city's guards be approaching, they could be in trouble. And, for all that he frequently was at odds with his people, he would rather avoid any unnecessary conflict with them—particularly if Ireiya or any other of his children was present.
"Guests?" He asked. "How do you know?" He could see and hear nothing that even suggested the idea of someone approaching them. Perhaps, dragons had keener senses than humans.
"Following the incursion of your child," he pointed at Ireiya. “I placed a sensorium enchantment around this area." Ireiya looked at him, a bit clueless. Evidently, he noticed this, since he explained specifically for her: "You could say I drew a magical circle around us, and if anyone crosses the line, I become aware of their presence." Aledrin appreciated the gesture, because he himself understood magic only a tiny bit more than his daughter did.
The dragon continued. "I shall now place this location under an illusion so that it may look like a simple clearing, and not the very proof of my fall on this forest. It will take me a few minutes to cast and you'll see no change whatsoever. At that point, I will appreciate if you do not break the illusion once they arrive." He said at nobody in particular. Ireiya, however, knew that remark was directed at her, for she blushed in embarrassment.
He closed his eyes and chanted some soundless words, hurriedly.
Silently agreeing not to say a word, Aledrin and Ireiya looked at each other, and then, at the man-dragon for the several minutes it took him to stop his chant and say, "They come."
As predicted by the human-shaped dragon, three guards came out from within the woods. They wore the colours of Tjeli, white and gold—like the Light. Though worship of the elemental powers was unpopular among the citizens, the Tjelians felt something of connection to the Light, perhaps because of their ideals of enlightenment, their ideas of bringing the light of knowledge to where the darkness of the unknown resided.
Two men and a woman walked towards them with their hands ready to unsheathe their swords, should they see fit. Aledrin recognised the leading woman as Deputy Captain Yritys of the North-eastern Defense Tower. A woman of hair and eyes black as the night, rumours said her ambition knew no boundaries, that she would obtain power at any price, as she rose in the ranks. Whether the rumours were true or not, Aledrin saw danger in her presence, particularly because of the obvious foul mood she was in. She had been sent to patrol the area in search of the dragon, when she clearly wanted to be anywhere but there, and not doing such a trite assignment. Better not to anger her, Aledrin thought.
"Good day, Captain." Aledrin started, assertive, just as the trio of guards encountered them. "What brings you round these parts, if I may ask?" Taking the initiative, as if they weren't guilty of hiding a dragon from whoever had laid their eyes on him, was probably the best option.
"I could ask you the same." She replied, sharply, just before examining him with a cutting gaze. "...Citizen Aledrin, right?"
Perfect. Somehow, he had gained something of a reputation in the city for some reason and he wasn't sure why. Sure, he might have been at odds with some people in power, but it was simply because he put his children's well-being before anything else, not because he was belligerent or because he had ambitions of his own. Why couldn't they see that?
"That is right." He said. "Well, we, um—" He interrupted himself as he noticed Yritys looking at the man-dragon, examining him now.
It wasn't common knowledge that dragons could take human form (in fact, dragons rarely changed their shape into anything), but could she know that? Maybe she had seen something...
"I am sorry," he started, "but am I bothering you?" The dragon looked as impassive as ever, but his voice was filled with prideful defiance.
"In a way." She answered, as cutting as before. "I want to know who you are."
"His name is Anthos." Aledrin interceded, picking a random name for the dragon. Not only he had noticed something of a belligerent tone in his voice, but he was afraid he might have given his real name. Like many Tjelians, Aledrin believed in the power of true names. He also needed to call him somehow, because 'Mr. Dragon' was simply the most conspicuous title ever when they were trying to hide the fact that he was a dragon. "He's—"
"A traveller and a scholar", 'Anthos' interrupted. "I am but a simple wanderer interested in Tjeli's so-lauded architecture. My land of birth is earne in the Great Continent. Does it matter?"
"In fact, it does. Why are you here in the forest, and not in the city then? Aren't you interested in Tjeli's buildings?" Yritys inquired, persistent; she had a vague suspicion that he was not what he seemed.
"As I said, I am a scholar." He replied, cuttingly. "I am interested on many fields, one of which is biogeography. Surely, a forest is the perfect place to observe some of Inilar's autochthonous vegetation, and not a city."
"Hmph." She clearly didn't like the dragon's sarcastic responses, but could do nothing to dismiss his claims. In fact, for all that Aledrin knew, he was telling the truth. "You—"
"Excuse me, Captain," Aledrin intervened, "but may I ask what the reason is for your presence here?"
Yritys sighed, exasperated.
"Do not tell me you are not aware of recent happenings, Citizen?" Aledrin tried his best to look clueless about her likely response while under her scrutiny, but more than suspicious, she looked disdainful. "Everyone in the city knows, by this point, of the fallen dragon that was shot down by one of our guards this morning. We are searching for it."
Aledrin could almost feel as 'Anthos' tensed in likely anger. Or was it because his condition had deteriorated? He looked paler and more tired than before, probably in the need of rest and medicine.
"Why did you harm that innocent creature?" The dragon asked, with cold animosity.
"No dragon is innocent." She replied, pretentiously. "We know of the havoc they cause in the 'land of dragons' and everywhere else, with entire towns and cities destroyed by a single one of their kind for whatever reason. You may not know it, foreigner, but Tjeli has not been damaged by outsiders for three hundred years; we will make sure that it continues to be that way. If that means one less dragon in the world... fine by me."
Sensing danger, Aledrin took the initiative before the man-dragon could react. "Then I suppose we should leave; we have no intentions of wasting your time any longer."
He took Ireiya by the hand and placed on hand on the dragon's shoulder. 'Anthos' looked at him with mild surprise, as if he wasn't accustomed to the touch of others, distrustful of physical contact with him. The human noticed this, but consciously tried not to look apologetic, even though he certainly felt that way then.
"Stop right there."
She wasn't finished with them, apparently. But he was.
"Do I look like I can hide a dragon?" Aledrin said. "No. We were just taking a stroll through the forest when you saw us." Well, that certainly came out harsher than he thought it would, and mentally reprimanded himself for sarcastically losing his temper again in front of the authorities. Somehow, he just couldn't help himself every so often. The dragon snorted, amused.
"I suppose not," she conceded, just as her dislike for the 'scholar' increased, "but you'd better watch that tongue, Citizen. That is no way to talk to a guard."
"It will not happen again."
"I hope so," she said, "you may go now."
With Ireiya tightly holding his hand, Aledrin grabbed the man-dragon's forearm and forced him to walk away, even though he seemed to exchange a few words with Yritys. As Aledrin noticed that the dragon was trembling, the three walked away without looking back. They left the clearing to return to the orphanage, as well as for Aledrin to reunite with Syurei, his faithful mount. With any luck, Yritys and her men didn't suspect that 'Anthos' was, in fact, the dragon they were looking for.
Once in the safety of the trees, hiding from the guards' sight, Aledrin look over his shoulder to make sure they hadn't been followed by the guards. Then, he gently asked the young girl, "Ireiya, could you bring Syurei here? He must be grazing in somewhere..."
"Of course, Father!" She said, enthusiastically, for she finally got to talk after so long. She knew, though, that children were expected to remain silent whenever adults spoke, especially in front of adults other than Father and the Matron.
When the guards could no longer hear them, the human turned to the dragon and whispered, concerned, "Are you okay?"
"If you are upset for me touching you, I apologize." He continued. "I... did not know how else I could—"
Aledrin interrupted himself when he realized the dragon's consciousness was slipping away, as if he was fighting the urge to fall asleep right there and then. He then collapsed over him, unable to stand on his own; with his towering height and proportional weight, it wasn't very easy for the human to support him. Thankfully, Ireiya arrived, holding Syuurei's reins in her hands.
"Father..." She started as she and horse got closer to them.
"Ah, great, Ireiya, thank you." Aledrin said, "Bring him here, would you?"
With some effort, they managed to help the dragon get on the horse. When they were finished, the dragon was fully unconscious.
"Is he going to be okay?" Ireiya asked, worried.
"I do not know," he honestly answered. "Probably. We must hurry and bring him to the orphanage, though, and see what we can do for him." With quick and hurried pace, they left the clearing far behind, intending to reach their home as soon as possible...
To be continued...