The Windmill Road
--Chapter One: Harkor
Morning, as usual, came quickly over the Aren Country. No sooner had the moon set than a first band of red appeared on the eastern horizon, and immediately after that, the sun came up, its light piercing, though the wind would still be cold. These days in the early spring, everyone was used to dressing in layers, because a cold, bright morning almost always meant a scorching afternoon. In the summer, that heat would last all day.
In East Aren Country, where most of the humans lived, the cities of Incria in the northeast and Desdon in the southeast would awake to the new day with hope, promise, and a generally positive feeling that this would finally be the day when those bastards from the other city would make some vital error and lose the war. Nobody could even remember what started the war, but with feudal cities, it may have been as simple as their citizens finding out about each other. One moment in generations past, some traveler out of Incria must have met by chance a traveler from Desdon, and something similar to the following must have passed between them:
“Hello, great day to be traveling, eh?”
“Oh I should say so! Gorgeous weather we’re having.”
“Quite. By the by, where are you going?”
“Don’t quite know. I’m just exploring. I’m from a feudal city named Desdon.”
“Oh really! I’m also exploring, and I’m from a feudal city named Incria.”
“You don’t say! Another feudal city in the Aren Country! Who could have thought of that?”
“Don’t know. Say, our cities should have a war to see whose city is better.”
“I should think so! It’s been a good many years since we’ve ever had any sort of hard times. Some of the boys at home are growing soft. A good old war might just get them into shape. Nothing like a few killings to get the adrenaline flowing, what?”
And then they went back to their hometowns and the war was on. Several hundred years later, not much had changed between these cities. Any observer from the outside would have thought these humans insane for fighting so fiercely—and yet, somehow, semi-politely—against each other. Such was the way of the world, though, and nothing appeared ready to change that.
Meanwhile, in North Aren Country, the vast, nameless forest awoke when the first rays of sunshine streamed through the foliage and reached the ground. There elves, gnomes, fairies, and several woodland animals lived in relative peace. The chief issue of each day was gossip, mostly stories about those hapless humans in the East. Several fairies would act as reconnaissance, since they could fly and therefore cover the continental distance between the woods and the battlefields in the shortest time and least risk of personal injury. Once a week or so, a reconnaissance fairy would return home with news from the front. This conversation would most accurately be described:
“So! Fairy! Welcome home. How are the humans? Still fighting?”
And everyone would laugh, and then they would go about their daily business of hunting, gathering, and wandering through the lush greenery just for the sake of enjoying this wilderness and appreciating it for what it was: the ultimate sanctuary from almost every problem in the world.
In West Aren Country, the port city of Pril awoke promptly, and each citizen instinctively checked to make sure his or her belongings were still there. Pirates would come by occasionally, and when they did, it was every household for itself. Pril was a city of several creatures, all of whom grudgingly respected each other much in the same way a wolf respects a hunter.
Despite Pril being a port, it did not communicate much with any other township on the continent. No major roads led out of Pril. It was understood that the most common way in and out of the city was by sea. And while there was a general consensus that somewhere beyond the ocean lay another land, nobody really talked about it much, mostly because nobody here really liked to talk. One never knew who one was speaking with, so all conversation was very cautious, with each side giving away as little information as possible in the context of the discourse. In all of Pril, perhaps three different families knew each other’s real names, and these were considered to be uncommonly friendly relations.
In South Aren Country, amid the mountains, no real civilization existed. Rumors spread to the rest of the country that a fearsome dragon resided in one of the mountaintops. This caused many to draw the reasonable conclusion that perhaps the South may not be the best place to build a home. On the other hand, some were curious enough to try passing through, and some were even stupid enough to pick up swords, walk boldly through the rocky region, and yell, “Hey Dragon! Yoo-hoo! Come out, come out, wherever you are! I got a sword right here that has ancient runes on it, so I’m pretty sure I’m destined to kill you... So come out and fight, you fire-breathing coward!”
None of these people, the curious or the stupid, had ever come back from the mountains. The more sensible people viewed this as yet another reason to stay away from the South as much as possible.
However, the lay of the roads in Aren Country suggested that at one time, a civilization had indeed existed in the South. Out of Desdon, for example, came a road running straight into the mountains. And although grass had started to cover the way over the years, the road was still undeniably there, richly paved in cracked brick and eroded stone, testament to some glorious empire’s outreach in an age long forgotten.
Another road, unpaved but well trodden, linked several farms in the quiet center of Aren Country. This was the main trade route, and it was shaped like an L, connecting the north woods with the farms and then the East, where it would then fork into different directions to meet the different cities. One of the roads extending from the forks also went south into the mountains, and though nobody could say why this way even existed, it was paved identically to the road from Desdon.
Nobody could really say where this L-shaped road went to and from, because of its multiple forks and nodes. However, it was commonly known as one single road, not a cluster of separate but intersecting paths. Because of one particular element of the largely rural scenery along this route, it was known as the Windmill Road, and it linked every part of the land except the West.
At the one major corner or bend in this L, almost exactly in the center of Aren Country, stood a village so small and insignificant, it was named after the road running through it. Travelers along the Windmill Road would stop there to rest for the night at the Windmill Hotel, which was conveniently adjacent to the Windmill Tavern. Residents of the village either worked in the hotel, the tavern, or the stables where travelers’ horses were kept at night. It was a quiet town, and the vast majority of the world would have seen it as merely one stop along a journey but never a final destination.
For Isa, this was not the case. In all sixteen years of her life, she had never left the village. However, she never wondered or worried about what went on elsewhere—she heard more than enough about it as things were.
Isa was a tall brunette who was neither so comely nor ugly as to draw too much attention to her. Currently, she routinely served as a waitress at the Windmill Tavern. Her father and mother owned the business, and the mere act of running and maintaining it consumed their lives. Isa practically grew up in the tavern, and to her, “home” was just the place across the street where sleeping took place. The rest of the day took place at work.
The tavern itself was not impressive in outward appearance, though it was very large for being in so small a village. Despite its size, it still looked rather shabby. Its unpainted wooden exterior had six ordinary square windows and a large double-door entry. The roof was plain thatch with three chimneys where the ovens and fireplace were inside. The only attempt at decoration on this building was a sign on the outside that read, in plain black lettering, “Welcome to the Windmill Tavern. We are all of us travelers here.”
The crowd of visitors varied from season to season as well as from morning to evening. Spring usually saw the first of the farmers en route to sell their crops in the East. Summer was the busy season, when nearly everyone from everywhere came by at one moment or another. Autumn saw the returning farmers and merchants, and winter was slow except for elves and other woodland creatures headed southward for seasonal vacation.
In addition, morning was the time for departure, while night was the time for arrival. Dinner guests could be expected to stay overnight at the hotel, grab breakfast early, and leave.
The Windmill Tavern opened its doors at sunrise each day and closed them when the grandfather clock inside struck midnight. These long workdays meant little to Isa, though, since she enjoyed almost every bit of what she did. She loved meeting new people as well as the occasional familiar face. Not all of them were approachable for conversation, but some had very interesting stories to tell. Isa was always a willing listener, especially when there were no others to be served at the time or the other waiter (Till) and waitresses (Jinn and Essa) were handling things fine on their own. Though the tavern was large, it would rarely fill to the brim with customers, and then, this would typically only happen in the summer.
This morning, one customer was up before everyone else at the hotel. He was in his mid-twenties and very handsome by Isa’s standards. He wore a neat brown tunic with chain mail over it, and a fancy gilded-handled broadsword was sheathed at his waist. A shame, Isa thought, that he talked and acted like a total idiot. She had seen him in the tavern last night, but she was waiting on other tables and did not have a chance to greet him then. Now as she laid some water, rolls and breakfast fruits before him, she tried a casual conversation.
“So what’s got you up so early? Late for a war in the East?”
When the man spoke, his voice was such that he did not so much “talk” as he did “announce.”
“Though I am from a town outside Desdon, I am not involved in their war. I have come west and will now go south in search of an evil dragon which has plagued Aren Country for years. Though he breathes fire and has vanquished many, I am Harkor, son of Tunisthius, son of Pelew, son of Varde. I carry Ferblade, the sword of my ancestors, and according to the ancient prophecy passed down in runes, I shall prevail!”
Isa stood wide-eyed. She had seen plenty of would-be dragon slayers pass through in previous years, so she had seen similar displays of melodramatic bravery before. Still, it never ceased to amaze her how these people acted. She picked up a glass and cloth and pretended to clean it, just so she could look busy, as she spoke.
“Wow. That’s... impressive. Let me guess: your town has some sort of history with this dragon, even though it supposedly lives in the South and would never go as far north as Incria?”
“No...” Now Harkor was quieter. Apparently the first part of his speech was all he had rehearsed beforehand. “Well, okay. To be honest, I wanted to prove I was better than my brother, who went to fight in the war, and I heard there was a dragon down south, so I left on a quest.”
“To go to some forsaken mountain range and meet a deadly creature you don’t even know exists?”
“I know it sounds ridiculous... But that prophesy stuff I said, that’s true. A wandering mage told me I was destined to defeat the evil dragon. All I did was give him ten alligons and he read my entire fate before me.”
Ten alligons? Isa thought. And I barely make five in a full year’s worth of tips!
“So he took your money and you believed him and went on this mission?”
Harkor cheerfully swallowed some water, then went back to the rolls.
“And what if this ‘prophesy’ isn’t true?”
“Then I guess I won’t be back to complain. It’s not like my family will miss me, though. They already have five other mouths to feed.”
Isa smiled and picked up another glass, this time one that really needed cleaning. “If you were smart, you’d just start out on your own somewhere else. What makes you think you can beat a dragon, seriously?”
Then Harkor told his story.
“My hometown is called Misty Springs. It’s a quiet and for the most part peaceful town, although a lot of the male children there train from an early age to prepare for battle with the Incria army. My older brother and four sisters have always been fascinated with the war and its battles. So were most of the townsfolk. When Chaas—that’s my brother—and I weren’t in school, we were learning to fight. My father was in the war in his younger years, and he encouraged us to go into combat because it builds character.
“Chaas is a big shot, always has been. But even though he is older than I am, I can beat him at anything, including swordplay. He’s off at war now, and I would have gone with him, but then I heard about the dragon...
“An old man stopped by our campfire as we were journeying south toward the front to join the army. We were about to go to sleep when he came, dressed in a bright white robe that glowed in the firelight. He said he would tell our destinies if we were willing to pay a small price. I only had twenty alligons’ worth of coins on me, but ten seemed to be enough for him...”
Only? thought Isa, but she let him continue.
“He told me that I was destined for greatness, to surpass my older brother. Not heeding my brother’s presence, I suggested he should tell me something I don’t already know.” Harkor chuckled. “It’s the type of joke Chaas would appreciate. Anyway, he then said that I was chosen by fate to rescue all of Aren Country from the clutches of a mighty dragon in the South. For it was prophesied long ago that the one who defeats the dragon will be the second-born son of a warrior, a man who possesses the sacred gilded blade. And then he reached out and touched my sword, and look! It has gold woven into the handle. It did not have that before!
“Then my brother gave the man some of his money and asked what his fate would be. The old mage said, ‘You’re a fool. You’ll make a grave mistake in battle and die.’ And then he left. Then more than ever, I was certain the man was right...”
“Not much sympathy for your brother, huh?” said Isa.
“Oh, we second-borns get it tough enough as it is. I can’t wait ’til I return home with a tooth of the dragon hanging around my neck. That’ll show them.”
“So how do you plan on attacking the dragon? A sword alone doesn’t seem like much protection against fire.”
“My shield’s being stored in the stable with my horse. As for the method of attack? Well, there are some people who think a surprise maneuver is the way to go... But I kinda prefer the noble way, you know? It makes for more drama and heroism. I’m going to face that dragon head on when I see it. I don’t care how big it is or how fierce its flame; it shall not die until it has heard my battle cry: ‘Submit, vile creature, for I am Harkor, son of Tunisthius, son of Pelew, son of Varde, and I shall smite you with my sword, Ferblade, the sword which according to the prophesy is destined to defeat you! Prepare to die!’”
Isa stopped cleaning the glass and let a moment of silence pass before she said, “Mind if I give you some advice?”
Harkor coughed. “I mean no offense, but what does a tavern wench know about fighting dragons that a trained warrior wouldn’t?”
“Well, for one, I can say I’ve seen many gallant young warriors pass by this town before to try and face the dragon on some sort of prophetic mission—it’s more common than you’d think. And all of the ones before you have said they would do the dramatic entrance as you just said you would. I haven’t heard anyone ever say he would attack by surprise. And what’s more, I don’t think a single one of those warriors has ever returned from the mountains.”
“Are you saying I should attack by way of stealth?”
“Yes... Or, at least come up with a shorter introduction. I doubt the dragon would let you say more than, ‘Submit, vile cre—’ before burning you to a crisp.”
Harkor looked away slightly and thoughtfully rubbed his shaved chin.
“You have a point,” he said.
“Or better yet, why even attempt the journey? You could travel to many other exotic places, like the West or North and meet many less deadly creatures.”
Harkor dismissed this immediately. “I want to impress my family, though. No matter how many elves I would slay in the woods, it would never compare to defeating a dragon. I’ll keep it in mind, though, in case things don’t work out for some reason.”
Isa was about to say something to the effect of, “That’s not what I meant,” but Harkor was done with his meal and ready to leave.
The man placed a full alligon’s worth of coins on the table and said, “I don’t know how much my meals cost last night and today, but this should cover the whole tab as well as provide a decent tip for you. The brew was excellent yesterday; a shame you don’t serve it in the morning, though I suppose it is best not to be soused before riding out of town.”
Harkor stood and assumed his overbearing tone of voice once more. “Farewell, fair maiden,” he said. “I will take your advice to heart, and when I return victorious, you will see a tooth of the defeated dragon!”
Then he left. Isa took a look at the gold coins on the bar in front of her, and she put down her cloth and glass to count the price of the meal and her tip. She had just made more than half a season’s worth of money in one morning. She nodded her appreciation when the appropriate amount was safely in her pocket.
Then, as she heard Harkor’s horse trot off into the distance a few minutes later, she mumbled, “Another dragon slayer, another piece of dead meat.”
More people entered as the morning went on, and the other tavern staff came in due time to help with the morning rush. Isa kept her generous tip a secret until her mother and she took a break from serving to eat their own lunches in one of the tavern’s booths.
Isa’s mother, Ewen, was a plump, outspoken woman who at times could be overbearing, though her heart tended to be in the right place. Ewen was more than excited to hear about the morning’s first customer.
“Oh, Isa, that’s wonderful! Did you give him your name? A nice rich warrior like that might just take a fancy to you, and then—well who knows? Men like that need sense talked into them so they stop chasing dragons and settle down.”
Isa sighed, in the process blowing some stray hairs away from her eyes for a second.
“Trust me, Mom. He wasn’t my type.”
“He’s rich and handsome, though, you said...”
“He’s got about as much intelligence as a wooden plank.”
“Now, nobody’s perfect, dear.”
Isa closed her eyes for a moment and bit her lip in hopes that the conversation would end there. Luckily, Ewen changed the subject.
“So what do you plan on doing with that money you earned?”
“I don’t know... I guess we’ll see what the merchants bring this year... But I can’t think of anything I need.”
Ewen smiled. “Oh, go spoil yourself on some new fancy dresses. Maybe the next dragon slayer to stop by will decide the rest of the trip into the mountains isn’t so great an option after all.”
“All I’m saying, dear, is that you’re of an age where you should start thinking about such things. Promise me you’ll consider it?”
“We’ll see. If and when I meet Mr. Right, you’ll know.”
Ewen reached across the table, pinched her daughter’s cheek playfully, and said, “That’s my girl!”
In relative silence, the two finished what little remained of their meal.