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I could think o’ a whole bunch of other things I’d rather be doin’ than trackin’down a dragon in Thrym’s pass but the creature was headin’ towards Foothold and Odin only knew what havoc that beast would be causin’ if he managed to get past Sir Aeton and his gate guards! We had to stop him! I knew most o’ those town folk by name and cared ‘bout their safety! Good upstandin’ people, all o’ them! Fer sure I ain’t wanted no damn dragon carousin’ ‘round inside their gates and causin’ all sorts o’ mayhem!

I mean . . . there was children in that town! For sure they was snuggled away all warm and cozy in their beds, with heavy horse hair blankets pulled up to their chins, asleep and dreamin’ o’ sugar plumbs and hard candy! Old folks too! back from a day o’ shoppin’, now goin’ ‘bout boltin’ doors and latchin’ up their shutters to keep out the cold Markshire night! Hangin’ their stockin’s what was all wet and soggy from the puddles they’d stepped into, by the chimney, takin’ care not to get ‘em too close to the fire!
Most folks changin’ into their woolens, puttin’ on their kerchiefs and caps and settlin’ down to enjoy a cold winter night and mayhap some quiet time before turnin’ in! Some even lightin’ a candle and settin’ it on a little wobbly’ wooden stand with only three legs, what they’d placed alongside their favorite chair and curlin’ up, their feet tucked underneath them, ready to crack open a good book!

Oh geez, even the odd mouse or two, aware o’ the darkness and bitter cold gradually settlin’ over the town, skitterin’ about, searchin’ fer a bit o’ straw what they’d be able to crawl under to keep warm so they’d not be frozen solid come the mornin’!

As I trudged along behind Iathoz, I thought ‘bout all that and decided we was doin’ right by followin’ those dragon tracks.

Besides, I enjoy a nice walk, you know? I don’t mind walkin’ at all! I’m used to it I guess. It seems we’re always walkin’ to someplace in this land. Or runnin’ for dear life . . . when somethin’s chasin’ after you doin’ it’s best at tryin’ lop off your head or take a bite outta your leg! Yup! Walkin’ll keep ya healthy as a horse! It gets your heart pumpin’ and your blood cir . . . circu . . . uh, flowin’ ‘round in yer veins! My grandpa started walkin’ five miles a day when he turned seventy! It was about eight years ago we last saw him. Far as I know, grandpa’s still walkin’ but I ain’t too sure o’ that . . . ‘cause nobody seems to know where the hel the old geezer walked off to!

We slogged on towards the little town, Iathoz out in front and Jon not lettin’ up for an instant, constantly pesterin’ me ‘bout the cache o’ food I’d hidden under my cloak. Men is like that you know? They’s always pesterin’ you ‘bout some damn thing they’s wantin’. And they don’t give up till they get what ever it is they’s pesterin’ you about! If you finally give in and let ‘em have what they’s after, you might get a little thank you and mayhap a bit o’ sweetness from ‘em, but oh geez, if you run into them the next day, you’ll be lucky if they tip their hat to you as your passin’ by!

Finally I relented, offerin’ Jon the baked apple with the sugary syrup what I’d pinched from Gromk’s stand in Bal’ynez, figgurin’ he’d stop aggravatin’ me. The little twerp looked at it for a moment, then handed it back, tellin’ me he ain’t liked baked apples too much and might I have somethin’ else he’d enjoy munchin’ on? Oh geez! I hurled the damn apple at him hard as I could! It smacked into his breast plate with a splat, and there it stuck, ‘cause it was all soft and gooey, some of it even runnin’ down his leg, eventually makin’ its way inside one o’ his boots. After that, he ain’t pestered me no more ‘bout food or any thing else for the rest o’ the night!

A bit farther into the pass, we found a man lyin’ in the road and a load more o’ dragon tracks. Actually, Ithoz stumbled over him; bein’ the wind and sleet what was swirlin’ ‘round the three o’ us was makin it difficult to see more than a few feet in any direction. The man was clutchin’ tight to a short length o’ bridle strap with his left hand. The poor soul was beyond savin’ and already makin’ his peace with Odin. It looked as though somethin’ had been feedin’ on the corpse ‘cause his face was chewed away, along with most o’ his right arm. The lower part o’ him was blackened and scorched, with smoke still spiralin’ off o’ him. His clothes was gone; burned right off his body, and his flesh half cooked. It looked as though someone had skewered the fellow and turned him slowly over a huge fire pit! He smelled somethin’ like a roast chicken. But it was no fire pit what done this to him. This was the work o’ a dragon!

Not more than fifty paces beyond the corpse we come across the man’s wagon. It was wrecked and had overturned. We ain’t seen no oxen, I supposed they’d run off somewhere, bein’ free o’ the bridle. The crates he’d been haulin’ were smashed, with the contents strewn all about, makin’ an awful mess. It was hard to walk about without steppin’ on a shard from a shattered dish or clay pot, or gettin’ your feet all tangled up in a ball o’ wool or a bolt o’ cloth what had become unraveled in the crash. The man must o’ been on his way to the dwarf city with supplies, when he was set upon. The front axle had broken off the wagon and lay twisted and bent, off to the side o’ the road with one wheel still attached. Most likely when the driver had come under attack, he started drivin’ his oxen hard, doin’ his best to get away. One o’ the wheels must have caught a rut, breakin’ the axle, and flippin’ over the wagon. I hoped the fall had killed the man and he was layin’ there dead as dust before the dragon got to him.

While me and Jon was pickin’ through the wreckage, Ithoz had wandered off and was carefully studyin’ the tracks the dragon’d left. We stopped our plunderin’ and ambled over to him. “Look here! . . . and here too!” he said, as we approached. The ranger moved a step or two to his left, and pointed to the road. “By the Gods, there’s more than one of them!” he whispered, half to himself, but loud enough for me and Jon to hear. The ranger was right. The dragon tracks was all different sizes, indicatin’ there was more than one we’d be havin’ to deal with. Mayhap three or even seven! Oh geez! Well, there was nothin’ we could do ‘bout that, or the wagon driver . . . and no more we could learn by hangin’ ‘round this spot, so we turned east and continued to push on towards the town. We’d gained ground on the monster and his cohorts. He couldn’t be more than a few minutes ahead o’ us.

But . . . why did I have this feelin’ the damn thing somehow knew we was chasin’ him and had stopped his march toward Foothold? Why did I sense the beast was now layin’ in wait fer us somewhere up ahead, ready to ambush the four o’ us as soon as he felt we’d got close enough to him? I dug into my pack and fished out a little whet stone what I keeps fer emergencies. I spit a gob o’ tobacco juice on it, smearin’ it around the face o’ the stone with my finger. Than I run the stone along the workin’ end o’ my falchion a few times, straightening out the few dings I’d got in it while whackin’ away at the Frost giant.

I knew in my heart, that very shortly I’d be whackin’ away on somethin’ else . . .