Knight and squire traveled in a generally northwestward direction, following a parallel course to the Elyddon Road. They kept under cover of the woods and camped in deep seclusion. It did not take long for Moribus to see why. On the rare occasion when the knight brought them within sight of the column of travelers, a crowd would gather to gawk at the heroic figure, bringing the flow of traffic to a halt. Once spotted, Lord Manerion never lingered but would launch himself back into the thickest part of the woods.
Only when they encountered a river too wide to wade across did they venture onto the road itself. The Elyddon Road was one of the main arteries leading to Alvaron, and its sturdy, barrel-backed bridges spanned the many rivers and streams that intersected its path. The knight would wait for a lull in the flow of travelers before guiding them from concealment out into the open. Even so, encounters could not altogether be avoided.
Once, as they were coming over the crest of a bridge, they ran into a band of pilgrims heading the other way. The pilgrims had shaven heads and wore sackcloth robes and hemp sandals.
“It’s an angel!” exclaimed one of the pilgrims in awe.
Even in normal circumstances, it would have been easy to mistake Lord Manerion for a divine emissary. In size alone he was more than mortal. But at that moment the sun reflected so brilliantly off his dragon-gilded breastplate that he seemed the very personification of valor.
Lord Manerion trotted up to the band of pilgrims, removed his helmet, and shook out his dark, matted hair. “Kind pilgrims,” he began with chivalric flair. “As your eyes can attest, I am but flesh and blood as are ye. But perhaps, if the merciful All-Maker willeth, I might yet impart some boon to thine quest. Pray tell, where art thou bound and what is thine purpose?”
A pilgrim stepped forward, an old man with a slumped shoulder. “My lord, we travel to the Shrine of Heavenly Mercy to seek pardon for our many transgressions.”
“The Lord of the Skies smiles down upon the meek of heart,” quoth Lord Manerion. “May He give you peace in this world and, when your earthly journeys are at an end, grant you admittance into his glorious realm.”
A woman pushed forward, holding out a mewling infant. “Heal my child, I beg of you! He won’t suckle, and he cries out all the time because he’s hungry. It’s because I was unfaithful to my husband that he’s been afflicted so. But the babe is innocent. Please, my lord, show mercy upon him.”
Lord Manerion accepted the child in one of his oversized hands and raised it above his head. “Lord of Heavenly Mercy, give swift reply to this woman’s petition.” He waited an interminable period, his head uplifted as if listening to silent utterances from on high. “The Lord of the Skies has answered,” he said at last, handing the child down into its mother’s waiting arms. “The stain of your transgression has been cleansed away. The child will perish, but in his unsurpassable mercy the All-Maker willeth that you shall bear more sons and daughters.”
The woman’s face contorted in a mixture of sadness and relief.
“And now, I have a boon to ask of you, kind pilgrims,” Lord Manerion said. “Beseech the Lord of the Skies that I may have the fortitude to prevail in my hour of testing, for my journey is long and my task is perilous. Yea, when I think of what terrors lie in wait for me, my very heart is set a-tremble.”
“It shall be done.” The old man seemed to stand straighter of a sudden. “We will raise prayers on your behalf every morning, afternoon and night. By what name shall we know thee, my lord?”
The knight unsheathed his sword and split a sunbeam with it. “Thou shalt know me as Lord Manerion, scourge of dragons!”
A number of other travelers had arrived by this time, and a crowd began to press in on the knight. Donning his helmet, Lord Manerion urged the palomino through the throng of people, which had no choice but to part before him. Moribus followed cautiously in his master’s wake, fearful of trampling someone underfoot.
When they were out of sight of the road, the knight raised his visor and spat in disgust. “Filthy pilgrims! You better give my armor a good shining tonight, boy, you hear me? All those grubby, commoner hands on it, there’s bound to be some corrosion. Yecht! And to think I actually touched one of their mewling spawn.” He wiped off his hand against the saddle blanket.
A couple weeks ago Moribus would have been appalled to hear such talk, but he had grown callused to his master’s rantings. “Is that why we avoid the road, so we won’t run into commoners?”
“You saw what happened back there. If we took the road, we’d be hounded by scum every step of the way, groveling for blessings and handouts. It’s always that way with the little folk.”
“Why let ourselves be seen at all, then? Wouldn’t it be better to travel at night?”
“Listen, boy. Being a dragonslayer is like being a princess. You need to be seen and admired, but only from afar. If you hide behind the walls of your castle, the little people soon forget your face and go back to humping goats. But if you go out and mix with the scroungers in the street, you get smeared with their filth.”
“That woman back there,” Moribus ventured. “How did you know her child was going to die?”
“Did you get a good look at the brat? It had both feet in the grave already. And the mother, well, she didn’t look like the chaste type, if you take my meaning. Pity we couldn’t hang around to snap her out of her mourning. A good tumble in the hay is just the cure for that sort of thing. At least it would have improved my temperament. Sharing your company is a damn pestilence. Now, are you quite through with your fornicating questions?”
“Yes, my lord,” Moribus lied. In truth, he had only begun to scratch the surface of his curiosity. While he hadn’t expected the dragonslayer to lay out every detail of his plans to his new squire, he had at least expected some divulgences, even if they were only boastful or embellished renditions of past conquests. But on the topic of dragon hunting Lord Manerion had uttered not a word. Moribus burned to know what had gone so wrong on the previous expedition. Was he following in his predecessor’s footsteps, being led blindly to his doom?
There were other mysteries. Like the bound package secured to the back of the knight’s saddle that he refused to talk about. Or the way he never exposed his torso. His aversion to nakedness wasn’t due to modesty, Moribus could be sure. The knight belched and farted with regularity, passing water wherever he pleased. One evening while eating at the campfire, he stood up, whipped out his rainmaker, and arced a yellow stream into the fire even as he continued to spoon stew from a bowl. During the accoutering process, Moribus could distinctly feel a network of raised ridges through the thick weave of his tunic—some kind of scar or deformity? On one occasion, the knight caught him running his fingers over them. “Cursed dragonling claws,” he said.