As the secluded forest cabin came into view, the dragon rider drew back on the reins to slow his mount. The wyvern's great wings rowed as he landed, and nearby trees bent and creaked, their leaves whipping about in the rushing wind.
The dragon huffed as his clawed feet touched the ground. His rider dismounted, greaves rasping against scale, and gave the beast a hearty pat on the shoulder. Not that the drake cared for praise -- he was ever the feisty one, even when the man had found him as an injured juvenile.
The dragon rider removed the wyvern's saddle, but then hesitated. Migration season was nearing, and he could tell that his dragon was becoming more irksome than usual. Instinct was calling to the drake, tempting him to soar along the coasts towards warmer lands. Now that he was strong enough to survive such a journey, the dragon was more restless than ever before.
It was time to let the beast fly free.
The wyvern, a coarse, ruddy thing, had been one of the best mounts the dragoneer had ever tamed. He hunted whatever he was pointed at, he pursued elusive bounties across forests and mountains and deserts, and he dived straight into daunting skirmishes without hesitation. His rider had named him "Járn", for although his coloration was duller than most Bloodchasers, he still was as keen and dependable as a well-wrought weapon.
The dragoneer had hoped he might keep the dragon for good, as a personal mount for hunting bounties, tracking and capturing other beasts for the purpose of taming and selling, or for fulfilling contracts as a sword-for-hire. It was clear, however, that this one belonged in the wilds, as reluctant as the man was to admit it to himself.
Járn looked down at his rider. The man had set the saddle and harness down, and was now standing beside the wyvern's head. With a steady, practiced motion, he unfastened Járn's bridle, and then stepped back.
The dragon knew an offer for freedom when he saw it. Járn snaked his neck upwards and roared, a harsh clamorous bugle that seemed to reverberate off the surrounding valleys, and then he bounded, unfurled his wings, and took to the skies without so much as a backwards glance.
The man watched him go, until Járn's shape shrank and blurred among the clouds before disappearing forever behind a jagged mountain peak.
When he finally turned back towards his cabin, the dragoneer realized he'd been gripping the bridle so tightly that his gauntlets left near-permanent indentations in the leather straps. He gathered up Járn's saddle from its place on the ground, and, balancing it easily on his hip, started back towards the privacy of his woodland homestead.
The man's existence was ultimately a solitary one. He understood that dragons came and went, but even still, they were more often than not the only dependable friends he had.
He left Járn's tack and fastenings in a lean-to adjacent to his cabin. It would be some time before he captured and tamed another mount. Even then, it was possible he would sell or release the next beast he tamed, if its temperament did not suit him as a hunter.
Not wanting to linger outside with his thoughts, the man headed indoors.
The cabin was a cluttered sight, strewn with various dragon tack and equipment, woodworking tools, and a number of half-finished shields. More curious, however, were the wood carved dragon figurines that littered nearly every shelf and alcove. The man had taken to whittling as a hobby during his apprenticeship, and had attempted to sculpt a likeness of each and every dragon he'd ever worked with. Some of the wooden wyverns were posed in a dramatic roar, some were depicted in flight, and some were fashioned as though leaping to attack. Hatchlings, fledglings, juveniles, and adults of various species could be identified by an experienced eye. Most of the figures were Ironwings, as they were a frequent commodity bought by the Skeldian army to supply mounts to their soldiers, but a fair few were Bloodchasers, with a sparse amount of Nightsnaggers dispersed throughout. Some depicted dragons that the man had tamed and sold, and some depicted dragons that he'd failed to capture, as they'd escaped before he could bridle them. He was both saddened and proud to recall that he'd only lost a single dragon under his ownership -- the poor beast had succumbed to its wounds after a particularly nasty scrap with a mark that had a dragon of their own. He had spent a good deal of time on the fallen Bloodchaser's carving, and it now occupied the mantle over the hearth in a place of honor and remembrance.
The most interesting object within the cabin at that moment, however, was not one of the many wyvern statuettes. The man had recovered a mottled dragon egg from a seemingly abandoned ledge along the shore cliffs a few days prior. He recognized it as belonging to a Bloodchaser subspecies that did not migrate, but he still found it strange that the egg had been left unattended and with no apparent nesting materials surrounding it.
Now that he was indoors, the man's first course of action was to rekindle the dying embers of the hearth, and get a proper fire going. After that, he carefully removed his armor, and changed into a fresh set of clothes that did not reek of dragon and wilderness. Lastly, he turned his attention towards the curious egg.
He had been keeping the egg warm on a bed of hot stones, which he heated in the hearth and replaced each day. He wondered if it was all merely an exercise in futility; there was quite a good chance that the egg had been discovered too late, or perhaps that its mother had abandoned it as barren in the first place.
Nonetheless, the man stoked the fire again, and moved more stones from the flame to the makeshift nest he had created for the egg.
In a daze, he perused some of the softer firewoods near the hearth, and then pulled a promising looking piece. Retrieving an axe, he placed the firewood log upon the stone bench beside the hearth. With a few swings of the axe, he hacked and splintered the firewood into a smaller chunk of wood that would be easier to carve. He set the blocky remains of the hewn log upon the table in the center of the room, fetched his finer sculpting tools, and then set to work. If he was to carve an accurate likeness of Járn, he'd have to do it while his memory was fresh.
For several hours, he lost himself in the carving, chipping a rough outline in the block of wood. In his mind's eye, he could see a very contentious looking wyvern forming in the woodwork, but it would take much time before the piece itself reflected what he imagined.
A dull thud sounded from across the room. The man took no notice at first, and continued his carving. The thud sounded again, and this time, the man sat upright, thinking the sound meant someone was knocking at the cabin door. Carefully, he set the sculpt for the potential wooden wyvern upon the table, and stood as quietly as he could. He had chosen the remote location for the cabin on purpose -- he'd made no shortage of enemies over the years, and the harder he was to find, the better. Calmly, he reached for one of the swords he kept near the door, and drew it from its scabbard. If someone had somehow tracked him here, he'd make sure they'd regret it.
At the very least, he wasn't about to go down without a fight.
The thudding noise happened a third time. The man's eyes searched the room -- the sound was definitely not coming from the door -- and then he realized that the source was not some clumsy assassin, but rather the egg, turning and rolling about on its warm stone nest.
With a sigh of relief, the dragoneer set the sword back in its place before hurrying over to the egg. As he approached it, he saw that a thin webbing of cracks had formed along its surface. Not so barren after all, he thought to himself with a grin.
The egg jostled again, and the cracks deepened.
After a moment, the hatchling within seemed to falter. Its horns were stuck in the fissures of the shell. The man knew that he could not help the creature -- if it was too weak to hatch on its own, it was unlikely it would survive long either in the wilds or as a mount.
The man's shoulders sank. Such bitter fortune, to find an abandoned egg to raise, only for the wyvern within to fail to even break free of the shell.
Just as the dragon tamer began to contemplate returning to his woodcarving and leaving the hatchling to its fate, the entire egg rocked against the stone nest again, and the small beast within burst forth from the shell with a defiance that would have surprised even the most seasoned of dragoneers. It tumbled out of the egg, flopping away from its bed of warm, smooth rocks, and began crawling feebly along the ground with its damp, membranous wings. It lashed its clumsy tail to and fro as it tried to sit upright.
The man could not help but smile as he gently picked up the tiny dragon, minding not to get himself bitten as he returned the wyvern to its nest of stone. It would still need some help keeping warm for a few weeks, and he would have to continue to supply its makeshift bed with hot stones from the hearth. It would be even longer still before the little one would be able to breathe fire.
"Your predecessor cast a very tall shadow," said the man to the hatchling. "Time will tell if you'll be able to surpass him."
The baby dragon chirped as if in response, and then nestled its small body down against the warmth of the stones.
It would be some time before the hatchling would need to be fed. The nutrients from the egg would sustain it for a short while, but the man knew he would have to consider fetching his bow and quiver to hunt some fresh game for the wyvern in a few days time.
For now, he went back to his carving of Járn, all the while keeping the resting hatchling in his periphery. The baby dragon might be tired from the feat of hatching at the present, but in a day or so, the little one's strength would embolden it, and then most of the dragoneer's waking hours would be spent keeping the small energetic terror out of trouble.
If the dragon lived to see its first flight, he would consider a name for the beast. He felt that naming a young dragon too early was both bad luck and a means to set oneself up for tragedy.
As he brushed away some of the wood shavings from the wyvern figurine, the man glanced back at the now slumbering hatchling. For just the briefest of moments, he allowed himself to feel hopeful about the little one's future, and for him, that was enough.