The castle ruins were overgrown with vines, berry bushes and wildflowers running rampant in the old corridors. The sun beamed down, light flickering off of old iron frames left behind by raiders. Thunder crackled in the distance, but the storm was far enough away that Ell knew she would get home long before the first drops. The hand woven basket in her arms reminded her why she was out, to collect the berries that were ripening for the season. Of course, she knew very well that she wasn’t allowed out past the river, but the best berries were out by the Forgotten Castle, and she always felt pulled here. As if, long ago she lived here, but that was a stupid thought. She tried to focus on her berry picking, one by one throwing them into their basket as she listened to the oncoming storm.
Once her basket was full, she was a very fast berry picker, (as it was all she was allowed to do) she lingered at the bottom of the collapsing staircase. It seemed at one point to twist into another large section of the castle that had long fallen away. She sat on the bottom stair, setting her basket beside her and searched her satchel for one of her books. If she returned home too early she’d be tasked with a million other chores while the other children dawdled about. So, Ell dedicated her free time to reading as far from home as possible.
Ell read about many things, but her favorites were history, plant medicine, and husbandry. Mostly because those were the books nobody noticed went missing. She was very sure that she would get in trouble for pretending to read, let alone actually knowing how. But when she was in the pages of a book, her world no longer existed and she was free. Even if her freedom was in small increments of creased pages...
A crack of thunder pulled her awake, a drop of rain falling into her face. The clouds were looming over her, waiting for her to move before they unleashed their fury. She cursed herself for falling asleep and shoved her book on plant medicine into her bag and grabbed her berries as she stood, but there was no way she’d make it home in the storm, the rain outside the castle walls hammered down with vengeance. She’d hide in the ruins.
She rushed deeper into Forgotten Castle, taller grass over took an old courtyard, but there- she saw it just down the hill- the old stables. It wasn’t perfect, but it was bound to be better than trying to make it home. The wind picked up around her and she held her basket close knowing her punishment for returning home late and without berries would be far worse than any storm. She ducked into the stables, closing the creaking door behind her. She looked up, planks had fallen in its old age, but the loft was still sturdy… ish. She would sit underneath the loft and wait out the storm.
She bundled her legs to her chest as the rain started to hit the walls around her, dripping in like unwanted thoughts before bed. She pushed her round glasses up the bridge of her nose as she started to fix her braid. Her long brunette hair was unnaturally curly, always working against the whims of anyone who touched it. Just something else that was wrong with her, as her adoptive parents always said. She was hard to marry off because of her tanned skin and freckled face, and her awful eyesight. Her lanky arms, knobby knees. And long legs made dresses fit her awkwardly and her nose was sharp- they blamed that on books. Though, Ell was pretty sure noses were just the way they are and nothing like books affected their growth, but regardless they told her she couldn’t read anymore either.
The only good thing about Ell, she was told, was that she had learned to be quiet and stay out of the way. That would, one day, make her a good wife to whatever lump decided to take her. Ell wondered which was worse, marriage or her ‘family’. She’d rather live in the castle ruins her entire life, but that was unreasonable. It was no place for a person to live- just on berries and dreams? But it would be lovely to stay here forever.
A crack of lightning outside lit up the stable, nearly blinding her- but she saw something, tucked back in the corner hidden behind old chests and chairs. She crawled towards it, pushing a broken chair out of the way urging the lightning to give her light again.
It obeyed, flashing through broken cracks and missing planks and Ell felt her heart skip as she stared at what looked like a large jewel? This would bring her some worth back home. She reached out for it in the darkness, her hand resting on the smooth jaded shell. Something inside the rock started to glow, her hand grew hot as the light grew around her, a light beam shot into the sky and Ell covered her eyes with her free hand, falling back.
“Hide it!” Someone screamed in her memories. She was in the stable, but the walls looked finished and hay littered the hall like it was still in use. A man was holding the doors closed behind him.
“Where?” The girl asked, panicked. In her arms was the large oval jade.
“Just hide it under something, protect it.” He sounded defeated, as if he made a decision. The girl gently placed the rock in the back corner, shoving hay on top and throwing loose furniture around it to cover it’s existence.
“I’ll come back-,” her voice cracked, “I won’t let them kill you.”
“Wyn!” The man shouted and she ran towards him, holding his hand. He looked into her face, “I love you.”
“I love you, Tom.” She was crying as he let go of the doors. They opened and he chanted at them, magic?, and the hill behind them shook and caught flame. The castle tumbling as the pair were grabbed and dragged from the stables.
“Where is it?” A tall man demanded.
“I’ll never tell.” The girl, Wyn, spat.
The tall man shrugged, stabbing her through- her lover screamed as she collapsed to the ground, her brown eyes looking to him.
Ell gasped, feeling at her side as if to stop the bleeding- but there was nothing there but a birthmark. She trembled at the dream… nightmare… but it felt like a memory. She turned back to the rock,
“And no one looked back here?” She had noticed the rain had stopped, but she was much more interested in the rock that looked… cracked. Did it break in the storm? Did she break it? Maybe it was broken before, regardless it would still sell for a pretty penny if she could pick it up. She propped it into her arms like a mother holding a child , grabbed her basket and started towards the door when the rock cracked more. She froze, she didn’t want it to shatter in her arms. She’d have to adjust how she was holding it. She sat it back down and sat across from it,
“I can’t keep walking if you’re just going to break on me.” She told it. It chirped?
“Are… are you a living thing in there? Do you need help?”
“Hide it!” The voice echoed from her vivid dream. But she was leaning towards memory more than dream, those people were very real,
“Why were they hiding you?” she asked, tapping the rock gently, the rock broke in response to her touch, as a small snake head emerged. She jumped then laughed at her own fear, “You’re an egg. Well, not much of an egg now, are you?” The snake-like creature pushed it’s shell away, the pieces crumbling to a fine dust, revealing that it was not in fact a snake, but a dragon. It’s red wings stretched and golden eyes looked into her. It rushed into her lap, wrapping it’s snake-like body around her arm, head resting on her shoulder, wings folded in and purred at her touch.
She petted the creature softly with a chuckle, “Aren’t you sweet? But… you… you don’t exist. I mean, Dragon Tamers were banished over a century ago and dragons were…” She didn’t have the heart to tell him he was the only one of his kind on his first day of life. She patted his head, “Well, I’m sure we can find a solution to this.” She stood up with her basket of berries and started to leave before she looked behind her to the back corner and she could hear the girl’s voice in her mind,
“I won’t let them kill you.”
And for the first time in a very long time Ell felt very sure of one thing,
“I won’t let them kill you.” She promised the small dragon that seemed content, napping on her shoulder, tail wrapped and secured on her satchel bag, he was no longer than a foot and his wings were nearly too big for his size. She couldn’t go home, not with this small thing. They’d kill it, they’d kill her. No- she had already been gone too long not to talk her way out of some type of punishment. She’d head towards the mountains to the east. There were tales of dragons that hoarded gold there, and though they were just tales- it was better than going back home. So, with a basket of berries, a satchel with a book on plant medicine and a piece of stale bread, and a dragon Ell started on an adventure of her very own. One she was sure she would never return from, on purpose.