Otium bustled about her shop, searching among the shelves laden with countless bottles of concoctions and bundles of dried herbs. Her wrinkled face scowled in irritation. “I could have sworn I had more…” she muttered to herself.
After a few more minutes of fruitless searching, Otium let out a huff of frustration and turned towards the stairs. She climbed them with her aching, old knees, pushing the hair from her face with gnarled hands. “Eliana!” she called as she reached the top of the staircase.
She stuck her head into the girl’s bedroom, but there was no sign of her. Otium frowned. “Eliana?” she called again.
An upside-down face appeared in the bedroom window. “Yes?” Eliana replied nonchalantly.
The old lady gave a small, involuntary jump, gasping as she pressed a hand against her heart. “Oh! Good gods, Eliana! You’re going to give me a heart attack!”
The nineteen-year-old girl, still hanging from the edge of the roof by her waist, laughed impishly, her long hair hanging around her face like a black curtain. “Sorry,” she said. Her face disappeared briefly from view, quickly replaced by a pair of bare feet. Eliana swung herself through the open window, landing nimbly on the bedroom floor. She straightened herself up and brushed off her trousers.
The old woman chuckled and shook her head. “If you keep climbing on the roof like that, you’re going to break your foolish little neck!”
Eliana gave a gentle smile. “Did you need something, Otium?”
The woman nodded. “Yes, dear. I need you to run to the market for me.”
“I thought you went this morning.”
“I did,” sighed Otium. “But this old brain of mine thought I had more calendula. Garo needs a fresh batch of the tea, and he wants it by tonight.”
Eliana nodded in understanding. “The orange flowers, right?”
“Yes. Miala should have them.”
The girl sat on the edge of her narrow bed and pulled on her boots. After a brief pause, she asked, “Was the market busy today?”
Otium heard the hesitation in Eliana’s voice and gave a weary sigh. She sat down besid her and gently stroked the girl’s hair. “Just hurry straight to Miala’s stall and come right back, my dear. Nobody should give you any trouble.”
Eliana nodded quietly, and got up from the bed. Otium raised her tired body and pressed a few coins into her hand.
“Straight there and straight back,” the old woman repeated firmly.
Again, the girl nodded. “I’ll be back soon.”
Otium kissed her lightly on the cheek, and Eliana disappared down the stairs and out of the little hut. As she stepped out onto the street, she glanced around warily. A few people were making their way towards the market, but they didn’t notice her. She started walking quickly and quietly towards the village square, where the weekly market was held.
She kept her head down, trying not to draw any attention to herself as she hurried through the streets of Vegrandis—streets that she had been walking her entire life. She made her way through the network of narrow alleys, taking the quietest roads to avoid contact with any of the villagers.
But evasion was impossible once she reached the village square. Eliana hesitated at the corner of the local pub, keeping herself hidden in the alley as she carefully surveyed the market. It was not as busy as it would have been earlier in the day, but there were still more people around than she would have liked. And many of them were people that she particularly wished to avoid.
A yellow-haired young woman passed by the pub, pulling her four-year-old son along by the hand. Her eyes fell on the girl hiding in the shadows, and she gave a small start. Eliana forced a weak smile onto her face and lifted a hand tentatively in greeting. She and the young woman had grown up together.
The woman with the yellow hair scowled at her in disgust and gripped her son’s hand more tightly, moving quickly past the shadowed alley. She gave Eliana a wary backwards glance—as if she expected her to attack them from behind—then disappeared around the next corner. Eliana sighed with resignation. She was used to such treatment; she’d been receiving it her entire life.
She slipped out of her hiding place and into the still-bustling market. At first, no one seemed to notice her. But once the nearest vendor spotted her, the news was passed on in a hurried whisper to the next man. The whispers continued on ahead of Eliana, followed by a wave of disgusted scowls. As she moved through the market, the villagers and merchants alike gave her a wide berth, as if being too close to her might infect them with some terrible disease.
Despite the sneers and scowls, Eliana kept her head proudly raised, just as her father had taught her to do when she was a child. She heard his voice in her mind, firm and insistent, “Never be ashamed of who you are, Eliana. Your mother was a beautiful, wonderful woman, and you should always be proud to carry her blood in your veins. Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise.”
Someone spat in her direction. The saliva hit her boot, but she ignored it, her gaze focused on the herbalist’s stand a few yards ahead of her. The woman behind the stall looked at her warily, glancing around at the surrounding villagers. Eliana knew that the woman did not want to do business with her, but she also knew that money would win out in the end.
She stepped up to the stall. “Hello, Miala,” she said in a calm, cool voice.
The herbalist avoided the girl’s strange, violet eyes. “What do you need?” she asked briskly.
“Calendula,” Eliana answered, dropping her coins on the counter.
Miala nodded and turned to her stock of herbs. She shuffled through a few dried bundles, then pulled out a bunch of bright orange flowers. She placed them on the counter, quickly pulling back her hand, as if she were afraid Eliana might touch her if she let her hand linger for too long.
The girl gave a forced smile to the herbalist and picked up the dried flowers. “Thank you very much,” she said in a flat voice.
Miala did not respond, but her eyes followed Eliana as the black-haired girl turned and started back the way she’d come. The marketplace was quiet now, all eyes on her. Eliana kept her expression calm, meeting the gaze of each person she passed with a flat stare. Each of them dropped their eyes and drew back. As much as they hated her, she knew that, ultimately, they feared her. They were afraid of what she was, of what she might be able to do.
She reached the edge of the marketplace and was about to slip back into the darkness of the alley when two young men rounded the corner, heading towards the pub. They spotted her immediately.
“Hey!” the one with brown hair shouted at her.
Eliana froze like a rabbit hearing a hound’s bark, ready to bolt at any moment. She tried to keep her expression calm as she turned to face the boys approaching her. She knew them well, just as she knew all those in Vegrandis who took a special interest in tormenting her.
The brown-haired young man sneered at her. “I thought Otium had learned to keep her little mongrel hidden in the shop by now,” he taunted.
“I came to fetch some herbs for her,” Eliana responded flatly, lifting the bundle of calendula slightly, as if she needed to provide evidence of her words. “I’ll be on my way now.”
She tried to move towards the alley, but the boy grabbed her arm and jerked her back. “You need to learn to stay out of the village square,” he snapped. “We don’t need something like you around our women and children.”
“Then let me go home, Caedis!” she replied through clenched teeth.
Caedis shoved her on the shoulder, making her stumble backwards a few steps. “Don’t act like this village is your home, half-breed,” he hissed. “If you knew what was good for you, you’d go and find your mother’s savage people.”
Eliana heard her voice rising in volume without meaning to, anger boiling in her blood; her father had always told her she had her mother's temper. “This is my home as much as it is yours!” she snapped back at him. “I was born here, the same as you. My father died here, and this is my home.”
Caedis raised his hand and Eliana stiffened. She knew she could have avoided the strike, but she also knew how much worse it would be the next time if she did. She let the back of his hand collide with her cheek. It landed with more force than she’d expected, knocking her sideways into the pub’s wall.
He stepped towards her, raising his hand again. She lifted one arm to shield her face, her other hand curling into a fist, preparing to return the next blow. Then Eliana froze, staring with wide eyes at a space above Caedis's shoulder. The strange, unhuman place in the back of her mind felt something approaching—something she’d never encountered before.
Seeing the change in her expression, Caedis hesitated, frowning at her. “What’s the matter with you?” he demanded.
“Something… something’s coming,” she said quietly. She wouldn’t have normally shared something like this with Caedis or any other human in the village, except for Otium, but the strangeness of the growing presence startled and confused her.
Caedis looked at his companion, frowning deeply. “What are you—?”
Suddenly, there were screams from the marketplace. People bolted in all directions, pointing up at the sky as they ran. Eliana and the two young men looked up as a massive shape appeared in the sky above them. Red scales shone in the afternoon sunlight, massive wings beating against the sky.
Eliana froze, staring up at the sky, as the other villagers screamed and ran for cover. The dragon’s presence burned in her mind like a bonfire, brighter than any human or animal mind she had ever encountered. She straightened, her eyes following the shape in the sky with wonder and awe. A dragon had not been spotted near Vegrandis in her lifetime.
There was something ferociously beautiful about the dragon’s flight. Despite its size—the creature was as large as a house—it flew effortlessly and gracefully. Eliana could feel the wind from its massive wings wash over her like a warm breeze. The red dragon seemed to pay no attention to the village or the screaming, scattering villagers below it. It flew on, heading west, indifferent to their terror.
Eliana continued staring as the long, spiked tail trailed past her and the dragon flew out over the forest. Then, she turned and ran. She bolted through the village’s streets and alleys, making her way quickly to Otium’s shop. As she approached, she began shouting the old woman’s name.
“Otium! Otium!” she cried.
Otium appeared in the doorway, looking startled and confused. Eliana ran towards her and pushed her back inside, shutting the door behind them.
“What is it?” the girl’s guardian demanded. “What’s the matter?” She spotted the mark of Caedis’s hand on Eliana’s cheek and scowled. “What happened? Who did this to you?”
Eliana caught Otium’s hand as she reached to touch the mark on her face. “It doesn’t matter,” she said breathlessly, with widening eyes and a vigorous shake of her head. “Otium, there was a dragon!”
“A dragon! A great red one! It flew right over the village!”
Otium’s mouth opened in surprise. “A… a dragon? Are you certain?”
“Yes, of course I’m certain!”
The old woman looked out the window by the door.
“It’s gone now,” Eliana told her. “It flew west, out over the forest.”
Otium wrung her hands nervously. “Still, we should stay inside, in case it comes back.”
Eliana nodded in agreement, and the two women hurried through the house, slamming the windows and barring them shut. Then they sat in front of the fireplace, Garo’s calendula tea completely forgotten.
A few short minutes later, there was a fierce pounding at the door, making them both jump.
“Otium!” a male voice called. “Otium, open the door!”
The old woman hurried to the door and opened it. A bearded, red-haired man pushed his way unceremoniously inside, followed by Caedis and two other men from the village.
“Where’s the girl?” he demanded.
Eliana got up from the chair she’d been sitting in and turned around. “I’m here, Teleas,” she said hesitantly.
The four men looked at her, instinctively drawing back. But then Teleas stepped towards her.
“Caedis said you sensed it,” he said brusquely.
“What?” Otium asked in confusion.
“The dragon,” he snapped. “Caedis said you sensed the dragon approaching. Is this true, Eliana?”
The girl glanced between the men and her guardian, uncertain what the repercussions of this particular offense might be. “Yes,” she finally answered, her eyes measuring the men's reactions, prepared to defend herself. “I could… I could feel something coming. I didn’t know it was a dragon until I saw it, but I could tell that there was something approaching the village.”
The men exchanged glances, then Teleas looked back at her, his green eyes fierce with intent. “Then we need you to come with us.”
“Wait just one moment,” Otium interrupted, stepping up to Eliana’s side. “Go with you where? She’s done nothing wrong. It’s not her fault she felt it coming.”
“You misunderstand me,” he replied. “We don’t want to punish her. We need her help.”
“My help?” Eliana repeated.
“Yes. We need to track the thing down, kill it before it decides to come back and destroy our village. But there’s no way for us to track it on our own. You can sense it. Do you think you could find it again?”
“I…” She hesitated. She didn’t truly understand the strange ability she had to sense the presence of creatures around her. She certainly didn’t know if she could use it to track a dragon, of all things. But here she was, standing in front of the men from her village—men who had shunned and persecuted her for her entire life—and now they were asking for her help. For the first time in her nineteen years of life, they needed her, and it was because of this ability she had inherited from her mother—an ability that normally made her a monster in their eyes.
A part of her wanted to turn them down, to refuse to help. They certainly didn't deserve her help, after all they'd put her through. But this was her chance to prove herself. She could show them that her blood was a gift, not an abomination. She could prove to them that she was not a monster.
“Eliana,” Teleas said, gazing intently at her face. “Please.”
She met his gaze, taking in the slight hint of desperation in his green eyes. He had always been one of the kinder men in the village—shunning her, but not tormenting her. But now, he’d been reduced to begging her for help. It gave her an odd sense of pleasure.
She nodded. “I can find the dragon,” she said confidently.
Teleas gave a brusque nod in return. “Then grab any weapons you have. We head out immediately.”