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The Shattered Girl

By Margaret Melchior All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Fantasy

The North Wind Comes

It was not the kind of book Emilia could read in the dorm. It was not the kind of book others should see her reading. The wardens would scold her, confiscate it, give her detention, probably. And she certainly did not need any more of that. It was not the kind of book she could read in broad daylight. It was a secret between only her and the girl who had written it – her roommate – scribbling the words on paper sheets tied together by string and wrapped in a simple rough leather skin to protect them.

Every few weeks, a new finished chapter joined the old ones.

It really was not the kind of book she should – or would – tell anyone about. It was however the kind of book Emilia would sneak out after curfew for. She would make her way across the premises of the library, from the dormitory to the flat, broad main building. She would bring a candle and a blanket in a bag, with the manuscript, and sneak in through the back door. From there, she followed an empty hallway to the barred door of the watchtower. 

The watchtower was old and imposing, its stone walls crafted in a style no longer used in contemporary construction – smooth and seamless, cut from light grey stone and with metal crafted in it in a fashion that was unknown to their people now, lost in the ages. The watchtower had been here first – the library, the town, it had all come later. The tower was older. Much older. Like a stone needle it rose up at the end of the east wing of the main building. Several floors above the library hung a massive, old copper bell, decorated with intricate, beautiful carvings. The bell had been put on the top of the tower much later than its original construction, the construction techniques were anachronistic, at least 500 years between the two.

The stairs that led up to it were made from large stone blocks and once upon a time, they had been used much. Their surface was slippery, worn down in the centre where hundreds, maybe thousands of feet had climbed up and down to the lookout over the centuries when it had been in use. It was a dangerous climb, over 200 steps long and easily underestimated. Not paying attention to ones steps could lead to an unfortunate slip and long, unpleasant fall. They had been told so in their first week here.

The watchtower was one of those ancient remnants of a people that had been gone for so long no one even remembered what they might have used this place for. Calling it a watchtower was an assumption – based on its strategic location at the top of the hill overlooking most of their peninsula. It could just as well have been a religious building, a storage space, or something completely different. And like all such places, stories were spun around it. Supposedly it was haunted. Emilia did not believe that. She never did. But it was a convenient superstition that meant people would stay away from the tower, allowing her to read her secret book uniterrupted.

The barred doors were opened easily enough. She had done it over and over, the process was motorized by now. Two or three loose boards had to be taken out. The nails that had barred them there decades ago were rusting away in their holes, making them easy enough to pry out even for a 17 year old girl. She left them at the side of the door, reached through the remaining bars and pushed the door in. Then she slipped through under a low board. She reached for the removed boards, loosely placed them back in their place, then closed the door behind her. Within the tower, the spiral of stairs wound high up in a narrow shaft with no light. She took out her candle here, lit it, and climbed with measured steps.

The top of the tower was blocked with a simple trapdoor, wooden, clearly placed there much later. The hinges were modern make, probably by a blacksmith in town, rusty but reliable. She had to feel with one hand for the small nook for her fingers to slip in and push open the door overhead, then climb out onto the drafty platform.

The low walls of the battlements provided little protecting from the cold, but in the slipstream behind the large bell, she could find a relatively safe spot to place her candle. She had a small stool up here, to sit on with her back leaning against the bell and once wrapped up in her blanket and with the candle next to her, it was actually comfortable enough for her late night reading session.

She never stayed longer than her candle allowed. Always left with enough light left to make it back down the dark stairwell – usually she stayed about two hours, less if she ran out of new material to read or had no thoughts to mull over on her own up here.

Emilia liked this place. She came up here often, not always to read. It was quiet, and none of the day to day worries seemed to reach this high. Looking down over the hill on which the library was built, and looking at the small village up ahead – reminiscent of a toy town when seen from here – had something incredibly calming to it. Sometimes she would just sit and stare, not thinking about anything but the clouds rolling overhead, or the ocean rumbling around the peninsula on which her home was built. North of here, she could see the edges of the forest that spread from here all the way to the mainland until it died away in the wastelands. And on especially clear nights, she could even see the harsh, white outline of the snow covered mountains behind that forest. She enjoyed seeing the world this way. In a sense, it made her world… bigger than only the little town she knew.

Perhaps that was why she enjoyed Fran’s book so much, too. It opened up a magical, foreign, far away land, with strange customs and stranger people. She could get invested in their stories, in Aedan the exiled prince and his love for Kater, the woman torn between the contract that could secure her future and allow her to finally return to her own people far away, and her growing, earnest affection for the prince. Not to mention the deliciously erotic parts that made her blush when she randomly remembered them during the day – causing Fran to lightly kick her shin under the table and grin at her, making it worse. It was a beautiful story about forbidden love, loyalty, destiny, and finding the place one belonged to. The kind of story only a young girl feeling out of place in her home could come up with – and only a girl feeling out of place in her home could read it and understand it. It was a kinship between Emilia and Fran they had never spoken out loud, and now they did not need to anymore. Everything that had to be said was right there, in the pages Fran had poured her heart into.

Emilia was enraptured in the pages, knees pulled up, hands clutching to the paper, eyes eagerly following every word with her heart fluttering in her chest as she read them.

[…] and the way her fingertips brushed up his arm was nothing if not electrifying, like her fingernails were hot blades, inflicting exquisite pain that forced all the air from his lungs and made him urge for more […]

She barely noticed something was off at first, could barely tore her eyes from the pages. Then the silence startled her. It was too quiet, even for up here. No sound of wind, not the rustling of trees whispering from the distance, not the faint sounds of the village half asleep. First, it was just a glance, up from the pages. But when the candle started to flicker and warm air hit the small strip of bare legs above her boots and below her night skirt, not properly covered by the blanket, she did look up fully. Something was off. The warm air was not wind, it came in gushes, like breaths, coming from the north.

They never had wind from the north. It was not something that happened. They got heavy storms here in the autumn months, but never north winds. North winds, superstition said, were magical, cursed even. A remnant of the olden days only talked about in bedtime stories to frighten young children into obedience, into staying in bed at night rather than exploring the unknown world that came out when the sun set. It told them something would come with the north wind and snatch them away. Silly stories, she had stopped believing in them when she was 6 years old. There were no demons in the sky that swooped down at night. And for almost all her life, she had been convinced there was also no north wind like the stories described it.

But she felt it on her face now. Emilia glanced from her flickering candle up into the northern darkness where she could see the mountains, blurred by fog in the distance. There were few clouds in the wide open sky, the smell of imminent rain that usually came around this time of the year. But something else came carried on the strange warm wind. A sharp scent, ashen, scratching in the back of her throat like a dying fire, a hint of sulphur in it, stinging in the eye. It grew stronger, with every new gush of north wind.

Emilia got up from her stool, put the manuscript down on it and moved towards the battlement, leaning over. She tried to see more, but could make out nothing in the pitch black above the forest. Yet there was something. Something clutching at her chest, making breathing a challenge. It crawled under her skin, sent shivers down her spine, made the hairs on her arms stand up on end. She clutched her blanket closer around her shoulder. Her heart was loudly pumping blood through her body, a thundering sound in her ears.

Except it was not a heartbeat. It was a rhythm, thundering towards her with the north wind. It extinguished the candle, leaving her in pitch black darkness staring out into the night unblinking until her eyes were watering. The rhythm came closer. Not a heartbeat, no. This was… the sound of… wings?

Something dark shot past her. So fast and only in the corner of her eye, air grazing the tower and whirling through her hair, too fast for her to catch even a glimpse. But it had been huge. An enormous shadow. Her heart stopped a second longer than it should. It could not be. It was just a campfire story, just something the elders had come up with ages ago, something children used to dare each other to stay out at night past their curfew. It could not be real. Or could it?

Thundering behind her, she felt the warm wind again and spun around as fast as she could. Still not fast enough. The dark shadow was soaring past the tower, up in the air, disappearing in the clouds above. Emilia stumbled back to the battlements, stretched her neck to see something, anything! She saw movement in the corner of her eye and stumbled back just in time to evade a second shadow dashing up from below. It met the second shadow in the clouds and as they collided, the sky exploded.

Bright light set the clouds on fire against the night sky, a wave of blazing heat rolled from the core of the explosion, pushing Emilia backwards, the air incinerated around her. She could not breathe, for a second or two, her vision blurred from the heat. Manuscript pages were flying around her, singed on the edges. She tried to gather them (‘oh Gods, Fran will kill me if I lose her manuscript!’) but came to a startled halt when she finally saw the two creatures, still fighting above the library.

They were unlike anything she had ever seen.

Surrounded by flames, their battle was a composition of claws and teeth and scales and wings. One resembled a giant insect, with many legs, and translucent wings. The other… the other was the great calamity. She knew it in an instant, this had to be the demon the stories talked about. It was enormous, and so black she could barely even make out its features, and it seemed to be on fire – its body merely the dense, black core of the flames, but the fire itself just as much a part of it as the solid body. The two beasts slammed each other against the tower she was standing in. It trembled, ancient walls crumbling, the large bell moved achingly slow and produced one single, echoing gong. She had never heard its mighty sound before. Emilia was curled up on the stone, arms clutched over her head in an attempt at safety. A scream escaped her, she could barely hear it over the noise of the battle above. Glass was shattering somewhere below in the library, and flames roared up, engulfing the tower. The air was thin and hot, she could barely breathe. She could hear distant voices, shouts across the premises, and then the first gunshots.

The town militia. Help was on the way. She drew in a deep breath, thanked the Gods before she left her curled up position to peek over the wall down into the courtyard in front of the main building, trying to let them know she was up here and in desperate need of rescuing.

Instead, she found herself faced with the darkness. Emilia stumbled back in shock. The creature was even bigger than first estimated, yet graceful, movements reminiscent of a cat when it climbed the tower. Its entire body was wrapped in shining, black and gold scales with fire glowing underneath them, sharp golden spikes around it making the scales glimmer like embers, and long claws were digging into the stone easily. A long neck led to a large head with long, sharp teeth and cat-like, golden eyes piercing out of the darkness. Its wings were enormous, it spread them, flames shimmered through the fine, leathery skin as it prepared to leap off the tower and into the air. She knew this creature, whatever it was, could kill her with one fell swoop of these claws, or swallow her in one bite. She saw her life flash before her eyes (it was painfully boring). Yet she did not die that night on the tower.

For one moment, one brilliant, life-altering moment that seared itself into her mind forever, their eyes met.

She saw the same fear in these golden eyes that she felt pressing down on her own chest. Fear of the unknown, fear of a painful death. She could see her own reflection, a wiry girl in a dark red blanket, black hair flying around her face in a messy halo, green, almond-shaped eyes wide with fear in a pale round face. And surely, the creature could see itself in her eyes as well. This was not some demon from an old story. This was just a creature as vulnerable and as frightened as she was right now. For a moment, for the fraction of a second, not even a heartbeat long, they were the same.

A moment that passed as fast as it had come.

The creature leapt off the tower walls again, spun around and dug its claws into the attacking second creature. They twisted twice, flames bursting from the great calamity, before it launched the other creature into the roof of the library with full force. The glass shattered and Emilia leapt to the edge of the tower. Below, a massive hole was gaping in the glass ceiling over the gallery and the creature had disappeared inside the dark library.

Gunshots ripped through the air and she looked up, watched as the creature whirled higher into the sky. It moved so smooth, so elegant and effortless. Yet she saw wounds inflicted by the other creature, claw marks torn through black scales. The creature spread its enormous wings high above the tower.

Another, louder gunshot ripped through the night and the creature wailed, tried to reach for the wound that had pierced its scales. Emilia gasped. She could see the blood, bright, thick red, like seething metal in the golden light of the fire, trickling over the black scales. Two strong strides of wings took the creature higher than bullets could chase it. She stumbled to the wall and spotted the men, members of the militia, one with two short handguns, another with a long rifle. She recognised them by their asymmetrically draped capes, long coats, and their melon shaped hats.

Peddar Freeman, the guardsman with the long rifle, was the best marksman in town. His aim always true. She saw him aim, saw the spark when he pulled the trigger, heard the shot. She held her breath, felt fear tingle down her spine as she watched the beast with wide eyes, waiting for it to roar out in pain and fall from the sky. The projectile was too small to spot, but she could see the beast evade in one elegant manoeuvre. She had never seen Peddar Freeman miss a target before. Never. Her eyes shot back to the gunman; he was as perplexed as she was. There were more men running in the distance now, coming up from the main road that led to town. But Emilia looked up to find the creature again. The fire stopped pouring from its scales, it turned so dark it could only barely be distinguished from the night sky. She could see it, the starless figure in the black, as it descended over the forest, touching treetops before it vanished with a rumble.

Her knees were still wobbling as she sank to the floor, heart racing violently in her chest. What was that? What had just happened up there? Not the battle, not the fire, none of that really seemed to matter. What mattered… what she really remembered, what had burned its way into her memory… was that moment she stared into the eyes of a beast right out of a fairy tale. There were tears running down her cheeks, she noticed them with delay. She blamed the smoke still stinging in her eyes as she rushed to wipe them away, but she knew it was not the smoke. Not really. She did not know what it was, but it was definitely not the smoke.

Her fingers shook and she sobbed a little – even though she tried to suppress it – as she gathered the manuscript scattered across the roof best as she could. She felt something warm trickle down her temple and found a stinging cut on her head, bleeding around her left eye. Her side hurt, surely from when she had fallen. That served as a good enough reason for tears, did it not? Except she was completely numb to the pain. Something else was tucking at her heartstrings.

The manuscript crumpled and pressed against her chest, she climbed down the stairs of the tower. Her legs were still somewhat weak, so it was less of a swagger and more of a wobble downstairs. She reached the barred door and peeked into the long hallway of the library east wing. No sound could be heard, but that could be a good thing or a very, very bad thing…

The creature that had crashed into the building might well still be in here, whatever it what. It could be lurking in that dark hallway, waiting for her to come out. What if she just waited it out? In the tower, for someone to find her, preferably someone with a gun. Or she could wait for dawn, which could only be a few hours away anyways. Because what if she walked out there and ran into the beast? She contemplated long, then drew in a deep breath.

“Come on, Em, you’re a big girl! Monsters from scary stories don’t frighten you!” she declared, her voice ripped through the quiet library. She crawled out under the boards and rose into the hallway. With quick steps, barely a sound on the dark carpet, she rushed down the hall to the main foyer outside the auditorium. The lights were always dimmed, never completely turned off, cast haunting shadows of old stone figures in the large room. It was creepy enough by daylight, but night and the possibility of a real monster hiding somewhere among these gargoyles certainly did not make her feel any more at ease. Gooseflesh crawled over her skin.

She crossed the hall, reached the main entrance and squeezed through the heavy door. She stumbled out onto the courtyard and instantly found guns and rifles pointed at her. With a shriek, she threw her hands in the air – dropping the manuscript again, dammit! Fran was definitely going to kill her for this!

“Please don’t shoot!”

Guns were lowered and one of the men stepped forward swiftly. Scrawny, he was, with grey hair, a bushy moustache and sideburns, thin cheeks and blue eyes, and carrying a long rifle. The leg braces supporting both his legs made his movements stiff and cranky. Peddar Freeman, from up close, did not look as impressive as he was when shooting something.

“By the Goddess, Em, what happened? You’re bleeding!” he said upset, worried, then glanced from the main building back to her, a brow raised. “Shouldn’t you be in your dorm?”

“Um… yeah… about that…”

He shook his head.

“Doesn’t matter now. Go to Danzas clinic; let her take a look at that,” Peddar said, gave her a gentle nudge at the shoulder to prompt her in the direction of the local physicians clinic. Emilia nodded, still a bit shaky on her knees as she moved along to pick up the manuscript and head to the clinic. She looked back at the men, watched Peddar instruct them. Most of them were younger than him, by a lot, the youngest was only two years older than Emilia herself. They bred their boys young to defend their town. They needed to. Towns with a port as convenient as Par’bain were great targets for pirates.

“Peddar,” she called back. The guardsman glanced over at her. “Are you going after this… thing?”

“We’ll see. First we’ll fortify the town, make sure it doesn’t go near. Then maybe we’ll send a company out there, figure out what we’re dealing with. Did you see anything up there?”

“I… no…” she mumbled. “It all happened so fast.”

“I see…” he said, then turned back to her. “You are lucky to be alive.”

“I know…”

“Clinic! Go!”

“Yes, right!” she confirmed with a jump and turned to rush away, ignoring the sounds behind her, of the men taking their orders.

The path led down a soft slope between a few young birch trees to the cluster of buildings. There was light in the dorms now. She saw silhouettes in the windows of the rooms, her fellow apprentices surely wondering what had happened at the main building. Looking back, she saw the watchtower still smoking a little and the objective Peddar had posed rang in her ears.

Figure out what we’re dealing with.

Honestly, she wondered what that was. She had always assumed the stories were just that. Stories. Superstitions passed down to children and passed down to their children, for however long it had been. She had assumed it was a colourful way of keeping children in bed at night, to not have them venture into danger. The warnings of old housewives. ‘Don’t be out after dark, or the demons of the sky will steal you and eat you hole’ – that sort of thing. She had thought the demon a metaphor. There were enough evil people out there who would do harm to children for their own pleasure. That they had to worry about actual monsters seemed completely absurd. The thought that there actually was something, a creature in the darkness that came with the north wind, was terrifying. How long had it been there, how many were there, where did they come from? Something so large and flying had not been seen in centuries! There were ancient illustrations, of course, fire breathing beasts that ruled the skies of this world a long time ago. But if creatures like that still existed, she doubted there would be such a prospering industry of aircrafts being developed in the capitol. Yet… this creature had been real. Scales, wings, breathing fire, everything… she had read books about such beasts of old, but it could not really be… right? The serpents of the sky, the Lords of Fire?

Dragons?

Was this beast she had seen tonight… really a dragon?

The creatures had not been spotted in Arcaria for very near nine hundred years and were therefore widely considered extinct. The dragons once defeated and wiped out the Adarre – the most advanced people of all Arcaria, the same people that had created such monuments as the watchtower – and then retreated into the north, never to be seen again. All she knew of them was they were described in ancient texts or depicted in art as monstrous beasts with scales in all colours imaginable, large wings, and an affinity for gold and treasures. One dragon, it was said, could kill a hundred men in one attack, and they could wield fire and magic. They could fly with no sound and by the time you saw their shadow, it was already too late.

Every last bit of that mythical description fit the creature she had witnessed tonight.

A dragon… A real… dragon…

Emilia reached the clinic. It was one of the smaller buildings huddled together on the hill just behind the main building of the library. There was no light turned up and it looked still and abandoned, no one responded to her knocking, but the door was unlocked. Elois Danzas, the phyisician, was not in. That was not unusual. The eccentric, older lady was a well-travelled physician who had studied the strange medicine of the hama people in the deserts of Palaaren. There were rumours she was a witch, because she always wore strange charms and smelled of funny ointments, and sometimes she disappeared nights at a time, supposedly dancing stark naked under the moon in the woods. But the people kept quiet and accepted, because she was the only physician for miles, and she had never let them down when they truly needed her. So instead of selling her to the authorities, everyone sort of turned a blind eye.

She peeked in through two windows, knocked on them both, then returned to the front door. She slipped into the clinic and to the smaller of the two treatment rooms. It was quiet, no lamps lit, and she kept it that way. She washed the blood off her hands, gathered bandages and sat down on one of the beds. She soaked a piece of cloth in alcohol so sharp the vapours stung in her nose and eyes, then carefully cleaned the cut on her head, wiped the slowly drying blood from her face. The bleeding had largely stopped, which was a good thing, she guessed. She bandaged her head with a cotton ball soaked in an ointment labelled with ‘woundhealing’ – it smelled strongly of herbs and had the consistency of oily, gone-off mayonnaise with fine sand – pressed onto the cut, then wrote a small note for Danzas, apologising for helping herself to the equipment. The physician would not be mad, she would probably be ecstatic that someone showed a little interest in the art of healing.

Just when she was about to put everything back, her gaze got caught on something she had never noticed before. On the wall behind Danzas’ desk hung a large, beautifully detailed map of Arcaria. All painted with fine colours and by hand. The southern islands, the triangular continent of Mistria where the elvar dwelled. The broad band of landmass split into Palaaren, Finn, Selmar, and Uddamark, and then the north. A wide, vast landmass of white, no features of it known, just a band of text written over it in large letters: Traveller beware. Here, there be dragons. A thought came over her as she stared at this map. A thought she would later blame on temporary insanity.

She had to find it.

She had to be sure.
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