A Girl and A Dragon
What had driven her to this madness, she could not tell anymore by the time she reached the edge of the forest. Dark and imposing, the trees rose into the night sky, and the sounds coming out of that darkness were enough to frighten every man away.
This was a dumb idea.
Truly, of all the dumb ideas Emilia Baines had had in her life (and those were quite a few) this was by far the dumbest. The forest was dangerous at the best of times. Going in there during the night, with Gods knew what lurking in that darkness, was essentially a suicide attempt. But here she was, curiosity getting the better of her once again. Still dressed in just her nightclothes and coat (and blanket, to shield herself from the cold), her thick boots that sank deep into the mud as she began trekking down the forest road, Emilia made her way forward. The dim light of her second candle was all she had to light her way, she shielded it from the wind with the glass cover, and more than once used her hand to hide the small flame from sight when she was certain there were others around. She heard voices, heard boots and the clanking of armoured uniforms. No doubt the militia men had made their way here by now, heading deeper into the forest to find the creature. She avoided them, listened for their voices and the noise they made in the otherwise still forest.
They followed a determined path and Emilia kept off it best she could, struggling to make her way through overgrowth and treacherous tree roots. With her feet, she tested ahead to not stumble into swampy ground as she made her way forward. Every now and then, her gaze wandered up. Trees had been splintered, the marks of something big clawing its way over their tops. This was the right way, this had to be where the dragon had flown over and-
She stopped abruptly when the voices of the militia men came closer. Quickly and without thinking, Emilia blew out her candle and then cowered behind a tree, back pressed into the moist trunk as heavy footsteps approached.
“It makes no sense. Look at the trees, it should be there,” one said.
“There’s nothing back there. We should look west,” another said.
Emilia glanced up at the trees. That was wrong. The signs were there, getting clearer. The broken trees, and the smell of ashes – the same smell she had in her nose on the tower. This was the right way. How could they not see it? And even from their position, they should have been able to tell the dragon had not crashed west, but northeast of their town. They were going the perfectly opposite direction.
As the voices passed, Emilia peeked out of her hiding place. She saw their figures disappear in the darkness, the lights of their torches fading away, their voices growing more distant until she could no longer hear them. She got back to her feet and looked after them, then turned back in the direction they had come from. It was dark, almost pitch black here now, and she scrambled to light her candle again, summoning the small slight in the nightmarish forest. Old branches looked like the claws of hunchbacked witches, the prophet’s beards hanging from the dead trees like bluish, silver hair, with the dampness of old mist glittering between the vines. Cool fog hung just above the boggy ground. In measured steps, Emilia walked forward. Every step she took made her heart race wilder, driving a strange fear into her bones with the chill of the air. And then, like out of nowhere, a thought came to her.
This is wrong. You’re in the wrong place. You need to turn back, it’s the other way.
Emilia stopped abruptly again, stood in the same spot for a long moment, sorting through her thoughs. Where had that come from? This was not one of her own, It was like something – or someone – stood right behind her and whispered these words into her ear, compelling her to turn away. She could almost feel their cool hands on her shoulders, could almost feel the whispered breath of words brushing through her hair right by her ear. Go back, you’re going the wrong way.
Emilia turned around quickly, trying to catch the source of these words that were like thoughts, but not her own.
She was alone. There was no one else. She faced forward again, then looked down at her feet, that had begun to move backwards all on their own, like they had decided without consulting her that they wanted to go back.
“No!” she protested loud enough for her voice to cut through the whispers whirling around her. Her feet stopped and with one hand clutching her light and the other gathering her muddied skirt, she stepped forward. The whispers grew, insistent, louder, with every step she took, almost yelling at her to go the other way and the louder they grew, the more determined she was to be going exactly the right way. Had this driven the men away earlier? Had they been unable to tell their own thoughts apart from this compulsion? Was it magic? Dragons were capable of great magic, according to legend. Had the creature used a spell to drive away intruders so it could remain hidden here? What other explanation could there be?
The forceful compulsion stopped without warning, silence falling over her again. Her racing heart had calmed down almost instantly and she let go of the breath she had been holding unawares. Carefully, she looked back. Had she passed through? Through whatever magical barrier the dragon had pulled up? Had she overstepped an invisible boundary none of the militia had been able to cross? Only to test her theory, Emilia took one large step backwards. There it was, the shouting. She stepped forward again, back into silence. She repeated it twice more, then stayed in the silence and turned forward again.
Where the forest just outside the magical barrier had seemed gloomy and threatening, in here, everything seemed quiet and… warm. Fireflies were dancing over fields of mushrooms arranged in fairy circles, moss and clover were covering the forest ground in a soft, green and silver carpet. The trees looked alive here, their leafs in saturated green. And the animals! Never had she seen so many of them out and about. Like they had called a conference tonight to decide how to proceed with the stranger in their midst. Whether that stranger was her, or the dragon, Emilia could not quite tell. Wild hogs were grunting, their tusks digging in the soft earth, releasing its musty smell into the smell of green after rain. She saw rabbits frolicking around the clover fields, squirrels making acrobatic jumps overhead in the branches. All manner of birds were sitting up there as well, their songs an almost deafening choir of ethereal harmonies. They were unusual birds – not just the common nightingales and blackbirds, but colourful creatures in almost ceremonial plumage. There were wild cats and dogs chasing each other for play. And she passed one stag, watching her from between the trees. It was a magnificent creature, taller than any stag she had ever seen. His hide was shimmering cleaner than that of a wild animal should, and his antlers were enormous – so large she could not tell where the antlers ended and the branches of the trees began. Majestic and proud, it watched her from eyes like sapphires. She was so captivated, she did not even watch where she was walking until she stumbled on a slope, making her fall forward with a soft squeak.
Emilia caught herself on something and when she found her bearings she saw what it was. A fallen over tree, its roots reaching up above her. There were two more like it, forming threatening walls. The earth had been piled up like a crater.
This had to be it. This had to be where the dragon crashed. She saw crusted blood on the ground, and a heavy trail of large, clawed paws, the swish of a tail hitting more trees along its path, digging deep, splintered creases into the wood.
She followed the trail away from the little conference of animals. Why? Why did she think this was a smart thing to do? What did she hope to achieve by finding a dragon, unarmed and alone? This was insane! She should go back, right now. She should-
Emilia looked up and stilled, frozen in place. She had stumbled into a strange light directed her way, and there was a huff of warm air, letting her candle tremble and then go out altogether, just a thin line of smoke rising next to her.
Unwittingly, she had stumbled much closer than she had intended. Perhaps because the creature was so dark it had been impossible to tell apart from the darkness of the forest itself. But now that she was so close, she saw its silhouette against the trees, the large, cat-like form of the creature, large and imposing, yet elegant and graceful. And armoured. The creature wore armour. What she had seen as golden tipped scales at first was in fact armour made from black metal and gold, delicate gears allowing for mobility of the strong limbs and the wings, the front and hind paws covered by threatening looking gauntlets. It was all linked by gears and chains, glittering in the soft, warm firelight the creature had surrounded itself with.
The creature was slightly curled together, front paws crossed a little and right until Emilia had stumbled upon it, its head had likely rested on these paws. But now it was looking up, its head framed by many horns, all tipped with gold to create the imagery of a helmet. Its snout was protected as well, and the metal armour ravelled all the way down its spine to the tip of its tail. Its eyes were the only thing golden about it that was not part of the armour – the irises like molten gold, still fluid, still seething.
Everything about this creature was deadly. If it wanted to, it could kill her in oh so many creative ways. But it did not move.
She was not entirely sure how long she just stood there, how long she stared at it frozen stiff with fear and how long it just stared at her as if trying to estimate the level of threat she posed. It could be minutes, it could be hours for all she knew, it could just as well be only seconds.
The creature growled in the back of its throat through closed teeth, steam rising from its nostril slits. It bared its teeth, she saw its claws dig into the moist earth, preparing to prance. She would die here. And the only reflex she had (in retrospect probably not the wisest choice) was to play dead.
She slipped out of her bag, dropped it to the ground and threw her hands up, her candle dropping in the dirt, and as she stumbled away, her back hit a tree behind her, locking her in.
“I am not armed. I am not going to hurt you,” she whispered, her voice shaking in her throat. And Gods, she hoped the creature understood her words. How could it though? How could she even assume-
The creature tilted its head a little and she saw its claws relax, just before something akin to a chuckle came rumbling in his chest. The sound made her smile, took the blank fear from her mind. She could vividly imagine the dragons voice saying something like ‘Hurt me? You couldn’t hurt me if you tried.’ She imagined a rich tenor, smooth and calm, wise with the many centuries of his life. Strong and firm, yet not threatening but compulsive, like the whispers of magic she had heard earlier.
It took her a few heartbeats to push herself away from the tree and get feeling back into her tongue.
“I was just… curious. I… saw you, on the watchtower. That was me, maybe you noticed me there. If not, that’s okay. I just… I don’t even know... I guess I... wanted to know if you really are what I think you are…”
The creature still watched her, head still tilted and there was a low rumble from its insides. Hopefully not the growl of an empty stomach. Then he lowered his head, rested it back on its paws. His movements were slow, aching almost. Not once did he take his eyes off her and she knew she was under constant scrutiny. If she did just one thing he was not happy with, he would kill her. He certainly could.
She came closer slowly, carefully.
“I saw you were wounded…” she said softly. The dragon shifted a little, revealing parts of his armour that were torn in, where claws had ripped through the metal and pierced his scales. But there was no blood. Emilia moved closer, curiosity getting the better of her and she went to a crouch to get a closer look. “You heal fast… Was that also magic?” she asked, looking up. The dragon’s brows (?) raised in a question and she caught a proper look at his eyes once more, his pupils now just thin, black slits in the gold.
She nodded into the forest.
“On my way here… I noticed that something was trying to compel me to walk the other way. It was like something was pushing thoughts into my head. It worked on the militia, they walked away. It almost worked on me, too.”
But it didn’t.
She saw that in his face, saw the frown that pulled down his brows and darkened the golden eyes. That this magic had not worked on her gave him reason to pause. She got back to her feet and stepped away, shaking her head.
“Why are you still here? Why didn’t you just… fly away?” she asked. There was a moment of hesitation before the dragon reared his head and rose to his paws with dignified movements. Emilia stepped back in awe. When sitting, cat like on the ground, he had not seemed so large, but standing up, the creature was enormous, all streamlined forms and raw strength condensed under black scales and gold armour. He looked down at her, wings tucked to his back, chest pushed forward, tail slowly swaying over the ground.
Just like a cat, she thought to herself.
And then he spread his wings. She could not blink, could not look away for even a second, could just stare as the enormous wings unfolded from where he had tucked them in before. One wing easily long enough to cover him from head to the tip of his tail, the fine leather skin cast a new shadow over the crash site. The wings were akin to those of bats. She remembered flipping through an old anatomy thesis that had described bats ability to fly, and these wings looked just like the sketch she had seen. The forearm and wrist of the wing were covered by golden armour, and she noticed that the leathery membrane had been torn by claws. That’s why he had not left yet. He was tied to the ground until the wings had healed.
Carefully, Emilia came closer, reached out a hand, high over her head, to carefully brush her fingertips over the delicate skin. “Will it heal?”
The dragon nodded slowly, wistfully as his golden eyes wandered over the torn wings. His gaze then looked up into the sky, the clouds, the stars shimmering through the same. “It takes longer than the other wounds? Because it’s more delicate?”
Another nod followed after a long pause that he seemed to be entirely unaware of her presence. He was longing to be back in the sky, she could tell. Being trapped on the ground like this had to be torture for a creature that had the freedom of the sky at his fingertips. He had to feel isolated, lost, like an essential part of him was missing. Emilia felt a strange kinship. Just as before on the watchtower, when she had understood his fear as clearly as her own, she felt this with him as well. She turned towards him, was not entirely sure what she could do. She wanted to do something, wanted to let him know that it would all be alright, that he would fly again in no time and be himself again, because there was nothing worse than losing one’s identity. But she found not the words. Hesitant, she stepped closer and did perhaps the most daring, foolish thing she had ever done in her life. She put a hand on the scales of his neck, where no armour was between them. She slowly stroked down in the direction of the scales to not irritate him. They felt different than she had expected. Not hard or scratchy, but soft and warm to touch. She could sense the fire underneath, and it was like touching the essence of life itself.
Emilia pulled her hand back quickly when the dragon turned its head to look at her sceptically. She took a few steps away and stared at the tips of her boots for a moment before she spoke again.
“I won’t tell anyone where to find you. They’ll think you moved on. You can stay and recover here. Or, maybe not here. But there’s abandoned mining shafts not far from here, you could recover there, as long as you need,” she suggested, pointing at the rock formation in the distance. The dragon reared his head and looked to where she pointed like he was considering her proposition. Then he nodded slowly and with dignified movements, the dragon rose to his paws.
He nodded towards the rock formation now and Emilia took another step back.
“I can’t show you. People will notice I’m gone, I could get in trouble,” she replied, just assuming he was asking her to show him how to get there. It was not like she would not get in trouble if anyone in town ever learned of all of this. But she could not think about that right now. She would have a lot of time to worry about that. A lot.
She took another step away. “I… should really go.”
The dragon nodded, paid barely any attention to her anymore. But Emilia could not shake the turmoil in her mind and in her stomach. She should not be able to feel such a kinship to a creature like him. But she understood him like they were the same person.
Emilia took another step away, and another, could not bring herself to turn away. When would she ever be this close to a dragon again without having to fear for her life? She did not want this to end, did not want to look away, or leave. She wanted to stay. She was not sure why, but she did not want to leave, felt like there was no going back. But she had to. So finally, when she had walked backwards past the fallen trees, step after step, and the dragon watching her as she moved away, she turned around.
Cloak pulled closer around herself, she took large steps back the way she had come first. As she walked, she noticed something was different. The animals had quieted and were watching her intently as she made her way through the forest. They turned their heads slowly to watch her as she passed, but not in threat. They meant her no harm, she could tell. It was more like they were… curious. Because something about her had changed tonight, and they all felt it. One did not touch a dragon and remain the same they were before. She would have to research that. She would have to find out if there were other people who had been allowed to touch a dragon and live to tell the tale. There had to be some historic examples, right? She could not be the first one. That would be absurd.
Emilia gasped when she stepped over the border of magic again, but she did not turn around. This time, she listened to what the magic told her and walked away, just away, steps growing faster as she continued.
Gods, what had she been thinking?!
Emilia stopped abruptly, struggling to breath. What had she done?! To come here, to find the dragon? She could have died, and no one would have ever known, no one would have ever found her. And now… now she had this secret to carry around. Dragons were the ancient enemy of the people of Arcaria. If anyone learned about this, about her helping a dragon hide and heal, the best thing that could happen to be was being cast out of her home. The worst thing was being turned over to the High Justice of Par’fost, and imprisoned for life, if not executed for treason against her own people. This was by far the dumbest idea she had ever had!
She had a lump in her throat, could not breath, and before she knew it, she was sobbing. Emilia clasped her hands over her face, tried to steady her breath, tried to calm herself down from this panic attack. She could never tell anyone about this. She would take this secret to her grave. The kind of secret that could cause a war, just over one foolish girl who was too curious for her own good.
Emilia drew in three deep breaths, shoulder leaning against a tree, before she straightened herself up again. There were a few tears she had shed in her panic, she wiped them off her cheeks now and continued her hike through the woods. The sky was changing colour, turning from deep black into a velvety purple and blue. Dawn was coming. She had to get back to the library before the sun rose and the hall warden came around to wake them for breakfast.
She stumbled out of the forest and onto the road, cold wind whirling around her bare legs. She was freezing. Gods, it had been warm around the dragon, she had not even noticed how bloody cold the night had gotten. Emilia turned towards town, saw the hill with the library on top in the distance and as she walked, she thought about dotting herself down for a hot bath later today. That would warm her up, and take her mind of things. It would all be fine. She would just forget about all of this, file it away deep, deep down in her memories and never think or speak of it again, ever. She would just pretend it never happened. That was sensible, right. That was-
Emilia froze to the spot when someone stepped out onto the road before her, their back turned to her. Two men in militia uniforms.
“Fruitless endeavour, that. Let’s head back to town, the Mayor will want a report,” one said.
“Go ahead, I’ll wait for the rest of-” the militia man, Peddar Freeman, turned around to look for the rest of their group and caught sight of Emilia, who stood like a deer in the headlights. His eyes widened.
“Em?” he asked with a hiss. Emilia shrunk a little and raised a hand to give a small wave. “What in Bijwidd’s name are you doing out here? Tell me, quickly!”
Well, so much for pretending it never happened. Emilia pulled her fists into the fabric of her skirt, looked at the gravelly ground beneath her feet.
“I… I did something very foolish. I-”
Before she could speak, more men stepped out onto the road, militia men, and some civilians armed with whatever weapon they could grab a hold of in the hurry to search the woods for the beast. One of them towered over the rest, a giant of a man not wearing the uniform, but simple, often patched up trousers and suspenders, an old shirt and rough, fur applied jerkin. His long, ginger curls were tied back into a bun, his beard nicely groomed. He had a standard make musket in one hand, a gas lantern in the other, and a heavy axe normally used for cutting wood strapped to his back.
Emilia’s eyes widened in terror. She was dead. She was so dead.
The man turned around without hesitation and she could actually see the realisation play on his face, from confusion to shock to anger. Peddar Freeman reached out a hand to him.
“Hagen,” he mumbled, hoping to soften the blow.
“Emilia?!” the giant asked, his voice thundering with anger, ignoring Peddar entirely.
Her voice was barely audible when she replied, muffled into the collar of her coat.“Father.”