There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. They arrived with the warm breezes of early summer and departed soon after the first frost of autumn. Where the Great Wyrms wintered was a mystery. Each year they flew north, above and beyond the swirling storm clouds known as the Mistwall.
The scholars of Arkon theorized that dragons practiced aircrafting on an instinctual level, making them far more effective than any human crafters. Those few people able to consciously control the flow and density of air 一 known as Windwalkers 一 could climb into the air and glide short distances. Some could even ride upon the winds of a storm.
But the Great Wyrms ruled the skies. They alone had the freedom to travel beyond the bounds defined by the Mistwall. They had no fear of the deadly fog that crept ever closer to the walls of Arkon.
How long now, Xara wondered, before the mist forced her people to abandon the city? Already families were beginning to leave their villages and farms on the western coast.
Crouched beneath the dripping leaves of a gnarled hawthorn, Xara’s gaze flicked back and forth, searching for dragon-sign. The rugged expanse of the Valley stretched out before her, leaves and grass still wet from rain the night before. Ahead the ground sloped down towards a marshy field of tall grasses and wildflowers. Beyond the clearing stood green and white thickets of silver birch, here and there the dark smudge of a gray oak. Further north grew the massive ur-pine groves. There among the blue-gray trees they would gather fallen ur-pine fruit, the seeds of which gave crafters their power.
It seemed too close to the superstitions of the Hillfolk for Xara’s taste, a theory based on fantasy and hope rather than logic and hard evidence, but perhaps old Jandor was right. Could an answer to the mist be found somewhere within the Valley? Whatever her personal misgivings, the Council had listened to the scholar’s theories and agreed. This year the gathering parties were given a dual charge. In addition to collecting ur-pine fruit, they were to search the Valley for a source of power that could hold back the Mistwall. No problem, she thought 一 avoid the dragons, don’t get killed by Hillfolk, and, oh yes, find a mythical solution to all our problems. As if being promoted to team leader wasn’t enough responsibility.
The rising sun cast dappled shadows, shifting as the wind stirred the high branches. The dim recesses of the nearby forest could easily conceal any number of reptilian bodies, scales changing hue to blend in with the foliage. Were there dragons there, lying in wait for the heat of the day?
Maybe it was her imagination, but it did feel different on this side of the mountains; there was a subtle strangeness in the air, a faint prickle of energy just below the surface of the soil, a presence beside her but always just out of sight. She shook her head. The old woman’s ravings were getting to her. It was just nerves.
Feeling her hands clenched tight into fists, Xara straightened her fingers, shaking out the tension. She reached for the reassuring feel of her sword. Not for the first time, she found herself hoping fervently that the dragons hadn’t arrived early this year. Sometimes she envied the Hillfolk their primitive superstitions. It might be nice having a few gods to pray to sometimes.
As her eyes scanned the treeline, she wondered if the Hillfolk had arrived in the Valley. They too would be eager to finish their hunt before the dragons arrived. Each year they arrived from the east, berserker warriors, eaters of human flesh and practitioners of barbaric rituals. They would kill and burn as they went, leaving behind a trail of blood and ashes.
Sharp pain made Xara realize her hand was now beginning to cramp around the grip of her sword. Taking a calming breath she forced her fingers to release their hold, annoyed at her lack of self-control. She couldn’t see any dragons, but she couldn’t sense or see Ravnar either. Where was he?
She’d risen at first light, slipping from the relative warmth of her bedroll and wrapping herself in her cloak. Stamping her feet to get the blood flowing, she met Ravnar at the edge of the camp. Even standing shoulder to shoulder she could barely discern the outline of his sharp profile against the faint glow in the east.
“Seems being the leader isn’t just sitting around making plans and eating honey cakes, huh?”
It was hard to tell in the dim light, but she thought she could see the corner of his mouth twitching.
“I just like to order you lesser folk around,” she replied. “Beats skulking through bog and bushes while civilized folk have breakfast.”
His shoulders slumped. “Typical. The Greenwarden does all the work while everyone else sits around getting fat.”
“Get back soon and there might be a few crumbs left. Perhaps Lexa will even save you some sallac.”
Ravnar grunted. “She’ll just give it all to Vorian.”
Xara stifled a giggle. “Maybe. Okay, probably. But the sooner you leave the better your odds.” She put a hand on his shoulder, her tone turning serious. “Only as far as the Caiden, and I expect you back while I can still step on my shadow.”
He gave a curt nod. “Aye, little fox. Keep a bowl of sallac warm for me.” Without another word he slipped quietly away. Dressed in shades of green and brown, his slim form vanished among the trees like a shadow.
It had been too long. Breakfast was done and the camp was almost packed up. Impatiently, Xara formed the Jen’Lok pattern, pushing her awareness into the soil below, then out in an eastward arc. It was a low-fidelity scan, requiring little effort, but it could cover a large area quickly.
She’d barely released the energy when the ground began to buzz beneath her, as though she were standing on a swarm of angry wasps. Just as the warning signal came vibrating through the soles of her boots, echoes from her search pattern burst upon her awareness. First came the impacts of a man-sized creature running on two legs. This was almost immediately followed by the impressions of several large creatures on four legs, rapidly closing in from behind. Ravnar was in trouble!
“Danger! Danger!” she yelled, instinctively sending out her own alert pattern, directing it through the ground towards the group breaking camp in the hollow behind her. She rose to her feet, her sword sliding free with a whispered hiss of metal on leather.
Ravnar appeared suddenly, his compact form emerging ghostlike from the undergrowth. Even while being pursued his Greenwarden skills were clearly evident, his movement through the tall grasses and thorny shrubs almost silent. Behind him Xara could hear branches snapping and the barking snarls of whatever was in pursuit.
Relief flashed across Ravnar’s face as he saw her break cover.
“Six warhounds. Berserkers not far behind!” he cried. Sprinting the last few steps, he spun on his heel beside her. His breathing rapid but controlled, he reached up over his shoulder, freeing his sword from its scabbard.
Xara scowled. “Hillfolk this far west already?”
Ravnar grimaced but said nothing, saving his breath. It was unfortunate but not without precedent. Snow in the eastern passes must have cleared early this spring.
Behind them Xara heard muffled shouts and sounds of movement as the other members of her team began reacting to her call.
She felt the weight of the sword in her hand and let her mind slip into the blade itself. Immediately the ordered structure of the metal gave her a sense of calm and focus. The almost crystalline structure of the ur-steel was flawless, the edge crafted to preternatural sharpness.
Satisfied by her rapid inspection she extracted her awareness from her weapon and glanced over at Ravnar, struck by a stab of guilt. She should have been thinking of him first. Reaching out quickly she placed her left hand on the hilt of his sword. The blade was longer than her own, thicker also, the extra strength necessary due to his inability to metalcraft. Quickly she formed the pattern of Zal’xin in her mind and then released the reinforcing energy into the weapon. It would dissipate within minutes, but the extra durability should last long enough for the coming fight.
Ravnar gave a quick nod of thanks. She noted the glitter of myriad salt crystals on his forehead, a sign of prolonged watercrafting. The patterns used to enhance blood flow and excrete fatigue toxins produced excessive sweating. A light gray pallor, and the lack of perspiration on his face, indicated he had become dangerously dehydrated by his exertions.
Four dark forms burst from the undergrowth, a nightmare blur of dark matted fur, vicious white fangs and blood-red tongues. Baying howls sent shivers down her spine as the beasts rushed towards them. Briefly she spotted leather collars studded with iron spikes. Hillfolk warhounds. They were bigger than any she’d ever seen or heard of.
Behind the first four came two more, also howling and snapping eagerly. There was no time for further preparations, no chance to check that the rest of her party was ready. They were equipped with the best armor and weapons the crafters of Arkon could provide. They had trained. They had prepared.
It would have to be enough.
The largest of the hounds, most likely the alpha, broke off, circling right around a dense cluster of prickly holly. A second hound came straight at her. She saw two others charging Ravnar.
Stepping aside, she gave Ravnar space to use the hawthorn as cover. Simultaneously she threw a Gai’sin pattern into the earth before her. The unexpectedly soft ground caught the first warhound unawares, its front paws sinking deep as it leapt for her throat. Three hundred pounds of inertia carried the beast forward regardless.
Reflexively she formed the Zal’xin pattern again, augmenting the strength of her slim blade, swinging for the creature’s neck while desperately twisting aside. There was a barely perceptible jolt up her arm as the ur-steel cut through its neck and spine, the metal-smithed edge shearing easily through collar, skin and muscle. Only the denser bone posed any real resistance to her blade.
She felt the force of the impact as the body crashed heavily to the ground, sliding to a stop at her feet, the severed head rolling off into the bushes.
Snarls and the sounds of snapping teeth were loud behind her. Ravnar let out a cry, but she had no time to look around. Jaws distended, toothy maw dripping saliva, the alpha was almost upon her! The beast was enormous, almost as tall as she was, and probably twice as heavy. It moved faster than she would have thought possible. Was it watercrafting? It has to be, she thought. Maybe it learned how instinctively, like the dragons, or maybe someone trained it?
There was no time for such pointless conjecture.
In a dark blur the creature closed the distance, mouth open wide to rip out her throat. Suddenly there was no room left to swing her blade. Desperately she raised her left arm, throwing the pattern of Zal’xin into her vambrace. The great jaws snapped shut, teeth screeching on metal, breath hot and wet on her face.
Her breath exploded out of her as she hit the ground, the massive bulk of the warhound forcing her down into the damp earth. Her vision blurred as saliva from the heavy jowls dripped into her eyes. The great head shook from side to side. She heard herself scream as her shoulder was twisted savagely. Suddenly she was flying through the air, the hound tossing her aside like a ragdoll.
Landing hard, she tumbled through leaves and wet grass. Once more her training kicked in. Xara pushed the pattern of Zal’xin into her armor, reinforcing the light plates of ur-steel protecting her stomach, chest and back. The pattern saved her armor from damage as she slammed to a stop against the silver-gray trunk of a large beech.
Pain lanced through her left shoulder as she pushed herself to her feet. Wiping drool from her face with the corner of her cloak, she glanced quickly about. A few paces to the right her sword lay half covered by leaves. Standing over her weapon stood another of the warhounds, a low growl rising from deep within the creature’s broad chest.
“By the Mist,” she cursed. There was no way she was going to flee and leave Ravnar to be mauled to death, assuming that he was still alive.
Her eyes flicked to the left and she saw him stumbling backwards. Bright red blood stained the length of his sword. His face was as pale as chalk. There was a long rent in the fabric of his trousers, just below the left hip. The area glistened with a dark wetness. Not a good sign. Water crafting could staunch the flow of blood, but he needed time to focus on the required pattern. Right now his attention was occupied by more urgent matters.
One of the hounds crouched low in front of him, preparing to pounce. Blood was flowing freely from a deep head wound where he’d sliced an ear clean off. Another hound lay on the ground a short way off, one leg twitching slightly. That made at least two down. Shadowy shapes moved through the undergrowth. Suddenly she saw the huge alpha hound moving to flank Ravnar. A quick warning pulse through the ground alerted him to the danger. Immediately he shifted position, putting his back to a large birch, bloodied sword held out level before him.
Her eyes flicked back to see the hound in front of her stepping forward slowly, its head moving from side to side. An old scar ran through one milky white eye. Where was the sixth? Was she also being flanked? Fighting a sense of panic, Xara formed the Jen’Lok pattern and cast it outwards. There! As she’d suspected, it was moving up almost directly behind her. But echoes from the hound weren’t all she felt.
Relief washed through her as the presence of her team entered her awareness. Shouts, and the twang of a crossbow. Something buzzed by her head, close enough to lift several strands of loose hair. A wicked grin crossed her face as the black feathers of Garvan’s quarrel seemed to sprout like magic from the forehead of the hound in front of her. The beast gave a brief shudder and then crumpled to the ground.
Xara willed herself forward, gathering up her sword as she looked around for another hound to engage. There was no need; the fight was all but over.
A flurry of brown sped by, the dusty shades of Wylan’s outlander garb as he came through the trees, his topknot trailing behind like a thick black whip. His arm swung, a glittering line extending forwards, his slender blade sweeping directly between the open jaws of the alpha hound. A faint red mist appeared in the air behind the large blocky head. The body of the massive beast, still turning to meet Wylan’s attack, abruptly stumbled and toppled sideways. Bile rose in Xara’s throat as the top of the head slid slowly away, exposing a smoothly severed expanse of brain, cartilage and bone.
She saw Tommas and Dabrigar ensuring all the other hounds were dead. There was blood spattered across the scarred and puckered skin of Dabrigar’s bald head. Gore and matted fur on his axe suggested the blood wasn’t his. Vorian and Lexa, close together as usual, scanned the treeline for approaching danger.
Ravnar had slumped down against the tree trunk. Neddix knelt next to him, checking his injuries and pulling supplies from his medical bag. Beside them stood young Tovar, holding his spear nervously, his knuckles white with tension.
Turning, she saw Trixanna approaching, her flame-red hair in disarray, freckled face paler than usual. Striding alongside her was Garvan, another quarrel already loaded and ready in his crossbow. The old man gave her a wink.
“Good thing you have such pretty little ears.” He chuckled. “If you had flappers like mine I’d have missed my shot!”
It didn’t seem the time for jokes, but she found herself grinning again, the tight coil of tension within her releasing slightly.
“If I had ears like yours I’d have flown up into the trees,” she shot back.
Her sense of time was slowing now, receding with the fading rush of adrenaline. She realized with pride just how quickly her team had responded. Fear during the fight made each moment seem an eternity. In truth, barely a dozen or so heartbeats had passed since Ravnar’s first warning pulse.
As she moved to check on Ravnar, pain shot through her left shoulder, reminding her of the danger they were still in. The Hillfolk would not be far behind their attack dogs. They had to get moving.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions