A Measure of Peace
Nola and the Dragon
There weren’t always dragons in the valley. Until fifteen years ago, dragons resided solely in the Southlands. Then, soon after Nola was conceived, a pair took up residence on the cliffs of Loom Mountain, high above the village. Nola could hardly conceive of a time when the skies were home to clouds and birds alone. Her eyes were perpetually trained upwards, searching for the passing shadow of a dragon or the glint of iridescent scales.
Just after the sun rose Saturday morning, Nola crept toward the front door, avoiding the creakiest of floorboards.
But her mother had the hearing of a fox. “Where you headed?” she asked, not bothering to turn as she tended the fire.
“Out,” Nola said, voice low.
Her mother swung around, pointing a finger at her like a sword. “You ain’t going back to that field, are you?”
Nola was silent, head bowed. Then a memory arose from a week before—a dragon's slitted eyes fixing on her for a moment, steady and assured. She willed her own eyes toward her mother's steely countenance.
“You gonna get yourself killed,” her mother said.
Nola shrugged. “Why should you care?”
“Show some respect," her mother spat out. "I’ve fed you and housed you for fifteen years.”
“Well then, if I’m eaten, one less mouth for you to feed.”
She didn’t bother waiting for a response, stomping out the door, lips lifting ever so slightly. Nola rarely spoke back to her mother, but damn if it didn’t feel good. Perhaps there had been a time before her memories began when her parents had spared her an ounce of affection. But if they had, it surely frosted over when the patches appeared on her skin, white as snow, spreading from her limbs to her cheeks and upper lip. No matter that the disease wasn't contagious nor had further consequences besides her appearance. But appearances, Nola had learned, meant everything. Few villagers offered her more than a pinprick of kindness or pity, though they had plenty of disdain to spare. Her two brothers were the sole source of benevolence, but even they couldn’t douse the flame of loneliness and despair.
It was a warm mid-spring day, her heart lifting a fraction as she stalked through the woods, coming through to the field at the edge of the cliff. The flowers were in full bloom, leaves and grasses bright green as though conspiring to make a dramatic entrance onto the seasonal stage. Nola ignited her torch with flint and stone before stepping out. This and the dagger stuck inside her boot were precautions she always took, though she had never needed them.
No other villagers dared come here. It was dangerous to be out in the open so close to the cliffs, they said. Her father followed her once, told her she was a fool for coming alone, then stalked away without another word. She wished he cared enough to forbid her to come, yet knew she would have defied him nonetheless. For this was the only place that brought her a measure of peace.
A year before, she had spotted a faun near the forest edge moments before a full grown dragon dove down and snatched it whole, limbs dangling from its mouth as it flew off. That was the only time Nola had been truly frightened. She stayed away for a week, the image of her own legs hanging from the dragon’s jaws indelible in her mind, haunting her dreams.
Yet even that could not keep her away.
Besides, she had already been wounded a thousand times over by her own people. Humans could destroy you from the inside out, wielding words that whittled you down, turned you into something filthier than the mud under your boots.
So this spring she had come every day to watch the hatchlings play above her. She sketched and took notes, studying their habits. They leapt from the cliffs for the first time not two weeks prior, yet were already quite adept. Small flames escaped their maws as their fire strengthened. Occasionally they landed in heaps at the distant end of the field, wrestling and tumbling much as her brothers had when they were boys.
She had been watching one dragon more closely, a youth with a violet sheen to its scales. Nola had observed the dragons' behavior enough to surmise that this one was male, though she couldn't be certain. He preferred practicing on his own, at times venturing so far from the group that Nola could only see a speck in the distance. This one was particularly graceful, body undulating fluidly as he dove down, then rose back up, neck stretched long. Today he circled directly overhead, flying lower and lower, then tilted his head so that one eye remained fixed on Nola.
Nola clenched the torch stuck in the grass nearby, her other hand curling around the hilt of her knife. Usually when the dragons spotted her, they watched her for no more than a few seconds. This was different.
This dragon’s eyes transfixed Nola so much so that she didn’t notice his descent until the curve of his talons and the veins in the thin tissue of his wings came into view. He was bigger than Nola had guessed from afar, already nearly fifteen feet long head to tail tip. The dragon’s fiery orange eyes never left hers. Just as Nola unclenched her fingers, releasing the torch, the dragon dropped rapidly, flapping his wings, then folding them in as he landed not ten feet away. The ground trembled with the impact.
He was even more stunning up close, each scale a perfect, diamond shaped mirror, violet tinted along his underside, indigo towards his flank and spine. Nola wondered if his scales would dull with time or slough off like a snake. If only she could shed her skin, start anew each year.
The dragon tilted his head to the side, a decidedly human gesture. Nola smiled and slowly pushed off the ground, coming to standing. The dragon backed up a step.
“It’s ok,” Nola said gently, then patted her chest. “I’m Nola.” The dragon just watched, still as stone. She chuckled quietly at the absurdity of her declaration and the dragon let out a little puff, a tiny ball of flame shooting out, burning up three feet away. Was that a laugh? Then the dragon bowed its head. Nola's lips quirked upward. This was a greeting of sorts, she was certain. She dropped her head in turn.
The dragon sprinted forward, barreling into Nola with such force that she toppled, back bashing the ground, wind knocked out of her. But that was nothing compared to the sharp pain of something cutting into her skin, just above her heart. She couldn’t see, everything a blur as tears filled her eyes. She gasped for air, bile rising in her throat.
Her mother had been right after all, everyone had been. But even as this thought crossed her mind, she did not for a moment wish she had heeded their warnings. She had nothing without the tiny sliver of contentment she felt in this field. Misery washed over her, not for dying so young, but for the utter disappointment of the short life she had lived.
Then the light brightened behind her lids and Nola opened her eyes. The dragon backed away, then turned and pushed off the ground, great wings flapping as he rose toward the cliffs. Nola’s hair blew into her face. When she pulled it away she winced in pain and stared down at her chest. There was a long gash, hot blood oozing outward and seeping into her dress.
Nola willed herself to rise, stumbling into the forest in search of a patch of peat moss. She picked a clump, holding it to her laceration to staunch the blood. Her cheeks were stiff with dried tears by the time she neared the edge of town. Her throat closed up further when she saw her mother in the garden, but Nola ran past into the house, straight to her room. She fell onto her bed still clutching the moss to her chest, not daring to pull it away to examine the state of her injury. She should clean it out, have someone stitch it up before it widened or festered. But she couldn’t be bothered.
That sense of rightness she felt when she was in the field had been an illusion after all, a childish dream sprung from her isolation and alienation. She had longed for something, anything to cling to, imagining she had a place among the dragons. What folly. She was meant to be alone, a twisted cedar in a forest of pines.
Nola closed her eyes and drifted off, dejected and hollowed out. Her hand fell to her side, the moss sticking to her fingers and pulling away from her skin.
The wound was several inches long, crusted with dark blood. Two other faint red lines met it, another running parallel to the first, forming a perfect diamond. Within this, her skin had taken on a vibrant green cast, solid and smooth as polished armor.