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And then there were dragons

When Evelie stumbles upon a mysterious Oread and her moondragon, she has no idea how complicated her life is about to become.

By Jodi NichollsPublished 9 months ago Updated 4 months ago 13 min read
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A bothy overlooking a tarn in the Scottish mountains. Prologue: And then there were dragons

“There weren’t always dragons in the valley,” my mother said, her arm tucked around my brother’s waist as she eased him onto his cot bed.

She pulled the coarse sheets over his barely pubescent body, the once white linen marred with charcoal and soot. The hours of obsessive scrubbing that tore the flesh from my knuckles flittered through my mind, and I knew if I looked closely enough I’d be able to pick out faint spots of blood – my blood – next to the brighter patches.

“Eamon,” my mother murmured, smiling as she stroked his hair.

He stirred slightly and blinked open his eyes: still young and full of wonder. “Yes, Mama?”

“There weren’t always dragons in the valley,” she repeated.

“Nor dryads by the shore,” he murmured back.

“Fae didn’t travel the forest paths.”

My mother looked over at me swaddled in the sheets of my own cot bed, and my brother’s languid gaze followed hers as they waited for me to deliver the final line.

“Their kind wasn’t here before.” I didn’t wait to see their reactions as I pinched out the faelight.

Lying in the dark, I listened to my mother draw the flimsy curtain fabric across our moon-shaped window, which was crudely carved into the stone of our small bothy.

“May the stars keep your dreams safe,” she whispered as she shut the door to our bedroom and disappeared into her own.

It wasn’t long until my brother’s snores filled the room, his day working the land for timber and stone setting a heaviness in his bones he could rarely shake. Pity, really. He wasn’t fully grown, despite his muscles being honed from the minute he could lift his own body weight; and yet, his toil demanded the strength of a man twice his size.

Any suggestion of my help was quickly dismissed, my mother’s insistence I remain waiflike for potential suitors as tragic as it was naïve. It forced me to spend my days sewing fabrics and tending to the bothy like we wouldn’t be kicked out the minute new farmhands wanted to take up residence. All I could do to alleviate my brother’s burden was to hunt for food when the sky turned from amber to ink; and even then, I had to do it quickly in case my mother checked on us and saw my absence as another reason to work my brother to the bone.

Unpeeling myself from the tangle of fabric hiding my hunting attire, I slipped my feet into my patchwork pumps and tiptoed towards the window.

“Evelie,” Eamon murmured. He reached towards me, stretching the fabric wrapped around his hands and wrists, and I saw the angry sores between the bandage strips.

“Shh,” I hushed. “Sleep tight, little brother.”

As if it was all the permission he needed, his snores filled the room once more.

Taking my cue, I pulled myself onto the concave window ledge, balancing on my hips as I gripped the outside wall of the bothy and slid the rest of my body through the limited space the window granted. My bottom was thankfully small enough (these days) to make the transition from window to mossy grass easy, and I landed on the other side with barely a whisper.

There was no chill in the air like before – back when Eamon, my mother, and I shared a bed to stave off the frost. The season of rebirth warmed the earth and plucked the cold from the breeze, and my limbs were thankful for the ease in which I walked towards the farmlands to the east of the mountains, where beasts in their droves awaited me like the fresh meals I used to trade fabric for at Pendletime.

I knew the path like the back of my hand, each grassy slope and rocky peak mapped out in my mind like I’d carved them myself. I knew these mountains better – more intimately –when starlight drenched the plains and rocks. Each sliver of silver that brushed against a crest or shallow painted warning shadows amid a guiding path; but even so, I could find my way using scent and instinct alone if needed.

I wasn’t as strong as my brother, but I could walk for longer, and as I traversed the rocks and sward, my breath growing shallow and muscles burning with every ascension, I knew I was close to the ragged peak where I’d stashed my quiver and bow in a tattered burlap sack.

Casting my gaze towards the skyline, I saw three familiar peaks shaped like broken teeth silhouetted beneath the moonlight. Wiping the sweat from my brow and letting a smile twitch at my mouth, another shape shattered the silhouette and immediately jolted my heart to my throat.

Diving to the ground, I pressed my body as flat as I could and prayed the wild grasses shielded me from view. The moss and dew immediately soaked my tunic so it clung to me like a second skin, and the torturous beat of vicious wings made me wish I could camouflage myself like the dryads and disappear atop the open plain.

Another thunderous thrash sliced through the night air, tempered by the resounding screech of a creature in obvious distress. I dared a glance upwards, seeing a flash of white and silver scales dashed with blood and dirt. They shimmered and flexed across the powerful muscles of an adult moondragon.

Beneath the dragon was another creature, this one almost human. She had blonde hair and a dark stare, similar to my own. However, unlike me, she was far more dangerous than the moondragon.

The Oread and her moondragon. Source: 'And then there were dragons' fantasy tale

I hadn’t seen an Oread before. I’d heard of them, of course, but unlike their Dryad cousins, Oreads were rare and shrouded in mystery.

“Not here, Stryax, please…”

She spoke like a human and almost looked like one, despite her height, stark white robes, and the bluish glow of her warrior markings, but I knew her magic could disintegrate me where I lay if she spotted me.

Unable to look away, I watched as the Oread held her hands towards her moondragon. “We need to get you to water, Stryax. Can you try again?”

I didn’t need to speak dragoone to know the high-pitched bark that answered meant ‘no.’

There was a tarn beyond the broken teeth: somewhere the moondragon could heal and I could hunt for supper. They’d be able to see it if they flew high enough, and I wondered why they hadn’t spotted it before.

Another screech of agony ricocheted across the mountains, rattling stones and dislodging rocks that tumbled towards me. I rolled out of the path of a boulder crashing towards my head, and in doing so, revealed myself to the deadliest creature I’d ever faced.

The Oread’s gaze met mine as she raised her hand and squeezed it into a fist; and all around me, the earth shuddered as grassy roots extended floral hands, twisting upwards to grasp my limbs and drag me into the dirt.

“Wait!” I yelped. “I know where there’s water!”

The roots stopped pulling me into the earth but didn’t loosen their hold.

“It speaks,” the Oread said to the moondragon.

“Of course I speak!” I shouted, knowing my voice didn’t carry on the edifice in the same way hers could.

The Oread glared at me, questioning something, and then twirled her index finger so I uncoiled from the earth.

“Take us to the water.”

I shook my head, my body flooding with heat as I prepared to bargain with the creature. “Not unless you spare me,” I said, knowing the tremble in my voice betrayed me.

“We don’t kill humans,” the Oread almost spat. “State a worthier term.”

The mud caking my legs and torso told a different story, but I wasn’t about to argue when my life was at stake.

The moondragon roared and I felt the full force of its anguish wash over me.

“Anything you deem worthy,” I said. “Anything worth my knowledge.”

The Oread’s lip curled, which told me I’d got it wrong again, but as her moondragon was beginning to writhe and wretch, she merely gestured for me to come to her.

I wasted no time scrambling to my feet and sprinting up the slope of the bluff to meet her. As I neared, her white robes stopped billowing and wrapped around her slight frame, mimicking an armour of sorts. I almost asked why she needed to protect herself from me when she said, “Where is the water?”

“Beyond the broken teeth,” I replied.

The grimace on the Oread’s face threatened to boil my bones. “The human speaks in riddles.”

“No,” I promised. “It’s beyond the broken teeth.” I pointed to the mountains ahead.

The Oread followed the direction of my finger and saw the same three jagged peaks.

“It’s so close,” she whispered to herself, although it was loud enough for me to hear. Her markings – a pattern of swirls and dots that tracked a path along her cheekbones – dimmed slightly as she closed her eyes. “I’ve been away too long.”

I was about to ask what she meant when an almighty surge ripped through my stomach. One second I was standing next to the Oread and her wounded moondragon, and the next I was standing by the lip of the tarn as she kneeled in the water and crushed her hands to her heart.

The moondragon was nowhere to be seen.

“Wh-what happened?” I asked, resisting the urge to vomit.

“Wait,” the Oread said breathlessly as she steadied herself in the water. “All will reveal itself in time.”

Frozen in fear and unable to flee even if I wanted to, my light-headedness forced me to sit on the pebble and moss bank and hug my knees to my chest.

I’m not sure how long we waited, but the Oread didn’t move from her vigil in the tarn until a ripple of water on the inky lake made her stand and reach towards it.

“Stryax!” she exclaimed, her cheeks glowing with a bright azure hue.

I watched as the ripples intensified, followed by the disturbance of bubbles that simmered on the surface like broth on a stove. Not long after, the head of the moondragon emerged from beneath the lake, cresting above the waterline to exhale the surf from her nostrils.

She was a stunning specimen with a long snout, cone-shaped ears, two symmetrical curved horns, and large eyes the colour of the Oread’s markings. The lack of a centre fin told me she was female, along with the two small spikes that replaced the crown of horns her male counterparts boasted.

The moondragon used her four powerful limbs and long tail to glide through the water with ease, and it took me a while to realise she was heading straight for me.

A shock of pure terror froze me to the spot as Stryax left the water and crawled along the shoreline. Steam coiled above her powerful muscles, matching each exhalation through her nostrils, and her head swayed from side to side as she fixed her gaze on mine.

I’d heard the tales of dragons eating humans. Despite the mythos surrounding the creatures of Helios, we were taught exactly who our enemies were and what they could do to us. Our strength lay in our numbers, but I was as powerful as an ant against a moondragon and her Oread rider. My heart knew it too. It was beating against my chest so hard I feared for my ribcage. Holding my breath was all I could do to stop myself from screaming and begging the moondragon to skip dinner.

However, Stryax merely sat inches from my feet and curled her tail around her legs. She kept her bright eyes fixed on mine, save for a few blinks of her three eyelids, and realising I wasn’t about to be an after-bath snack, I released the air from my lungs.

“Can I go home now?” I whispered.

The Oread was busy stroking the moondragon’s hind, her long and lithe fingers tapping and tracing each damaged scale. Now and then, she’d stop and communicate with Stryax in soft coos and clicks, then resume pulling off each dead or broken plate.

“Please?” I said a little louder.

The Oread stopped what she was doing. “She wants you to take care of her eggs,” she said.

“Pardon?”

She sighed and looked me dead in the eye, and despite my survival instincts telling me to look away, I held her gaze.

“This tarn is her birthing pool,” the Oread said, “and as we’re in human territory, she wants you to watch over her eggs until they hatch.”

Despite the sweetness in the air, a hint of acid struck me. “And then?”

“And then we’ll collect the hatchlings.”

“What if I don’t?” I dared.

“Stryax will stay here and likely perish.”

“Why can’t you stay and protect her?”

“Because,” the Oread said, stepping closer to me, “I need to get her home so she can fully heal.”

Wherever home was, I assumed it was far away.

“I can’t stay here either,” I said. “I’ll perish too. My family will worry…”

“I’ll make sure you have lodgings and a meal in your belly each night,” she promised. “As long as you swear to guard this tarn and these eggs with your life.”

I crossed my arms. “What’s my reward for bringing you here and doing all this?”

The Oread’s markings flashed. “Your life,” she snarled.

Realising I’d let my temper fuel my bravery, I immediately shrank back – sure I was about to become dragon-feed. However, a rumble echoed in Stryax’s throat and the Oread rolled her eyes.

“Fine,” she grumbled, reaching behind her neck and taking off her jagged stone necklace.

It was shaped like a mountain peak and adorned with – sapphire, maybe? – insets.

Brandishing it towards me, she said, “This grants you the ability to use a small amount of magic as you see fit. Use its power wisely or it will corrupt you and those in your proximity.”

I received the necklace, which was surprisingly heavy, and held it to my chest. A surge of something ancient and dark swept through me; a call to arms; a promise of blood, and I immediately dropped it on the ground.

The responding growl from Stryax and the Oread’s clenched fists told me I’d made another mistake, and scooping up the haunted necklace, I put it on and folded my arms to stave off the chill.

“How long do they take to hatch?” I asked, changing the subject. “And how many are there?”

“Five years, give or take.” The Oread touched Stryax’s head, communicating something, and then nodded. “There will be four hatchlings, but only expect three to survive.”

With that, the Oread mounted her moondragon, who stretched her powerful wings and let the starlight catch each sinew and membrane along their expansive length. Delicate and opaque, I stared in awe – mesmerised as Stryax showed off her impressive wingspan and lifted into the sky, the force of the parting air making me steady my footing.

“Five years?” I yelled at her. “Why can’t you come back in a year and take over?”

“Don’t worry, human, I’ll visit often.”

A sound like the crack of a whip shot through the tarn and reverberated against the crags, and in what felt like a millisecond, Stryax and the Oread were soon lost to the horizon.

“That’s not what I meant,” I mumbled.

Image: Four dragon eggs at the bottom of the tarn. Source: Fantasy prologue for 'And then there were dragons'

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I hope you enjoyed this prologue to, 'And then there were dragons.' If you like my writing and would be happy to support me further, subscribe to my Vocal+ channel and/or follow me on Insta: @j.l.nicholls.

#HappyReading :)

Adventure
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About the Creator

Jodi Nicholls

As a freelance content writer, fantasy author, and reluctant minion of darkness, I spend my days devouring words and teaching my cats boundaries (which is relentless, unforgiving work...)

Escapism is life. Find me on Insta: @j.l.nicholls 😊

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