There weren't always dragons in the Valley.
Despite the name, the Dragonclaw Mountains were home to nomadic clans of men who made their living from nature's bounty. The mountain valley was home to three notable clans, Fraser to the west and the coastal side of the valley, Douglas in the northern mountains where the terrain was as rugged as the warriors there, and MacDonald in the south by the great forest. Each clan followed a chieftain, and there was none more fearless and respected than Chief Caelen MacDonald. By his side are his wife Erin and two daughters, Aoife and Adene. The youngest, Adene, played quietly in front of the fire when Erin entered the chief’s tent.
“Adene,” the tired mother sighed. “Where is your sister?”
The little red-haired girl looked up and smiled, “I’m supposed to tell you she just left, and she’ll be right back.”
Erin looked over at the black dress she had spent hours stitching gold threads through. At eighteen years old, Aoife was to be presented at the night's celebration of the Goddess Ferna, an annual gathering of the clans to honor the hunter goddess and share in the season's bounty. The gathering was also an opportune time to match young people together as the clans prepared for the winter months. It was custom for young couples to spend the winter months together, and if they could survive the harshest months supporting each other, they would wed in the spring.
“Of all the days!” Erin sighed. She reached down to help Adene stand and clean her face with a cloth. “And you’re father?”
Adene pressed her lips together and moved her face away from the rough washcloth. The little girl wiped her face and stood to face her mother. “I’m supposed to tell you he just left, but he’ll be right back.”
Deep in the surrounding southern forest, Aoife pressed her back tight against a giant spruce. She held her breath, closed her eyes, and listened to the sound of the forest around her. The soft whispering of the wind, the flapping of wings as birds fluttered from tree to tree, and then the snap: the padding hooves and deep grunt of a boar. The young woman released her breath as her fingers laced below the feathers of her arrow. On the inhale, she pulled the arrow taunt and opened her eyes. The boar was close. She waited for the next snap to reveal herself. The unsuspecting boar ruffled the ground looking for fallen fruits. Aoife rolled her shoulder off the trunk and turned on her foot in a swift motion. She lined her shot and released her arrow with a kiss. The whizz through the air startled a few crows and the boar raised its head just high enough for the arrow to pierce through its eye. She watched it fall onto its side as the remaining spasms of life left its body.
“You’ve gotten quite good at that,” Caelen’s voice startled his daughter.
Aoife lowered her bow and turned to face the chief. “What better way to celebrate the hunter goddess than by hunting?”
“Maybe helping prepare for the feast?” Caelen smiled and raised an eyebrow at his daughter. “You’re mother has been working hard to prepare for the celebration.”
Aoife turned and walked towards the boar as she kicked and trampled across the forest floor. Her heavy moss-colored cloak fanned out around her feet. Her slight hands reached for the arrow and she pulled it from the boar. Caelen followed behind and listened to his daughter recite Ferna’s prayer for the kill.
“We thank you, Ferna, for our keen eyes and swift feet. For providing fertile earth and plentiful meat. From forest floor and life-filled lake, we pledge to honor all that we take.” Aoife wiped the blood from the arrow and turned to Caelen. He placed a battle-scarred hand on the girl’s shoulder and brought her close to his chest. “I’m so proud of you. So much like your mother.”
Aoife gave a small scowl and looked up into Caelen’s deep brown eyes. Aoife had her father’s eyes. She always felt more like a hunter than a chief’s wife and more at home in the forest than in the camp. “Mother would faint if she knew I was out here alone.”
Caelen chuckled, “Aoife. Your mother is one of the most skilled hunters I know. As a young man, I met her in these woods and challenged her to a test of skill.” Caelen smiled at the memory. “She beat me, then demanded a kiss as a prize.”
Aoife rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to trade my arrows for needle and thread, father.”
“You won’t have to, Aoife. Finding your match doesn’t mean giving up who you are. Come, the clans will be arriving soon.”
Father and daughter dressed the boar and carried it through the forest towards the camp. Erin stood with her hands on her hips as they arrived.
“Of all the days!” She threw her hands up in the air.
Aoife stood tall in the tent as Erin pulled at the laces at the back of her dress. Adene sat on her parent's bed kicking her feet over the edge. Her bright red hair was pulled back in braids that crowned her forehead and she was pulling and fidgeting with her own dress. The younger girls and boys wore green and brown to signify the growth of the forest in the spring. Adene hummed the tune of the mountain song she would sing with the other children.
“Ow!” Aoife winced as the final lace was pulled. “I need to be able to move mother.”
Erin finished and smoothed out the fabric across Aoife’s shoulders and arms. She stepped back and moved in front of her eldest daughter. Erin sighed and smiled and fought back tears of pride. Aoife had grown into a strong and beautiful young woman and she had high hopes for the night’s prospects for a match. She had braided her daughter’s dark mahogany hair off her face and down her back. Every few strands were decorated with thick bone beads carved with the symbols of the clan. Each bead was carved by mothers and passed to daughters for generations. The story of the MacDonald clan was weaved into the braids. Erin reached into her shawl and felt the bead she carved for her daughter.
“I finished your bead.” She opened her hand to reveal the bone carvings.
Aoife pulled her hair forward for her mother to place the final bead. She looked at the symbols her mother had chosen to adorn the trinket. Branches of heather flower weaved around the shaft of an arrow that chased after a bird. Erin looped the bead into Aoife’s hair and secured the braid.
“One day, Ferna willing, you will carve the story of your daughter into one of these and place it in her hair.” Erin tossed the braid behind Aoife’s ear and smiled. Her palm touched the girl’s face. “You have grown into such a beauty and you are so strong and brave, just like the heather that grows on the mountain. And you have skills that would make Ferna jealous.”
Aoife pressed her lips together and looked into her mother’s face. “I’ll do my best to make you proud tonight.”
“You make me proud every day my dear. Have fun tonight. Talk. Look and learn and find a match on your own. There is always next year or the year or until you’re ready.”
Adene piped in as she slid off the bed, “until you get too old.”
Aoife laughed into her sleeve and Erin chased the younger girl out. “You go practice with the other babes. I want to hear your voice over everyone else's.”
Finally, alone in the tent, Aoife took a turn in her dress and smoothed her hair off her face. From outside, she heard the horns and the rise of drums to signal the arrival of the other clans. She took a look at her bow and quiver as it lay against her bed. She felt her heart race. She felt so calm in the forest and the mountains, but the thought of meeting a potential match at the meeting of the clans made her nervous. As she felt her palms become clammy, Caelen appeared at the opening of the tent.
“Aoife. It’s time.” The grizzled chief smiled at his eldest child and opened the canvas for her to step out.
The Douglas Clan were the first to arrive, led by Chief Magdela and her wife Kate, the chief sat atop a large grey mare and waved to Caelen as her bannerman ceased their march. “I saw a mighty boar roasting as we rode in.” Magdela smiled and gestured over to her wife who was being aided in her dismount by two rangers. “I hope you have more, this one is eating our stores bare.”
“Very funny!” Kate glared at Magdela and she landed her feet on the soft earth, a pronounced pregnant belly visible under her furs.
Erin stepped forward and hugged Kate. “You look well sister.” Erin placed her hands on Kate’s swollen belly. “So close to term, my gods, you could have stayed home.”
Kate embraced Erin and let out an exhausted laugh. “And miss Aoife’s presentation? Never. This baby is quite comfortable.” Kate looked over at her nieces as Caelen hugged Magdela.
“It’s wonderful to see you, Aunt Kate.” Aoife smiled and kissed her aunt’s cheek.
“My, my. Aren’t you gorgeous? You get it from our side you know.”
“Do you have a baby in your stomach?” Adene interrupted the greeting with a quizzical look on her face.
“I do.” Kate beamed at the youngest MacDonald.
“Just one?” Adene touched her aunt’s belly and was swiftly cuffed on the ear by Erin.
“Adene!” Erin scolded.
“How did it get there?” Adene looked up at the gathered women with a furrowed brow as all three began to laugh. “Whats so funny?”
Aoife touched her sister's shoulder. “Come one. Let's go practice the song for the chiefs.”
A mighty bellow rang out as Aoife steered Adene to the main meeting place as the Fraser clan whooped and hollered into the camp. Ross Fraser was the least experience chief in the mountain valley as his father Duncan had passed away the previous year. He had a large family in tow and enjoyed the territory closest to the Ash Sea, his zeal for sport was matched only by his fervent love of mead. He sat on a wagon that pulled two enormous casks of the sticky sweet drink.
“Caelen! Magdela! Sorry to keep you waiting. Had a hell of a time wrangling the little ones.” As the wagon slowed, five boys exploded from the back and took off running in all directions to a raucous roar of laughter from their father. “Lachlan! Round up your brothers.”
From the seat next to his father, Lachlan Fraser jumped down from the wagon. He was a lad of eighteen years with soft blonde hair and green eyes, and he was also dressed in black and gold. Aoife gave the boy a sympathetic smile as he went off in search of his siblings.
As the evening moved on and the clans became settled, the chiefs took their place at the raised table in the center of the camp. The young children assembled in the circle and sang out the song of the mountain. Adene did her best to please her mother by singing as boldly and loudly as possible, even though she was a full note ahead of the group. The eligible young people served food to the parents and elders while sizing each other up and making polite conversation. It was Lachlan that invited Aoife to sit with him around the fire for the chief’s speech. Slowly, the murmurings and conversation died down as Caelen stood to address the gathered clans.
“We all know the story of how the Dragonclaw Mountains came to be. Of the demon dragon Lathraxion and the terror he wove into legend.” Caelan looked out over the three great families and down to his daughter as she sat in the front next to Lachlan. His mind flitted back to her as a small child, to a time he told her this same story as he watched her drift off into sleep. “And of the three great heroes that came together to rid our lands of the curse. Titim, the mighty warrior from the northern shores with his sword and shield. Marius, the wise seer from the island kingdoms in the south with his magic. And Ferna,” the mention of her name raised voices and cups in cheer. “Yes, for we in the valley know it was Ferna’s bow and keen eye that dealt the final blow to the dragon and sent him plummeting to the earth that carved our home. Ferna, who watches over us and gives us all we need from the land. Ferna, who we celebrate tonight as three great families that continue the traditions of the hunt in her honor. Ferna…”
A monstrous roar rang out in the night above the gathered clans. A roar like nothing Aoife had ever heard before. A heavy gust of wind pushed down from the sky and threatened to extinguish the fires that illuminated the camp. Children cried out and the men and women reached for weapons, but Caelen raised a hand to silence everyone. He looked out over the mountains and saw the thick line of advancing firelight push up over the mountainside. The shadow of banners cut in the light, and below them came the shape of men. Caelen looked down at the gathered young people, to his own family and gathered friends. The chief knew an advancing battalion when he saw one.
“To arms!” Caelen commanded as he indicated the approaching troops.
As the chief pulled his sword free, another push of wind slammed into the clans followed by a storm of fire and smoke at the edge of the camp. That monstrous roar filled the sky again and the MacDonald chief jumped from the raised platform as chaos ensued. The warriors grabbed spears and shields and ran for the northern end of the camp to meet the enemy as they marched slowly towards the assembled clans. Caelen lost sight of Aoife in the panic but found Erin with Adene as the young girl clung tight to her mother.
Caelen held his wife and kissed her cheek, “get the children somewhere safe.” Screams rang out in the camp as a flurry of canvas tents flew up into the air, crashing against wagons and igniting them.
In the chaos, Aoife ducked into the family tent and grabbed her bow and quiver. She didn’t see what was attacking the clan or know why, but she would help defend her home, just like Ferna would have done. As she peeled out of the tent she saw more fires had caught on the tents and she heard screams all around her. Another terrifying roar shook her rib cage as an enormous black shadow passed over her head. A long snakelike tail whipped the top of their tent and Aoife was pulled out of the way of the crashing structure by Lachlan. Aoife looked up into the boys bright green eyes. In the fiery destruction, they shared one quiet moment as everything that could have been was burnt away.
“I have to find my brothers.” He offered a weak smile, squeezed her hand, and was gone.
“Aoife!” Erin called from horseback as she pulled a panicked stallion to an abrupt stop. She dismounted quickly and grabbed her daughter's shoulders. “You need to go. Ride south up the great forest and over the mountain.” Erin disappeared into the tent and returned with a satchel and her own bow and quiver.
“Mother. I can fight!” The teen cried in protest.
“I know!” Erin shouted. “I know, but she can’t.”
Aoife looked up at Adene on the horse, she was crying and holding onto the stallion’s mane with white knuckles. Behind them, a wagon tore free as the cask of mead was on fire and threatened to burst, the commotion spooked the other horses and they ran in all directions. Magdela’s grey mare was plucked from the ground and carried off into the sky as it fled. The roar filled the night again. Aoife looked up and then back at her mother. They embraced. Erin held her daughter tight, drinking in every precious second.
“Ride hard and don’t look back.” Erin lifted Aoife’s foot onto the horse and tied the satchel onto the skittish stallion. “Go.”
“Mama, I’m scared.”Adene whimpered with tears spilling down her cheeks.
“Be brave and listen to your sister. I love you both. With all of my heart.”
Aoife felt the sting of her own tears. Behind her, she could hear the clang of steel on steel.
“I’ll keep her safe.”
“Go.” Erin stepped back as Aoife kicked Mera into a run. Watching her only children ride to the forest she didn’t see the armor-clad figure in black draw his sword behind her.
The stallion galloped through the burning camp with heavy hooves. Aoife held the reins tight and kept her body hunched over Adene’s. Her hips rocked fast in the saddle with every leap and jerk of the horse. Smoke made the air thick and grey, but she looked forward and saw an open maw of sword-length teeth. The horse reared and faltered just in time for Aoife to see the fire-spewing monstrosity. Black wings pushed an enormous body into the night sky, blocking out the moonlight for mere seconds before plunging back to the camp to incinerate the remains of the camp. Aoife pulled the reins and kicked the stallion on towards the forest.
There weren't always dragons in the Valley, but there had always been blood.