There weren't always dragons in the Valley. But, like everyone else, Hale didn’t remember a time when there were none.
She was thinking about dragons as she stepped carefully over the trickle of icy water that in spring would become a fast-flowing stream. Instinctively, she glanced up. Raindrop icicles clung desperately to the leafy canopy determined not to let go, much like this year’s winter. Oppressive grey clouds skimmed the tops of the trees, visible where some of the dry yellowing leaves had given up and released their grip.
She sighed, grateful there was still enough camouflage that she wouldn’t be seen by anything overhead. Dragons might be lucky, but you still didn’t want one to see you.
Dragons had been a part of Dracon Valley for almost a millennium. Books and songs told of times before, but memories and lives were short. As far as anyone alive remembered, there were always dragons here.
The crack of a twig brought Hale instantly out of her reverie. She stopped and quietly pulled an arrow from the leather quiver hanging at her side. Crouching down, she nocked the arrow and drew the bowstring taut as she squinted into the trees, trying to spot the deer she had been tracking.
The brown spotted doe stepped elegantly out from behind a sprawling old oak a little way ahead. With her head high and her eyes wide, the doe sniffed the air. Her flanks quivered, ready to run at the slightest hint of danger.
Hale loosed just as a flurry of wings and noise exploded from the trees behind her. The doe leapt high into the air and shot back into the forest. The arrow nicked the doe’s hind leg as it passed before thunking into the oak tree.
Hale swore under her breath as she trudged up the slope and yanked the arrow out of the trunk. She glared back at her little brother as he blundered through the water holding his small bow high over his head.
“I’m sorry,” Reed panted, running awkwardly towards her. “I didn’t mean to make so much noise.”
He’d almost reached her when the small quiver that Da had made for him twisted itself between his legs. He tripped and slid the last few yards on his front on the wet ground, ending up sprawled at her feet. He turned his head and looked up at her.
The sides of Hale’s mouth twitched and she tried to stay mad but she couldn’t. Her anger dissipated and her body relaxed as she laughed out loud at his comical expression. Reed rolled onto his back, stuck his tongue out at her, and they laughed together.
“You’ll never catch anything if you can’t be quiet,” she said, helping him to his feet. She brushed his chest to dislodge some of the leaves but only succeeded in smearing mud down his shirt. He's so clumsy, she thought. He’ll never make it as a hunter or a soldier. He’s lucky he’s smart.
“I know,” he sighed, looking at his feet. “I was being so careful too.”
She helped him pick up his spilled arrows and pointed in the direction the deer had bolted.
“You track it,” she said. “I won’t always be here to do it for you.”
She waited while he looked for signs of the deer. He pointed at a splash of blood on the leaf of a bush and turned to her with his eyebrows raised. She nodded and followed a few paces behind him into the forest.
Her thoughts returned to dragons.
Dragons brought prestige. There were only a few places in the world with dragons and Dracon Valley was the only one in the Esparian Realm. It was even tradition for Esparian kings and queens and their royal retinues to undertake the month-long trek to the Valley every couple of years just to catch a glimpse of the magnificent beasts.
But living near dragons also had its drawbacks. Farmers had to accept livestock losses and people went missing from time to time. The Temple said special prayers for the ‘chosen’ and a family who lost someone to a dragon gained special privileges and a higher status in the community. Hale wondered, not for the first time, if that was worth the loss of a loved one like some people thought. You’d have to be pretty desperate, she thought. Maybe I just don’t know what it’s like to have so little that losing someone could be a blessing.
Her thoughts turned to the Temple. The Temple of Draco had begun in Dracon Valley not long after the dragons arrived. From just a handful of members, they’d grown into the largest and most influential organisation in Esparia. The king consulted the Grand Mages all the time and they held several seats on the King’s Council. Temple members and devotees occupied important positions and controlled the realm’s finances, defence, and laws.
Hale clicked her tongue in irritation as she thought of Vern and what he'd said last night. She loved her older brother, but she hated him too. She pushed her fringe out of her eyes and tucked a short piece of brown hair behind her ear. She longed for the old days. The days when she and Vern had hunted together, often staying out overnight. They’d shared their hopes and dreams beside the crackling fire as they looked up at the stars and discussed dragons, beliefs, the world, and how it all worked.
But that all changed last spring when Vern had been accepted into the Temple as an acolyte. He’d always been ambitious but now he was a completely different person from the brother she’d known. Now he was so serious. He hardly ever smiled anymore. Solemn and formal in his movements and his speech, he no longer questioned anything the Temple said.
They didn’t see him much anymore and Ma had been so excited when he’d said he’d come around for dinner. Hale had caught some thin, scraggly pheasants that Ma had managed to turn into a delicious meal, even though it used up most of their remaining small stock of vegetables. It had been a long, hard winter and without Hale’s hunting, they would have been queuing at the Temple doors for food like so many others this year.
She played over in her mind what Vern had said last night. He’d been telling Da how the Grand Mages were worried that there seemed to be fewer dragons than there used to be, and no one knew why.
“You’re right,” Hale had said, trying to be part of the conversation. She was standing next to Vern with two large mugs of coffee while Ma fussed over the apple pie. “We used to see dragons all the time, remember? Family groups, up to ten or so at a time. But now that you mention it, I’ve hardly seen a single one over the last few months. And I haven’t heard of any sheep or cattle losses for ages.”
Vern had turned to her and frowned. He’d looked her up and down in the same way that Da looked at sheep at the market. Hale had felt uncomfortable and plonked the mugs down on the table a bit too hard, spilling the dark liquid from Vern’s cup.
“Why are you still going out there?” he’d said. Although he was sitting and she was standing, it felt like he was looking down his nose at her. “At your age, you should be married with a couple of children at your feet. You should be looking after a husband, not still living here at home.”
“You wouldn’t have eaten so well tonight if I didn’t still hunt,” she’d spat back, bristling at his words and his tone.
“You can’t spend your life hunting and playing at being a soldier. You know the Guard won’t take women no matter what you want,” Vern had said. “It’s time you grew up and faced reality.”
“Just because something’s always been one way, doesn’t mean it should be that way forever,” she’d replied, jabbing a finger towards his face. “You used to say that to me, remember? You said one person could change the world. Can’t you think for yourself anymore? I pity you.”
Vern spoke over her. “And stop cutting your hair. It’s unnatural for a woman to have hair that short. And you’re still wearing my hand-me-downs. Put on a dress. You’re not a man no matter how much you want to be. Be what Draco put you here to be: a proper woman. No wonder no one’s come to Da with a marriage proposal.”
Hale’s throat had closed as tears threatened to spill from her eyes. She’d wanted to tell him to mind his own business, but Da was nodding at Vern’s words. She felt Ma’s warm hand on her forearm, a silent plea to stop before she said something she’d regret, so she’d held her tongue and stalked out of the room instead. As soon as she was out of their view, she’d leaned back against the wall and angrily wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
It’s not fair. Why can’t I fight? I’m a better hunter, and a better fighter, than any man in the Valley. I’m not here to be ordered about by a man and carry his children like a breeder. One person CAN change the world, Vern, and that person’s going to be me, whether you believe it or not.
Loud crashing and thrashing sounds snapped her back to the present. She blinked and looked around as her heart started pounding. She thought she’d been just behind Reed, but he was nowhere in sight. She started to run.
“REED!” she called as she ducked under tree limbs and slipped on the wet ground. Thorny bushes grabbed her as she pushed past, snagging and ripping her shirt sleeves. She didn't feel the thin red scratches that slowly welled with blood on the backs of her hands.
She burst through a wall of trees and skidded to a halt. Her heart hammered and her head spun. Her hand gripped her bow tighter as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing.
Reed stood with his back to her in the middle of a clearing near the broken body of the deer. The deer’s neck was bent at an unnatural angle and blood pooled beneath its head. Reed’s arms hung loosely at his sides and his bow lay broken on the ground at his feet.
A massive black dragon lumbered around the clearing in front of him, shaking its head, smoke pouring from its nostrils. Whole trees were smashed and strewn around the edges of the clearing and the deep reptilian footprints in the mud showed just how close the dragon had come to Reed in its destructive rage.
Hale looked around as she tried to work out what to do. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself, but she had to do something. Reed would not become one of the chosen today. Not while she still breathed.
She scanned the ground and stepped forward trying not to make a sound.
“Reed, don’t move,” she said in a low voice, holding out her arm even though he couldn’t see her. She hoped he could hear her over the noise. “Don’t move a muscle. Don’t even move your head to look at me.”
The dragon was also facing away from Hale, but it suddenly stopped and cocked its head. Breathing heavily, it spun around. A watery substance oozed from the dragon’s rapidly blinking eyes, and it squinted as its gaze came to rest on Reed. Hale saw Reed’s body tense, ready to run, as his survival instinct kicked in.
“Reed,” she said, slightly louder, taking another step forward. “I’m going to distract it. When it heads for me, run. Run as fast as you can. Run home. Don’t wait for me.”
Reed’s shoulders hitched with a sob and he glanced over his shoulder at her. The movement caught the dragon’s eye and it crouched low, sweeping its tail left and right like an annoyed barn cat.
“HEY!” yelled Hale, moving around the clearing and waving her arms in the air. The dragon switched its attention to her and she yelled to Reed. “RUN! NOW! GO!”
Reed hesitated, then bolted for the trees as the dragon sprang at Hale. She dropped her bow and rolled under its large talons, coming back to her feet and waving her arms to keep its attention on her.
She had to think fast. She couldn’t touch the dragon, even to defend herself. Just touching a dragon was taboo. Touching a dragon caused madness and was punishable by death. She’d seen tough men turn into babbling fools from simply touching a dragon carcass. They raved about darkness and violence as the King’s Guard marched them through town, on the way to the gallows in a public display designed to remind everyone of the law. Hurting or killing a dragon meant your death would be long and drawn out. All she could do was keep away from the dragon, try to lose it, and hope it eventually lost interest in her.
The dragon snaked its serpentine neck and flexed its wings, which was when Hale noticed the damage. The translucent membrane of one wing was torn and ragged around the edges. No wonder you’re angry, she thought. You’re hurt.
She turned and ran, heading in the opposite direction to Reed. The dragon barged through the trees after her, faster than something that size should be able to move. It roared and she felt the heat from its breath on her back. Trees crackled and burst into flames despite the dampness from the recent rain and she could hear the destruction behind her as the dragon smashed through trees and bushes like they were nothing.
She zigzagged as she ran blindly, no longer sure of where she was or which direction was which. She burst out of the forest and her brain took a second to register the empty air a few feet ahead. She tried to make an abrupt u-turn but her feet slipped on the wet ground and she fell onto her stomach. Digging the toes of her boots into the ground, she frantically scrabbled at grass and rocks, anything she could reach, in an effort to slow herself down and stop sliding. Her toes suddenly had nothing to grip as they slid out into nothingness.
The dragon barrelled out of the forest snapping trees like they were twigs. A broken trunk barely missed her head as it bounced past. The dragon saw the edge too late. It tried to stop but its bulk and momentum carried it relentlessly forward. Its scaly black chest rammed into Hale, sending them both over the edge of the cliff.
Hale was falling.
She pinwheeled her arms and saw the black dragon just below and the ground coming up to meet them both too fast. The dragon extended its wings and flapped. It wobbled and tipped to one side as the air pushed through the broken wing membrane. The force of the good wing slowed its descent enough for her to hit the dragon’s side. She grabbed onto a bony protuberance and held on.
Am I dead?
Hale stood in complete darkness, blacker than the forest at midnight when the moon was hidden by clouds. She held a hand in front of her face but couldn’t see it. There was no light to reflect off anything.
She blinked rapidly as she turned a full circle with her arms stretched out wide trying to feel what was around her. She couldn’t see a thing in any direction. Her arms felt like they were moving through water, but she was breathing so she reasoned that she couldn’t be underwater. She stomped her foot, wondering what she was standing on, but the sound was so quickly swallowed up by the oppressive dark she couldn’t tell what it was made of.
Kneeling, she felt around with her hands. The floor was cold and hard and slippery. It felt like the marble tiles in the cathedral she and her brothers used to slide around on, pretending they were skating on ice, at the weekly Temple services.
Standing up again, she put her hands over her face and pressed her fingertips into her eyes, as she tried to think what to do. She ran her hands through her hair and opened her eyes again.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there but suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something sparkle and then disappear. Then she saw it again, and again. In the dark, she couldn’t tell how far away it was. She took a tentative step towards it, then another, and another, until she was running. She felt resistance—it was like wading through deep water—and she was gasping for air by the time she stopped.
The sparkle came from a window. It looked like any ordinary window, except for the fact that it hung in mid-air and didn’t seem to be held up by anything. She put her face close to the glass and saw a black fog writhing and twisting angrily on the other side. Pinpoints of light, like the stars she and Vern used to look at when they camped, struggled to force their way through the fog. But every time they managed to get through, the mist boiled violently and blotted them out again.
Hale walked around the window but there was nothing but blackness. It can’t be a mirror, she thought, looking over her shoulder before looking at the window again. I’d be able to see the light if it was behind me.
She put her palm on the window and it was icy cold, like a pane of glass on a wintery morning. She leaned forward to rest her forehead on the cold glass. As soon as her head touched the window, she felt a shock zap through her brain and the black fog became aware of her. It snapped out a cloudy black tendril and furiously pushed at the pane, trying to get to her. She tried to jerk her head back, but she couldn’t move.
The light took advantage of the distraction. The pinpoints dilated and grew, becoming blinding cones of energy that pushed the foggy tendrils to the ground and held them there. As the fog undulated in anger, trying to dislodge the light, Hale saw a mountain behind it. From a high peak covered in white clouds, it sloped down through a green leafy forest to a deep valley floor.
Hale felt like she was toppling forward. The window vanished and she found herself looking out of her own eyes, flying over Dracon Valley. In awe, she soared over forests, swooped through dales, over waterways, and shot up and over cliff tops. She glided over farmland, marvelling at the tiny dots that were sheep and cows and horses in the fields.
She headed towards the town, eager to see it from this perspective, but as she approached the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she wrinkled her nose. She smelled smoke, but not the normal smoke from chimneys or cooking fires. This was the acrid smoke of houses burning. As she approached, she saw the tallest library tower of the Temple of Draco topple and fall, crushing the buildings beside it.
She flew low over the town. Buildings everywhere—inns, shops, storehouses, homes—were burning or had already collapsed into steaming piles of rubble. She frowned as she realised there was no one trying to extinguish the flames.
There was so much smoke now that Hale almost didn’t see the bodies in the square. As she flew lower, she realised it wasn’t just smoke. The same black fog she’d seen through the window curled and contorted around the prone bodies of people lying where they normally lined up to receive food and blessings from the Temple. The fog moved over them like a predator sniffing its prey.
With her heart in her throat, she soared high again and headed to the farmhouse that she’d told Reed to run home to. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the house and barn still standing. She landed in the backyard and ran to the door. It was hanging open and she felt a prickle under her arms as she started to sweat in fear.
“Ma, Da, Reed,” she called as she pushed roughly through the doorway.
Her hand involuntarily covered her mouth when she saw the same black fog twining itself happily around Ma’s body. Ma was slumped over the table. It looked like she’d fallen asleep shelling peas. Hale reached out and tried to touch Ma’s cheek but her hand passed right through as if she were a ghost. Ma’s chest rose slightly but rhythmically, so Hale knew she was still alive. Asleep, but alive.
Reed was upstairs on his bedroom floor, and she found Da in the barn, on his back on the straw in a horse stall. Both were asleep and shrouded by the black fog.
Hale ran to the neighbours, and the next, discovering the same thing everywhere: sleeping people blissfully unaware of the ugly black fog caressing their bodies like a lover.
This isn’t real, she thought as she stood in the roadway near her house feeling useless. She dashed the tears from her cheeks and rubbed her eyes. This is a dream. This is the madness that comes from touching a dragon.
But deep down, she knew it was no dream, no hallucination. I don’t feel crazy, but what else can it be?
She looked around. Something else felt wrong, something apart from the sleeping people and the black fog.
It took her a few minutes to put her finger on it. She walked over to the nearby field and stared at the grass. This was not how it was when she and Reed had left home this morning. The snows and frosts of the long, harsh winter had killed most of the grass, leaving it so short it wasn’t enough to sustain Da’s sheep. He’d had to sell all but a few breeders he hoped to use to rebuild his flock once spring came.
This grass was long and heavy with seed. She walked down to the river at the bottom of the field, passing some fat grazing sheep on the way. The river was not high but the flattened grass along the edges showed where it had flooded not so long ago.
This wasn’t winter she was looking at. It was spring. A couple of months from now, maybe years. But it didn’t feel like years. Reed hadn’t looked any older than he had this morning when they were hunting together.
She felt an urgency to leave. Dracon Valley wasn’t safe anymore. She could feel it deep in her bones, like an ancient part of her brain had ticked back to life and was warning her to go, get out while there was still time.
She now knew without a doubt why there were fewer dragons. They were leaving because they knew something was coming. Something bad.
This is the future. Dragons know what’s coming. This is what touching a dragon does. It opens a window to the future.
“I have to get home and warn them,” she yelled into the air, not sure who she was yelling at. “LET ME GO, RIGHT NOW!”
“Oooph,” Hale groaned, winded as she bounced off the dragon.
She screamed as she landed awkwardly with her arm under her body. The crunch of a bone in her forearm made her stomach churn and she almost passed out.
Gritting her teeth, she sat up and looked at the dragon. It lay a few feet away, next to a small stream. The only movement was the rapid in and out of its chest as it breathed heavily. It wasn’t interested in her anymore.
She tore the sleeve off her shirt, fashioned it into a sling, and carefully put her broken arm into it. Then she stood up and ran.