Called and Bound
There weren't always dragons in the Valley.
Better put, there always weren't, there never had been, and, according to anyone selling land, there never would be.
The massive creatures spend their days lounging about the mountains, above the snowline, where the air is thin and the magic thick. Where the laws of nature don't weigh so heavily on their sprawling flight, and there's a better market for barren caves in which to hide stolen hoards and the occasional kidnapped shepherd girl.
When the dragons do come down from the peaks, they terrorize the plains, rather than the Valley. The expansive flatlands are no stranger to supernatural burns and pools of boiling stone. The jeweled beasts would glide above, tangling their wings in clouds, admiring the many scars they had left across the face of the earth, once laced with roads and cities of empires. The ruined plains are where the dragons feed and search for treasure. But they always return to the mountain, to the cool air, to their caves, and to their magic.
There is an appeal to living in lands that breathe magic. So, the plains are not completely abandoned. There are the bold, the greedy, the foolish. And of course, there are those who wish to defeat the dragons and reclaim the land. Success would make any man wealthy beyond reckoning. Failure meant baptism in flames. There are those who claim to be the land's true defenders. And there are others whom the land has claimed to defend it, those who can't seem to escape the call, even in their sleep. In their dreams.
But safety is often preferred over the power. Long ago, the plains had emptied. The rich and the poor, the kings and farmers, all had migrated to the Valley. There, in the farmlands rimmed by pale cliffs, life could be normal. Not easy, but not tormented. Magic was for places closer to the Sun, closer to the dragons.
While dragonless, the Valley was large enough to contain plenty of animals, wild and domesticated. And by far the fiercest, were the chickens, the meanest chickens ever to roam the earth. And fighting these chickens was no easy task. Besides, aspiring adventurers in need of practice must make the most of what's available.
One farm, on the outskirts of the Valley within sight of the smoking mountain peaks, held one chicken in particular, the foulest of the fowls. She was pale gray with dark speckles and had the softest feathers in the coop. Her plump and fluffy figure was typically balanced atop her two scaly legs and her visage was reminiscent of royalty. But at the moment, her slimy feet whirled and her bulbous body bounced unevenly as she ran like the Devil was on her heels.
Maybe it wasn't Satan himself, but there certainly was a devil giving chase.
A young teenage boy, whose girth hadn't yet caught up to his height, followed the chicken with uncoordinated strides. He was dressed in rough canvas and wore a woven bracelet with a charm, bouncing against his wrist. It looked like a thin shard of rock, but it gleamed purples and blues in the sunlight. His bare feet kicked up dirt in the freshly plowed field and he swung a branch like a sword.
"Why!" he gasped, wiping his auburn mop with the back of his hand as he ran. "Is! She! So! Fast!?"
The chicken was unflustered, focused even. Narrowing her beady eyes, she bolted for a beech tree. It stood on the edge of the field, near the chicken coop. The boy behind her whooped, speeding up.
"Aias!" he hollered.
Aias was standing behind the tree. He was one year older than his brother, with broader shoulders and darker hair. He was shirtless and barefoot. Unlike his brother, his tall figure was already striped with lean muscles. A rough birthmark, pale like a burn scar, stood out on the left side of his neck. In his hand, he gripped a whip-like stick.
He jumped out from his hiding place. "Ha!" he yelled. His eyes widened. "Wait! Jax!"
The chicken reversed directions at full speed, and then froze to watch her artwork.
Ajax, accelerating blindly, smashed his face against Aias's chest and sent them both tumbling backwards in a pinwheel of arms and legs into a heap.
Aias grunted and shoved his scrawny brother off. Sitting up, he glanced at the chicken. Preening her self briefly, she walked away with her beak in the air. Groaning, Aias fell back onto the dirt.
It hadn't been a very good plan. Aias saw that now. Head on was his go to tactic, which accounted for his reputation in his end of the Valley. Still, he won more fights than he lost so he figured what worked, worked.
But it never worked against Sibyl.
Looking towards the triumphant chicken, he grumbled.
"I swear, she's as smart as a person."
"She's evil," Ajax moaned.
"Ajax, do you have any reflexes?" Aias rocked up onto his feet and slapped dust clouds off his legs. "How did a chicken trick you?"
"It was your fault too!" Ajax folded his arms over his face, shading his eyes. "More importantly, why are you so fat? You broke my bones."
"Your bones?" Aias leaned over his brother. "Any bones in particular."
Ajax poked at his ribs. "All the best ones."
"Still your fault." Aias said, "Next time, follow the chicken."
"I can't change directions that fast!" Ajax whined. He shook his ragged hair over his eyes. "I'm too tall."
"Too tall?" Aias bent his legs and exploded to his right. He hot back to his left and then right and left again. Stopping, he stared down at his brother.
"Fine." Ajax sat up. "You're amazing."
"I know." Aias grinned. "But that's not the point. The point is that you run like a three-legged calf."
"That, I will not admit." Ajax stood unsteadily. "I clearly have two legs. Maybe you're faster and stronger, but you're also dumber and fatter. And I can juggle. So there."
"Boooys!" a yell came from the house across the field. "Where are my eggs?!"
"Coming!" Aias yelled and ran to the chicken coop. It was a dingy little shack that looked even smaller than it was, dressed in the colors of rot against the expansive blue sky and distant chalky Rim. Chickens scattered and shot Aias venomous looks. He returned the glares. While wounds healed, hurt feelings remained.
A basket was against the wall, full of tan eggs. Picking it up, he saw Sibyl, the gray chicken, staring at him.
"We'll get you next time, wretched hen," he said, turning away.
Aias spun round. The voice had come from behind him. But no one was anywhere in sight. Sibyl stared at him. Again, he turned.
The voice was shrill and tightened the skin between Aias's shoulders. He whipped around, but there was still no one to blame. He could see the end of the Valley, but he was still on unmagical ground. Nothing like this should be happening. Aias turned once more and jogged off with the basket over his arm before he could hear anything else.
When Aias was well away, the voice spoke again, alone by the coop.
"If they can't fight a chicken, how will they face what's coming?
No one answered.
Aias and Ajax moved quickly across a dirt yard towards a structure far more beautiful than its surroundings. The house was built from uncut stone with a thatch roof. The sun lit its face, accentuating the different colors in the stone, whites and roses, rusty irons and even sparkling dots of freeform gold. Amos Mattiessen had built it himself, deaf to all mockery of his extravagance, served up by the more pragmatic residents of the Valley. His sons had watched, even helped, as he hand carved every piece of furniture, marking each with whittled feathers. He had spun stories and laughed and said that to keep a woman, you had to keep them somewhere beautiful.
It was beautiful. And Cassandra Mattiessen had stayed, even if her husband had not.
Now she stood in the doorway. A woven basket, heaped with laundry, sat on her hip. Her dark hair was escaping the braid meant to restrain it, dancing freely in the sunlight around her bronze face. Golden eyes were nested in premature creases. But despite the lines that sorrow had carved, Cassandra's smile was quick and contagious.
The smile was waiting for her sons as they came to a dusty stop.
"Boys," she said, obviously trying to dismiss the smile. But it lingered, twitching. "Were you torturing my birds? Again?"
"I don't know about torturing," Aias shrugged," that's a very strong word, torturing."
"They're evil." Ajax nodded. "They torture us."
Cassandra shook her head. "I won't say I understand your feud—”
"See this scar? See it?" Ajax pointed at a jagged pale streak on his forearm. "They have claws, woman!"
"You were trying to dump the cock in the creek," Cassandra said.
"How about when all twelve of them crapped on the doorstep?" Aias reminded her.
"So that was weird..."
"Sibyl put worms in my bed!" Aias added. Cassandra's smile disappeared for real.
"Tell my you haven't been hurting Sibyl."
Both boys shuffled their feet. Cassandra dropped the basket and stomped down in front of them. She grabbed both their chins and glowered up at Ajax, then at Aias.
"I explicitly told you to leave Sibyl alone."
Aias shrugged her off.
"What is with you and that hen?" he asked.
"Leave her alone." Cassandra's voice left no room for discussion. Rubbing her temple, she sighed. "I'm going to check on the birds."
"We literally just did," said Aias, but he didn't expect to make a difference. She often went to the coop after chores.
"You nearly frightened them to death, that's hardly 'checking' on them." Cassandra gestured to the laundry. "Just take that inside. I'll be back soon."
"You always do this... why do you enjoy the company of poultry over your own sons?" Ajax asked, wiping away an imaginary tear.
"Bring in the laundry." Cassandra tapped his nose, and looked at Aias. "And the eggs."
Ajax was somewhere. Cassandra was somewhere else. Aias didn't really know. He was outside, knee deep in the brook, watching rock fish dark away from his hands. He would watch, still for a moment, and then thrust his hand under the cold water after a smooth dark shape. Every once in a while, he would catch one. Then he'd poke it and feel its slimy underbelly, then let it go. And try again.
Why? Because they were there. Because they were slimy. Because they were very ordinary and still very weird.
If he were forced to come up with further reason, it was that they were a distraction. After a week of plowing, his mother had given him the day off. Ajax was off somewhere with people. Ajax had friends. Made them quite easily. In contrast, Aias felt uncomfortable in the village. The reigning gang of youths had beef with him, fueled by many past offenses taken by all parties. Aside from them, the adults would plague Aias with questions about his family's strange success on the edge of the Valley. 'How did you survive the floods? The drought? The fires? Why do your chickens live so long?'
"I don't know," Aias said aloud. He missed another fish as it squirted between his splayed fingers. “If it were up to me, we wouldn’t even have chickens, let alone long-living ones.”
Aias kicked at the water and sent a splash onto the bank. No one ever believed his answers anyway. And Ajax always just made up stuff. A slug lotion was the source of the chickens’ near eternal life. Dust from the Rim mixed with starlight protected the house from fire. A magical alvish man had gifted them with the cure for hunger. Spinning in three circles and drinking fermented milk spared them from floods.
From Ajax, those answers were funny. From Aias, every kind of answer made people think he was picking a fight.
So no work, no village, no Ajax. Ergo, rock fish.
Aias needed a distraction, to keep from being alone with his mind. With his dreams.
Ajax thought being dragon slayers together would be a grand adventure. But mostly, he thought it was grand to imagine it. He loved to talk about how it would be amazing if the brothers left the Valley and found glory and treasure and possibly, their father. But at no point did Ajax think seriously about attempting something that insane. Aias had a different mind set. It would be an adventure. It would be a story. Maybe he would find their father. Maybe he wouldn’t. But he felt like he didn’t have a choice.
For Aias, it was inevitable. He was a stone, falling toward water. Someday, there would be a splash.
Every time Aias closed his eyes and relaxed his mind, he saw dragons. Every night, he dreamt his death in flames. But he wasn’t himself, he was the land. In his dreams, his body sprawled across the world, holding all the warmth of life, with the sky across his face. Every night, the dragons came, and he burned.
In the morning, he would wake in a cold sweat, skin still tingling from the fire he had felt moments before, slapping at himself where he had just felt boiling pools of stone. Even without the adventure, without the treasure and glory, even before his father had disappeared, Aias had known that he would face dragons.
Without thinking, Aias had been rubbing his birth mark. He stopped and stared at the water. Fish nibbled at his shins. He would go find Ajax.
Sighing, Aias shuffled to the bank, icy water slapping against his skin and rolled-up trousers. Setting his hands on the grass, he heaved his waterlogged self out of the creek. As he started to leave, the rhythm of the stream changed. No longer the lapping of the lazy water, it had become a rougher sound. Aias turned back and squatted on the bank.
The water was boiling. Bursting and bubbling, frothy with steam rising up over the surface. The color had changed too. He couldn’t see the bottom. It was a murky green.
“A hot spring?” Aias wondered. Had some fissure in the bedrock opened up? What else could it be?
So naturally, he touched it.
As the tip of his finger met the surface, his blood stopped moving. The water was freezing cold. Jerking his hand back, Aias looked at his index finger. The tip of it was white. He bit it and felt his tongue cling to the nail for a moment like it was metal in a frost. It was cold. Really, really cold.
Aias squeezed his finger with his other hand and sighed with relief as a sharp pain replaced the numbness. Feeling was returning. For a moment, he’d wondered if he’d just lost the tip of his finger.
He should have used a stick first. That’s what Ajax would do. What his dad would’ve done. Well, he’d use a stick now.
Aias searched the bank for a stick. A thin twig was tangled under some reeds. Gripping it tight, he leaned over the creek and lowered part of the stick under the bubbling surface.
Watching curiously, Aias wondered when to pull the twig back. Would it be frozen? Since when did water boil cold? His finger still hurt. He started to pull the stick back out, when it was tugged sharply. Yelping, he let go of the stick and flailed his arms, trying to regain his balance. He caught himself right on the edge, torso hanging over the boiling brook.
A noise came up from beneath him, like laughter. The water directly under his face bubbled up above the rest and spread into a face. The face of a young girl, with wide eyes made of foam. She stuck out a seething green tongue.
Then the water fell back. Once again, it was clear, flowing lazily along the banks. Aias’s eyes were wide. He touched the water. Normal. Cold. But normal cold.
Small fish bobbed belly up to the surface. Water splashing around him, Aias dropping into the creek and grabbed one. It was frozen solid.
“What,” Aias asked the dead fish, “was that?”
Ajax didn’t care what his brother was doing. He didn’t feel bad excluding Aias. Aias hated being in town. A fighter by nature, he made enemies as easily as breathing. Ajax had decided, knowing that he would lose most fights, to be likeable. So far, it seemed to be working. It came pretty naturally.
About a month back, someone had jumped him in the street and four older boys had chased the thief down and thumped him. A fortnight ago, the captain at the Keep had hired Ajax as a server for a posh banquet the lord was throwing. All the other boys had tried for it since the pay was amazing, but they had all been turned away as untrustworthy. And in a week, there would be a dance. Aias wasn’t going, of course. But Ajax had been asked for reels by half a dozen girls already.
In Ajax, recklessness was called playfulness, impudence was humor. Sometimes, it paid to be friendly.
Today, the goal was, as it often was, money. Ajax had brought a cap and his bag of juggling balls. Under his coat, his belt was lined with knives. Striding down the dusty street, Ajax made sure to call out hellos to everyone he passed. The blacksmith waved. A turnip farmer saluted. The baker’s boy hollered.
“Oi, Jax!” he jostled over, clutching his tray. “Making deliveries. The master made one for you. something about saving the mistress’s cat.”
The boy, much shorter than Ajax, but with the weight of many a moon bun added on, held out a frosted biscuit. Ajax took it and bowed.
“Many thanks to the master of all bakers, but you’re the real hero, Cal, bringing this all the way to me personally.”
“At your service.” Cal grinned. “You ask anyone to the dance yet?”
“Nah, but that hasn’t stopped the girls from asking me.” Ajax answered.
“Ah, man. I wish I were in your shoes.” Cal sighed.
Both of them glanced down at Ajax’s bare feet. He looked up.
“That’s my secret, actually. No shoes. Callouses and split heels drive the girls crazy.”
“Of course,” Cal said, “I gotta run, but where are you off to?”
Cal shifted his feet. “Thought you said that wasn’t paying as well recently.”
“Got some new tricks.” Ajax waggled his eyebrows. Cal shrugged.
“Well, good luck!” He scampered off with his tray. Ajax continued, hollering a greeting to a passing parson.
Nearer to the town square, the crowds grew. The shops were open and a number of booths had been set up to peddle products varying from mud pies to chemist’s scents. Smells mingled, competing for attention. Shouldering through the traffic, Ajax still made sure to acknowledge the more important persons.
“Hullo!” he yelled over the hubbub to Rory Reid, the pale, near translucent Skald.
“Good morning,” he bobbed his head to Malachi Hoffman, a thick, heavily robed Elder.
“How’s life?” he grinned at Eliot Levy, the ringleader of the local youth corps. The older boy nodded his head. He had a scar on his face, under his right eye, that he had said came from a battle with bandits at the foot of the Rim. Ajax thought that story had come out of the wrong end of a cow, but politely kept that to himself.
Ajax jogged up to the walls of the Keep. He set himself up a dozen or so feet from the gate and dropped the cap face up at his feet. Opening his bag, he fished out all six balls and started juggling.
A few passerby slowed to watch. But no one reached for their purse. Ajax held a grin, waiting until enough people were gathered. After he had about ten spectators, he decided it was time to be impressive. In one precarious moment, when all the balls were in the air, he flicked his hand to his belt and tossed up a knife into the mix.
All the women gasped and one man laughed, throwing a coin into the cap. Ajax watched the knife, and figured he could risk another. This time, when the knife hit his right hand, he grabbed one more with his left. A few spectators laughed nervously, but most clapped. And their numbers were growing. Coins clattered in the hat. Ajax gave a toothy smile to the crowd. And added another knife.
Six wooden balls and three kitchen knives traced ellipses through the air. He was no longer watching the crowd. Coins clinked, but he was all concentration. Could he add a fourth knife? He thought he could juggle another, but he wasn’t sure he could catch them.
But why not try?
Someone whistled, and the crowd cheered as Ajax added another knife.
He instantly regretted it. He almost missed one of the knives on the way down. He barely caught the tip and sent it back up. The balls and the one knife moved through easily. But the next blade nicked him and he winced as he kept juggling.
This was dumb. Should’ve stuck with three. There was no way Ajax could safely catch them all.
He was grazed again and lost the rhythm of the motion. Ajax could feel sweat on his forehead. He could taste it running into his mouth. Practicing this a lot more would’ve been smart, but he hadn’t wanted his mom to see. He thought he'd make more money doing something dangerous. Still, he should have chosen something less pointy. More friendly. Like flowers. He could be juggling some wholesome tulips.
But he had picked knives. If he got all cut up, so be it. Ajax closed his eyes. He knew where everything was. He just had to catch them.
He thrust out his hands. Balls were snatched out of the air with his right hand. Four between his fingers and two in his palm. His left hand went to where he knew the knives were. He caught four… things.
The whole market cheered and whooped. Ajax opened his eyes to laughing people throwing coins into his cap. Cal jostled up to him.
“Just… got here…” he gasped, “How did you do that?! You’re a magician! One second you had knives and then…” he glanced at Ajax’s left hand. Ajax’s eyes followed.
Clamped between his fingers, were four thick, vibrant green stalks. On the end of the stalks were four cup like flowers, tomato red, with flustered petals. Ajax stared at the tulips. Then he looked up at Cal’s wide eyes, trying to look less shocked. One stem had sliced his pinkie. Blood was dripping down the stalk.
“How?” Cal repeated. Ajax forced a smile. His stomach was cartwheeling with nausea and relief.
“Why would I reveal my secrets?” He almost choked on the words. If Cal didn’t leave soon, he’d see another neat trick all over his shoes.
‘I wish you would. That was an amazing trick.”
“Yeah, it was, wasn’t it…” Ajax stared back down at the four tulips.
On his wrist, dangling off of his bracelet, the stone charm shone, spattered with blood.
Cassandra ducked out of the chicken coop for the third time today. She just had to check again. Not that it would make a difference.
Sibyl followed her. The chicken’s red comb bobbed back and forth as she lifted her head to watch the lowering sun. Then she stared meaningfully at Cassandra.
Sighing, Cassandra stepped toward the house. She tugged at her braid and rubbed her cheek. Her boys should be back now. Looking up at her house, she sighed again. She hated goodbyes. But they happened regardless of how she felt.
“Tonight then,” she said.
As she entered the house, she brushed her fingers against the feather carvings on the door post, a reminder of another goodbye, years prior. Aias bounded up to her, birthmark standing out in the sunset light. He was already larger than his father had been, and still growing. But he was such a boy.
“Mom, you will not believe what happened today. There’s magic in the—” he stopped, “Why is that thing in here?”
Sibyl poked her head out from behind Cassandra’s skirt and glared. Aias hissed at her.
“Aias…” Cassandra began.
Ajax came gasping through the door behind her, sucking on a finger.
“Ran,” he panted, popping his pinkie out of his mouth, “from town. Money.” He smiled and shook his bag. distinct clinks indicated the presence of more than juggling balls. Cassandra normally would have demanded to know how he had gotten it. But instead, she turned to Aias.
“Magic in the what?” she asked. Ajax started and looked at his brother. Aias took a deep breath and explained what he had seen, the boiling and freezing stream heaving up into a face, skipping the part where he had almost killed his finger.
“And then this face made out of water, no joke, stuck out her tongue. She was pretty, even if she was green and water and frigid. I mean, it was a girl’s face. And she was pretty, with smooth features and a sharp nose. How strange is that? That has to be magic, right? But it can’t be. I swear to you, I didn’t leave the Valley.” He looked at his mother. Her golden eyes were glazed over, like she was looking through them to some other place. Some other time.
“Could have been an ashray,” she murmured, “but it was during the day. A fosse grim wouldn't make the water freeze. It was probably a Hesperides...”
“A what?” Ajax asked.
“An ashray? A fosse what?” These words didn’t mean anything to Aias. He needed more. His mother shrugged and her eyes focused again. She opened her mouth, but it was a moment before she said anything, and when she did, it sounded forced.
“They’re magical creatures. They don’t belong here. But things are changing.”
“Magic?” Ajax squeaked. “Real, actual, mage kings on the plains, magic?” He was thinking about the knives. About when he should say something.
“That’s impossible.” Aias shook his head, but for some reason, he already knew he was wrong. His skin tingled. “There’s no magic in the Valley.”
“There shouldn’t be.” Cassandra’s voice sounded bitter. “There never have been before.” She swallowed and stood up straighter. “Boys, you need to leave,” she said. “Tonight. Sibyl will lead you.”
“What?” Aias stared at the chicken. The chicken stared back.
“We’re leaving?” Ajax couldn’t keep the panic out of his voice. He had tulips to explain and dances to attend and money to make. “Mom? Just us? You’re sending us away and not coming?”
Aias didn’t wait for his brother to get answers. “Why the chicken?” he asked.
“Where are we going?” Ajax asked. “Further up the Valley? To other cities?”
“Why the chicken?” Aias asked again.
“Eggs, dummy,” Ajax answered. “But why are we leaving?”
“And where are we going?” Aias added. “And will you please come with us?”
“It’s a reasonable question,” the chicken said.
The boys froze. They looked at the chicken. The chicken looked at them. Then Sibyl snickered.
“Look at the little vermin. They’re almost cute when they’re stunned. Honestly, if you don’t come, Cassie, they’ll fry me in butter sooner than follow me.”
“She can talk?” Aias tried to fit this in his mind. “Cassie?”
“Told you she was evil!” Ajax pointed warily. “It’s dark magic.”
“Oh, I don’t just talk.” Sibyl preened herself and spat out a feather. “I see the future!”
The boys stared at her blankly. Then Aias laughed.
“It’s not a joke!” Sibyl jumped in place, flaring her wings.
“She’s our family’s secret.” Cassandra wasn’t laughing. Or even smiling. “Sibyl has seen every trial we have made it through long before it happened.” She hesitated. “Almost every trial.”
Sibyl squawked and shook out her feathers. “As hard as it is to believe looking at you, someday, your coming will make mountains shake. Serpents will writhe under your wrath and you will feel the heat of their bitterness. You will make powerful enemies. But your friends will be stronger still. And you should avoid any green drinks on Tuesdays.”
“Darn it, there goes my Tuesday diet,” Ajax moaned.
“No green drinks?” Aias asked. “Can I avoid them on all days?” Sibyl sniffed.
“Don’t mock my Sight! It’s because of my power that we know you must leave.”
“Why?” Aias asked.
“Magic is invading the Valley.” Cassandra’s wrinkles seemed deeper now, in the evening light. Ajax shook his money bag.
“Why does that mean we need to leave? It sounds maybe kind of cool?”
Golden eyes glinting, Cassandra spoke softly. “There’s already enough magic to allow the lesser creatures enter. There will be more every day. Soon, it will be enough. Enough for the stronger creatures. The ones who have been shut out for centuries, forced to feed on sparser and sparser lands while man’s treasures were out of reach. And when they come, this Valley will be filled with nothing but fire and death.”
“I still don’t understand…” Ajax looked around the room, confused. Even the chicken looked somber.
Aias could see the sky darkening. He could feel the fire against his skin. His neck burned. A deep emptiness ached inside his rib cage and he shuddered. Breathing steadily, he met his brother’s gaze and spoke the word their mother wouldn’t.
The word, almost a whisper, filled the room and faded to silence, like a funeral bell’s final toll.
About the Creator
”Some days I feel like playing it smooth and some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron.” -Raymond Chandler
Bits of fantasy and poetry and whatnot here, comedic comics on Instagram @mostlymecomics
This was very exciting, and I hope you add more chapters! But how do you pronounce Aias?
Loved it!! I’m also eager for the rest if the book.
Ready for chapter two!