There were not always dragons in the Valley. But then Callum took up his pen. “Oh, Callum, no!” Margo, his older sister, rushed over to the table where he sat, looking over his shoulder and then sighing with flamboyant disappointment. Her head dropped, so her forehead touched his shoulder. “Cal … I just finished that one.”
“It wasn’t finished,” Callum stated as he continued detailing the third dragon now in the beautifully sculpted valley portrait, “how is any painting finished without dragons?”
Margo groaned heavily at her twelve-year-old brother. “Not all pictures need dragons, Callum. That was a commission. I’m supposed to get paid for that valley.”
“Okay,” he lifted his pen and straightened in a very regal manner, “correction,” Callum cleared his voice to speak in a clear and almost pompous fashion, “All exciting paintings have at least one dragon.” He paused as Margo smiled in defeat, shaking her head at her frustrating but delightful annoying younger brother. Callum’s pen tapped his lip, “Or at least a magic wolf … or an undead.”
“You are NOT drawing an undead again!” Margo insisted, now in a full grin as she ruffled her brother’s hair.
“Hey! Hey! Not the hair!”
“I will not be fooled into dealing with that mess again, creep. There were rotting pieces of corpses in the kitchen! IN THE KITCHEN! It took so long to take that smell out! Not to mention the trouble it caused. We had to get help to stop them. Nope! Not again, Cal! You keep those undead out of the pictures.”
Callum giggled a little, and Margo did too. It had been a terrible experience, no laughing matter at the time. But, looking back, it really was quite funny. That was what could happen if pictures got loose.
Margo looked at the painting again. Callum was really skilled; he was now starting on the fourth dragon. She was always impressed at how he could naturally fit his creations into her paintings. They never looked like an afterthought but as an integral part of the artwork. Callum was skilled in detail and variety. Even now, each dragon he drew was a different type.
There was the Triple-Winged Starlight Dragon, with a gold hue to its white scales. It was known for its slender, dainty form, the translucent quality of its thin six wings, and its long neck and tail dotted with tiny spikes. Elegant and rare, the Triple-Winged Starlight dragon was dainty compared to many dragons but had the best control in the sky and impressive magic attacks.
Next, he had the Oxen Might Dragon, the colour of mud, short and stout. While still significantly taller than a horse, it was smaller than most dragons. Because of its broad bulk, Oxen Might Dragons could only fly short distances at a time; their genuine strength was their brute force on the ground. While it also had massive, sharp teeth and ravaging breath attacks, it was a docile dragon, rarely showing aggression unless threatened.
The third dragon was the Black Tiger Dragon. Majestic, fierce, and the most desired battle dragon. Black with a bluish hue, bold orange stripes and spikes. Its talons were deadly, its agility, speed and breath attacks obliterating its enemy. It is tough to subjugate, but it could be somewhat domesticated enough to be loyal to companions for decades.
Finally, the dragon Callum was already finishing, the Thunder Shield Dragon. Large scales of grey layered like feathers gave it a stone-like defense. Long horns grew out of its head, curling most of the way around the sides of its head defensively. Territorial, spell-casting, and matching the size of the Black Tiger Dragon. Thunder Shield Dragons were rarely seen with other dragons. They were a species that preferred to be alone and was hostile to any trespassing of its territory. It had impressive flight skills but used them only a little more than the Oxen Might Dragon.
There were other types of dragons too, but Callum stopped there, admiring the valley, now boasting four unique dragons. Margo sighed. “Nice job, Crazy Cal. But now I’ve got to start over.”
“There’s only four dragons, Go-go,” Callum protested, “That’s not that many.”
“If you had stopped at the Triple-Winged Starlight, maybe, but I doubt they want dragons at all, let alone four.”
Callum groaned, “But what is a painting without dragons!?”
Margo smiled and ruffled his hair again, causing him to dive from his chair to dodge her. Ultimately, he went scampering across the room and out. Moments later, she heard the cottage door open and slam shut. She sighed at the picture and sat heavily. Merely seventeen, Margo was trying to raise her younger brother, remain predominantly unnoticed, and have a bit of a life … and she was failing horribly. At least in the last two. Callum was a good kid, so looking after him was easy enough. The village helped a lot too. But it was hard to get commissions or sell enchanted pictures without making a name for yourself, especially when your ridiculously skilled kid-brother kept adding things to them. And a life? She hadn’t seen her friends for more than passing moments for almost half a year now. Margo dropped out of the academy when their mother died just over a year ago. If she hadn’t, Callum would have been taken away.
She sighed as she carefully moved the Valley of Dragons canvas to the side and rolled out a new canvas, putting weights on the edges to keep it from rerolling. Once the paint penetrated enough of it, it would stop curling, but until then, paperweights were necessary. “Okay, Go-go, version two. You have to do it quickly. They are supposed to be here this afternoon to pick it up.”
Softly, she chanted an incantation. Then her eyes, usually the colour of the crown of a bread loaf, lit with blue-white magic and the trance-state set in. Her molasses-honey hair floated in the magic as her slender hand picked up the thin-tipped paintbrush and dipped it in the colourless enchanted ink she made herself. Then, in steady, spellbound strokes, she painted the detailed magic circle on the page, the wet lines being the only indicator. As it dried, no sign of the circle remained.
The trance broke after nearly an hour, and she held her head, groaning in pain. “That was so draining.” She looked at the seemingly blank canvas. It looked as if she had sat here doing nothing for all this time. However, her blood was burning, and her head throbbed. It took a lot out of her. “I need to keep painting, or it will never be dry on time. They think it is already done.” She was glad Callum was still out. He is probably playing with his friends. It would be hard to hide her pain and fatigue from him while forcing the rushed painting.
“If he draws on this one too, I’ll kill him.” She smiled, though. The thought of him drawing to his heart’s rhythm was something she always admired. She could never get mad at him for drawing, even if it put her in tight spot after tight spot.
Once finished mixing colours, she finally began painting in earnest.
Two hours later, she steadied her hand with her other one for the final strokes. Then she quickly turned away and coughed. Blood burst into her hand. Her eyes widened at the sight. Quickly, she rushed to the kitchen and dipped her hands in the wash bucket. Her eyes clenched shut. How much longer can I do this? The enchantments were clearly weighing on her body. At seventeen, she was already coughing up blood. “I need to take a break soon.”
Which reminded her of the colourless magical paint. She would need to make more before she could do the next canvas. This meant she needed to distill her own blood before mixing it with the other elements. The amount of blood necessary to refine enough for a few canvases was a lot already, then the processes of distilling … “I should have started last week.”
“Go-go!” She quickly dried her hands and draped the rag over the blood-stained water. Callum didn’t need to accidentally see that. Then she stood in front of it as Callum opened the door. “Some people are here for you.”
They were early. Margo forced a smile, “Thank you for bringing them, Cal. You can go and play now.” He nodded and sprung off, leaving the three men just outside the doorway. Margo bowed politely, “Welcome, sirs.” She remained bent as they came in, one of the cloaked figures striding in with a drawn sword as he quickly checked the small cottage for potential dangers, the last cloaked figure close to his master, who stepped in rather regally. She was dizzy, this bowed position was not helping her condition, but she dared not move until they decided there was no threat. Otherwise, she invited new problems she couldn’t afford. Finally, the cloaked form who searched her home returned to the kitchen. She straightened, “I hope your journey went well.”
“Well, enough,” the well-dressed man said hastily, “you said it is finished?”
“Yes, sir. This way.” She led him to the next room, to the freshly done canvas. “Here it is, sir.”
“What? It is fresh?”
Of course, he would notice that some of the paint was wet.
“There was a bit of a misunderstanding with the original,” she fibbed, “the painter was kind enough to come here and complete it over once more. But, unfortunately, he just left about an hour ago.”
“An hour ago?” one of the cloaked guards questioned, “then why is it still wet?”
“Enchanted paints take longer to dry,” she lied again, “but you can always ask a sorcerer or magician if you don’t believe it.”
The well-dressed man waved as if to dismiss the line of questioning, “Next time, if you make the painter tarry, I will triple your pay.”
“I can try, sir. But he is very private. If he knew you wished this, he would probably refuse to do commissions for you. He values his privacy above all else.”
“Fine, fine. When will it be dry enough to take?”
“A few minutes, at most. Can I make you some tea while you wait?”
The man frowned but nodded. She turned to return to the kitchen, but the cloaked man from before suddenly caught her wrist, yanking her hand up. “Paint.” She flinched. He was looking at her hand; there was dry paint. Her heart twisted.
“No, it’s not – I – I merely helped him by bringing his paints closer, and there was some on the edge I did not see and touched.” Margo could hardly believe she had forgotten to scrub her hands clean. Coughing up the blood and having them come early had left her unprepared.
The well-dressed man stared for a moment, then waved dismissively. “She’s a mere girl. How could an orphan girl master such an art? Besides, enchanted ink is impossible to buy. Only sorcerers and magicians can make it.”
The cloaked guard grunted and released her wrist. Margo was relieved and hurried to the kitchen to compose herself. She needed that painting to hurry up and dry so they would leave! Her health and weariness were not holding up well. She did not know how long she could keep composed. She stoked the stove, adding some wood and getting the tiny magic flame to begin igniting the wood. Then her mother's oversized, heavy cast-iron kettle of water to go on top. When she lifted it, she staggered. She quickly set it down and recovered. She had to act naturally. With all her focus, she lifted it as if normal and put it on the stove.
“Hey, Go-go!” Before she could react, Callum burst into the house, “What about if I added a phoenix to the Dragon Valley that you painted!?”
“No, Cal!” She quickly caught him and covered his mouth. Too late. The two cloaks from the other room were upon them, cutting off their escape and roughly grabbing her shoulder. “No, no, you don’t understand! Callum just likes to joke around. He’s a child. I am not a painter!”
The well-dressed man sauntered into the kitchen, looking at them. “Check if she’s the painter.”
She tried to protest and resist, letting go of Callum. He yelled to let his sister go, the cloaked man from before raised her hand again, and she felt his finger carefully caress hers, and her heart sunk as she realized he was caressing her callouses. Margo had been trying to avoid getting callouses from painting for so long. But, during this last month, she had to redo four different paintings. Although most months, she only made three, she had double that number, plus the ones she had to do over.
“Callum, run!” She struggled again but was subdued quickly, pinned to the ground. Callum’s shout was muffled before it suddenly cut off.
Margo trembled in helplessness. “So, I guess you are the painter, then.” The well-dressed leader strode closer, “Who would have known an orphan girl who no one would miss could be so valuable?”
“Let my brother go,” Margo insisted, “he’s a mere child.”
“So are you.” The man moved to where Callum was being restrained by the other cloaked figure, who had a small knife against his throat.
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!” Margo shouted, but it suddenly triggered her coughing, and blood spattered from her mouth. The cloaked man who had her pinned down loosened his hold and turned her to her side. She hunched weakly, coughing onto the floor and onto her sleeve. Finally, she took a ragged breath.
“Go-go? Margo?” Callum was now at her side; she trembled. She didn’t want him to see her like this. “Are you alright? Margo, I’m scared.”
He usually called her Go-go. He only called her Margo when he was earnest, scared, or upset. Like when he would wake up crying after their mom died. Margo trembled again and forced herself up. The slight but firm hold of the cloaked guard followed her movements. While not currently restricted, he could constrain her easily at any moment. It was a warning. “I, I’m okay, Callum.”
“Yes,” the leader agreed, “it seems you are, barely, for now. But, to ensure your futures, I believe both you and your brother will be coming with us.”
Margo looked up at the man she hadn't sincerely observed until then. He had well-trimmed facial hair, was probably around their mother’s age, and was slightly overweight. Nevertheless, he was smiling like a cat with a fresh bird in its mouth. Fear was tightening in her. She looked at her brother; his eyes were moist, and he seemed more concerned for her than fearful of this situation. Maybe she should be thankful for that, but it raised her desire to protect him. How would he be okay after losing both parents and then his only sibling? Behind her brother, the other cloaked guard had his attention on her. However, he effortlessly directed her attention to his hands, his fingers rubbing against the blade of that small, sharp knife. Margo shivered again.
Without words, she heard and felt so much. She was ill, too. Attempting something with magic could paralyze her or worse. Margo wavered a moment more, then bowed her head to the leader. “As you wish, sir.”
About the author
Stability is good, but my life is ruled by changes. Recently moving from Alberta, Canada to Nontharburi, Thailand for near 3 years! I love traveling, reading manga, gardening and cooking. Ask me to tell you a story and I am in my element!