There was a heaviness to the air, as if even the forest itself was holding its breath. The animals of the night sensed it too as they scurried off to their dens and warrens, hours before they would normally do so. Even the chirps of the crickets and songs of the birds faded off into silence.
Thwump, thwump. A regular, double note beat pulsed through the air, bringing with it a metallic wind that tore through the canopy of leaves. Thwump, thwump.
Earin jerked awake, his heart beating wildly with dread. Thwump, thwump. His heart beat stuttered as he turned to face the woman that had been sleeping on the other pallet in the tent. Aethra looked at him with wide, terrified eyes as she cradled her slumbering child to her breast. Earin closed his eyes, grief ricocheting around his heart. He was not close enough to his weapons. He was not ready. He had failed to keep them safe. His sister and her daughter should not have even been in the forest with him for this hunt. She was widowed not even three moons past, and with the dragon sightings nearby he could not leave his only remaining family defenseless. He hadn’t actually expected to find the dragon. He had just wanted the adventure. And now he had led them to their doom. Thwump, Thwump.
His eyes sprang open again to find that Aethra’s lips were moving, the terrified whisper nearly soundless. To Earin it sounded like a shout:
The world outside their tent caught fire.
Pain. Agonizing pain. The change had happened again, but this time instead of waking up in the middle of a charred field, surrounded by the bones of sheep or cattle, he found himself in the forest, surrounded by the remnants of a forest fire. He groaned as he tried to sit up, but found himself pinned to the leafy forest floor, a thick branch through his right shoulder. If he could get the branch out, he’d start to heal. It would hurt and he wouldn’t be able to use the arm for a few days, but he would still heal faster than a normal man would. He must have transformed back into a human while still in the sky and crashed down through the burning trees.
He screamed in rage and pain, as he cursed the witch who had placed him under enchantment a decade ago. Cursed to live a life alone, to lose all he held dear… a punishment for a crime he didn’t even remember committing. Cursed to transform without warning into a dragon and back again. Unable to love.
He grit his teeth as he made to try to rip the jagged piece of wood out of his shoulder when he heard the soft whimper.
No… Please no. It had been a century since the curse, and some how he had managed to wrest control from the dragon enough to keep from doing any harm to humans; except for that very first transformation when he had been in a village full of people. He closed his eyes, Please… no.
But the cry came again, louder this time, and when he turned his head in the direction the sound came from, he screamed in agony again. The girl couldn’t have been more than two years old. She was covered in soot, so grimy he couldn’t tell if she was injured or not. She was curled up in a ball at the opening of a split tree stump. A stump so old, that it was clear that the eons had turned it to stone. Strong enough to withstand even the strongest of fires, it was likely what saved her life. But there was a body next to her, next to that stump. Gods, no! He wailed silently as he stared at the corpse of the man that had likely died as he shoved the child in the crevice. Her father, he was certain. And he was responsible. Her blue eyes stared at him, almost accusatory as tears streaked through the grime coating her skin.
A bolt of pain shot through him again, reminding him that he was still skewered and pinned to the ground. As he reached towards the branch again to remove it, all he could think about was fleeing back to the mountaintop cave that he had made his home. Fleeing and hoping that he would never lose control during a cursed transformation again. Fleeing and escaping those accusatory blue eyes.
He ripped the branch from his shoulder and blackness overtook him.
When he woke again, more than a few hours had passed, if he were to judge by the light starting to show in the sky. He winced as he pushed himself into a sitting position, noting that while his wound was no longer bleeding, he would have to be more careful about he used his arm over the next couple of days on the trip back to his cave. He’d likely have to find something to fashion a sling out of for his arm, perhaps stealing from one of the villages along the path home, rather than avoiding civilization as he normally did.
Civilization. The girl! He looked around wildly, searching for her, wondering how he could have forgotten as his eyes came to rest on the half burnt corpse of the man by the petrified stump. The child was gone. Probably for the best, he thought, and easier too. Now he wouldn’t have to face her when he walked away and left her alone, for he could allow no one could know what he was. Not even the child. Not even if it meant leaving her in the forest. Not even if it meant that he’d have another death on his hands, for the girl wasn’t likely to survive on her own, and he certainly wasn’t equipped to care for her.
So he got up and started walking away from the destruction without a second glance back.
He had walked for no more than twenty minutes before he came upon the river, which had apparently worked as a firebreak, as the trees across the rushing water were not burnt or smoldering. He knelt to drink, and splash some water in his face, and that’s when he noticed the girl.
She was half submerged in the water, not moving. He didn’t even know how she had made it to the river in the first place, but some how she had managed it. Without thinking he lunged for her, pulling her from the water without a second thought. His wound reopened but he could barely acknowledge it as he held her tiny, shivering body in his arms.
He knew then that he wasn’t going to be able to leave the child alone to die. That he wouldn’t be able to live with it, especially not after unintentionally killing her father. Not after seeing some pink return to her cheeks as she absorbed some of his body heat, seeing her body refuse to give up. No. He would see her safe to the nearest village he could find and then continue to his cave. Where, if he was lucky, maybe he’d be able to seal off the entrance and trap himself inside. That way when the next transformation happened, maybe, just maybe, the Dragon wouldn’t get out and tragedy like this would never happen again.
He knelt, laying the child on the ground so he could start a fire, when a shout came from behind him. “Lenia?! LENIA!!!!”
He stared, dumbstruck as a woman even filthier than the child stumbled out of the trees. She was limping badly, her clothing torn and revealing severe burn down her left leg. But the woman didn’t seem to notice as she collapsed beside the child, sobs of relief and grief pouring from her throat as she started to talk to the unconscious girl.
“Oh, my baby. My baby… I thought I had lost you too…” He cleared his throat and she turned to him, seeming to notice him for the first time kneeling beside her. “Oh gods,” she wailed, “Thank you… I’m Aethra…You found my baby… Thank you.” She sniveled and wiped her hand across her face as she continued to cry and ramble. “I saw my brother and I was afraid it had gotten Lenia too… oh gods… Did you lose anyone?”
She turned to really look at him for the first time… and froze.
He saw her eyes widen in confusion as she realized he was clean, aside from the wound in his shoulder… to clean for having been through a forest fire. He knew the moment she saw that his eyes were golden, and their pupils reptilian. He watched the fear spread across her face as she realized what he was.
“No…” she choked out, the instant before he transformed and the world caught fire once more.