"There weren't always dragons in the valley..."
“There weren’t always dragons in the valley.” The children huddle around to hear Old Jarka’s story. “I’m old enough to remember the time before – before the Firebringers.”
On cue, the older children hiss at the name. A gust slams against the hide of their tent, as if in retaliation, and they all fall silent. Old Jarka’s shadow climbs behind him, dancing with the movements of the crackling fire. A wisp of smoke curls up from between him and the children, only to be whipped away by the blizzard brewing outside as it reaches the hole in the ceiling.
Old Jarka studies the parents at the other end of the tent. Some only look to the floor. Most meet his gaze with determined intensity their own parents would admire.
It will not be long now. The Chell have run, but the Firebringers would always have been their destruction.
All Old Jarka can offer is his story – a reassurance that there was peace before the Firebringers came, and maybe there will be peace after they are gone.
The blizzard roars against their tent. Old Jarka closes his eyes. Is that the hum of a dragon soaring overhead? Or is his mind betraying him?
No, there weren’t always dragons in the valley. When he opens his eyes, he is a boy, running with his brothers through the Muugi Valley. A race, one of hundreds. His parents watch from the Chell camp above.
His feet crunch through the fresh snow. Every breath is a bitter lungful. He doesn’t care. He’d like to stay in this moment, knowing what he knows will come.
There is a monumental humming. Jarka realises he’s heard it all along, only now it’s thrumming hard in his ears. He staggers to a halt beside his older brothers. All three of them are rendered mute, as the dragon emerges from the clouds.
Sunlight glints from its metal carapace. Its triangular shadow falls over the boys, and Jarka feels something tighten around his stomach. Instinctively, he goes sprinting back through the valley, up toward his parents and the camp.
His brothers stay, mesmerised perhaps. The dragon’s underbelly opens. Jarka turns to call for them, just as a bolt of red lightning blasts from the dragon’s maw. His brothers turn to shimmering silhouettes, then are gone.
Where they stood, a ragged hole bores into the land. Jarka feels a pull to walk over, to peer into the chasm.
Shouting rises from the camp. His parents and the other warriors come charging down into the Muugi Valley.
The hum in the air thickens. It becomes like ice around him, and he curls up, waiting for his parents to reach him and make the dragon go away. Then maybe his brothers will climb out from the hole where they’re hiding.
He squints up at the sky. Three more dragons break through the clouds, their metal underbellies opening. More streams of lightning pour down into the valley. A few arrows bounce uselessly from their skin.
The first dragon moves away from the newcomers. It lowers toward the charging warriors. Its stomach begins to glow again, as Chell warriors ready their arrows. Jarka sees silhouettes moving behind the dragon’s glass eyes. Even years later, he sees them in his nightmares.
One of them approaches the glass. Curled up in the snow, Jarka is paralysed.
The figure looks Chell, but too tall, too thin, with limbs too long. It stays at the glass a moment, then the glow burns hotter in the dragon’s mouth. The silhouette moves away.
The dragon unleashes its energy on the Chell warriors. His mother and father disappear within the lightning, along with all of the others. When the dragon shifts, only another smoking crater is left behind.
Jarka curls tighter around himself. The ground rages against the lightning piercing into it. But the dragons keep blasting through the snow, leaving more pits in the valley.
The lead dragon soars to the edge of the valley. It hovers over the Chell camp, then its stomach opens again, and the camp is obliterated in a flash of crimson lightning. Eventually, Jarka drifts into unconsciousness in the snow, the booms of the ground shaking not enough to wake him.
Jarka returns to the present – the tent where he huddles with the survivors. He looks at the wide eyes of the children, and part of him wonders why he’s held on so long. He’d always known he’d meet his end against a dragon, just as he’d always known the metal monsters couldn’t be killed.
He opens his mouth, but the humming builds. When the children start looking around in confusion, and their parents start exchanging sombre glances, he understands the noise isn’t just leaking from his memories.
Old Jarka stands, grunting at the cramp in his muscles. “Run for the Jaw Mountains.” He doesn’t want to give them false hope, but he doesn’t want to see the children killed like his brothers. Maybe this makes him a coward. He stopped caring long ago. “Go. I will stay.”
The parents usher their children from the tent. One little girl lingers. She looks over her shoulder at Old Jarka, and a fierce look appears on her.
“There weren’t always dragons,” she says. “There won’t always be dragons.”
Before Old Jarka can say anything, the girl is pulled away. The surviving Chell flee through the blizzard. Old Jarka catches only fleeting glimpses of their retreat when the tent flaps are torn by the wind. Somehow, he finds himself believing they’ll make it to the Jaw Mountains. He even smiles, believing they might make it further. Maybe the girl is right. Maybe the Firebringers can be beaten.
Those silhouettes behind the dragon’s glass eyes…
He should’ve told them. The humming grows louder, and Jarka looks up through the hole in the tent roof. The dragon’s maw opens above. A familiar red glow. Can the figures inside the dragon see him?
Jarka sits back down. He always knew it would end like this.
“There weren’t always dragons in the valley,” he says to himself. “There won’t always be dragons.”
The lightning smashes down.