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Not always dragons

by Anne K 2 months ago in Fantasy · updated about a month ago
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Prologue

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. There simply couldn’t have been. There had to have been a time when the Valley was just people living peacefully, tending to the fields, going about their business, without fear of any giant, scaly fuckers burning everyone’s crops down. There had to have been a time when death, disease, and overcrowding weren’t a fact of life, when people hadn’t been crammed together in less than half the space the Valley had to offer because the other half had been colonized by skulking, fire breathing lizards with an attitude.

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. That much, people took as gospel, even though nobody actually remembered the time before the dragons came. Ailsa wasn’t so sure that time had ever existed. In her opinion (which no one cared for, obviously), there may never have been a time without dragons. The dragons may, in fact, have been here first, in which case of course they would see the people as intruders. As you would an invasion of ants in your kitchen that you needed to get rid of before they set up shop in the pantry.

Not that it mattered, at this point in time, who’d been here first. Ailsa had bigger, more immediate problems of a scaly nature than the question of who could claim precedence in time and right. Ailsa was faced with what you might call the mother of all problems; the final conundrum she’d never solve, and not for lack of motivation. Turned out, the instinct to survive really was an incredibly powerful motivator, not that it was any use to her now.

Once again, she strained against the ropes tying her to the flagpole behind her, knowing that it was pointless. The ropes hadn’t given an inch the first three hundred or so times she’d tried. The definition of insanity and all that. Above her the flag fluttered noisily in the biting wind, the blood red fabric it had been woven out of proclaiming to all the world; here I am, come and eat me! Not in so many words, of course, but a provocation, for sure. The literal red rag. Subtlety had never been anyone’s strong suit in the Valley. It certainly wasn’t the Jenkins’ – not that anything was, besides money and muscle.

Another gust of wind battered the hillside, whipping Ailsa’s carrot-coloured curls around her face, making her shiver violently in the flimsy white gown she’d been given to wear. Seriously, subtlety was turning in its grave. Ailsa very much doubted that whatever dragon would eventually come and get her, would care for the packaging its food came in, but in the villagers’ minds a virgin sacrifice came with a certain amount of decorum that needed to be observed.

Ailsa didn’t bother to suppress a snort (there wasn’t anyone here to hear it, after all; everyone but Ailsa had retreated to the bottom of the hill – the minimum safe distance, as far as they were concerned).

Virgin indeed! The cruel irony wasn’t lost on Ailsa. Had even the tiniest circumstance been different, she wouldn’t have qualified for this farce at all. If she’d let Reggie Jenkins have his way, she wouldn’t be here. However, if it was a choice between Reggie Jenkins and the dragons – or anything, really – Ailsa would have chosen the dragons on any day. You could argue that a choice between one predator and another wasn’t really much of a choice at all, but hey ho – semantics.

Reggie Jenkins had made it his mission in life to single-handedly reduce the number of virgins in the Valley by as many as possible, whether said virgins consented or not. Ailsa had known as much when she’d gone to work in the Jenkins’ kitchen, but then, what choice had she had? When you were the main breadwinner in the family you took the work offered to you, and anyway; no one really refused the Jenkins anything.

Until about a week ago that was, when Reggie had snuck up on Ailsa while she’d been washing dishes, trapped her in the corner between the stove and the pantry, and started groping under her skirt. His breath had been rank with drink, his face wet with sweat and she hadn’t known what else, his hands hot and greedy between her thighs. And not just his hands. The memory made her gag. He’d laughed as she tried to push him off and that chuckle still rang in her ears.

He’d been so off his face, though, that he’d fumbled with her underskirt just a little too long, which had given her the few seconds she needed to grab the heavy, cast-iron saucepan that had been sitting on the stove. She’d struck in blind panic and caught him squarely on his left temple, sending spatters of stew across the surfaces she’d only just finished scrubbing. Reggie – in addition to a concussion – had come away with a rather unattractive burn across the left side of his face. The cook had found him the next morning, passed out cold, pants around his ankles, his manhood lolling about, covered in stew and sick. Once they’d brought him round, it hadn’t taken them long to come for Ailsa, as she’d known they would. According to Reggie’s screamed insults, he’d carry a scar from that burn on his face for the rest of his life. Ailsa smiled grimly at the thought, a fresh wave of anger and boiling hatred coursing through her, which she used to strain once again – pointlessly – against her ropes. She screamed in frustration when they cut into her wrists, arms and chest.

Knocking out the lord of the manor had been the end of her employment, naturally. Lady Jenkins had called for her immediate execution. However, the magistrate had considered that request disproportionate; so instead, Ailsa had been offered the opportunity to sacrifice herself for the community. After all, with the harvest festival approaching, the dragons needed to be appeased.

Ailsa had been given the usual spiel about how being a virgin sacrifice was the noblest cause, how it would make both her life and her death worthwhile. If she agreed, her family would be looked after, as was the custom. They’d want for nothing. If she didn’t, well then, given that she’d attacked a respected member of the community, she’d be sent to work in the mines, with every other delinquent lowlife in the Valley.

Again, what choice did she have? The fairly quick death of being ripped to shreds by a dragon appeared preferable to the slow suffocation of hard labour without daylight or air; and the prospect of securing her family’s living had somewhat deafened her to her mother’s pleas to choose the hope of life after the mines over immediate annihilation.

Her side of the story had interested no one. She was a girl without means; the polar opposite to Reggie Jenkins, who was a man of all the means. It didn’t matter that she’d woken up shaking and bathed in sweat every night since, his face looming out of her dreams, that feral hunger in his eyes that told her that the meaning of the word ‘no’ wasn’t so much unknown as entirely immaterial. You did not say no to Reggie Jenkins.

So, here she was, and because life had a way of not accommodating even the most reasonable or desperate of hopes, the bloody dragon was taking its sweet time. Ailsa marvelled at the fact that even in the face of certain death, she was still able to feel hunger and – more than anything – thirst. Desperate, raging thirst. By now, she’d happily drink almost anything, including her own piss. Come to that, she needed one too. But then, she’d been here for almost an entire day and once the adrenaline had worn off, her bodily functions and cravings had made themselves felt with increasing insistence, and certain death be dammed.

The Valley council – six tottery old men in powdered wigs whose various obsessions and vices were well looked after by the Jenkins – had ordered Ailsa to be brought up here at first light, before the rising sun had even had the remotest chance of melting the frost from the grass and leaves. The cold air had sunk its teeth into Ailsa’s exposed arms and feet. Ronnie Jenkins – Reggie’s brother and the town’s executioner – had done the honours with evident relish. Ailsa wondered whether the only reason he’d kept it in his pants was because otherwise they’d have been back to square one trying to find a suitable virgin, or because Ailsa wasn’t Ronnie’s preferred type of virgin. Which hadn’t stopped him from tying Ailsa to the flagpole with as much brutality as possible, after raising the flag with a nasty, triumphant leer. His resemblance to his brother in that moment had given Ailsa a flashback to a week ago that had made it very hard to keep both her scant breakfast and her tears down.

But she had. She wasn’t going to give the Jenkins satisfaction of any kind. Someone brighter than Ronnie may still have noticed that his mere presence was getting to her but – small mercies – Ronnie really wasn’t the brightest candle. He’d grown tired of taunting her around lunchtime when the smells of roasting meet had wafted up to them from below.

Virgin sacrifices were always accompanied by a feast. The aroma of roasting lamb and beef lured the dragons, or so the villagers claimed. Really, it was an excuse to eat yourself sick and get shitfaced. With a shudder, Ailsa wondered which unfortunate young girl – or boy, in Ronnie’s case – would cross the Jenkins’ paths tonight. If the Valley’s youth had any sense, they’d stay off the streets and bar their doors.

As the sun had slowly sunk behind the tall hills that surrounded the Valley, the lights of torches had started appearing below Ailsa like clusters of fireflies, making it clear that people were going to stick around for a night of festivities. They’d be there for as long as it took for Ailsa to be eaten – and if she pleaded and begged for her life, all the better; they enjoyed a good show. Ailsa had no intention of giving them one. She would not let anyone see her fear. She would not scream or beg. She would await her fate, head held high.

But she did wish the dragon would get a move on. She knew the longer she was up here, the more her resolve would crumble. She’d watched girls and boys she’d considered much braver than herself beg, wail, curse, shout, become delirious, tear at their ropes so much that they drew blood. She’d watched – powerless – as they’d lost their minds and eventually fallen silent as exhaustion and lack of food and water took them, sometimes long before a dragon consented to show its scaly face. Her only hope was that she wouldn’t be up here long enough for that to happen. She looked down at the lights below her and silently prayed that her mother and brother had gone home by now; that they hadn’t stuck around to watch Ailsa meet her fate.

Which chose that moment to arrive.

The quiet of the night was torn apart by a deafening screech and the sky exploded with light. Ailsa thought her heart might stop there and then; in fact, a part of her wished it would – just let it be over quickly! – but it didn’t oblige her.

Quite the contrary; it started beating all the harder when another screech followed and below, indistinctly, Ailsa could make out the shadows of people taking flight. Minimum safe distance indeed! She looked around frantically, straining her neck to take in as much of the dark sky as she could, but with her range of motion and vision significantly impaired, she did not see the dragon until an enormous shadow soared across the inky sky from behind her.

Its bat-like wings spanned at least thirty feet, and the slender, forked tail was just as long. For a moment, Ailsa’s vision went dark, but only seconds later she was fully conscious again, grateful now for the ropes that kept her upright. She could no longer feel her knees. And yet the blessed oblivion of unconsciousness clearly wasn’t something she’d be allowed either.

Another long and drawn-out screech, and a fork of lightning cleaved the night. By its brightness, Ailsa made out a lizard-like, scaly head ending in a long snout filled with large, pointed teeth. Two massive horns, curved like a ram’s, protruded from the creature’s forehead, and Ailsa thought its scales gleamed a silvery blue, but perhaps that was just a trick of the light. Even through the shock that rang in her mind, Ailsa realised that she’d never seen a dragon like this before. It was rather smaller than she’d expected, with two legs instead of the usual four, and it breathed not fire but–

Another fork of lightning cleaved the dark sky as the creature opened its mouth and screamed. It somersaulted in the air and its eyes fixed on the flag flying above Ailsa’s head. They gleamed with their own eerie blue light, those eyes, and Ailsa found herself wondering if they could see as well – or perhaps better – in the dark than they could in daylight. She saw the vertical pupils narrow. The air displaced by the dragon’s beating wings battered Ailsa with gusts of wind. The creature hovered in mid-air, rising, and falling and rising again. Then its eyes flickered down from the flag above her head, and Ailsa knew it had seen her.

This was it, she thought, and she fought to shut her own eyes, but they wouldn’t do her bidding. It was as if they wanted to keep looking, to witness every last second, no matter how horrifying, because at least seeing meant still living. Her body started to tremble uncontrollably. She didn’t have the breath to scream.

The dragon extended its long, scaly neck towards her. Lighting played around its snout, and Ailsa found herself hoping she’d be struck by that lighting, like Siobhan McGowan when she’d been out in the field in a thunderstorm. Siobhan had looked peaceful in death.

The gaze of the dragon’s bright blue eyes bored into Ailsa’s, who became abruptly aware that her gown was warm and wet below the waist. Clearly, she was no longer in control of her bodily functions, but if there was any mortification to be felt, sheer terror had put it in its place. Ailsa’s lungs were screaming for air, but she couldn’t bring herself to draw breath.

The dragon’s jaws parted. There was a blue glow at the back of its throat. The lighting was going to hit her and that would be it.

And then the dragon said, ‘Do not worry.’

Ilsa blinked, mind blank.

‘Do not worry,’ repeated the dragon, its voice echoing not in Ailsa’s ears but inside her head. ‘I will not harm you. You will soon be safe.’

Ailsa heard the words, but she failed to make sense of them, so at odds were they with the situation, and with the blinding, soul-crushing horror she was feeling. Why wouldn’t her heart just stop? Why wouldn’t this end?

‘Do not be afraid,’ the dragon said, and its voice in Ailsa’s head was a song; soft, low, reassuring. A purr, like that of Tom, her cat, as he snuggled up next to her under the flimsy linen sheet that had been her blanket for so long.

At the thought of Tom, tears finally came. People said cats were opportunists; they did not form attachments, but Tom loved her – Ailsa was sure of it – and she loved him. She’d never see him again, or her mother, or Avery, her brother. Surely, her chest must burst now with the sob trapped within it, unable to get out past the stifling ropes that bound her.

‘It is all right,’ purred the dragon. ‘It will be fine; you will be fine. I am going to pick you up now.’

As it extended a gigantic, clawed foot, Ailsa managed to close her eyes at last. The rush of wings swelled, and Ailsa knew the final moment had come.

The large claw closed around her. It was surprisingly warm and dry. Scaly, but soft like a cushion. It gave what felt like the gentlest tug, and the flagpole came free of the ground, Ailsa still tied firmly to it. She was shaking so much that it hurt, but there was something strangely reassuring about the tenderness of the dragon’s touch, the warmth of its claws as they enveloped her like a blanket. Ailsa thought she smelled grass, and flowers, and leaves, and – strangest of all – summer rain. If this was death, it wasn’t so bad. Ailsa kept her eyes firmly closed even as – with a plunging sensation in her stomach – the dragon carried her upwards.

‘Do not worry,’ purred the dragon, again. ‘I will not hurt you. Rest now; you must be exhausted, and we have some distance to cross.’

She really was exhausted, thought Ailsa, sleepily. Her eyelids were suddenly too heavy to lift, and the gentle rocking motion as she was carried through the air lulled her. Her heartbeat slowed and so did her breathing. It no longer occurred to her to mind that she was still tied to a flagpole and being carried to she didn’t know where, to a fate she could no longer see clearly. Perhaps it wouldn’t be death, after all.

It did not matter. All that mattered now was that the fear was gone, and that the pain was gone, and that the hunger and the thirst were gone. It didn’t matter how long for. Right now, Ailsa felt nothing but warm, and comforted. Resting her head against the dragon’s scaly hide, she felt herself nodding off to sleep.

In the valley below, Avery watched his sister being snatched away; ropes, flagpole, flag, and all. Next to him, his mother collapsed to the floor with a wail of pain and horror. Avery sank to his knees, cradling his mother in his arms, unaware of the tears burning on his cheeks, and the ferocity with which his fingers dug into his mother’s shoulders.

All he was aware of was hatred. Ice-cold hatred for the beast that taken his sister, and the beast who’d made sure that the dragon got the chance to take her – Reggie Jenkins, the mayor’s son. Avery would see to all of them. Reggie and Ronnie Jenkins, their parents, the Valley council, the magistrate, and the dragons – not necessarily in that order.

Soon, he would be strong enough. Soon, he would be ready. Soon, Ailsa – and so many others before her – would be avenged.

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Soon, there wouldn’t be.

Fantasy

About the author

Anne K

British author with a passion for fantasy and mystery. Love the theatre, film, TV, and cake (hope to write for - or about - all of them). Sucker for anything to do with the MCU. The Last Jedi is better than Rise of Skywalker (don't @ me ;))

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