Sharp, wet leaves scrape against Rafaele’s face with each step into the dark woods. The rain has ceased but the mud, like glue, makes progress impossible. The child’s cries are hoarse from hours of screaming, now but whimpers against the priest’s rough cloak. Rafaele takes that moment to kneel beneath a large fallen oak and listens. He can no longer hear the shouts from the Queen’s guard or the wails from the desperate mother. He knows that after this moment, the High Priestess will no longer accept him in the temple. Even in this mission’s success. Rafaele spits on the ground, his throat parched from the hike. He has never dared to venture this deep into the forest, no one has, for fear of encountering creatures of wings and fire. Tonight, it is their kind he seeks.
Rafaele looks down at the child, wrapped in his cloak, still calling for his mother. If only he could understand what his short life means to this realm. He was born to save them, all of them. This child would bring an end to years of bloodshed, destruction, and war. The Queen should have listened to him the day he first presented himself to her.
Rafaele takes the child’s hands to warm them and cleans his face with the part of the cloak with the least amount of mud. The torch he has struck into the ground allows him just enough light to examine the little boy’s scar. Rafaele marvels at the pattern it makes, almost exact in the shape of the stars that had appeared in the night sky when he was born. A child born with a dragon’s burn. A prophecy known throughout the realm and ministered to Rafaele since he was a young boy. In 23 years of life, this was his constant.
The familiar nursery rhyme spun a tale of a child that would be born under that star of Drogav, a constellation that only occurs every thousand years. This constellation signals the rise of the Dragon King himself, a mark to show that the dragons would bow to no other master but him. Rafaele was in awe when the child’s parents brought him before the temple to be looked upon, the burn still pink from birth. The priest, close to tears, took the child to the High Priestess and on his knees, begged to be allowed to embark on the task of blessing and offering the child to the dragons themselves in the mountains of Elm, where they dwelt. It had been 50 years that the realm had been at war with the dragons. Humans had long thought these creatures had gone extinct, until one night a violent eruption from the mountains spouted forth an entire den of beasts not seen since the age of the golden leader’s reign. They sought nothing but blood and death. They would not be reasoned with, or convinced of anything less and year by year, the humans lost lands and cities to fire and ash. If this child could be the key to bringing about an end to their extinction, no sentimentality could be contrived to change his mind. This was a task chosen for him by the Gods for his faithfulness.
When the High Priestess dismissed him on pain of punishment, he took his claim to the Queen, who rebuked him publicly “We abide by reason, not nursery rhymes,” she had said. He was sent back to the temple, humiliated, and disgraced. The High Priestess, burning with the flame of his betrayal, removed him from his station and placed him in the libraries to join the monks who had vowed silence and worked to preserve the written history of the realm. This only after his wounds from ten lashes upon his back had healed.
Rafaele bade his time and waited almost three years before an opportunity presented itself. Through tireless labour and an abhorrent amount of groveling, he was able to regain position within the temple and sought to engage once again with the people. By that time, the boy now named Sidre, was two. Whispers were spreading of how the Queen planned to launch an assault on the mountains with a new weapon forged from rare metals found within the lava pits of the South Islands. There is hope that they are strong enough to take down the largest dragons. One of several attempts by this dynasty to end the carnage and avenge her family for the curse brought upon them.
Rafaele did not realize he has fallen asleep and startles. It is still dark, but the smell of morning dew signals an approaching sunrise. He looks down and under his cloak to find Sidre fast asleep upon his chest. He hears no other sounds as he rises from underneath the fallen oak, careful not to wake the boy. His muscles are stiff and ache from the journey, but he can not sit in the cold and mud for much longer. He carries onward, calculating every step as he lifts his face to the sky in prayer. A prayer for protection and guidance. A prayer for the courage to face whatever is to come.
All Rafaele wants is to help his people. The city he was born in lies to waste in the East and all he has ever known is temple life. Perhaps, this was what his lessons and suffering were preparing him for. An opportunity to be more than an orphan priest, to ensure that no other child would suffer as he did, in the hands of man or dragon.
Sidre begins to coo and stir. Rafaele quickens his pace only pausing to listen for signs of an ambush. Then another sound meets his ears, and he turns towards it knowing he has found the Fire Falls. Sidre looks around and rubs his eyes, his cold hands brushing upon Rafaele’s face. Tears fill Rafaele’s eyes realizing that this is the point of no return. He comes upon the waterfall, now drowning out any other sound in the forest. The sun is beginning to display its first rays. Rafaele observes a dry place next to three large boulders by the river. Tenderly, he removes his cloak and bag and places Sidre upon it. He wraps the cloak tighter around the little boy, while Sidre watches his every movement. From his bag, Rafaele removes a thick blanket and an apple. Sidre’s green eyes follow the apple in Rafaele’s hand as he places it before him. The child reaches for it and holds it with a smile. How quickly horrible things are forgiven for a child. Rafaele can no longer stop the tears as he ensures that Sidre is warm underneath the blanket. Rafaele knows he must leave, but he hesitates. Doubt creeps through his mind like a spider. Could this be what the prophecy truly demands. Were the Gods so cruel? Rafaele scampers to his feet, not allowing these thoughts to fully form. He takes one more look at the innocent life, unencumbered by the evils that surrounds him.
“May the Gods protect him,” Rafaele whispers as he slowly steps away, walking into the entrance of the forest.
The earth beneath him shifts as gingerly as when he placed Sidre on the ground. The trees shudder and Rafaele realizes he is not alone. He pushes deep into the brambles of bushes and trees but leaves enough space for him to see Sidre finishing the last of his apple. The little boy’s head turns to the falls and his eyes grow wide. Rafaele cranes his neck to look in the direction of the falls and what he sees spreads heat throughout his body. Scales as red as blood, and claws as long as a man’s arm steps out from behind the falls, the sun’s rays illuminating the massive body.
Rafaele can hear Sidre whimper, and he offers to pray. “Dear Gods, watch over him as he begins this new life. Let him be all that we hope of him to be.” He feels each step the beast takes towards the child. He can believe them to be casual and lazy if he did not feel them reverberate through his bones.
The dragon stops some distance from the child which makes Sidre wail in fear. The dragon simply watches through golden eyes for what seems like an eternity as the sun continues to expose them.
"Come on. Come on".
Then, a large heavy tail extends towards the boy still screaming, and Rafaele holds his breath. With incredible control, the tail brushes against the child’s hair, the scales pulling it back so gently, it might have been a mother’s comb. Sidre startles for a moment but goes still while the dragon continues to gently stroke his back. Sidre watches, eyes curious, nose sniffling. The dragon takes a step closer and proceeds to release a clear smoke from its body. It did not make Sidre cough, so he leans into it, as if the dragon is keeping him warm.
He has done it. The prophecy is proven true in this moment, and Rafaele knows that all would be right. Tears begin flowing once more at knowing that because of this sacrifice, all suffering would cease. No child would have to grow up with fear of loss like he did, because this little boy would lead the dragons and be their master.
Rafaele pulls himself out of the bush he is entangled in and stands behind the cover of a tree. Sidre now calm, leans into the dragon as the beast uses its tail to lift the boy to its chest. The dragon turns in the direction of Rafaele. Its great eyes bore into his, understanding and intelligence shaking him to his core. A scream erupts from the other side of the river and both the dragon and Rafaele come face to face with Sidre’s mother and soldiers from the royal court. The horses bray back and the General and his Captain push ahead of the group. All hands are at the hilt.
“Steady men, we do not move until the boy is safe,” shouts the captain, her golden armour molded in the shape of the Queen’s sigil of a mighty lion.
A terrible cracking sound sends Rafaele’s heart pounding. Another crack and another come from the dragon as its form begins to change. The scales appear as blood as it melts away, the hunting party moves back. Its claws give way to small delicate hands that crack and splay into place. Rafaele feels the bile fill the back of his throat until the cracking stops. What now stands before him, is not a beast or any other form of monster, but a woman. She has Sidre cradled against her bare breasts, and her red hair cascades down her back and over her shoulders. Her eyes remain the same.
It is the General who steps forward first and has the horse pace, eyeing the woman and child that stand on the opposite side of the river. The surprise amongst the humans is shared, as the realization settles that they had never been dealing with just dragons, but human’s who can change their form. Rafaele is not familiar with any story that mentions shifters. There is no book in the library, not one image. He looks at the woman who is staring right back with golden eyes, an arrogant smile dancing upon her lips. Sidre is completely unbothered and rests his head on her shoulder. She strokes his back gently, her eyes never leaving Rafaele’s. The General and Captain are speaking to one another but cannot be heard because of the sound of the rushing falls. The soldiers and family huddle around the mother, feelings a mixture of awe and fright.
The next sound comes from the dragon woman. A sound that carries in the wind like music. Ancient, distorted, and deadly.
“You poor simple fool,” the heat from her gaze fixes upon Rafaele.
Rafaele steps out unto the rocky bed, the mother’s cries grow louder and a soldier spits on the ground in disgust. All eyes upon him, not as a hero but traitor.
“To sacrifice a child takes a special kind of wickedness… or stupidity,” she says.
“Dragon, we only seek the safe return of the child. You are in the land of the Queen of Ardalnias. If you release the child, you are granted permission, in the name of her majesty the Queen, to leave,” the General shouts over the roar of the waterfall. The dragon turns her head from Rafaele to the General, golden eyes glimmering in the sunlight.
“This was never meant to be your land,” she says sweetly. “It is a shame your kind still believes in fairy tales. You have forgotten your place. Be reminded then.” She quickly turns to face Rafaele as her entire body glows. The soldiers raise their swords while archers nock their arrows awaiting their captain’s commands. But it is much too late. Before Rafaele can speak the woman and child are engulfed in flames, she remains while the child becomes ash in seconds. Rafaele falls to his knees, mouth open in a silent scream. A true scream echoes throughout the valley, filled with a mother’s anguish and pain. The dragon takes that moment of terror and confusion to transform once more. With an ear shattering roar, she spreads her wings and lunges into the sky.
“Loose your arrows!” comes the order from the captain, but the woman dragon is too fast. She is out of range within moments and all that is left of Sidre is ash.
Rafaele can hear nothing, can feel nothing as large arms grab him and drag him to the other side of the river. Pain crashes over his entire face as he is punched and spit on, but he is numb to it. He only tastes bitter iron. He is hauled before the General, the mothers’ cries faint behind him.
Rafaele is forced to his knees, the stones jutting into him, his hair is pulled back so he can look up into the General’s face. The General stares back, his eyes are stormy with something akin to pain. He speaks softly “You know, perhaps I should be thanking you for what you just did.”
Rafaele breaths are heavy, and he is unable to focus on the General. “Because of your actions this day, these people,” he stops nodding his head towards the family now crying, comforting, and holding one another “May finally stop listening to the foolish prattle of your High Priestess.”
Rafaele stares up at him, confused. “The Priestess has been a thorn in the Queen’s side for some time. The people flock to her for her prayers and insights, many of which go against the needs and wants of the kingdom. We needed but one reason that would help the people see that the Gods have abandoned us. That it is not by prophecy that we will be saved but by the sweat from our brow that will give us that victory.”
“General we are not safe out here; we need to send word to the Queen,” the captain urges.
The General kneels before Rafaele and grips either side of his face with his hands. They are nearly nose to nose as the General spits “You will live to see another day, only for the fact that we would have never known we were dealing with shifters if it was not for that little boy. Your High Priestess will not share in that mercy.”
“General, you can not be serious. The people will tear him to shreds and no soldier will defend him.”
“Captain, you will give this priest and all other priests a sword and shield. They will join the war efforts, but he will join you on the front lines when we launch the assault,”
“Get the family and men ready to move out. I will take the priest.”
The captain hesitates and rage fills her chest as she glares at Rafaele. “Yes General,” she says through gritted teeth. She turns on her heel and stomps towards the soldiers and family. The two soldiers restraining Rafaele let go of him and step back.
“I’m so sorry,” Rafaele whispers. The spider in his mind has spread its web and Rafaele feels that he is lost in its snare, and it no longer bears significance to him. Even these words hold little weight for what he has done.
“It does not matter now and will never matter how sorry you are. You will lead the front lines and lure that dragon to you. Then your only job will be not to die.” The General stands up and looks down at Rafaele who is still shocked and shaken. The General, a tall and stoic man forces his trembling hands into his leather gloves. “Tie him to my horse, we need to gain distance from here.” The General stalks towards his horse and Rafaele is bound by his wrists, a lead attached to the horse’s saddle.
Rafaele is numb although he is shivering, his entire body caked in mud, muscles sore from carrying Sidre all night. Blood soaks his tongue while shame does the same to his mind. He looks and feels more beast than man and all he can consider, is that the Gods are truly dead, and it is his fault.
About the Creator
I am an aspiring writer from Ontario, Canada. My field of experience and degrees are in Social Work and Political Science. I am currently working on a series of children's stories and I love to read mystery, romance, and fantasy.