The Dragon Hunter
A librarian, a blind monk, an ex-assassin and a mysterious grey-eyed man travel across the ocean in search of a valley full of dragons. All of them want something different. What could go wrong?
There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Every scholar knew that. The Valley of the Forgotten Princes — now that’s a name from the Second Age — was supposedly a death sentence. An ancient valley imbued with magic to trap any unfortunate souls that wandered through. That much was just chatter. Foolish nonsense spouted by fanciful people who wanted to scare others. There was not a single text in the Tower of Sophos that spoke of an enchanted valley. And yet, Ismene couldn’t shake the prickle of fear from between her shoulder blades. There had been too many of the same stories. No matter how they unfolded, the endings were always the same; the heroes never return from the Valley. As a scholar, it was her responsibility to remain open to all possibilities, and consider all things, but as a sensible woman, she detested fanciful stories. That’s how she ended up aboard the Dragon Hunter in the first place. To discover the truth.
Earliest reports of the dragon migration from the north date back to 1313FC, but there had been little else documented. If those first reports are to be believed, the migration occurred just after the start of the Third Age, according to historians — but that was a controversial subject since no one was sure when the Third Age started. For nearly two hundred years chronologists and historians have debated the issue. They can’t seem to decide if the Third Age began with the rise of King Avgerinos in Maya, or with his death, and given there was a good twenty years between those events, it was important to clarify that detail. The Order of Historians believed the death of King Avgerinos marked the start of the Third Age, and so that is how Ismene dated her notes, but silently she disagreed. Ages should be separated by every one thousand and one hundred years, dating back to the First Crowning of the Sun. But it wasn’t within her power to decide how to write history. Not yet at least. That would change after this quest. She would be honoured when she returned. She would become the youngest Scholar in the history of the Tower. Scholar Ismene of the Order of Historians. The whole world would know her name, but more importantly, they would known the truth about the Valley, not the childish stories.
Ismene shuddered at the wind that whipped at her face and the loose strands of hair that came untucked from her bun. She leant on the thick wooden railing to steady herself against the swaying of the ship, as she opened her notebook to a blank page and nestled it carefully in the crook of her arm. The spine was barely held together by three pieces of twine, and the brown leather had softened over the years to feel like cloth in her hands now. Her fingers trembled from the cold despite being dressed in her thickest woollen overcoat, a sweater pulled over a linen shirt and two pairs of woollen stockings under her skirt and petticoat. She glowered at a crew mate that passed her with a quick duck of his chin in a semblance of a bow. It wasn’t the lack of respect that annoyed her, but the fact that all the crew refused to acknowledge the cold, working in unlaced linen shirts and silk trousers; some were bare from the waist up! Fools! The lot of them. Exposing themselves to the cold for the sake of appearances. Not that she was looking. There were more important things to look at. Like the dark mass on the horizon that was supposedly Maya. Ideally, she would be sitting inside one of the cabins at a proper desk to write, but she had heard the call that land had been sighted and she wanted to be able to write her account of Maya as it came into view, for the sake of accuracy. She fished a gold pen from her long overcoat pocket and rolled it between her fingers to release the ballpoint. On the blank page she carefully began writing:
Maya - First Sighting.
Daylight had barely begun creeping over the horizon when the call was shouted. Ismene could see nothing beyond her own nose when she came onto the deck. Now the pale morning light allowed her to see a grey shape on the horizon, still a number of leagues away she presumed. Cartography wasn’t her strong suit.
First seen behind a veil of morning fog, the port called Serpent’s Tail, once known as Aedar’s Teeth, is unassuming from a distance. I presume the names originated with the intention of scaring Eastern travellers from docking…
“We haven’t even dropped anchor yet and you’re already scribbling in that book.”
The melodic voice still managed to startle her despite its softness, and her pen ran across the page and through the above line. Ismene scowled and turned to face her older brother. Saffi wore a near permanent grin on his face, the blonde mop on his head was in disarray, falling over his eyes. Some people might have welcomed that. His overgrown hair helped cover the other permanent part of his face. Pale pink scar tissue stretched from his right eye to his left temple, and his eyes that had once been a bright and lively blue, now looked almost glazed over. She suppressed a sigh and tucked her notebook and pen into her coat pocket.
“Best to write while things are happening. So I don’t miss any details.” She muttered quietly. His grin widened.
“I imagine that’s what you’d do if you came under attack,” he said, sounding amused, “Take out that notebook and start writing about how you died.”
“It’s better than you can say!” she bit back. “You’d probably start praying.”
“What’s wrong with that?” he asked quietly. She grimaced to herself and went about parting his hair neatly down the middle. She would never call her brother a fool, but it was hard to take him seriously when he prayed to a woman that supposedly turned into air! “Ismene?”
“Where’s your helper? Isn’t she supposed to take care of things like this?” she raked her fingers through a knot and he winced. His hair had been matted for days. She had told that foolish girl that his hair needed washing, but she never saw the girl clean it.
“She was asleep when I left the cabin.” He answered absently. One of his hands went to his hair to mess up what she had done. She smacked it away and he grinned again.
“You shouldn’t be wandering around by yourself. Especially not on a ship that rocks the way this one does.” The ship didn’t rock much more than any other boat Ismene had been on, but it was still dangerous for him. “All it takes is a single trip down a set of stairs and then I’ve lost you for good.” She said firmly, brushing off the lint on his coat. She realised that he was wearing the same clothes he had worn to bed. His white linen shirt was untucked from his crinkled trousers, and the coat he was wearing was actually a robe.
“Yes, Mother. Of course, Mother. I’ll keep an eye out for stairs, Mother.” He mumbled to himself. She smacked his arm, perhaps harder than necessary, but he just laughed and pulled her into a hug. “What would I do without you, little sister?”
“I am not little!” she protested, while squirming to get out of his hug.
“Little-er, then” He amended. She was about to remind him that she was only two years younger and already more mature than him, but he released her from his grip and stepped back. She brushed down her coat that didn’t need brushing and quickly scanned the deck for any crew who may have overheard. They hadn’t said anything to reveal who she actually was, but it was best not to give them any reason to suspect.
“Without me,” Ismene began “you would have a helper, that doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of you.” Almost on cue, the foolish girl came bursting out from below deck. Her eyes frantically searched the deck, grazing over every crew member before they found him. Relief washed over her face, and then agitation as she stalked towards him. A few of the crew who had been walking in her direction abruptly realised they had some other thing to do somewhere else, spinning quickly on their heels and walking briskly in the opposite direction.
“Why did you leave without waking me? How did you get up the stairs?” the girl demanded. She had sharp cheekbones and a soft nose that might have made her pretty, but her dark slanted eyes were always moving, catching every twitch, flicker and glance in a way that would make an honest man think he was hiding something. Not Saffi though. He inclined his head slightly towards her. She called herself Alexia, but Ismene thought it was a fake name. In the First Tongue it meant something akin to “helper”. He gave her an innocent smile.
“I got up the stairs by using my legs. I haven’t lost those yet.” His smile turned into a grin. Alexia glowered and folded her arms across her chest.
“Why did you leave without waking me?” she repeated slowly, over-annunciating every syllable, as if he was hard of hearing as well as blind. He pressed his lips together and hummed a quiet melody. Ismene remembered Saffi doing the same thing whenever she asked him a question he didn’t want to answer.
“I wanted some fresh air.” He said softly. Alexia raised a sceptical eyebrow before she remembered the gesture was wasted on him. She was also fresh out of bed apparently, wearing just a lose silk night gown under a woollen robe and a pair of silk slippers.
“I can’t do my job if you go wandering off while I’m asleep.” Ismene rolled her eyes at that. As if the girl cared about helping her brother. She was taking advantage of a blind young man for his money. Not that Saffi had a lot of money, but he was an apprentice, and he had a small allowance that he paid her with. Apprentice to the monks. Ismene grimaced again at the thought. Before the accident, Saffi had been set to be the youngest Scholar in the Tower, an apprentice of the Order of Alchemists. Then he lost his sight — and his senses — and switched to the Order of Theologians.
Ismene turned away from them both and fixed her gaze on Maya that now loomed closer. The fog had begun to dissipate, showing a jagged cliff face of black stone that made up the harbour. The ledge ran steeply down to one side and curled in a vague imitation of a serpent’s tail. Ismene suppressed a shudder. Slightly more intimidating up close. The thing that brought the prickle of fear back was the stillness. There was not a single bird or bush in site. Ismene would have sooner believed someone had painted the horizon, than accept that lifeless rock was actually Maya.
“It’s so quiet.” Saffi whispered. The crew were still working at ropes and their bare feet padded loudly across the deck, which made Ismene wonder how he knew the harbour was empty. Before she could ask, he spoke again. “Something is different here. The air feels different.” She shut her eyes and tried not to sigh too loudly. The air was cold, but no different than it had been. It’s hollow. A voice in the back of her head whispered. She tusked to herself, forcing the voice to silence.
“Enjoying the view?” a voice sounded from above. A Scholar would not have a reason to be startled by that voice, but Ismene did. The Captain of the Dragon Hunter had been suspicious of her from the moment she stepped on board. He had always appeared conveniently occupied whenever she had left her cabin and found him in the hallway. Always off on some errand whenever she ran into him around a corner. But after a month of such chance encounters, Ismene began to believe he had been eavesdropping on her and Saffi. Now he was perched on a wooden beam in amongst the mast sails, his legs dangling over the edge. The man called himself Orion. A boy really. No older than twenty. He couldn’t be older than Saffi. “You’re free to remain on board if you’re too scared to go ashore, Scholar Mena.” Even from a distance, Ismene could see him give her a mocking smile. She squared her shoulders and raised her chin to stare up at him, whilst simultaneously trying to stare down her nose at him.
“No, thank you. We’ll be coming all the way to the Valley and back with you. Captain.” She added it at the end. So he would know it was an after-thought. He threw his head back and laughed. The medallions and beads that were braided in his tightly coiled hair tinkled as he shook his head. In almost a single fluid movement he slipped off the beam, caught himself on a rope and dropped down onto the deck. Like the rest of the crew he was shirtless, but there was not a single bead of sweat on him. He was nearly a head and neck taller than Ismene, and his skin was a deep ebony. His coiled hair was tied at the nape of his neck in a red silk scarf. A golden pocket watch and compass swung from his belt along-side two sickled knives. He was the only member of the crew wearing boots, of which two more knife hilts poked out from. But despite all the knives in his ensemble, Ismene couldn’t stop staring at his eyes. Grey, like the first ray of light on an overcast day. Ismene had once read, that everyone in Aether use to have grey eyes. Now they had become one of the rarest eye colours in the world. Apparently, the Dean of the Tower has grey eyes. And this man — boy — a captain and leader of a dragon hunt, had them too. What she would have given to trade her blue eyes for his.
“As you wish.” He said with a mock bow. A small smile played at the corners of his lips as Ismene shook her head. “But you must remember, Scholar, we are here to kill dragons, not write stories.” Ismene’s cheeks grew hot. She was about to raise her voice to firmly remind the boy, that she was there to record facts, not tell stories, but the words died in her throat. A distant roar from the mainland sounded and, from the deck of the Dragon Hunter, Ismene could see rocks break off from the jagged face of the cliff and tumble into the ocean. The roar died and the mainland stilled again. The Valley was still at least a month’s travel inland. No one had ever documented dragons settling outside the Valley…but that didn’t mean it hadn’t happened. Open to all possibilities. A quiet, melodic laugh cut through the silence that had fallen on deck, and all eyes turned to Saffi.
“Correction, Captain. You’re here to try to kill dragons.” He smiled absently, unaware that the captain was a glaring at him, and that Alexia had stepped between them, a small dagger glinted in her hands. Ismene couldn’t remember a time before the accident when she considered her brother ‘absent’. Now, everything he did seemed absent. He turned his unseeing eyes to the harbour and his eyelids slid shut. A gust of wind, that chilled Ismene to her bones, ruffled his hair and the skin between his brows seemed to pinch in a semblance of a frown. Ismene turned away from the dark harbour and tried to walk smoothly back to the cabin, resisting the tension in her legs that would have sent her sprinting otherwise. Foolishness.
You knew there would be dragons in Maya.
Saffi doesn’t know everything anymore.
The wind is just wind.
Ismene had to concentrate very hard to ignore the prickle between her shoulder blades, but it was even harder to pretend the wind didn’t sound like someone screaming.