Protection and peace come at a cost.
“There weren’t always dragons in the valley,” said Lilia. Her wrinkled brow bent downward over her pale blue eyes, “When I was a little girl, a long long time ago, the elders of our village summoned the great beasts from their mountain caves to come down and live in the valley as our protectors.” I watched as she took her wooden staff and drew a line in the dirt. All of us children inched closer from our seated positions to see what she was doing. “You see, there were terrible creatures, monsters, who lived on the other side of the valley. Our village of Moritha is here,” she explained, drawing a circle on the ground a few inches from the line, “All that we had to protect us from the evil creatures, was this valley.” She tapped on the line with her staff. She then drew several mountain peaks around our village, “These mountains which surround our village, they were once the home of the dragons.” I turned my head to gaze up at the mountains, their snowy peaks seemingly scraping the sky. “How did the elders summon the dragons, Lilia?” A chubby boy next to me asked, his hands grasping his criss-crossed legs in anticipation. “Our elders climbed the mountain and bravely approached the dragons in their caves. They promised that half of all our crops, livestock, and treasure would be given every year in return for their protection of the valley. Dragons are guardian creatures. They always need a treasure to protect,” Lilia replied, drawing our symbol for gold on the ground.
“How many dragons are there?” The chubby boy asked again. Lilia chuckled and patted the boy’s sunkissed, golden hair with her boney hand, “So many questions from you today, child. There are five dragons. Each of the dragons has a different gift. The first dragon is the dragon of the earth. He controls what grows out of the ground and the crops we eat. The second dragon has the gift of water. The rain, the river, it’s all under her control. The third dragon has the gift of fire. He gave the very first man the ability to create fire so that we may have light during the dark hours. The fourth dragon has the power of life and death. Whenever a baby is born, whenever one of our people dies, she decides it. Finally, the greatest of all the dragons is-” “I know! I know!” shouted the chubby boy, jumping to his feet, “He’s the dragon of wisdom!” All the other kids groaned and motioned for him to sit down, annoyed. Lilia just laughed and said, “Yes, child. The dragon of wisdom.” I thought for a moment, “Lilia, is that the dragon the elders go to?” Lilia nodded with a smile, “You are right, girl. The elders go to the dragon of wisdom each month for council. Every important decision of Moritha is first discussed with the dragon. They have done this ever since the dragons first came to our valley.” All of the kids looked at one another in wonder. Finally, a small girl with two, long braids stood up, “Lilia…have you ever seen a dragon?” She asked, shyly. “No one’s ever seen a dragon except for the elders, stupid!” yelled an older boy toward the back of the circle. The little girl sat back down, embarrassed. “No need to be hostile, boy. Her question is as fine as any,” retorted Lilia, sternly, “I have not seen a dragon. When the elders went to call on them, our whole village was in hiding behind the great walls that surround us.” All of us gazed around at the large, stone walls that encircled our village. “The monsters,” she continued, “were trying to break in. Half of our livestock had already been killed in the fields outside of the village. None of us were to leave our homes until the elders returned.” My curiosity got the better of me, “Lilia, why can’t we go to the valley to see the dragons?” I think the other kids were wondering the same thing, because they all stared wide-eyed at Lilia, waiting for an answer. Lilia placed both of her wrinkled hands on top of her staff and leaned in closer to us, “No one must ever go into the valley. Only the elders. The dragons, while they protect us, are very territorial of their space. Part of the agreement between the elders and the dragons is that no human will venture into the valley beyond the tree line just beyond our fields. The punishment is death.” All of us gasped in horror. “Don’t worry, children. As long as we follow the rules and stay out of the valley, we are safe. The elders and the dragons have had this agreement of protection for over 100 years. No monster has made it past them yet, and they never will!” Lilia reassured us. “How old are you?” the rude boy in the back of the circle asked, crossing his arms suspiciously. Lilia laughed, “I’ll be 105 years old at the end of this harvest season.”
The story about the dragons in the valley is the first story children learn in our village, and they’re reminded of it everyday. From the statues of the five dragons standing in the village center, to the inscriptions and paintings on our justice building’s walls, we are always reminded of our great protectors. Ten years after Lilia had told us children the story of the dragons, and I still thought about the line in the dirt that Lilia had drawn. It was the finality of it, the menacing, ominous border upon which we couldn’t pass. I was determined to follow the rules, to make my parents proud and do my duties as a citizen of our Moritha, but I couldn’t help but feel curious about the forbidden valley of the dragons we were told so much about. It would remain shrouded in mystery, however, as Lilia, the last remaining citizen alive during the time when the agreement was made, passed away at the age of 108. Now, all we have are the elders, ten old men fully cloaked in white who reside in large, stone houses outside of the village walls. The elders are elected by the villagers every 20 years. Once elected, you are an elder for life. You must leave your family, friends, and occupation and dedicate your life to governing Moritha. If an elder dies during the 20 year period, his position remains empty until the next election. My mother’s father was an elder. I never met him as he died before I was born. Not that it would have mattered, he became an elder when my mother was only ten, and from that point on, he was no longer her father. It’s an honor to be an elder, or so they say.
It was a spring evening when my simple life changed forever. It was the sixth day of the week, so I wasn’t required to attend my apprenticeship at the justice building that day. When the more privileged youth turned 16 in Moritha, it was expected that we do a one-year apprenticeship at the justice building to learn the law, history, and fundamentals of leadership. Girls typically weren’t accepted, however, my father was a scribe to the elders, so I was admitted along with a few other lucky girls. From the pool of apprentices each year, a select few applicants would be chosen to be eligible to run for a position as an elder one day. Females are not permitted to be elders, so our place at the justice building was strictly for secretarial purposes. It was better than doing laundry, cooking, and cleaning the house, though, so I was happy for the opportunity.
On this particular spring morning, I was fetching water from the well when I heard my name called, “Valory!” I spun around, nearly dropping my bucket down the well. It was my best friend, Adrian, the chubby boy who had asked all those questions when Lilia was telling us the story of the dragons years ago. Ever since that day, we had been best friends. Maybe it was because we were both curious about the dragons. Maybe it was because we both loved to eat. Adrian certainly wasn’t chubby anymore, though. In fact, as we grew up, I always found him to be very handsome. Adrian’s parents were farmers, and worked in the fields outside of Moritha’s walls. When I wasn’t doing my apprenticeship, I sometimes helped them in the fields during harvest time, against my parents’ wishes. I would always stare out at the tree line on the horizon, hoping to get a glimpse of one of the dragons lurking in the shadows. I never saw anything, but Adrian swears that he heard a roar one time when he ventured too close. He’s always been one to have an overactive imagination.
“Valory!” Adrian called out again. He was running towards me at full speed, and when he came to a stop in front of me, he almost toppled over from his momentum. I steadied him with my hands and laughed, “Adrian! What on earth is the matter? You almost took a tumble down the well!” Adrian bent over, placed his hands on his trousers and breathed deeply. I could tell something was wrong. “Adrian! Adrian! What is it?” I demanded, shaking him aggressively. He tilted his head up to look at me, his deep, blue eyes peering out from behind the yellow strands of hair that had fallen onto his face, “I…I gotta show you something.” he stuttered through his winded breath. “Go on! Tell me what it is!” I probed. He finally caught his breath, “Val, you’re not going to believe me unless you see for yourself.” He stood upright and tilted his head back to take in a gulp of air. I could see that his clothes were dirty and disheveled, like he’d been rolling on the ground. “Well, then show me!” I demanded. Before he got the chance to speak again, I heard my mother’s voice calling to me from our house down the road. “Curses! She’s going to be so mad if I take off without bringing the water,” I said, frantically grabbing the bucket from the well. As I turned to head home, Adrian grabbed my shoulder. It was such a firm grasp that it stopped me dead in my tracks. His face was cold as death, and his normally happy voice was deep and serious, “Valory, meet me here at the well after sunset…there’s something I need to show you. Don’t tell a soul.” He then let go of me and headed in the opposite direction. I had never seen him like that before, and I wondered what could possibly have made him that worked up, but like I said, he had an overactive imagination.
I headed back toward my house which was just a few street turns from the well. Our home was in the nicer part of the village, with several rooms, a back patio, and easy access to the well. I lugged the heavy bucket of water up our stone steps, nearly tripping on my skirt. By the time I made it to our heavy, wooden door I was out of breath. My mother threw open the door and pulled me inside, “Thank you, Valory! I desperately needed more water for the wash.” She then grabbed the bucket from my hands and pulled it toward the back room. Her yellow hair was a mess and her dress had staines all over the bodice and skirt. “So much to do! Your father will be home in an hour. Could you get Lay ready for supper, please?” she asked in a frantic voice. Lay, my four-year-old brother, was playing with his favorite stuffed animal in the main room. Hearing his name, he looked up at me with his round, blue eyes and smiled, “Val-ry!” He could never pronounce my name properly. “Hello, sweet boy! Let’s get you washed up for supper,” I said, taking his tiny hand in mine and leading him to the back door. We went out onto the patio and I helped him rinse his hands and face in the wash bucket. “Val-ry, did you know there are dragons in the valley?” he asked excitedly. “Yes, of course, Lay. They protect us. Did you learn about the dragons in one of your lessons?” I asked, rubbing his hands with soap. Lay nodded, “Teacher told us. I want to see one!” I chuckled, “So do I, but it’s forbidden.” Lay was quiet for a minute, “Maybe we aren’t allowed to see them because they’re scary.” I dried his hands with a cloth, “Yes, you might be right. Alright, you’re all done. You can go back to playing.” Lay ran back inside and sat back on the floor with his toy.
My father returned home shortly after from his daily work being a scribe for the elders. He never spoke about what he did or about the elders at all. He said that his position was a privilege, and that it was his duty to respect the privacy of our elders. He was a tall man with yellow hair like the rest of us and dark, blue eyes. He was intimidating, and quiet, but loving all the same. My brother ran to him when he entered our home, “Papa! Papa!” My father scooped him up in his arms, “Hello, son! Did you help your mama today with the chores?” he asked, winking at my mother. “If helping with the chores means playing with his toys then, yes, he did!” My mother chuckled, “Supper is ready, my love. Come sit.” My father removed his boots and outer cloak and we all gathered around the table. My mother had prepared a stew out of meat, beans, and other vegetables with a side of fresh bread. It was my father’s favorite meal. My parents and brother all chatted and laughed as they ate. I, on the other hand, was absorbed with the thought of the mysterious thing Adrian wanted to show me. I sat there, with my cheek resting in my palm, stirring my stew and staring blankly at the table. I was startled when I heard my mother say, “Valory! Valory! Hello?” I sat up, quickly, “Yes, Mother! What is it?” Everyone was staring at me curiously. “Are you alright?” My mother asked, “You seem to be…elsewhere.” I cleared my throat and smoothed my skirt, “I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m just tired is all,” I lied. “Why don’t you go to bed? You help your mother greatly during the day. You should rest,” suggested my father. I nodded in agreement, “Yes, I think I will go to bed. Lay, are you finished with your supper? I can tuck you in,” I said, standing up from the table. Lay smiled up at me and nodded, his yellow curls bouncing. I grabbed a candle off of the table and started to walk toward our bedroom with Lay in hand. “Sweet dreams my darlings,” My mother called to us.
We slept in the back room where a sheet was hung to separate my side of the room from Lay’s. I helped him change into his sleeping gown and pulled the blankets over his little body as he lay down in bed. “Val-ry!” He whispered, grabbing my hand, “I’m scared of the monsters.” I knelt down next to him and gently rubbed his cheek with my hand, “You don’t have to be scared, Lay. The dragons are there to protect us. You’ll never have to be scared.” Lay settled a bit, “I want to see a dragon.” I laughed, “I know, I know. Maybe one day. Now, go to sleep.” I kissed his head and headed toward my side of the room. I opened the shutters to the window and saw that the sun was already set and all that remained was a soft, orange glow in the sky. I looked back behind me to make sure that Lay hadn’t gotten up. He was still on his side of the room, out of view behind the sheet. I quietly opened the chest in the corner of my room and pulled out a few blankets. I then stuffed them under the quilt on my bed to make it look like a body was underneath. If my mother decided to check in on us, it would look like I was fast asleep in my bed. I then pulled on my boots and laced them up tightly and threw on my cloak and pulled the hood over my head. I grabbed hold of the windowsill, and hoisted myself up and over the ledge. I dropped down onto the ground below as quietly as I could, looking around to make sure that no one had seen me. No one was on the street, as most people were already in their homes for the night. I pulled my cloak tightly around me and began to make my way toward the well where I was to meet Adrian.
As I approached the well, I could see the outline of a human leaning against it in the fleeting dusk light. It was indeed Adrian, also wrapped in a cloak, waiting patiently for me. “Valory? Is that you?” He asked in a loud whisper. “Yes! It’s me,” I replied, running over to him. He pulled his hood down, revealing his face, “Does anyone know you left?” he asked. I shook my head, “No, but I can’t stay long. My parents may look for me.” Adrian then held up a small lantern from under his cloak and struck a match to light it. “You have to trust me, alright? I have to show you something and you can’t tell anyone!” He said sternly. I nodded reassuringly, wondering what on earth he was going to show me. He then grabbed my hand and began to lead me down the stone streets toward the village walls. I kept silent for a while, thinking that maybe he was taking me to his home which was in the poorer part of the village. As we passed his door and continued in the direction of the front gates, I spoke up, “Where are we going?” He didn’t respond or even look at me. He just kept pulling me toward the entrance to the village. “Adrian, you know we aren’t supposed to go outside of the walls at night! We’re going to get in trouble!” I whispered harshly, trying to pull my hand away. He just tightened his grip and turned to look at me, “You have to trust me. Now stay quiet, or we’ll get caught!” I did as I was told and let him lead me to the entrance of Moritha.
We didn’t have guards or anyone watching the gate, as there were no threats to our village since the dragons came to the valley. It was always understood that you did not leave Moritha once the sun went down unless you were an elder. Even the farmers, like Adrian’s family, lived inside the village walls. Adrian finally let go of my hand and bent down near the base of the gate where a small space was visible between the iron bars and the ground. Adrian pulled out a very small garden hoe from his belt, which he must’ve stolen from his parents' tools. He then began to dig, pulling dirt away from under the gate. “What are you doing?!” I whispered loudly. “Shhhh!” He retorted, not stopping his digging. After a few minutes he put the garden hoe back in his belt and lowered himself onto his stomach. He then wiggled his way under the gate until he was completely on the other side. Once he was back on two feet he motioned for me to follow. “You expect me to crawl under there?” I asked, laughing in shock. He put his hands on his hips, “I sure as hell do.” We stared at each other for a few seconds in silence, waiting for the other to budge. I finally sighed, annoyed that he was getting me into this, and laid on the ground. I slid under the gate and Adrian helped pull me through. I heard a loud tear and turned to see that my skirt had gotten ripped on the bottom of the gate. “That’s just perfect! How am I going to explain that to my mother?” I asked, fumbling with the fabric. “You’ll think of something! Now, come on!” Adrian said, pulling me behind him once again.
We made our way through the waist-high wheat growing in the fields, careful not to make any noise. I wondered what Adrian could possibly be showing me out here in the fields after dark. Adrian’s lantern was the only light in the darkness, and I have to admit I was a bit frightened, having never been outside the walls of Moritha after sunset. We went on for what felt like an eternity, until I could just barely make out the outline of the trees at the start of the forest. I stopped dead in my tracks, “No…No! No! Adrian I’m not going into the woods!” I cried. Trying in vain to pull my arm free from his grip. “Valory, Val…,” Adrian said, placing both hands on my shoulders, “I thought you said you would trust me.” I looked up into his glistening, blue eyes in the light of the lantern. He wasn’t crazy, I could see it. He was being genuine, and against all logical thought, I decided to trust him.
“We’re almost there. I promise,” he assured me, turning slowly back to the path he was heading. We walked slowly in the direction of the trees, my heart beating faster and faster with every inch. All I could think about were the stories of those who had gone into the woods in the past. If someone in the village went missing, it was assumed that they had ventured into the forest. If they didn’t turn up in the village or in the fields, they were never seen or heard of again. I hoped that my fate wouldn’t be the same. We got within a few feet from the first tree leading into the forest when Adrian stopped. I stood there, frozen, staring into the dark, ominous woods in front of me. The trees creaked and swayed in a trance-like, rhythmic motion. The wind whistled through their branches like a distant melody. I almost didn’t notice that Adrian had left my side and began rummaging around with something at the tree line. Once I heard the cracking of branches and the rustling of foliage, I snapped out of my trance and looked toward the direction of the noises. I could see the glow of Adrian’s lantern over by the trunk of a large tree. I felt my feet start to move toward him, even though my insides were screaming for me to stay put. He was moving things around like he was uncovering something buried. As I got closer, I could make out the outline of Adrian’s body and the heap of branches and sticks he was standing over. After a few more steps, I could clearly make out Adrian’s face, which was covered in beads of sweat. I studied him closely, and could see that he was both determined and worried. I then shifted my gaze to the object he was standing over. I took two more slow steps in its direction, and gazed down at the large mass on the ground. I was trying to figure out what it was, as it was covered in a blanket. Once all of the branches were removed from on top of the mysterious thing, Adrian knelt down next to it. He looked up at me, breathing heavily, “This…is what I had to show you.” He then pulled the blanket off revealing a man, lying there on the ground.
I fell backward in shock, landing hard on my rear end. I took a few shuffles backward on all fours, my eyes still locked on the man laying in front of me. I could tell he was middle aged from his shape, he was medium height, and it looked like he had blood on him. Could Adrian have done this? I tried to form words, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what was going on. “Val…Val, stay calm, alright?” Adrian said, taking a step toward me. I shifted my gaze from the man up to Adrain’s face. He was concerned, but seemed in control of the situation somehow. I looked at him, then the man, then back at Adrian again. Questions started to formulate in my head. The first, and most obvious questions to leave my lips were, “Who is that!? Is he alive?” Adrian knelt down on the ground next to me and put his hand on my shoulder, “Listen, I don’t know who he is, and, yes, he’s still alive…but he’s not from Moritha. I found him near death right here at the edge of the forest when I was helping my father tend to the crops. When I saw that he was injured, I gave him some water, bandaged him up, and then hid him under branches and leaves so no one would see him. He’s got a puncture wound on his side.” I thought for a second and then asked the next question to pop into my head, “How do you know he’s not from Moritha?” Our village wasn’t huge, but there were plenty of people I didn’t know. Adrian stood up and walked back toward the man. He picked up his lantern, which had been resting on the ground, and held it closer to the man’s face. The light illuminated his features, and I noticed something strange. His hair was dark, not like all of us in the village. It was brown, like dirt. Adrian then knelt down next to the man and carefully used his fingers to pry open the man’s eye lids. The stranger’s eyes were the same color as his hair, dark brown. I shook my head, “That’s impossible. I didn’t know humans could have hair and eyes like that.”
Suddenly, the man who had been lying still, groaned. Adrian and I both jumped in fright. I ran over next to Adrian and grabbed hold of his arm, “We should tell the elders! Something’s not right!” Before Adrian could answer, the man reached up and grabbed my arm. I shrieked and Adrian clasped his hand over my mouth. “SHHHH!” he hissed, “Someone might hear us!” The injured man on the ground began to hoist himself upright using my arm to pull himself up, “Don’t…don’t tell your elders,” he mumbled in a hoarse voice, “Let me explain.” I yanked my arm away, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” I demanded, snatching the lantern out of Adrain’s hand and holding it up at him. The man held up his hand as if to say he meant no harm, “My name is Seegan…I’m from Fane. It’s a village south of here.” Adrian and I stared at each other, not knowing what to say. Finally, I whispered, “There are other villages?” The man began to cough below us. Adrian pulled out a satchel of water from under his cloak and quickly handed it to Seegan. Seegan chugged the water for a few seconds until the satchel was empty. He then took a deep breath and looked up at us with his mysterious, brown eyes, “They’ve been lyin’ to ya girl.” This statement made Adrian mad. I could tell because his fists were clenched and his left eye began to twitch. “How the hell did you make it past the dragons? Why didn’t they kill you?” he demanded. Seegan laughed a harty, girgly laugh which turned into a violent coughing fit. Once he had hacked up whatever it was he was choking on, he leaned back on his elbows and tilted his chin up at us. “My boy,” he started. A subtle grin formed on the corner of his mouth, “There are no dragons.”
About the Creator
Hey guys! My name is Jenna and I'm a twenty-something post-grad living in the DC area! I mostly write for fun and it's always been a hobby of mine. I hope you enjoy my stores and that they bring some excitement to your day!
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