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The Last of the Dreigiau

by Mark (Mitch) Weil 2 months ago in Fantasy
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A Welsh Clan Against the Dragons

The Last of the Dreigiau
Photo by Catrin Ellis on Unsplash

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley… Dragons used to live in a lot of other places, too. The hills and mountains; the swamps and plains. In all different shapes and sizes, dazzling in their variety of color. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve only seen one dragon in my short life.; the only one that’s been seen outside of the Valley in 12 years. I thought it was the most beautiful creature I’d ever witnessed. My father thought so too, but only after it had come crashing down to the earth with several ballista bolts in its chest. You see, for some reason that no one has been able to adequately explain to me, we went to war with the dragons. Well, my father and the other clan leaders call it war. I call it extermination and genocide.

From what I’ve gathered in the histories, all the dragons ever did to us was kill some livestock every now and again during lean years. But everyone thinks of them as crazed beasts, only around to pillage and burn. After decades of hunting them during the “war”, dragons have become stories to scare the children. Not to mention fear tactics to keep the adults in line as well. Everyone in the clan is a dragon killer, or a nest thief. There is no room for dissent. Anyone who argued against the killing is long gone, killed in the Purge years ago. After the Purge, indoctrination began. Coming of age ceremonies were introduced, with new members of the adult society proving their loyalty and conviction at age 16. For the brave and bloodthirsty, kill a dragon or a hatchling. For the rest, raid an empty nest for food, loot, weapons, or the rare egg. It’s a brilliant way to involve everyone in this lunacy. Unfortunately, today I come of age.

“Emyr! Where are you? It’s almost time to begin!” Emyr snapped his journal shut with a guilty start. He quickly scrambled from his desk and knelt under his bed.

“Come on, son! Of all people, we can’t be late!” Emyr could hear his father’s footsteps coming closer down the hall as his fingers scratched frantically at the floorboards beneath the bed. Finally, he pried a loose board from the ground, releasing smells of must and loam into the room. Emyr shoved his journal into the hole and replaced the piece of wood, making sure the maple grains matched, before scooting himself to the middle of the floor. As he started a sit-up, the door burst open to reveal a shadowed mass filling the doorway. Emyr’s father stepped into the light and Emyr was once again struck by his father’s physical stature. Standing head and shoulders above most others in the clan, with bulky muscles and a huge auburn beard, it was clear why people had rallied behind Rhodri as a leader.

Beyond the physical, his gravelly voice commanded the attention of anyone in a given room, giving little need to speak loudly. Of course, Rhodri loved to yell and browbeat others into submission, so it was only when he was very calm, or very angry, that his voice dropped to a quiet level. Emyr dropped his back to the floor again before raising up one last time, uttering the number “two-hundred” just loudly enough for his father to hear. Rhodri’s chuckle was a deep rumble as he stepped forward and hauled Emyr to his feet.

“A workout before the ceremony? I knew I raised a good one!” he boomed. Rhodri continued to laugh as he beat the dust from his son’s back. “With this kind of dedication, are you sure you don’t want to go on a hunt? You could be a top dragon killer quickly with your skills and fervor.” Emyr tensed, but took a deep breath before repeating his practiced lie.

“Father, I know being a dragon killer is a great honor. I’d certainly love to follow in your footsteps, but I must look to the good of the clan first. The crops are producing less, and the mines have barely shown a single vein of ore this year. If I can find stockpiles of food or metal weapons, it will be more beneficial for everyone.” He searched his father’s eyes warily, looking for any sign that his performance hadn’t been persuading. Finally, Rhodri chuckled again once more before turning back to the door.

“You’re right of course, son,” he said as he left. “A man can dream about his child taking his mantle though, can’t he? Now wash quickly if you must; it wouldn’t do if you were late.” Emyr sat heavily on his bed as he listened to his father’s footsteps retreat down the hall. A shiver passed through him as he thought about what might have happened if he had been pressed to go on a hunt. And he dared not think about what would happen if his journal was discovered. The Purge set a very clear precedent with the public extermination of revolutionaries and traitors. Steeling himself in faith that things must get better, and silently praying that he wouldn’t run into a dragon on his thieving mission, Emyr shouldered his pack and left.

***

Cai stepped softly through the woods, feet searching for brittle sticks in their soft leather boots. Thieving missions were well scouted beforehand, with a ‘go’ signal only given if the scouts were certain no dragons were in the area, but caution was a way of life since the start of the war. After all, who knew which of the monsters could camouflage? He settled himself firmly against the trunk of a wide ash tree and turned to survey the troop. Unseasoned children looking to be adults picked their way across the leaf-strewn ground, trying, and often failing, to mimic their elders’ stealth.

Scattered throughout the group were members of Cai’s own veteran team of thievers and a few hunters, there to provide guidance and backup in case of an emergency. The children finally gathered around Cai, and he raked the group again with his eyes. There was the usual distribution of temperament in the crowd. Those whose fear was palpable; those who thought this was all some grand adventure, but would piss themselves and run if they actually came face to face with a dragon; and those select few who looked calm and ready. Normally, Cai would have members of his team keeping tabs on those who looked most in control, so he could offer them a place on his squad. Of course, today was no ordinary day. One of those silent, calm children was Rhodri’s own son.

Even crouched down, the boy was almost as tall as Cai standing, with defined muscles and fiery red hair hanging below his shoulders. He seemed far more suited to dragon killing than thieving, based purely on size and bearing. His bulk and hair would not lend itself to stealth in the trees, and even his green eyes seemed to glow from their sockets rather than blend in with the foliage. Although, Cai mused, he hadn’t heard a sound from the boy since they started the trek, so perhaps he was cut out for thieving after all. Quick movements from the side snapped Cai out of his perusal, and he glanced over to see Dafydd, the oldest member of his team, looking at him quizzically and flashing questions toward him through hand-talk.

‘What are we waiting for?’ he signed. ‘Do you see something?’ Cai shook his head and waved Dafydd away, annoyed with himself for getting distracted. Turning his back to the group, he led the way through the final trees and into a large clearing. The space was anything but natural, with large chunks of earth strewn about and the trees at the edges bent towards the rest of the forest at crazy angles. At the far end sat a rocky hill, covered in scrub brush and mossy boulders. Set near the top, a gaping hole seemed to leak darkness and marked the location of a dragon’s nest. As soon as they left the tree line behind, the children dropped to a crouch as they’d been taught, keeping movements slow and controlled so as to not attract notice. The veterans quickly spread out along the perimeter of the clearing with watchful eyes. Cai himself led the children up the hill, using the boulders for cover as they crept their way up. Near the lip of the cave, he halted and leaned against the lichen covered rock as he turned to quietly address the group.

“Here is where I leave you,” he whispered, trying to project calm and confidence to those who might lose their nerve. “This final part of the journey you must make yourselves, and though it may prove a challenge to summon the courage, you will emerge from the experience stronger. You will emerge as an adult. Good luck.” Cai watched them digest his words for a few seconds, and then turned to survey the opening once again. To his surprise, Emyr was already edging his way inside, seemingly swallowed by the darkness as he stepped into the cavity. Cai shook his head in wonder, then frowned to himself as he realized he hadn’t heard the boy move past him up the hill. Certainly one to watch, indeed. Thinking he would gauge the reaction of his team about recruiting the boy, Cai stood. As his head cleared the stone he had been leaning against, he noticed a small stream of smoke leaking from a cleft in the hill. It took a few, slow seconds for his brain to connect what he was seeing to the inevitable conclusion of why the smoke was there. And in that time, the hill underneath him exploded.

***

I don’t know what to do. I’m confused, saddened, and guilty. I’m also excited. I’ve always worn a mask filled with loyalty and fervor, but I never expected to be a celebrity. After today, I’ll be under even more scrutiny than usual. I feel the need to describe the encounter, in case things go poorly and my plan fails. These words need to be recorded for future dissenters like myself. So here goes: In keeping with my ruse, I was the first to enter the dragon’s cave to appear eager and unafraid. It was dim compared to the sunny day outside, so it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust. In that time, I noticed a peculiar musk permeating the air. The cave was also hot and humid, despite being quite large and open. In retrospect, those factors should have given me immediate, important information about whether or not the cave was occupied. I guess training experience really does have a hard time translating to the field.

Instead of immediately retreating like my training taught me, I stepped farther into the cave and started to inspect the large dirt mounds that dotted the ground. Dragons all design their dens in different ways, depending on their physiology and habitat. This one was clearly a burrower of some kind as the cave seemed carved from the rock and dirt, and the mounds all appeared identical in size and shape. I decided to stick close to the walls initially, finally listening to my training. But as soon as I approached one of the mounds, a tremble shook the ground and I heard screams from outside. I quickly ducked down and scrambled behind a dirt pile, thoughts racing as I tried to determine what was happening. Clearly, there was an incident happening with the rest of my troop. If things were to go poorly, I could potentially be trapped in a dragon’s nest. However, as the excursion was a coming of age ceremony, there were veteran thieves and even a few dragon killers with us. So I decided to sit tight before making a move.

It killed me to sit there and think about what was happening. Either my peers and mentors were being slaughtered by a dragon protecting her nest, or one of the few dragons remaining in the world was dying. After a few minutes that felt like hours, sound from outside dwindled. I cautiously left my hiding place, determined to find out what had happened. That’s when a shadow filled the entrance, and a dragon entered the cave. I froze, hopelessly trying to blend into the wall. Of course, it saw me. It stood for a few seconds, watching me, and I thought I would need to fight for my life. But instead of attacking, breathing fire, or even roaring at me, it gurgled strangely and headed further inside. As it passed me, I saw the reason for the unexpected noise: a ballista bolt transfixing its throat.

Dozens of arrows and multiple large gashes also riddled its hide, forcing it into an odd slide-hop gait as it traversed the cavern. Once again, I ignored my training. There was a feeling I couldn’t shake, like any decision I made would have a massive impact on the future. So I stayed, and watched as the dragon finally slumped down next to a mound near the back of the den. I thought I was watching its last moments, but it moved once again, turning to look at me. Staring into the eyes of a dragon was something I never thought I would get to experience. It was exhilarating knowing that, even so close to death, it could kill me in an instant, and in a variety of different ways. However, instead of feeling in danger, I felt a sense of urgency coming from the dragon. A sense that I was needed, despite being on opposite sides of the “war”. Then I made the decision to approach, and it changed everything.

The dragon held my eyes, and gurgled once again as I made my way closer. Finally, it turned and began scratching weakly at the closest mountain of dirt. In a flash of awe and inspiration I knew, somehow, what was sitting there just under the earth. And I knew that I had another choice in front of me, one that could potentially shake the foundations of our civilization. I gathered my new possession, still unsure exactly what I would do with it, and locked eyes with the dragon for the last time. Once again I was struck by a feeling, as if the dragon were conveying its feelings to me just through our eye contact. It was suffering, and wasn’t going to survive. Release was the only thing that could help ease the pain, and so I committed an act that, in a flash, made me the guiltiest celebrity in our clan: I sliced the dragon’s throat.

***

Ffion grumbled to herself as she walked along the path, once again frustrated beyond reason. Her coming of age ceremony had gone off without a hitch. All the nervousness and butterflies had been for nothing. She’d been first inside the nest, first to obtain any loot, and even discovered a small crevasse that contained a cache of metal weapons in excellent condition. All in all, it should have been enough. Yet once again, Emyr, her best friend and biggest rival, had outshone her. Killing a dragon on a thieving run? During a coming of age ceremony? It seemed impossible, but the golden boy who’s father led the clan could apparently do no wrong. Deep down, Ffion was proud of him. She was. After all, it’s not every day that your best friend becomes a celebrity overnight. On the surface, she was seething. Since childhood, Emyr had always been just a half step ahead. Secretly, Ffion feared she’d never step from under his shadow. That was why she’d decided that instead of bowing down and congratulating him like everyone else, she’d have a bit of fun.

The dirt path she tread led through the woods at the edge of the village, often branching into game trails that the townsfolk used to hunt. The track was well worn by the passing of many feet, and dappled sunlight struck the ground through the leaves. With so many forks, it would be easy for someone who hadn’t grown up traversing the area to get lost. Fortunately, Ffion had been hiking the woods her entire life, and knew that one of the branches passed the large house that Emyr and his father shared. She eventually left the trail and began moving more carefully, slipping silently through the trees, intending on giving Emyr the scare of his life. After all, if he could sneak up on a dragon in its den and kill it, she could certainly do some sneaking of her own and surprise him in his room.

The trees parted before her and the house came into view, looming over the surrounding area. It was an imposing structure; the only one other than the council building with two stories. Ffion knew the house inside and out, having spent much of her childhood exploring and hiding in its many rooms while playing with Emyr. She chose an upstairs window with a particularly loose hinge as her entry point, and slipped quietly down the hall once inside. Carefully picking her way around the squeaky spots in the floor, Ffion made her way to Emyr’s room. She listened briefly at the door to make sure he wasn’t around before making her way inside. She already knew where she wanted to hide; a shadowed loft in the far corner that housed a cache of weapons.

Ffion barely had time to settle herself into the space before Emyr entered the room, pausing briefly to lock the door behind himself. Ffion smiled as she contemplated the look on Emyr’s face when she appeared behind him like a ghost. Savoring the moment, she waited to descend as Emyr knelt to the floor. Strangely, he wriggled under his bed. In all her years, Emyr had not seen him store anything in that space, and so she paused to see what might happen. She heard scraping noises for a few seconds, before Emyr slithered out from under the cot with something cradled in his arms. As he turned, she couldn’t stop a gasp escaping her lips as the object came into full view. Emyr spun quickly, freezing as his eyes found hers in the alcove. Ffion herself was rooted to the spot, stunned with mouth gaping open as she stared at him. Emyr, golden boy, son of the overzealous clan leader Rhodri, killer of a dragon, stood in front of her clutching a dragon’s egg to his chest.

Fantasy

About the author

Mark (Mitch) Weil

I am an aspiring author, both in the novel and short story genres. I have loved books and reading my entire life, and look forward to creating the same awe and wonder in readers that other authors have done for me over the years.

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