There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Then again, there weren't always minotaurs, harpies, and griffins either. The Valley had become overrun with these vermin. A chimera had eaten three village children already and it was the most recent addition to this menagerie of the damned.
We knew the reason for our infestation. An exiled group of teenage wizards had stumbled upon some ancient library, gathered together in a cave by a witch, Evanora, who was assumed to be stuff of myth and campfire jests. Evidently the crone had existed and no one knew where her history ended and the extraordinary tales began. All we knew was that these delinquents had been summoning all manner of beast to fill the Valley and keep us villagers out and terrified.
"You must know where Fendrel and his goons are campin'. I see the pigeons flying about and they always got those little notes tied to their wee ankles," I said to my bar mate, Caine. His disgraced brother was among the exiled.
"Isolde, why do you care who I talk to? Besides, I don't know where they are," His beer mug hit the table with a muted thunk. "I only know that he's alright. Mum worries."
My eye twitched at the mention of poor Mother Angmar. A husband and son both killed in the wars, another son run out of town on account of bringing dragons back from extinction.
"Why do you want to know anyways? Gossip mill run dry?" He cracked a sardonic smirk.
I straightened slightly. "You know I don't listen to those old birds. My little cousin was among the casualties of the last attack. I'm sick and tired of taking turns watching at night and grieving over empty graves. I'm going into the Valley."
Caine's eyes set ablaze as he searched mine to see if I was telling the truth. I was. "You are doing no such thing."
"I am too."
"Your parents won't let you."
"Let's see them try and even stop me! If someone doesn't do something soon we won't have anyone to worry over anymore. Last month that damned dragon took out the rest of the McCallum clan at their farm. The beasts be creeping closer to our homes every night. I'm having a word or two with those wizards hiding out down there."
"And you're doing this alone?"
"Well..." I traced a trail in the nut shells on the alehouse table. "I was thinking you might want to come have a word with your brother and the rest. He always respected you. Maybe you could talk some sense into that thick skull."
He waved away this thought as if it were a fly. "You're mad."
"These beasts may be dangerous but they are loud, stinky, battering rams. I figure if we stick to the edges of the Valley and keep real silent..."
"You ARE mad!" Caine interrupted. Half the patrons turned to eye us. "Isolde you are no great huntress, warrior, or any manner of diplomat. What makes you think you can accomplish this foolish errand?"
I thought for a moment. He was right of course, I was barely a decent shot with a bow, nearly competent with a sword, and easily defeated in hand to hand combat. I would probably die or at least end up crawling back to the Village with grave injuries.
"I am willing to go."
He was silent at this. Nearly everyone who was strong enough to deal any damage to our monsters was crucial to guarding our vulnerable. Our crops had a 24-hour watch of at least 50 men at a time. Husbands stared at the night sky while their families slept, children were training in weaponry in the square. The dangers were too numerous between us and any resolution.
"Isolde... if something were to happen to me..." He picked at a thread on his vest. Angmar would be crushed if her only remaining son were to die.
I reached across the table to hold his hand. "And if something were to happen to her? To my parents? To Solandis?" Again the fire burned in those deep set eyes at the mention of harm coming to his betrothed. "Caine, we must try. For them."
I hadn't expected my proposal to sway him but I found myself stowing supplies into a pack the next day. I couldn't bear to tell my parents what I was preparing for. Lies regarding training up the Hill poured from me like syrup. They would convince me I was delusional, suicidal. I could not let them make me stay.
Caine and I agreed to meet by the well once the moon had fully risen. When I approached I could make out the figures of he and Solandis sharing a tender goodbye. Warmth crept into my cheeks and I adjusted the sword in its sheath, shuffled my feet through the pebbles. The shadowy pair parted and Caine lifted an arm to wave me over.
"Are you ready?" I asked. His grim nod was all the answer I needed before starting down the Hill. Solandis' icy stare set my neck hairs up. I could understand, I was dragging her man into an unknown pit of hellbeasts.
I let us walk quite a ways before addressing the issue. "You weren't supposed to tell anyone."
"I was not about to leave her with no warning."
"She won't say a word until morning? My father is the type to run after us and drag me back to village by a boot lace, you know that."
"She will not say a word. Now, do you know where we are headed? Or are we wandering through any cave we come across?"
So little faith he had in my preparedness. "I spoke to Corbin. When he led our soldiers back they walked along the far end for a few miles," I pulled out a crude map I had drawn with the old veteran's help. There were three spots marked to the northwest of the Valley. "He said somewhere along here they came across a cave carved up with runes all 'round it. He had seen such things to the north during the war with the dwarves and they spoke of witches that had helped to eradicate the dragons. He couldn't remember where exactly it had been but these are his best guesses."
This seemed to appease Caine for he was silent for many miles of our trek. Sunrise seemed to loosen his lips, though they waded in the doldrums.
"What do you think our mothers must be thinking? Surely they've noticed we've left. Fretting about, interrogating everyone..."
"Maybe they think we've run off to start a life together," I tried a joke to lighten his spirits.
"That's not funny." Though his dark brow had lifted just slightly.
"Aye, the two of us runnin' through wildflower meadows and filling them with children."
"This is why Solandis doesn't like you," He chuckled.
"Oh? Because my sunny sense of humor might melt that ice shell? Shame."
"She's not so bad, she's just shy," He blushed ever so slightly at the tips of his ears. He did that when he thought about her.
"Shy?" I scoffed and kicked a branch off the trail. "Our mothers bathed us together! She pulled my braids when we were little, we've known each other our whole lives."
"You two just don't understand each other. She doesn't like that you wear breeches when your mum's not lookin'. I know you don't like her singing..."
"No one does," I muttered.
"And she doesn't understand how you and I can be friends without you being married."
I rolled my eyes. Petty jealousy for no reason. Little did she know the only man I was ever sweet on was one of the many to fail to return from battle. That's how life was. I wasn't about to hitch myself to some beer-guzzler just so I could keep a good friend.
"You know, Albert has that mill now..."
"He also has a nasty rash that he got from Arya," I retorted.
One of his eyebrows raised. "I thought you said you didn't listen to the old hens."
"Well... there's only so much to talk about while shucking corn and washin-" I was cut off by a roar in the distance.
We instinctively glanced toward the Village nestled into the hillside. No dragons sieging our people, which meant the roar came from the Valley. I opened my mouth to suggest a plan but Caine had already drawn his sword and was creeping along the side of the path. I fumbled to ready an arrow in my bow and ran to catch up with him.
"It sounded pretty far away," I whispered.
"We can't be too careful this far away from the village. We should stay off the main path."
I nodded and we continued as silently as possible. My stomach lurched at every odd sound the forest produced. A bunny scurried by us and I nearly screamed. So I wasn't the ideal adventurer, that's ok. Part of the reason I needed Caine with me was protection. He was much more adept at sword fighting than I was or could ever hope to be.
It was nearly sunset and we had made it a fair distance across the Valley, only stopping once to rest and eat. We had fallen into a comfortable gait, Caine leading and me following his cues. No dragons were to be heard.
Caine stopped abruptly and I nearly ran into him. He caught my arm and held me still. "Listen," He motioned west. I just barely make out the sounds of a scuffle and a human voice calling for help. In an instant Caine was running towards the sound before I could suggest that it might be something we didn't want to run towards.
The signature sulfuric scent of dragon activity was nowhere to be found, which was a great relief. Out of all the evils unleashed into the Valley they were by far the worst. What I did smell was closer to... wet dog.
We broke into a small clearing with a tent and campfire set up. Near the edge of the woods was a confusing scuffle. It looked as if two men and a dog were all wrestling. But no, the dog was the man. A cynocephali. The head of a monstrous dog on the body of a man. While I worked this all out in my head Caine charged the pair. The monster turned to issue a warning bark before sinking it's teeth into its victim. The man screamed in pain, wriggling to get out from under the beast.
Caine stabbed into the naked torso of the monster and was promptly backhanded by the howling cynocephali. It staggered upright to remove the short sword from its ribs and I took the opportunity to fire a shot from across the clearing. It stuck in the creature's shoulder and it snarled towards me. The bloodthirsty and empty eyes sent a shiver down my spine. I was frozen as it started to charge toward me, human muscles rippling with adrenaline and bloodlust.
Caine tackled it to the ground, pulling the arrow out of it's shoulder in one swift motion. The yelp the thing emitted sounded eerily like a human screaming. Caine plunged the arrow into it's eye, more screaming filled the clearing. The man who had been attacked plunged Caine's sword into the heart of the monster. The two sat there, waiting for the cynocephali to stop moving.
I then noticed that I was drenched in sweat even though I had only fired an arrow. My feet finally unstuck from their spot in the moss and I ran to check on Caine. His cheek was cut and his eye already going black but besides that he seemed fine.
"Are you okay?" I asked. He nodded and stood up, helping the other man to his feet as well.
"Thank you my friends," The stranger had an odd accent, slightly guttural and stunted. It sounded eastern. Blood ran from his arm, he held his hand over his wound and winced. "That beast would've been the death of me if not for you."
"What are you doing alone in the Valley? It's suicide in here." Caine was not one to sugarcoat things.
I started treating the mans wounds as he told us his story.
"I wasn't alone, not at first. There were rumors in my city of a valley plagued by long dead monsters. I set out with six other men, searching for this besieged place. We... we found what we were looking for. Ah!" He winced as I applied a salve I had packed in case Caine and I found more than we bargained for. It was foul-smelling and worked better than anything I could forage here.
"Sorry," I said.
"No, thank you for this." He gave a tired smile and his pale eyes looked on me with gratitude.
"What did you find?" Caine cleaned his sword on the moss.
"Well, it found us. Our camp was attacked by a dragon. We were so shocked to even see the beast... I don't think we thought the stories were real. It killed my companions while I was getting water from a spring nearby. I heard the screams of death and I... I fled." He looked down in shame. I finished tying off his bandage and shot Caine a look. It was hard to have compassion for cowards but one man was no match against a dragon.
"I am not proud of my actions, but I knew they were already dead and dying. The flames alone... I saw a village on the hill and decided I better try to go there. I was too far into the Valley to try to return home by myself. I thought I would see if they had answers or help."
"They don't," I replied and was surprised to hear how bitter I sounded. "That's why we're here. That's our village and our people are being slaughtered. We know the cause of our problems and we are going to fix it."
His head perked up at this. "Friends, I owe you my life. Please allow me to assist you. I came all this way, I am not ready to give up. I came to help."
"Give us a minute," Caine pulled my arm towards the edge of the woods so we might confer. "I don't know about this."
"He might be able to help us," I suggested. "He made it this far."
"By abandoning his friends," Caine hissed.
"You and I both know that he could not stand alone against a dragon. He wasn't with them. He might prove useful to us."
"It isn't that bad, he'll heal quickly with Niamh's salve on there."
Caine fidgeted with his belt loop. The sky was growing darker and I was getting anxious to find somewhere to sleep for a couple hours. "Fine. But I don't trust him and I won't be surprised if he doesn't help."
"Okay. Let's find somewhere to set up camp. You and I can take turns standing guard."
"What is your name?" Caine walked over to our stranger, helping him up.
"Alright Berend. We better get away from this spot. Any scavengers after this corpse are ones we don't want to meet."
I helped Berend pack up his small camp while Caine kept watch through the woods. "I am Isolde by the way. That's Caine."
"Isolde. Beautiful name. I cannot thank you enough for letting me travel with you. The thought of continuing alone was worrisome."
"We'll look out for each other," I gave him a small smile. We packed everything up and set out looking for a place to camp for the night.
This was not how I expected our journey to start but Berend seemed pleasant and eager to help. I had a feeling we could use all the help we could get.
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