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The Ward

Love, loss, hope and sacrifice

By Raeanne PattersonPublished 2 years ago 20 min read

For a thousand years, the world lies still. The scent of blood hangs heavy and metallic in the air. Fields are strewn with the decayed remains of fallen soldiers, and whole kingdoms that had once spanned several leagues now exist only in a state of ruin—razed to the ground to be overtaken by moss and vine as the earth seeks to reclaim that which rightfully belongs to it.

For a thousand years, he searches. Scours the desecrated land and the wild, unforgiving waters of the Ithilian sea. He coils his long, serpentine body about the inhospitable peaks of the mountains and remains sentry there. Watching. Waiting. Bound by an ancient promise that tethers him to this forsaken place. Until at last, the chains of fate that shackle him begin their long-awaited pull, and he finds himself gently alighting upon a bed of pine needles and freshly overturned earth in a place long since lost to the endless currents of time. A relic of the old world tucked beneath a thick, leafy canopy of verdant greens and sun-mottled golds.

The scents here are sharp and damp and fragrant, a stark contrast to the acrid smoke and the smell of rot the land has since become steeped in. In his centuries of waiting, he has determined it is all that remains in the wake of the Great War. The stench of death.

But the sight of her is enough to challenge it all. Death and destruction and despair. Even their ominous shadows tremble before such a creature. An age has come and gone in his long wait for her. Where there has been naught but bloodshed and suffering, she brings light. She is what the world grew still for. She is the promise of something greater. The promise of a future that has for so long seemed so very out of reach.

And yet for something so powerful to appear so fragile, he cannot help but marvel at her.

She is finespun. Delicate and vulnerable and as pale as unblemished ivory. Almost translucent, in the way the green-blue of her veins appears unsettlingly prominent beneath the thin layer of her unmarred flesh. She is a tangle of naked limbs that shift in painfully slow, imperceptible movement and her modesty is preserved only by an impossibly long tumble of hair that spills down her back and across her shoulders like silk, in thick, opalescent swaths of starlit silver. But it is her eyes that prove most remarkable of all, almost too large and ill-suited for her small, exquisite features. Veiled in wispy, gossamer lashes, they assume a perplexing hue that seems not to know which it is supposed to be. A bright quicksilver turns a misty grey-blue and then shifts to become amaranthine until, finally, it settles into clear, jewel-toned amethyst. And they fix on the reptilian yellow of his in a blank, indecipherable stare that both soothes him and brings him profound sadness.

For the first time in centuries, he feels something stir deep within himself: a visceral, furious, and all-consuming need to protect at any cost.

There is no fear in her eyes as she studies him avidly in the surrounding stillness. Neither for his long, sinuous enormity, nor for the impenetrable coat of his scales, so dark as to appear black until the sun turns them a striking iridescent green that seems to continually shift and ripple—the way light plays on water. She appears particularly fascinated by the bulk of his wings, despite all six remaining neatly folded and tucked along his spine, and he angles his head to one side with an air of reserved curiosity before slowly lifting one so that she might better inspect the assemblage of glossy feathers there.

The impassivity in her expression melts away to reveal an innocent smile, and she proceeds to lift one of her own small, delicate arms with a huff of self-satisfaction and an amused titter, mirroring his gesture.

Two creatures lost in a forsaken world, united by a shared destiny and the divine workings of ancient prophecy. Venefica's words to him, buried deep in the past, ring true now. And he resolves not to allow that fateful final meeting between them to go in vain. The faint echoes of her wisdom that he still carries, much like a precious gift, will guide them—he and the child both. Only one path lies before them now, and he cannot afford to fail. Not when the future of the world—the future of magic and mankind both—hinges upon his success.

And then all at once, the illusion of peace shatters, and the wind brings with it a discernable fetor. Something foul and familiar that has him lifting himself to his full height to peer through the narrow gaps in the trees.

Something approaches. Vague, indistinct shapes flit between breaks in the untamed brush, and the slow, heavy shuffling of boots dragging across the forest floor suggest a group as opposed to an individual. They have sensed her, much as he had. The child of prophecy. But for what purpose they seek her out, he cannot say. The Dolroth have not surfaced for millennia, and yet he can recognize their putrid smell all the same. They operate on a hive mind mentality, and though they are neither particularly strong nor intelligent, their numbers are limitless. If caught in an ambush, even he might struggle to overcome a horde. And yet it is no longer only himself that he must account for. The very idea that they might invade such a sacred place after remaining dormant underground for so long can only mean that this child truly is the key to the salvation that was foretold.

With a newfound sense of urgency, he lowers himself until his underbelly drags across the ground, and he gives his head a broad shake, leaning in toward her. But the child is still uncertain, and she retreats several steps as her attention volleys between the two perceived and immediate threats. She wrings her small hands and tugs at her hair in distress with a soft, fearful whimper, and he snorts his impatience. There is no time to waste idling, but with each attempt he makes to reach for her with his beckoning talons, she only scurries further away from him. He feels his body tense up, back claws flexing and digging deep gouges into the soft earth as he struggles to keep his temper carefully restrained, but he cannot help the growl of warning that vibrates deep in his throat. Their glaring inability to communicate with one another could prove a critical detriment, but there is no help for it now. The Dolroth are already upon them.

They emerge from the surrounding copse like insects, trickling into the clearing in surprisingly uniform order. But they are clumsy and inexperienced with the forest terrain, tripping over fallen branches and upturned roots in their excitement. He gives them no quarter.

Without hesitation, he places the bulk of himself between them and the child, and the trees shudder with the tremendous movement as he snaps his jaws and delivers a powerful roar that proves effective enough to give the creatures pause. But it’s only for a moment. Their hesitation fades quickly, and a few amble forward without fear, driven by their obsessive desire to fulfill a higher bidding—a desire that is all the more compelling now that the girl is within reach. To her credit, she remains obediently still behind him, and a low hiss fills the glade as he issues one final warning.

A warning they choose not to heed.

With exceptional speed, he lashes out at those intrepid few on the front lines, catching the first between his jaws and flinging it viciously against the trunk of a large pine with enough force for the wood to crack in protest. Its body falls limp and lifeless to the ground. His clawed foot comes down with all its weight upon another, resulting in an obscene chorus of shattering bones. But this does not seem to deter the others. Still they advance, weapons raised as their inhuman shrieks echo eerily in the empty space. They bare their yellowed fangs and stare, transfixed, through sunken eyes, swaying unsteadily. The very sight of them is repulsive, for they are neither man nor monster, but some unseemly fusion of the two clothed in tattered rags that hang dirty and threadbare from their skeletal frames.

The serrated points of makeshift spears glance harmlessly off the natural armor of his scales, and with a calculated sweep of his tail, he knocks a dozen more of the assailants back into the trees and brush and rock. It is only when one of the airborne spears sails past and nearly strikes the child—who only just succeeds in scampering out of harm's way—that he realizes he cannot allow the fight to carry on longer than it has already, lest he jeopardize her safety further. And so he draws himself up, all six of his feathered wings outstretched to catch the brunt of the hail of weapons being thrust into the air at them. He beats his wings furiously until the sheer force of the windstorm they create is too much for the remaining Dolroth to resist, and they're sent flying at both a speed and height impossible to survive in their inevitable fall. But he waits only long enough to ensure he has left no stragglers before returning to all fours with an earth-shattering thud, and he cranes his neck to hastily search for the child.

She materializes slowly from behind a cluster of boulders , pale and trembling but otherwise unharmed. Yet he does not reach for her again. He only observes, unblinking, until a sudden and unexpected pain lances through his side. While the Dolroth's spears may have proven useless against his scales, they did succeed in piercing the muscle and membrane of two of his right wings. Smoke billows from his nostrils as he seethes in displeasure, but his attention is abruptly called back to the child, who has ventured close enough to lay her hand gingerly upon him. And then the world changes.

He no longer feels only himself. Instead, a surge of emotion washes over him in a wave of alien sensation that overstimulates his mind and his body. Concern, fear, confusion, and uncertainty. They are not his, but they fill him with such a sense of dread and unease that he grows cold and then physically recoils. But even when their contact is finally broken, that strange awareness remains.

Then the fear subsides until all that is left is an anxiousness borne from soft, childlike affection. He blinks and turns his eyes back on her.

She hovers quietly, expression searching and expectant. And he understands then. He feels what she feels. Somehow, by whatever strange magic she wields, she has granted him a subconscious link to her psyche. Her fear and misgivings now belong to him. And judging by the relief that seeps into him in a tangible warmth—and by the smile that dimples the corners of her mouth—she can now read his aura in turn. They are bound to one another, not only by destiny, but in soul and mind as well.

It takes less coercion this time to guide her. She can feel his intent, the same way he can feel her own. Intimately. And so he is given unspoken leave to cradle her within his claws, careful to maneuver her small, fragile body so that he does not accidentally catch her with a talon as she settles within his gentle but steady grasp. And with a great surge of his wings, he lifts himself into the air, climbing in elevation with each full, graceful arc, until they are soaring high above the trees and heading west.

He cannot help but find some amusement in the sense of awe that radiates from her. Where the act of flying is little more than natural instinct to him, she has only just woken in a world wholly unfamiliar to her. The endless sweep of fields, twisting silvery rivers and abandoned farmland—though little more than a shadow of what it had once been—is a sight to behold for one so young and innocent. Her eyes are seeing everything for the first time, and that sudden realization humbles him.

They travel until he can feel her begin to grow weary and weak with hunger. The sun's descent and their altitude have left her with chill, and he reprimands himself for being so thoughtless. Though he cannot say for certain if she is entirely human, it appears she is mortal enough to suffer the same discomforts as one. A part of him has been preoccupied with the incessant burning caused by the tearing in his wings; the steadily intensifying pain is unlike anything he has felt as a result of such an injury. In the hours since their departure from the glade, the burning has neither waned nor subsided, and he wonders whether a rest might be wise. They have put enough distance between themselves and the Dolroth now that a brief respite should not cost them. And so he angles himself, adjusting his trajectory to prepare for a slow and careful decline, before landing alongside the emerald banks of a shallow, slow-moving river.

The child stirs from the beginnings of sleep as he releases her, but she only slumps back again in exhaustion the moment she no longer has his hold to keep her upright. Her lips are pale and colourless, and he can see her visibly trembling as she remains propped against him. So he makes quick work of gathering a pile of makeshift kindling. Tearing a tree from the earth, he splits it effortlessly into pieces between his teeth and drops them into a pile upon the ground. Setting fire to the kindling takes even less of an effort, and it isn't long before he's gently nosing her into place, encircling her loosely with his tail and allowing the glow of firelight to infuse her with the warmth she has lost in his carelessness. Only when he hears the rhythmic cadence of her breathing and feels her distress gradually fade and become contentment does he finally allow himself to slip into his own dreamless slumber.

Their journey henceforth is a slow and arduous one.

He deduces that the wound he sustained from the Dolroth's blade, and the prolonged agony that accompanies it, is the by-product of a slow-acting poison. Not enough to kill him immediately, perhaps, but enough to serve as a serious detriment to the task that lies before them. Enough to remind him of just how little time they have, as the toxin continues to spread, plaguing him with a constant, nearly crippling pain. More troubling still is the knowledge that it was alchemized specifically with dragonkind in mind. There is little upon this earth with the ability to do him and his kin real harm, and yet he feels himself limited now in his mobility and speed. It is a hindrance neither he nor the child can afford, and so for the first time in centuries, he makes a choice he finds disagreeable but necessary. He sheds his true form in favour of another: the form of a human man.

It is a distasteful illusionary magic that he and his kin would resort to only under the direst circumstances, and the body immediately feels weak and vulnerable around him. But he can also sense the effects of the poison lessen considerably in this incarnation, no longer able to leech the magic and drain him of his strength as efficiently, disguised as it is beneath the veneer of humanity. For the sake of time and the preservation of his health and physical capability, it is a desperate measure, but an imperative one. She seems to understand, too, the need for it. When next he finds himself forced to return to his true form, he knows he will not last long. But in the face of what is to come, he accepts that truth readily.

He takes a few moments to stretch and reacquaint himself with his new body as the child grips his fingers, prods curiously at his ribs, and tugs experimentally at the dark curls of his hair with wide, fascinated eyes. It’s almost as though she is judging for herself whether it is truly him. Only when she is satisfied do they move on, her small hand enveloped in his as they pick their way through the endless swaths of forest, across dainty rivers and toward the treacherous peaks of the ivory mountains that loom in the distance, where their destination lies.

"The girl will possess inhuman power, but she will still just be a child. You must be patient." Venefica's words haunt him with growing persistence as he and the girl forage for food and clothing in the rubble of an abandoned village. The sorceress' counsel had been set to the backdrop of war drums and inhuman howling at the peak of the Dolroth invasion, as they had poured into the temple and ravaged everything within its white marbled walls. But she had remained steadfast. fierce and imperious as she was graceful, despite the fate that awaited her. Had it really been so long? "You know as well as I that an Astral is only born from extraordinary circumstance. Even in our long, enduring lifetimes, we will see only one. Her existence is meant for a single purpose, as is yours. As is mine.” To this day, he remembers the look in her eyes as she had said it. Ancient, all-seeing, and brimming with resolve. "We cannot fail, Acaeus."

A fortnight passes in a series of long, grueling days and bitterly cold evenings in which she sleeps and he keeps watch. Occasionally he hears the distant echoes of the Dolroth’s screams in the dark, finding a strange sort of solace in the frustration that strangles the sound. They are scrambling to pick up the trail they've lost. He and the child have the advantage of bought time, but for how long he cannot say. He keeps them moving at a steady pace all the same, calling for rest only when her exhaustion and hunger washes over him, and she tugs at his sleeve with pleading eyes. When they camp, he watches her chase playfully after forest critters. She then lays claim to a branch twice her size and struggles to swing it through the air, much as she had seen the Dolroth do. It’s as though she has not a care in the world. He hunts wild game and builds a clumsy fire with his unfamiliar, unwieldly hands, but he finds the meals are easier to assemble for her in this form, and when she eats, it is always ravenously. They do not have the luxury of stopping as often as she might like, but the glowing contentment and happiness that she involuntarily passes to him is rewarding in its own way, and it is as much peace as either of them can hope to find in all of this.

Her sense of ease gradually becomes concern as the days wear on, however. He can feel it prickling at the back of his mind with growing insistence, and he does what he can to assuage her fear, forcing an aura of calm determination and focusing only on what lies ahead despite the tortuous pain that feels as though it is corroding him from the inside. Even the act of breathing, of eating, of sleeping, of performing any mundane thing that came so naturally to him before, is increasingly difficult now. But he endures. He must. They have come so far in such a short time. Defied the pursuing Dolroth. Withstood lashings of dangerously heavy rains and wind that threatened to bear them back down the mountainous terrain they had scaled. Fended off wild, half-starved animals in a constant barrage of attacks in the night. They survived endless pangs of hunger and the constant deprivation of sleep, stumbling on and on in their desperation. And after facing these tribulations together, he cannot help but admire this child and her strength. The child born only to fulfill her role in a fate she had not asked for. Without even a chance to experience life, her innocence was stolen from her—and yet she accepts it without question. Her grace and her goodness will forever be without equal, and he understands then that the world does not deserve her.

That final day, he sweeps her into his arms. And despite the agony that is almost enough to cripple him, he presses his hand tenderly to the back of her head and cradles her against his chest. But despite the overwhelming sense of happiness and unfaltering trust that floods through him as he carries her, the sight of the tears that gather in the corners of her eyes speaks to a fear she cannot hide. And his heart breaks.

Do not despair. I am with you. To the end.

It is their last stand, and no place be more fitting for the end than where it had all begun.

The Dolroth's forces number in the thousands. Like an infestation of ants, they swarm about the broken ruin of the temple, nesting in all its crooks and crevices. Crawling from doorways and over the sullied white stone. Guarding the fallen sanctuary with their spears and their arrows and their crudely built catapults. The force that had ambushed the child and her protector in the glade had been nothing more than a means to push them forward, like a vise closing in on them from either side with intent to crush them. But the pair would not fail. Not when they have come so far. Their goal is within reach. With one final flight, the child’s protector will have fulfilled his promise.

He looks at her, neatly nestled in his arms, and she blinks back. The fear is gone. Courage, resolve, and a profound acceptance burn there instead. It fills him with such staunch conviction that he momentarily forgets the pain, and he leans in to press his brow affectionately to hers. It is time.

The transformation is not so seamless as it once was, and he feels his body strain against the effort it takes to reshape himself. Feathers rain from his wings like deadened leaves as they tear through his flesh and sprout grotesquely from his back, and the poison surges through him as water does through a broken dam. The agony is unspeakable, and he unleashes a shrill cry that splits the air, sending a tremor through the enemy's waiting forces. But her familiar warmth and her tenderness reach him, and he readies himself, panting from the exertion, as she takes her place upon his back and encircles his neck with her small arms. And then they rise.

Utilizing the last of his strength, he pushes off from the ground with his two hind legs and hurtles himself through the air. Over the howling of the wind, he can only just discern the cry of the Dolroth as they gather themselves in practiced formation. Countless arrows fly by in staggered waves, but he weaves through them while the rest ping uselessly off of his armoured chest. With his body almost parallel to the crumbling columns and soaring towers, he rakes his claws across the fragile exterior as he darts past, destroying coils of circular staircases and causing dozens of enemy soldiers to plummet to the ground. But he cannot stop. He cannot afford to use the precious time they have to wreak havoc on the vermin that scuttle below, much as he would like to. They must reach the Spire. They must reach Venefica. But the Dolroth are not so easily deterred, and he watches them train the crosshairs of a mounted arbalest on him before launching a colossal arrow directly at his heart. The child cries, and her panic hits him with surprising potency. But he is sure and swift in his movement, and though the sheer force of it causes him to jerk violently in the air, he catches the shaft of the arrow cleanly between his claws. There is a moment of palpable, resounding silence, and then the Dolroth scatter, their cries of terror and surprise rising like the chittering of insects as he grips the arrow between his jaws and flings it viciously into the tower they are attempting to flee. But it is too late. The ancient stone crumbles into dust as the column is split in twain, and a thousand darkened, twisted bodies plunge to their deaths.

All at once, the pain resurges with a vengeance, and the howls that tear from his throat are unrecognizable, even to him. Feral and uncontrolled. He writhes uncontrollably, momentarily blinded by the agony. But then he feels her tumble from his back, and plunge with a cry through the air. He only just succeeds in catching her in his talons, and it's all he can do to keep himself airborne as the Dolroth high above begin another onslaught of arrows.

They've run out of time.

In a flurry of dull feathers, he forces himself to persevere. For her. For humanity. For everything they have come so far for. And he lunges upward with one final burst of speed, allowing the deluge of arrows and rocks to tear and mangle his wings as he unleashes endless blasts of brilliant sapphire flame that engulf the last remaining towers. And then he leaves it all to burn below.

The Spire is desolate. The stone ceiling is partially destroyed. He collapses across the cracked, opaline floors, exhausted and slick with his own blood. He has only enough strength to continue holding the child, shielding her from the debris until he eventually grows still. And then his talons part, and she rushes to his side, crying. He can only just sense a whisper of her despair. Can hardly feel her as she lays her small hands upon him and desperately attempts to shake him awake as his eyes grow heavy. The poison has run its course. He can feel his own organs failing as he wraps his tail gently around her and allows her to bury herself into the crook of his neck, weeping.

"Acaeus. It is time."

The child turns in fear and confusion as Venefica's voice rings out in the silence before taking discernable form, shaped from the dust and pearls of marble that litter the floor until she stands before them—no longer a real physical body, but some exquisite ivory apparition.

Even in his dying moments, he forces himself to move, grunting his protest as blood spills from his mouth.

"The child knows, Acaeus. From the moment she touched you in the glade, she understood the sacrifice we would all have to make. She accepted her fate long ago. What she fears for is not herself. But for you."

He slumps weakly back to the floor, the breath leaving him in a soft, pained whine, before turning his eyes to the girl and nudging her affectionately with his nose. She sniffs once and then nuzzles against him, running her palms over his rough, bloodied scales in some attempt to console him in their last moments together.

"You will both herald a new age," Venefica continues gently. "And your devotion to one another will stand as testament to a world we once thought lost. You will inspire men to love again. To cherish and celebrate life. You have given those to come after us the chance at a future that was almost denied them." There is a long, reverential silence, and then she bows deeply, her right hand over her heart in a show of undying gratitude and respect. "Never again shall we see the likes of such heroism and selflessness. Thank you. Both of you. May you spend eternity at rest, kindred spirits."

And when their eyes meet—the child's and his—hers no longer shine with anguished tears. Because she feels it just as he does. The love and magic that binds them together in life, so too does it bind them in death. Venefica's phantom vanishes, and with it, the Dolroth fade into dust. Relics of an old world to be forgotten as another is born anew with their sacrifice.

But even centuries later, in the ivory tower where legend tells that a dragon and his ward found everlasting peace, there stands a tree of silver bark. With leaves a striking iridescent green that seems to continually shift and ripple— the way light plays on water—and amaranthine flowers that don't seem to know which colour they should be.

FantasyShort StoryAdventure

About the Creator

Raeanne Patterson

Just a young woman full of uncertainty, looking to find her voice.

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Comments (4)

  • Test5 months ago

    This writing was outstanding. I liked it a lot and couldn't find any flaws. You're welcome! on vocal May you have a day full of smiles, always!

  • Jennifer 2 years ago

    The Ward was written with such beautiful imagery, that I found myself amongst the landscape watching it unfold. Well written with an emotional ending.

  • Rachael Davis2 years ago

    Such a beautiful story. Well written and full of emotion.

  • Gary Johnston2 years ago

    Beautifully told and the ending is the perfect mix of melancholic and triumphant. :)

Raeanne PattersonWritten by Raeanne Patterson

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