There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Tales were told that once, long before the Great War, a dragon being spotted anywhere in the Realm wasn’t even news. Old Wizards would sometimes claim that dragons were nomadic creatures, coming and going with the tides, but nobody paid credence to that anymore. As far as Alice knew, no dragons had been seen in the Realm for at least three generations and that meant there were never any around. Alice was almost thirteen years old, she was much smarter than to trust in ramblings passed down from some long-dead people nobody remembered. And yet what she was seeing now with her own eyes was unmistakably a dragon.
The great lizard was sat on a sharp rock overlooking the river, its amber eyes transfixed on the water below. It was covered in shining scales that seemed to glisten in a variety of colors whenever a wayward ray of sunlight reflected off the creature. Its strong membraned wings were half-open, as if it had either just landed or was about to take flight any moment, though it remained motionless. Against the huge stone wall that sheltered the Valley from the east, the dragon didn’t seem that large, but Alice had climbed these cliffs numerous times and knew the real distance between herself and the creature. If she could see it so clearly from this far away, it must be enormous. Luckily, she tried to calm herself down, she must seem to it but a tiny speck on the riverbank, if it could see her at all.
Alice knew that dragons existed, but for reasons not fully agreed upon, they never appeared in Dostantia, preferring the cold lakes and deep forests of Yenor east of the Realm. Some said that Yenor, despite its claims against wizardry and strict laws forbidding any practice of magic or conjuring, harbored a secret sect of Mages who have bound the dragons to their soil with spells. Others argued the opposite – dragons were kept out of the Realm by protective magical barriers cast by the esteemed Wizards of the Academy in order to protect the citizens from the great lizards’ aggression. The village elders didn’t subscribe to any of these theories.
“Dragons live where they choose to live and they didn’t choose to live here.” They explained when little Jeremy, the studious loner who preferred reading old tales to playing in the fields and catching wild mice, asked during one of the feasts. “Perhaps they find our fish too small or bony for their taste.”
Dragons, it was said, only nested near bodies of water and fed exclusively on fish. Alice tried to remind herself of this as she willed her petrified legs to take a few slow steps backwards. All her muscles were frozen in fear. The creature was motionless, as if it hadn’t noticed Alice at all. Still, the girl didn’t dare to turn her back on the dragon as she slowly took a few more steps finally reaching a tree that she could hide behind. She crouched down pressing herself as flat against the wooden trunk as she could while still keeping an eye on the rocks above.
She hadn’t even started coming up with a plan of how to get back to the village safely, when the dragon stretched out its neck and gave a brief screeching sound before spreading its wings wide and diving headfirst towards the river. Alice pressed both of her hands against her mouth to suppress a scream, but the dragon didn’t seem concerned with her at all. With a loud splash, it briefly submerged around halfway through before flapping its wings and raising back up with a white sturgeon in its front claws. It was one of those sturgeons that required five fishermen to pull out of the water and provided a weeks’ worth of meat for an average-sized family.
Damned Yenori fish thief, muttered Alice when she was sure the dragon had flown off towards the eastern border. With this thought she shook off the shock, jumped to her feet, and took off running as fast as she could to report her sighting to the villagers.
* * *
Getting an urgent summon from the old General Caspar Laurestel was never good news. Not even when one was his firstborn son. Despite knowing this, Michael kept an indifferent expression as he walked into the office on the third floor of the Academy’s northern wing.
“You asked to see me.” He skipped the proper greeting. General Laurestel rose from his chair, but remained behind the desk.
“Yes, I did. You haven’t heard the news, I hope?”
The old General nodded. He reached for a piece of paper on his desk and passed it to Michael. He glanced at the report.
“A dragon?! In Dostantia?” The report was brief. A fisherman from one of the villages in the Valley came to the capital earlier that morning yelling at the guards that he must speak to the King. He didn’t of course, but the commotion he made alerted a major on his way out of the castle, who agreed to speak to the villager and quickly learned that the man’s young daughter has apparently seen a dragon hunting by the riverbank.
“And it stole a fish.” General Laurestel raised one corner of his mouth in a crooked half-smile that Michael knew well.
“Can we really trust this person? This -” Michael glanced at the paper. “Christopher? It’s not even him who saw it, but a little girl. How can we be sure she hadn’t made it up? Or maybe she saw something else and thought it was a dragon?”
“We can’t.” Admitted the General. “But the fisherman sounded convinced. There is a reason why all and any dragon sightings outside the borders of Yenor must be immediately reported to highest authorities. Even the elders of some god-forsaken village down east knew the protocol and sent that man straight to the King. This may turn into something, Michael.”
“I don’t know what this reason is, and frankly I don’t care to know.” Snapped Michael, who was already sensing he was being pulled into some shady affair. “There were no reliable reports of dragons in Dostantia for generations now. Why should we take some village girl’s story above the status quo? It seems to me like more proof is needed before anyone believes this tale.”
“We give no rewards for reporting a sighting.” The General reminded him calmly. “This man lost quite some time, coin, and strength making the long journey from the Valley. The villagers are smart and resourceful, my son. I doubt he would come all this way to tell us a story his daughter dreamed up one day. Either there was a dragon, or Christopher is lying.” The old Laurestel looked to his right, out of the window, where the gate of the royal castle was visible. “But then he would have to have a reason to lie. We cannot take this lightly.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m attending a meeting this evening.” The General stretched out his hand to retrieve the report from Michael and folded it carefully in half. “With his Highness the King, the esteemed emissaries from all three of our neighbors and high representatives of both Academies. After this meeting, whatever transpires there, I expect to be sworn to secrecy.”
Michael nodded. It was just like his father to bend the rules this way. He hated becoming the General’s unwilling accomplice by knowing more than he was supposed to, but there was no turning back now, he already read the report. Nonetheless, he remained silent. Not giving the old man the satisfaction of openly acknowledging his participation in whatever was brewing was the only defiance he could allow himself in this position.
“Keep your eyes and ears open, my son.” Caspar Laurestel turned towards the window again and made a few steps away from the desk to look out into the street, but there was a warmth in his voice. “And if you happen to be approached by a Wizard, trust him and do what he asks of you.”
Michael clenched his jaws. Trusting Wizards was yet another thing he and his father often disagreed upon, yet he had to concede that the old General has always had an excellent intuition when it came to telling friend from foe. He surely meant a particular Wizard and Michael knew that if he wanted to one day succeed or maybe even surpass his father’s rank in the military, he had to learn the General’s web of allies inside out.
“Anything else?” He asked coolly. His father didn’t turn from the window.
* * *
The particular Wizard, though Micheal didn’t know it yet, was no other than the capital’s Stray – Cassimir. Before the Great War, it was said, magic was used freely for everything from daily chores through medicine to combat and defense. Everyone knew one or two household spells and every village had at least one wizard or wizardess versed in medicinal spells and potions. That was before. During the Reign of Peace first by King Constantin I and now by his son King Constantin II, magic was strictly regulated. Only licensed Wizards could practice it, and any unauthorised use of spells or potions carried severe punishment up to and including death. Even those who could, rarely did practice for any real purpose, it was said. Magic became mostly an academic pursuit and Wizards were thought of as creatures more akin to owls than to humans – hunched over books and muttering to themselves. Even citizens of the capital rarely saw anyone casting spells. Out in the countryside, magic remained largely the subject of bonfire tales. Even though many a village did have some who claimed to have witnessed possessions or other strange occurrences likely due to misfired or wayward spells, they were shushed by the elders and given little credence by the children. With every new generation the world of Wizards and dragons from before the War was giving way to the mundane world of hard labor at day and merry feasting at night.
Obtaining a magical license was an arduous task that not many undertook considering it seemed to serve little real purpose. The only way to legally become a Wizard was through the Academy of Spells, one of the two High Academies run under the King’s personal protectorate. Graduating from the Academy required years of study, a plethora of extremely difficult exams, two apprenticeships under licensed Wizards, and finally taking an oath before the Crown to never use magic with malicious intent or for malicious purposes and always in accordance with the law. It is thus no wonder that the few licensed Wizards remained in the Crown’s employment either serving at the Academy in research and instruction to younger apprentices or directly at the castle doing… nobody really knew what they were doing, but word was they were getting handsome coin for their service. The handsome coin paid to Wizards employed by the King was the only plausible motivation for choosing this line of career. Therefore, unemployed or otherwise employed licensed Wizards were a hugely uncommon sight. Called “Strays”, they were mostly outcasts shunned by society, thought they often managed to get by somehow.
Cassimir knew all too well that despite the anti-magic propaganda that the state has been promoting if not actively enacting ever since the War, human desperation in the face of tragedy was immune to all shunning. When sickness, heartbreak, or bankruptcy struck a commoner, many would sooner or later turn to the arcane arts in search for supernatural solutions when all the natural have failed. The only way to discourage people from turning to magic in times of need, Cassimir knew, would be to deny its existence. As long as it was real, it would be reached for - for better or worse.
He had thus passed on the various positions offered to him at the Academy and royal castle, and took to the streets dedicated to solving the common people’s mundane problems before they hurt themselves trying to solve them on their own. Of course, he couldn’t help everybody. Possessions still loomed in the slums of the capital where his reputation didn’t reach, and many people would rather attempt casting themselves than turning to a Stray. But he still walked the streets everyday, in his dark green cloak with the emblem of the Four Elements embroidered on it in silver, paying no heed to the fearful whispers and angry insults following him everywhere. As of lately, there was also an apprentice treading by his side, carrying a book of spells and a notebook for his own observations.
Simon was quite the stray himself, those who knew him would confirm. Nobody knew where he came from and what he did before he ended up at the Wizard’s hut. A small, bony child with a head of red hair and a face full of freckles, he seemed clumsy and airheaded since he was young. Nevertheless, Cassimir seemed to have taken a liking to the orphan. He fed the boy, taught him reading and writing, as well as arithmetic, astrology, and poetry. When Simon was fifteen, he was accepted into the Academy of Spells, determined to become a Wizard just like his mentor. It was thus no wonder that at seventeen he decided to return to the streets he once called home to apprentice with the Stray much to the dismay of his professors and against the bullying of peers.
Walking the streets of the capital everyday, the Stray Wizard and his stray apprentice already knew about the dragon sighting when they received the General’s message. Cassimir had finished the rounds early that day and ordered Simon to remain in the hut throughout the evening.
“Don’t leave when I’m gone, no matter who comes and what they want. You can’t help them anyway. You can’t cast without supervision, especially today.” He reminded the boy for the third time as he was searching the vast coffer for his ceremonial robes.
“I get it, I get it!” Simon muttered grudgingly. “Is this really that big of a deal though? I mean, dragons are a good thing, right?”
“You don’t know anything about a dragon, boy!” Scolded the wizard. “There was no dragon in Dostantia as far as we’re concerned. And being summoned to the King’s council is always a big deal.”
“Do you think there’ll be trouble?” The redhead kicked open the coffer he had been sitting on and retrieved from it the Wizard’s hat, quite tattered, but still wearable.
“There is always trouble in politics, boy.” Cassimir put on the hat and straightened his robe one last time. “Alright, off I go! Remember, no magic when I am not around, no matter who comes and what they want.”
“I get it, stop repeating yourself!”
“And you know nothing of any dragons!” Cassimir pointed a finger to Simon as he turned to leave.
“What dragons?” Simon mocked.
“Exactly. Be good. It is truly a blessing those villagers came to us rather than to a conjurer, though.”
“You bet.” Muttered Simon. “Maybe mention to the King all the good work we do here, while the Academics hide inside the castle pretending they don’t know what is happening in the streets.”
“Maybe I will one day, my boy. But today, there are more urgent matters. While I’m away, read up on dragons in the book of spells. Something may be brewing and who knows, maybe it will soon be in order for us to take a trip to the Valley and see what happened there with our own eyes.”
The door closed behind the Wizard. Simon sighed and opened the book spells. Since he was to spend all evening at the hut, he might as well do as his master asked.
* * *
What was supposed to be the council of three turned unexpectedly into a council of five. The reasons for the last minute addition of the Stray Wizard Cassimir to the short list of participants of the secret meeting remain lost to history, though many suspect he attended either by the direct invitation of the King himself or was brought along at the request of General Caspar Laurestel, the King’s most trusted advisor and representative of the Academy of Arms. His presence was of much displeasure to Wizardess Valerie Venegas, Headmistress of the Academy of Spells, usually the only representative of the wizarding community at the King’s councils. The presence of Crown Prince Alexander didn’t require an explanation, since the young heir was often accompanying his father to council. Though neither Cassimir nor Caspar approved of the Prince’s presence at this particular meeting, their disapproval was either not noticed or not noted by the King.
“My friends, I seek your council tonight in a matter that may prove of no consequence at all, but may also have consequences most grievous.” Opened King Constantin upon entering the small conference chamber. “Please speak freely and give me what advice you have on the matter of the dragon allegedly sighted in the Valley five days ago by a fisherman’s young daughter.”
When the King finished speaking, he sat down at the end of the small table, which was taken by all gathered as permission to be seated as well. King Constantin was known for his candid disposition and gentle nature, and he didn’t require his subjects to follow strict protocol. As long as he saw no intention of disrespect, he let slide all violations of etiquette, especially in the company of his most loyal advisors. Prince Alexander was seated to the right of his father, General Laurestel on the King’s left. Further on the King’s left, next to the General was seated his friend Cassimir, facing Valerie Venegas across the table seated in turn to the King’s further right, next to the Prince.
“What do we know about the dragon?”
All looked to Cassimir who broke the moment of solemn contemplative silence that filled the room after the King’s words.
“Not much.” The answer came from General Laurestel, who looked at Cassimir warmly. “The villager said his daughter described it as a very large winged lizard with gold eyes.” He unfolded a paper lying in front of him on the table and glanced over it. “She wasn’t sure what color it was, but it was covered with scales. It had four legs and sharp claws. It stole a fish.”
“Stole a fish?” Prince Alexander raised his brows. “From whom?”
“From the river.” A faint smile flashed across the General’s face. “It would be more correct to say that it caught a fish. But the girl is a fisherman’s daughter with a strong sense of claim over our Realm’s water life. She reported to have felt, I quote ‘robbed by the Yenori beast’. Her father seemed to echo the sentiment.”
The King sighed.
“It is quite a pity that the disagreements between our nations run so deep in the hearts of the people, especially so close to the border.”
“There were no dragons seen in Dostantia for generations. It’s no wonder the village folk are not used to them. Even the elders probably don’t remember ever seeing one. Thinking of them as foreign is justified.” Noted the Wizardess.
“I assume we are working under the assumption that there really was a dragon?” The Prince looked to his right after Valerie’s observation. The woman didn’t reply, but Cassimir smiled at him from across the table.
“Of course, your grace. I see no reason why there wouldn’t be a dragon.”
“Shouldn’t we at least consider that the villager could be lying?” This time the General took up the Prince’s line of thought. “Soon, the news will get out and we will have to talk this out with the Yenori ambassador as well as emissaries from our other two neighbours. Dostantia has no claims to dragons since the Great War ended. Perhaps this is a set up.”
Silence fell on the council with the Wizard and Wizardess gazing at each other as if trying to decide who would speak up and how much they would say.
“I think it is likely that there really was a dragon.” Valerie finally spoke. “We gave the villager truth potions and determined he isn’t lying.”
“But he could have been himself deceived?” Pushed Laurestel.
“We knew dragons might eventually return to our soil, my friend.” This time it was Cassimir who countered the General. “Despite the folklore tales, they are not bound to Yenor or any other place. Our land has made a good recovery after the bloody years, our harvests are rich and our fish are large and plenty. Even if this is a false alarm, more reports will come sooner or later and some will be real.”
The King smiled softly, but the old General seemed distraught.
“Is this what we are going to tell the Yenori? ‘Your dragons came to Dostantia because we have bigger fish’?”
Valerie pressed the palms of her hands together on the table and spoke slowly, weighing her words.
“I promise you, General, that we have done nothing to lure in the creature with our spells or potions, if that is the accusation you are worried about. However, trying to keep it out in this way, while possible, could ultimately prove detrimental to our Realm. The Stray is right.” She shot Cassimir a quick look. “Dragons come as they please. Yenor will have to come to terms with no longer having a monopoly on their presence.”
“Dragons increase the magical potential of the places where they reside, isn’t it so?” Prince Alexander this time looked at Cassimir. “The Yenori don’t practice wizardry, and yet they want to keep all the dragons to themselves, possibly fearing our strength if we had them. Everyone knows Dostantia was a great magical empire before the Great War, but the bloody battles drained the energy of our soil. Dragons returning to replenish it would be a great opportunity to finally advance our wizarding potential once again. All we have to do is sign peace declarations with Yenor promising to never again use that power for war. They would surely find some benefit in it too.”
“It isn’t so simple, my son.” The King put his hand on Alexander’s shoulder. “Yenor has been greatly harmed by magic in the past, and its distrust of our wizardry is more of a religious than political matter, as is their people’s love for dragons. They revere the great lizards as holy creatures who indeed bring blessings on places they visit, but must therefore remain pure and untouched by the schemes of humans. Using the presence of dragons to advance a wizarding agenda is to them a high form of blasphemy.”
“That’s why we don’t send wizards over there to harness their soil’s immense potential.” Argued the Prince. “But on our land, we do not have to follow their religion. If a dragon comes here out of its own volition and feeds on our fish, we should be free to benefit from the magic it brought in return!”
A long silence followed this statement, all participants careful not to meet the eyes of anyone else lest their gaze would reveal their true thoughts on the matter. Finally the King rose from his seat, prompting all gathered to stand up as well.
“It seems that this is what we indeed must communicate to our dear Yenori neighbours.” He sighed. “Or something of this sort. Perhaps in a more diplomatic phrasing. I thank you all for your insights and advice, and hope to continue to rely on your council in the coming weeks as we work to resolve this disaster of international affairs.”
Before the King could officially adjourn the meeting, Cassimir interjected.
“Your Highness, if I may. I more than agree about the difficulty this event brings to our diplomatic relations with Yenor. But I would urge Your Highness not to call this a disaster of any sort. A dragon in our land is a good omen, and altogether wonderful news.”
The King nodded gratefully and turned to leave. After him left his son, and Valerie who offered a respectful nod of the head to the General before departing, but ignored Cassimir altogether. When they were alone, Laurestel turned to the Wizard.
“A good omen to you indeed. To me, my friend, this is an omen of war.”
About the author
PhD candidate in linguistics trying to creatively vent out the frustrations of academia. I write about travel, philosophy, and occassionally other things that pop into my mind. Sometimes I dabble in fiction.