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Vaya

by M. Darrow 2 months ago in Fantasy · updated 2 months ago
Runner-Up in Christopher Paolini's Fantasy Fiction ChallengeRunner-Up in Christopher Paolini's Fantasy Fiction Challenge
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Introduction to "The Dragon Chronicles" (Prologue-Ch.1)

Prologue

A dragon whelp does not look like a creature meant to fly. Awkward and gangly, with wings still too small to bear their weight and paws too large to do much but trip over. In fact, a dragon whelp does not look overmuch like a dragon—not the sort of creature with the bulk of a house whose wings eclipse the sun and may rain down fire in scorching swaths.

Varya and her siblings were not that sort of dragon. Not yet, anyway. The six of them could barely even be called whelps, at least according to their father. Rorich claimed that they would all be known as hatchlings forever, with the way they behaved.

“Well, Da doesn’t know everything,” Valon proclaimed from his precarious perch atop a slanted pile of rocks. He fanned his wings; though they were still too small for proper flight, thanks to a recent growth spurt they were the largest pair in the clutch, and he was quite proud of the fact.

“Get down before you hurt yourself,” Fellfala grumbled without even bothering to raise her head from her forepaws where she was sunning herself just outside the den. Varya giggled and sprawled out beside her sister, playfully batting at her tail while Valon huffed and grumbled something about none of the rest of them knowing how to have any fun. Fellfala narrowed her eyes at Varya, then snapped her tail out in a quick, light strike to tap her nose.

“Hey!” Laughing, Varya got up onto all fours and lunged, smacking her thin forepaws down to trap the larger whelp’s tail and giving a mock-growl of triumph. Fellfalla growled back playfully and tugged her tail free before turning to pounce on her sister. She was careful not to pierce Varya’s soft underbelly with her claws, but the slender little dragon still played to win. The two of them tussled back and forth over the rocks, rolling onto a softer, mossier area shaded by Valon’s makeshift tower. Their siblings hooted and whistled, all four of them dropping low into practice hunting crouches as their eyes tracked their movement intently.

“Her flank, Varya, her left flank!” Corr called, laughing.

Seeing the opening he’d pointed out, Varya ducked low under Fellfala’s belly—a move only she was still able to manage, since the rest of her siblings had staggered their way through their latest growth spurts—and wriggled her way out on the larger whelp’s left with two firm kicks to her ribs. Fellfala, who had left her side inadvertently vulnerable by flaring her immature wings to better keep her balance, yelped indignantly and spared a moment to glare at Corr before leaping to pin Varya again.

“Too slow!” the smallest whelp laughed, clambering halfway up the side of Valon’s rock pile and ducking into a shallow groove to avoid swiping paws.

“That’s cheating!” Lutsey giggled, shaking her head. “You’re the only one who can still fit in those cracks!”

“It’s not cheating,” Valon shot back, clearly quite pleased that Fellfala had been thwarted, even if he wasn’t the one to do the thwarting. “It’s using her natural gifts to her advantage.” He dropped his voice into a comically gruff imitation of their father, making Lutsey and Corr laugh harder while Fellfala rolled her eyes.

“I hate to say it, but he’s right, you know,” Sydrine piped up lazily. Though their eldest sister had been watching the play fight with mild interest, she’d kept herself closer to the entrance of the den than the others, which gave her a better vantage point to keep an eye on the other five young dragons. “If Da were here, he’d call that match for Varya.”

“It wasn’t a match,” Fellfala complained. “We’re just wrestling.”

Varya nodded her agreement, though she couldn’t deny there was a part of her that was quietly pleased with Sydrine’s assessment—it wasn’t often that she bested her siblings in their playful mock-battles. Especially since she hadn’t yet hit the same growth spurt that the rest of the clutch had.

“Aw, c’mon, Fala, just give her that one,” Valon taunted, leaning further over the edge of his perch. “You haven’t—”

Varya felt the rocks shift and went instinctively still, staring up at her brother. His eyes had widened, pupils rounding in surprise as the rock he was balanced on shifted, tilted, and then suddenly toppled sideways. All six whelps gave panicked squawks as he went tumbling down the far side of the rock pile, underdeveloped wings snapped out in a desperate attempt to slow the fall.

Varya threw herself down from her perch and landed half on Sydrine’s back as her sister made a mad rush for Valon along with Corr. Fellfala seemed frozen, and Lutsey was already wailing for their mother as Varya managed to get her paws under herself and scrambled to the edge of the rocky barrier around the den. She almost didn’t want to look, terrified that she’d see her brother sprawled broken and bleeding on the steep incline that led up to their cave.

Instead, she saw Valon clinging awkwardly to a scrubby tree just a few tail-lengths down the hillside, the few rocks that had come tumbling down with him scattered around its stubborn roots. He was staring up at them all with almost perfectly round eyes, his wings still flared out as though he was preparing for a standing take-off.

Varya felt her chest loosen as the fear slowly began to ebb. Valon was fine. Somehow.

The same realization washed through the entire clutch, tails drooping and scales resettling as they all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Then Valon grinned a dragon’s grin and proclaimed proudly, “I flew!”

***

Of course, “flew” was a bit of an exaggeration. As their mother surmised when she came rushing out of the cave in answer to Lutsey’s calls, Valon had managed a sort of brief, controlled downward glide that had landed him in the tree instead of dashing him against the hillside along with the top of his rock pile. It was likely just as much due to the updrafts they got at their current altitude as it was anything else—and it was not an experiment that Fellal was interested in any of her whelps repeating.

“I’ve told you not to play up there,” she scolded as she scooped her eldest son back up onto the wide ledge before the den and set about checking him over for injury. Her own scales were puffed a little, revealing to her children just how worried she had been. “Valon, you could have been seriously hurt—or worse! What would your Da and I do if something happened to you?”

“Mam, I’m fine,” Valon complained as she pressed her nose along his spine.

“Through sheer dumb luck you’re fine,” their mother snapped, but the fire in her voice was tempered slightly by the quick preening she gave him, using her rough, barbed tongue to scrap around the edges of his scales and make sure they all laid flat against his flanks.

“Ma-am,” Valon whined, but Varya saw the way his wings relaxed closer to his back and his claws stopped flexing against the earth as Fellal fussed over him. He’d been scared. It wasn’t an emotion she often associated with her brother.

“Alright, alright,” Fellal acquiesced, drawing her head back so she could look down on the whole clutch. “That’s enough adventure for one day, I should think. Inside, all of you. Especially you, serrah.” The last was huffed at Lutsey, who she had to herd back away from the edge of the rocky ledge with her tail.

“I was just looking,” the tiny dragon protested, though she followed Fellal’s direction easily enough back into the den. “I mean, it doesn’t look that far to the tree, maybe—”

“Absolutely not,” Fellal snapped before she could finish. Varya winced. It wasn’t often that their mother used that tone; all six whelps quickly went quiet, realizing that this was not an argument they wanted to have.

Because of course, once they’d realized Valon was safe, the same thought had risen up in the back of all their minds:

Could I do that, too?

In the truly impressive way that children do—even dragon children—each and every one of them had quickly forgotten their initial panic on seeing their brother fall and instead began wondering what it must have felt like to almost fly.

If Fellal had not been so clearly distressed, Varya thought that the rest of them might have actually tried it. As it was, their typically serene Mam was curled up in the front of the den, watching the skies anxiously while her tail twitched back and forth over the ground. Her scales still hadn’t fully settled.

For a moment, Varya considered that something else was bothering her; as scary as it had been when Valon fell, he was fine now. Surely a near-accident didn’t warrant this much worry.

She might have asked her, but she was distracted by Corr and Sydrine huddled close together suddenly breaking into just-a-little-too-loud whispers. She glanced over at them and cocked her head questioningly, and Sydrine fluttered one wing at her in a “come here” gesture. She crept over carefully, settling herself between her sister and Valon, who had curled up in his usual sleeping spot and remained uncharacteristically quiet since entering the den.

“You really okay?” she asked quietly as she wriggled her way in between the two dragons.

“M’fine,” Valon replied just as softly. “Just…thinking about it.”

“Falling?”

“Flying.” He rolled one eye back to look at her with a dragonish grin. Varya grinned back.

“You didn’t really fly,” Fellfala pointed out, sniffing primly as she curled herself up against Corr opposite Sydrine and arranged her tail artfully over her forepaws. “You glided.”

“Still. It was…amazing.”

“It was terrifying,” Lutsey protested, crowding in on Valon’s other side and preening the scales around his neck fretfully. “I was so scared you were gonna be hurt, Val.”

Something about the big whelp softened a bit and he gave his sister a slow, affectionate blink. “Aw, y’know it’ll take more than that to make me worry.” He puffed his chest out and spread his wings so that one tented over Lutsey and the other over Varya. Both sisters snuggled in closer, giving each other relieved, understanding looks as they did.

“I can’t wait ‘til I can try,” Corr enthused--quietly, so Mam wouldn’t hear.

Despite Lutsey’s withering look, the rest of the clutch murmured their agreement. Varya nodded enthusiastically, already wriggling in place with excited energy. “Maybe once Da gets back, he’ll let us try gliding,” she offered up.

Her siblings went quiet, looking at her. She blinked. “What? You don’t think so?”

“No, it’s…I mean maybe, but..." Corr hedged, suddenly glancing away from her and shuffling his paws uncomfortably. “It’s just…”

Varya frowned. “Just what?”

Sydrine cleared her throat quietly, lowering her head almost to the stone floor. “It’s just…Varya…you don’t have wings.”

Chapter One

No, she didn’t have wings. She didn’t have fangs or claws to hunt. She didn’t have scales to keep her safe. She didn’t have a fire burning in her belly. She still hadn’t really understood then, back when she was a whelp, that she was never going to have such things. She wasn’t going to suddenly wake up one morning and be anything but what she was: a tailless, wingless, soft-skinned human.

But it didn’t matter. She didn’t have wings of her own, but her Mam took her to the clouds. She didn’t have fangs or claws, but she had a knife fashioned from one of Valon’s lost whelp-fangs, and her crude arrows were tipped with her sibling’s cast-off talon casings. She didn’t have scales of her own, but her scavenged clothes were lined with her family’s shed skin to keep her warm and safe.

Varya wasn’t a dragon in any of the ways that most would recognize--but she was in all the ways that mattered. And these days, well into her nineteenth summer, she was more than happy with that.

She and her clutchmates no longer played carelessly outside a mountainside den--for one thing, that den had been left behind over a decade ago, and their new home in a long-abandoned mountain keep had no such ledges to practice their skills. For another, they were now far too old for play; all five of her siblings had breathed their first fire--though Sydrine had been the last to do so just over a year ago, nearly seven months after the other four--and were by all the standards of their kind fully grown dragons. Though, due to their persisting youth, it would likely be decades yet before they left their parents’ den or found mates of their own.

Which meant everyone hunted for the family. And somehow, despite being just a small, fangless human, Varya maintained an impressive record as the most competent hunter of the bunch. She may not bring in the biggest game, but she was the most consistent: for the last three years, she’d had nearly a perfect record.

“It’s because you can hide in trees,” Corr decided with a sharp exhale of steamy, brimstone breath. “If we want to attack from the air, we have to actually be flying, which means we can’t just wait for the prey to come to us.”

“Maybe,” Varya replied with a shrug as she helped heft her most recent kill--a good-sized buck--across his haunches. While most of their clutchmates prefered to carry dinner in their front talons, Corr had always been partial to a standing takeoff, which meant he needed his front paws free for propulsion. And because he’d been the only one willing to venture out with her into the rain, that meant she was in charge of making sure the kill stayed put. “But that doesn’t explain why you still miss your dives six times out of ten.”

“How dare you,” her brother huffed, mock-offended, and flicked the end of his night-black tail around to clip her shoulder. “You’re just jealous you can’t take out a row of elk at once.”

“I would be, if I didn’t have to help you haul all those elk back home when you could have landed just the one with some proper aim,” Vaya snipped back. Ready for it this time, she dodged his tail neatly and spun to his other side to finish securing the buck. Laughing, she teased, “Truth hurts, doesn’t it, baby brother?”

“Oh, storms and crows.” Corr rolled his eyes so dramatically she thought he must be able to see the back of his own skull. “We are clutchmates, I’m not your baby brother.”

“I am the eldest,” Varya pointed out smugly. That had been another thing it had taken her a while to truly understand; that she had come to their family nearly toddling--by human standards--when the rest of her clutchmates were barely hatched. Which made her roughly a year older, at least as far as their parents could tell. This of course became a point of playful contention between her and the rest of her siblings. One that she still flaunted, even now that they were all grown.

“Alright, ready. Let’s get this back before Lutsey starts gnawing on someone’s leg.” She patted his haunches lightly, signaling that the buck was fully trussed. She may have been the only one in her family with proper thumbs, but Mam had been adamant about teaching her a few human tricks, like tying knots. Though admittedly that was mostly done through trial and error on Varya’s part. “If we don’t want to be out here when the storm rolls in properly, we should…Corr?”

Her brother had gone still, a scaled shadow in the gloom of the scraggly mountain trees. His eyes, a green so deep they nearly matched his scales, were narrowed in on something in the underbrush. Varya went still and quiet beside him, trying to see what he saw. She may not have eyes as sharp as a dragon’s, but living in the mountains all her life had certainly honed her senses; even in the faint, dusky light, she could see there was something…off.

“Footprints,” Corr breathe. Varya’s throat constricted.

“Are they--?”

He nodded. “Human.”

She leaned around his side, trying to peer closer. Sure enough, with a bit of searching, she finally saw what had caught his attention: a small drifting of leaves just slightly out of place, with the bed end of a human heel print caught in the softer earth before dirt changed to stone beneath.

“Sky fires blast it,” Varya hissed. They were too close to the den--it was the only way she’d been able to convince any of her siblings to come hunting with her in this weather, by promising they wouldn’t roam far. Their keep wasn’t even a proper flight’s distance northeast; far too close for comfort, if humans were suddenly breaching this far into the mountains.

“Come on, let’s get home,” Corry ordered gruffly, nudging his muzzle into her back. “We’ve got to tell Mam and Da.”

But Varya hesitated, eyes still trained on the half a footprint. She glanced up, into the steel-gray of the clouded sky. It was dusk, she could tell that much, but exactly how close to proper sundown was difficult to guess. She looked around again, taking in the deep green trees around them, thick with needles, the patchy beginnings of a forest--or rather the end of one, she supposed, the furthest arms of the wood reaching up into towering rock.

They had moved dens twice in her memory, each shift progressively closer to the center of the mountains, where hunting was sparser but the threat of death by sword or spear significantly dwindled. The first move had lasted nearly five years. This last one had barely been three.

She set her jaw; if they were coming this far into dragon territory, what next? At this rate, they’d be moving with each change of season!

“...It might be nothing,” she pointed out softly, hoping more than anything else. “Let me see what I can find before we say anything.”

“What you can find?” Corr blustered, clearly picking up on her intent. “I’m not just going to leave you out--”

“I’ll be back before first light,” she cut him off, striding briskly over to the messy print and kneeling to get a better look. It wasn’t the first time she’d stayed out all night on a hunt--and this was clearly just one human. If they were just passing through the edge of their territory, there was no need to uproot their family again. “Tell them I wanted to bring in a few hares for myself or something.”

“Varya…”

“Look.” She rocked back on her heels and tipped her head at him, frowning. “If it’s truly dangerous, I’ll head straight back to the den. I’ll be there well before sunup. If not…there’s no point in worrying them all while I take a look, is there? I’ll tell Mam and Da about whatever I find, I just want to be sure.”

Corr growled, shuffling his wings and scuffing his front paws over the ground. But she could see it in the line of his back, the way he held his head--he didn’t want to move their den again any more than she did. Didn’t want to see the fear on their Mam’s face, or hear the way Da’s voice shook with repressed rage and grief when he spoke of the dangers that came with living so close to humans.

“Fine,” he relented, practically snarling. “Fine. First light. First light and no later, or I’m coming after you and dragging you back to the den tail-first, yeah?”

Varya gave him a dragon’s grin. “I don’t have a tail.”

***

Tracking a human was easier than she’d expected. For one thing, they were heading down the mountain, which meant more and more unyielding rock was replaced with soft earth to hold their trail. For another, either humans as a whole were clumsier creatures than her parents’ stories had led her to believe, or this one in particular simply lacked grace; it seemed that every few dozens steps she was running across a crushed bit of wild grass or a natural cairn knocked eskew by an errant foot. Even slowed by the progressing dark of night and the steadily thickening rain, it only took her a little over an hour before she could see the flicker of firelight through the scrubby trees that ringed the mountain’s base.

She slowed her pace, adjusting her grip on her hunting knife reflexively as she drew closer to the light. This did not bode well; the human was far too close to the den, even if she could only find signs of one of the creatures. She lifted her blade to eye level and continued creeping forward, gaze darting from the fire to the slowly-thickening trees and back.

Just a little closer. I just need to see what they’re up to, then I can start back…

Varya was built for the mountains, for rock and water, for snow and dazzling heights. But she was a competent enough hunter that it was a simple task for her to slip behind the wide trunk of a towering, needled tree and quickly adjust to the way this gradually evolving landscape shadowed the earth so that she could better hide herself. Breathing low and slow, knife still held at the ready, she shifted her weight to balance evenly between the balls of her feet and peered through the cover of low, sharp branches into the human’s camp.

Just one, exactly as she’d expected. He--she was fairly sure it was a he--was kneeling beside the fire, face half lit by the flames as he scowled into them. She couldn’t make out much from her present angle, but she thought his face was spotted, and his hair seemed to be turned russet by the reddish-orange firelight. The poorly cleaned body of a ritza, a small tree-climbing rodent common to the foothills, was clumsily mounted on a spit over the campfire. The human seemed to be trying to turn the spit, but kept snatching his hand back as the flames popped and hissed, sending sparks into the air in tiny bursts.

Varya let her eyes scan the rest of the camp: a crumpled bedroll beside a pack, some sort of walking stick tossed carelessly beside it. A carefully cleared space around the fire, signs of a disturbance around the perimeter of this little break in the trees. The human had probably paced a borderline, maybe set lines to warn of predators, though she strangely didn’t see any of the usual such signs. There was an odd configuration of pale stones scattered at three different points that she could see.

Odd. Must be a human thing.

But this was clearly a temporary campsite. And if the shoddy hunting work on display was any indication, this was not a human familiar with the hardships of life wild in the mountains. Just a traveler then, either brazen or unwitting enough to skirt through the edges of dragon territory.

Relief lowered her shoulders, relaxed the tight knot in her stomach. Her family was safe. They could stay.

Slowly, she began to back away, silent as just another shadow slipping over the ground.

The human abruptly sat back, clearly frustrated, and seemed to curse, spitting a word she didn’t recognize and pointing at the roasting ritza. The fire flared green, surging up around the meat for a moment, then settling back to cheerfully popping gold beneath a suddenly perfectly cooked meal. The human grinned, and Varya gasped.

She couldn’t help it. She’d begun to let her guard down, and the noise of surprise just slipped past her lips. It was a tiny sound, barely louder than the crackle of the fire itself--but still the human heard.

His head snapped up and he was suddenly on his feet, reaching back behind him for what she had thought was a walking stick, but was now suddenly worried may be a weapon of some sort.

“Who comes? Show yourself!”

Varya took another step back, preparing to turn and flee--but her heel nudged a stone she hadn’t noticed on her approach, one she now saw was part of the same strange pattern as the other three symbols picked out in pebbles around the camp. The small rock flared with a blue light that split the air around her, suddenly sparking an answering light from each of the other three stone symbols. She leaped away from it, cursing in Drakyn and slashing wildly with her knife. The stones flared again, each point now connected with a thin, shimmering wall of light.

“What in--who are you?”

She froze. She had jumped into the edge of the firelight, and now the human was staring at her, mouth agape. She sank into a crouch, knife and teeth bared. It was just one human, she could handle this, she could--

“Whoa, hey now.” The human suddenly raised his hands, backing away from her, toward his fire. Looking at him properly now, she could see it wasn’t just the firelight that had burnished his hair--it was actually some shade of coppery red. “Look, I’m not here for a fight, I just…wait.” He squinted at her. “You are the one who just set off my wards, yes? What do you want?”

Her mind and heart were racing, a thousand ways this creature was a danger to her spiraling behind her eyes. And yet…

As she stood there, frozen with indecision, something in the human’s face softened. He tipped his head at her in a way that suddenly and confusingly reminded her of a dragon--almost avian but not quite--and then he slowly, carefully, knelt to place his staff on the ground.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her softly, hands still raised in peace. “What…what are you doing out here?”

Varya growled at him and took a shuffling step back, then remembered the barrier of light and froze again.

The human’s eyes widened, flicking from her to the shimmering wall, and he quickly lifted his left hand toward the barrier, palm out, and murmured a quick string of words she could not understand. Her family spoke the common human tongue, but this was…something else.

The blue light began to fade. She stared for a moment, then whipped her head around to glare at the human again

He smiled at her. Smiled, and in a way that she somehow recognized as apologetic, despite the strange configuration of his face. “Sorry about that. It’s just a basic protection field--it wasn’t meant to stick you inside with me, I should work on that…” He frowned, then shook his head briskly. “Look, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m not used to being out in this wilderness by myself.”

Well, that much was obvious.

“Why don’t you…sit and share the fire? You must have quite the story for how you wound up out here, stranger.”

Share the fire.

She hadn’t known humans used that phrase--why would they? Fire was not a part of them, not the way it was for her family. Her family, who had been chased and hunted by humans. Her family, who loved and protected her.

Her family, who had taken in a human child.

Her family, who shared their fire with her.

…What if…?

Slowly, very, very slowly, Varya lowered herself to crouch on the ground. She still gripped her knife, but it hung more loosely at her side. The human smiled at her again.

“Just for a moment,” she told him sharply. Her own voice sounded suddenly strange to her--rough and disused, the years of dragonish tongue living in the back of her throat.

He chuckled, a sound that was nothing like a dragon’s laugh and yet was still somehow familiar, and raised his hands again. “Just for a moment.”

She should have known that a moment can change everything.

Fantasy

About the author

M. Darrow

Self-proclaimed Book Dragon working on creating her own hoard. With any luck, some folks might like a few of these odd little baubles enough to stick around and take a closer look. Mostly long-form speculative fiction, released as chapters.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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Comments (2)

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  • Raymond G. Taylor3 days ago

    Congratulations and well done on winning the prize.

  • Jenna Newcomb2 months ago

    **eagerly awaiting chapter 2 👀🍿👏🏻

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