Time of the Dragon Slayers
Natlie slammed herself against the tree and caught her breath. The birds still sang softly above her, like they always did on lazy, late summer days. Besides that, only the trees’ whispers could be heard. Still, she knew when she recognized something abnormal in the woods, even if she couldn’t name it.
Silently, ever so silently, she pulled an arrow from her quiver and fitted it into the bow. Then, she just waited, her ears straining for the sound of something moving again. One slight movement and she could hit it. Living her whole life in the Dragon’s Nest helped her become an excellent marksman.
For perhaps three minutes, nothing moved. Natlie began to relax. Perhaps, just perhaps, nothing threatened her. Just as she relaxed her grip on the arrow, the bushes rustled again. In an instantly, Natlie spun around the tree, pulled her bow tight, and shot. The arrow disappeared into the bush with a clink.
Natlie froze at the call and blinked. The bush she fired into moved back and out stepped a man. His dark hair reached to just above his shoulders and his beard looked more hacked off than trimmed. The face reminded her of her brother’s, deeply tan and worn from the heat and wind. He wore only black, except for a shimmering green tunic that reached to his thighs. In that tunic lodged her arrow, right in the middle of his chest.
“I mean you no harm,” he said, as he remove the arrow and handed it to her. “As I hope you mean me.”
Natlie paused before she took the arrow, her eyes drawn to the shimmering green material. “Is it real dragon skin?” she asked softly.
The man glanced down and smiled faintly. “Indeed. Killed with my very own hands. Though I am thinking I am not the only one who has killed dragons here.”
Natlie shook her head and slipped the arrow back into her quiver. “This bow is merely a pest, just enough to drive them away. Certainly not enough to kill an adult.”
“I see.” He smiled faintly, almost like he found her amusing. Perhaps she was. It wasn’t often that one found oneself shot by a female archer who just happened to be tramping through the woods instead of taking the normal paths.
“May I ask where are you heading?” Natlie said.
Natlie nodded and glanced around the woods, looking for her landmarks. She took this path there often enough, even if no one else could see her path. “You’re about a mile out from there.”
The man followed her gaze. “That close?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I have not seen any signs of civilization yet. I would have guessed I am a good ten miles away still.”
Natlie shook her head. “The dragons cause us to keep our property close to us. You won’t see many sprawling towns like I’ve heard there are the further east you go, towards the capital. The fires can destroy things rather quickly if we can’t reach it fast enough and the dragons know how to use them to their advantage.”
He nodded, like he had seen it happen many times.
“I’m heading towards town, if you care to walk with me.”
“I would be honored.”
Natlie nodded slightly and began to walk again, her bare feet dancing over dirt and grass.
He fell in step next to her. “Oh, pardon me. I am Justin. Justin Kale.”
Natlie glanced back at him. “Natalie Paulson. But everyone calls me Natlie.”
“A pleasure to meet you.” He glanced at her bow again. “Though I must admit I have never met anyone after they shot me.”
She noticed his gaze on her bow and shifted it a little. “Ever since my parents died, I’ve carried it around. Just in case of… anything. It’s not that safe here, even if it looks it.”
“Because of the dragons?”
Justin looked around him thoughtfully. The woods looked so calm and peaceful that one would have difficulty imagining the constant threat of the dragons actually existed. “Why is it–out of all the places in Hadlyme–the dragons come here?”
“I imagine that you know the dragons live normally in the mountains. Well, whenever the weather becomes disagreeable in the mountains, the mountain animals flee to our lands and the dragons merely follow the food. Though, in all honesty, I think there is enough fear of us among them or else they would be here constantly after our livestock.”
“And how is it this year?”
Natlie glanced at him. Only the wealthy and the dragon slayers could afford to wear the beautiful dragon skin and Natlie doubted this man tromping through the woods was rich. “I have a feeling you are asking because of your occupation.”
“Why else would I ask?”
She shrugged and flipped back her hair. “We haven’t had any real problem with dragons for two years now. The floods out west gave us what looks to be a good harvest but I’ve heard talk that it hurt much in the mountains. Already, we’re seeing an increase in wild animal activity down here. Many of us are just waiting for the dragons to follow, although we haven’t see any yet. It’s been rather unnerving, I’ll admit.”
“You’ve had no dragons for two years?”
“If only we could be so lucky.” Natlie shook her head. “We’ve had dragons. But nothing serious as far as they go. Mostly just little babies checking us out that we send back to the mountains rather quickly. When it’s serious, there’s four or five dragons and they’re usually the strong adults that few people can hit with our crossbows. We haven’t had that in a while.”
“Interesting.” Justin nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s been quiet like that in most the country. That’s pretty much why I came here. The dragons are just not as commonly seen anymore. Many of the slayers I meet up with are talking about going into the mountains but I’m not insane enough to do that.”
“I don’t believe those stories about what happens in the mountains.”
Justin glanced at her, his eyebrows disappearing into his hair. “I would imagine someone who lives so close to the mountains would have more trust in those stories.”
“All dragon slayers seem to know someone who went up there and didn’t come back. And that the dragons can influence how a man thinks? Impossible!” Natlie leapt onto the rock and looked around again. No one could tell right now, but this rock, which overlooked the main road, was Natlie’s hiding place for when she wanted to daydream.
Justin stopped and looked up at her. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that, Miss Natlie. All stories contain some truth.”
“Some doesn’t mean the majority of them are the truth.”
“True. Very true.”
Natlie jumped off the rock and slid down the steep, but short, hill. At the bottom rested the well-worn dirt road. Just a stone’s throw to her right the woods disappeared suddenly and the town of Basham Heights sprawled before them. She turned to Justin and motioned broadly. “Basham Heights, dear sir.”
He nodded slightly. “I see what you mean.”
Natlie started walking, kicking one of the black walnuts like a ball down the road.
“How large is it?”
She shrugged and glanced at him, missing her kick. The green ball rolled into the side of the road. “It’s small enough, but not too small, I suppose. Just your basic, small town.” She thought about about it before shrugging again. “I’ve only been as far as Yantic, twenty miles away. I don’t have much to compare it to.”
“I almost find that surprising You seem to be ready for traveling almost anywhere.”
Natlie blushed slightly and glanced away. On the very edge of town rested one of the crossbows. Technically, they were called a dragon’s crossbow, since their sole purpose was to protect the town from dragons, but everyone called them the crossbows for short. These sentinels against the dragons had guarded them for as long as Natlie remembered, with one on each side of town and others scattered randomly along the road to protect the farms. The huge wooden structure stood nearly ten feet tall and required two men to load and fire. It always waited there, loaded for the time when the dragons came.
“Does anywhere else have one of the crossbows?” Natlie motioned to it.
Justin stopped to look it up and down before shaking his head. “Can’t say that I’ve seen one like that. It looks good.”
Natlie grinned. Most outsiders said they looked ugly.
“How accurate is it?”
“Not as accurate as a bow,” Natlie admitted. “It takes some work to aim it up and usually we can’t hit one until it’s eaten.”
Justin nodded. “It looks like most anyone could use it though.”
“Oh yes! I know how to. But I’m more effective with my bow, though, so I stick with that.”
“Bows are the best weapon against them I find, if you have one large enough and know enough.”
“But you carry a sword as well.”
Justin nodded. “It’s more of a backup weapon. Usually, I’m not a good enough shot to hit it where I must. They fall and it’s easier to stab them in the back.”
“Why the back?”
“You live here and you don’t know?”
Natlie shook her head. “I only know that the armpits are the weak spots. That’s where I always aim.”
“Well, that is true. And the stomach is the hard area. That’s what the armor is made out of.” He tapped his tunic, sending little rainbows of light dancing over the whole thing. “But the back is weak just like the armpits.”
Natlie watched the beautiful rainbows until they disappeared. “If you can believe this, we don’t actually have a lot of dragon skin around here. And I’ve never seen green.”
“It’s rare. I’ve only seen two green dragons in my whole life. Makes it rather valuable actually.”
Natlie smiled faintly. The green would be beautiful as any garment of clothing, and caught the light better than any other colors. She glanced away, embarrassed for staring for so long, and motioned towards the inn. “That’s probably where you’re looking for.”
Justin looked at it. The small building had only three rooms for guests, but rarely were they all full. Most of the income for the inn came from serving food and it being a warm place for the men of the town to meet. Attached to the side was the even smaller shop where Lita sold yarn. Technically, both the inn and the yarn shop were Lita’s, since she inherited the in from her father, but her husband, Albin, ran the inn while she worked in the yarn shop.
“It will be nice to have a bed for a few nights,” Justin said.
Natlie walked up the few front steps. “How long do you plan on staying here?”
“It depends on how many dragons I see.”
She pushed open the door and blinked against the darkness of the inn. The smokey haze of wood smoke and pipe mixed with the tangy smell of Albin’s stew, giving this place a very distinct smell. In the center table, men of the town discussed something earnestly, like always
“I’m telling you the truth. There were no dragons up there. They’re all dead.” Natlie looked at the man to find a stranger, his hair disheveled and himself not armed but still quiet obviously another dragon slayer.
“They’re not all dead,” Lexander, the butcher said. “Why, I heard of one in Tripp just last week.”
“And they killed it, didn’t they?” the stranger said.
“Why wouldn’t you kill a dragon? They harm the crops. They hurt the cattle. They kill people. It probably did before they killed it.”
The stranger swore softly. “They only do all those things when they don’t have enough to eat. If they had enough food, they won’t go after yours. Why do you think you haven’t been attacked in so long?”
“I don’t know about that, Lexander,” Albin said. “I’ve been listening to Jorn here all morning and he’s making sense.”
“What sense is he making?” Otto, the blacksmith said. “Far as I’ve heard, it’s all just gibberish coming from a crazy man’s mouth.”
Natlie slipped next to Lita, who stood in the doorway between her shop and the inn. “What is this?” she whispered.
Lita licked her lips. “Jorn’s just come from by the mountains. He’s been talking all morning about how there aren’t any dragons left. I….” She paused and rubbed her stomach. At seven months pregnant with her first child, she often confided in Natlie about how pregnancy was more misery than joy now and how the baby often distracted her from doing more important things. “I don’t care much for the dragons. The discussion’s interesting though and Albin’s very focused on it.” She smiled faintly.
Natlie glanced back at him just as he began explaining the logic to Lexander.
“The dragon’s a symbol of Hadlyme’s strength and valor. Just like a dragon, we face everything with courage and determination. True? So, without the dragons, what will become of our country? What will Pauni say of us?
“Moreover, we have had no serious dragon attacks in almost two years. Two years, men! That is the longest I have ever heard of the dragons not coming down here. We haven’t even had a baby wander down here in two months. They should be here. The woods are alive with animals dislocated from the floods. But where are the dragons? Has anyone here seen one recently?”
His eyes flashed with excitement, reminding Natlie that this innkeeper had come from near to the capital only two years before and was trained in how to give speeches as a boy. He always gave such passionate speech when it was something he cared about.
“That is why we can’t kill them anymore. We just can’t. They’re too valuable to our culture, to our heritage and to ourselves as a people to completely destroy them.”
“Foolishness. Mere foolishness is all what that talk is,” Justin said suddenly. “The dragons are hardly as predictable as you claim.”
Natlie glanced at him, having almost forgotten he followed her inside. So did every man other man. They all turned and stared at him. Justin pulled out his purse and looked at Albin. “I presume you are the innkeeper?”
“Yes, sir. What can I do for you?”
Justin pulled out some money and handed it to him. “A room, for a few days.”
Albin thoughtfully closed his hand around the money and looked him up and down. “Do–you intend, sir, to pursue your trade while in the area?”
“Indeed. Unless the dragons are as scarce as you do claim. Then I will not be staying long.”
“Then–I must refuse you a room.” He handed back the money. “From now on, I will not accept dragon slayers as boarders.”
“I hope this has nothing to do with this man’s foolish talk of the dragons being gone.”
“So what if it does? The dragons only cause slight harm when they come. It should be our duty–neigh, our patriotic duty- to protect the dragons when they are this so close to permeant extinction.”
Justin stared at him passively. Even in the dim light, she could see him clench and unclench his jaw. “Very well.” He snatched the money away and stalked out of the room.
The men turned from him as soon as he left and looked back at Jorn and Albin. Never had anyone heard of doing such a thing. Natlie paused a moment before she shoved her small bag into Lita’s hands and ran after Justin.
He turned, already two houses away, and waited. Natlie ran to him. “Are you leaving here then?” She brushed back her hair from her face.
Justin shook his head slightly. “No. Not after that.”
“Then where do you plan to sleep?”
“The woods. I do it often enough.”
Natlie paused. “Come back to the farm with me. Me and my brother Colton–we have plenty of room. And it’s probably more comfortable than the woods.”
He paused and glanced towards the inn. “If your brother does not object, I would be honored, Miss Natlie.”
“They can call me whatever they want. I do not think it is a wise move to even pretend to protect the dragons,” Justin said.
Colton glanced towards the back of the wagon where Justin sat. “I agree completely.” The horse drew his attention back to the road. “We actually look normal around here, but we worked hard to make it so. The last thing we need is another dragon coming down from the mountains, spraying its fire breath on a few crops and eating our livestock. If anything, I am more patriotic for wanting the dragons to be gone for good than for wanting them saved. It brings in more money all around.”
“Forget the economics involved, Colton. The dragons might be a part of our history, but the dragon slayers are just as much so. We can’t have one without the other. And you can’t make one disappear just because you changed your mind on who you like.”
Colton frowned a moment. “Maybe….”
Natlie twisted around on her seat so she could look at Colton and Justin at the same time. “Are you two aware that you’ve been discussing this constantly since I mentioned this last night at dinner? Do you think you could stop for a minute?”
Colton smiled at her. “Why would we do that?”
“Because you both agree and you’re just fueling each other’s frustration.”
“We don’t agree,” Justin said. “Colton here cares more about the dragons hurting his crops where as I am highly offended to be called unpatriotic for hunting the dragons.” He smiled faintly, like he knew a great secret. “Moreover, I believe that every single person in high government would be insulted, to say the least, to hear they too are unpatriotic for liking the dragon slayers and for wearing the dragon skin.”
“I think we just have to forget about patriotism and look at it in a purely logical manner,” Colton said. “The dragons destroy our crops and eat our cattle. We need both crops and cattle to make a living out here. So long as we fight the dragons, we have been in relative safety. Why would we want to change that?”
“Oh, stop it already!” Natlie said. “You two are driving me crazy. I’m lucky I’m going to town today or else I would probably have gone insane tonight with your constant discussion. At least I can find some sense while talking with Lita this afternoon.”
Colton rolled his eyes. “And then you ask me why I am not married yet, Justin? I tell you why. It’s her. She scares away anyone who might even come close.”
Natlie flipped back her hair. “He never even asks anyone to court him, let alone to marry him. He’s just using me as an excuse.”
Justin smiled faintly. “I have received my own share of comments from my family concerning my occupation, Moss Natlie, and the fact that I still roam around freely and unwed.”
Natlie looked back at him. “Well then, why do you?”
Justin leaned back. “I enjoy it. So why not? I’m the youngest of five sons. My presence there is rather… unimportant. This way, I made my own fortune in something I do well, instead of relying on my family’s money and land. It’s more honorable, the way I see it.”
“Any sisters or just five boys?”
“Two, also older.” Justin smiled faintly. “There was another sister younger than myself, but she died in the epidemic some fifteen years ago. I suppose that is why my mother hates me doing this.”
“So she is still alive?”
Justin nodded. “Quite so.”
Natlie glanced away and took a deep breath. Based on how Justin spoke, she could almost imagine a warm, motherly woman who would give him a hug and sit him down whenever he came home to some fresh-baked snack. She found it hard to imagine a toughened dragon slayer actually having a mother, but she liked the picture anyway. If she wanted something fresh-baked, she had to make it herself.
“I would have made it to town faster if I walked you know,” she said to change the conversation.
“Nonsense,” Colton said. “Anyway, I had to go into town either way. It made sense for us to go together.”
She sighed and brushed back her hair from her face. The west wind had begun to blow again, indicating another storm would probably come during the night. She pulled out hair tie from her pocket and pulled it back.
“See, we’re almost there.” Colton pointed ahead to where the crossbow stuck out from the trees. Natlie straightened and studied it as they passed. The dark wood, weather-worn from years of use, reached almost ten feet tall. Next to it, large logs formed into arrows laid, ready for use. It usually took two to three men to load it. Yet, for the first time she remembered, the defense stood unloaded.
He pulled up and tugged thoughtfully at his beard. “Well, now, that’s strange.” He handed her the reigns and jumped down. With a critical eye, he walked around it twice. Since the dragon defenses were such a necessary part of life, every man knew how to inspect, load, and fire them. They also knew, if not how to repair it, who to report to if it needed to be repaired.
He stopped in front of it for a long minute. “There’s no sign saying it’s broken. And it appears to be fine. Justin, come help me load this thing.”
Justin leapt from the cart and helped Colton lift the long, straight shaft into the machine. Colton gave him directions on what to do in his normal, gentle way that made one not feel so stupid about not knowing obvious things.
Natlie ignored them, watching the hawk glide across the sky. Enough people had called a false alarm because they mistook a bird for a dragon. However, everyone would agree it to be better to call a false alarm than to not call a real alarm. Still, she wondered sometimes what the dragons looked like if she could stop and watch them fly without worrying they came to attack. With how beautiful their skin looked in the sun, it must be a remarkable sight.
Colton taking the reigns from her hands pulled her from her daydreams. Natlie sighed. “It’s so beautiful today.” Much too beautiful to be riding in a cart to town.
Colton nodded slightly, not catching her meaning, like always. He never understood why she liked going to town as it was, let alone wandering randomly through the woods. The fields with his work were good enough for him.
The large sign announcing that they now entered Basham Heights greeted them as they entered, along with another, new sign underneath.
Colton stopped and read. “’Dragon slayers are no longer allowed within the city of Basham Heights, nor the surrounding area. Any one that dares to enter this town and attempts to engage in business will be removed as deemed appropriate.’”
Natlie glanced at him and frowned. “What–do you suppose that means?”
Colton shook his head and tugged at his beard.
“I think it means that crossbow wasn’t unloaded without reason,” Justin said quietly. Colton glanced back at him. “I think, if there has been a debate here, the debate hasn’t been over why the dragons should be destroyed but rather how to protect them.”
Natlie felt a hard coldness settle in her stomach. The phrase “as deemed appropriate” scared her more than she would like to admit. They could, theoretically, decide to do anything. “Are you going to remove your tunic?” she asked Justin.
Justin shook his head and ran a hand over it as if to smooth it. “I am a dragon slayer and just because I may not wear the tunic at one time does not mean I am not one. If you would rather, I can walk in on my own.”
“That isn’t necessary.” Colton started the horse again. “We’ve always had dragon slayers and we always will.”
Natlie blushed. “I didn’t mean it like that anyway, Justin. I just–don’t want you to get hurt.”
He smiled faintly. “I’ve hunted dragons for five years now, Miss Natlie. What makes you think I’m worried about getting hurt by townsfolk?”
“You can’t just kill an annoying person.”
“True. That is very true.”
Natlie glanced at Colton. He sat hunched over slightly, the tension gathering in his shoulders. He stared directly at the road like a statue. She gently touched his arm. He almost jumped, reminding her of how much he could lash out at someone who angered him enough. Instead, he just held her eyes for a moment before glancing away.
“I’m fine, Natlie,” he whispered.
He nodded slightly.
He licked his lips. “Changes in policy, like kicking dragon slayers out of the area, is a decision that should be unanimously voted upon by town men. I never voted on it, therefore, it was not unanimous.”
Natlie squeezed his hand. “I’m sure it’s nothing.
He nodded slightly but drove directly to the inn. “Can you please tie the horses?”
Natlie nodded and took the reigns from him. Immediately, he jumped from the wagon and headed inside. Natlie moved her skirts aside and began to climb down cautiously Justin approached.
“May I?” He offered her his hand.
She blushed slightly and accepted. “He’s my brother. Six year difference between the two of u so he forgets sometimes I’m grown up. What am I to do?”
Justin nodded and brought her gently to the ground. “I do understand.” He pumped some water for the horse, then leaned against the post. “How long have you been without your parents?”
“What happened–if I may ask?”
Natlie glanced at him and shrugged. “Dragons. What else?”
Justin nodded and looped the reigns around the post once the horse finished. “That must have been hard.”
Natlie nodded. “It happens–too much though. I–I just wish I could remember more about them. I was only ten and I feel guilty sometimes since I don’t remember them well. I can’t even tell you what they looked like, except my dad had the same hair color as me.” She smiled faintly as she twisted a auburn lock around her finger. “Curly though. And a really big beard.”
“Once people remember how much the dragons have taken away, things will go back to normal.”
Natlie smiled. “I hope. We should go check on Colton.” She ran up the stairs before he could debate it and pushed open the door.
Albin leaned against the wall, his face almost blank. “It is nothing that serious, Colton. You’re overreacting to the situation.”
“Overreacting to this situation? Do you realize what you have done?” Colton glanced at the few men there. Among them, Natlie recognized the dragon slayer from earlier, sitting quietly in the corner. She slipped into a booth near the door, hoping to be invisible, and Justin sat across from her.
“Let me summarize the situation for you so I can make certain you are fully understanding it. You illegally call a meeting of the town council, telling only a handful of people about this meeting, and decide to banish all dragon slayers on penalty of death. You also decide to disable all of the crossbows so that we have no defenses against a dragon attack when one does come. Then you support all of this with the logic that the dragons are going to disappear if we don’t do something? Are you crazy or is there something I am not understanding?”
“It isn’t crazy. It is necessary,” the dragon slayer said, absently toying with a pipe.
Colton turned on him sharply. “And who are you?”
“You aren’t a member of this town. Your opinion is irrelevant.”
“No. He is,” Otto said from the table.
“What do you mean he is? It says plain and simple in the charter–men come into the town district, live in the area for six months, and then are a member. I have not seen Jorn fellow before.”
“We gave him a special permission during the meeting as well,” Albin said.
Colton slammed his fist on the table. “This is insane! Why does he deserve this–this–stupidity?”
“Because he explained to us the situation of the dragons,” Albin said evenly. “Something I do not think you fully comprehend.”
“I don’t think you do. I know what the dragons have done. I know that they have destroyed all my crops on two separate years. I know that they have eaten my cattle several times a year. I know that my sister walks around the woods with a bow because it isn’t safe otherwise. I know that without the crossbow, we will not be safe. I know the situation, better than Jorn can know and probably better than you–with your two years of residency here–can know.”
Jorn cleared his throat again. “I was a dragon slayer for fifteen years. They’re practically gone. I have not been able to kill one for over six months–nor seen any sign of one for that matter. It is because of that–because my way of life is nearly gone–that I went into the mountains. Only then did I discover that there are nearly no dragons there as well. They are going to be gone forever if we do not take action. It is better to take action now than to regret their death years from now.”
Colton clenched his jaw. “You have gone about this illegally, Albin. You should be ashamed of yourself. I call a town meeting for tonight to resolve these issues once and for all.”
Albin frowned. “Very well.”
Colton nodded slightly and motioned to Natlie.
“Now, sir.” Albin turned to Justin. “I will give you one warning to leave town. If you do not comply, we will be forced to remove you.”
“None of these new so-called laws are in effect until the town meeting,” Colton said tensely.
“No, Colton.” Albin looked at him. “They are our laws and unless you can somehow get it overturned, they stay. Now, sir, are you leaving?”
Justin stood. “There are no limits in the whole country as to where a person can travel. You have right to refuse me a room in your business but as for allowing me to travel through this town, I will stay as I please and leave as I please and there should be no law to stop me.”
Immediately, both Otto and Jorn leapt to their feet. Albin took only two steps and punched him across the face, sending him across the table.
Natlie gasped and jumped. “Stop!”
The next punch Justin blocked and followed with a punch of his own against Albin. Otto grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him to the ground. A scramble of bodies knocked furniture aside and the next thing Natlie saw, they hauled Justin up and dragged him out the door.
Natlie followed them with Colton at her heels. Justin wrestled against their gasp but they held firm. Colton shouted at them to stop but they ignored him. As soon as they reached the edge of town, they tossed Justin into the dirt. Jorn kicked dust at him before he turned away.
“Let that be a lesson to you, Dragon Slayer!” Albin shouted.
Justin stood and wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. For a moment he watched Albin evenly, then his gaze flickered beyond him to Jorn.
Natlie expected him to turn and leave then but he didn’t. To her horror, he silently took a step forward, back into town. Albin shoved him back across the town line. Justin stepped again. This time, Albin punched him in the stomach. Justin hardly flinched but Albin cried out, clutching his hand as blood began forming along the knuckles.
“What’d you do?” Albin said.
“Dragon scales are one of the hardest things you will ever encounter,” Justin said quietly, as he took another step. “You didn’t know that?
Otto took a swing at him but Justin simply stepped to the side.
“Is it really worth this?” Colton said. “The man just wants to be allowed to travel through town. You are going to get hurt if you keep this up.”
“The sign says it does matter,” Albin said.
“Burn the sign! Fighting him isn’t worth it.”
Albin scowled, wrapping his hand in the towel always at his waist. “No. Dragon slayers are no longer allowed to come. That is the law and we will not change it.”
Jorn drew a knife.
Justin looked at him. “Would you really use that against one of your own?””
“You are not one of mine anymore. I am no longer a dragon slayer. I gave that up when I decided to save our national emblem. So yes, I would use it on you and gladly.”
Justin paused. The small knife hardly seemed like it should bother Justin, for he wore one very similar to it himself. Natlie fully expected him to take another step forward. Instead, he nodded slightly and stepped back. “Just know I will do nothing to protect your town then when the attack comes.”
“We do not need, nor want, your so-called protection,” Albin said.
With a slight nod, Justin turned and walked away.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were a dragon yourself,” Justin said.
Natlie opened her eyes. He sat next to her and stretched out his legs.
Natlie smiled faintly and pushed herself up. “Why is that?”
“The dragons lay on rocks like that. They’re basically giant lizards, so if they can find a large enough rock for their whole body, they’ll lay on it as long as its warm.” He began to stuff his pipe. “Sometimes, if you know what you’re looking for, you can see whole flocks of them sleeping along the mountain.”
Natlie smiled slightly. “I don’t blame them. It feels good.”
Justin nodded. “I know. I’ve spent many a winter afternoon on a rock.”
“You must have been around the country quite a bit.”
“And? What do you like about it?”
Justin pulled deeply on his pipe before he answered. “Some places are nicer than others. Much of it depends upon my mood at the time. But here, well, it’s actually nicer than I expected. It’s almost the perfect balance of tension and peace.” He watched the sky for a long minute, before he continued. “Jorn is correct that dragons are harder to find. It would not surprise me if many of the less-skilled dragon slayers are retiring. Still, just because we can’t find them easily doesn’t mean that we should let them rest and repopulate.”
Natlie picked at the grass. “I–I don’t want to sound bad, Justin, but I don’t know where I stand on this.”
“What do you mean?”
She glanced again towards the sky, which had began to cool to more of a dark blue with only the orange on the horizon to the east. “I don’t like the dragons. I have no reason to. But if they could live happily in their land, without bothering us, I would not mind that either. I just want them to leave us alone.”
“Maybe it isn’t right to kill out a whole species, but our survival comes first and theirs second, don’t you think? That’s just how it should be. I suspect that the town will see it too, now that they are going about this legally.”
Natlie glanced at the meeting house, and jumped when the door slammed open. Colton stumbled out of the meeting house, tripped down the steps before he regained his balance and spun around. She slipped off the rock and began to run towards him.
“You are all idiots!” Colton yelled. “You’re going to bring death to this town.”
Natlie stopped behind Colton. Albin stood in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest, with Jorn behind him.
Colton took a step forward. “A change like this must be unanimous.”
“Nonsense.” Albin said. “It was with a majority ruling that we built the crossbows. It is with a majority ruling that we disable them.”
“I have had that land for–”
“For a measly nine years, ever since your parents died.” Albin waved his hand carelessly. “Many of us have had our places longer than that.”
“They died because of the dragons!”
“We have tired of your arguments, Colton,” Jorn said. “If we haven’t changed our minds up until now, we aren’t going to change our minds now.”
“The fact is that we cannot kill the dragons,” Albin said.
Colton clenched and unclenched his hands before he turned sharply. “Come, Natlie.” He tromped away. Natlie glanced back once more before she followed after him.
“What are we going to do, Colton?” Natlie said softly.
“I don’t know yet. We–”
A haunting screech cut Colton off as it vibrated across the valley. Natlie looked up sharply to see the speck dive from the clouds. In barely five seconds, the full outline of a dragon could be easily seen. It screeched again, a high, mournful screech that chilled the bones.
Behind them, men jostled out of the meeting house. Natlie ran towards the rock where she rested earlier and snatched up her bow. Justin no longer stood there. When she turned, Colton, too, had disappeared.
The dragon swooped lower. Natlie glanced towards the crossbow and caught sight of Colton on top of it, aiming. Another man stood next to him to help him with stabilization. Natlie stood on the rock and drew an arrow but waited. She would not shoot unless Colton missed.
Shouts from the town mingled with the shrieks of the dragon. The dragon dove towards the town. The west crossbow fired but so poorly aimed that it looked like someone intentionally undershot. Natlie licked her lips as the dragon looped back towards them. She felt so cold and sweaty and her stomach twisted around in knots. She flinched as it spewed fire towards a nearby farm, spooking the cattle into running towards town.
A scuffle started at the crossbow nearest her. The shouts of an argument mixed together so that she could understand nothing besides a curse from Colton. Still, she did not dare look towards the crossbow. If they missed, she had to fire but she always hated this part.
Another screech. Natlie caught her breath as the crossbow fired again. Once again, the arrow missed. The dragon looped again and Natlie raised her bow. The gray beast swooped lower and blew fire again towards the cattle that stampeded through town.
Someone collided into her just as she released the arrow. She squeezed her eyes shut and the next moment she laid on the grass. With a gasp, she rolled to the side and blinked. The dragon’s screech sent sharp knives through her head, and, mingled with the smell of smoke, caused her to feel sick.
Natlie pushed herself up and swallowed against the nausea.
Someone near by brushed off his clothing. “You know the law, girl. You cannot shoot a dragon.”
She swallowed and took a slow breath. “Even if I had shot it, I would have only injured it enough so it would learn not to come back.” Natlie brushed back her hair and looked up. Jorn glared down at her but in such a way that he did not look directly at her, but over her.
“You foolish girl.” He grabbed her bow front the ground and raised it as if to hit her. Natlie gasped and shielded her head.
“Don’t touch her,” Justin snapped.
Natlie looked up quickly.
“Hand the bow back to her, Jorn.”
He paused but tossed it to her. “How do I know she won’t shoot a dragon with it?”
Justin frowned at him evenly. “She was not shooting one in town. Even if she did shoot the dragon, you know as well as I do that you need a much stronger bow to harm it.”
Jorn hesitated before he finally looked directly at her for the first time. “You heard me, girl. I better not see you ever shoot a dragon or I will–”
“You will do nothing to her or her property,” Justin said.
Jorn glared at him. “And what would you do if I did?”
Justin rested a hand casually on his long knife at his waist. “Everyone in this country considers hurting a woman a crime. Some could say that shoving a woman to the ground would count as assault. I will merely enforce the law if you did anything to her.”
Jorn clenched his jaw and stalked away. Justin leaned over and offered Natlie his hand. She wearily took it and pulled herself up. The ground lurched slightly, but not badly.
“Watch out for him,” Justin said softly. “He… isn’t right.”
Natlie nodded slightly. “I know that already.”
Justin started to say something but just shook his head. The smoke drifted higher into the sky as another building caught fire. Men began lining up to form a fire brigade along the center of the street while the younger boys began rounding up the cattle.
“Come. Let’s find your brother and leave,” Justin said.
Natlie nodded. About a hundred feet away, Lita’s cat lay with an arrow through its chest. She swallowed and looked away. A friendly cat in place of a dangerous dragon was not a very fair trade by anyone’s standards.
Colton winced as Natlie touched his face again with the warm cloth and pushed her hand away. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
She gave him a hard look. “It still looks bad.”
He glanced at the small mirror she brought out and shrugged. “That’s just how it’s going to be for a few weeks I think. Until it heals.” He stood and glanced towards the door. “I suppose I need to do the chores now.”
“I can do them if you want.”
He shook his head. “No, thanks. I’ll be fine.” He shuffled out of the house.
Natlie glances at Justin. “He isn’t acting right.”
“Most men don’t when they just had to fight for something that should that they always thought to be as consistent as the sun rising,” Justin said from in front of the fire.
She sighed and pulled out her knitting. “Still… I don’t like it.”
“We don’t ever like it when someone we care about is feeling down. That’s just a fact. And I suspect,” He leaned forward, “that you are more effected by others emotion than most people.”
She gave a wane smile. “Sometimes, I think, yes.”
Colton’s shout interrupted their conversation. Natlie flew out the door and up the hill to where he stood. Justin followed, although not as quickly. Colton pointed to the small points of fire amid the darkness. “Look.”
Natlie looked but only saw small specks of flame in the distance. Nothing to cause as great of alarm as she heard in Colton’s voice.
“It’s the crossbows,” Colton whispered.
Natlie gasped and blinked again. Although she could not see the details, she knew that he had to be right based on location and size. “Why?”
He shook his head slightly.
“So they do not have another riot again when the dragons return,” Justin said quietly.
Natlie glanced at him and swallowed. Colton muttered the whole way home about how the town seemed pretty much divided on the issue when it came down to the realization they needed to protect their own homes. Half of the men fought against the other half, one wanting to protect the dragon, the other wanting to protect their home. No one really knew what they wanted anymore.
Colton turned away. “Natlie, I don’t want you going into town again.”
He looked at her, his eyes filled with such determination she could even see it in the darkness. “If we go to town, we go to Alsworth.”
“Alsworth is ten miles away!”
Colton nodded slightly.
“You cannot logically expect us to travel ten miles away to get everything we need.”
“My decision will not be changed, Natlie. We will not go back to that town. It is no longer safe there.”
Natlie bit her lip and looked away. “You are being unreasonable and irrational.”
“Hardly. It is to protect us–protect you. You may finish whatever business you started there but do not start anything new.”
“How is this protecting me?”
“You can no longer defend yourself, even on the edges of town. What am I to do besides this?”
Natlie glanced at him.
He nodded slightly towards Justin. “Justin told me about you and Jorn. If that man does anything like that to you again, I–I am not quite sure what I will do to him, but it will not be pleasant.”
“It was nothing, Colton. Please don’t overreact.”
“No man shoves my sister to the ground like that.” He clenched his jaw abruptly and turned again. “I have chores.” He walked away, his head bent wearily.
Natlie wrapped her arms around herself and wearily sank to the ground. Birch, their dog, muzzled her for affection which she gave absently. Barely two miles away, the fires burned and she could do nothing about it. After having the crossbows as a sentinel and guardian of their land for her whole life, they would vanish in a few hours.
Justin lowered himself next to her but said nothing.
“I sometimes wonder if Colton wishes we could just move.”
Natlie looked at him and sighed. “We’ve lived here our whole lives and yet–it’s always a struggle. It’s been a struggle since before our parents died until now. He’s the oldest and he’s always been trying to protect us–protect me. But there’s only so much he can do when need to have some independence. We’re just so different.”
She smiled faintly. “How so? I… I like to do things myself. I like to run around in the woods. I like people. I like–I like so many things.” She paused. “And I hate housework.”
“You would have surprised me.”
“I only do it because the faster I get it done, the quicker I can do things that I want to do.”
He nodded slightly. “That makes logical sense.”
The farther fire flickered slightly, like it neared its end. “I–I survived my family because I lied, you know. My mother wanted me to help her bake the bread. I wanted to play in the woods. I lied and told her I needed to go out back. As soon as I knew she would stop watching, I took off running.” The first fire went out. “Colton was the one leading the herd, so when the fire caught up with everyone else, he just took off running. We only survived because we were lucky.
“But someday we won’t be. I know that, just as well as he does. We just don’t talk about it. We can’t–not without losing heart.” She looked at him. Justin watched her so intently she felt like he could see right through her, see everything she ever thought and felt.
“What do you want, Natlie?”
She paused. “What I already told you. I want to live in peace. I don’t know–I don’t think I care if it is here or somewhere else. But I can never tell Colton that.”
“This land has been in our family for over a hundred and fifty years. It’s like leaving behind a family heirloom. Moreover, it’s not worth anything. No one wants to live this close to the dragons, no matter how good the land is.” She glanced towards the fires again; The other one had begun to flicker as well, while the first one she could only see. “Not with those crossbows burning.”
Natlie looked towards the crossbows again and sighed. A drop of rain fell onto her face. She almost smiled. “It always rains after the dragons attack. Something about the smoke causes it to rain. I’m not sure why.” She looked at the sky. “It makes it seem bearable to move on again, when it is bad. Cleans everything.” Another wet, cold raindrop plopped onto her cheek.
Justin rose. “Should we go inside?”
Natlie rose as well. “Probably. Colton would hate it if I stayed out here in the rain.” She glanced one more time behind her as Justin led her down the hill, to see the southern crossbow sputter and die out as well. So much for the sentinels of Basham Heights.
The storm was followed by a period of dry weather, much to all of the farmers’ satisfaction since it neared harvest time. Harvest came and with it, the tiring routine for Justin and Colton began as well. They rose in the morning early, did the chores, ate breakfast, and then disappeared into the fields until sunset. Once dark, they finally trudged home to collapse around the dinner table. At first, Colton jested Justin often about how he handled a sickle like he never had done it before in his life. Justin just brushed it off but Natlie guessed, based on how much he did not protest, that Colton was correct. Not that it mattered much. No farmer would argue against help, no matter where it came from. Soon, sheathes of grain stood in all the fields surrounding them for miles and Natlie began her daily checks to see if they were dry enough for threshing.
Although the men had many things to do, Natlie had very little besides her normal chores. As such, she found herself missing the town even more. Harvest always dragged Colton away from the house for long periods of time. Before she had escaped from the desolate house by going to town. The town always was a place of excitement and people. There, she could always find someone to talk with there. Sometimes, she caught herself staring across the fields at the buildings and wondering how long Colton would persist in his stubbornness that she could not go.
Colton did not relent. Once Natlie got the money from her crafts, he ordered her not to go again. Although she hated it, she had to listen to him. He was, after all, her brother and responsible for her. He tried to compensate for not letting her go by setting a day sometime next month to go to Alsworth but hardly helped in fighting the overwhelming loneliness that threatened to overtake her.
The harvest slowly came to an end. Since Colton only planted as much as he could harvest himself, with two of them working and near perfect weather, they finished much earlier than normal. With the end of the actual harvest came the promise of seeing both men more often as they worked closer to the house. In celebration, Natlie made a mulberry pie, which they ate around the fireplace after dinner while Justin told stories.
Justin’s stories had been the best part of this past month of isolation–possibly the only really good part. He knew many from traveling nearly five years as a dragon slayer and she enjoyed every single one of them. Always, she had been curios about the other parts of the country and what it was like. This was part of the reason why she liked the inn so much; there was always a story. With Justin, it seemed like he had been everywhere at least once and had a story to tell for every place imaginable.
Natlie sighed as he finished and pulled the blanket tighter around her. “Just how many stories do you have, Justin? Of your own I mean.”
Justin tapped his pipe thoughtfully. “Hundreds I suppose. Maybe thousands.” He shrugged. “I never really thought about it.”
She sighed dreamily. “That’s what I miss most about town. The stories at the inn. All of them.”
“I doubt too many people will stay long enough to tell you any now,” Colton said.
Natlie threw a pillow at him. “You’re impossible!”
He grinned and held his pie up to protect it. “Always. Just for you.”
Justin cleared his throat slightly. “I’ve been thinking that, with the harvest over now, I’ll be leaving in the morning.”
Natlie looked at him sharply. “What? Why?”
He pulled thoughtfully on his pipe. “I thought that dragon from a month ago would be a scout, looking for a new place to find food.” He glanced at Colton. “You know how it is. Since we didn’t even harm the creature, it would assume this area is safe and return with the herd. That is partly why I was so angry at Jorn for stopping your shot, Natlie, because it would have spooked the animal enough to leave.” He paused again. “But they didn’t come back. I gave them more than enough time to return and they have not. So it is time I move on.”
Colton watched the fire for a moment. “I’ll miss you.”
He smiled faintly. “I did enjoy it here. Farming was a very nice change of pace for me.”
“Thank you for staying as long as you did. It’s not often I get help in the fields like that.”
“I’m sure. And it was very interesting to learn.”
Natlie stared at her cup and slowly twisted it before sighing. “I understand–of course.”
“I’m sorry, Natlie. But–it’s time. Your town is safe for now. If it gets very bad, I’ll be back. I follow the dragons after all.”
‘I know. I know all that.” She looked at him. “I was just looking forward to you both being around here for a while.”
He nodded slightly.
She smiled, although it felt incredibly small and fake. “Don’t worry about it.” She took a bite of pie to hide her disappointment. “How early are you leaving?”
“Dawn. You need not do anything about it.”
Natlie nodded slightly. “Very well.”
Justin nodded slightly and leaned back. “I’ll admit, I’ll miss this good food.”
Natlie blushed slightly. “Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.”
He finished with his pipe and rose. “Well, good night and thank you, both of you, for everything.”
Natlie watched him go to bed before slipping outside. The stars twinkled through the night sky and made the world seem so bright and mystical. The sudden warm day made it possible to mistake this night for just another summer night, instead of almost winter.
She sighed and leaned against the wall. Colton closed the door softly and looked at her.
“What is it, Natlie?”
She glanced at him. “I’m just going to miss him.”
“Why? You have me still. It’s not like you’re getting totally abandoned.”
Natlie sank onto the bench and just stared at the sky. “You’re–you’re not me, Colton. You like the quietness of the fields and you like the time you can spend alone while planting or harvesting. You like having the chance to think in peace. I–I’m not like that. I like being around people.”
“You can be around me. You know that.”
“Only for so long. There’s only so much that you’re willing to listen before you just want your quiet. Justin–Justin doesn’t know any of my stories or my thoughts so he lets me speak as I wish.” She sighed. “I don’t know how much you actually understand that I liked having someone else in the house. I liked the company. I liked the change. And… and now it’s gone.”
“Oh, Natlie.” Colton wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close.
She shuddered and leaned against him. “It isn’t fair, Colton. Albin hunted the dragons for two years before he came here and snatched up Lita to marry her. It’s like he forgot completely about that part of his life. Instead–he’s condemning everyone who does it now with no mention of himself in this.”
“It’ll be okay, Natlie. They’ll remember soon. They’ll see that this is all foolishness and forget the whole idea about protecting of dragons. It’s just for a little bit. It’s just until Jorn leaves.”
“And how are we to know when he leaves if we aren’t going into town?”
“I’ve been talking with Spencer. He goes there and tells me what’s going on. He’s not letting his family go either.”
“That doesn’t help me feel better.”
He smiled. “Sorry.”
“I wish we could travel sometimes, Colton. Like Justin does. I wish we could just leave everything and start traveling.”
“You know we can’t do that. We have the farm to take care of.”
Natlie nodded slightly. “I know. Still….” She sighed. “I would like that.”
“I’m sure you would.” He looked around the yard thoughtfully. “I don’t think you’re ever going to be happy just staying here forever, Natlie. I think you’re going to leave as soon as you find someone who will go with you, no matter how much I protest”
“You would never let me.”
“I wouldn’t have a choice. You like being free too much to stay put here for long and I will have to either give you my blessing or give you a logical reason as to why you should not go.”
Natlie looked up at him. “Are you saying I should go with Justin?”
Colton looked at her sharply. “What? No! Not at all. Why would you think that?”
“It just–it sounded like you might be giving me permission to. I think you know that if I were a boy, I would have been a dragon slayer.”
“I do. But you aren’t a boy; you are a woman, And I have done my best to raise you as such.” He squeezed her hand. “And I think you turned out pretty much fine. Only problem is your inseparability with your bow.”
She chuckled slightly. “Thanks.” The wind blew her hair slightly and she shoved it back. “I try to be that way.”
“I know. Makes me glad to know that you’re safe even when I’m not watching.”
The weather only become warmer, with many rumors of this being the hottest autumn ever felt before. Colton wiped his brow and took the water gratefully when she offered it. Threshing was hard enough on cool autumn days that doing it in near summer-like conditions zapped his strength.
He gulped it empty before handing it back. “Thanks.”
Natlie nodded and slid onto the rock. “How’s it going?”
He paused a moment before he frowned and wiped his face again. “Normal I suppose.” He smiled faintly. “How is threshing suppose to go?”
Natlie shrugged and looked at the sky. One hour ago the sky had been perfectly clear. Now, large, low gray clouds had blown in from the mountains, and with them the hope of rain and cooler weather.
Colton noticed her look. “I’ll be done before it hits, if it ever does. Don’t you worry about that.”
“I didn’t think you were completely unobservant.”
“Never am. It does feels better without the sun beating on me constantly.” He swung his arms at his sides and looked at the sky momentarily. “I probably won’t start another one though, so I’ll be done in about an hour.”
She nodded. “Does that mean you’ll want dinner then?”
Colton smiled. “Dinner sounds great. With pie?”
“We’ll see.” Natlie slipped off the rock. “I’ll see you in an hour or so.”
She took the bucket and wandered back towards the house. The slight breeze tugged on her skirt as she stopped to look again at the town. Spencer stopped by their home yesterday to report that Basham Heights still banned dragon slayers, Jorn still lived among them as a respected citizen, and no one had any intention of rebuilding the crossbows. Two weeks now since Justin had left and, although she told herself things would change, nothing had. She still couldn’t go anywhere. With a sigh, she turned and headed towards the house.
Natlie jumped as a hollow screech echoed across the valley. Shivers ran down her back and she looked towards the gray sky. Another low screech followed but the low clouds hid it from view. She swallowed and watched.
Suddenly, five silhouettes broke through the clouds and dove towards the earth. Natlie caught her breath as the powerful wings brought the dragons closer to her, their cries mingling with the echoes so that she could not tell them apart. As she watched, the tiny, one-inch dragons became six inches, then a foot, and then larger. These were no babies. These were as full grown as one could find.
“That is partly why I was so angry at Jorn for stopping your shot, Natlie, because it would have spooked the animal enough to leave.”
“Colton!” Natlie turned, dropping the bucket, and fled down the hill. Colton had already seen and freed the oxen from the nearby fence post. “Get the animals out of the barn!”
Natlie turned sharply and ran towards the barn. Tied at the fence post, the horse already began fidgeting and whinnying against the rope. She struggled with him a minute before she finally just cut the rope and watch the horse gallop into the bushes.
Natlie turned towards the barn. The dragons’ call became louder, almost like they were being tortured. She just pulled open the door when Colton grabbed her from behind.
“Go onto the the cave. I’ll follow.” He shoved her towards the woods.
Natlie nodded slightly. Her quiver slapped her back as she ran. As soon as she reached the woods, she turned to watch the animals and wait for Colton. Already, the older cows ran towards the woods, with the young ones following in panic. Birch, the dog, herded them towards Natlie at her call but that did little good as they scattered as soon as they reached the woods. The other horse galloped out of the barn. Natlie began to back into the woods, slowly, waiting for Colton still.
A gust of wind sent dirt into her eyes as a blue-gray dragon swooped down on the barn. For a moment, it hovered above the farm, as if to let itself be admired. Then, the orange flame flew from its mouth and it engulfed the house and the barn in one breath.
The buildings flared up like dried weeds due to the weeks with no rain. The dragon beat its wings twice to gain air and waited for the animals to run out. Except there were no animals in there. Only Colton.
Natlie grabbed an arrow and aimed. Something cried out, sounding almost like death, and jarred her into releasing the arrow too soon. Another scream and a figure rushed from the barn, consumed in flames.
Natlie ran towards him but not quickly enough. The dragon dropped immediately and snatched him up, flames at all. She stopped and fired again, this time hitting the beast in the soft spot between the body and the leg. With a screech, it dropped the mass of fire. It fell, splitting apart midair and disappearing behind the house.
“Colton,” she whispered, taking a step towards the house again. It couldn’t be. Colton wouldn’t do anything as foolish as running out randomly. He should be coming out of the barn at any moment, somehow surviving the flames. If anyone, he would know how.
The dragon screeched and turned towards her. Natlie yanked out another arrow and fired. It screamed and flew upward. She grabbed another but Birch shoved his body against her legs, sending her to the ground.
Natlie gasped and looked up. The dragon kept mounting so it was almost out of her reach. She scrambled up and began to run towards the woods, Birch at her side.
Behind her, the farm continued to burn.
For some reason, Natlie expected when she came back to the farm Colton would be there, looking tall and solemn across the land. She’d touch his shoulder gently and he’d look at her with a sad expression. “We’ll rebuild,” he’d say. “We’ll rebuild it all, just like it’s always was.”
But only blackened dirt met her. Not even the frame of the house stood. Just a pile of black soot that had begun to fan out into wisps because of the wind. Everything else–the barns, the house, the chicken coop, the fences–had vanished in one night. Even the grain that Colton just threshed had vanished, eaten up by the greedy flames.
Without the buildings and the grain, Natlie could easily see the crossbow that guarded the main road, a black silhouette against the sky, a burnt skeleton just as her house but not by the dragons. No. To protect the dragons. To protect the same thing that caused this much harm.
Natlie screamed and threw a rock as hard as she could. It clattered down the hill and disappeared. How foolish did they think they could be? The dragons were the enemies. The dragons were just animals. Ruthless, heartless, brainless animals.
The rain began to patter around her in gentle, cold drops, a quiet reminder of the coming winter. But–she had no one now. No one to help her build a house. And even if she did build one, how long would it last before the dragons came again to attack? How long before all the animals were eaten? How long before whole land was as black as where her house once stood?
They had to protect themselves. They could not rebuild unless they protected themselves first. She knew of only one way to protect herself.
Natlie ran across the fields towards the giant crossbow. She slowed as she approached it, surveying the damage. All the burnt parts had to go. It could not shoot the arrow far enough with that weak of wood. Then, she would need fresh wood. Those in town should help now–now that they saw what happened when they did not fight.
The rain began to quicken as Natlie climbed up the structure. Angrily, she shoved a burnt log out of the way. It tumbled to the ground and shattered. She pushed on another one but it didn’t budge. She shoved harder.
“Move already! Move!” She kicked it.
She realized she was crying. The rain fell around her, soaking through her clothes. She shoved it again but it only moved slightly.
“Move!” She kicked it. “Move! Move!” It didn’t listen. The rain continued to fall around her.
A quiet rustling and Birch’s bark caused her to turn. Behind her rested a young dragon in the middle of the field with water running off its blue back in small streams. It tucked a wing against its body like an injured animal and stared at her quietly. The blood mingled with the rain under the wing and fell to the ground in red streams.
Natlie began to reach for an arrow but paused. The sad face watched her mournfully with sad, golden eyes. “I’m sorry,” it seemed to say. “I’m sorry all this happened.” Its head swayed slightly from side to side, like animals often did when in pain. This creature was as helpless as she. All the other dragons left it alone to die solely because it was injured, just like she was now alone. This ruin wasn’t its fault.
She slipped off the crossbow and stood still for a moment, waiting for it to respond. The dragon laid its head to the ground, its yellow eyes still watching her. Cautiously, she took a step towards it. It would not harm her. It knew that she only wanted to help. Another step and another. The dragon did not move at all, just waited, like it could read her mind. It knew that she meant it no harm. She only wanted to help it.
Natlie blinked, feeling like someone was trying to wake her from a dream.
She looked behind her. Immediately, an arrow flew past her. The dragon screamed in agony as it tried to fly away. Justin grabbed her wrist and pulled her back as the dragon fell into the crossbow, dead.
Natlie shoved herself away. “What did you–” She paused, staring at him. He caught her hands and searched her face earnestly for something. She swallowed and licked her lips. It was just a dragon. Now, it was dead dragon. She had no reason to be angry. She never should have even cared.
Natlie slumped against Justin and he wrapped his arms around her, shielding her with himself. “I know, Natlie. I know.”
“Why?” she whispered. “Why did I want that dragon to live so badly?”
He paused for a long minute. “It’s a defense the dragons have. They–make you attached to themselves so that you do not feel like you can kill it. It has become much more common and almost never ends well for the person.”
Natlie shuddered and buried her face against him. The rough dragon scales scratched her hands but she did not care. He had just saved her life. If she had kept moving, that dragon would have eaten her the moment she came close enough. The stories about people befriending dragons were fiction. It probably just wanted food.
“I saw your farm,” he whispered.
Natlie nodded slightly, a lump rising in her throat.
At his name, Natlie began to sob. Justin seemed to understand for he held her close in the middle of the field and rocked her gently, murmuring things in her ear that she never comprehended. The tears continued to flow, as steadily as the rain. For a long time, they stood like that in the middle of the field, each one clinging to the other and the rain hiding both their tears.
Between the small fire and Justin’s cloak, the cold stayed away as best it could that damp night. Justin knew how to make the small cave her family always used as a refuge against the dragons cheery and provided warm food for them both. But not before they set up a small stone for Colton in the little birch grove where the rest of her family rested. Although she hated the fact, that was all they could do. There was nothing to bury.
Justin lowered himself next to her after tossing on another log. He stuffed his pipe meticulously and inhaled deeply before he looked at her.
“Are you ready to hear my plan?”
Natlie looked at him. “Your plan for what?’
“My plan for tomorrow.” He waited for her to respond. She nodded slightly. He took a deep breath. “We take the animals probably only as far as Galatia, and sell them for what they’re worth. After that, we head towards Salworth.”
“The summer capital?”
“Why? That’s–that’s almost on the other side of the country. What about–the land and the dragons and–everything?”
Justin turned towards the fire and let out a long sigh. “The fact is, Natlie, that–no one wants the dragon slayers any more. It isn’t just your town. People are doing it everywhere along the dragons’ nest.”
“Surely not now though! Not after….” She swallowed and looked towards the fire.
“I thought the same thing. Unfortunately, they are all the more determined in Basham Heights.”
The lump in Natlie’s throat became colder and harder. If they did not see now, when would they see?
“I want you to come with me, Natlie. The time of the dragon slayers is over for now. They might come back eventually but they will need at least a year. Until then, no one will be hunting dragons. Not even myself.”
“What are you going to do?”
Justin paused for a long moment. “I’m retiring and going home.”
Natlie looked at him sharply. “But you said–”
“I can find dragons to kill, Natlie. The fact that I killed that one earlier proves it. But I cannot kill dragons if no one will allow me to travel in the area the dragons frequent, or sell the skins. So I’m going to go home for some time and live at my father’s house again. Maybe give a few fencing lessons here and there.” He shrugged. “Depending on how things are, maybe start supporting myself in the real world. I don’t know. I’ll just let life carry me along as it wills, like I always do.”
Natlie twisted her finger around his cloak for a long time.
“I think that my mother would be honored to have you as a guest. It won’t be the same–obviously–as here but I think you’ll fit in fine enough. Everyone is always so curious about those who have seen dragons and there won’t be much court since most everyone would have moved to the winter capital by now. Or their lands, as the politics strikes them.”
Natlie looked at him sharply. “What do you mean by court?”
Justin paused. “My father is Lord Christopher Kale.”
Natlie looked at him sharply. “The prime minister?”
He nodded slightly, a faint smile flickering across his face. “But there’s nothing to worry about, Natlie. You’re just a friend of mine and that’s all there is.” He paused and threw a stick in the fire. “You gave me a home when I didn’t need one. I want to give you one when you do. If things change here or you decide you don’t like it there or anything, you still have your land and the money from the animals. You can come back again. But–I don’t think it is safe here anymore.”
Natlie searched his face. He looked at her sincerely and honestly, just waiting. She swallowed and looked away. Colton wouldn’t like the idea of her leaving the land. It was their land, he would say, and they had every right to keep it to themselves and to do as they pleased. Even fight the dragons for it.
But what else could she do? She had no one and with her brother’s history, few people in town would be likely to help her. With her own history, few people would. She injured enough of the dragons after all.
She looked at the fire. For some reason, it sounded like she heard Colton’s voice instead of her own as her thoughts. She understood him now. He said it was their land to convince both her and himself as to why they had to say. But he wanted to protect her. He wanted… he wanted to leave. He would want her to leave too now, given the chance, so that she could be safe.
Natlie looked up at him. “Very well, Justin. I’ll–I’ll go.”
He squeezed her hand. “Thank you.”