The Dragon’s Girl
A Lost Universe Short Story
The mountain was angry, and Adelaide was burning alive.
She cursed her stupid brother with every step she took—or tried to take—on the rocky path that would lead her to the dragon’s lair. It wasn’t enough that she had to risk her life to save the dragon, who she wasn’t even sure deserved to be saved. And it wasn’t enough to have to climb this rocky mountain trail, with smoke spewing in hot bursts against her from fissures in the rock. She also had to do it at night, so she could get there before her brother.
Larkin was most likely at the pub, raising a glass to his own health and bragging about all the heroism he’d showed as a squire to one of the best knights in the land. It was nonsense. Adelaide happened to know that when they weren’t stationed in Saifear, Larkin and the second-rate knight he was squiring for had been on guard duty along the south border, where they were protecting Eirim from a whole lot of nothing.
But he had come back from his time as a squire ready to prove himself. He needed a quest to be officially knighted, and for some idiotic reason he thought the best way to prove his bravery was to kill their dragon.
Yes, the dragon occasionally ate more livestock than they could really afford, and he wasn’t exactly friendly, but Adelaide still had a fondness for the beast. And she knew, practically, that he kept other dragons from coming into their territory, dragons that might be more dangerous and more demanding. Greit was eccentric, but he didn’t kill people if he could help it. He was the protector of their little corner of the world, and killing him struck Adelaide as just about the stupidest thing someone could do.
No one had never accused Larkin of being too smart, Adelaide thought with a wry smile. And here he was, proving once again that he acted long before he thought. Or maybe he just wasn’t capable of that level of thinking.
Adelaide knew she must be getting close, because the smoke was almost unbearable now, and even the rocks beneath her were warm to her touch. The mountain path shot up at a sharp angle ahead of her, and she frowned at the loose rocks that would never bear her weight if she tried to use them to gain purchase.
Well. There were some advantages to being a witch.
Adelaide closed her eyes and let the wind and smoke surround her. She was strongest in elemental magic, and wind was a powerful friend to her.
“Gaoth,” she murmured, summoning the wind to her fingertips. She could feel it prickling against her skin, sticky and lightweight. It almost felt like sticking your hand in a spiderweb.
When she opened her eyes, she could see the wind. It hung from her fingers in waving strings, clear but visible to her eyes as she twisted her hands with slow caution. Wind was tricky stuff, but in her hands it was pliable and silken. It tugged and fought against her stillness, but as soon as she moved her fingers the wind relaxed, happy to be moving again. Movement was, after all, its natural state. Understanding and respecting that was part of why Adelaide could use it so skillfully.
She twisted and flung, twisted and flung, until the wind she was stretching out from her body had formed into a barely-visible walkway a foot above the actual rocky ground.
It was far too steep to stand, and Adelaide didn’t really trust her own creation, so she laid along the bottom on her belly. She took a deep breath, willing herself not to look at the steep drop just inches to her right.
And she let the wind push her up the mountain.
It would have been fun, if she couldn’t see through the wind to the rocks and empty black space below her and to her side. If she dropped, if she lost control of the wind—she didn’t want to think about what the consequences might be. So she didn’t.
Before her swirling thoughts could settle, the wind had slowed, and she found herself settling on her stomach on a small, hard ledge. She pushed herself up to her knees. The smoke coming out of the cave entrance ahead of her muddied the air around her, and her breath felt heavy and hot as she tried to catch it.
For a wild moment, she thought about running back down the mountain, away from Greit and her brother and the whole stupid mess. Larkin might not succeed, anyway, and wasn’t she just as stupid, waking up a cranky dragon in the middle of the night?
A seed of courage—or a desire to put off facing the mountain again for as long as possible—drove her toward the cave entrance. She could feel the warmth of the rocks through the leather of her shoes, and her skin was slick with sweat despite the chill that had been in the air when she had left home that evening.
It took her eyes a moment to adjust as she stepped into the cave. At first, she just had an impression of heat and shining metal. Treasure lay everywhere. Gold pieces, silver jewelry set with jewels, elaborate tapestries… and more weapons than Adelaide had seen combined in the rest of her sixteen years of life.
The dragon was sprawled in a back corner of the cave, snoring. She frowned at that. It seemed undignified for a dragon to snore. But she didn’t know any other word that could describe the sound rumbling from Greit’s large blue nostrils.
She had seen Greit before, from a distance, as he flew in lazy circles above her village. His jewel-bright blue body had been a source of fascination for her since she was a small girl. And here she was, close enough to touch him with just a few brave steps forward…
Adelaide cleared her throat. The dragon gave a little cough, and twisted his body to get more comfortable, but he did not wake up. She thought touching him while he was asleep might be the stupidest possible thing she could do, so she cleared her throat again, and then called, as loudly as she dared, “Sir Dragon?”
Greit’s heavy eyelids flickered. Leathery lips pulled up to reveal long, sharp teeth, stained with age and what Adelaide assumed was blood. Slits of his silver eyes peered out at her, and the expression in them held the girl frozen in place with fear. Greit might look like a big, much lazier lizard, but those eyes were pure predator. And Adelaide got the distinct feeling she wasn’t off the menu.
“Sir Dragon,” she repeated, trying to keep a tremor from her voice.
“Lady Witch,” Greit responded, and she thought she sensed a trace of humor in his deep voice. “You’ve woken me up. Very rude.”
He stretched a bit, taking care to flex the vicious claws on his front feet, which shot out into dark points and then back out of sight. This close, his blue scales were brilliant and iridescent, layered with rough grace across the large bulk of his body and down the edges of his leathery wings.
Adelaide stood still, not sure of how to proceed. Some primal part of her brain was screaming at her to run, but she knew that was no longer an option. Even if she decided not to protect the dragon, running from an ancient predator seemed like a very, very bad idea.
Greit yawned, and she could feel his hot breath from across the cave. “Is there a reason you’ve woken me up, or do I have to eat you?”
“No,” Adelaide said quickly. “I mean… yes, there is a reason.” She cleared her throat and clamped her hands against her legs to keep them both steady. “My brother. He’s trying to be a knight, and he thinks… he’s on his way…”
“He’s coming to slay me,” Greit yawned again. “How unoriginal.”
“I wanted to warn you,” Adelaide said. “I know the good you do for our village, and he’s an idiot, but he’s a decent fighter.”
Greit flexed his massive shoulders in what almost looked like a shrug. “I’ll put a scare in the knightling,” he said, and before Adelaide had time to react, his wings had flung themselves out and he was soaring toward her. She flung herself to the ground just in time as he glided over her head. His wings stirred the scalding air around her into a frenzy, and she covered her face to avoid being struck by the small items—coins, jewelry, even a small dagger—that flew up in his undercurrent.
The dragon was outside before she knew it. She heaved herself onto her feet and ran to the entrance, reaching the ledge outside just as Greit soared high into the air, pivoting to look down at the path leading up to his mountain home. The sun had begun to rise, and the purple-streaked sky backlit the dragon until he was just a dark, impressive blot against the rising light.
He moved with a speed Adelaide never would have predicted. As he soared back toward the mountain, she couldn’t help dropping to the ground, and she could have sworn she heard him chuckle as he passed her on his way down.
Larkin had started climbing. She could see him, a shiny armored dot halfway down the path but climbing quickly. She wasn’t sure how he would deal with the steep portion she had used magic for, but she assumed he had bought some sort of enchanted climbing gear in Saifear. The capitol city boasted a number of fae craftspeople and there were some witches and wizards who didn’t mind selling charmed goods.
She could almost see her brother puffing out his chest, and his voice seemed to carry on the stifling air around the mountain.
“Dragon,” he shouted. “Surrender, and I will make your death quick!”
This time, Greit did laugh. It was deep and guttural, pushing the wind around with so much force that Adelaide could feel the blast up the mountain. The dragon didn’t say anything. He just flipped and spun, moving the air around Larkin until Adelaide could see that the man was becoming unsteady. With a roar that shook the mountain, the dragon finally dove, zeroing in on her brother and pulling up just before he would have collided with the young man. He sent a stream of yellow fire into the air as he passed, and Adelaide saw her brother frantically patting out a spot of fire that had caught in his hair.
The bow and arrow were out and firing before Adelaide could gasp a warning. She hadn’t known that he had a bow, or that he could even use one. It must have been something he’d been learning in his knight training. And he was good.
The first arrow bounced off the dragon’s metallic side. Greit faltered, startled by the bug bite of the arrow knocking against him, and that was just long enough for a second arrow to tear through the leathery part of his right wing.
The dragon’s roar this time was one of pain and anger. It shook the mountain and the village below. Adelaide’s breath caught as Greit beat his good wing with frantic speed, the injured one held out to keep him aloft but barely moving. She watched as the much slower beast managed to avoid a third arrow and ran out of the way just as his massive body hit the ledge outside the cave.
“Sir Greit!” she shouted, racing toward him.
The dragon’s breath was shallow. “I may…have forgotten…my age,” he said, each word forced out painfully. “Too…proud.”
Adelaide hesitated for a moment. “I think I can heal you,” she said, reaching a tentative hand toward the dragon’s wing. “May I…?”
Greit’s silver eyes locked on her, and she felt dizzy for a moment. Those eyes held hundreds of years and unimaginable power. She was tiny and insignificant next to them and everything about this magnificent creature. She was angry all over again that her brother had wanted to hurt the dragon, and she gathered all of her courage to place her hands on the arrow still stuck in Greit’s wing.
The arrow had hit at an angle, ripping as it went. Definitely enchanted, Adelaide thought with disgust. So her brother was not as good of a shot as he had seemed.
“This may hurt,” she warned Greit. “Please don’t eat me.”
“I’ll try,” Greit rumbled. And she pulled out the arrow.
To his credit, the dragon hardly moved. But the snarl that came deep out of his chest stopped Adelaide in her tracks. Again, that little primal corner in her brain screamed for her to get the hell out of there. But the dragon was hurt, and her brother was still coming to kill him.
Adelaide took a deep breath and placed her hands lightly at the ends of the tear her brother’s arrow had left in the wing. She pushed at it with her mind, imagining the pieces of wing knitting themselves back together, and then she murmured the word her grandmother had taught her for healing. “Leighis,” she breathed, and she repeated it until she felt the skin start to wiggle in response under her palms.
“That itches,” the dragon whined, but he kept still, and Adelaide moved her hands with deliberate slowness toward each other down the injury.
When she was done, she opened her eyes. “It will still take time to heal,” she said. “You may not be able to fly for a day or two. It needs rest and time now.”
“And how am I supposed to defend myself against that horrible knightling without flying?” the dragon snorted.
“I believe you still have teeth, claws and fire,” she said back, a little shocked at how brave she was starting to feel around Greit. “And me,” she added.
The dragon didn’t laugh this time. He looked at her with an appraising gaze, then nodded. “I am going to try to get inside,” he said. “I have a better chance in my cave. And so do you, Lady Witch.”
“Adelaide,” she said. “My name is Adelaide. And I am not a Lady.”
“I’m not a Sir,” he responded. “And yet you insist on calling me that.”
“You are more of a Sir than my stupid brother,” she muttered, and the dragon snorted in agreement.
They managed to get inside, although Greit was off-balance from his injured wing and it took him so long that Adelaide was starting to worry her brother would catch up before they got inside.
But her brother was slow, and it wasn’t until they had been settled into the cave for a good long time that she heard the clatter of his armor on the hot stone ledge outside.
Larkin stepped inside, his helmet under one arm as if he was hardly worried about the dragon that outweighed him twenty times over. His hair was a bit singed, but he was otherwise unharmed, just sweaty and breathing hard.
He stopped when he saw her.
“Little sister,” he said. “This is a surprise. Are you here to help?”
Adelaide stepped forward. Her heart was pounding, but she kept her voice steady as she said. “I’m here to defend the dragon.”
Larkin laughed and moved forward. It was a clear dismissal. In his mind, she didn’t have a chance of stopping him, so why pay any attention to her silly concerns?
“Stop,” she told him, stepping in front to block him from Greit, who watched this all with a lazy curiosity from his perch on his treasure. “Stay back from the dragon, or I will be forced to defend him.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Larkin laughed again. “What are you going to do, Adelaide? Blow wind at me?”
The fire in her rose with a white hot heat. He had never cared about her, and he didn’t care about what killing the dragon would do to their village. How it would open them up to monsters, to dragons who actually did eat people, to attacks by other villages.
When Larkin started forward again, her eyes caught on the gleam of a silver sword lying near her feet. It was solid and heavy, decorated by a few blue gems in the hilt but otherwise a sturdy, useful weapon.
Before she knew it, the sword was leaping into her hand, and she was driving forward. It caught her brother off guard—he was focused on the dragon beyond her. But the sword sliced through his armor like a knife through cheese. In one moment, she was staring at her brother as he tried to move past her; in the next, they were both staring at the sword now sticking out of his chest.
Adelaide watched as her brother crumpled to the ground. His eyes went wide, just for a moment, as he fell—and they, like the rest of him, went still.
Adelaide was still, too. Had she just killed her brother?
She had, she knew, and she was only sorry because she didn’t want to kill. Her brother was arrogant, violent and hateful—he was no loss to the world. But still. She felt as though she had ripped away a little piece of her soul that she could never get back.
“Lady Witch Adelaide.”
The dragon’s voice, for once, was low and respectful. Adelaide turned to face him.
“You saved my life,” he said. “I owe you a great debt.”
Adelaide shook her head. “I just wanted to do what was right,” she said. “I didn’t want to… I didn’t mean…”
She looked again at her brother’s body on the floor.
“I didn’t mean to kill him,” she said.
“By doing so, you have done me a great honor and service,” the dragon said. “I cannot repay it in your lifetime, or the lifetime of your daughters. And so it will be repaid, again and again, to the daughters of your daughters and their daughters as long as my life continues.”
Greit’s voice was formal and serious. Adelaide felt the magic as he spoke it, the words weaving around her and twisting into an invisible rope that bound the dragon to her.
“Thank you,” she said. She knew better than to deny the magic of a powerful dragon.
Greit yawned, his heavy lids drooping over his silver eyes. “I just hope they’re all as interesting as you,” the dragon said.