Dragon Child

Larien Nolatori

Chapter One

The candles flickered and went out. The room went dark, and every bed- occupant, blankets, and all- was plunged into the black of the night. The footsteps outside the door faded into silence somewhere down the hall. All was quiet- but that was just how she wanted it.

As the other children slowly fell into sweet dreams, one sole girl lay wide-awake with anticipation. Her soft, shoulder-length blonde hair was splayed out on her thin, worn pillow. Set in her thin, slightly tanned face were two deep, thoughtful, hunter green eyes that stared unseeingly at the ceiling above. She couldn't have fallen asleep if she'd wanted to: tonight was the night she was finally leaving.

The girl's name was Mariah, and she, like about a hundred other children in the last three years, was an orphan; one of 30 at Selena Orphanage. In fact, Mariah wasn't even her real name- she'd been named after the late Queen Mariah, who had died the year Mariah had been found, a scared, lost little girl. It was rather unnerving how much she looked like the former queen. But that was twelve years ago, 2123, the year of the Great Slaying; and the downfall of the Aurelian Kingdom.

Now Aurelia was in a state of poverty, morally, economically, and politically. After several invasions by many other countries, revolutions, and, of course, the absence of the Dragons, it had lost all the glory of the old days. Then, about three years ago, when Mariah had been 14, the aristocrats had taken over. Now Aurelia was in an even worse state. The poor had no power, and any that opposed the rich were punished, either by prison or exile. If, tonight, Mariah were caught, those would likely be her fate.

She didn't care. She was useless now, except for taking care of the younger orphans (who often got into trouble), or cleaning the orphanage; and after her 18th birthday, her only duties would be to marry by age 20 (as was the law), have kids, raise them, and clean the house. With her being an orphan, she probably wouldn't marry well anyway; and a housewife's life was not for her. That was why she was leaving tonight.

Mariah listened for any signs that the others were awake. The telltale heavy breathing that filled the room told her the coast was clear. It was time.

Taking a deep breath, Mariah slipped out of bed and quietly changed from her night gown to her traveling clothes: a patched, tan peasant top, a pair of dusty red pants (the knees of which were thinning and thread-bare), and some worn leather boots. She reached under the bed and pulled out an old pillowcase. Inside were a loaf of bread, three apples, and a few bottles of water that she'd stolen from the kitchen; an extra set of clothes (borrowed from her friend and fellow orphan, Mina); two thin, dusty blankets; and a map of the continent that she had painstakingly copied bit by bit from the library. She checked over everything, tied the case shut, and slung it over her shoulder. Mariah sighed and took a last look around the second floor older girl's dormitory.

There were about twenty rustic, wooden beds lined up in two rows on either side of the room. Each held an old, uncomfortable, sagging mattress- one of the chores in the orphanage was flipping them over every morning to keep them from going flat. Mariah smiled grimly. It didn't work. The pillows were flat as well. In fact, the only things Mariah liked about the beds were the colorful quilts that the manager's wife made them. She had half a mind to takes her with her, but had decided to leave it for the next poor child to step through the door of Easter Orphanage. They would need it more than she would.

"The only bit of cheer in the place," Mariah muttered under her breath. She sighed again, pried her eyes from the other residents of the dorm, and leaned over the bead next to hers.

"Mina, Mina, wake up," she whispered. The girl in the bed groaned.

"Wha…?"

"Mind, it's me," Mariah whispered. Mina yawned.

"Mariah?" she asked slowly. "What's going on? What time is it?"

"It's about midnight," Mariah answered. She paused for a moment. "Mina, I'm leaving."

"You are?" Mina no longer sounded tired. She sat up and stared at Mariah. "Now?" Mariah nodded.

"It's time." Mina sighed.

"I knew it would all come down to this…" Mina reached up and hugged Mariah. "Good luck. And take care."

"I will. And thanks for the clothes," Mariah added with a smirk. Mina smiled back.

"No problem." Mariah turned back to the window and peered through the curtain. No movement on the grounds. She gave Mina one last smile and started out the window.

"Bye," Mina whispered.

"Bye," Mariah answered. "I'll write when I get out of the country." Mina nodded and watched as Mariah slipped out the window and climbed down the vines to the orphanage grounds. Once on the ground, the runaway surveyed once more for any signs of life. The only things moving were the tress swaying in the breeze, and the clouds moving lazily across the moon. Mariah shifted her luggage and started towards the freedom that waited for her outside the high stone walls.

Mariah tentatively climbed over the wall. It was slow going, as she had to be careful to place her feet in only the sturdy crevices- otherwise, she would fall, maybe never to get up again. The only sounds were the leaves rustling in the breeze, and her own heavy breathing.

"This would be a lot easier with some rope or something," Mariah muttered under her breath. "Mental note," she added, "swipe some in Easter."

Finally, Mariah swung her leg over the top and straddled the wall. She sat there for a few minutes, gazing across the orchard behind the orphanage. Over the treetops she could see the distant blaze of candlelight from Easter Village. There was always life in Easter, no matter what time of the day. It was a huge village, full of inns and bars and many shops, not to mention the port on the Laden Bay. The port kept the village alive, and many of the aristocrats lived just outside the village limits. It was risky to go there, but it was Mariah's only escape route. The aristocrats all lived near the port cities, and Easter was the closest port.

"My only way out is right under their noses," she said to herself. Mariah turned her gaze past Easter and the bay that lie beyond to east of the village. There lay the ruins of the ancient Aurelius Castle. She sighed.

If only we still had a king... then things would be better, Mariah thought. Then I wouldn't have to escape… Then I would have a family…

Mariah wiped a lone tear from her eye and swung her other leg over the wall, taking her eyes off of the castle ruins and bright Easter Village. She mentally scolded herself- she had say on the wall far too long. She could have been spotted. Need to be more careful, you idiot, she told herself. Don't want to get caught, do you?

Mariah looked down at the ground ten feet below. The ground outside the wall, outside the orphanage- the land of a free realm. She dropped her pillowcase, and, taking a deep breath, jumped down after it. She landed with a soft thud, crouched down like a cat about to spring. Before standing up, Mariah did a quick check to make sure that no one was watching. Seeing no shadows, and hearing no sounds, she slowly stood, bad in hand. Slinging it over her shoulder, she did a double-check and darted into the trees of the apple orchard.

No sooner had she done so that she heard a swooping sound above her. Mariah could have sworn that she had seen a large shadow behind and to her right. She whirled around, expecting what, she didn't know. There was nothing and no one there. Her heart beginning to race, Mariah strained to hear any sounds around her. Nothing.

"Just your imagination, Rai," she told herself. "Just your nerves…" Taking another deep breath, Mariah plunged into the trees.

Tossing a bright green apple while she went, Mariah felt the excitement of freedom seeping down into her soul. It was a little before dawn, and she was almost out of the orchard. She would probably make it to Easter tomorrow night.

Beginning to tire, Mariah kept an eye open for a place to rest, where she would be out of sight of anyone that may pass by her resting spot. She walked along for quite a while, and soon began to worry. There wasn't any real spot to hide- not a sufficient sleeping spot anywhere. The unfortunate slaves- for that was what they really were, and not the "servants" as they were called- of the aristocrats would soon be out and about, picking apples here and scooping away dead leaves and fallen apples there, from sunrise to sunset. Inwardly, Mariah felt sorry for the people the aristocrats dragged into working for them. However, at the moment, she felt more sorry for herself. If she were caught now- not only leaving the country and escaping from the orphanage but also trespassing on an aristocrat's property- she would be shown no mercy at all.

Almost as soon as she'd realized this, a huge winged shadow passed over her, then disappeared. Eyes wide and very shocked, Mariah stopped in her tracks and looked up at the sky tentatively.

"It couldn't have been a…" Mariah stopped herself and shook her head. Ignoring the fact that her hands were shaking, Mariah trudged on into the orchard.

Not five minutes later, the shadow passed over her again. Unwilling as she was to admit what she was seeing, Mariah could not deny the fact that something- some huge, winged creature- was following her. Many thoughts filled her anxious mind all at once.

Maybe it wants to eat me… she thought. It's probably swooping over me to spook me into running, then it'll swoop down and snatch me up and carry me off to who knows where! Mariah's walk slowed to a halt. Maybe it's signaling to the- At this, Mariah's eyes widened. What would happen if the workers saw a huge winged beast flying over the orchard? And then found her under it? Before she could answer her own question, a twig snapped behind her, and, on instinct, she jumped up into the tree above her (bundle and all) and crouched there among the leaves and fruit.

"Oy, thought I heard somethin' o'er here," said a gruff voice from below. Mariah watched as two long shadows stretched across the ground beneath her.

"Prolly that blasted apple thief again," said another. "Hey, what'd you think of that shadow a minute ago?" Two peasants- a large husky man and a taller more slender man by his side- stepped into view and crossed the orchard in her direction; the taller one carrying a lantern, and both equipped with pitchforks. Mariah held her breath as they decided to rest under her tree.

"Dunno," said the shorter, leaning his pitchfork against the tree trunk. "Bit frightenin', if you ask me."

Mariah groaned inwardly. How long were they going to stand under her like that? Move, she pleaded silently. Move…!

Large winged beasts flyin' round," continued the heavier one. "If I didn't know better, I'd say it was a dragon!" The slender on shivered.

"Don't talk like that," he said. "Gives me the willies just thinkin' about it."

"Know whatcha mean, mate. Know whatcha mean."

Mariah perked up. Dragons? But they'd all been destroyed in the Great Slaying 12 years ago… Her train of thought was interrupted when the branch underneath her creaked under her weight. Mariah froze- so did the two slaves below.

"Hey, d'you here that?" asked the tall one. To Mariah's horror, her branch groaned again and cracked slightly. The two men looked up (the taller raising the lantern) and their eyes locked.

"Hey, you!" shouted the bigger one. "Get down from there! What do you think you're doing?" Before she could answer, Mariah's branch creaked again and broke. She had just enough time to jump off before it came crashing down, apples and all, on the two servants. Landing unsteadily on her feet, Mariah took off running as fast as she could.

"Sorry!" she called over her shoulder as the two scrambled to their feet to give chase.

"Get up!" cried the large one. "She'll get away!"

"I know that!" snapped the other, hitting his companion on the head with the end of his pitchfork. Looking back over her shoulder, Mariah saw another figure step out of the shadows beside the two slaves. He stood tall and straight- regally, Mariah later realized- and was dressed in clean, neat clothes.

Must be one of the aristocrats, she thought with horror. But instead of running away, Mariah turned and stared at him. His bright red hair glinted in the moonlight, but most of his face was hidden in shadow. Strangely enough, his eyes sparkled and glowed as if lit from within by some dark flame. They held each other's gaze for some time; meanwhile, the two servants were standing up and glaring angrily at Mariah.

"Oy, sir, as her what she's doin' 'ere," grunted the shorter one. At this, Mariah snapped back into her senses. All eyes were on the aristocrat. After a few minutes of silence, he spoke- a crisp, cool voice, warm and happy, yet cold and foreboding at the same time.

"Are you the one who summoned the dragon?" he asked slowly. Mariah took a step backwards.

"D-dragon?" Her voice trembled in her nervousness. Mariah cleared her throat and told herself to be still. "There are no more dragons," she answered more calmly. The man smiled coldly and started toward her. Mariah urged her body to move, to run away, but she was frozen to the spot. Why can't I move? She wondered. Finally, the man reached her and stared into her eyes. She could see his face very well now that he was in the moonlight: light freckles across his young face (he was not much older than she was), deep, clear blues eyes the color of the sky at mid-evening, thin, smooth red hair of many shades.

"You don't now who I am, do you?" he whispered, taking her wrist and lifting it forcefully into the moonlight. He stared at her forearm for a few moments. "Ha, I knew it," he said quietly, more to himself than anyone. Mariah stared at him in surprise.

"Knew… what?" she asked, completely bewildered. The only thing special about her arm were the scars around it from an animal attack when she was smaller.

The young man didn't respond to her question. Instead, he stared deep into her eyes. "Gosh… you look just like her," he said, lifting his hand to touch her hair. At that moment, a great shuddering cry resonated from above, and a great, gleaming mass of green came crashing through the trees behind the redhead. He let go of Mariah's wrist. "What the-" His voice was drowned out as the beast let out another great cry, knocked over the mysterious man and his two servants, and picked up Mariah in its great claws. Mariah let out a scream as she felt the firm grip around her waists, as she felt her body being lifted off the ground, as she watched the orchard and the three men, now far below her, shrink into a green blot on the surface of the earth. Terrified, Mariah looked up to see the creator of her haunting shadow- and gasped at what she saw.