Chapter One: The Hunt
I squinted upwards at the sunlight, which sifted through the trees. I strained to see any shadow blocking out the light, to hear the sound of wings beating at the air. The horse's flesh was warm beneath my skin. My muscles ached from trying to stay perfectly still, perfectly silent.
The harsh voice jolted me from my concentration. "Darius," I snapped, "if you want me to find the trail again, shut it. I can't hear a thing over you."
"Well, what's wrong? I thought your kind was supposed to be skilled in tracking the beasts."
I glared at him, hatred and denial burning like a fire in my stomach. "I am not one of them," I hissed between clenched teeth.
Darius opened his mouth to speak again, but was interrupted by Teleas, the leader of our hunting party. "Darius," Teleas barked in annoyance, "I believe silence would be your best course of action right now."
"Yes, sir," Darius muttered, still glaring at me with suppressed hatred.
Teleas turned his hard green eyes on me. "Eliana, climb the tree and get back on the trail. The sooner we can finish it the better."
"Yes, sir," I answered eagerly. It was my first hunt and I was eager to please them, to prove my worth despite their prejudices.
I slipped off the back of Garo's horse and pulled myself up onto the lowest branch of the nearest tree. I leapt from branch to branch with much more speed and agility than any other member of the party could have accomplished. It was a trait inherited from my mother's people. Once I was above the tree line, I directed my eyes towards the cliffs, searching for the shadow I had recently lost.
"Will you make yourself of some use, half-breed?" I heard Darius shout.
I took a breath, preparing myself to shout back some bitter answer, but it caught in my throat. There it was! A shadow appeared around the edge of the cliffs, both frightening and entrancing me as I watched. Large, dark wings beat at the sky. Red scales glistened in the fading sunlight.
"I found it!" I called to the hunters at the bottom of the tree. "I found the dragon!" The men cheered. "It's just north of us, around the edge of the cliffs, heading west."
"Hurry down Eliana, so we can get back on the trail!" Teleas called.
I slipped quickly down the tree and landed lightly on the ground. "Hurry up!" Garo snapped. I glowered at him, at Teleas, at Darius, at all of them. There was no "Good work Eliana", no "Thank you Eliana", but simply "Hurry up Eliana". I vaulted onto the back of Garo's horse again and wrapped my arms around his waist. I felt him cringe under my touch.
The party all kicked their horses forward in the direction I had told them. I hadn't expected anything more from these men. Or from any other human in the village where I lived. They all hated me for what I was. And for what I wasn't.
I was a half-breed, a mongrel. My father had been a human. My mother had been an elf, one of the race of savages we now battled. They were no more human than the dragon we now hunted. These three main races that inhabited the land of Paerolia had been at war for centuries; and no one knew why.
"Eliana!" Teleas shouted from the horse beside me, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of the wind and trees rushing past and the pounding of hooves around us. "Do you see it?"
I didn't see it. I couldn't hear it. But I knew where it was. Something at the back of my mind could sense it flying just beyond the reach of my other senses. Its presence was clear to me, though none of the other hunters had any idea where the beast was. That was why they brought me along.
"It's not far ahead, still heading in the same direction," I answered.
Our party broke into the open plains and, at last, we all had a clear view of the sky serpent. Some of the men reached for bows and arrows, eager to bring down the quarry, which had eluded us for the majority of the day.
"No!" I shouted, "If we shoot, it will not lead us to its nest. It does not know we are following it yet."
The men looked at me, angry that I had directed them, then at Teleas. "Listen to her," Teleas called to them all, "She knows their ways better than we do."
Suddenly, the edge of the plains was before us, dropping in a steep cliff to the water below. The dragon closed its massive wings and dove downwards, disappearing from our views. The men reined in their horses and peered over the edge of the cliff. I could see the tail of the dragon disappearing into a cave below us.
I slipped to the ground and studied the rock face below. "It's not far down," I said, "And there are enough footholds for us to make it to the nest."
"'Us'?" Darius sneered, "What makes you think you're coming?"
"He's right Eliana," Teleas interjected, "We'll take it from here. We have no use for you any more."
And that was it. I was easily dispensable to these men. I stared at them as they prepared to climb down the cliffs. "But my magic is nearly as strong as yours!"
Teleas's green eyes narrowed beneath his fiery red hair. "We have no need for your elven magic. Now, stay here and tend to the horses." With that, they disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
I dropped to the grass in frustration and glared out over the ocean. Teleas's large gray gelding tore at the grass just to my left. I could feel the presence of the five other horses the same way I could sense the dragon. I felt Darius' chestnut drifting farther away from the rest of the horses. "Come back," I thought. The horse snorted, then turned and rejoined the other geldings as they grazed behind me.
I did not understand how it worked, but I knew that it was not a human trait, so I kept it to myself. It was yet another characteristic of my elven ancestry. I ran my slender fingers up my jawbone to my ear and touched the slightly pointed tip, which normally remained covered by my raven-black hair.
My ears were only ever so slightly pointed, hardly a hint to what I truly was. Most could not see the difference unless they looked closely. Not that it really mattered. Everyone in Vegrandis already knew what I was. I kept them covered anyways.
A chorus of shouts echoed up the walls of the cliffs, followed by a deep, earth-shaking roar. The dragon. The horses reared, eyes rolling, whinnying in fear. I jumped up, grabbing at every pair of reins within my reach. "It's okay," I thought, "Calm down. Calm. Steady."
One by one, the geldings stood still, their breaths coming in short bursts. I peered down towards where I knew the cave lay. Fire burst out of the mouth as if the doors to hell had opened within. Without another thought, I began to climb down the rocky cliff. I made as little noise as possible as I landed on the rock outcropping in front of the cave, though neither man nor dragon could have heard me over the deafening sounds of the battle inside. Cautiously, I peered into the cave's gaping mouth.
The dragon's great red form stood pressed against the back wall of the cave. The small party of hunters stood before it, their backs to me. Arrows flew at the dragon, tearing through paper-thin wings and bouncing off shining red scales. Why didn't they just end it already? I knew that either Teleas or Darius could have ended it easily enough with one spell. Why did they drag it on and cause the creature such pain?
The fire-breather slashed at the men with shining claws and teeth, but to no avail. The men were protected by Teleas's and Darius's powerful magic. The poor beast roared in pain and frustration as she was assaulted by both magic and weaponry. At last, a blast of magic brought the trembling dragon to her knees.
Tears stung the back of my eyes as I watched the scaly hide heaving with labored breath. As the six hunters stepped forward, the dragon attempted to pull herself forward towards a pile of brightly colored stones. No, eggs. Dragon's eggs. Her eggs.
Darius stepped before her, sword unsheathed. She lifted brown eyes to look at her enemy. She could have easily bitten him in half at that moment, but she didn't. She opened her mouth and gave a small, guttural moan. She was pleading with him for the sake of her eggs, her children.
I stepped further into the cave. He couldn't kill her! Darius calmly walked around to the dragon's side. Her soft vulnerable stomach was exposed to him as she lay there, pleading in her own language.
Darius raised his glistening sword. "Die, beast," he whispered.
I watched in horror, unable to move or speak, as the sword plunged downward. At the last moment, I dove into a crevice in the cave wall, covering my face with my hands. But I could still hear. There was a roar of pain, a moan, and then silence. The men cheered, covering the sounds of my uncontrolled sobbing.
I peered out of the crevice. Teleas pounded Darius on the back. "Well done, my boy, well done! Now, help me deal with these eggs."
Both sorcerers picked up one of the bright eggs while the others stood beside them. Magic was the only thing that could break the stone-like shell of a dragon's egg.
"Shyjael maer!" they both cried.
The eggs shattered and the small, lifeless bodies of the unborn dragons fell to the cave floor. Tears streamed down my face as I watched them commit these brutal, senseless murders. By the time their bloody deed was finished, seven tiny bodies lay on the floor. Seven children that had never had the chance to live lay before the body of the mother that had died trying to protect them.
The six murderous hunters gathered together as Teleas spoke. "We have done a great thing today. The village will celebrate upon our return."
They cheered once more over their murders. Then, strutting as if they truly had done something great, they marched right past where I hid and climbed back up the rock face. I stayed where I was until I heard their voices above me.
"Where's the half-breed?" Darius asked, sounding more annoyed than concerned.
"Eliana!" Teleas cried, "Eliana!" I made no effort to respond.
"Oh, it doesn't matter," Darius laughed, "She's of no use anymore. If we're lucky, another dragon came and ate her."
I heard laughter and the thunder of hooves as they raced towards home, towards the celebration that undoubtedly awaited them in Vegrandis. I stepped out of my hiding place and viewed the scene before me. The only sound was the crashing of waves below. Fragments of dragons' eggs glittered like jewels around the bodies of the young dragons. I walked between them towards the still, red form of their brave mother.
I knelt beside her great head and placed a hand on her scaly cheek. She was warmer than I had expected. "What have I done?" I whispered, sobbing in the growing darkness. "I'm sorry I led them here," I told her, "I wish I could do something."
As I fought to regain control of myself, I suddenly became aware of a presence, a feeling that something was close, had been close, but I was only just noticing. It was the same feeling that I had used to lead the hunters to the dragon. The scale-covered body shifted slightly, one front leg moving towards me. I jumped backwards. She was not dead!
Two large, heavy-lidded eyes opened slightly, peering at me. My pounding heart quieted as I saw intelligence in the brown eyes. The front leg moved closer to me. Razor-sharp claws lifted from the cave floor to reveal a shimmering gold egg. She had managed to protect at least one of her children.
I started as the presence in my mind became a voice. It was the dragon. "Save him. He will save us all."
"You must protect him. The fate of our races depends on him. And he depends on you."
The presence was gone. I felt it leave and watched the pain-clouded eyes close. Fresh tears blurred my vision. I kissed her scaly forehead. "I promise to protect him. No matter what."
Still partly blinded by my guilty tears, I moved away from her body and towards those of her children. I carefully lifted one of the small, scaly bodies. He was no longer than my forearm. His scales were an emerald green. I carried him and laid him beside his mother. I gathered his brothers and sisters one by one, laying them close to each other.
Once all seven were beside her, I picked up the golden egg and walked to the mouth of the cave, cradling the only survivor of the massacre in my arms. I looked back at the graveyard behind me. "Jhol thosi," I whispered. Flames leapt over the bodies, lapping at claws, wings, and scales.
I closed my eyes and prayed, "Gods of earth, protect what remains. Gods of heaven, receive their spirits. Rest well, my friends."
As smoke began to fill the cave, I tore a piece of cloth from my tunic. I tied it snugly around the egg, ensuring that it wouldn't slip out, then slung it over one shoulder. I stumbled out of the cave, blinking in the billowing smoke, and made the short climb to the top of the cliffs.
I watched the smoke rise above the cliffs and disappear into the blood red sky. I placed the egg in my lap, pondering where to go from here. I could not return to Vegrandis with a dragon egg. The villagers that had hated me all of my life would destroy it, and possibly me as well. I was no longer safe among humans.
I had never really been happy in Vegrandis, because I had never really been accepted by any humans, but it was the only home I had ever known. It was where I had been born and left in the care of my human father by my elven mother.
I closed my eyes and pictured the house I had grown up in for the first five years of my life with my father. The heavy wooden door opened to one small room that served as kitchen, dining room, and sitting room. Two bedrooms were up the wooden staircase, close to the thatched, perfectly flammable, roof.
Heat was bearing down above my head and I easily remembered the smoke filling my young lungs. Flames spread down the walls. The villagers' voices echoed in my memories as they screamed from outside. "Traitor!" "Mongrel!" I was crying, screaming for my father.
My bedroom door flew open. My father rushed forward, his handsome face distorted with fear and blackened with soot, and lifted me into his strong arms. It would be the last time he held me. He pulled me roughly into his bedroom, which was just beginning to light up with flames. He pulled the blanket from his bed and wrapped me tightly in it, then carried me to the window, leaning out to peer down at the ground below.
I heard a familiar voice below us. "Tego! Tego!" It was Otium, the old widow that had been our neighbor and only friend. "Tego! Eliana! Where are you?"
"Otium!" my father shouted back, "Catch Eliana!"
I was falling from the window, screaming. I landed in Otium's arms as the roof of my home crumbled in flames with my father still inside.
I could feel my heart breaking all over again as I thought of my father. The sun had entirely disappeared behind the horizon now, but the smoke was still visible, clouding the moon. I clutched the golden egg close to my chest and stood. The human half of me was not enough for the humans to accept me. But perhaps the elven half of me would allow me to find a home among my mother's people. I had to find Iterum, the elven city.
A/N- So I never really planned to put this up. I have no idea what is possessing me to do so now. I hope I get at least a little bit of response out of this. Just note - this is an EXTREMELY long story! So, if you're interested, buckle up. It's gonna be a very very very long ride.