A/N: This story is pure self-indulgence, lol. I've wanted to write a story about dragons for so long, and when the idea for this one came I couldn't resist. It will also help me practice balancing two stories at once. (God help me.)
Emelin's father loved dragons, up until the very moment he was devoured by one.
Being only nine at the time, she'd been too young to grasp the tragic irony of it. But now, bound to the same stake he'd been bound to sixteen years ago, in the same field, freshly razed in the same scorched pattern that had scared the villagers into offering her father up as a sacrifice the first time, she could no more escape the irony than she could her binds.
Then again, the ropes weren't very tight. Odo had been in charge of tying her up while several other men had held her in place against the wooden pylon. Odo was an old miller; he had neither the strength nor the knowledge to tie a decent knot. Maybe if she twisted her wrists a little…?
One of the many beads of sweat clinging to her forehead broke off and trickled into her eye. She blinked the sting away, wishing the villagers had at least chosen to do this on a less sunny day. The blackened stalks of wheat surrounding Emelin only made her feel hotter. Half an acre had been destroyed, almost six months worth of food. It had never been a question that the villagers would pick her. If feeding her father to the dragon had kept it appeased for a decade and half, feeding it his maiden daughter should buy them at least twice that length of time. It was a sound theory—for them.
A shadow passed over the sun, cutting off the sweltering brightness for a few precious seconds. Emelin looked up, thinking maybe some clouds had blown in to show her some mercy, but the sky was clear. A passing bird, then. Unfortunate.
She went back to struggling with her binds. She might understand what the villagers were trying to do and why, but that didn't mean she was about to go along with it. As far as she was concerned, she had sacrificed enough for them already. She leaned forward, putting all her weight on the ropes looped around her wrists. The right one of was loser and she focused on that one first. It was dry and very rough, and it scrapped her skin in the most painful way as her hand began to slide through. Emelin gritted her teeth and pulled harder, ignoring the discomfort. She had to get free.
The shadow came again, hardly more than a flicker. Damn bird, teasing her. Didn't it have anything better to do?
Maybe it's a vulture, come to beat the dragon to its meal.
Unsettled by her own macabre thoughts, Emelin gave a harder tug and her hand slipped free, making her hiss. The skin around her wrist was raw with flecks of blood where the rope had abraded it, but it was a trifling injury compared to what she'd face if she didn't get away, so she dismissed it and twisted around to get her other hand. This one was a bit harder. Apparently, Odo had decided that if he couldn't tie a knot well, then he would tie a lot to make up for it.
Her unsteady fingers were slick with sweat. Her grip slipped and she broke a nail to the quick. Emelin cursed as it started to bleed and sucked on the injured digit. Anxiety gnawed at her. She was too exposed out in this decimated field. Though the dragon hadn't come for its sacrifice until sunset the last time—giving her more than an hour if it kept to tradition—there was no point risking it by hanging around longer than she had to.
One of the knots gave, unraveling all the rest. Emelin pulled away, free at last, and stumbled backwards, the charred earth crunching under her boots. The tall wedge of wood jutting up from the ground was hardly intimidating now that she was no longer tied to it. It looked like a tree that had been stripped of its branches. Pathetic. The knowledge pained her. Her father probably could've escaped too, if he'd wanted. But he hadn't.
"Emelin, sweetling," he used to say to her, "you have nothing to fear from dragons. They're our protectors. They are strong, and wise, and fair. To give a dragon your trust is to win its loyalty forever."
He'd thought that as long as he was respectful, the dragon wouldn't hurt him. That he could reason with the monster. Emelin wondered if it surprised her father, that moment when the dragon opened its mouth to swallow him whole, revealing not only row-upon-wickedly-sharp-row of teeth, but his own naïveté, or if he died too quickly for it to penetrate. She prayed it was the latter, but Henry Cole had been a smart man. Even after the war claimed his sword arm and all the respect that came with it, his wit and cunning had never dulled. Crippled to the point of uselessness, obsessed with telling the local children draconian tales while their parents were off tending to their daily labors, he'd known the moment the first stalk of wheat was scorched who would be offered up as a sacrifice, just like Emelin had known two days ago, when she heard the dragon had attacked again.
And yet, even though he'd known that by lauding the beasts he was making himself and his family a target, he'd refused to stay quiet. Emelin had lost count of how many stories he told about the strong, fire-breathing dragons and the fierce maidens who would fight beside them. The epic battles where good always prevailed, and chivalry was held at such a standard it would put a knight to shame. It was only after her father was gone and Emelin had grown older that she realized it was merely a foolish ideal, a belief to get him through the pain of everyday reality where he was mocked by his fellow men and resented by his wife.
"Yappin' on about those disgusting creatures," she would mutter. "I got an earful from Larissa the other day. She said you told her son that he shouldn't go into knighthood because it'll offend the dragons? Really, Henry, what's wrong with you? It's bad enough that I have to suffer the pitying looks I get whenever I go into town. Do I need to be the wife of an insane person as well as an invalid? Well, do I?" And Emelin's father would apologize while he fiddled with the empty sleeve that should've held his arm, and she would sigh and forgive him and bring him another plate of food or a book for him to read. But he'd be back at it the next day, and the fighting would start all over again. Sometimes he would argue back. "Dragons need our support, not our scorn!" But those times were rare and short-lived. His passion had not exceeded his wife's temper.
Then the dragon came and just like that, no more fighting.
It had been an unreasonable price to pay for peace.
From behind her came the sound of flapping wings. Couldn't the vulture see she wasn't anywhere near dead? Emelin turned, ready to scare the stubborn bird away, and shrieked as something huge and definitely not a vulture whooshed over her head. The gust from the downstroke of its giant wings nearly blew her off her feet. She caught the faintest hint of smoke, the briefest flash of scale, and knew: the dragon had come for her.
It flew up into the glare of the sun, and, even blinded, she couldn't look away. It was as graceful as the smoothest cloud and as fast as an angry wind. It circled back, dropping low for a landing, and Emelin's heart sank as she watched it come. She couldn't fight off such a powerful creature. She couldn't outrun it. There was nowhere to hide. She stood there and felt the lethargy of resignation.
She was going to die.
The leathery wings pumped hard as the dragon reared back in mid-air, hind feet striking the ground first, followed by the front. Claws as thick as Emelin's thigh and as long as her leg bit into the earth, scattering ash and dirt. The creature would easily tower over the biggest building in the village, and was longer than many of its streets. There was still a good dozen feet between them, and yet she could feel the heat radiating off its dark, scaly hide.
Her first thought upon seeing it was that it looked monstrous; her second was that it looked beautiful. She mentally struggled to reconcile the dichotomy but had to give up and concede, in the end, that both were equally accurate, and, not only that, somehow played off one another. It's eyes were green with flecks of gold, the irises the slightest bit pointed like a cat's, but still too human for comfort. They sparked with a terrifying amount of intelligence, but not pity or mercy, which Emelin would rather have seen. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt sick. Instinct was screaming at her to run, but she wouldn't make it, and she be damned if she was going to throw away her dignity for nothing. She would not flee and she would not cower. If this was how she was destined to go, then she would go out with all courage she could muster.
So she stared the dragon down, waiting for it to make its move. Would it slice her with its claws? Roast her with its fiery breath? Or worst—swallow her whole? Her father's words echoed through her mind, ridiculous advice that had gotten him killed. She knew better than to believe it would work. She knew. He'd been a fool who had mired himself so deep in his own tales he'd believed them as truth, and she would be a fool too if she thought for even a second that it would work.
But, if she was going to die anyway…
Emelin took the smallest of steps toward the dragon. Its pupils contracted as it followed the movement, but other than that, it stayed still. She took another step. Then another. Sweat trickled in rivulets from her scalp. The day's heat had nothing on this creature's body temperature. She half-expected to burst into flame before she even reached it.
When she was only inches away, the dragon lowered its head. She jumped, startled, but forced herself to hold her ground. Smoke curled from the giant nostrils. Emelin's arms shook as she raised them.
Slowly, she placed her hands on either side of the dragon's muzzle. Its scales were thick but smooth, and tiny in comparison to its size. If she plucked one off it would fit perfectly in her palm. She closed her eyes and waited for the dragon's reaction to her touch, an explosion of violence and, hopefully, a quick death.
Seconds turned into minutes. Emelin started getting impatient. Waiting had never been something she did well, and waiting for your own death had to be the worst thing someone could wait for.
She blew out a breath and looked up.
So close, she could see her reflection in those bright green eyes. There was something… not quite right about it. It was her, but it wasn't. It reminded Emelin of the time her father had commissioned a small portrait of her mother years ago, back when he was still in service to the king and they'd been able to afford such luxuries. The artist had been talented, but when the portrait was finished her mother had insisted, with many blushes and unladylike snorts, that it looked nothing like her.
"I am not that…" She'd trailed off and gestured helplessly at the painting, but either couldn't or wouldn't explain what was wrong with it. Emelin's father had declared it perfect, however, and kept it with him all throughout his years in the war until his injury brought him home for good.
Looking at herself through the dragon's eyes, Emelin felt much like her mother had. This reflection she was seeing wasn't her. Oh, the features were all correct: the poorly braided hair, the angular face with its pale complexion no amount of sun could improve. But whereas before she considered her fairness to make her look sickly and weak, it now gave her an aura of regalness somehow. And her chin and jaw, both of which had only ever been called stubborn-looking, now appeared firm and strong. Her stance wasn't that proud, was it? It was taking everything she had to keep her head up. And there was no way all that defiance blazing in her eyes was real, she was far too terrified.
Why was she seeing herself like this? Was it the dragon's doing? Some kind of trick?
Trick or not, Emelin felt a strange sort of calm settle over her, and it had nothing to do with her acceptance that she was about to die. Seeing herself through the dragon's eyes, she suddenly knew, with utter conviction, the words she needed to say.
"When I was little, my father once told me… if I ever met a dragon, I should give it a sign of my trust, and it would spare me."
Feeling at once foolish and emboldened, her entire body trembling, Emelin raised herself onto her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to the dragon's snout. The heat of its scales made her lips tingle.
She pulled away.
"Will that do?" she asked.
At once, the smoke dissipated from the creature's nostrils and the burning heat of its skin cooled. And from deep inside Emelin's mind a great voice spoke: 'Yes, brave one, that will most certainly do.'