They say I passed out when I reached the village wall. I don't remember that. I remember stumbling up the road, tripping over what seemed like every rock, repeatedly picking myself up, grateful for the cold rain that numbed the burning, washing away the blood and gore. Then I woke up in my own bed, washed and wrapped in linen bandages and furs, the sun shining through my open window.
And the dragon. I remember her, too. Liquid black scales, scorching heat, the sticky, smelly darkness of her gullet…
I hear shouting now, just outside my door. It bursts open, my square father fitting the doorway quite nicely as he shouts my name, his bellow filling the room.
"Mora! I came as soon as the medic said you were awake!"
My ears still ring a little from my encounter with the dragon. I wince. He notices and quiets himself, perching his large bulk on the edge of my bed.
"You've made me proud today, daughter," he continues, fiercely stroking his thick black beard to channel some of his excitement. "I sent the boys down the road to see if it was true. If you'd slain the beastie."
"I wouldn't have returned otherwise. You know that."
He smiles and rests a hand on my shoulder, squeezing painfully. "Aye, that I do. And look at you. Couple of burns, a snapped wrist. You'll be back to good health in no time. Small price to pay for singlehandedly slaying a dragon!"
It starts to sink in. Not only am I alive, but I've done it. I've slain a dragon.
"Here." He plunks something down on the bedside table. "Duncan pulled this off the dragon. Thought you might want to keep it."
I look at the object, a scale, one of the smaller ones, about the size of my eye.
"Thank you," I mutter. "Didn't even think to claim anything afterwards."
"Who could blame you? Duncan said he found pieces of your belt caught in its throat?"
I nod, wryly replying, "Gods, do I have a story for you."
"Ha ha!" my father laughs heartily. "Good! Soon as you're on your feet, I'll have the feast prepared, and you can regale us all with the tale of how you slew a dragon!"
The door opens suddenly. "Brian! Stop shouting!"
"Lyssa, my love!"
My mother gives him a stern look, and the big man shrinks a little.
He continues in a hushed whisper, "Forgive me, my dear, but our daughter did just slay a dragon."
"And almost died. You've kept her long enough. Out."
He stands obediently and heads for the door, but not before shooting one last proud smile back at me. My mother shoos him away, casts a disapproving glance back at me, and leaves.
I press my head deep into my pillow and revel in the soft glow of success that follows, accompanied only by the ringing in my ears.
One might wonder why a respected laird would send his youngest daughter to do what a dozen strong men failed at. Well, it's complicated, but I'll summarize. I wasn't raised to be a warrior, I was raised to be a wife. I was supposed to be the glue that would repair the rift between two neighboring and oft antagonistic chiefdoms.
Laird Padraig Olafsson of the High Mountain, a formidable enemy and our northern neighbor, was my betrothed. A warlord with a taste for blood and practically a mountain himself. The blood of giants runs in the veins of the mountain folk, and you'd as soon forget it as be impaled on the horns that grow from their skulls. He towered head and shoulders above even my father, who is not a small man, and his thick dragon-like horns curled even higher. I remember wondering how he managed to fit through doorways.
Imagine a fifteen-year-old girl told she was to marry this monster, her duty to unite two warring clans. She'd only ever seen him at a distance. Two years later she met him for the first time. She was brave, hid her trembling hands, steadied her knees to keep them from knocking together. And he fixed her with those mean blue eyes and laughed at her in front of his entire court. He sent her away. Seventeen and humiliated, a disgrace to the family, she took fate in her own hands that day, vowed never to marry, determined to prove she could be a fighter, good as any man, better even. She had to be. She couldn't be disgraced again.
That was me, seven years ago. I've trained as a warrior ever since. It's been nothing but a trial of trying to catch up to men who have been fighting since they could pick up a sword. Proving myself at every turn. Seven years of breaking myself, remaking myself, fighting to reclaim a shred of dignity. I've shown time and again that I am dependable, strong. But to everyone in the clan, I'm still the odd girl who decided to pick up a weapon, the one who wasn't good enough for Laird Padraig.
That's why I hunted that dragon. Honor. Respect. And my father allowed it because what good am I to him otherwise? No laird will have me, and no warrior wants a wife who can throw him over her shoulder. But killing a dragon? That brings immediate glory, even to someone like me. So I killed a dragon.
My wounds heal. I would say quickly, but healing never seems to happen quickly enough. My mother stands guard outside the door, waylaying even my most dogged admirers. My father visits twice more, and my brothers Duncan and Dougal once, but aside from that, I'm left alone.
Once my burns have scabbed over, the medic releases me, and I can walk freely through the village. The hair on one side of my head has all burned away; due to scarring, it will probably only grow back in patchy tufts. My arm's in a sling and will be for at least another month, but all things considered, it's a small price to pay, as my father said.
The feasting begins the day after I'm cleared to leave my room. The clouds have parted long enough to let a bit of sun slip through, and though the ground squishes beneath me, the air is warm, and everything looks a bit cleaner, a bit clearer thanks to another summer storm.
I emerge into the square and find myself assaulted on all sides by members of the clan, congratulating me, offering me drinks and gifts. It feels…strange. Suddenly they don't seem to care that I'm the weird one that picked up fighting instead of a husband. They don't even use my name. It's just "dragonslayer", "dragonslayer", "feckin' dragonslayer". I don't hate it—it feels wrong to complain about good attention—I'm just not used to it.
I can smell the pigs roasting in the fire pits, their juices dripping and sizzling on the flames. The kitchen hands have the feasting pavilion decked with colorful ribbons, knotted and adorned with dragon scales that glisten like black glass in the sun. Food covers the tables. It'll be there all day as people come and go, eating what they please until evening, when dinner will be set. While everybody else eats, I'll stand before the roaring fire and tell my story.
"How are you going to tell it?" my eldest brother, Duncan, asks when I manage to duck away from the crowd to snatch a bite to eat. "You've had a week to think on it."
"Not sure. I'll see how I feel."
"Ugh," Dougal, the second eldest, groans behind me. "You're giving me a stomachache just thinking about it. How can you be so utterly underprepared? I'd rather fight a dragon than stand up there without a plan."
"That's easy to say now that the only dragon in the vicinity is dead," Duncan points out. "Go on now, Moraine. You have to have given it some thought. Are you going to go the stoic route? Straight facts? Or are you going to be a little more heroic? Do you have an epic poem for us or something? Maybe a song?"
"Ha!" I bark out a laugh, spewing breadcrumbs over the table. Swallowing painfully, I joke:
"Dragon, dragon in the night,
You stole our oxen, sheep, and shite.
But I will stop you in your tracks
And cut you open with my axe."
Neither of my brothers seem impressed.
"You don't have an axe."
"And the meter was a bit off in the third line."
"Like either of you could do better," I scoff.
"Actually," Duncan informs me cheerfully, "We did." They both clear their throats and recite in unison:
"I went to fight the mighty beast,
Which thought to make of me its feast,
But though it had me in its maw,
I stuck there in the massive craw.
A stubborn little meal was I,
So stubborn that the dragon died!"
"I'm laughing, truly. On the inside," I remark flatly. "I'm not doing any poetry tonight. No dancing either. I'm just going to tell it exactly how it happened."
I have to admit, however, that once I'm up there, standing in front of the massive tables, all eyes fixed on me, the fire blazing behind me, I give in to temptation and embellish a little.
"I slid down the monster's gullet, its weight crushing me, its heat searing me. I thought I was dead for certain. But I still had my sword, so I climbed my way back up its throat, sulfurous fumes billowing around me. All was black. The dragon raged all around me, fighting to keep me down, but I made it to the head and thrust my blade straight into its skull. It thrashed once. Twice. Three times! Brains oozed down my arm. I didn't let go until the beast had gone still.
"But the foul beast wasn't done with me yet. Even dead, it could still kill me, for its jaws were clamped tightly shut. I was trapped. I could feel the flames from its belly climbing up its throat. I knew the only way out would be to cut through the dragon's flesh. My blade pierced it, cutting deeply, but not deeply enough. My feet burned. I sliced again and felt air. My legs were on fire! Once more, and I plunged through the wound, dragging myself back into daylight, just as the beast gave one last mighty heave and belched out its thick, poisonous bile."
There, I think to myself as I stare back at the expectant faces of my audience. Try finishing your supper now.
For a moment, everyone waits in silent anticipation. Then my father stands with a loud cheer. Others follow suit. Soon my name echoes into the night sky, and my father stands at my side.
He holds his hands up for silence.
"This is a proud day for the O'Haig clan. Who would have thought that the scrawny, freckled little girl of yesterday would make us all so proud? Few in these mountains can claim the title of dragonslayer, fewer still before they have reached their twenty-fifth year. As a token of our gratitude and pride, I bestow upon you, Moraine O'Haig, this blade, forged over the dragon's ashes. Give it a worthy name."
I take the sword, aware of the eyes on me as I test its heft and balance, running a finger across its sharp edge. It bites into my skin, blood running before I even feel the sting.
Lifting it high, I shout, "Fang!"
The others cheer, and this time it is the name of my new blade that ascends to the gods.
I let my father escort me back to my place at the table, and we drink while the musicians take over. People dance, but I don't feel up to it tonight. I use my injuries to excuse myself. I simply fill my tankard once more and relax in a corner, watching the festivities. I think back to that seventeen-year-old girl, knock-kneed and trembling in a grand stone hall, dozens of eyes on her. The might laird of giants on his throne, towering over her even while seated. Those cold blue eyes of his twinkling with mischief.
"You are Moraine, daughter of Brian O'Haig? You scrawny little whelp? Get out of my sight."
His laughter still echoes after me.
I drink and grumble, "Now what would you say to me, I wonder."
"Muttering to yourself again?"
Duncan laughs. "Come on. Father wants to see us. Says it's urgent."
Rising, I take one more drink and follow my brother out of the crowded mess hall. I don't recall seeing my father leave.
"What's so urgent he let himself get called out of a feast? Last that happened was when Padraig's men attacked on Mother's birthday. I've never seen her so furious."
"No idea." Duncan shrugs. "We'll find out soon enough."
Light flickers in the windows of the council hall, where my father receives guests and conducts business. It's the only building that isn't dark and abandoned, with everybody still gathered at the pavilion.
Dougal is already present when we arrive, along with my father and a grizzled man I recognize as one of our scouts. He hasn't even taken off his traveling cloak.
"Glad you could make it," my father greets us, all traces of celebration gone. His face is dark, eyes serious and troubled. "Owen, please tell them what you just related to me."
The man nods and begins, "Me and my scouts was sent north to keep an eye on our neighbors. We noticed Padraig's men arming up for what looked like a fight, but they didn't come down here, no my laird. They went farther north, into the pass. I had my men stay on them, because nothing comes from that pass except—"
"Should Be," Duncan finishes gravely.
"Aye. Those vile creatures usually don't come above ground. The cold in the pass is disagreeable to them. But I saw them, ser, with my own eyes. Enough to take out half of Padraig's men and send the rest back limping."
"His men are strong," my father notes. "A few Should Be wouldn't be enough to set them back."
"'Twas more than a few, laird. Dangerous more."
My father nods. "If that's the case, then I'm sure it won't be long before he sends for a council. He'll call on all the mountain lairds for aid."
"Let him deal with them on his own. It's his land, his concern," I spit.
"Mora," my father begins with gentle reproach, "I realize you don't like the man—"
"It's not just that," I respond heatedly. "When did he ever come to our aid? We fought the flatlanders back alone five years ago, while he was sitting high in his snowy citadel, rubbing one out."
"She has a point," Duncan agrees.
"Thank you. And furthermore, the next year several of his men waylaid caravans of our goods for trade. We had a thin winter thanks to him."
"Flatlanders and raids are one thing," Dougal says. "But as you just pointed out, peace with Padraig's clan has always been tentative at best. We thought if you married him…well, let's just say that didn't improve things." He shoots an apologetic glance at me, knowing I hate it whenever the debacle of my failed engagement is mentioned, but he continues, "This would be a good start to rebuilding that peace."
"His raiders have been skimming our trade supplies again, despite his claims to the contrary," Owen points out. "And there were rumors not too long ago that he was going to make a push south. That would put him right on our land. 'Tis why we were scouting up there to begin with."
"Aye," my father agrees solemnly. "And if this threat with the Should Be is as bad as you say it is, we might not be able to afford sitting this one out. Padraig's our last defense against them. What happens to us if he falls?"
We are all silent. As much as I don't mind the idea of half-rotted monsters chewing on Padraig's bones, we've all heard the stories of the last time Should Be came down the mountain.
Nobody knows their true origins or what they really are. There's speculation, of course, but that's all it is. Humanish in form, but broken and bent in strange ways, with pale and rotting skin, they're called the Should Be Dead because by all accounts they should be dead. They look like corpses, smell like corpses, and they don't bleed, breathe, or seem to have a heartbeat. Cut off the head and the rest of it will keep fighting. At least, that's what I've heard. I've never seen one, due to the Laird of the High Mountain's efforts to keep them where they belong. Inside the mountain.
That's where they came from in the old stories. An earthquake split the mountain open and they came pouring out like thousands of spiders from a nest, overwhelming everything in their path. The chiefdoms were destroyed, the survivors driven down to the flatlands. The Should Be nearly took the flatlanders' city too, only driven back by the great mages of old. New lairds were given the solemn task to guard against another scourge like that. Giants, some of them, ancestors of Padraig and his men, brutal and capable. The rest of us are descendants of the refugees that helped fight to take back our lands in the forested foothills of the mountains.
"If Padraig falls, we all do."
"There are other rumors, ser," Owen murmurs. "Lairds Kieran and Wallace have been restless as of late. They've been encroaching on our territory for years. Should Be are bad enough alone, but the eastern lairds might not be farsighted enough to realize the danger. I fear they might make a move on our land if we are distracted in the north."
"Surely if Padraig calls council, they'll be busy assisting with the Should Be as well," Dougal argues.
"Not necessarily," my father disagrees. "None of us are bound to honor the council. They may not even show, much less pledge any forces. They'll likely wait to see what the other lairds do."
"Say we lend Padraig a hand then, and Kieran and Wallace attack. Surely Padraig would return any favor we do for him. Once the Should Be are contained, he and his men could help us take our land back."
"You'd lose a lot of lives that way," Duncan points out. "What of the farmers and the outlying villages? What happens to them while Kieran and Wallace entrench themselves? And if Padraig refuses to help us?"
"We split up," I suggest. "Someone could take a small force of elite men to bolster Padraig's forces, and the others could take the rest east in a show of strength. It might deter the eastern lairds. We'll need to leave enough men to defend home, of course."
"My thoughts exactly," my father agrees solemnly. "I cannot be away for long, I fear, or I would lead the men to Padraig myself. That is why you will go in my stead, Mora."
"What?" I exclaim. "Father, you know that under any other circumstance, I'd be honored, but you go too far this time. You know how I feel about that man."
Duncan steps forward, opening his mouth to volunteer, but my father cuts him off before he can even begin.
"I don't make this decision lightly, Mora. I need your brothers on the eastern front. They've trained with our warriors since they were small. They have a rapport with them. They've trained to lead them."
"But so have—"
"You will be a great asset against the Should Be," he interrupts gently. "That dragon you killed is proof enough. Padraig and his men will respect you for it."
I feel flustered and angry, and I don't want to let it show, because I've always been taught to accept my fate stoically, but damn if I don't just want to hit something.
Speaking over my silence, my father continues, "When Padraig calls council, if he calls council, I will answer, and you and twelve of our elite warriors will accompany me. If he deems it necessary, you will remain behind as an independent force. You will not take orders from him, but I strongly suggest that you find a way to work together. Duncan and Dougal will ride out to the east as soon as our men can be gathered."
While my brothers pledge their obedience, I can only bow my head silently. I never thought I'd look upon that solitary stone fortress again. Nor did I ever expect to see Padraig, unless it was on the battlefield with him on the end of my sword. I'd mount those twisted horns of his on my mantle.
This time, he will not laugh at me. Of that, I will be certain.