She would not return to the cave, Einin decided as she drew water from the village well. The dragon had likely forgotten her in the past two weeks. She was but a no-account village maiden, small prey. The dragon would have fed by now and gone back to sleep.
He could sleep a decade at a time, the old folks said. Who knew, by the time he awakened again and remembered her, if he remembered, Einin could be married and long gone to another village. He’d never find her.
She drew another bucket of water, then stepped back. A half dozen women surrounded the stone lip of the well, chattering on as they took turns. Einin felt safe among them. She was safe in the village, surrounded by her own kind and comfortable familiarity.
The scent of baking bread wafted from a nearby hut, and the clanging of metal sounded from the smithy. A small flock of children chased after a honking goose that was trying to escape its fate as the main course at the coopers’ daughter’s wedding on the morn.
The crooked streets between the huts and cottages were busy, as people went about their business. Spring had come, but darkness still fell early. Everyone was intent on the chores they needed to finish before nightfall, and Einin was no exception.
She had already cleaned her hut, laid in wood for the cooking fire, and laundered what little clothes she had. She was turning from the well with her two full wooden buckets, her shoulders straining under the weight, when she nearly bumped into the priest.
“Beg yer pardon.” She ducked her head, keeping her gaze on the man’s dusty boots rather than the harsh, cold panes of his face, not daring to look into eyes that filled with disapproval every time he looked at her.
She tried to step around him.
“Einin.” The way he said her name cut like a whip.
He had been watching her closely since she’d returned with the talon, but had not approached her until today. She froze. Then, when he said no more and it became apparent that he was in no hurry, she set her heavy buckets by her feet. She flinched. She was in for it now.
“I hear you chopped wood this morn.” Each word dripped with disapproval. “Wearing man’s clothes. Doing man’s work.”
The women around the well ceased their chatter as much out of respect as the better to hear.
“No man left in the family, Father,” Einin said, the last word tasting bitter on her tongue. She had loved her real father and grieved him bitterly, and could never understand why she must call the priest by the same title.
“A woman doing man’s work is against God and the laws of nature,” he pronounced.
She did not dare argue. In truth, she feared the priest more than the dragon. If the dragon chose to harm her, one snap of his powerful teeth and she would feel no more. The priest, however…
One of her earliest memories was of this same traveling priest’s visit to her village, and the witches he’d burned. Three grandmothers who’d had never been anything but kind to Einin: one the very midwife who’d birthed her, another known for her knowledge of herbs, and the third with nothing to call her to the attention of the priest but a mole on her cheek.
The old women had taken a long time to die. To this day, Einin’s stomach heaved at the smell of burned meat. Not that she had much meat in her pot this past year.
“You have not confessed your sins,” the priest said.
Einin bit the inside of her cheek. Who had time to sin? She worked every minute of every day to survive. Although, things were slowly getting better in Downwood.
Somewhere nearby a babe cried. Not the keening sound of hunger they’d all grown weary of. There was milk in the village again.
Four days prior, two stray cows turned up in a clearing just past the edge of the woods. An odd piece of luck as the nearest village—the village of Upwood—was on the other side of the hill, too far for the animals to have walked. The cows were wild-eyed and scared to death, but calmed soon enough once they were tied up in a barn.
They were a boon on top of all the other changes that had happened in the past fortnight.
From the moment the talon had been tied to a twenty-foot pole in the middle of the village, things had begun to turn around. Every time someone began losing heart, he looked up at the top of that pole and thought—if a simple girl could take on a dragon, nothing is impossible.
People expected good things to start happening, and so they happened. With the back of the fear broken, they were nicer to each other, more helpful. Tasks were done faster, and more was accomplished before each nightfall. Improvement was visible in every corner of the village of Downwood.
“You have returned from the dragon,” the priest said, and Einin felt he had at last arrived at the root of his true dislike for her.
Bewildered, she jerked her head up, then caught herself and dropped it again swiftly. Was the man not glad at their change of fortune?
But even as the question flew through her mind, so did the answer. He wasn’t.
But why? He’d said many a sermon that addressed the village’s sufferings, all blaming the great devil in the hills.
She blinked as the truth of it came to her. The priest hadn’t been able to vanquish the great devil with his many prayers. Her return with the talon implied that she might be yet more powerful than him, and she a woman!
“I returned but by God’s grace,” she hurried to say, keeping her head down, knowing, as soon as she said them, that the words wouldn’t help. The priest would hate the idea that some inconsequential maiden had been chosen as his god’s instrument rather than him.
“You boast of your unwomanly and ungodly ways,” the priest charged. “You refused young Wilm’s offer of marriage. You think yourself too proud to be subjected to the godly correction men are called to provide women who are weak and unable to resist sin.”
Wilm was the butcher’s son, a beefy young man two years older than Einen. He beat the family dogs, the family livestock, and his sisters, as his father beat the mother. Einin had no wish for Wilm’s godly correction.
She clasped her hands in front of her and dipped her head lower, hoping one of the older women around the well might speak up for her yet, in place of her long-gone mother. But the women stayed silent.
The war had left few able-bodied men. When Einin had gone to the cave, it meant one less young woman to compete with the rest of the maidens, these women’s daughters, for a husband. Mayhap the other women saw her return with disappointment.
And she could think of another reason for their silence as well. Even those who liked her might not dare speaking up before the priest.
They saw the writing on the wall. The priest was working up to an accusation of witchery. Any who took Einin’s side might get caught up in the net the priest was braiding.
As the priest went on berating her for her clothes and other disobedience, a few of the village men came to see the source of the disturbance at the well. Einin knew them all, her father’s and her brothers’ friends.
Yet, even as she waited, none of the men spoke up for her either. None had been brave enough to confront the dragon, and the fact that Einin had and lived, shamed them. Her very presence in the village was a daily reminder of their own cowardice.
She blinked hard as she understood at last why her victory had been celebrated upon her return, but the victor had not. She’d volunteered as the sacrificial virgin, and the only thing anyone had expected of her was to die. She couldn’t even get that right. So talon or no talon, she was not going to be forgiven.
Her instincts prickled with the same feeling she’d get when watched by a wolf from the ridge, or sensed a bear trap ahead—an indistinct premonition of danger.
She prayed the priest would never find out about her bargain with the dragon. Making a pact with the great devil would mark her, in the priest’s eyes, as the servant of the devil. She would be burned on the spot.
“You are to accept young Wilm and cease your sinful ways,” the priest proclaimed.
Her heart lurched into a mad rhythm. She was but a bird in a snare.
“I’m to go to Morganton, Father, leaving on the morrow,” she rushed to say the first thing she could think of, in a voice as meek as she was capable of uttering. “My aunt had her babe, her seventh, and she’s sick with the fever. Her husband came home maimed from the war. I go to help.”
She held her breath.
Robet, the miller, broke the silence, limping into the village square, a wide grin on his wrinkled face as he called out to the gathering. “I’m come from the woods. We’ll have timber enough to rebuild the mill. Must have been a mudslide last night. All the trees the storms fell up on the ridge the day afore are brought down to the valley. It’s all right here, close enough now.”
When his good news wasn’t received with cheers and claps on the back, he stopped with a puzzled expression. Then he caught the undercurrents and the smile slid off his face.
Einin glanced up at the priest from under her lashes. The zealous fires burning in the man’s eyes did naught to reassure her. If she thought her departure would be viewed with relief, she’d been mistaken.
The priest clearly saw her wish to leave as an attempt to escape his judgement. Einin’s throat tightened as she waited for him to order her to stay. He didn’t.
He scowled, then turned without a word and strode away, casting a meaningful glance to this man and that as he went.
* * *
Dawn has not yet risen from its featherbed when Einin stopped at the edge of the woods to look back at her village. In her brother Hamm’s shirt and britches she blended into the darkness. What little food she had she carried on her back, wrapped in her least moth-eaten blanket. Two knives hung from her belt: her father’s long, thin fish-gutting knife, and her mother’s shorter, wider blade employed in butchering chickens or the occasional wild rabbit back when her brothers used to bring them home from the forest.
Einin watched the front door of her hut through which the village elders entered, led by the priest.
The light of their torches flickered in the windows. Not for long. Soon the men came pouring out, their expressions even angrier than when they’d gone in.
With one last look at the village that had been her only home, Einin turned away and hurried into the woods, her heart gripped in a painful squeeze. The men would look for her on the road toward Morganton first. She was glad now that she’d had the presence of mind to make up that tale the day before.
As she moved forward in the dark, menacing shapes loomed over her, the trees like hungry giants bobbing their heads to see her better. Wild creatures called to each other in the night with sharp, frightful sounds. Suddenly, all the monsters in all the stories she’d heard in childhood seemed very real.
The woods before her were as scary as the men behind her. And the dragon… For now, she did her best not to think of him, or she might not be able to put one foot in front of the other. The dragon wouldn’t be able to find her in all these great woods, she told herself, needing to believe it so she could move forward.
She had no intention of keeping her promise to return to the cave. She might be nothing but dumb prey to the beast, but even dumb prey didn’t readily walk into the predator’s mouth.
She did her best to shut her ears and keep her eyes on nothing but the narrow path lit by the full moon. She kept the punishing pace past the first light of dawn, until the sun reached its zenith in the sky, only stopping when she reached a small clearing she knew hid a creek.
The sound of trickling water drew her forward. She ran the last few feet, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth with thirst. Then she slipped on the muddy bank.
She caught herself, fell sideways instead of forward into a freezing bath, but the sharp pain in her ankle warned she hadn’t fully avoided trouble.
“Ayy!” She dropped her bundle of food.
For a moment, tears sprung into her eyes. She grit her teeth and sat up, pulled off her boot. She tried moving the foot. The ankle turned even while protesting against a new wave of pain. Not broken then. But it was swelling already.
She quenched her thirst, then dipped her foot into the creek’s cold water to bring the swelling down. When the pain numbed a bit, she reached for her bundle, pulled it onto her lap.
She took from her meager stores as little as little as possible: a boiled egg, a small chunk of cheese and the heel of last week’s loaf of bread. After she finished eating, she pulled her foot from the water. Best not to catch a chill.
The swelling was better, but the skin was turning blue from a bruise. She shoved her foot back into the boot. She wasn’t nearly as far from the village as she would have liked. A hunter could easily come this far and see her. Or women collecting herbs and mushrooms, or youths looking for bird eggs.
Yet to force the ankle to walk would make the injury worse. She needed rest. Was it safe to stop for a while?
Maybe. Her escape from the village would be viewed as an admission of guilt. The priest would have accused her of witchery by now. That she’d run would be seen as proof. With a witch running free, the women and the children would stay close to the village today. And the men would be hunting for her. If they’d gone out on the road toward Morgantown, they would be only now returning to the village empty-handed, widening the search to the woods.
They were half a day behind her, at least. She could afford to rest a bit.
She hid herself under a bush at the end of the clearing and looked in the direction of the village. If anybody came, she’d see them before they’d see her.
She knew where she was, but she was also more lost than she had ever been. With a painful certainty, she knew that she could never go back home to her family’s hut again. And she couldn’t go to her aunt in Morganton, a tale she’d made up on the spot, desperate to escape marriage to Wilm.
The truth was, while a helping hand would be welcome at her aunt’s home, another mouth to feed wouldn’t be. They already had six girls. They could not afford a seventh.
Einin filled her lungs. Could she live alone in the woods? That had been her plan when she’d blindly set out this morning, pushed by fear. But now doubts assailed her.
Could she build some kind of a shelter here and forage for her food? But what would she do when the wolves and the bears came? Or when cold weather returned? The village had barely survived this past winter, even with everyone pulling together.
As if to echo her thoughts, a wolf howled in the distance. Another one answered. Einin swallowed the fear bubbling up her throat. She stilled to note the air brushing across her face. Then she relaxed a bit. The wolves were upwind, they couldn’t scent her.
Could the dragon?
Fear bubbled up again, enough to drown her.
But the sun was warm on her face. She closed her eyes. She hadn’t been able to sleep a wink last night, fearing the men would come for her before she was away. She thought of the village, and she thought of the dragon, but soon those thoughts drifted away.
Dusk was falling by the time she woke, with the remnants of a dream where dark dragon eyes were watching her. She shivered.
At least her foot felt better. She soaked it in the creek once again and let the cold water do its work. She ate another boiled egg, and a wrinkled old apple, the last one remaining from the previous year’s harvest. She drank again from the creek and washed her face.
Then there was nothing left but to make her decision.
She could no longer put the dragon from her mind. She was close, about three quarters of the way to the cave. She’d chosen the trail that snaked that way, thinking this was the path the villagers would least expect her to take. She could turn off now, start moving in another direction.
The dragon would be expecting her tonight. Would he come to search for her?
If he did, where could she hide? And if she couldn’t hide…
A new, terrifying thought came to her. The dragon might bring harm to the village, if she acted the coward. Even if the village rejected her now, they were still people she’d once loved, had grown up around. She would not see children burned in dragon fire.
That made her decision in the end.
She pulled the fishing knife from her belt, unbraided her hair, then rebraided it around the scabbard, only the hilt showing that might be mistaken for a fancy hairclip at her nape. The weapon was out of sight, yet within easy reach.
For a few moments, she allowed herself a brief fantasy, that she would kill the dragon and take his cave for her shelter. The dragon’s smell would keep away predators. And the villagers wouldn’t dare go there unless in truly dire circumstances, a disaster the likes of which happened maybe every other decade. Maybe she could claim the cave, and there she would be safe.
She filled her lungs and enjoyed that dream a bit, but then let it float away. That a maiden such as herself could kill the dragon was most unlikely. The best she could hope for was to die with honor, die while fighting, die quickly.
She wrapped her empty blanket around her shoulder, then continued on the path toward the cave, trying not to think of the strong likelihood that by morning the dragon would be picking her bones out of his fearsome teeth.
Once again, a wolf howled in the distance. The sound came from closer than before. She checked the wind again. The wind direction held. She didn’t think the wolves had scented her, but they were definitely moving toward her, perhaps tracking a deer.
Her ankle ached, but she hurried forward. Truth was, she would not survive alone in the woods. Peril waited for her in every direction. At least, if she went to the dragon, she would die with honor, having kept her word. Having protected her village. And a quick snap of the dragon’s jaw was a cleaner, quicker death than slow evisceration by a pack of wolves.
Ready to pay the dragon’s price.
The wolf howl sounded again—so close now that the sound sent a cold shiver down her spine.
Night fell, but the moon was still fairly full, lighting her way, luck favoring her. But then, with a sudden gust, the wind changed.
She ran, uncaring now of the pain.
She was crossing yet another glen when the wolves found her. They’d come upon her with such careful stealth that she didn’t realize she was surrounded until she saw eyes glowing from the bushes around the clearing.
She dropped her bundle and reached for her mother’s knife by her side. Whether here or at the dragon’s cave, she was determined to die fighting.
“Ya!” she cried loudly and stomped forward, but wolves didn’t scare off.
Shoulders hunched, chests low to the ground, they stalked forward. They came closer and closer, snapped and growled.
She was surrounded, no place to run. She could maybe cut one before the rest would be upon her. She picked out the largest wolf, the one leading the attack, and with a battle cry, she charged forward.
She did wound the beast and had the satisfaction of hearing his sharp yelp, watching him back off as blood gushed from his shoulder. But the others were upon her, bringing her down, teeth clamping onto her feet and hands.
Before she knew it, she lost her weapon. But even as she prepared to die, a great shadow blocked out the moon, and the next moment the wolves were slinking away, melting back into the dark woods as fast as they had appeared.
Einin stared up at the great dragon in the sky above her, the wind of its wings blowing her hair into her face. Her heart clamored inside her chest. Her blood rushed so loudly in her ears that she couldn’t even hear the sound of the dark wings flapping.
As the dragon dipped low then landed, she struggled to her feet and reached toward the fishing-knife hidden in her braid. She did not reach the blade. The dragon swept her up into a giant leathery wing. Then he carried her off, lumbering into the woods, and she could do naught to resist but curse at him.
He did not go far when they reached a line of boulders she recognized, then he walked around an outcropping of rocks, and they were suddenly at the mouth of the cave.
He set her on her feet. The urge to flee washed over her, stronger than ever. He was as frightening as she remembered. His blue-black scales glinted in the moonlight, as did his great fangs. He appeared rounder than before.
Must have fed since last I’ve seen him. She shuddered at the thought. And he’d feed once again before the night was over.
He was twice her height, and twice her length not counting the long, spiked tail that was as long as his body. His great wings were folded, and she had no desire to see them spread again. He looked beastly and stark, his midnight eyes fixed on her, his attention holding her immobile. She couldn’t run now if she tried, couldn’t move a muscle.
“You came.” His deep, rumbling voice filled the clearing before the cave, and reached inside her to surround her trembling heart.
A long moment passed before she could gather herself enough to draw her shoulders straight and hold out her hands to the side to show that she brought no weapons this time. When he attacked, she would defend herself, but she wanted to catch him unaware.
“I’m here to fulfill our bargain,” she said. “I’m here to slake the dragon’s hunger. Of my own will.”
Her voice did not shake, and that provided her with some small consolation on the eve of her death. Mayhap her father would have been proud of her. He’d always called her a strong lass, and not with disapproval as many other fathers would have.
She wasn’t brave long, however. The dragon’s lips pulled back, and she blanched. A smile could be a fearsome sight on a full-grown dragon. She could have gone her whole life without seeing such.
Her courage wavered enough to ask, “May I have a last wish?”
The beast stared at her with a speculative gleam in those all-seeing eyes. “What would you wish for Einen of Downwood?”
“That ye make it quick.”
He smiled again. “Such I cannot promise.”
Another shudder ran through her. In fact, once she started, she couldn’t stop shivering.
He looked up at the full moon that was now slipping under a cloud as gauzy as funeral shroud. “Wait here.”
Cowardice once again pushed her to run as soon as he disappeared inside his cave. But where would she run? So she stayed and prepared herself for instant, bloody violence.
The man striding forth from the cave a few minutes later startled her.
She blinked and peered at him. Where had he come from, so sudden like, in the middle of the night?
He stood a full head taller than she did, as wide in the arms and shoulders as a blacksmith. He wore black leather, reinforced with dragon scales in the front. His hair was the dark silk of the night, his teeth gleaming white as he flashed a predatory smile. His eyes, the color of a moonless midnight, traveled over her.
She was unfamiliar with the sensations that suffused her limbs, surprised at the heat that appeared unexpectedly in the cool of the night. Her shivering stopped.
He stepped closer while surprise still rooted her to the spot. He had a slightly smoky scent, not unpleasant, similar to her father’s when in winter he used to smoke their hams and sausages and bacon. The knight’s features were rough and scarred. His eyes seemed immeasurably old from this close, belying the obvious virility of his body.
He startled her further by reaching for her hand. She could not protest, even had she found her voice, being the village wench that she was and him obviously a knight.
A knight as powerful as he… Hope unfurled inside her chest. “My Lord, Sir Knight—” She wasn’t sure how to address him. She’d never had the occasion to address a man of such high station. “What have ye done to the dragon?”
A smile came to play above his lips, lips such as were made to make maidens weep. “I’m one and the same. And I have a powerful hunger to slake.”
She was too stunned to move when he leaned forward and brushed his warm mouth over hers. When, after an interminable moment, he pulled back, dark fires burned in his eyes.“I am the dragon Draknart,” he said even as his lips once again descended. “And you are mine, Einin of Downwood, by your own promise.”