By Nina Dorman
Dark wisps of hair escaped my braid as I tightened my grip on the thick, slippery vines that wound around the ancient tree. Black, slimy moss-covered its shadowy branches, a death sentence to anyone foolish enough to try and climb its treacherous limbs to break free from the dark forest below. I cast a cautious glance downward.
“And I’m that fool,” I grumbled. Pressing my body into the tree’s massive trunk, I hoped that my small traveling companion, who was currently basking her brilliant red and gold scales in the hot sun, would find it in her black little heart to come down.
“Lothinda! We have to keep going! I have orders to fill by sundown and we need to find new pelts to replace the ones you destroyed.”
“I can’t stay down there any longer Fallon.” The young dragon whined. “My wings are thinning, I miss the sun, and my feet hurt. And my fingernails are cracked!” Lothinda screeched, apparently seeing the state of her poor “fingernails”. I let out a small, breathy sigh. Of all the eggs, of all the dragons, how did I end up with this drama queen.
“When we get back to the house, you can bask in the sun for the next week for all I care but we have to get going now or you won’t have a house to bask on.” Lothinda moaned loudly, as she slithered nimbly down and wrapped her scaled body around my shoulder.
The harsh crunch of approaching footsteps on the dry leaves below us halted our descent. We watched to as two hunters emerged from the dense underbrush that plagued the forest floor.
“I saw tracks this way, I think.” A thin figure in a gray oversized tunic said meekly. His skin was mottled, covered in dirt and dried mud.
“Then find ‘em,” the second man scolded, shoving the boy forward. “I’m not goin’ to be the one tellin’ Capt’n we couldn’t find the dragon.” His long blue coat and scuffed black boots covered tattered beige undergarments. His rolled sleeves revealed deep scars and faded tattoos, as muted as his disheveled hair that hung in loose waves across his shoulders.
I held a finger up to my lips to warn Lothinda to be quiet. She rolled her obsidian eyes in annoyance before turning her intense gaze back on those who hunted us. I looked back down to watch their progress, but they were gone. Confused, I looked at Lothinda, hoping she saw where they had gone. Her smooth head bobbed around, dancing on the end of her thin neck like a deranged owl as she searched for them as well. I pointed for her to climb up to get a better view. For once she listened without questions, darting up the slick tree.
Leaves slowly fell from the branches as she launched herself from one to another. I cringed, hoping the hunters didn’t see them as they slowly cascaded towards the forest floor well below us. Shots tore through the branches above my head.
I jerked away from the sound, losing my grip on the slick vines that kept me from plummeting downward. Pain tore through my body as I landed on the thick rotting foliage that matted the ground. My head swam and my vision blurred. I tried to concentrate on the sound of Lothinda’s frantic wings cutting the air as her screams faded into the distance. Everything went dark.
My head pounded. Pain spread through my body like wildfire as I tried to sit up. I ground my teeth in agony and cracked open my eyes.
“Bout time.” The older man sneered, stalking towards me. He grabbed a fist full of my shirt and jerked me up from the forest floor. “Where’d the dragon get off to?” He growled.
“Far from here,” I ground out, trying to ignore the pain. “You’ll never find her.” I hoped that much was true. Knowing Lothinda, she was probably back at the village, preening in a sunny spot and carefully looking over her scales to ensure our short journey hadn’t caused any permanent damage.
“Oh, we’ll find her,” He grinned. “You’re going to help us.”
“Like hell, I will,” I spat.
“Maybe not willingly,” He agreed cruelly, exposing blackened teeth. He turned, searching the trees for something. “Boy, get ‘ere with my blades ‘fore I knock some sense back into that thick skull of yours!”
The quick succession of scattered leaves and broken sticks confirmed the boy’s immediate compliance. As he rounded the tree, I got a better look at him and my heart sank. A fresh, bold black tattoo outlined the right side of his dirt-covered face, stretching around from his temple to trace his rounded jaw. Up close, he was young, eleven at the oldest. He was tall but
lanky, with eyes frozen in a state somewhere between fear and surprise.
“Set ‘em up ‘ere, I’m going to take a piss. Cap’n says you’re my apprentice… it’s ‘bout time you started acting like it.” He strode beyond the thick foliage that hid our tree from prying eyes. I watched as the boy carefully placed each polished blade, trying to calm his shaking hands so no item was out of place.
“If you give me a blade, I’ll kill him, and you’ll be free,” I whispered, my voice harsher than I had intended.
I watched his eyes and knew the moment he stopped considering it.
“You can’t even walk. You mess up and I’m down there with you.”
“But if I don’t mess up, you’ll be free. You could even come back to the village with me. They’d be happy to have a strong boy willing to work.” I stared into his eyes, willing him to look at me. “No more of… this. Just give me a blade.”
He considered my words for a moment. A moment was all I needed.
“If he has you start it, then make a mistake… something that will make him mad enough to take over. I don’t need to be able to fight, I just need to be able to stab him.”
His hand hovered, frozen over the last blade he placed. He twitched to pick it up then moved jerkily back to the pile to lay down another.
“I don’t need one of your blades,” I soothed, gesturing towards my left leg. “I have my own in my ankle sheath. I just need you to hand it to me. If anything goes wrong, he’ll never suspect you.”
The boy rubbed his face nervously, revealing the delicately pale skin hidden beneath the layer of dirt. Skin only the rich offspring of higher houses managed to have.
“You do this, and I’ll get you home.”
His eyes widened…
“Do this, and we’ll leave the moment I can walk.” After I have Lothinda back safe and sound, of course.
Nodding, he reached for my ankle and frantically untied the sheath’s binding while casting nervous glances over his shoulder. He bent over me to press the hunting blade into my hand that was tucked awkwardly behind my back.
“What the hell’s goin’ on ‘ere?” The older man bellowed, charging out from behind the brush.
“Sh-she tried to get up. I… I was just holding her down,” the boy stammered.
“She’s probably got multiple broken bones from that fall,” he spat. “If you need her to stay down then use those boots the Cap’n put on you, like I showed you. Now! Or I’ll get to work on you first.”
He didn’t hesitate. Air rushed from me and I crumpled around his boot as he drove it deep into my stomach.
“Keep going til’ I tell you to quit,” he sneered.
Bile built with each kick until I retched and coughed uncontrollably, unable to breathe. The man knelt down beside me, unaffected by the putrid pile inches from his face.
“If you think that hurt, you’re going to love what comes next.” He said, taking immense pleasure in my suffering.
Shaking, I plunged my knife deep into his throat. His eyes went wide with shock as he fumbled to remove it.
“You bi-, you’ll… pay for that.” His words were gurgled as he stumbled towards me. I dragged myself backward, putting distance between us until he collapsed.
My heart pounded in my chest as I stared at his motionless body, refusing to take my eyes off of him. My breathing slowly steadied as my brain accepted that he wasn’t getting back up.
“Fallon!” Lothinda screamed as she crashed through the forest’s thick canopy. She landed next to me, carrying my hunting belt from home. She hissed at the boy, who was the only one left standing. I stroked her muck-covered head to calm her.
“Too bad you didn’t bring the med kit,” I joked, using the tree to slowly get to my feet.
“The boy was a prisoner,” I groaned, taking a step. “We’re taking him home.”
Lothinda’s usual look of disapproval returned.
Category: Short Story