Thank goodness for writing challenges- sometimes they come exactly when I need to flee the yuckiness of reality and embrace a world of my own creation. This challenge was to write the first chapter of a book with the first line being- There weren’t always dragons in the valley. Tell me what you think…
There weren’t always dragons in the valley. Revan had overheard the stories after evening dinners, standing in the shadows by the fire pit in the middle of the captain’s home, but it was just stories.
That is what she once believed.
She was in the middle of the camp, her ears ringing with the crackle of flames, the rapid howl as the fire found more fuel, and the hissing of fat as it melted and dripped onto the ground below. A dense white fog surrounded the area; there were no sounds of birds or wind in the trees, no rustling of leaves- as if the very essence of the area had fled from the destruction. She wondered where were the sounds of metal clanging as men trained in the battle arena? Where were the horse cries protesting another minute of waiting before being fed? What happened to the yells of the camp cook as he shouted out directions for the break fast meal?
Revan’s only truth was that she was on her knees, sick to her stomach- her mouth filled with ash coating her tongue and face. The smell of burning food, metal, and bodies filled her nose as she grasped for a gulp of fresh air. She was covered in the ashes of the village and its soldiers. It was impossible to see anything- only hear the remains of death that arrived so quickly with the rising sun.
She felt them land next to her. The ground shook with the landing force as if the earth itself could not hold the weight of whatever beast stood in front of her. The movement of their powerful wings had provided enough energy to blow a gust of air down the path and provide Revan with a little relief. As she welcomed the freshness and waited, she trembled with fear and longing for a swift death from whatever stood before her.
Ulf slid off of his dragon, landing softly on his feet, and looked around at what remained of the village. He knew that the two other warriors were guarding his movement from their mounts, wary of any movement. They had been searching for months, exhausted and hungry. His Queen had begged him to take his best men in search of a missing girl who could restore peace in the land.
He had heard the stories as he was coming up in the ranks of the Royal Guard. Listening to the Story Tellers as they spun a tale of the powerful Vanir, the Great War, and their eventual destruction at the hands of the soldiers from the Shadowland. There was a rumor that before the last battle, the three Great Mothers fled to a cave with a small baby and blessed her with the magic of the masses. It was through her that a new generation of Vanir would be born, mixed with the powers of the Enherjar, to protect and defend their lands. But no one had seen or heard of them for generations. As the years passed, so did the faith that the Vanir would return to restore peace and prosperity to his home.
Days flew into weeks, deepening into months. First, they searched the coastal lands still inhabited by the Selkies. A strange group of people that could change their human form into that of a seal, preferring to spend their time in the ocean rather than on land. Next, they traveled to the Jarn Tribe, who lived hidden in caves on the outskirts of the sand dunes, a group as harsh as the noonday sun beaming its rays on the pearl white sand. Finally, it was only by accident that when they visited the Great Forest and the Seeress people, they heard of a camp occupied by the Shadowland soldiers and a young woman rumored to be of Vanir birth. As he questioned patrons at a local pub, he provided them with enough beer to loosen the tongue of a deaf man and quietly elicited the information that he needed. That night, they decided to investigate this last area before returning home in order to convey the news that no Vanir existed and hope was no longer an option.
When he saw the single woman in the middle of the camp, he wondered what happened. A plume of fire had burst from the trees while he and his men were flying through the valley. They could hear the screams of a painful death. Then, a deafening silence followed. Turning their dragons toward the smoke, they prepared to meet whoever or whatever might mount such an attack. When they arrived overhead, they were stunned to discover there was still one person alive.
As Ulf approached, still blinded by soot and ash, the girl announced to the sky, “I am ready for death.” Her words came out choked but strong. Ulf stopped and looked at her, a slight frown playing on his face. How did she hear him?
“What happened?” he asked softly as he walked closer.
Revan tilted her head towards him as if considering the question and shook her head. It was impossible for her to answer even if she were able to speak. But her last words had taken away her final strength, and the ash in her mouth was making it nearly impossible to talk. She needed water soon, or she knew she would choke to death.
Ulf, sensing her growing fear, approached a bit faster, pulling out a flask of water from his belt. “I am coming toward you with water, do not attack.”
Revan nodded once more and waited. As Ulf watched, the young woman in front of him steeled herself- a light shimmer formed over her body, as if preparing for an attack. Knowing that the woman was scared, he purposely made noise in his approach. Kneeling down, Ulf whispered, “I am in front of you. The flask is in my hand; it is just water.”
Revan was drinking before Ulf realized that she had grasped it out of his outstretched hand. He blinked twice before softly grabbing it back. “Slowly. You do not want to swallow the ash in your mouth. Rinse and then take small drinks.” He handed back the water as Revan nodded her acknowledgment. Ulf watched as she cleared her mouth and washed the dirt from her face, encouraged by the fact that she was able to stomach the small sips.
“When you are ready, I think you should tell us what happened here,” he said as he looked around at the remains of the camp. “How are you the only one who survived?”
Revan looked at him, trying to put the puzzle pieces together in her own mind when she noticed two more walking towards them. Ulf watched as her defenses grew into a shimmering shield, and held his hand up to his men.
“They are not here to hurt you,” he explained. “They are with me.” Ulf pointed to the man on his left. “Arne is a healer, and Kare has been with me since boyhood.” Both men bowed their heads slightly towards her and continued their assessment of the situation before them.
Regarding the men, Revan was certain that they were not there to harm her. Although she acknowledged that if there were more terrifying men alive, she had not yet met them. Ulf was the taller of the three, with long twisted reddish-brown braids pulled back with a leather string and bits of leaves and sticks tangled within them. The emerald green of his eyes stood out from the reddish stubble around his jawline. The look on his face indicated that he hadn’t slept well for months. A large amount of muscle was clearly visible on his body as if he had spent his entire life doing manual labor. His legs were the size of tree trunks, which Revan assumed was helpful as she looked at the dragons sniffing the air behind them. Where Ulf was light in appearance, the other two- Arne and Kare resembled darkness. Both men had raven black hair tied behind with a leather strap, dark eyes with a rim of gold, and stood only a few inches shorter than Ulf. They all had one thing in common, however: the power of a proven and tested warrior.
‘Twins,’ Revan thought to herself. ‘I have never seen twins before.’ All three were dressed in the same clothing, a dark tunic, breeches, leather boots that reached their knees, and weatherproof cloaks attached by a broach. Despite their stance was prepared for an attack, she immediately realized they did not intend to hurt her. Revan had lived in fear, defending herself against the unwanted intentions of Shadowland soldiers. It had taken her many painful encounters with witch doctors to understand whether a man was meant to shed her blood or not.
Revan slowly stood up and nodded toward the men. “I am Revan,” she said quietly, looking around at what was left of the camp that had been full of movement and men just an hour prior. “I will tell my tale, but first,” she said, holding out her hands in front of her, “I find myself needing a bath.” She looked back at Ulf, “Do you have an extra shirt for me to wear as my clothes dry?”
“I don’t think that we have time…” Ulf started and stopped when Revan glared at him, tilting her head as if listening to the wind itself.
“There isn’t another soul in this forest, except for the poor animals that were scared away and us. We have plenty of time for me to find my balance and my own skin before we talk anymore.” She looked at the retreating form of Arne, who was walking back to his dragon to get her a shirt from his own pack. “Thank you,” she called and turned back to the leader, who was looking at her with his mouth slightly open and anger beginning to shine in his eyes. “You and Kare could start a fire and maybe find something for us to eat?” She asked innocently. Considering that these men were strangers, she had no idea why she was talking to him in this manner, but she has felt a little different since this morning. “I want to know…” Ulf started gruffly before Kare cut him off with laughter dancing in his eyes and lining his mouth.
“Of course, we will be happy to. Please join us when you are clean and able.” He bowed slightly as Arne approached with a clean shirt, handing it to her. Ulf was pulled back towards the dragons who were purportedly napping in the clearing, watching and enjoying the scene played out by small chuckles and smiles.
A small creek not far from the camp beckoned Revan as she took the shirt. Despite the scene around her, she stood tall, head held high as if demonstrating to the world that she was not affected by it. Ulf watched her go, his senses ensuring that he knew her exact position and movements.
Kare walked up beside him, looking at the retreating form, “I think we found the girl,” he tilted his head in amazement, “though I don’t think she is a girl anymore.”
Kare was right, Ulf thought. The person they had just encountered was not a little girl from the stories but a full-grown woman with more power than he had ever seen. She was not beautiful in the traditional sense, but there was a light about her. He was surprised to find that she had long golden-brown hair, amber eyes, and was of average height. He had always assumed that the Vanir’s were little people with delicate wings and twinkling voices. Instead, this woman was full of fire, ice, rage, and something without words. When Ulf walked upon her, and she welcomed death with such strength, he felt something tug at his core- a warning or a promise he was not sure of yet.