Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter I

(Merry Christmas Eve! Enjoy.)

Read [Prologue].

Chapter I

Alethea traced the black specks carefully, her brush stroking then lifting off the wall with controlled force. She stepped back to examine her work. The outline of a wing unfurled on its white canvas, the tip grazing the edge of the window.

“Rafa,” she called.

A halo of black hair surfaced from behind a pile of cushions. Rafa ran a critical eye over her painting and a wry smile touched his face.

“It’s terrifying.”

“I finally made the curves right. It’s brighter tonight than I’ve ever seen.” She swept her hand towards the window.

Her gaze wandered outside to the night sky, traveling instantly to the most familiar constellation: the two large wings, the arched tail, and the trail of dense stars that father called the dragon’s breath of fire. If you use your imagination, he would say.

She loved the skies. Her family and clan had the stone mountains and green earth under their feet, but from her little lodge overlooking the village, she had all the heavens above.

“Is Abi visiting tonight?”

The hopeful note in Rafa’s voice was so faint she would have missed it if she knew him less. Alethea glanced at his expression, but his face was turned towards the ground.

“Yes.” She frowned, an anxious crease forming above her brow. “She’s late.”

Abigail collected enough admirers to stretch from the foot to the peak of the Adamaris Mountain. That, at least, was the common sentiment in the clan according to Rafa, Father and Mother. Abigail dismissed the notion entirely. Alethea could not help the occasional prick in her heart when the subject arose. Would she win as many suitors if their places had been reversed? Nevertheless, she felt ashamed of the slightest envy. Alethea loved her sister, and neither of them had chosen their lots in life.

She stole another glance at Rafa. But for him to develop any special interest in Abigail—

Surely, he knew an orphan could never inherit the Chieftain’s role.

“Your mother is worried. She said Abigail’s been wandering off to God-knows-where on the mountain these days.”

Alethea felt her chest clench. “Abi can take care of herself. She’s just adventurous.”

“Ah, right, the hot-blooded dragon spirit inside her.” He rose to his feet and made a flourish with his hands. “I think Demarion is secretly proud. Like father, like daughter. But Ziva…” he trailed off.

“She fears the curse is meant for Abi.” She kept her tone neutral.

Rafa stared at her, his indigo eyes crinkling. “Lethe, she fears it was meant for you both.

She heard the earnest empathy in his voice and flushed, looking away. Her family never showed greater favor to one daughter over the other. Abigail was their firstborn by mere moments, and tradition dictated that the eldest child of the Chief would inherit leadership of the clan. When Alethea arrived, a tiny bundle of flesh and bones, Father and Mother were delighted but afraid. Who would the Phoenix’s terrible curse fall upon?

Father could not conceal both children. The entire clan knew when Lady Ziva was with child. So he hid Alethea from the public, protecting at least one daughter. He built a cabin above the village for her, disguised as the family’s new private retreat. To the clan, Demarion Dragon-Chief and Lady Ziva bore a single daughter.

The oak double doors burst open, interrupting Alethea’s musing. Abigail barreled in, her dark hair flying wildly around her shoulders.

“Lethe, you will adore this tale,” she began without preamble, her voice echoing in the vaulted room. “Oh, Rafa, you will enjoy this too,” she added, spying him in the corner.

“Where have you been?” Alethea demanded.

“It’s not where I’ve been, but who I’ve been with.” Abigail winked, reaching into the fold of her mantle and producing a small bouquet of wildflowers.

“Is this another poor man’s heart you’re to break?”

Abigail waved off her sister’s sympathy for the unknown suitor. “This one is different. We met by accident, about a fortnight ago. I wanted to see the south side of the Adamaris, with the sea right below the cliffs. Some of the clan folk who ventured there said it’s the most beautiful at sunset.” She shrugged. “It was, albeit a terrifying climb.”

“Stars, Abi, Mother said not to go to the south face!” Alethea closed her eyes, and even the thought of the jagged heights sent a shiver through her.

“I know,” she grimaced. A shadow of guilt crossed her petite features but vanished swiftly. “Don’t tell her, please.” A mischievous gleam entered her eye. “But that’s where I met him. Just as the sun dipped out of sight, I saw his shadow on an impossible precipice.”

“Perfectly enchanting,” Alethea murmured in resigned agreement.

She felt a twinge in her chest. Alethea loved her stories, and though she feigned indignation at some of her tactics, she admired her sister’s daring spirit. Rafa said most the clan hailed her as a worthy heir to their father, regardless of whether she married.

Our fates fell in the right order. Abigail would not be able to stand a week confined inside the only walls Alethea knew her whole life.

And Alethea would not be able to brave the Adamaris or command the respect of the clan.

“We’ve been meeting since, every day if we can manage it,” Abigail continued. An unusually sheepish expression came over her. “I just didn’t want to tell all of you until I was more certain.”

Alethea felt a jolt. “Certain of what?”

“Well… he’s different,” she began, before breaking off.

Alethea followed her gaze to Rafa, who had stood silently since Abigail came in. His impish face appeared pale and vacant. She felt a brief pang of sympathy. She thought of Rafa as a brother—and Abi likely did as well. Still, they were not related by blood, and she could not fault him for developing feelings towards her sister. They were no longer children. It was Rafa, after all, who told Alethea of Abigail’s admirers and the high regard of the clan. She wondered for a moment how much his own appraisal colored those reports.

“Rafa, what is it?” Abigail stared at him, genuine concern in her eyes.

He did not respond, and Alethea scrambled for words to rescue him.

“He’s not feeling well,” she muttered.

“Sit down, then.” Abigail strode quickly towards him. “Stars, you look terrible—”

Drop those flowers!

His ordinarily tranquil voice boomed with power. Abigail froze in place, the bouquet still clutched between her fingers, and Alethea jumped, her eyes widening at him. Where did this fury come from? Abi mentioned a dozen suitors at least in the past! She wanted to shout her thoughts aloud, but knew she could not expose him like that.

“Rafa,” Alethea said slowly, “Please, calm down.”

He did not even glance at her. “Drop the flowers,” he repeated, more quietly but no less forcefully.

“What is the matter with you?” Abigail exclaimed, recovering enough to shoot an angry glare at him. “Are you jealous?”

Alethea bit her lower lip and looked worriedly at Rafa.

“There’s a briar rose in there, Abi,” he said, holding up his palm towards her. “Do not move. Just drop it.” He turned to Alethea now, whose face grew ashen. “You stay away too.”

“What?” Abigail stared, uncomprehending.

“It’s a Rosa Rubiginosa!” Alethea cut in. “The curse, Abi, drop it!”

But her sister appeared motionless now, her gaze entranced by the spray of flowers. “It can’t be,” she murmured slowly. She opened her hand to let the bouquet tumble out.

Alethea wanted to scream, but her throat constricted as a filmy pink flower caught on Abigail’s hand, a row of small thorns beneath its petals. Her sister drew in a painful breath and Rafa was beside her, his hand pressed against her back.

Abi!”

But her sister was unconscious already, a limp figure in Rafa’s arms. A small crimson stain appeared on the wooden floor beside the fallen wildflowers.

Beneath the Dragon Skies

Dear friends, readers and accidental visitors,

You know you’ve been a bad blogger when you can scroll down the first page and still see a post from last year. Oops. My excuse: grad school. My apology gift: a novella-length story. It’s a fairytale retelling (it should be obvious fairly quickly which one), and decidedly not Christmas-related. But I have the entire thing written and no plans for it other than having it take up hard drive space. There’s a Prologue + 10 installments, and I will not leave you hanging because again, its already completed.

I hope it adds some warmth and fun to your holiday season!

tpv9dh822va-stefan-stefancik

Beneath the Dragon Skies: Prologue

The yawning, rounded boulders rose above the cavern, sheltering its black entrance like stone wings. Demarion swung his left leg up the steep incline and thrust himself onto the last foothold. His breath came short and heavy. He leaned against a rock fissure and looked down at the impossible path snaking through the Adamaris Mountain.

The endless spiral of gray stones stared back at him, almost mocking with its winding and sudden cliffs. He shut his eyes against the vertigo and tried not to think of the return journey.

Turning to the cavern, Demarion caught a flicker of light. A fire burned at the end of the dark passageway. He stepped inside guardedly, his hand wandering to the hilt of his sword.

A familiar face withdrew from the shadows, her eyes vibrant behind the flames.

“Dear Demarion!” she exclaimed. Something false in her voice belied her smile. “So many seasons have passed without a visit from you. I was beginning to think you had forgotten me.”

He studied the woman before him and felt a quiet ache. Her familiar face recalled happier times, but he also discerned the acrimony that tinged the rim of her gaze.

“No, Sela,” he sighed, “I do not forget so swiftly. But your home is not easy to visit.”

Sela laughed and rose to her feet. He followed her as she drifted towards the mouth of the cave. The first hint of sunrise crept up the eastern skies in rich rose-gold shades.

“But the view is spectacular.”

“It comes with a cost,” he returned dryly. “You are steps away from a straight plunge into oblivion.”

She whirled to face him, her silver shawl billowing behind her. “There does not seem to be a place for me elsewhere in the Adamaris.” Her tone hardened. “I did not even merit an invitation to your latest celebration.”

An icy wind swept through him and a tingle of fear raced down his spine. He and Sela were friends once, in better and brighter days. Her seclusion was not entirely her choice; cruel circumstances drove her to seek refuge when the Phoenix clan fell into civil conflict, scattering most of their people across the mountain. Many died, for the Adamaris was an unforgiving place to those alone and without resources.

But her years in isolation made her volatile, and Demarion guessed the bitterness of her fate gnawed at her. He might have pitied her, but he knew she would despise it.

“I thought it unfair to ask a man to brave your heights for the sake of a festivity.”

“You could have come yourself.”

“Why do you think I’m here?” Demarion watched her carefully. “But it seems you have heard the news already.”

“I have my ways of finding out.” She slipped her shawl down her left shoulder slightly, and a dark red phoenix tattoo peered out. Her mouth curved into a half-smile. “My heartiest compliments to you and the mother. How is dear Ziva?”

Demarion felt his ire rise. “Do not pretend to care for her,” he snapped.

“Oh, Demarion. You think so little of me now.”

Her disdainful tone drove out his lingering fear, replacing it with hot anger. He bit his lip and tried to contain his temper, but her serene and insincere expression looked foreign. Whether it was the ravages of time or the cruelty of circumstance, he could find no trace of the high-spirited girl from his youth.

“It is not what I think of you, but what you are,” he murmured. “I have a clan, and a wife with child, depending upon me. Yet I risked this terrible climb for the sake of our old friendship. Have you no kindness or warmth left?”

She took a threatening step towards him. “You speak of kindness?” she hissed. “You speak of prizing an old friendship? You have distanced yourself for your own political gain. The Phoenixes are hated by all the clans.”

“I offered you a place among my people,” he rumbled.

“Years ago. But now you are Chief of the Dragons. How could you be seen as a friend to me?”

Her mockery cut like a knife through his fury. Demarion felt a still, strange sadness grow inside him.

“You do not know me, Sela,” he said quietly, this time without resentment. “I must go.”

He strode to the edge of the cave, about to begin his rocky descent, when she called out after him.

“Since you did make this dreadful trek to see me, I should return a favor.” She paused. “For the sake of our old friendship.”

Demarion felt his gut coil painfully. “No.”

Sela appeared beside him, her dark eyes haunting. “I merely wish to warn you. A famine is fast approaching the Adamaris. The greenery will die, food will be scarce—you can imagine the rest.”

He looked hard at her. “Why should I believe you?”

“You know I have the gift of foresight. Now, would you like to know how to end the famine?”

Demarion made no reply.

“Make peace with the Sparrow clan. The land cries out from the battle and bloodshed, with Dragon fighting Sparrow for control of the Adamaris.” Sela met his gaze. “How could you not tire from this ceaseless strife, Demarion?”

He felt the wrath surge inside him again as realization set in. “Peace will end the famine? Do not take me for a fool, Sela. This is not foresight. This is a curse!”

“A curse? You flatter me, to think I have the power to curse an entire mountain.” Her voice rang insincere.

“I know you are no stranger to curses.”

“No, I am not,” she mused, a distant expression overtaking her.

Demarion gave her a dark glare as he turned to leave, but she reached out and grasped the collar of his cloak. Immediately, his hand seized his sword and partially unsheathed it, the sound of metal ringing clear into the morning air.

She glanced down at the weapon and shook her head. “You distrust me so.” He loosened his grip, narrowing his eyes at her. “I was not finished. Given this formal breaking of our friendship, I ought to leave you with a parting gift.” Her tone remained calm but sounded eerily hollow.

“Sela, do not do this,” he raised his voice.

Caught in a trance-like state, she ignored him. “I will give you a sign to mark the start of the famine. When it is about to commence, your child will prick herself on the thorns of a Rosa Rubiginosa—your favorite flower, I remember—and fall into a deathly state, drifting in dreams until her mortal flesh fails.”

“No! Sela, you cannot!” Demarion’s anger transformed into horror.

“Oh, but dear Demarion,” she said, “I already have.”

“Undo this black spell!”

“I’m afraid I’m unable to. Perhaps another Phoenix could help you, but it seems you’re hard-pressed to find them in the mountain these days.” Sela looked at him coldly, releasing her hold on his cloak. “Give my greetings to Ziva.”

She vanished into the shadow of her home and Demarion fell against the stony ground, white-faced and trembling.