Whispers… Soft and cold, like the night winds. The voices had always been there, just like the sky and trees, the rains that came every spring, and even the earth itself. They did not bother me, no; they were merely a ghost of a presence, an entity, an invisible companion, if you will, that only I could hear.
And, then, they were warning me.
“Turn back…” This did not deter me; for what had I to fear? I had done far more dangerous things than stealing from a villager’s home before. I didn’t like stealing, of course, had never liked it, but none could deny that I was rather good at it, and what choice did I have? My insides felt as if they twisted themselves with hunger; no food, let alone the meat I could smell cooking, had come to me in days. A broken bowstring and empty quiver would do me little favors, nor the late autumnal woods and their fallen, rotted fruits. Perhaps I would be lucky. Perhaps no one would be home, or perhaps someone would be kind enough to spare a bit of bread for a starving runaway.
My dark eyes fell upon the little cluster of homes at the outskirts of a small village, all of their curtains drawn and coils of smoke rising into the starless night. Blinking through the light flurry of snow, I spotted my target: a house a little smaller than the others, a fresh trail of footprints leading outside and its windows dark.
Before I ran out into the open, I glanced around, pulling up the hood of my cloak to hide face; no one was watching. Even if anyone had been on the streets, they would have a difficult time spotting me, let alone identifying me; my dark clothes, though worn, would provide good cover in the shadows...
My strides were swift, few and silent, masked in the footprints of another’s steps as I sprinted out of the woods I called home; carefully waiting until a guard’s shadow had edged out of sight, I slipped in through a window, replacing the catch as I landed lightly on the scrubbed wooden floor.
The house itself was nothing special. Simple, two levels connected by a short staircase; a kitchen downstairs and sleeping loft above. Dying coals rested in the fireplace among ashes, casting a dim orange glow about the room.
I immediately spotted food on the mantlepiece: a loaf of bread, some strips of dried meat, a wedge of cheese, all stuffed into my empty quiver for lack of a better place. Ten arrows lay on the table; I grabbed them as well. Though I was unable to shoot, they could work as knives in a pinch.
I froze suddenly at the sound of the door creaking open. I caught a quick glance of a young man’s face, half hidden behind the door, his expression changing immediately from confusion to rage as he saw me. I had no hesitation as he lunged; I crashed through the window and bolted, my gaze fixed on the treeline. To me, it meant safety. Protection. Home.
Luckily, no one ensued chase. I was used to running, but I felt nauseous after the shortest distance. My body guided itself, finding a small cave to seek shelter in. Breathing heavily, I collapsed into a bed of stone and fallen leaves.
That time had been too close. If that man had caught me, I would’ve been taken to one of the town ‘homes’... I couldn’t even bear the thought. I had seen those children some even younger than I, with their gaunt faces and dead eyes, marks from angry fists on their pale skin. I would not let such a fate await me.
Casting the thoughts aside, I reached into my quiver and tore off a large chunk of bread. It was still soft, unlike most of the breads I managed to steal. A nice comfort, though small.
As I closed my eyes, the world revealed itself once more through the blackness, monotonous greys and whites blooming into vibrant hues. To me, the midnight winds blazed silver, like ribbons of water in moonlight, the rocks shone a faint, warm amber, even the shadows glowed with dark purple hue. The energies were beautiful; how I wished I could live in their world rather than my own. No ambiguity or shades of grey; only what was, and was not. As simple as the realms of Life and Death.
My mind began to wander, as it always did, back into the past…back to Mother and Vito, back to that old house perched on the sea cliff, away from the villages. I remembered the little things; the faint scent of ink on my mother’s gentle hands, the way Vito would always gaze out of the window, his nimble fingers tapping on the glass...
And that last night, always. With the thunder and the lightning and the screams, the knife across my throat. Automatically, it seemed, I touched the crescent scar that marked where the blade had lay.
“Don’t be foolish,” the voices chided. “For the past cannot be changed; brooding will do nothing but incite hunger for revenge.” Indeed, it did me nothing to dwell on those memories so few and far between, whether good or bad. Those times were long gone; I could not afford to look back as much as I did.
I took another bite of bread, mainly to give my mind something else to focus on. The voices were the only ones that spoke to me to warn of such dangers; they guided, taught, and kept me sane. The least I could do in return was listen.
So I decided to dwell on the future instead. Infinite questions drifted through my head, like leaves in the wind. what will happen tomorrow? Will it snow again? What if something steals my food, then what? What if I get caught and taken back to the village? The winds whispered to me again, their cold, intangible caress as comforting as my mother’s was. Their voices drew me down, down, as I closed my eyes; I relaxed for the first time in days. As the last wisp of energy dimmed from behind my eyelids, I drifted off to sleep.
I woke a little after dawn, like I usually did. A bird piped its song as the winds whistled in reply; in spite of myself, I smiled, beyond the terror and panic I had so keenly felt the previous night.
I took a small bite of cheese, curbing the growing hunger in my stomach, then stood up. As I did, I skimmed all the knowledge in my mind; my memories, what writings I knew, the words Mother had taught to me. The winds whispered to me, too, granting new things to learn. I kept my mind sharp.
Ducking outside the mouth of the cave, I looked up to the sky; the morning sun, a pale shimmering circle, had just risen. Its rays glittered on the snow and frost; the smoky clouds were tinged a faint red.
Something made me jump a little: a dragon’s roar, but far, far in the distance. The beasts had never harmed me, no, but anyone would be startled if the sun was suddenly blotted out by those wings, huge, leathery wings that could bring night even on the hottest summer day. Dragons were everywhere in Atenia’s woods. I knew most people feared them, feared their vicious claws and teeth, but I found them interesting, if not beautiful. I loved how their eyes shone with an ancient, powerful gaze, how their wings ruffled and shimmered in the breeze, how their jewel bright scales always seemed to glow faintly in the moonlight.
I looked down as something nudged the toe of my worn leather boot: a dragon hatchling, probably the child of the beast I had just heard. It was tiny, just big enough to fit in my lap, and it did so as I sat down. I rested my hand lightly on its crimson scaled back; it sneezed and flames curled from its snout.
“A Fire Dragon,” the voice whispered to me. “Strange, since you usually find the Wind dragons… or they find you.” I nodded to the invisible presence. The silver scaled Wind beasts were the ones I usually saw. I quickly ran through the eight elements that the dragons embodied: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, Energy, Ice, Light, and Shadow. Eight elements that kept the land of Atenia in balance.
The snow hissed and melted as the mother beast landed in front of me. Like most, she seemed more curious than hostile, perched on her two back legs with her head tilted to one side. We met gazes, black eyes to orange; she pointed at the hatchling in my lap with the tip of her snout, and I set him carefully at her feet. He lept into the air, beating his golden wings wildly and flying in a small, clumsy circle before dropping onto his mother’s back.
I couldn’t help but laugh quietly to myself, raise a hand in farewell as she took off and vanished into the morning sky. No matter what the circumstance, the dragons always made me smile.
Their Masters made me smile less so: people that had managed to Bond with a dragon and share a bit of their elemental power and energy. The first time I had seen Dragonmasters was almost a year ago, the first time I had resorted to stealing for food. I was sneaking quietly away, two small loaves of bread tucked under my shirt, when the first sounds reached me. The roars and the shouts, both animalistic and full of malice. Then, that first blast of flame that descended like a great hand, its many fingers touching the rooftops and setting them ablaze. The dragons themselves rained from the sky like arrows, leaving just as much death and destruction in their wake. The Dragonmasters seemed to kill without thought, as if it were as natural as breathing for them. Horrified though I was then, it struck me as beautiful...if in a sick, sadistic way.
One even found me. He was probably five years older than me, lithe and strong. He saw how scared I was; he grabbed my hand and took me to the edge of the woods. I still remembered his few words to me.
“Here… take these… and I want you to run, get as far away as possible from here. You, of all people, shouldn’t be hurt by us.” The boy undid his cloak and fastened it around my shoulders, pressed a slim silver knife into my hand. I had Vito’s bow then, but I was not skilled, strong, or brave enough to use it. With a blade, at least, I had a slim layer of defence.
“Now go!” He gave me a gentle push towards the trees, then turned back to his companions and was lost in the chaos.
Despite his kindness, and how I owed him my life, I had no love for Dragonmasters. Enough death and destruction had plagued me without accounting for them, and I knew, even then, that more was sure to follow.