There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. They dozed in the back of our minds, awoken by the sparks flying towards the starry sky over the campfire where stories brought them to life. Fairy tales of kidnapped maidens and heroic sons, and ancient legends told by the veiled nuns when they came down from the mountains. In the stories shared, they lived far away, in the periphery of our world, on top of the snowy peaks of the sharp mountains surrounding our village, in dens so high we would never dream of climbing. Down in the valley no one had ever seen one. They were mere fables, conjured up by the wandering minds of creative folk, and we comforted ourselves with the belief they weren’t real.
I never could have foreseen that one day, I would be plucking dragon scales from my brother’s face.
The first one was Lydia, the girl who had gone missing just before her wedding, though we did not recognise her as one of us back then, when she first appeared soaring above, throwing loops in the air. I remember that moment of stillness, how all the lively noises and chatter ceased and everyone turned their face towards the sky when her great shadow glided over the market stalls. We stared, mesmerised by the eerie beauty of scales upon scales shimmering in the golden rays of sunshine on her enormous body, as large as five horses, and her wings spread wide as the church’s hall. We watched in silence as the realisation set in, heavy and grim like our tombstones. A wicker basket fell, and for the first time, nobody ran to pick up and steal the apples that rolled away on the ground whilst the woman who dropped them covered her mouth, wide eyed, shaking.
My little brother had his eyes glued to the creature in awe, even when the panic broke out and people started to flee the market square.
‘Finn!’ I screamed, and grabbing his hand pulled him under the stand closest to us, crouching down to hide behind crates of pears, afraid that we would be trampled by the crowd if we tried to run away.
Four stalls shattered like stick houses under the dragon's weight when she landed and the ground rumbled from the impact. The wooden crates hiding us shook with the beast’s every step, digging splinters into my hands as I held them in place. My whole body was shaking like the ground as she walked towards our stall, her long tail dragging behind and knocking over tables, sending produce flying as it swept side to side.
Finn reached out to grab a peach, unable to resist his favourite fruit when one rolled close enough. My palm itched to smack him, but I did not even dare to pull him back behind the crates as the dragon reached us. Looking around, she stuck her head right under our stall and we were hidden no more. I held my breath as she breathed her steam into Finn’s face, blowing his messy hair and revealing teeth as large as his arm, her claws blades of scythes. Her glowing amber eyes regarded us, revealing the fire behind her gaze, the burning embers within. Finn clenched his jaw as the dragon dipped her enormous head and, gently, took the peach from his hand. I broke down in tears, pulling him into a tight hug as she walked away from us.
The first one to throw a stone was Oskar, one of the older boys who started frequenting our house ever since our parents had left the town to work on a dairy farm, leaving me behind to look after the house and my brother. I was warned about boys like him, suddenly intrigued as I started to take on the shape of a woman: he followed me around like a hound that caught the smell of prey. If I ever found him attractive, that thought was gone with the stone that hit the dragon. Finn grabbed my skirt, his eyes brimming with tears.
Later I wondered, if the dragon had promptly swallowed Oskar, would others have dared to follow his example as they did in the coming days, bringing their chains and pitchforks, throwing rocks as he did? Would they have put a stone in my hand, when the dragon was running my way, unable to fly with her wings ripped and broken from the stoning? Would I have thrown it, then?
My face flushed and my heart pounded in pain as she locked eyes with me, her fire burning into my soul after my clumsy throw hit her foot. She walked past me, and the town chased after her whilst I stood, hot with shame. I was glad Finn was home at the time, and didn’t see me stoop as low as I did, which I would forever keep as a dark secret.
I’ve not raised a hand at the dragon again, but my withdrawal did not make a difference: the men were not satisfied with her simply escaping the town, injured and broken by their hatred.
The only dragon we’d ever seen lay dead.
The man who dealt the fatal blow wore her tooth like a badge of honour and the town celebrated, naming him a hero. I stayed in the house with Finn, suffocating in sin, too sticky to wash off in the river.
That dragon never fought back.
‘Why did the dragon have to die?’ Finn asked quietly when I went to blow out the candle by his bedside, his large eyes shiny with tears, the same way they were after our mother snapped the neck of one of our turkeys in front of him. He was always so sensitive, more than most boys his age, and for sure more than I ever was. He never wanted to kill a spider in the house, and he cried for the animals destined for the dinner table just as much as for the fox my father killed for taking them first. Instead of accepting our way of life, he questioned the righteousness of our everyday deeds. It was only natural he grieved for the dead dragon.
‘I don’t know,’ I lied, trying not to show that guilt had me in a chokehold. I should have tried to stop them, but I didn't.
Embedded in the scales of the beast's neck, we found a necklace. It was Lydia’s, the one she had always worn since she was a little girl. People started to whisper, then shout about how the savage beast ate the girl, but I caught horrified glimpses from some who stayed quiet, before they looked away and never talked about the dragon anymore: it was much like her, running away to avoid a fight.
Our worst suspicions were soon confirmed, when others started to change.
It started with a feverish temperature and scales appearing on the skin, and with the first ones, it took us until they started to grow their tails and wings, before we realised what was happening. Dragon fever; spreading like a strange, new disease we didn’t know the cure for. That’s when we really knew, although we’d never said it aloud: it wasn’t the dragon who killed Lydia. I too, had my hands stained with innocent blood.
We tried to heal them first: tweezing the ever-regrowing scales from their skin could be done by anybody, all they needed was a pincer and the ability to stomach the sight of blood, as they tore them from the skin. For more invasive procedures, they were taken to the doctor and the headsman who would saw off their tails and wings. We pretended not to hear the blood curdling screams of pain coming from the treatment barn during the surgeries, a sound that turned my stomach and made me break out in cold sweat. Many of those patients never recovered; the lucky ones passed quickly, but the less fortunate, after weeks of crippling agony. No person turning into a dragon ever wanted to set foot in that barn, but they didn’t get a choice; there were not supposed to be dragons in the valley.
One day, a girl, who could not endure the excruciating torture of the failing treatment as her wings were ripped out, screamed fire. The whole barn went up in flames, with the doctor and the wine merchant’s son, delivering bottles of wine to ease their pain, trapped inside the building. The lords and merchants who ran the town showed no mercy to them after: all dragons were uncontrollable monsters, they ruled, bringing nothing but destruction and death. They were, without exceptions, to be killed — it mattered not if somebody had only a few scales or was fully turned. The hunt began.
The jug I held shattered on the floor, when I saw scales on Finn’s shoulders.
Startled, he jumped and spun to face me, his face drained white. He quickly pulled on his shirt and ran into his room before I could’ve said anything. He knew already.
Finn locked himself up in his room for the rest of the evening, whilst I was left sobbing in the kitchen. He was twelve years old then, and we have already had three years of the headsman executing dragons, whilst others preached, calling them the devil.
‘When did it start?’ I asked him when he poked his head out of his room in the morning. He didn’t look at me.
‘I don’t know,’ he muttered, coming to the kitchen to drink some milk. I put my hands on my hips in disapproval.
‘How do you not know?’
‘Does it matter? Let me have breakfast in peace.’
I took a deep breath and did just that, waiting until he was finished with his milk and bread.
‘Can we talk?’ I inclined my head.
‘Not now. Caspar is waiting for me.’ He stood, ready to run off and play with his best friend.
‘Sure.’ I bit my lip. ‘Please be careful.’
Sometimes, I really wished our parents had returned.
Soon, he started to grow scales on his cheek, underneath his left eye. I plucked them, carefully placing the small, shiny shields into a small pouch to hide the damning evidence until its disposal. I’d tried to burn them before, but of course you cannot burn a dragon. The best I could do was throw them in the river. I squeezed the cloth I had in a bowl of hot water and wiped the blood seeping from where I pulled out the scales. Finn grimaced.
‘They will grow back again,’ he said in a mild protest. ‘Do we really have to do this?’ He picked up one of the scales and looked at it, shining in the colours of the rainbow as it scattered the candlelight.
‘Can I keep this one..?’ he asked quietly. I shook my head, and when I held the pouch in front of him, he obediently put his scale inside with a disheartened frown.
Sometimes I caught him looking at the scales on his shoulder, stroking them lightly with the tip of his fingers.
He liked them, it struck me.
As time went on, he became more irritable, more fed up with the plucking, more protective of his body.
‘No!’ He shouted, as we circled the kitchen table in a game of cat and mouse.
‘You know that we must!’
‘Can’t I just cover my face?! It hurts when you rip them out!’
‘And how are we going to explain that?!’
‘I don’t know! Think of something!’
‘Finn, don’t be like this–’
‘I am like this!’ He locked eyes with me. ‘I am a dragon, I can’t not be.’
‘No! You weren’t born a dragon. This isn’t you, and this won’t be you–’
‘You don’t know that!'
‘This only happened because Lydia blew her steam in your face!’ I snapped, shocked by the hysterical tone of my own voice. Finn raised an eyebrow.
‘So why did Lydia come to be a dragon? And everyone else?’ he asked, calm in the knowledge I didn’t have the answer. ‘Maybe, the fire within her was there from the very start. Maybe, just maybe, consider that I know how that feels. You have no idea what it takes to hold back–’
‘Are you telling me you are a monster now? That you have never been my brother?’
The corners of his lips turned down, and I wished I could swallow the words back down to unsay them. He turned his back on me and went to his room, slamming the door behind.
My knocking was left unanswered for the whole day, and in my desperation I went to look for another solution, which I found — for a cost. But for my brother’s life, my freedom was not too high a price to pay.
‘Finn?’ I knocked on his door again. ‘I found an excuse to have your face covered. I don’t think you will like it, but…’
‘What is it?’ He opened the door a crack.
‘The headsman needs an apprentice.’ I lifted the sack with small eye holes in my hand.
‘No.’ He went to slam the door but I put my foot in the gap.
‘You won't have to do anything. He agreed. All you need to do is to sharpen his blades, and you can wear this…’
‘...He agreed. Why?’
I shifted uncomfortably. The truth was, he was a desperate bachelor.
‘It doesn't matter, why. Will you do it?’
After a long pause, he took the sack from my hands.
‘Don’t do anything, please. I need to think,’ he said, but I knew the only thing he was going to think about was how to refuse my proposal.
When I went to draw water from the well, I passed the veiled nuns going to the chapel, for the last time before they would return to the mountains for months again.
Veiled. Nuns. Leaving town.
The water spilled as I dropped my buckets and hurried after them.
‘Finn, I found a solution!’ I shouted as I threw the door open and chucked a handful of clothes at him. ‘We are joining the nunnery.’
‘What?!’ His face flushed bright red as he looked at the skirt in his hands. ‘I can't!’
‘You can. I told them I wanted to join, with my sister, Fiona. No one will know.’
‘Fiona!’ I grinned. Finn slammed his hands on the kitchen table in defiance, but I had enough of his excuses.
‘It’s either this, or that.’ I pointed at the executioner's creepy sack in the corner. He shuddered, and considered for a moment, torn between two choices he didn’t like.
‘You seriously want me to wear girls’ clothes?’ He stared at me in disbelief. Somebody bursted out in laughter in his room. I knew that laugh.
‘Caspar?!’ The thin boy emerged from my brother’s room with a sheepish smile. ‘Finn, for all that’s holy, have you gone mad? How could you let anyone see you like this? Dress, we’re leaving! Now.’
‘I’m going to change. Get ready.’ I strode to my room, and for a moment, leaned against the wall to calm myself. Caspar’s father hated dragons like no one else, and had caught and handed in many for treatments at the beginning, and for execution later. We had to leave. Taking a deep breath, I started to change my clothes.
I was ready, folding my nightgown to take when I heard a knock on my door.
‘Caspar is coming too,’ Finn stated, holding the boy’s hand.
‘It’s girls only.’ I folded my arms, and he flashed me an angered stare in his little nuns’ dress.
‘Cas… Cassandra is coming too.’
Caspar blushed and tried to pull his hand from my brother’s, but Finn was stronger than him. He gave up and stared at the floor to avoid looking at me. I shook my head, not keen on the idea of kidnapping somebody else’s child, not even the one I wanted to silence.
‘Look.’ Finn pulled Caspar’s hand in front of me.
‘What am I looking at?’ I squinted.
‘This…’ he touched a place between Caspar’s fingers. ‘Can you see it?’
‘Caspar is changing too.’
He didn’t need to tell me, his father would kill him himself if he noticed a single scale: he had already disowned and taken his own sister to the headsman.
‘Where is your dad?’ I asked carefully. ‘Will he notice if you go missing?’
‘Not until tomorrow night. He is away on a hunt,’ he said in a small voice, glancing up at me with pleading blue eyes.
I sighed.‘Cassandra, then.’
We joined the nuns under the cover of the night, Finn and I in the veiled uniforms I got from them, Caspar in one of my old linen dresses, until he would get his own at the nunnery up in the mountains. Setting off at the wake of dawn through the woods, we walked in silence. The grass crunched underneath our feet before the first rays of sun stroked softness in the ground through the gaps between the oak trees' crowns, melting the frost and erasing our footprints. As the day brightened and warmed, the boys started messing around and giggling; their voice full of excitement from the thrill of our adventure. They joked the whole way, either running around and getting told off by the old nuns for acting “improper”, or walking arm in arm, whispering to each other and laughing.
The sunshine touched my heart too, and I found myself smiling under my veil.
We shouldn’t have stopped, when we discovered the trap with the tawny cottontail rabbit caught in it, the wire tight around its tiny foot. Finn gasped at the sight of the small creature lying in the grass.
‘Is it too late to..?’ His quavering voice carried no trace of the laughter and mischief from before as he turned to me.
‘Is it still breathing..?’ I asked carefully.
‘I’ll check!’ Caspar squeezed Finn’s arm and went to squat down by the trap. ‘It’s alive! If we cut the wire–” He jumped up, bumping into the hunter stepping out from behind the bushes.
‘I’m sorry!’ The apology slipped into the air before he looked up into the man’s face and recoiled with a hitched breath.
I never realised how fragile it was, our hope to escape. How it slipped my mind that we could find the hunters from the village among the trees, I couldn’t fathom, but I didn’t stop to think about the fact we could run into anyone. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was anyone else.
Upon recognising his frightened son, Caspar’s father, Dirk, dropped the dead deer he carried onto the ground. I should have covered his face. ‘You..!’ He rolled up his sleeves, his face turning an ugly shade of red. ‘What do you think you are doing here, trying to rob my trap looking like that? Do I need to remind you again, where your place is?’
Finn ran and stood between them.
‘Don’t touch him!’
‘Her!’ I corrected him, scared of our cover being blown.
‘Out of the way, kid.’ He shoved Finn aside with one swing of his arm.
‘Finn!’ Caspar jumped after him as he fell onto the ground, and I mouthed “Fiona”, but it was too late already. The nuns distanced themselves from us.
‘Finn? What are you two doing, playing dress up?’ Dirk towered over them. Caspar paled.
‘We just… We were… We wanted to stalk the nuns,’ he stammered, trying to come up with something they could get away with, whilst helping Finn up.
‘You think I’m stupid?’ He asked with a threat to his voice that made Caspar shrink.
Finn raised his head.
We were all startled by his measured voice.
‘I think you are a moron,’ he said.
My pulse jumped. That idiot..! It was not the time to be bold.
‘A moron?’ Dirk moved towards him. ‘Let’s see what your chances are against one!’
Biting my tongue, I searched for a weapon. I needed something, anything, if I wanted to stand a chance against Caspar’s father and save the boys from a beating. Unlike them, I had the advantage of not being recognised. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw Dirk grab Finn’s throat and slam him into a tree. I grabbed a stone in haste but by the time I turned to face them, Finn’s veil was off and his scales revealed. My heart sank and I had to steady myself with a tree, not to faint.
‘What have we got here..? You thought you could hide, you rotten lizard? Too bad–’
‘Silence! I knew something was fishy. I’ll deal with you once I’m done with this freak.’
‘No! Let go!’ Finn struggled, his nails digging into Dirk’s arm under his chin.
‘It’s time to say your last words.’
‘Wanna burn?’ Finn forced a grin. The last thing he did before the hunting knife stabbed through his abdomen. I froze in my place as he was thrown onto the ground. Caspar screamed, falling onto his knees by Finn’s side and pressing his hands over the wound. Scarlet pooled around his fingers, a life not ready to drain. Caspar’s voice echoed in my ears with Finn’s name over and over, as I gripped the stone in my hand.
Finn lay still, and for the first time I wished I never encouraged him to tame that fire that burned within.
Aiming the stone, with a human and two dragons in front of me, at last I knew which one was the monster.