Read the first three chapters of YA fantasy novella, The Witch and the Dragon.
“You’ve got an infestation.”
“I can see that,” Alannah replied, scowling at the man. The shop was covered in glittering gold dust; did he think it was there for the aesthetic? “How do I get rid of them?”
“Well, there’s traps. Not likely to get all of ‘em, though. Little buggers breed like rabbits.” Another swathe of pixie dust floated to the ground. The man scratched his nose and it turned blue. “I could try fumigation.”
“Sounds expensive.” She flicked a pixie off her ledger. It slammed into the wall opposite and thudded to the ground. “How much?”
“Three hundred,” he said, promptly. “Minimum.”
Her scowl deepened. He wasn’t an exterminator, he was a crook. “One fifty.”
“One seventy-five,” she says, “and I’ll throw in a batch of mermaid scales.”
“Done.” The man held his hand out and she shook it. “Course, it’ll take a few days to get my kit together.”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course it will. When you can get rid of them?”
“Two weeks? How am I supposed to stay in business for two weeks?”
A shrug. “I don’t stock pixie traps. I’ll have to ship ‘em from the city.”
She growled and the pixies danced circles over her head. “All right, fine. Just be here in two weeks.”
“Sure thing, miss.” He touched a finger to what she hoped was a non-existent hat, rather than an invisible one, and slipped out the front door.
Alannah flopped into her chair and dislodged a cloud of golden dust. Just perfect.
Grandmother’s ash and quartz stave hung in its place on the far wall, untouched by dust. She would never have let this happen. One twitch of that staff and the pixies would have fled, screeching. For a second, Alannah imagined what it would be like to give up the shop, let another witch take up her grandmother’s legacy.
Leaving her to do what, exactly? She’d never make it on her own. That was the one thing she and Grandmother agreed on.
A pixie landed on the wooden counter and twirled in a way that managed to come off both graceful and patronising. “Oh, shut up,” she muttered. “And don’t get comfortable. In two weeks, you’ll all be pinned to the wall by your wings.” Tiny cries of anger echoed through her shop. One of her vases toppled off the counter and crashed to the floor. “Oh, for goodness’ sake,” she muttered.
The door opened and the tiny golden bell beside her let out a high clear ring. “We’re closed,” Alannah called, without looking. She swept dust off her ledger and slammed it shut.
“Ah… I just wanted to know if you needed any help.”
“Hi, William.” The knight had combed his dark hair and held a bunch of bluebells tightly in one hand. “Thank you, but I don’t need any help.”
He cast a doubtful glance at her dust-layered shop. “There are a lot of… pixies, here.” The things danced around William excitedly, twinkling and shedding dust everywhere. He gave one a hesitant smile and it swooned.
“Honestly,” Alannah muttered.
“What happened?” he asked, ducking under the wreath of glowing pixies.
“The crate of yew bark I got last week was filled with pixie eggs.” She grabbed a broom from the corner and got to work on the broken vase. “Now I’m infested with the pests.”
“Oh.” He hesitated, his rich brown skin reddening under her gaze. “Are you sure you don’t want any help?”
“Quite sure.” He shifted his weight and she quirked an eyebrow. “Anything else?”
“Yes.” He thrust the wilting flowers at her. “Here. These are for you. I thought they’d go with your – your –” His gaze searched her face. “Your hair ribbon?”
She sighed. “That’s very sweet. But I’m allergic to those flowers.”
He deflated. “Oh.”
“Why don’t you give them to Clara?” she prompted. “I’m sure she’d love bluebells.” She and Clara were the only unmarried women below forty in the village. She should have realised William would have rested his heart on one of them – but why couldn’t it have been the mayor’s daughter?
“I suppose.” Alannah winced. Clara probably wouldn’t appreciate secondhand wildflowers. “Can I help you get rid of the pixies?” asked William, perking up. The creatures squeaked in response.
“Really, I’m –”
The peal of a bell interrupted her. William stiffened. “That’s the warning bell,” he said and darted out of her shop.
“Great,” muttered Alannah. “Now what?” But she followed William out into the street. At the end of the cobbled street sat the watchtower. From it came the angry peal of the bell. More villagers were pouring out of their shops and houses, peering up at the tower. “What’s going on?” she shouted.
“Is it an attack?” someone asked.
“The other kingdom! It must be attacking!”
Alannah cursed. Their ageing king had been on the verge of declaring war for the last year. But why now? Why her village? “Where are they?” She scanned the horizon for the shadow of cavalry.
William shaded his eyes with one hand. “I don’t see anything.”
A huge shadow passed over the street and Alannah swallowed. Fear froze her limbs.
The street erupted in chaos. Alannah was thrust to the edge of the road as people pushed and shoved her out of the way. Roaring through the air came a shriek, high and piercing with a growl that rumbled underneath. She slapped her hands over her ears, seeing others do the same.
Another high, ugly shriek.
“Get back!” shouted William. “Stay undercover!”
Despite herself, Alannah stepped out from the shelter of her shop and peered south. A dark, curling shape swooped across the clouds gracefully and then dropped down. It landed in a field just south of the village and spread its wings as though it had every right to be there.
Alannah elbowed her way to the mayor, who stood gazing at the fields as though all his nightmares had come to life. “What’s down there?” she asked him.
“Pete’s farm. All the sheep are out in those fields.”
Alannah eyed the dragon. “Not for much longer.”
“Now’s my chance.” William stood at her elbow, gazing at the dragon. But it wasn’t fear that lit his expression, it was eagerness.
“This is my test. Fellmere’s captain has to accept me if I bring them a dragon’s head.”
“Can you kill it?” asked the mayor hopefully.
“Wait, hold on,” Alannah interrupted. “That thing’s as big as four horses – probably bigger – and you have no idea what it’s capable of or what it wants. You’ll be eviscerated.”
He gave her a blank look.
“That dragon is threatening our village,” he said sternly.
She looked at it again. There were less little white dots than there had been a moment ago, but the dragon wasn’t getting any closer. “It’s not threatening us. It’s just eating our sheep.”
The mayor drew himself up. “That is a threat to our livelihood. The dragon must be destroyed.”
“Better lock up your daughter, then,” she said, with sympathy. “Dragons have a thing for princesses, and Clara’s the closest thing we’ve got.”
With a moan, the mayor turned on his heel and fled back to his house.
Alannah put her hands on her hips and stared across the village at the dark figure of the dragon. “Maybe it’s just passing through,” she suggested.
William was scowling, arms crossed over his chest. “I’ll chop off its head and mount it on my wall.”
“You couldn’t kill a deer if it was chasing you,” she said as an aside and he grumbled but didn’t argue. A dragon would mean fear, which would mean that her sales in protective charms would go through the roof. Alannah rolled up her sleeves. She turned on William, whose expression hadn’t eased. “Don’t do anything stupid,” she told him. “At least not until the Council tells you to.”
Alannah stared hard at the ledger, but the numbers didn’t change. Dragons weren’t as lucrative as she’d hoped: no one was buying Grandmother’s charms. And the thread wards she’d created sat where they had for the last three years; collecting pixie dust under the counter.
At this rate, she wouldn’t make it two weeks. The shop would fold long before that happened.
The shop bell rang. A client – finally. Alannah pushed herself to her feet and pasted on a smile.
The mayor walked through the door, hesitant and clutching a little blue box.
“Mayor McCannan.” She eyed the man. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Clara asked me to give these to you.” He set the box down and opened it. Nestled inside were six tiny cakes, frosted with sugar. “Something to do with… flowers? I hope you know what that means, because I have no idea what she’s talking about.”
Alannah huffed out a laugh. William. “Thank you.” She never could resist baked goods. The cake melted on her tongue, fluffy and flavoured with almond. “Delicious.”
The mayor smiled and wandered to the window. A pixie lounged on the sill, half-drunk and giggling. It flew away as the man approached. “It’s been three days,” he muttered, glaring out the window at the blackened fields, “and that creature hasn’t gone anywhere. What is it waiting for?”
“It must still be hungry.” She plucked a second cake and swallowed it in a few bites.
“What would your Grandmother have done?” the mayor asked, turning to lean against the sill.
Alannah paused. She should be used to it by now, the way people disregarded her as a witch, but it still hurt. “Fight it,” she admitted. Grandmother had a talent for fire storms and hurricanes. Even a dragon wouldn’t have survived that.
“What about other witches?” McCannan continued. “Is there anyone who could help?”
“Not that I know of.” They’d lost touch with the covens when Grandmother had moved out here, just after her mother died. A surge of dizziness made her vision swim and she blinked rapidly. “I’m not in contact with any other – any other witches.” The dizziness wasn’t going away.
Mayor McCannon exhaled. “I thought you’d say that.”
Her bell rang again, and two tall men slipped through the door. Alannah peered at them. Farmers. She knew them, but – why couldn’t she remember their names?
She stumbled and clutched at the counter. Her gaze fell on the little dusted cakes. “These aren’t from Clara,” she said, hoarsely.
“No,” the mayor confirmed. “Clara’s much too kind to do something like this. You understand, don’t you? I couldn’t let that beast take my own daughter.”
Alannah tried to speak, but her lips were numb. No, but the thought skittered away from her as her vision went dark.
She woke tied to a pole and surrounded by sheep. A dull ache throbbed behind her eyes. “Drugs,” she muttered. “I mean, seriously? They couldn’t have thought up something more original?”
The sheep ignored her, seemingly unaware of their upcoming doom.
She wriggled, wincing as the rope cut into her wrists. The post she was tied to had been driven into the ground in a hurry; it was listing a little to the side and the earth at its foot hadn’t been packed in properly – clearly these kidnappers were amateurs.
Alannah twisted to look behind her, but the village was hidden by the slope of the hill, once green and lush with grass, now brown and scorched. “They could have at least given me a sword,” she muttered.
And the dress. The dress. What kind of self-respecting princess wandered around in silk slippers and a white satin tent? Her shoulders were freezing.
The smell of wood smoke clung to the air, but it wasn’t as comforting as usual. “Where the hell is that knight?” she muttered. William was a poor excuse for a knight, but he was the only one they had. And he was late.
A piercing shriek cut through the sound of the wind and descended into a low, growling rumble which trembled through her chest. The sheep startled and huddled together. They were either too stupid to run or their instinct knew a dragon when it heard one.
Alannah swore and resumed her struggle. She twisted her hands, wriggling against the rope. Her wrists stung. Another high, piercing shriek. Closer. It was definitely coming closer.
Then the pole shifted. Holding her breath, she moved again in the same way. Again it moved.
“Thank the goddess.” She closed her hands around the pole and threw her weight to the side. The pole moved again, groaning as it pulled against the earth. The sheep had given up trying to find edible bracken amongst the charred earth and were watching her, wide-eyed. “Oh, come on.” She hurled her body in the other direction. With a groan, the pole upended and crashed to the earth. Alannah grunted as she hit the ground.
The rope was looped around the pole as well as her wrists. She crawled along the ground, sliding her bindings over the pole towards the tip, inch by inch. Finally, when her wrists were raw and her back was aching, the rope slipped off the end and she was free.
Exhaling, Alannah brushed off the ends of the rope and rubbed her aching wrists. She was going to use one of her Grandmother’s charms to turn that mayor into a toad.
Then a gust of hot, brimstone-infused air blew her ridiculous skirts in every direction. Alannah swallowed, turned around. There, on the slope of the hill, looking – amused, for there was no other way to describe it – stood the dragon.
Her limbs went cold. It was much, much bigger than it’d looked. Its four legs were tipped with wicked-looking talons and its wings were half-raised and twice the length of its body. It tilted its head, horse-like but for its crown of horns. Its scales weren’t black, like she’d thought, but a violet so dark it looked like jet.
One knight wouldn’t be enough against this thing. An army wouldn’t be enough against this thing. Her gaze flicked to the edge of the hill, which sloped down toward the village. I could make it if I run.
The dragon snorted as if it could hear her.
I’ll end up cremated if I run, she corrected. Perhaps cremation was better than a slow, disintegrating death within its digestive system.
Somewhere behind her a sheep bleated and the dragon twitched. It snapped forward and the sheep disappeared inside a wide, fanged maw.
Definitely better to go for cremation.
Alannah bolted towards the village. She got three steps before the ground vanished beneath her feet. Her head dropped forward, suddenly much heavier, and the earth – and the fluffy white sheep – shrank. Long, vicious claws gripped her torso, squeezing the breath out of her. Alannah closed her eyes tightly and concentrated on not being sick. Bad enough that she was going to get eaten; she could at least bare it without emptying the contents of her stomach all over the stupid white dress.
But long minutes passed and she remained alive. Gradually, the roar of the wind and the swooping sensation in her stomach became easier to bare. The claws didn’t loosen, but they didn’t tighten and crush her to death, either. Maybe this dragon liked his (fake) princesses in one piece.
She’d soon find out.
When she opened her eyes, the stars were winking into view and the moon was cresting the horizon. The terrain below was shadowed and unfamiliar. Dragon flight was ridiculously faster than any horse, and they’d been flying for hours. Were they even in the same kingdom anymore?
Flying, she thought in amazement. She was actually flying. If she wasn’t going to be eaten she might actually be enjoying it.
Then a note in their travel changed. The dragon’s wing beats slowed and the wind dropped; they were landing. The dark earth swooped up to meet her. Alannah pressed her eyes closed and braced for impact.
It didn’t come. The talons loosened and she dropped two feet to the ground in a sprawl of white satin. How undignified. “Thank you for that,” she muttered.
She scrambled to her feet and brushed herself off. Her ridiculous dress was stained black with mud and her dark hair was a tangled mess. She straightened her shoulders and turned to regard the dragon. It turned so it was looking at her side-on, its visible eye narrowed. There was a single, thin pupil in it, splitting the orb in two.
They lied to me.
She jumped. That voice had been inside her head. They stood on a low cliff which sloped into a dark cave, like an eyrie. It was deserted. Except for the dragon. She eyed it warily. “Was that – that wasn’t you,” she said, feeling foolish. “… Was it?”
The dragon snorted. Who else did you think it was? The voice was deep, gravelly. Male?
“No one told me dragons were telepathic,” she said.
They lied to me, it said again.
A dragon was speaking to her. Alannah shook her head and wondered if she’d live to tell anyone about it. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “Who lied?”
Your villagers, he – it – said. It was distressingly easy to think of the creature as a person. It lowered its head and inhaled. The satin of her skirt rustled. Its nostrils flared, easily as big as her hands. You’re not a princess.
“Hey, keep your nose to yourself.”
And unless I’m mistaken, you’re not a maid, either.
“That is none of your damn business,” she hissed.
Why did they think you would be a suitable sacrifice?
The dragon was watching her, and she got the impression again that it was amused. It was toying with her. Well, two could play at that game. Alannah shook out her voluminous skirts and straightened the floofy bits on her arms. “Well,” she said, “you didn’t exactly give us much option.” It didn’t matter how she felt about her village, no one else got to talk them down. “In case you hadn’t noticed, my village isn’t exactly rolling in princesses.”
Or maids, I take it?
“Are you going to eat me or what? If not, you can just take me home,” she added, quickly. “Or at least point me in the right direction.”
The village is days away by foot.
Alannah sighed. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”
The dragon reared back and spread its wings. A familiar shiver ran over her skin. She’d recognise that feeling anywhere: magic.
The dragon’s figure wavered, then shrank. Its scales paled and turned to smooth skin. Its wings and tail disappeared and its horns shrank to the size of a ram’s. Before her eyes, the dragon transformed into the figure of a young man.
Alannah gaped. “What – How did you do that?”
His thin lips curled in a smirk. “Magic,” he purred. “A transformation spell.”
His hair was lighter than his scales had been, but not by much. His face was drawn in strong, sharp lines, although his body had light muscle under pale skin. And – oh. She averted her eyes. Scales apparently didn’t convert to clothing. Something dark on his neck caught her eye. Thin runes scrawled down the side of his throat and over his shoulder. The same line of script was reflected on the other side of his torso. “You’re not very good at it, are you?” she asked, smirking.
The dragon blinked. “What?”
She nodded at the runes. “Only incompetent warlocks leave traces like that.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’re a witch.”
Alannah grinned. The dragon was absurdly good-looking in this form, but it was much easier not to fear him. He’d find it hard to cremate her without that fire breath. “I dabble,” she said, modestly.
“You’re the first witch anyone’s ever sent me.”
“Lucky me.” Alannah stepped up to the edge of the cliff. Paths wound down the stone like the tracks of snails. At the base of the plateau was a dark, thick forest, and beyond that she could make out the shadowed shapes of mountains against the stars. Nothing familiar. “Are we still in Thraena?”
“We’re about three days travel from your village. A matter of hours as the dragon flies.”
Brilliant. And she was going to get home, how? “Why exactly did you bring me here?”
He spread his hands. “Welcome to my home.”
She quirked an eyebrow. Apart from the thin, grassy plateau on which they stood, the inside of the cave was littered with broken rock and what looked like the bleached bones of many small animals. Nothing big enough to be human, thankfully, but the place was still filthy. “Nice. Really. I’m impressed.”
His expression twitched. “Sarcasm is the lowest form of humour.”
“And the highest form of wit.”
The dragon stared at her. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?” he asked, tilting those spiralled horns.
She eyed him, barefoot, naked and with the lines of a poorly cast spell written across his body. “Should I be?”
“Most humans are,” he added, with a quirk of his mouth. It could have been wry, but there was something about it that looked almost… sad.
He was still standing far too close to comfort. She stepped away from the cave wall, moving out so there was space at her back. “Exactly how many people have you brought back here?” she asked, suspiciously.
He grinned, just this side of sleazy. Her pulse jumped in response and she scowled. “Not nearly enough.”
“I thought most dragons were interested in gold,” she pointed out. “Or gems, or treasure or something.”
He shrugged. “My taste has always run towards more… entertaining pursuits,” he said, with a leer.
“And you can’t find that kind of entertainment among your own species?” she asked and wondered if any hybrids had been born to these princesses. That would be an awkward conversation for the future king.
“Humans are more interesting. Most kingdoms tend to give up their princess quite easily.”
“So that’s what you were doing in our village?” She snorted. “You could’ve pricked a better town. In case you hadn’t noticed, princesses are pretty rare in villages with one hundred people or less.”
“Actually, I was on my way to your capital. But I got hungry.” He ran his tongue over sharp, plentiful teeth, somehow managing to look both dangerous and devastatingly handsome at the same time. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was a dragon and she had actual principles about who she spent her nights with, she’d be sorely tempted to linger here. The fact that she was sorely tempted in spite of those two things was yet another reason why she should get out of here as quickly as possible. “Your villagers panicked. They promised me a princess if I agreed to leave, so I did.” He frowned, then. “Do you have any princesses?”
“No,” she replied, and moved again so that she was a little closer to the edge.
“But I assume that there are other young women in your village.”
“Of course there are.” She stopped slowly shifting towards the path and narrowed her eyes at him. “Why? You’re not planning on going back, are you? Because we may not have princesses, but we have knights. A whole army of them.” He raised one brow. “All right, one, but he’s the bravest, noblest knight in the entire kingdom.”
“Relax,” he said, amused. “I’m not going back to your village. I doubt they have many sheep left, anyway.”
She released a slow breath. If he wasn’t going back then she didn’t have much chance of getting a lift. She’d have to find her own way back.