There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.
That would be absurd. The Valley was full of knights.
Everyone knows dragons detest knights — something to do with their habit of barging into lairs, brandishing swords, and bellowing things like, “You vile creature!” or, “Horrid beast, meet my blade!”
Not the most endearing behavior.
Dragons avoid knights in much the same way a person avoids sleeping beside a pond full of mosquitos. And, since avoiding knights meant avoiding the Valley, no one thought much about dragons.
The land divided the kingdoms of Eversworn and Meed. These realms co-hosted six annual tournaments, packing the off-season with training camps and qualifying competitions.
It was a centuries-long tradition started after Queen Euphemia of Eversworn and Queen Ermengarde of Meed — fed up with their kingdoms warring over perceived slights — devised the events as an outlet for their subjects’ bloodthirst.
(The Queens’ understandable breaking point came when war broke out over the Prince of Meed and the Prince of Eversworn choosing the same wedding date, which ended only because the brides ran off together and everyone felt too embarrassed to continue.)
Whatever the reasons for the Valley’s famed tournament culture, it meant knights remained ubiquitous in all seasons. No one had seen a dragon for hundreds of years. Which meant there should be no dragons in the Valley now, slinking around, complicating Melody Turner’s life.
Dragons have their interests. Things like caves, princesses, treasure, intricate spells, unbreakable curses, tangled riddles, and — as Mel recently discovered — they delight in making government employees’ lives worse.
The land was not without its attractions. But none of these should offset the land’s knight-surplus (even one belligerent mosquito can ruin an evening).
The Valley didn’t even have a princess capable of attracting dragons.
Eversworn’s royal family had no daughters, just nine sons — all training for knighthood.
And the Princess of Meed didn’t count.
Princesses were supposed to look pretty and put others at ease with kind words and soft manners. Princess Bluebell made people uncomfortable on purpose and dressed like a squire.
Dragon preferences were not the point, though.
The point was, there were dragons in the Valley now, and rumors roiled through the markets and pubs, all the way up to the King of Eversworn’s council room.
The point was that Melody Turner — the King’s Voice — had a dragon problem.
The next round of tournament trials started soon.
King Claude was convinced that all the dragon talk threatened the tournaments’ success. That fear of dragon-fire, curses (and whatever else dragons did) would result in empty seats, unrented stalls, canceled events, damage to his reputation, and to the royal coffers.
All week, the King blustered about not letting a few senseless dragons sabotage the Valley’s long standing traditions.
He wanted a royal statement in the papers. Immediately.
As always, immediacy proved difficult.
By the week’s end, King Claude, Mel, and the King’s council remained unable to agree on what to tell the public.
Naturally, this was all considered Mel’s fault.
So, that evening, Mel found herself moored in her study, hunting for a way to wrest control of the dragon narrative from the formidable local gossips.
The day’s last light fell behind the hills, and darkness obscured the words on the page, giving Mel an excuse to stop writing.
Good. She would rather not see what she had written. Ever again.
At this point Mel had no idea how many drafts she had been through.
The current embarrassment extolled the environmental benefits of dragons culling the Valley’s bothersome deer population.
Mel didn’t know whether or not dragons ate deer, but she doubted anyone else knew enough on the topic to correct her.
She also doubted anyone would read past the first sentence.
The work was useless.
Mel tore up the page.
She got up, lighting candles around the room.
It was getting dark, and Mel needed the light. More than that, she needed a reason to get away from her desk.
Because Mel had clearly forgotten how to write. It had also been a very long time since she last rearranged the study. She ought to do something about that.
Mel went around the room lighting candle after candle until they chased the dark into the corner, confronting her with the chaos overwhelming the study.
Crumpled parchment dominated the floor. Her body tensed, taunted by the sight.
Struggling like this was unlike her.
It didn’t help that the King blamed Mel for the entire situation.
All week he had been saying things like, “You have allowed it to get this far out of hand. If the tournament trials fail — if the tournament fails — it is on your shoulders.”
Of course it was.
The fate of the kingdom was always, somehow, on Mel’s shoulders. She groaned, cursing her profession and employer. If her role was so important, the King might consider paying her enough to live on her own instead of sharing a cottage with her sister.
She could have done anything else — working with dragons, perhaps.
Mel imagined dragons were nicer than the King. More appreciative. Maybe a member of the Valley’s new dragon population would kidnap her. She could start a new life in a cave. Dragons had lots of treasure, didn’t they? They probably paid better.
A sudden pounding at the door startled Mel out of her downward spiral.
“Mel…is everything okay in there?”
She went to the door. Scowled. “Yes! Go away, Seraphine!”
“Are you sure? I heard…groaning? Lots of sighs? Are you ill? Oh, oh! Do you have a guest?”
“You know I hate when you yell through the door.”
“Well, unlock it, then!”
“You do have a guest!” Seraphine actually giggled. “I was never here!”
All hells and every god. If it was possible to hear someone wink, Mel just had.
She put her ear to the door and listened to her sister’s footsteps recede.
Unwilling to go back to the desk for fear of coming up with something even less compelling than deer population levels, Mel gathered her errant ideas from the ground, pelting the balled up pieces of parchment into a basket.
The King should appreciate that anyone would be out of their depth.
Mel’s role usually involved normal things like hiding affairs, destroying reputations, or downplaying minor corruption.
Nothing had prepared her for forestalling public panic over a mysterious dragon incursion.
She would challenge anybody to do a better job.
Mel grabbed the basket and dumped the paper into the fireplace.
One piece rolled out. Settled at her foot.
Mel took it, reached over and fed it to the closest candle until a flame caught, moving fast to drop the burning paper into the fireplace alongside her other false starts.
Watching the flames devour hours of fruitless effort, Mel at last felt the tension and doubt leaving her body. She exhaled. Maybe she had just needed a break. She should try burning things more often.
She resolved to finish the piece.
Mel went back to her desk, took out a pen, and slid a piece of clean parchment from the drawer. She began writing, and the words flowed like she had never been stuck.
Have you ever seen a dragon? Most likely, you haven’t. Dragons are rare; the average person has never seen one, nor do they know anyone who has.
Mel couldn’t believe it had taken her so long to think of this approach. Everyone thinks they are the average person. The phrase was quite useful for telling people what to think. Mel tapped out a rhythm with her pen, considering her next point.
Most reasonable people do not factor dragons into their decision-making. There is no need. Our Valley attracts champion knights and enthusiastic audiences from kingdoms near and far. Everyone knows that knights strike fear into the hearts of dragons.
The last bit was a slight exaggeration, but “Dragons see knights as annoying pests” did not strike the right tone.
We have little to entice t —
No. She crossed out the line without bothering to finish; it made the Valley sound lacking. A line like that could get her statement stuck in the royal approval process for days. What she needed was some sword-rattling.
What dragon would dare come here and risk facing an Eversworn knight?
She paused and thought for a moment. Perhaps a touch of redirection here. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.
You may wonder why there are so many stories of dragon appearances. While the palace works to discover the source, we cannot rule out the possibility that this is an enemy tactic designed to sabotage our renowned tournaments.
What is more likely?
That dragons have appeared in a valley filled with that which they most fear?
Or is it more probable that these stories are baseless rumors, spread by jealous rivals?
One thing is certain: The people of Eversworn will not allow rumors and fear to dictate our lives.
Mel couldn’t help it. She almost cackled, muffling the sound to avoid further interest from Seraphine.
She read through the draft. The statement was almost finished. She just needed some way to discredit anyone who had already seen a dragon — or several. Mel scrawled out a health advisory to be attached as a postscript:
With unsubstantiated rumors circulating through the Valley, those prone to stress and anxiety are more likely to allow their minds to play tricks on them. Remember that dragons are extremely rare. We recommend anyone who believes they have seen a dragon visit their healer for a mind assessment.
She grinned. That should make a person think twice before mentioning a dragon sighting on their next pub night.
Maybe she did not have to rethink her entire career.
Mel picked up the page, gave the words a last look, then copied the statement onto a new bit of parchment and set it aside to dry.
Ready to be anywhere other than in the study for the foreseeable future, Mel got up, doused all of the candles, leaving the fireplace smoldering, and wandered down to the kitchen to reward herself with a drink.
Mel leaned back in her chair at the kitchen table, reading a letter and enjoying a well-deserved pint of chocolate stout. Her feet rested on the seat across the table.
Her revelry didn’t last long.
With a long-suffering sigh, Mel folded the letter, tucked it into a discreet pocket, and waited for the stampede she heard thundering down the stairs to descend upon her.
Seconds later, Seraphine tore into the kitchen, fingers gripping a piece of parchment.
She landed in the seat across from Mel, knocking Mel’s feet from the chair without apology.
“Explain this, Melody.” Seraphine slid the parchment across the table.
Candles cast shadows on the page. Mel couldn’t see the words, but she knew what it would be.
Mel righted herself and stared at her sister, unblinking. She drew a long sip before obliging and moving the paper into brighter light. It was her statement. The page looked clean, free of runs and ink smudges, still in palace-worthy condition — which was lucky for Seraphine.
She set the parchment down and looked back at Seraphine, whose scowling face seemed particularly unsettling in the shadows. Mel certainly wasn’t going to talk to her while she looked so vampiric.
Mel picked up a lit candle and shared its flame with a few others around the table.
The light washed away the disturbing shadows, but left Mel with an even worse visual. “Seraphine. You’re wearing my shirt.”
Seraphine glanced down, like she didn’t remember what she had put on that day.
“Yes,” she said, “Don’t change the subject. We’re not talking about your wardrobe. If we were (we aren’t) I would point out that you have not worn this tunic in six years, four months, and nine days.”
Nine days? Mel would love to hear more about Seraphine’s deranged precision on the matter. Why stop at days? How many hours was it? Mel opened her mouth to launch into an interrogation, but Seraphine cut her off before she could speak.
“No,” said Seraphine, raising a hand. “Say nothing.”
Mel said nothing and sipped her drink, maintaining her silence until Seraphine sighed and clarified her demand: “Say nothing unless it is about your statement.”
“You’ve never taken an interest in my work before. I don’t think I’ll answer. This isn’t a habit I want to encourage.” Mel looked at the clock behind Seraphine. “Why are you even down here? Shouldn’t you be skulking around your laboratory turning frogs into rocks right now, or whatever it is that you do?”
“That’s the part you take issue with?” Mel’s eyebrows rose. “I was just joking, but are you actually turning frogs into rocks up there? Should I be concerned for the local frog population?”
First deer, now frogs. Later, Mel would have to examine her sudden interest in the local fauna.
“Melody,” Seraphine slammed both hands on the table, undeterred. “No. Enough about frogs. I want to talk about how you are putting out a statement implying there are no dragons in the Valley. I thought you were above propaganda like this.”
Mel sighed. Mocking Seraphine’s profession usually redirected her. Not tonight. Tonight, her sister was combustible and would not be diverted. She would have to try a more direct approach.
“Propaganda,” Mel said, crossing her arms. She leaned back in her chair and quirked an eyebrow. “Really, Seraphine. What would you have me say? Do you want the entire Valley in a panic? What would that accomplish? The dragons might not even be dangerous. Do you want everyone terrified for nothing? For that matter, what if dragons can smell fear, like hornets? Do you want them to think us vulnerable? I suggest you stick to alchemy. You clearly don’t have the head for this sort of work.”
Seraphine also crossed her arms, also leaned back in her chair, eyes narrowed. “Smell fear? What are you even talking about?” Seraphine paused, closed her eyes, took a few breaths.
“Look. If you have so many questions, I suggest you find some answers before you put out a statement. Lies are worse than saying nothing. I can’t believe I thought you had someone over. Why would I think you were doing something normal when you could be doing something nefarious?”
Lies? Nefarious? Oh, all hells. “You know, Seraphine, your embarrassment over jumping to the wrong conclusion doesn’t justify flying down here to attack me.”
Mel snatched up the parchment, scanned the words, and handed the paper back to her sister with a satisfied smirk. “Name one thing I said that’s not true. Trust me, you can’t.”
“Which part of it is true? You have seen at least four dragons in the last fortnight.”
She had seen seven. But enlightening Seraphine seemed unnecessary and against Mel’s best interests.
“You’re always complaining about anecdotal evidence. Now you want me to base a public statement on the number of dragons I’ve happened to see?” Mel shook her head in affected disbelief. “Also, I never said there weren’t dragons. I said that dragons are rare.”
“Well, that’s an irrelevant point given that the Valley is currently crawling with dragons, don’t you think?”
“Irrelevance and lies are two different things. All that I have done in this piece is ask questions. Make suggestions. Maybe a few embellishments here and there. To keep people engaged. But I haven’t written a single lie.”
“There are many ways to tell a lie, Melody. Based on that statement” — Seraphine nodded to the parchment — “You are aware of quite a few of them. More than aware. Skilled.”
As if Seraphine was so noble herself. “And are you still making potions for that awful countess?” Mel had to end this conversation. Giving Seraphine no chance to answer, she rose from her chair, casting a long, imperious shadow over her sister. “Listen, I don’t tell you how to do your work.” She reached for the maligned parchment, the one she had worked so hard to get right, and strode to the door. “I’m off to deliver my propaganda.”
Mel arranged her cloak around her shoulders, tuning out Seraphine’s retort.
“I suggest you open a window if you go back into that laboratory tonight,” Mel called out as she exited the cottage. “The fumes are obviously affecting you.”
The door slammed, leaving Seraphine alone and seething.
The sun shone bright through the trees in the forest bordering Meed’s side of the Valley. Princess Bluebell of Meed (”Blue” to anyone who mattered) cupped her hands to her mouth, calling out to the dragon soaring overhead, alerting him to their meeting point situated in the midst of a ruined castle. She climbed onto an ancient stone wall, watching the dragon’s wings catch the afternoon sun as he swooped to meet her, scales glimmering like polished armor.
Blue grinned. No dragon could resist a princess. Even one like her.
Not for the first time, Blue felt thankful that so few people thought she qualified as a princess. No one would believe she had any connection to the Valley’s dragon situation.
The dragon landed near the wall, creating a breeze with his wings that threatened to pull Blue’s hair from its loose bun.
“Greetings, Princess,” he said with a bow, “For what cause hast thou summoned me?”
Blue burst out laughing, “Don’t be so formal, Hector. I barely understood what you just said.”
Hector narrowed his gaze and flicked his tail, “As you wish, Bluebell.”
Blue hated that name and suspected that was exactly why the dragon had used it. Difficult creature.
She ignored the barb and pulled a few pieces of dried meat from the pouch hooked to her belt. “Here.” Blue handed one to Hector and nibbled on another.
Hector extended his talons to accept the snack.
The dragon sat on his haunches and — dropping formality as requested — tossed the piece down his long throat with a gulp.
“That’s better,” Blue said, still chewing, “You know I can’t stand pointless protocol.” She took a square of crumpled paper from her pocket and handed it to the dragon, “Look at this.”
Hector inspected the square Blue had torn from that morning’s newspaper while the princess worked a piece of meat from her teeth and waited for the dragon’s reaction.
Blue grinned as Hector began shaking with laughter.
“How absurd! Foolish mortals,” he said, voice booming, rattling nearby branches. Blasts of smoke flared from his nostrils, knocking Blue off balance as she dodged the sulfurous clouds.
She failed to regain her footing and toppled off the wall.
Blue shook her head and shot the dragon a look from her new, lower vantage point. “Seriously, Hector?”
The dragon had no response, other than to extend an arm to help her up. Back on her feet, Blue brushed dirt off her clothes and did a quick check for scrapes, bruises, and assorted carnage. No discernible damage.
“That’s it,” she told Hector, “Going forward, you’re hearing sad news only. I can’t risk getting roasted every time King Claude does something stupid. I’d never survive.”
“Under different circumstances, I would offer my apologies.” Hector blew a controlled blaze at the paper, turning it to ash in his palm. He let it waft into the wind.
Blue’s eyebrows shot to the top of her forehead. “Really? Let me make sure I have this right. You’re saying that — under this particular set of circumstances — nearly turning me into dinner was the correct course of action, and therefore warrants no apology?”
“You aren’t even scorched.”
This time it was Blue’s turn to snort. Regrettably without smoke blasts.
“Besides,” Hector continued, “I know my audience. You would have been bored by a subdued reaction.”
Well, he had her there. Rather than admit that, she said, “I’m certain there is a substantial spectrum of reactions between subdued and setting your friends on fire.”
Hector said nothing and affected extreme interest in cleaning his talons.
Blue sighed but it was all for show. She knew she couldn’t be angry. Not when, just that morning, she read the same statement and laughed so hard she spat her tea out onto her toast. She figured smoke blasts were the dragon equivalent.
The whole situation was just too ridiculous to believe. Blue had never anticipated King Claude would simply…pretend there were no dragons, or that anyone who saw one was insane.
How long could that work? Dragons are difficult to miss (and difficult in general, judging from her experience with Hector).
Blue shook her head, then noticed the sun’s position. Time to set aside thoughts of senseless enemies and troublesome dragons. “Let’s get moving,” she told Hector. Blue flashed a mischievous smile, “You’re making us late.”
The princess paid for the accusation with another smoke blast.
Ever the quick learner, she ducked fast and popped back up without a repeat fall.
Blue steadied herself and eyed her volcanic friend, “Surely you have other ways to emote.”
Hector growled and flicked his tail but crouched so Blue could climb onto his back.
She figured the crouch meant Hector was not too irritated with her, unless he planned to drop her out of the sky.
Blue decided to take her chances and scrambled up, gripping the reins tight. As soon as she secured her seat the dragon took off, launching them high above the forest. Over the treetops Hector broke his silence.
“You deserved it…Bluebell.”
Seraphine should have known confronting Mel would get her nowhere. Had it ever worked before?
She stewed in her laboratory, listening to her simmering potions as she ruminated on her conversation with her unscrupulous sibling.
Hiding dragons was the most preposterous non-strategy Seraphine had ever heard. The King might even pull it off, thanks to Mel’s twisted statement. Who would read that and dare mention seeing a dragon?
Ignoring their presence wouldn’t make the dragons go away. Could no one else see that? No one but Seraphine seemed interested in learning the creatures’ motivations. They could be benign. But they might not be. Which was more likely?
Seraphine’s body buzzed with nervous energy. She needed to move. To do something. To think about anything else — at least for a few minutes. Until her body calmed down.
She attempted to find refuge in her work.
Concoctions in odd-shaped vessels bubbled, smoked, and popped; each developed to solve a unique problem, to answer its own question.
Alchemy made sense to her. And when it didn’t, Seraphine just had to keep trying until she found the answer.
She wandered over to the ice box and removed a green gelatin, bringing it to the window to sit under the moonlight.
She returned to her workbench and focused on a complex potion that kept going lumpy and tasted like old eggs. Seraphine examined her work area, seeing what she had nearby. Finally, a small bottle caught her eye. She reached for it and read the label written in her own hand. Fairy-pool water. That might work.
Seraphine swirled half the bottle’s contents into the sludge with a copper whisk, watching the lumps disappear. The color shifted from gray to cool blue (she would work up the courage to test the flavor later).
Mel probably would have given the lumpy gray egg sludge an alluring name like Fate’s Dream and sold it as a limited edition beauty product.
Moving to the next project, Seraphine took out a mortar and pestle. She sprinkled a handful of dried flowers into the bowl to be pulverized.
Perhaps she was the crazy one. Perhaps these were benevolent dragons who didn’t throw curses, kidnap princesses, or burn villages for sport.
Seraphine pounded the pestle into the calendula, violets, and rosebuds, then dumped the blend into a bubbling pink glamour potion for that awful countess.
Of course people were thinking about frivolous glamour potions at a time like this. Curiosity was evidently in short supply in Eversworn. Unlike dragons.
Seraphine moved a spoon through the glamour potion in a repeating figure-eight pattern.
The most insulting part of the whole situation was that Seraphine had offered the King significant help. She even presented her ideas to his council with illustrative charts, triple-checked data, and an in-depth explanation of how alchemy could be applied to the matter.
Steam rose, warming her face. She set down the spoon.
The flowers danced through the potion, whirling in an infinite figure-eight, following the path she had carved.
Seraphine remained watching the movements and brooded over the cauldron, remembering her ill-fated presentation.
It had been a disaster. The council showed no interest in Seraphine’s charts, tables, or thoughts, and no respect for her expertise.
Seraphine Turner was a celebrated, sought-after, much-published alchemist. And still the council acted like they were indulging a child who had just learned a new song. And once one of them squawked, “We don’t want to panic the public!” the rest let their arrows fly.
She winced, recalling the way they all clucked over one another.
— “Tournament trials are in a few weeks!”
— “What if we have to cancel the trials?”
— “No one will come if they’re worrying about dragons.”
— “What if the shops refuse to stay open? We can’t have everyone hiding from dragons.”
— “I’ve never seen a dragon.”
— “An excellent point. I haven’t seen one, either.”
— “Canceling is out of the question.”
— “Dragons could be dangerous, though. Dragon fire, you know.”
Blessings to that woman for thinking of the King’s subjects. At least that’s what Seraphine had thought before the council member concluded with, “Worth the risk, I’d say.“
Nevermind the blessings, then.
That experience had been bad enough.
Mel’s deranged dragon-denial statement dissolved Seraphine’s last reserves of patience and goodwill.
When her lost cause of a sister stalked out to deliver it, Seraphine made a decision.
She would take things into her own hands.
Starting with a visit to the Valley’s only princess.
Written for Vocal’s Fantasy Prologue Challenge. The prompt was to write the beginning of a fantasy story starting with the line, “There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.” This piece draws inspiration from Terry Pratchett and Alice in Wonderland, playing with fantasy as a satirical medium.