Too long she waited, bowstring drawn taut beside her ear. Fingers cramped and muscles burned, but she waited. Too close to move without being heard, too far for a killing shot unless the angle was just right. But she waited, breath held, body still, arrow ready and eyes on the target that stirred below.
The stag’s head turned and the creature let out a bellow and whine, collapsing to the earth with an arrow in its eye.
Snarling, Eiri let her bowstring go lax. “Kolfhe!”
Sliding her arrow back into its quiver, she slid from her perch, landing in the soft bed of decaying leaves. The pleasant scent of moist earth rose to greet her as she strode toward the stag. She took her time, though Kolfhe sprinted, the two of them reaching the beast at the same time.
“Head too far in the clouds to take a shot again, eh?” he teased, kneeling to inspect his work.
It was a good shot, she had to admit; she just wouldn’t out loud. Instead she rubbed her nose to discourage the tickling smell of the forest, unfastening her bowstring. “There’s a difference between daydreaming and caution.”
“And both slow you down. We’ve discussed this before, Eiri. There’s a time for thinking, and it’s not when your weapons are drawn.” Gentle teasing became stern admonition, though she saw the way his brow puckered with concern. “This time it was a deer, nothing to fear. But next time, it might be raiders. Or worse.”
Eiri slipped her bow into its sling on her back. “And when it is something to fear, my draw will never be too slow.”
Kolfhe shrugged and said nothing more, scooping the stag onto his shoulders and grunting as he stood. Had he been kinder, she might have offered to help. Instead, she led the way back to the village.
New thatch stood bright against the weathered wood of cabins, a handful of men still working on the roof of the mead hall in the center of the village. Children clustered around the stairs to listen to the stories shared by grandmothers while the men and women of the village worked, hunting and foraging in the comfortable cool that whispered of winter to come.
Most homes already had game strung up from the eaves, though Kolfhe carried this catch toward the mead hall. A wild boar and a brace of rabbits already decorated his cabin, enough to feed him for the winter. Had he still shared his home with his mother it would have been different, but fever had claimed her in the spring. Not a sorrowful thing, he insisted; his mother had lived long and lived well. With that in mind Eiri felt little sadness for the kind woman’s departure, but winter was coming, and she hated to think of Kolfhe whiling away the bitter nights on his own.
“A good meal for tonight, I’d say,” he remarked as he tied the stag’s hind feet. “And good for the stew pot tomorrow.”
Eiri laughed, helping him raise the animal to hang from the corner of the roof. “And what would you know about stew pots? Yours has been empty all summer. You’ve eaten every meal in the mead hall.”
“And I’ve every right to, when I’m the one catching all the food!” He waved her away with a smirk, drawing his belt knife and sizing the deer up for cleaning.
She gave him his space, sitting on the steps with the grandmothers and children, though she watched him work.
Kolfhe was pleasant to watch; the spirit of hard work was a good trait in a man. He wore furs and leather hunted by his own hand, well cut and finely finished. He took pride in his skills, and he had many. But he was pleasant to look at in other ways, too, with his lively earth-brown eyes and his wind braids the color of new straw.
Had she the nerve, she’d have offered to tend his stew pot for him.
Sighing, she pulled herself away and strode into the mead hall to assist with preparation of the evening’s feast.
Sixteen houses ringed the longhouse, all of them full, most with more than one generation under its roof. Some preferred the privacy of their own homes, but often the entire village met for meals within the mead hall. Long stone-walled fire pits divided the single room lengthwise and barrels of wine, mead and ale reached to the rafters at the far end. Tables sat in orderly rows, some lining the walls beneath the rich tapestries that told the history of the village. An elder or two could almost always be found there crafting another, and now was no exception. The two women greeted her pleasantly and Eiri responded in kind, though she didn’t let herself become distracted by the image they worked into cloth. Everyone in the village dreamed of their exploits being woven into the tapestries, but dreaming was for another time.
Banking the fire beneath the spit, she aided the elders in peeling vegetables and grinding herbs for seasoning as she always did. Her own father was often there for preparation, but his joints pained him more as winter approached and his absence likely meant the ache in his knees would keep him by his own hearth tonight.
Her mother managed most business around the house and she and her brothers saw to the hunting and foraging. All of them agreed it was past time for him to retire and work as part of the elder council, though Eiri expected he would resist until he was no longer able to walk. By that time, she thought her brothers would be married, some in their own cabins. And she… well, who could say? She watched as men carried the cleaned deer in and mounted it on the spit, laughing amongst themselves.
“Let Kolfhe steal your game again, eh?” one of the men teased.
Another laughed. “Maybe she should ask him for hunting lessons.”
“Or pay attention while they’re out there, she might learn something just from looking. She brought home what this week, one pheasant?”
“Three,” Kolfhe corrected as he cleaned his hands, giving the other two a glance and frown. “And one was given to Elder Narral, since his boy can’t hunt with that broken arm.”
“I can hunt fine on my own,” Eiri said.
The first man laughed again. “The problem is you just don’t hunt alone!”
She did not reply to that, leaving them to laugh amongst themselves while village folk filtered into the longhouse and settled for the evening meal.
Her plate was just emptied when Kolfhe sought her again, seating himself across from her without invitation while the rest of the diners laughed and sang as they always did after night fell.
“They don’t mean harm.” He rested his arms on the table, leaning forward to catch her eye. “You don’t have to eat alone.”
Eiri raised a brow, draining the last of her mead and thunking her wooden cup back to the table. “And what makes you think I’m alone because of what anyone says?”
He nodded. “Of course. You’re alone because it lets you keep thinking, eh?”
She sneered. “I eat alone so I don’t have to worry about some sorry, drunken huntsman spilling his ale in my lap.”
“Well,” he laughed, “I’m not drunk. But I am sorry, just the same.”
Reaching for her cup again as she gathered her tin cutlery onto her plate, Eiri considered getting more mead instead of putting her things away. If the two of them were going to talk, conversation over a drink might be pleasant. “For what this time?”
“For stealing your kill. Again.” He smiled sheepishly, scratching the golden stubble on his chin with a thumbnail. “The boys like to tease, but we all know you’re a fine hunter. And I know you could fill my stew pot as well as I do myself.”
“Why, Kolfhe,” she murmured. “I could do that and more. Your pot is missing an ingredient, you know.”
Kolfhe’s eyes sparkled with a joke and he opened his mouth to share it, but all that could be heard was a roar that shook the dishes on the tables and rattled the lamps hung from the rafters overhead.
Screams of livestock mingled with the cries of children, the men and women of the village flying to their feet, many already stringing bows. Eiri shoved herself from the table, scrambling through the push of people to retrieve her bow and arrows from where she left them leaning against the mead barrels by the wall.
The village streets were already filled with people calming animals and aiming weapons by the time she ran down the stairs, though following the point of their arrows to the sky showed her only open air. Eiri turned, scanning the forest and the horizon, squinting against the dusky shadow of deepening night.
Wing beats and another roar drove the animals to renewed frenzy, and as a shadow sailed overhead, Eiri gasped.
The night-dragon’s claws raked through thatch as it flew above the village, its eyes gleaming gold in the night. A flurry of straw spun on currents raised by its wings, obscuring vision, though dozens of bows still swiveled to follow the beast’s path. Bows that were useless in such tight quarters, where no one could be sure of what—or who—could be struck by a stray arrow.
“Lure it out!” Kolfhe shouted, waving an arm to rally attention. “Take it beyond the village, away from the trees!”
A lone arrow flew, striking the great shadow that wheeled overhead, making it shriek in rage.
Eiri knew the bands of color painted on the shaft without looking. Only one other archer in the village was skilled enough to strike a moving target in the dark like that. But the last night-dragon to have attacked had been fought by her grandfather; the last night-dragon was why he no longer sat with the elder council.
“Kolfhe!” she shouted. Arrows beckoned the beast toward the western sky and she followed.
Too late, she reached the grazing field as the dragon plunged from the sky, falling on him with claws as daggers and teeth as knives.
Stifling a cry, she threw her bow and quiver aside, darting forward.
But the night-dragon didn’t kill him, instead pivoting with its paw on Kolfhe’s chest, its golden eyes shining as it dropped its head to her level. Twice as tall as any horse, it hunched uncomfortably, a forked tongue flicking from its mouth.
“Foolish girl!” the creature called, its voice rasping and deep. “You come to face me without any weapon?”
Eiri froze in place, her mouth falling open. “You can speak?”
The dragon’s head jerked back. “Of course I speak! Do I look a fool? Night-dragons are an ancient wisdom, rivaled by none!”
Curling her hands to fists at her sides, she strode forward. “If you’re so wise, then you can be bargained with! What must I offer to make you go away and leave Kolfhe unharmed?”
Kolfhe coughed against the pressure on his chest, tearing at the earth in effort to pull himself free. “Now is no time for cleverness, Eiri. Leave your thinking and let the others fight, they won’t take aim with you on the field!”
The dragon shifted, its claws pricking at his throat, and he grew still. “Cleverness, the little man says. Do you think yourself clever, girl?” Again the dragon’s tongue flicked before its nose, the sight sending a chill down her spine.
“I am as clever as I must be,” she said.
Throwing its head back, the dark-scaled beast cackled. It was a cold, grating sound, interrupted by wheezing breath. “A human, a human! A human thinks she’s clever! And all the faith your friend has in you, hmm?” It leered down at Kolfhe and laughed again.
Gritting her teeth, she steeled her resolve, striding closer still. “Will you bargain or not, dragon?”
“I will, clever girl. If only for a laugh. Since you doubt the wisdom of a dragon. You will have one chance to outwit me, and only one. Should you succeed, you may have your man.” The dragon’s lips curled back in a mockery of a smile. “And when you fail, you will have the pleasure of watching me feast on his innards before I have yours.”
Eiri’s heart skipped a beat. She was clever enough as far as humans went, but night-dragons were ageless; there was no way of knowing how much knowledge one creature held. How was she to outsmart a mystery?
“You will ask me one question,” the dragon continued, lifting a forepaw and raising a single claw. Kolfhe grunted as the beast shifted more weight onto him. “And then you will see how wise night-dragons are.”
Swallowing hard, she stared at the creature, studying it from head to barbed tail-tip. It was a frightful thing, its scales dusky blue-black to blend in with the sky, its head horned and ridged and its wide golden eyes glittering in the feeble light that came from villagers’ torches. A night creature, through and through. Blinking, she straightened. “If I am to ask one question, you may only have one guess as to the answer.”
The dragon’s eyes narrowed. “What trickery do you have up your sleeve, girl?”
“No trickery, only fairness. If you want more guesses, then I shall have more questions.”
The beast scoffed. “Fine! One answer it is. I won’t need any more.”
“Very well, then.” Eiri cleared her throat. “It always rains on the day of your birth, but all are eager to celebrate outdoors if only for a glimpse of you. What must you be?”
Startled, the dragon twisted its neck and peered at her with its head upside down. “What must I be? What must I be… Something only seen in the rain, of course…”
She smirked. “What’s the matter, night-dragon? I thought you knew the answer?”
“Silence!” The dragon’s tongue flickered as it hissed. “Such knowledge as mine takes time to sort through. It always rains… What’s in the rain? Snails, geese…”
“Is that your answer?”
“No!” Grumbling beneath its breath, the creature bowed its head. “And all celebrate outside for a glimpse… a glimpse of… ah!” Cackling, the beast thumped its tail against the earth. “You must be lightning!”
Kolfhe burst into laughter.
Releasing her held breath, Eiri grinned. “Wrong, dragon. Humans fear lightning.”
The dragon screeched in anger, rearing onto its hind legs and clawing at its horns in distress. “What? What?! I cannot be wrong! What else could it be? There is nothing! Nothing!”
Leaping to his feet, Kolfhe bolted away from the beast. “Now!” he roared, throwing his arms around Eiri and dragging her to the ground. Dozens of bowstrings twanged behind them, arrows lit with burning oil streaking through the night sky.
Cries of distress became a bellow of anger as arrows struck home. The dragon flailed, tearing burning arrows from its flesh, reeling backwards. Eiri staggered back to her feet as the villagers advanced, retrieving her bow as they lit new arrows and fired again.
“Strike true,” she whispered to herself as she took aim, leveling her arms, tracking the wild movements of the angry dragon’s head.
The villagers loosed arrows and Eiri’s flew straight, striking the beast just below its eye.
Shrieking in agony of pain and defeat, the dragon launched itself into the air, wings beating frantically to carry it away.
Kolfhe was not the first to raise a cheer, though he found her before anyone else, sweeping her into his arms. “Eiri, my clever girl!” he crowed, squeezing her to his breast. “How in the world did you know what to ask?”
Eiri flushed but met his eyes readily. “Because it was a night-dragon, of course. If they only come out after dark, how could they have ever seen a rainbow?”
Laughing, he kissed her hair.
“Now,” she said with a smirk, laying a hand on his cheek. “Where were we?”