The Rowan

(Thanks to NamesFromGraves for the beautiful cover, your hard work is always loved :) )
Before the Falling, there were Dragons.

Dragons who's breath could set a forest ablaze, who's wings could cause hurricanes, who's claws made canyons in the rocky earth, who's scales shone like glass and who's bones were made of gemstones. Fearsome guardians of all elements.

There were no humans who could tame such beasts. Not until The Rowan.

The Kingdom of Tiber was a harsh place, where magic was outlawed, and even the Dragons were on the verge of extinction. But in the middle of hide, the last pair of Dragons find a human baby, cold and alone, left to die with their strange appearance.

As the child grows under their care, a war begins brewing, something ancient stiring beneath the surface, and a prophecy to be fuffilled by The Six Branches, a band of six adventurers who must give up their lives to go and complete training to save their kingdom from destruction.

But they sent the wrong six.

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6. The Sixteenth Flower Moon

A whole moon had passed since Julij had ventured from the mountain, and they regretted every moment of it so far. 

The people of the village were not keen on strangers, especially since the Branches had sent their heirs off to war, and everybody who wasn't usual was considered a threat to Tiber itself, even though such thoughts were preposterous. Julij had stood out like a sore thumb, with their dragon scale cloak, dragon claw dagger, dark glasses and white hair.

They were currently crouched behind a spindly birch, the silvery wood mottled with black marks looking almost like a scarred and spindly hand reaching to the sky. But Julij could hear the villagers shouting to each other from behind them, and the faint light of torches grew closer with each breath wasted hiding in the shadows.

To think that it all started with a misunderstanding was ridiculous.

Julij had been wandering through the village, mostly people avoided them, or gave them a wide berth, which Julij was grateful for since they did not have to worry about bumping into people. They had felt a hand tugging at their belt, at their dagger.

It had been instinct on which they grabbed the thief and roared at them, cursing and swearing in Dragon-tongue. How could they have known that it was a small child? They could not see, and so, the villagers believed that Julij was possessed by some sort of Burner, and began to chase them out of their home and towards the woods that they had been told many times that was filled with monsters, ones that particularly liked to feast upon the vulnerable, such as the blind.

The cries were louder now, and Julij rose to their feet, flinging themselves forwards, wincing as they did so and their side ached, fresh blood spilling down their ribs and staining their shirt crimson. A villager had caught Julij with a well-thrown axe a few hours back, and as Julij pressed their shaking palm against the gash, they knew that it was their life blood that was spilling onto the ground.

Another sound caught their keen ears. A baying.

Hounds.

Without wasting another breath, Julij forced themselves forwards, not caring as branches and fallen objects caught and tripped them. Blood pounding in their ears as a deafening roar, even though each step hurt like Dragon-fire and they could feel the coldness surrounding their already black world. They had to keep running. The hounds would catch them, and then there would be nothing left for her guardians to even cremate.

After what seemed like an eternity running, Julij ran into something soft, but the sturdiness of it against their own weakened body forced them to collapse to the damp floor. 

The floor was damp, and Julij could feel the shape of decaying leaves beneath their fingers, decades worth of life and death within this spot. Petrichor, the smell so close to them that it might as well be their own scent. The noise returned to Julij's ringing ears, forcing them to stand, all-be-it shakily, to face the mob that approached.

Dragons did not die as cowards.

But as soon as Julij expected the impact to come, the baying, the angry cries all stopped. The silence was almost deafening as even the air was so still as to not disrupt the scene that lay before it.

"Were you planning on killing this girl?" An unfamiliar voice called from Julij's right. It was an unusually soft voice, but one full of menace at that point in time. Julij strained to hear the quiet mumbling of the crowd before them and the stranger.

"It's no person," One outraged woman cried, causing Julij to flinch "it's a Burner, a monster! It needs to die!"

"Nobody dies here. Not in my home, and certainly not because you think they are a monster." The voice called again, sounding closer to Julij, making them turn their head, even though they could not see. It must have been night, for even the faint out-line of objects was not visible through the onyx as it usually was during the daylight hours.

Julij could sense the mob backing down, slowly trundling through the woodlands back to their homes of ancient fire-stones. Breathing heavily, Julij turned to leave, but a small hand caught their arm.

"You're hurt, you'll do no good to anybody dying out here, come with me." The voice was instructive, although something behind it seemed too sweet, too convincing, the tiredness that washed over them as they realised they could stop running forced them to follow to stranger though. They could not sleep out here, they would die. 

It was another pregnant silence of walking, although now, Julij could hear their own ragged breathing, and pressed their hand to their side more firmly. The blood was slowing to a thick trickle, although Julij was unsure of how deep or bad the actual wound was, and whether this thicker blood was a good or bad sign. The small hand was clasped onto their arm tightly, as if afraid to let go incase they should lose Julij, and Julij was a little afraid of that too.

Coming to an abrupt stop, Julij was guided through what seemed to be a door-way, as it was suddenly lighter, and they could see the faint outline of a few objects.

"Thank.... Thank you." Julij choked out, voice worn and gravelly from years of speaking the Dragon-tongue, the words seemed strange on their lips, but it was what their guardians had taught them. They strained to hear, as they were laid on what seemed like a low bedding, cloak being pulled from them and taking their warmth with it.

"You're more than welcome, the least I can do. I only wish somebody had been there when I was being hunted." The voice said, and Julij squinted, letting them see a faint outline of a face hovering over them. The sound of water being wrung from a cloth to their right, and then a low hiss escaping their lips as it was applied to the wound on their side. "You're lucky you found me when you did, it nearly caught your lung."

So that's why they felt so breathless and it felt as if their very life-blood was being drained. It nearly was.

"Can you see?" The voice asked, sounding younger and more gentle now that they were away from the mob, Julij shook their head slowly.

"No, only very faint outlines if... if I..." The word escaped them for a moment, and they growled in frustration before remembering "squint?"

There was no reply, only cooing noises every now and then as the wound was wiped down and the stranger began the arduous process of cleaning the flesh both inside and outside of it. Julij felt themselves slipping in and out of slumber, jolted awake by pain, only to be soothed back to sleep by the stranger. Their usually black dreams were filled with the sound of angry mobs, of baying hounds and terrible cutting pains. But there were a few in which Julij could see. 

Mixes of colours swirled before their vision, the sight almost too sharp, the colours too saturated. In these dreams they were facing their home, the mountain upon which the Rowan grew, but they watched helplessly as it withered and tumbled down the cliff-face. Sanctuary fallen. They also saw flashes of crystalline bones, of grinning fangs, of terrible cries from somewhere dark that seemed to rattle their very core.

It was a long time before they woke properly, to the stranger pressing a bowl of aromatic smelling liquid to their lips. Julij growled, challenging what it was, but the stranger soon hushed them.

"Medicine, it's only medicine, no need to worry."

Drinking it down, Julij felt themselves slipping back into slumber, body warming up and acustomising itself to the climate around it. Curling into the soft furs beneath it, although it craved the feeling of warm smooth scales. Of lungs filling with deep breaths and the soft leather of wings.

It was a few days before Julij woke properly.

The first thing they noticed was the dimly lit room around them, and they could faintly make-out such items as a table, a lone chair, a fireplace in which the flames glowed with a warm orange tone, very different to the green-blues of Dragon-fire that Julij had grown up with. The second thing they noticed was the bowl of food by their bed, and how it remained warm, even though they was not sure how long it had been stood there, awaiting it's consumption.

"You're awake." The voice said, causing Julij to whip their head around, squinting to see the stranger that had cared for them. They could make out a small frame, but that was about it, their skin seemed mottled in some way, confusing their already poor eyesight.

"Thank you. You saved my life." Julij's voice was still gravelly, but it was stronger, more prominent as they attempted to stand, finding their side aching slightly, but nothing too bad. Turning to the stranger, they bowed their head, purring softly. A Dragon's thanks.

"Oh, it was nothing. Your side is healed, although you have a nasty scar there."

"A scar is nothing for a life saved." Julij replied, sitting down upon the floor to eat the food, finding it piping hot and delicious, even though they were used to raw or semi-cooked meats. The stranger sat opposite them, allowing Julij to get a slightly better look at them.

They could see long brown hair tied back, and a dark face, wide brown eyes framed by thick blackness, either make-up or lashes, Julij couldn't distinguish. Though, squinting more and leaning forwards, Julij could make out why they had been so confused as to the shape of their saviour earlier. Their skin was mottled with lighter patches, almost as white as the bark of the birch tree outside. Julij sat back, a little satisfied.

"Your skin, it's pretty." Julij stated, continuing to eat slowly. Dragons had always had an eye for beautiful objects, and stated their minds about what they found beautiful. Julij had followed in this pattern, and the bluntness of the comment caught the stranger off guard, making them fall silent.

"M-My name is Castellia," The girl stammered, tucking a strand of loose hair behind their ear, turning to Julij intently, looking into their dull red eyes. "what's yours?"

"My name is," at which point Julij made a series of quick screeches and growls, causing Castellia to jump in surprise, as Julij smirked "but it's translated to Julij."

Castellia had many more questions to ask Julij, but they were afraid to ask, preferring to leave them in silence, the crackle of the fire acting to sooth her nerves. A faint blush seemingly etched upon her cheeks as she looked at her own skin.

She had been called ugly all her life, with her mottled skin of dark and light. That was why she secluded herself from the world, but now, this strange person had come into their home and called them pretty, and something inside her believed that the words were genuine, not meant to flirt, but rather a statement.

Whilst Julij wasn't looking, they pulled back the sleeves on her long gown, and produced a small flower from the seed she had kept hidden in the palm of their hand. Concentrating the tingling feeling under her skin and pushing it towards the seed. Castellia watched as the casing split open, a small green sprout growing upwards towards her before the bud formed, peeling away to reveal a purple five-pointed star, a yellow tube protruding from the centre.

Nightshade, a flower meaning truth.

Pressing it to her chest within a clenched fist, Castellia felt her heart pounding rapidly. The flower ritual was to determine what a person's intentions were, or perhaps the more complex version could be performed to see what they symbolised within this mortal world.

It was then that Castellia knew that she had to keep Julij close, because somebody who spoke the truth from the beginning was rare. And something about them was special, she could feel it in her bones, the wards had alerted her that Julij was in danger, and they only did that for significant people.

Silence resumed, and both were left to their thoughts.

Little did they know their fates were tied together in more ways than this brief meeting.

 

 

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