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Olympia Extracts | Dragon's heart by Martin Gallagher

This week's edition to our Olympia extracts is an adventure called 'Dragons Heart' by Martin Gallagher.

 

Prologue

 

 

Emeldra shakily got to her feet as her surroundings gradually came into focus. She stood a moment feeling dizzy, trying to clear her head of the ringing that clouded her thinking. She recalled that her horse had thrown her. There was no sign of the horse now as she looked around shaking the dust from her clothes. The animal would probably be halfway home by this time, she thought, sighing gloomily. Chiding herself for being so foolish; she had sneaked out of the castle against her father’s wishes. The argument they had the night before had hurt her pride; all she had wished was to get a close look at a dragon. Emeldra had long been fascinated by the stories told of dragons. Many believed dragons were nothing more than a myth: not Ladlians though, sightings of dragons being commonplace in Ladlian. No one, however, as far as Emeldra knew had ever got close to one. She thought it strange that reported sightings were frequent yet nobody had seen a dragon close up.

She had seen dragons several times since her childhood, albeit distant and fleeting. They had left her awed. She believed they were beings of at least equal if not more intelligent than humans. The beauty and grace of the dragons as they flew effortlessly in the sky, or even as they sat basking in the sun on a mountain peak, filled Emeldra with a strange longing to see one face to face. She had even dreamed of flying on a dragon’s back a fanciful notion perhaps but the very thought thrilled her in a way she found hard to explain.

Emeldra had been willing to accept an escort of her father’s knights for protection if he had agreed to let her go. She had never really considered until now that she might well need protection from dragons. Emeldra recalled how her father had called her foolish and impulsive to want to get close to a dragon, that they were dangerous creatures best kept at a distance. It galled Emeldra that he would treat her as if she were still a child. So in spite of all her father had said and her misgivings she had gone alone and so she stood, wondering if her father had been right after all in refusing her. What if a dragon came now she was alone with no one to protect her, nothing to defend herself? Would it eat her as she had heard in some childhood stories? Or would it turn her into a pile of ash with its fiery breath? She shuddered, looking around, seeing dragons behind every bush and lurking in every shadow.

She pushed her fears aside and resolved to take stock of her situation calmly. The dizziness and the ringing in her head had finally gone. Looking skyward as dark, ominous clouds gathered overhead. She could hear a distant rumble of thunder. She studied the terrain more closely, trying to decide her best course of action. A barely visible animal trail led northwards and upward along a rocky incline. The trail zigzagged across the hillside, at times vanishing completely only to resume further on. Emeldra could just make out the dark outline of what she thought maybe the dragon caves she had been seeking.

To the south lay the way home. Emeldra considered her options. She could strike out toward Castle Talmon; it may mean having to camp out in the woods for the night. There was a chance she might make it back before her father missed her. On the other hand, a storm seemed to be brewing. The caves would at least be – hopefully – dry, and give better protection against the impending storm. To be caught in the open during a storm at this time of the year could turn her about until she got completely lost.

As if in answer to her thoughts thunder rumbled again, this time closer. That decided it: she had to get to the caves before the storm overtook her. She just hoped if there were dragons in the caves they would at least be friendly, and not mind sharing the cave with her. Emeldra set off at a steady pace, following the old animal trail as it twisted and turned up the hillside. Several times she slipped and fell, scraping her knees and legs on the stony ground. A breeze stirred the air, cooling the sweat that beaded her brow and trickled down under her arms. The wind grew stronger, making her flesh stand up in goosebumps.

Storm clouds quickly blotted out the sun. Emeldra hurried on, reckless now of where she stepped. Time was of the essence, she had to make it to the cave soon. The light was fading fast when she finally reached the entrance to the cave. Cold rain spattered her face, brushing a damp strand of hair from her eyes. She shivered and entered the cave mouth. Outside, the rain came harder and lightning briefly illuminated the darkness of the cave. Wet, bedraggled and shivering, she fumbled, casting a light spell. It took three attempts and a pounding headache before the spell finally worked. A soft glow lit her surroundings, casting long eerie shadows on the cave walls as she moved further into the cave. A short distance ahead the cave divided into three cavernous chambers.

Emeldra stopped trying to decide which chamber to take. One bent sharp left and seemed to narrow into a tight passage. In the dim light of her spell, she could see small dark shapes scuttling away from the light. She shuddered reflexively and turned casting her light into the far right chamber. Here water dripped from the ceiling and ran down the walls to form stagnant pools on the ground. Emeldra could see green slime on the walls, and unpleasant-looking growths growing from cracks in the ground, and even halfway up the walls. The air smelled damp and acrid. The middle chamber seemed at least dry and the largest and most inviting of the three. Entering, Emeldra smelled an unusual pungent smell like some aromatic spice. Slowly her eyes grew accustomed to the dim light.

Looking around, Emeldra thought she caught movement in the far corner. She moved a little further in, her heart pounded loudly in her chest. She wanted to turn and run, but somehow felt drawn, her natural curiosity overcoming her fear. Straining her eyes to peer into the darkness ahead she edged further. A deep rasping sound seemed to fill the cavern. First, she thought it was the thunder, then realised the sound came from within and originated a short distance from her. Ahead, a dark shape moved.

The light spell faltered and blinked out!

In the darkness, large blue eyes stared at her hypnotically!

She felt an overpowering presence reach into her mind, sifting through her thoughts and memories. Sudden concern touched the presence, and it quickly withdrew. Head spinning, she staggered forward a few steps before falling into darkness.

Emeldra woke. Dim torchlight illuminated the cave. Her eyes smarted and she coughed as smoke from a nearby torch drifted her way. Then she caught the smell of roasting meat, and her stomach grumbled loudly. Looking up, she groaned as her head began to spin. She quickly shut and opened her watery eyes to clear her vision. Pulling herself up into a sitting position, gradually she grew accustomed to the shadowy light of the cave.

Emeldra looked across to a cheery fire where a man sat with his head down, cooking what smelled like roasted mutton on a spit. Hearing her groan as she sat up, he looked up, his face partly hidden in shadow.

“Feeling better, Princess?” he asked with concern in his voice.

Emeldra groaned again. Her head seemed full of cotton wool. She looked around fretfully before speaking. “Where—Where has the dragon gone? And who are you, how do know who I am?” her voice trembled as she spoke.

“My name is Matra. The dragon has—er—gone elsewhere. Do not worry, dragons have little interest in humans for sure. Come and eat,” he answered, holding a piece of roasted meat out for her to take.

Emeldra cautiously took the meat while watching the stranger closely. As she ate, hungrily, definitely mutton, she thought while studying the man. He seemed young and handsome in a rugged way, with almost shoulder-length blond hair and deep blue eyes. A thought occurred to her, and she bit her lip nervously, trying to hide her fear.

Matra looked at her sympathetically. Sensing her fear, he smiled warmly, gesturing for her to eat more.

“If you’re a bandit, my father will be looking for me.” She tried to sound confident, she knew her father would have by now realised she was missing, though the storm would make it impossible for him to search for her now.

Matra frowned in silence, seeming not to understand; thunder rumbled overhead sounding muffled within the cave walls. Finally, he shook his head.

“I’m not a bandit, I’m a stranger to your land,” he explained with an easy smile.

His posture showed no outward sign of menace: he sat back, his movements slow and deliberate, indicating he intended no harm.

“Then how do you know that I’m Princess Emeldra?” she asked, frowning still suspicious, though Matra’s face seemed an honest and open one.

“Your beauty is known far and wide, Princess,” he replied smoothly.

Emeldra bristled at his impertinence but swallowed her indignation, realising she was indebted to this strange young man and here at his sufferance, not to mention mercy.

Matra studied Emeldra calmly, taking in the blush that came to her dimpled cheeks. Her long black hair, though damp and bedraggled, shone lustrously, making her hazel eyes sparkle in contrast. Her figure was well proportioned yet not overly so. When she didn’t reply, he spoke again.

“You’re safe here, Princess. Try and get some sleep. I’ll help you find your father in the morning,” he reassured giving her a sheepskin to lie on.

Emeldra lay watching Matra cautiously. He seemed friendly enough, even likeable. Still, she believed there was something he wasn’t telling her, and what of the dragon? Had it gone really? How had Matra got here? Why did he seem so sure and unconcerned about the dragon’s whereabouts? So many questions that needed answering. She tried to stay awake, and for a while she did. Eventually, tiredness overwhelmed her, and she fell into a fitful sleep.

Emeldra opened eyes gummy with sleep. Dawn’s pale light filtered through the cave mouth. Suddenly the light was blotted out by the bulk of a blue dragon, crouching low on its haunches as it entered, talons scraping the ground as it advanced. Emeldra bolted upright. Trembling in fear, she backed further into the cave. Fear turned to astonishment as the dragon seemed to disappear in a shimmering haze of light and Matra walked toward her. She gaped at him. Still shaking, she tried to pull away as his hands gripped her wrists firmly but gently.

“I thought this form would be less frightening to you,” he explained. “Please don’t be afraid, I mean you no harm.” When he saw her relax a little, he let go.

“How did you do that, is it magic?’ The question sounded inane, of course, it must be magic. Emeldra shook her head, trying to make sense of what she had just witnessed.

“Like what you did to make light when you entered the cave?”

Emeldra nodded woodenly.

“Yes, except what you call magic is, in fact, tapping into the energies of one’s spirit,” he explained

“I’m not sure I understand,” still in some shock from all she had just witnessed.

“Humans understand so little. Come, I’ll take you for a ride and find your father.” Taking her hand again, he led her to the cave mouth.

“You don’t mean—” Emeldra began, but before she could finish Matra stepped away from her, the air around him shimmered, and the blue dragon appeared before her again.

“Climb on my back.” Matra spoke telepathically, a skill she also knew. Not as adeptly as Matra, it would seem, his voice seemed to be in her head and yet all around her.

Emeldra gingerly climbed on his back though she thought she might be going mad, a part of her remained calm. “Wasn’t this what she had always wanted, to fly on a dragon’s back? Wasn’t this the reason why she had defied her father to come here?” She made herself as comfortable as possible, while the dragon waited calmly for her to settle herself.

“I know you don’t mean my kind any harm so you will keep my secret,” Matra stated as he took flight. Emeldra held on tight as Matra this time gently entered her mind telepathically, soothing her fear away as they soared high above fields and treetops.

Matra spoke to her about many things as they flew onward, and Emeldra found she was beginning to tell him more about herself. The morning air felt fresh; the wind blew through her dark hair, sweeping it back. She laughed in delight. She had never felt so alive, then all too soon they sighted Emeldra’s father and a company of knights. As they landed out of sight, Emeldra assured Matra she would keep his secret.

“No one would believe me anyway,” Emeldra said telepathically, dismounting with a sigh that betrayed a longing that made her ache to climb on the dragon’s back once more.

“It’s just as well, for not many would accept me as you do.” He paused as he prepared to take flight. “We will meet again, Princess,” he concluded enigmatically. Beating his wings, he lifted skyward and quickly disappeared.

Emeldra took a deep breath, composing herself as she heard the thunder of hooves approaching. She knew she must look a mess and her father the king would probably be angry and upset, to say the least. Emeldra braced herself as the king and his knights approached; his stern expression bode ill for her. Thinking of Matra’s last words, she smiled. She would accept whatever punishment her father gave her, but she would never regret what she had done now.

The blue dragon sat basking in the morning sunshine on a lonely hillside. Although he seemed asleep, he was not. Rather he sat in a trance-like state; a glowing nimbus of light, almost invisible to the naked eye, emerged from the dragon and in seconds travelled the distance to where the princess stood, talking to her father. Matra’s soul focus watched from a safe distance as her father spoke harshly to the princess then after a brief pause filled with a poignancy that spoke volumes, embraced his daughter with great relief. Matra watched until they were safely back at Castle Talmon before returning.

“Soon now, Princess, soon we will meet again, then it will begin,” the dragon said as if the princess could still hear him. In spite of the morning heat, the dragon shuddered as if a cold wind had risen to drive away all warmth turning the day cold as a winter’s night.

 

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24/07/19

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