He did not know if it was the burning of his blood or the ice of the snow that eventually brought him back to the realm of consciousness.
Blinking several times, Kiel peered around the woods in hopes of understanding where he was.
Heavy footfalls crunched toward him through the snow. In Kiel’s attempt to push himself to his feet, he discovered the binds on his wrists and ankles.
The advancing footsteps came to a halt.
“You are the caretaker, are you not?”
Dread flooded Kiel’s veins. He lay motionless, mind racing.
“Answer me!” There was little patience in the captor’s voice.
A shaggy head flashed in Kiel’s peripheral vision just before the tip of a boot slammed into his lower back.
“I know not who you speak of!” Kiel gasped after the boot smashed into his spine.
“Gordon, you need not break his bones just yet,” came another gruff voice from behind.
The beating stopped.
“Right you are, Tarnish,” Gordon huffed. He spat into the snow. “Rumors of the town tell us you are, indeed, caretaker to the Dragon of this dominion.”
“I am but a peasant,” Kiel pleaded. Heaving, he sat upright.
The lake beyond the boulders informed him of his whereabouts. They weren’t far from the den.
“Untie me, please.”
“And give you the chance to slaughter us?” Tarnish chortled. “You think us daft? We know very well what caretakers do to those who hunt their masters.”
“Is it true you are stronger when the Dragon grows weaker?” Gordon was examining the blade of his dagger when he asked this. It was a means of intimidation, Kiel knew. He’d used the same method during his time spent as a soldier.
Quaking with fear, he sputtered, “So the legends say.”
“Legends also say Caretakers become more devoted to their masters than man to woman or woman to man.” Tarnish leaned forward. “Are you so deeply devoted to your Dragon Aurelia in such a way?”
Hearing the name slip through the lips of such a vile man infuriated Kiel. His heart thumped wildly in his chest. The ties on his wrists seared his skin as he carefully made to loosen them. Suppressing his anger, he gave mangled cry. “I am no lover to Dragon Aurelia, I swear it!”
“Yet still devout, you are,” said Tarnish. “We are betting she is just as loyal to you — enough to rescue you, that is.”
Kiel stared submissively at the boots of his captors, because he knew she was. “Dragons sleep throughout the winter.”
“And only wake to feed, yea. When Aurelia finds you have provided her no food, she will come in search of you.”
“We shall seize her then!” Gordon piped in, enthusiasm coloring his tone. “You wish not to know the parts of her we can sell for many a coins!”
A warm breeze shook the naked tree limbs around them. Kiel’s breath came ragged.
Tarnish leaned in yet again to tantalize him, but Kiel had been waiting. Ripping his fists from the ties, he lunged forward. Taken aback, Tarnish bellowed. He reached for his dagger, but Kiel beat him to it. Gripping the leather-bound handle of the steal weapon, he was prepared to bury it deep into Tarnish’s throat. He was prevented from doing so, however, by the sudden piercing of what felt like hot iron in his back. It was all he could do to stifle a scream.
Slouching forward, Kiel failed to see Gordon’s knee before it rammed into his cheek, filling his mouth with the taste of blood.
Both Tarnish and Gordon kicked snow onto him to bury the flames of the arrows.
“Did you truly believe we came unprepared?” Gordon laughed.
“Try that once more and I shall have our men kill you,” said Tarnish, stroking his swelling jaw.
Another sigh of warm air washed over them.
There was no stopping it now. She was coming and there was nothing Kiel could do to prevent her from finding him and the danger that entailed.
Voices shouted, and then he heard the unmistakable thunder of flames, bursting between the trees. She didn’t know there were more men lying in wait. He had to do something.
The legend of the Dragon’s caretaker being stronger when the Dragon grew weak was misguided. Kiel was but a man; resolute and zealous.
Any man determined to protect what was his became stronger in his own mind.
Kiel took an archer unawares, claiming his bow.
Aurelia shrieked, fire spewing in every direction. The other archers were closing in. There were many of them.
One at a time, Kiel took them out, ignoring the pain in his back and scarlet-specked snow.
He grew closer to Aurelia. She sensed him, he knew.
Looking up through the haze of smoke, he saw her. His pulse quickened with pride at her majestic wings as she glided effortlessly across the horizon. She touched down, bringing a shudder to the land.
Blinding pain shot through Kiel’s back once more, bringing him to his knees.
Gordon had ripped one of the arrows from him. The pain was excruciating. Darkness pulsed along the edges on Kiel’s vision until he blacked out.
Coming to moments later, he found black smoke billowing from the trees still in flames. Embers and ashes were scattered across the forest floor.
All was quiet.
Beside Kiel sat a young girl. Soot and blood smeared across her cheek, her golden hair seared at the edges. She watched the man inquisitively. Her bright eyes were so much like her mother’s.
“Are you alright, Father?” she asked.
Her small voice alone was enough to reduce him to tears.
Kiel smiled, though weakly. “Yea, my Aurelia. Danger has passed us.”
Getting him to his feet, the girl helped her father back to the den of their home, deep in the woods and far from treachery of men.
Writer of fantasy, sci-fi and supernatural fiction, J. M. Benefield discovered her passion for etching her creative musings at a young age. After over 10 years of writing for herself, she strives to fulfill her dream of becoming a full-time author. Until then she gladly shares chapters of her current supernatural project “Repressed.”