*** *** ***
Stillness permeates over the garden and the cottage under the mid-morning sun. Spring is a fickle season in Nok. From the west come the warm winds of Uvalhort, tempered by their southern, Danvian, cooler counterparts. The plains stretching into Sesgrond draw them eastward, creating a constant breeze. But on days like today, the freezing air of the Ahrissal mountains descends from the north, threatening with the last vestiges of winter.
Nina kneels in between the rows of seedlings, checking for frostbite. As she waters them one by one, the memory of her mother flows to the forefront of her mind. In this very spot, she’d keep the ground warm, blanketing it with an invisible hand, protecting the plants.
Warily, Nina steals a glance toward the village. The cluster of houses and inns and stations sits behind the slope of the hills it stretches over. Their cottage has always been hidden from view, it’s how her mother liked it. “If people really need me, they’ll find me,” she used to say.
Nina’s not so sure. People have needed a witch around these parts for too long, yet their own prejudice has been the main impediment in Nok. Yes, gemstones are scarce, but it would be worth it to collectively pay a witch for good crops instead of facing starvation. With a sigh, she pulls her neck chain from under her shirt. Its locket holds a tiny amethyst shard, the last stone left from her mother. It would be enough to protect her garden, but Nina’s been saving it for emergencies.
She shakes her head at herself. Not only that, but finally using it would mean… would mean she’s chosen her path in life. There’s no turning back from magic. Touch it once, let it rush through you, and nothing else will compare. That’s what Nina’s mother taught her. Because Nina has the inclination to become a witch. She can see it.
The very magic her mother yielded.
Yet, Nok has never been grateful for her presence here. Now, Nina faces this crossroad of choices. Her father is an ordinary man. He’d learned a trade, worked as a carpenter most of his life. Nina could follow in his footsteps. Shaping wood is not that much different than shaping magic, although a much slower process.
Then again, Nina is reminded of their nearest neighbor, a young man saving whatever sliver of gemstone he can find for a transition ritual. He could use a witch that won’t make him pay an arm and a leg.
Working with magic requires dedication. But is it something Nina is ready for?
With another sigh, she hides the locket again, but before she can return to the seedlings, a shadow falls upon her. Curious, since no clouds have been gracing the sky. Nina looks up and almost chokes at the sight of great wings above.
She watches in awe as the black dragon lands on the road, and with less grace than she would’ve liked, she scrambles to her feet in time to see a rider climb down from the dragon’s back. The man—or whatever man-appearing creature this is—wears a hooded coat, with a bow peeking from his shoulder. Nina’s sure a quiver is there, too, out of sight.
So, so weird. Dragons aren’t known for letting others ride them. Perhaps it’s under a spell, in which case Nina should… do something. She’s not sure what, however.
Hurriedly, she approaches them and bows.
“Great dragon,” she greets them as per custom. “Our souls bask in your brilliance and our doors are open. We are grateful for this visitation.”
The rider laughs and Nina shoots him a glare.
She can’t actually see his face. It’s there, she knows it’s there. A nose, eyes, mouth, but when she tries to bring them together, they slip away from awareness.
Magic, then. Nina allows her othersight forward.
A gasp leaves her, unintended, but the veil of magic surrounding the two visitors is unmistakably draconian. Mesmerizing, like a river flowing around them, water upon which the sun shines to glitter into a myriad of rainbows parting and twinning and separating again.
The archer tilts his head, as if aware of being seen, but Nina wouldn’t look beyond the veil without permission.
The shout brings the world back into focus, the voice raw and desperate. She turns.
From the thicket of trees down the road, her father half-runs, stumbling. His clothes are torn, there’s dirt on his face and— Is that blood? Papa holds a hand over a row of gashes on his other arm.
He falls to the ground when he finally sees the dragon, eyes wide, mouth open, and Nina takes off toward him. The rider, however, reaches him first. He’s crouching next to Papa when Nina comes to a stop. Her hands are shaking, but she’s determined to see to her father’s injuries.
“Please, don’t be alarmed,” the rider says. “We won’t hurt you. My name is Ark, and that is Havesskadi. Can you stand?”
Nina can’t help glancing back at the dragon. Her fingers jerk toward the necklace under her shirt, but she forces them away. Havesskadi, the amethyst keeper, who her mother had always wanted to meet, is here.
She takes her father’s weight on the other side, as Ark asks, “What happened?”
“A wolf,” Papa wheezes, “attacked my cart, got the horse. It was alone, but it looked rabid. We have to send word into the village, or it will hurt someone.”
Ark exchanges a long look with Havesskadi—and Nina still can’t believe the frost dragon is standing right there. When the dragon nods once, he unhooks his bow.
“I’ll catch the wolf. Can you take him inside?”
Nina answers yes, though she’s not sure the full word came out of her mouth. Between the magic and the dragon and the wolf and Papa bleeding, it’s a lot to think about.
“We have a friend already in the village. Havesskadi will fly there, let him know what’s happening, and they’ll ask the healer to come.”
“No,” Papa says before Nina finds her voice. “We can’t afford the healer.”
“He’ll bring a poultice, then.”
“It is decided,” Ark says.
He gives Nina a small smile, before disappearing in between the trees. Havesskadi flaps his wings, displacing some of the road dust, and he’s off, too.
Perhaps Nina’s been imagining them, she thinks as she settles Papa on the day bed in the front room. She busies herself with boiling water, and then with cleaning the worst of the dirt and blood off her father. Just as she’s about to search for something to treat the wounds, someone knocks at the door.
The person standing there is another magic-veiled creature that looks like a man. He holds out a jar.
“As promised,” he says.
“We can’t—” Nina begins, but he shakes his head.
Something comes through the thick magic filling the space around them, something that tells Nina to accept without complaint. She does just that, and tends to Papa while this other stranger paces around the room, studying the various items lining their shelves. Most of them are full of herbs, from when Nina’s mother was still alive. But without gemstones, they’re useless.
“What is your name, jitrush?” he asks when Nina has finished washing her hands and Papa is asleep.
She freezes, for a moment, because that was what her mother used to call her. Very few know the word and even fewer can tell who it would suit.
“Nina,” she says. “Yours?”
The stranger watches her intently for a while. Finally, he answers, “You can call me Orsie.”
It feels like something important eludes her, but before Nina can say anything else, commotion from outside draws their attention.
Ark has returned with the wolf. The animal is large, its snouts smeared with blood and froth, lying on its side and panting.
“I’ve calmed it down, for now, but it’s sick,” Ark says and draws an arrow.
Nina watches with increasing dread as he nocks it, then points it at the wolf’s chest. The animal whines, a soft and catching sound that worms its way beneath Nina’s skin. Unfair.
“Then why did you have to bring it all the way out here?” Nina hisses.
Ark shrugs a shoulder. “Either way, there’s nothing we can do for it.”
Nina shakes her head vehemently, because he’s wrong. He’s very, very wrong. She fumbles with the locket, her fingers tingling, fiery ice spreading through her veins.
The stone touches her palm and suddenly she knows. Nina can’t let it die, not without trying. Can’t let the magic go, not without trying to make life better for whoever needs it.
The small gemstone vanishes from her fist as the magic is drawn from it to heal the wolf.
The world blooms into colors Nina didn’t even know existed.
The wolf licks her face, allowing itself to be hugged close. Nina’s heart pounds with a rhythm that echoes the trees, the ground and the sky, the wind beneath wings and the thrum of one—no, two anasketts. These ethereal gems carry the essence of a dragon’s magic, and two dragonsouls can only mean that there are two dragons here.
Orsie pets the wolf’s head before nudging it toward the trees. Nina remains kneeling, speechless.
“See,” he tells Ark. “A witch.”
They help her stand, and as she rises, the veil thins until gone, revealing otherworldly faces. Eyes too bright to be human—a pair in rubinous amber, the other in dark amethyst—stare back at her.
“You know my name, Nina,” Orsie says.
She nods, swallowing against the lump in her throat.
“You understand our nature must remain secret.”
She nods again. “I—yes, I do. But how—”
“Dragons,” Ark says, as if that explains everything.
Although, on second thought, it rather does. It takes a few deep gulps of air before she can even begin to order her racing mind, when curiosity finally gets her.
“Why are you here?”
Orsie gestures in a wide arc. “We were passing by when we smelled it. This place reeks of indecision, but more like a cry for assistance than a malicious spell. So we stopped to see if we can help.”
With a frown, Nina turns to the trees and back. “So the wolf was your doing?”
“Not at all! It was indeed a very sick animal. We would’ve taken it elsewhere for healing if you hadn’t done it. But it aided you.”
A shuddering breath leaves Nina and she picks up her empty locket. She doesn’t regret healing the wolf, but now the last gemstone is gone. More magic won’t be possible for her soon.
Cold fingers ending in very sharp claws wrap around her hand.
“Jitrush,” Orsie says. “Little witch. Show us to your winter cellar.”
It’s hours later when Nina is allowed to climb the rickety stairs down into the deep cellar. Between their dwindling preserves, the shelves are tucked to the brim with gemstones. Both raw and polished, the stones shine in violet, red, black and amber. Her breath catches and she covers her mouth with both hands.
“Why,” she whispers.
“We might be sending others your way,” Orsie says. “So better start practicing.”
Nina’s eyes fill and spill over her cheeks in hot trails.
“If you need more, I assume you know how to call for us.”
“Yes, yes. Thank you,” she says. Or she thinks she says, because she’s half choking.
Ark’s red-clawed hand grasps her shoulder. “You can refuse, you know. Give it all away.”
Nina wipes her face. The connections between dragons and their witches are delicate, her mother used to say. They are territorial, at times, and the magic of the stones leaves a mark on a witch. Havesskadi’s stones have impressed upon their cottage since before Nina was born. Now, this unimaginable treasure before her is an invitation. She sacrificed the last of her mother’s stones and now she’s getting a connection to Havesskadi himself.
“I want it,” she says.
“Good.” Orsie smiles, pleased.
Nina follows them outside. The setting sun bathes the garden in warm colors. The air itself is a little less frigid than in the morning, the seedlings safe in their rows, but even if the weather changes again, it’s fine. Nina has the resources to care for them properly.
“Wait!” She clears her throat. “Would you like to join us for dinner? If you—if you have time, that is.”
“There’s someone who would’ve wanted to know you, so perhaps you’d be willing to hear of her. My mother. She was the witch of Nok. Before me.”
“Nothing would please me more,” Orsie says.
Nina breathes, free.