Distant cries echoed through the young warrior’s head. Everything was dark.
There was a vague sense of urgency in the back of her mind, but for what? Who was she? Could she even remember her name? When she tried, all that came back was the echoes of clashing shields and raging fire.
She tried to sit up. There was something rough and cold pressing into her shoulder blades. There was a throbbing ache in the back of her head, and it felt like something was trickling down the side of her face. But when she tried to lift her arm to touch it, she couldn’t get it to move. Nothing from the neck down seemed to be responding to her vain attempts to twitch, to shudder, to do anything. Every square inch of her body felt weak.
But she wasn’t weak. She was somebody. She had to get up.
She tilted her face upwards, and with great struggle, willed one of her eyelids to open. Instantly, there was searing pain that passed through her skull, like a spear being forced through her eye socket until the pointed tip breached the other side. It was such blinding pain that her body seemed to forget its weakness and she convulsed instinctively, bending forwards to meet her hands as they clutched her head. She screamed as all her muscles burned with agony at the sharp movement, and she could feel tears well up in her eyes and drop into her lap.
After several moments, she gained enough control to bite back her whimpers, sucking in a long, shaky breath that made her lungs sting. She didn’t move, staying hunched until the pain stopped, or at least subsided enough that she could get her breathing steady. But she couldn’t stay like this, she needed to see.
Cautiously, she tried again to open one eyelid, cupping a hand over her forehead to block out the light around her. Maybe she could at least see the ground. The stinging pain immediately coursed through her brain, and she fought back with gritted teeth, a strangled groan escaping her. She shut her eyes again when it became too much, relishing in the relief that came with giving in. But she couldn’t give in, she couldn’t give up. A moment’s rest, before her breath quickened as she prepared to attempt it once more. This time, she blinked through the pain, waiting a moment between blinks to allow herself to adjust to the extra light, the discomfort growing evermore bearable. Slowly, but surely, her vision became more clear.
Eventually, she could clearly see her lap, and the familiar leather of her greaves. Inhaling, she finally lifted her gaze.
There was nothing that could have prepared her for what she saw.
She remembered everything. She remembered who she was, what she’d been doing, who she was in charge of, who had depended on her, up until the moment when it all went black.
Before her was a gruesome scene. A valley of devastation. Her brothers and sisters, her allies, laid out across the battlefield, their forms still and lifeless. Their glinting armor, their steeds’ sprawled wings and limp masses of scales sending images cascading into her memory of what had led to their pointless demise. An ill-fated ambush, a skirmish that had gone terribly wrong.
It all came crashing back. Images of dragon maws twisted in wicked snarls, the raised swords of their enemies, the glint of hatred in their eyes. The urgent cry of her faithful ally. And then… and then…
The sound of metal piercing flesh. The pained cry of her mount. The rush of wind as they lost altitude. The faltering movement of wingtips on the edge of her vision. A brief glimpse of something lodged unnaturally in her dragon’s neck. And finally..
She remembered falling like a stone.
The wind whistled through the valley, breaking the silence of the tragic scene, in an almost uncaring way.
She felt a crashing wave of guilt and despair flood over her. A pain so much worse than the aching, screaming weariness of her joints. It shook her to her core; a sorrow, a deep emptiness, a hopelessness that came with the loss of her entire squadron, the wing of soldiers that obeyed her every command, her comrades that were so close with her they were practically family. Her trusted ally, her closest friend. They were all gone.
She looked over the devastation once more, hardly able to comprehend it. Each soldier lay beside their mounts, and that’s when she remembered..
The image of the spear embedded in her dragon’s neck resurfaced in her memory, and she began to look around frantically. Finally, she spotted it, off to her near-right: the large, limp figure of her beloved steed, its long, graceful neck curled to the side, skewered by the spear that had felled it. The pointed end of the weapon snapped off from its impact with the ground.
“No,” She gasped hoarsely, vainly attempting to crawl towards the dragon, promptly colliding with the dirt as she lost her balance. Desperation spurred her on, and she recovered slowly, dragging herself up, pulling herself across the earth, motivated by nothing but her need to reach her dragon’s side.
Drawing closer, she could just see his face. Her muscles quivering with exertion, she collapsed just as she reached him, her body slumping beside his head, then she used the last of her strength to prop herself up so that she could look into his eyes.
Up next to the enormous creature, she realized she could hear labored breathing. His sides were rising and falling slowly, with frequent hitches. Trails of blood poured from either side of his neck where he had been impaled, and his every breath grew raspier, a struggling gurgle emanating from his throat as he fought to breathe. As she leaned over his face, tears once again beginning to stream down her cheeks, his eyes met hers, a desperate cry in their depths, and her heart seized with anguish.
She cried, her breath shaking with sobs as she took his head in her arms, holding him close, pressing her face into his and laying with him as his erratic breaths grew quieter.. slower.. weaker, until.. still. She waited, growing tense and apprehensive as the silence drew out, hoping, praying to hear another rattly inhale, but it never came. She closed her eyes, tears now flowing freely from her cheeks onto his scales, her sniffles seeming too loud to bear in the now quiet space.
As she lay there, letting the grief take hold, she remained, curled over his lifeless form, heaving her lungs out until she had no more tears left, until she was completely drained. Even after her breathing started to become slower and steadier, she remained, staring past the dragon’s shoulder into the dreary sky, her gaze listless. She felt empty.
There was no one left but her. Everyone she cared about had been lost. She lay there for several moments with this bleak thought circling her mind, not knowing if she’d ever be able to get back up. After what felt like hours, though, the warrior finally started to pick herself up, wiping a tear streaked cheek with a dusty forearm, blinking away the hazy filter of watery eyes so she could look at her dragon once more.
“I’m sorry, Sunchaser.”
Now standing, she immediately teetered, feeling unsteady, and dropped back to her knees, not even caring that it ached, her mind too preoccupied with guilt and turmoil. There didn’t seem to be any point. Why go on? There was nothing left for her. She was alone, miles from safety, with no way to get there on her own. And no reason to return anyway.
Her gaze fell on the broken spear tip, beside her dragon’s neck. After a moment of staring blankly, she reached for it. She turned it over in her finger tips, tracing its edge. She stared at it. She thought.
The thoughts were so tantalizing- they seemed so welcoming, so comforting. She could feel herself pulled towards it. She didn’t deserve to be the sole survivor. Yfrigg was just as important as her, her friends and comrades just as loyal. Her mount just as selfless. She should have been able to protect them. Why did this happen?
She allowed herself to be consumed by the tempting despair, until a more urgent thought forced its way to the surface, bringing her back to reality. It urged her that she couldn’t give in. She needed to go on. Giving up now meant letting her friends’ deaths be in vain. They had died fighting for what they believed in. For what they all believed in. They had given up their lives, in the hopes that someone else would remember them, to carry on their mission. She was the only one who could remember them.
She felt an unquelled rage in her heart, fueling her veins, making her tighten her grip on the spear’s broken shaft. She stared coldly out at the battlefield, this landscape of death, the scattered bodies spelling out the blatant injustice that had occurred. She directed her glare up at the clouds, as if their gloating enemies were up there, able to see her vengeful spite. They may have won the skirmish, but they wouldn’t win the war.
Though, even with this revelation, this temporary spark of resolve, the future seemed so daunting for the young warrior. What was she meant to do next?
Grappling with these thoughts, the loneliness and grief started to inch back in, and she let herself feel it, let it remind her that she had a promise to fulfill. But for now, it was time to grieve. It was time to remember her friends, and honor their sacrifice.
Paying tribute to her soldiers was a welcome distraction from the fact that she had no idea what she would do afterwards. She set about, despite the tiredness that gripped her, taking a moment to remember each soldier by name as she knelt in front of them, closing their eyes if they were still open, crossing their arms over their chest, finding bundles of flowers, if she could, to place between their hands, and finally, saying her prayers for their wayward souls. They would be at rest.
When she was done, she returned to the place she'd first woken, sitting down and leaning against the boulder, closing her eyes as she tilted her face to the sky. She would stay here, keep vigil for her lost troop, and then.. she didn't know.
Exhausted, and feeling extremely alone, she brought her knees up to her chest and buried her face in her arms, trying to shut out the ever-whistling hum of the wind.
She didn't know how long she'd been sitting there before she noticed a distinct sound, or presence, among the white noise of the valley; the steady drumming of wingbeats.
Suddenly fearing her enemies had come for her life, or simply to assess the damage, her first instinct was to run. Instead she remained perfectly still, her eyes darting wildly as she scanned the skies, looking for the source of the noise.
As the seconds passed, the noise got louder, more prominent, seeming to come from everywhere and all around her. She got the sense that, whatever it was, was right above her. And she looked up just in time to see a creature melt from the skies, seeming to manifest from of the clouds themselves, and float down, massive wings stirring up the dust and grass in huge gusts as it alighted on the ground in front of her.
Folding its wings, it arched its long regal neck, making it seem like its head was hundreds of feet above her, as it regarded her with its piercing gaze. Its glowing blue gaze.. or was it red? She wasn't sure what color its scales even were, like her mind refused to perceive it. Neither of these things seemed significant anyhow, because she was currently being stared down by an enormous, terrifying dragon.
Frozen still, her heartbeat quickened with trepidation, as she was not in any condition to run, and felt like at any moment, this dragon would decide it was done observing her and just eat her.
When it moved, simply lowering its head, she immediately yelped and cowered, screwing her eyes shut and putting her hands up to block her face. Though, as she tensed, nothing happened.
"Do not be afraid, Stygitte."
The commander froze, hesitating, daring a glance between her fingers, wondering if she'd hallucinated someone speaking. The voice boomed, seeming neither human, nor material. It sounded like it had come from inside her mind.
"W-who?" She stuttered, disconcerted, before turning her head and flinching back as she found herself face to face with the nebulous being. It leaned back, as if satisfied that her attention was now on it, and- had it just smiled? There was a flicker of something that crossed its face, but it was so brief she wondered if she’d imagined it.
"Stygitte, you must get up."
This time Stygitte squinted at the dragon's face, still disbelieving, and noticed its mouth was not moving. Yet it was still staring, gaze unbreaking, as the words were directed at her, but not passing through the air between them.
Do I even need to speak for you to understand me? Can you read my mind too? She thought, her gaze trained on the dragon's face, looking for any reaction.
To her chagrin, the dragon nodded curtly.
Great, she huffed. "Well, you know my name, don’t you have one?"
"I am Hjalgund," thundered the words in her head, and even though she thought she'd be prepared for the shock of hearing someone else's voice inside her head after the third time, she wasn't.
She didn't respond, as a 'nice to meet you' didn't seem like a fitting reply in this scenario, instead choosing to rest her chin on her elbows and look away from Hjalgund. Even if the dragon hadn't eaten her yet, it didn't change anything. She was still out here in the open, alone, a commander with no soldiers to her name.
The dragon regarded her thoughtfully, tilting its head.
"You do not seem to be aware of your importance."
Stygitte bristled, growing irritated by this mysterious dragon's way of invading her thoughts. What does it matter? She immediately thought back hostilely, then paused.
As she met its eyes once more, it straightened, as if prefacing its next words by making itself look more regal. Not that it didn’t already look so.
"I have been sent by the legendary Haervind to deliver you a message. I am tasked with protecting the kingdom of Skeld, and so are you. You will become queen, and you will rule a land that spans from the northern wastes to the Valkürian Range. This is your destiny."
The tiny flicker of hope that resonated in Stygitte’s chest dwindled nearly the second it was ignited. It seemed too good to be true. She wanted to believe it, truly, but she just couldn’t. She didn’t have any reason to. Almost despairingly, she huffed a vain chuckle, which consequently felt like knives poking into her ribs, and promptly fell silent. She looked away, unable to meet the creature’s eyes.
"Queen? You must be mistaken. I'm just- I was just a commander. Why would I, of all people, become a queen?" Why would I deserve it, anyway? Daft, she thought, then remembered Hjalgund could hear that, too.
Luckily, the dragon did not seem to acknowledge the insult, instead blinking sagely.
"I know you are scared, and alone. You have no reason to believe me, but I promise you, I am telling the truth. Come with me, and you'll see."
Despite all of the pain and mistrust that urged her not to, a small part of her was reaching out, grabbing desperately at any hope offered to her, wanting to believe the words were true, no matter how illogical. A part of her was vengeful, and a part of her naive. Maybe she wasn’t just imagining all of this. Maybe she hadn’t been mistaken for someone else. Maybe she really was destined for some grand future.
She felt herself spurred on by a resurgence of strength, and tried once again to stand up, wobbling unsteadily, and when the dragon extended its wing for her to balance herself, and her hand connected with its shimmering scales, that was when she really started to believe it. This was real. The dragon lowered itself, presenting its shoulders for her to climb upon, and the warrior looked to its face with uncertainty. As if understanding her doubts, it gave her a look that, without words, seemed to reassure her, and she climbed onto its back, settling herself onto an entirely unfamiliar set of shoulders.
Being atop Hjalgund's back was unlike anything Stygitte had ever known before. Instantly, it felt like she had purpose, like she had power, and it invigorated her like nothing ever had. She ran her hand down its smooth, scaly neck, the sensation setting her mind ablaze with wonder, and her weariness and pain seemed to melt away. Even her grief started to feel far and distant, replaced by a steely resolve.
When Hjalgund curved its neck to peer back at her and she met its eyes, they shared the same look of hunger.
As the dragon lifted itself into the sky with a powerful stroke of its wings, Stygitte looked down at the world fading away, becoming small and insignificant, and for the first time that day, she felt sure about something.
She would become queen. She would lead this realm to an era of greatness, and the lands would come to know her name.
And those who had wronged her?
They would pay.