Orphan Dani

Book 1 – The Dragons’ Bane Chronicles

OrphanDani_FrontCoverby Simon Driscoll

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Smooth stones shifted beneath my feet as I limped toward the dragon’s cave. Anger buzzed in my head with no outlet. Two miles of walking on a sprained ankle hadn’t helped my mood, or the injury. In addition to the ankle, which continued to complain with every step, my left eye felt swollen from a recent blow. The blow itself didn’t bother me so much. Instead, I was concerned by why she hit me and how I got away.

Two miles south lay Barrington, a village sandwiched between the kingdom of Puji and the mountains of Goldoon. Almost five thousand people lived in the village, including the families who had taken me in. Every winter for the past six years one family or another had taken me in as a housekeeper or cook, and shared what little food they had with me; rarely enough to truly satisfy me, or them. Eventually they would start to resent having me there. Thus every year, around the start of spring, I would find some reason to leave.

This year, the reason had reached out and grabbed me by the throat, literally. There was no real love for me there, and hadn’t been since my nanny died almost six years ago. Why should they care about a little orphan girl?

The cave before me wasn’t the adventure others might see. I wasn’t here in a vain attempt to gain treasure or impress someone with my bravery. No one else in the village knew there was a dragon nearby. For me, this was my one escape from the cruelty of the world. The only place left where someone showed me kindness instead of hatred and violence.

The last few feet were the trickiest of all and my injured ankle gave out. I scraped my hand on the cliff in a failed attempt to stop my fall.

“Cortiban’s bones!” The curse escaped my lips. Frustration boiled over and I had to close my eyes to contain the anger. Pulling myself up by grabbing the face of the cliff before me, I put all my anger to the task of overcoming the pain. I kept my eyes shut as I limped through the protective magic hiding the mouth of the cave. If someone watched as I entered, they would see me walk through solid rock. A protective spell hid everything inside. Now the magic hid me as well.

I dared to breathe and look around. My eyes fell first on the pile of gold coins and smashed or mangled gold trophies of various kinds. The pile was near the back of the cave and served as Miazan’s bed, though he rarely slept. The glittering gold still called to me, promising an easy life. But I held those urges back. I had not come to steal from my friend. Plus the penalty for using dragon gold was death in every country. Several swords, shields, and suits of armor were affixed to one cave wall as a sort of trophy collection. The various knights who came to this cave to battle the mighty dragon left them behind, though only a few escaped with their lives.

Miazan stood on four legs on the right side of the cave. His gleaming dark green scales reflected the light from the magic balls embedded in the ceiling. He was showing two horns on his head, though I had seen as many as six at times. He shoved the bloody carcass of his dinner behind his spiked tail. I didn’t care either way. But to him, eating in front of me without offering something would be rude. He rarely ate anything I would consider edible.

There was a fierce beauty to his saurian face which looked both more inviting and more dangerous because of the smile revealing his razor sharp teeth. I tried to speak, but tears streamed from my eyes unbidden, and sobs choked my words before they could even form. He was the one being in the world who never judged me for crying or showing weakness.

In the last six years, Miazan had come to learn quite a bit about my past. Yet in all that time, he’d never brought up the subject of my parents. I certainly didn’t want to discuss them, as I didn’t have any. At least, none I knew of. There had been four families in the last six years which seemed promising, but after the first two started insulting me and eventually beating me, I learned life on the street was better than living with people who didn’t really want me there. Yet the freedom of the streets did not always protect me from being beaten by others.

Getting away from one or two boys was easy, but they often came at me in groups. The fights had become frequent enough for Miazan to ask if I had started them or just finished them. Usually neither. The rich boys were always teasing me about being poor and weak. They called me names, but the one with the most sting was ‘girl.’ They used that word as an excuse every time I was unable to defend myself. They threw it at me as proof of how weak I was. I knew in my head my weaknesses were from being alone and hungry, but it still hurt to hear them use the term girl as the greatest insult they could devise.

The night was warm for springtime, and the fireflies darted across the cave entrance like tiny flaming arrows. Miazan spread one massive wing, using the strong leather web to pull me gently towards him. The sobs and tears flowed freely as I curled up next to his firm, warm hide. I cried for nearly an hour before falling asleep next to him.

* * *

The scent of dew awakening the buds of the forest wafted into the cave as the morning sun wiped away the remnants of my dream. I had been flying atop Miazan as he dropped garbage on the houses of the rich kids. They were running for their lives. It was a very nice dream. Reality wasn’t nearly as nice. I was sore from yesterday, though much improved from when I arrived. The stone floor of the cave wasn’t the worst surface I’d ever slept on.

My ankle felt as good as new, and the soreness from my black eye was gone. The scrape on my hand had vanished completely. As always, sleeping in this cave mended the worst of my injuries. When my eyes adjusted to the light, I found a feast lay before me. What looked like a whole tree’s worth of apples, as well as enough bacon and ham to account for an entire pig. I grabbed the nearest slice of ham and started stuffing my face. Miazan was certainly a good cook, and not just because he always made too much.

He was lying down on the other side of the cave, smiling at me. “It is good to see you again, Dani. May I ask what brings you out this way?” He ignored my poor eating manners and waited for a reply.

I swallowed a mouth full of bacon and smiled. This was part of the game we played. Miazan had started these conversations to improve my language skills. He was annoyed at my poor grammar and vocabulary when I first came, and took it upon himself to be my tutor. I’d been teased more than once by the village boys for using words with more than three syllables. Currently the challenge was to sound as pompous as possible. Miazan explained this is how they speak in royal courts, but I couldn’t imagine anyone talking like that all the time, let alone ever finding myself in a royal court. “I cordially seek refuge in your cave from forces most foul.” I grabbed another slice of ham.

“Refuge granted. Have the barbarous youths of Barrington been attacking again?” Miazan asked, then smiled back. His long rows of dagger-like teeth made even his most inviting smile appear threatening.

I was much better at this game than when we first started. I chewed as I formed the proper reply in my head. “Sadly, no. The foe I faced for the last fortnight was a person I once thought my friend.”

“Surely not Ashej.”

“No, he’s remained a decent host, though he’s become more distant since the difficulties began.”

“From your previous tales, Ashej and Eyrim have been very good to you, almost like a mother and father since their daughter Bluca was born.”

“You listen quite well. Have you been spying on me, or taking notes?”

Miazan laughed softly, causing several apples to roll around. “No, Dani. But dragons do have excellent memory.”

“‘Tis true, I’ve spoken highly and often of the generosity of the Velmor family.”

“What has happened to destroy your hopes?”

“Eyrim attacked me.”

His eyes flashed with green fire. “Surely not. How could this be?”

“I cannot understand it myself. For two weeks now she’s searched my room, watched me around the house, and asked if I was hiding something.”

“Were you?”

“I don’t have anything worth hiding. But yesterday, she accused me of hiding a weapon she thought you gave me.”

Miazan paused, his look becoming even more intense. “Dani, can you remember exactly what she said?”

“She wanted to know where I’d hidden the weapon the dragon gave me. Why? Do you know what she’s talking about?”

“No. I can’t imagine why she would think you’d obtained a weapon. But if she had called me out by name, things would be different.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.”

I stared at his beautiful and fierce saurian face while I tried to puzzle out what all this could mean. Unable to reach a conclusion, I decided to ask the hardest question of all. “Miazan, the refuge I seek this morning is… not a… a… not a… fleeting or… or temporary one.” Grabbing an apple, I took a loud bite from the sweet crisp fruit. It was too early in the season for apples, but I didn’t question where Miazan acquired these feasts.

Miazan’s smile disappeared. “I cannot always protect you, little one. No one can.”

“Why not?” Bits of apple escaped as I spoke. Chagrinned at my mistake, I swallowed the rest before continuing. “You’re so much older and stronger than I am. Why can’t I live here with you?”

“Dani, I enjoy your company. But you are a human, and have a full human life ahead of you. I cannot fulfill all your human needs. Sometimes I am gone for months to places you cannot come. Who would look after you then? No, you must learn to face your challenges and find ways to overcome them.”

“You know children aren’t allowed to earn money.”

“True, but you turn fourteen today, do you not?”

“Yes. I had hoped today I would have an apprenticeship. The Velmors have promised it for over two years.” The reminder rankled inside me, bringing a loss of hope, rather than a promise. “I thought I might have lost the chance when I left during the summer, but they offered again when I sought shelter with them when the nights grew cold last autumn.”

“Then you are qualified to become an apprentice.”

“Qualified? Age alone doesn’t qualify me. I have no skills to present, no parents to speak for me, or bargain on my behalf. Not even Ashej is going to help me now. Why can’t I be your apprentice?”

He gave me a stern look. With all those teeth and horns, I nearly ran in fear. “You know why, Dani. They will think you are a Thrall, and put you to death. Why don’t you find a mage? Don’t they have the responsibility to care for the widows and orphans?”

“Have you ever seen a mage in Barrington?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

He paused, then scratched the back of his head with his front paw. “Forty years ago, I guess.”

“Exactly. Besides, Nanny told me before she died, and more than once we came here to hide from kings, mages, and family.”

“If you ask me, your nanny wasn’t exactly thinking straight.”

“So you’ve said. But I was only eight when she died, and you never met her. So don’t judge her too much.”

“You’re right. What I should have said is, whatever reasons she had for avoiding authority or family don’t necessarily have to be yours. Especially when she never explained them.”

Staring up at him, for the first time in my life, I wondered if the mages would be more help than hassle. It had been decades since one had come here, and I didn’t know how to call them. “The only way I can find out is to leave Barrington, probably forever.”

“Would that be so bad?”

“Yes.” I was hesitant to explain why, and hoped he wouldn’t ask.

“There’s nothing for you in that town.”

“You’re right. I have everything I want right here. If you let me live in the cave, you can teach me to hunt for my food while you’re away.”

“No, Dani. I will not.”

“But you don’t know what it’s like to be afraid! You don’t have to run from anyone!” Looking down I noticed more than half the feast still spread out before me. Having eaten more than I usually did in a day, I had forgotten about the food.

Miazan’s big dragon sigh removed the last of the night chill from the cave. “Oh, Dani. You have learned much about dragons since we met. But there is so much more you don’t know.”

Looking into Miazan’s large eyes, I waited for him to continue.

“First of all, not all dragons are friendly to each other, or to humans, for that matter, and some of them are larger than I am. Secondly… I… used to be human myself.” Miazan stared pensively upward at the small stalactites. Most of the larger ones were broken.

I couldn’t imagine what he was looking at, but perhaps he just couldn’t face me when he said it. My expression grew to wonder as I realized the implications of what he’d just revealed. If he had been human once, maybe there was a chance I could… “How did you become a dragon?”

“It’s a long story I never share with humans. Sorry.” His gaze shifted over to the wall of artifacts. It seemed he was looking everywhere but into my eyes.

Sitting there, I stared at my old friend in disbelief. “Could you… I mean, could I… I mean…” I took a deep breath and spat it out before I could change my mind again. “I want to become a dragon too.”

Miazan’s head snapped back around and he looked me right in the eyes. “You don’t mean that. Don’t ever say that unless you mean it!”

I backed away. I’d never seen Miazan upset about anything. “But why? Can it be any worse than my life right now?”

“Yes, Dani. It can.”

I let out a long sigh. “But my only friend is a dragon. The only person in the world who even welcomes me is a dragon. Why can’t I be a dragon too?”

Miazan didn’t speak right away. His expression showed he was deep in thought. When he spoke, it was a whisper so quiet I could not believe a dragon as large as Miazan could make such a small noise. I didn’t even see his lips move. “You cannot be a dragon, little one, because I love you too much to put you through the horrors I endured.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I sat silently, staring into his large eyes. What horrors had he seen? How could keeping me human protect me from anything?

Then, as if he hadn’t spoken at all, he said in his normal voice, “Becoming a dragon is not easy, and it won’t solve your problems. It takes a long time to prepare. If you truly want to be a dragon, come back next year. Don’t mention it again until the next winter snow melts. If you still want to be a dragon, I’ll find a way for you.”

My eyes went wide with shock. Ignoring the whispered warning, I latched on to what I wanted to hear. “Thank you, Miazan! I know I won’t change my mind. And I promise, I won’t ask again until the next spring thaw.” I filled my sack with food and left the cave, walking on air. The warmth of spring was almost here, and I knew it would be a long wait, but at least I had hope.