By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: There have always been legends about the dragons in the hills. I’m just not so sure anymore that they’re legends.
Every morning for the last week, I’ve done the same things. I eat breakfast with my folks. I try to duck out of the way when my older brothers cuff me on the head.
Sometimes they miss. Sometimes I move too late. Every time I hate that they do it.
I grab my books and run out the door. My mother yells chores at me. I wave a hand above my head to tell her I’ll get to them.
Then I come here.
The coming here is different. For all 17 years of my life, it seems, I’ve followed the routine I just described. Avoiding my brothers has varied. Some months they seem to like me just fine; others they seem intent on using me as the scapegoat for everything that’s wrong.
Why can’t they use each other as punching bags? They know one another better than any of us know them. They’re not-quite twins—close enough in age to seem like it, but far enough in age that Pietr lords it over Marvin whenever he can.
They’ve always had the advantages. Good clothes. New pencils for school. Their pick of the chores.
Their pick of the girls.
Except Charlotte; but anyway.
Coming here is mine. It’s the one thing they don’t know about. Yet. Oh, no doubt, one day one of them will get irritated at me for something that they’ve fouled up, and then he’ll follow me and tell the other one.
For now, though. Now. This is mine.
I start by watching the sun rise over the last mountain top. It takes a while. The village is in the valley, so climbing to this rise is a hike with its own time. But when I found the key, I knew I had to start here every morning.
After watching the sun rise, I let my gaze wander to the castle. Just for a few minutes.
The key, you see, belongs to it. I think. From what I remember from my history lessons in school, about emblems and family crests and things, that’s what makes the most sense.
I should ask Master Orn about it. He’s the history lecturer. But he always takes a more-than-keen interest in things from the past, and I don’t want to share this with him. Or anyone.
Maybe Charlotte. Okay, yes, Charlotte. But I can’t share it with her until I know what it is for sure.
This morning, like every morning, I finger the key in my pocket. My thumb traces the emblem on the head. I don’t say the name of what’s on it out loud, not even up here on the rise. People would either laugh at me, tell me I’m all kinds of crazy, or stare at me and make the crossed fingers gesture that wards off the evil eye.
I can think the name, though.
Even with the word in mind, not hanging in the air, I can’t help but look over my shoulder. Someone must have heard me. Someone.
Never mind that the mind readers died out centuries ago. Nothing really dies, does it? It just takes different shapes and forms and brings different stories. Leaves behind traces of those stories until one of us finds a piece or two or ten and we start wondering how much of the stories was true.
Like the key in my pocket.
There have always been legends about the dragons in the hills. Tales of how they coexisted with the kings and queens who used to rule us. Those same people who would make the crossed fingers at me would tell me I’m spending too much time tutoring the little ones at the primary school.
Maybe—a year ago or a month ago—I would have believed them. About the dragons, that is. But now…now I’m not so sure anymore that they’re legends.
We all know the stories about the two queens, of course. The two queens who ruled Santaquin. The sister queens, although we’d never had two queens before that and they didn’t rule long enough for anyone to find out whether they would have been good queens.
All any of us know, all history tells us, is that one day the queens vanished. The queens, their courtiers, their handmaidens and the cooks and the scullery lads and anyone who worked in the castle. Gone.
Truthfully, if the castle didn’t stand still, most people would have probably thought the queens themselves were a legend. I think many believe that anyway. After all, who knows what went on in a castle a hundred years ago?
All children are required to learn the history of Santaquin, though, so we memorize the facts. The date of when the queens ascended their thrones and the approximate dates of when they vanished. No one knows for sure, you see.
At that point in the history lesson, most students start rolling their eyes or asking whether we can go back to talking about the War of Five Days. Much more interesting, they say, to speculate about that rather than about a pair of scared sisters. After all, Santaquin is fine, isn’t it? The villages of the kingdom learned to govern themselves. They get along well with one another. For the most part. There was the dispute between Tremonton and Honeyville, but it got sorted out. Eventually. The war did only last five days after all. So who needs a unified kingdom?
When I attended those first lectures with Master Orn, I had to sit on my hand to keep it from shooting straight up to ask my questions. I was old enough to know by then that the lecturers only liked a certain number of questions per session. Ask too many, and they would either scold you or ask you to do a report on it for extra points. When I’d ask after the lecture about where I could do my research, some of them would “forget” about my original question or tell me they had to rush to the next hall or to their late afternoon carriage or somewhere else.
Once, Mistress Gladys fainted. She had looked a little green during lecture, so the rational side of me wants to believe that she had eaten some bad turnips as she’d claimed. Part of me couldn’t help wondering whether she’d feigned the illness. Or eaten the turnips in anticipation of me asking questions.
Eventually I discovered the library and spent hours in there. I found few texts on the sisters. The one that made the deepest impression showed them, posed, with serious looks under the family crest. A crest that bears the same dragon on the key in my pocket.
Every morning, when I run out of the house, before I go to my lectures for the day, I come to this rise. Somewhere along the run that leaves me breathless, I wonder if I should ask Pietr or Marvin about the key. About whether the upper-level lectures Master Orn gives their classes mentions anything more about the sisters. Or the dragons.
Every morning, as I run, I change my mind. Why should I share this with them? It would just give them another thing to slap me around about.
I try to ignore my greater fear: that they’d demand I give them the key. That they’d submit it to the village authorities.
That they’d take Charlotte’s attention away.
So I come here. I stare at the castle. And I wonder. About the sisters and about dragons.