The blast of a gun and an unearthly scream jerked Jim awake. He lurched upright in his sleeping bag, knocking his research papers across the tent. For a moment he simply froze, his mind unable to process the sounds above the noise of the coastal storm.
Should he stay where he was? Could some kind of maniac be out here in the rugged Nova Scotia woods?
Must be a hunter, he tried to reassure himself. But at night? In this gale? He strained his ears, trying to catch any unusual sounds above the crashing waves, thrashing wind, rumbling thunder, and the plunking of rain on the fabric cocooning him.
Nothing. Nothing strange at all.
“Take it easy, Jim,” he muttered. “Always a logical explanation.” He laughed wryly at himself – logical for the man hunting down the mythology of Viking settlements on these shores. And the real symbolism of their dragon ships. He had theories…crazy maybe. But his belief in the possibility and what that would mean gnawed at him. Drove him out here in the raw wilds.
For several minutes he strained his ears, but the sound that had crashed him awake was not repeated. A nightmare, maybe. This storm was enough to make anyone nervous.
Just as he was relaxing back, groping tentatively in the dark to retrieve and put his papers in a stack, another gunshot, closer this time, exploded through the night. The tent rattled at the blast even against the wind’s pull.
Jim froze gripping the edges of his sleeping bag. “Don’t be such a damn coward,” he told himself fiercely. “Hiding in here might get you shot…” Going out there might get him shot too. Better not think about that.
His tent shone fluorescent orange, but whoever was firing off a gun on a night like this had to be stinking drunk or incredibly stupid. Probably both. And had he really heard a scream? It could have been an animal wounded in the onslaught. Or…his blood shivered…a fugitive pursued by lunatics.
Who knew what went on in the woods along this sparsely populated shore? Rocks, scraggly spruce and thick brush hugged the wild coastline. There were no harbors, no arable land to have enticed early settlers. Later inhabitants stayed in the paths laid down by their ancestors.
Heedless of his papers, Jim struggled out of the sleeping bag, pulled on his jacket, and grabbed the flashlight. He had just gotten himself outside the tiny tent and snapped on the beam when two men carrying heavy-duty rifles and blindingly bright lanterns tore into his campsite.
“Did you see it?” The red-haired man had a manic glint in his eyes. He swung the lantern around, illuminating the tossing trees.
“By God, we smoked it out!” his companion panted.
“You idiots! Your gunfire came right over my campsite,” Jim shouted over the wind. “What kind of fools are you?”
“Righteous ones,” Red snarled back. “I’m Roger and this is my brother Daniel St. George. We saw the devil beast. Knew there was a nest of ‘em in the caves somewhere. And damn it, we got this one! Winged it!”
Daniel grabbed his brother’s arm. “Shut up, Roger.”
Roger shook him off and sneered in contempt. “A dragon. We got the dragon. Whaddya think of that?”
As the hunter watched narrow-eyed for the effect of his words, Jim stiffened. His breath came in short, sharp pants as though he had been running…running all his life toward this moment. All his studies of mythology, his research into the rumored Viking barrows, all the longing in his soul, had arrowed him to this intersection of time.
Stay quiet! Instinct warned him. Keep your quest the secret it’s always been.
“Roger, shut up, ” Daniel commanded again. He scanned Jim’s face warily. “We had a few too many, I guess. Shooting at eagles and deer. Sorry to bother you. Won’t happen again.”
“No…no…I…” Jim couldn’t form words. His heart pounded and insane hope tsunamied through his brain.
It was true. All true. Here be dragons. The hints in old records, his triangulation of winds and ocean currents, the utter conviction in his soul that right here lay the reality of everything he had searched for.
Somehow he managed to pretend that he was some camper taking shelter from the storm, irritated by being woken up, but skeptically good-humored.
In turn, the strangers pretended to be apologetic as they backed away from the beam of his flashlight, disappearing into the woods toward the shore, their own lanterns slashing the unquiet dark. Jim sank down on a log, breathing hard, hands clenching and unclenching.
What should he do?
There was no way he could crawl back into his tent as if this had never happened. And the scream he had heard. The hunters said they had winged a dragon. Could it be true? Could a great, magical creature be wounded, maybe hurt to the point of death, lost somewhere in these woods?
Surging to his feet, Jim snapped off his flashlight. He had to get to the dragon. Had to search somehow without the St. George brothers noticing him.
Another volley of shots reverberated through the night. Another inhuman scream raked the air. Without hesitating, Jim ran toward the sound. Near the coastline, maybe above the bluff where the waves beat mercilessly against the shore.
Stumbling over rocks, catching on branches, he fought his way through the brush. Twice he fell, his hands and face scraping on the ground and rough bark of the spruces. He gasped, breath harsh in his throat, and scrambled his way up a hillside that sheered off above the ocean. His feet sank in spongy ground. He fell again; but when he looked up, he saw her.
The dragon shone pearly grey in the deep night. Rearing upwards, she expanded her wings as though trying to launch into flight. But her left wing dripped blood and hung awkwardly. Her tormentors howled in triumph, brandishing their guns, pushing her back towards the bluff, hurling stones and branches at her silvery skin.
“No!” Jim screamed.
The dragon reared upwards again, crying piteously. The St. George’s bayed in derision. Jim ran forward, spreading his arms as though to protect the dragon from the onslaught of the hunters.
“Get away,” he shouted. “No! Stop! Get away!” He ran at the men, waving his arms as though to protect her from them.
The two brothers darted behind her. Roger pulled the gun up to his shoulder, taking aim. The dragon fell down, beaten.
“No!” Jim shouted. He circled around and ran toward the men, fighting the wind and slippery turf. And then above the crashing surf, he heard the sucking rumble of the bank giving way, crashing down into the ocean.
The hunters yelled and danced for footing, but the cliffside, weakened by waves, collapsed, tumbling them to the surf below. Rocks and mud slid down with them, carrying the men to the rocky shore, half burying them in scree.
“Oh God,” Jim muttered. “Oh my God.”
He stood frozen now, unsure whether to turn back to the wounded dragon or search for the fallen men. His head swiveled toward the dragon, but in a shimmer of pearly grey light, the creature disappeared. A young woman, naked, clutching a bleeding arm, lay in the sodden grass.
Bewildered, Jim stared. She gazed back, grey eyes exhausted. “I am Audra,” she said, voice husky and uncertain. She tried to stand, but with a moan collapsed.
He looked uncertainly at the dark water. There was nothing to be seen but black waves, no sounds but wind and water. The men were gone. And before him lay the desire of his heart.
Jim stumbled forward and knelt by her side, felt for a pulse, and then throwing his jacket over her, carried her back to his camp. He thought he could feel her heart beating as she lay in his arms.
The storm was finally easing, wind dropping, rain falling in short sweeps rather than torrents. He laid her down on his sleeping bag and switched on his flashlight so that the beam fell on the unconscious woman. The pearly glow was fading; blood still dripped from Audra’s arm.
“Don’t die,” he whispered hoarsely. “Oh, dear God…Please don’t die.” Feverishly, he wrapped her in a blanket and bound the wound with supplies from his first aid kit.
What about the men who had fallen down the cliff? The gorge rose in his throat at the memory of the hunters’ vicious taunting and then the surreal picture of them scrabbling in the air as they fell.
Audra’s silver white hair brushed his arm like fine silk. Her eyes opened and she laid silver-tipped fingers over his arm. He lowered his head and tears ran down his cheeks. He would take Audra home, heal her…love her.
Once he had the dragon woman settled in the car, Jim rapidly packed up every bit of anything that would show he had ever been there. He paused and looked around the campsite. Dawn was breaking through the trees, showering golden light everywhere.
He would call for an ambulance to search for the men at the next gas station. Maybe he was doing wrong by not first going to the aid of the men…but they had tried to destroy Audra.
And now that he had glimpsed it, nothing could make him go back to a world without magic. Nothing.
This is the story of how Addie and Jacob's father rescued and fell in love with the Great Dragon Audra. The twins' story is the book, Dragons of Waves and Wind, which will be released in 2018.
If you enjoyed this short story, check out my other free short dragon stories: Wonder Woman and the Dragons, Dragon Dreams, Nell and the Ice Dragon and Dragon Love. My full-length novels Dragons of Desert and Dust and Dragons of Frost and Fire are available in paperback, Kindle and other ebook platforms.