I could not shake the uneasy feeling inside of my chest as Father and I left the church and headed towards the stables. There were always fresh horses available for the Sheriff and his men to use in the stable adjacent to the jailhouse. Mother and my brothers had taken our cart home before the sky had blackened, and it was Father’s official duty as sheriff to stay until the festivities ended. It was also his duty to make sure no villagers got too rowdy or things did not get out of hand.
I was quiet as we cut across the muddied streets, my head a jumble of thoughts I feared I would never untangle. I had started this day full of promise, courting two girls, and with my knife and my dignity. Now, as night had fallen across the land, I had lost all of those things and had gained another girl’s hatred to boot. My life was forever tarnished from this point forward. The witch of Stonehill wasn’t the only one with secrets to keep. I would not breathe a word of hers to another living soul, but I knew the same could not be said of mine. That old wench Yara’s tongue was probably already wagging about the sheriff’s son peculiar fit. Perhaps I could just not show my face in the village until spring, and by then surely they would have other shameful things to speak about.
Father noticed my unusual silence. His boots sloshed in the mud as he crossed the distance between us and placed his hand upon my shoulder.
“Do not trouble yourself, son. This shall pass. There is no reason to feel ashamed about what took place in the church.”
“I have many things to be ashamed for on this night Father,” I spoke.
“There is nothing that cannot be undone so long as you still drawl breath Braylon.”
I wanted to take Father’s words to heart and keep them close. But I did not know how to fix this. I had messed up with Raya and Ledora. I had hurt them both. And I had incited the fury of the witch of Stonehill. No, her name was Azra. And it was probably a good thing she was not a real witch, or she would surely hex me.
Father and I could hear the pounding of hooves along the village road. Someone was traveling awfully fast on a night such as this. With the wetness of the road, and the darkness of it, it was foolish to be running their animal in such haste. Perhaps the traveler was running from something, or up to no good. Mother always said nothing good happened when God’s light faded.
Father must have been thinking such a thing, because I saw him drag his sword from its sheath and motion me to the side of the path. I longed to have a sword in my own hands, one day soon I vowed I would. Father and I waited in alert, he standing in front of my person like a shield. I did not protest, for I knew it would be in vain.
The traveler came into view, riding upon a brown steed. I could not make out their face, as it was cloaked in shadows from their raised hood, but they were soaked to the bone. A desperate cry flew from their lips.
“Help! Is anyone out there! Help!”
And my boots were already squelching and slipping across the muddied Earth as I ran towards the sound. I recognized that voice. I made out his face soon afterwards, as he rode into the light. Father Branigan, though he looked pale. Only one hand clutched his reigns tightly. The other was pressed against his chest. My father was close behind me.
Father Branigan made eye contact with me by the light of the lanterns. His eyes were wide and laced with fear. I caught that fear inside of me.
“Braylon, praise be to our heavenly Father! Make haste! The beast has taken her! Swopped down from the sky and carried her off in his claws. But all is not lost we must go after them. Azra could live yet!”
His words made my feet stop working. I slipped upon the mud and struggled to right myself. Surely, this could not be. I was dreaming with my eyes open. Father Branigan tumbled from his still moving horse and landed in a tangle of limbs on the road. Father ran past me and kneeled in the mud beside the priest. I could do nothing but watch. A fine sheriff I would make.
Father looked down into Father Branigan’s eyes before he searched his person for the signs of the injury that had knocked him from his horse and drained the blood from his face.
“Speak it again Father! What has happened?” asked my Father.
“The beast…a dragon came upon us quickly on the road and took Azra. Carried her off towards the mountains. Her poor horse fell into the trees from a great height, but the beast took her.”
I noticed he was shaking as if in great pain. He clutched one hand to his belly, and that hand was darkened with blood. It was then I could see the crimson upon his chest. It had stained through his cloak and his robes were askew, tattered. Bile rose in my throat when I noticed that pieces of his guts had were poking out through the shreds of his robes. He had been trying to hold his insides in.
I vomited into the mud at my feet, while my Father held his hand upon Father Branigan’s wounds to help stop the bleeding. By this time Mylon had appeared outside the church while I heaved up my guts. Father told Mylon to run and fetch the healer while I wiped my mouth on my sleeve.
Mylon did not ask any questions but ran to grant the sheriff’s request.
“We shall do what we can Father,” said the sheriff. “Keep still.”
“It is too late for me my child, but save the girl. I hear the man in your jail is well versed in dragons. Perhaps he knows where the beast nests,” said the priest.
Father Branigan began to cough. Trickles of blood dribbled from the corners of his lips. I dropped into the mud besides them. So far I had been utterly useless in this situation. I grabbed Father Branigan’s hand and held it tightly as if I could keep him tethered to this world. It was clear, he did not have much longer to drawl breathes.