When the first flash of scarlet flickered against onyx, the village nestled within the soft jaws of the hills was silent.
It was as if the mountain range, sleepy from the thousands of years through which it had weathered, opened its mouth wide in a yawn. There, between the teeth of jagged peaks, was the spongey flesh of a glen, upon which sat a cluster of creaking, wooden cottages.
But while the mountain may have been sleepy, not all its inhabitants could say the same.
Up and over the lip of the dale, the slope of the mountain was cloaked with trees. In daylight, their sweeping branches glistened a lush emerald, but at night, they morphed into dark giants, guarding the inky bowels of the woods. Shielding what breathed within them.
The villagers did not fear the mountains—not the biting alpine winds, the stubborn earth inhospitable to seeds, nor the unforgiving snow, against which they had prevailed for generations.
No, they feared what wandered those mountains, lurking within the trees. The words whispered by their ancestors into the wind told tales not of harsh winters or spoiled crops, but of the winged creatures that emerged from the trees at night.
It was because of these mercurial beasts, swooping through the darkness like nightmares themselves, that watchtowers had been built into the valley’s ridgeline. From this craggy rim those in the towers could light a flame, a beacon to warn the village if the creatures emerged.
So, when an inferno erupted against the dark canvas of the sky, scattering embers like molten stars, the quiet of the village began to unravel.
Inside one of the cottages, a voice shattered the silence: “Rowan!”
The girl Rowan roused from her place near the hearth, rubbing blurriness from her eyes. “What is it?”
Her father’s words sent frost scampering down Rowan’s back, freezing away her grogginess. She shot to her feet and launched into rehearsed action.
She retrieved her smooth, curving bow and sheath of falcon-feathered arrows. A gift from her father. She still remembered the words that had accompanied the gift.
This is not to defend only yourself, but the village. You now share the responsibility of protecting it, no matter the threat.
She shrugged a cloak over her shoulders, leaving it crooked in her haste, before shoving out the door and into the frigid air.
She paid no notice to the cold piercing her skin, instead running with the other villagers to the trail that would lead up the ridge. Where they would lay in wait amongst the rocks, arrows nocked, ready to release into the sky with the twitch of a finger.
Yet when she reached the top of the slope, moonlight illuminating the warm breath that condensed before her face, this was not what she found.
Instead of remaining silent, hidden in the stone, prepared to defend their home, the villagers stood in a cluster, bows hanging at their sides.
“Again, Caleth? This is the second time this month!”
“They are there! I saw them!”
“That’s what you said last time, and there was nothing.”
Raised voices came from the center of the crowd, and Rowan pushed through it until she could see the owners. One of the older villagers was speaking to the watchtower guard, Caleth.
“They flew out of the trees,” Caleth was saying, pointing at the woods below them. “They were larger than anything I’ve ever seen, blotting out the moon—”
“They are legends!” shouted the elder. “Fables! Stories passed through generations, told to children. These watchtowers are here to defend us from real threats. From raiders. If you continue to rouse the village for threats that do not exist, I will have to remove you from your position.”
Grumblings rustled through the crowd, which began to trickle back down the slope.
Before turning to follow, Rowan glanced at the boy from the watchtower, Caleth. He stood rooted to the spot, glaring into the sky. Rowan followed his gaze, but saw no creatures soaring through the shadows.
The next morning, Rowan was once again awoken by a shout.
Crisp, warm rays fell upon the glen as Rowan pushed outside, squinting in the brightness. This time, villagers clustered within the valley rather than atop its slope.
“They’re all gone. Every single one.”
Rowan turned to a woman standing near her. “What’s gone?”
“All the yaks,” she answered, “vanished.”
The village elder released a growl. “Raiders,” he muttered, “they must have come last night, after we returned to bed. If we hadn’t been distracted by the false signal…” he stomped away, leaving the villagers staring at the empty field.
The next time fire erupted into the sky, staining the blackness with crimson, Rowan was awake.
Her father had left with a small scouting party. The elder, still fuming from the loss of the yaks, was determined to find the raiders. Convinced they could not have gone far, he’d sent a group of villagers after them. Rowan sat awake, wondering how long he would be gone, when the flare went off.
Rowan seized her bow and cloak just like the night before. Just like her father had taught her to do.
She ran outside. There was no one else around her—had they all beat her to the ridge?
With that thought, she began to sprint up the trail.
Yet when she reached the precipice, no one was there, either—no one but the guard in the watchtower. The one who was scrambling to light another flare.
“Caleth was right!” he shouted, voice shrill. “No one believed him, but they’re here!”
Darkness descended over the ridge as suddenly the moon’s rays vanished, eclipsed by onyx shapes in the sky.
Yet when the guard lit another distress signal, no one came. Rowan was alone on the ridge as the obsidian creatures no one else believed to exist descended from above.