by Jay Wilburn
They started early.
The chapel would not hold until morning, but the other buildings in the village were broken. The survivors had fallen back as far as they could.
Collin whispered. “It’s up to God, boards, and plaster now.”
The stained glass shattered behind the boards. The creature’s hard beak drilled high between them. The nails groaned as they pulled loose from the wall. One of the planks splintered. The monster drew away and rammed into the barrier again.
Collin’s mother ran through the gathering of smaller children huddled between the pews.
“Stay by the door, Collin.”
The double doors bucked against him and the other boys pressing there. He could already hear teeth chewing through the flat wood on the other side.
Collin missed his father in that moment. This had been a tough season and his father had not made it through the height of the dangerous summer.
Collin’s mother snatched up the stand and lifted the torch. The beak opened revealing sharp, blue fangs. She inserted the flame against the wet tongue licking between them and over the beak. The creature howled and fell away. Its icy breath caused the torch to flicker briefly. Black feathers fluttered into the church from the monster’s aged hide.
Collin stared on those feathers with hatred. He remembered his father’s concern through the beginning of the year at the large amount of down and the great lack of rodents. Collin had thought it was a blessing. In the spring, the growing, winged serpents had taken to attacking the livestock at night. By summer, there was no safe time. The creatures spread their bright feathers across the sun and took more than just Collin’s father. The fires seemed to never end. By fall, the dragons’ fires cooled, but not their full-grown appetites. The population of them made giant hordes that hunted the countryside in mass. Even as they fought each other, they tore apart any living thing they could find. The wretched, dark monsters picked through the ruins all winter until there seemed nothing left to fight for any longer.
Collin’s mother handed the torch to one of the men. “Don’t hesitate next time or we are lost.”
The doors kicked against Collin’s palms.
As Collin’s mother passed by with his father’s sword, Collin said, “I wish father was here.”
She scolded him. “Turn your useless wishing into prayers for those of us still alive on this last day of our harshest season yet. Your father never saw a murder of dragons like this.”
Collin did not tell her, but he missed the young, spring dragons breathing sulfur and even the adolescent summer dragons belching fire.
One of the boys whispered. “Why aren’t they called a pack or a flock, Collin?”
“Shut up and man your post.” Collin hissed.
Another window shattered. Collin’s mother charged. The boards exploded out from the first window on the opposite side of the sanctuary. The torch hit the floor and ignited the pews. The creature breathed out its icy mist and the man collapsed dead into the fire. Even as his clothes burned, his frozen blood turned his dead skin blue.
The door cracked under Collin’s hands.
At midnight, silence swallowed the chapel. Children still beat the smoldering floor with coats trying not to slip on the frost and patches of ice from the battle. Collin held his dagger with his back to his mother in the center of the church.
“New Year.” Someone breathed.
He ran for the broken doors as his mother called for him. “We must stay inside until morning, son. Collin, don’t!”
He staggered out into the darkness. The church stood battered and surrounded by piles of shed feathers and scales. Most of the fledglings had taken flight into the sky to grow for another year.
Collin saw one pile moving and he advanced. The naked dragon crawled out of the black feathers licking its soft, new skin. It saw Collin and tried to fly on tiny, wet wings. It was as small as a puppy.
He lifted his dagger, but his mother stayed his hand. “These are not the same creatures. This is a new year. Tomorrow we rebuild in safety.”
“They do not stay small, mother.”
“It’s the New Year, Collin. We must extend forgiveness, if we want it granted.”
Collin gripped his dagger as he watched the reborn dragon bob away in the cold air after its new murder.
Collin saw his breath as he whispered. “They do not stay small and they do not extend mercy to us.”