Dragon Strife - the complete epic fantasy trilogy
***As a special thank you for ordering from my web store, I am including the audio commentary into your order free of charge ($15 value)***
Are you in love with epic fantasy?
Do you swoon for dragons?
Do you love getting lost in elaborate worlds?
Then you'll love the Dragon Strife trilogy.
Gilda will die today.
She has lived her whole life for one purpose—to be sacrificed to the great dragon lord, Ewig. And now, when the sun falls over the horizon, the time will come to fulfill her duty and walk to her death.
It was a fine life, but a lonely one.
As payment for her service, the City Council bestowed her with riches, allowed her to live in the lap of luxury, and fed her the finest food. She never knew hunger or strife, even when others worked themselves to the bone and suffered starvation.
The others always resented her for that, but they never knew her pain. Theirs was a hard life, but at least they got to live it. Gilda never had that choice. She would not live to see adulthood. She would never be married or have children.
All that remained of her brief existence was to walk up the lonely volcano to the dragon’s keep with honor, even though nobody treated her with any during her life.
Join her as she lives the last hours of her life, and find out what happens once she enters the dragon’s cavern and everything changes; for her life, for her town, and for the world.
***This order is for all three books in the trilogy. PLUS, for ordering on my web store, I'm throwing in the audio commentaries of all three books for free (a $15 value)!***
What's different about this series?
The one thing that always fascinated me about epic fantasy was the idea of a dragon sacrifice. It's usually told from the perspective of a hero saving the damsel, but I wanted to explore what would happen to the damsel who was meant to be a sacrifice, and what would happen if she became the hero.
Dragon Strife plays with the idea that nobody is expendable because the world is changed by the people in it, even the smallest ones.
The least interesting part of this whole series is the sacrifice itself because what I wanted to explore is what happens when the sacrifices that were cast out by society came home, and have to face the people who were complicit in their execution.
The story moves on from there, and trust me there are plenty of dragon battles as the series goes on, but what is really important in this is how Gilda has been shaped by being bred for sacrifice her entire life, and what happens when she gets her life back.
The world of Dragon Strife
In the world of Dragon Strife, dragons and humans banded together a hundred years ago to defeat the gods and create a barrier around the planet that they could never penetrate again.
However, with the gods gone, the 13 dragons that remained realized they were the most powerful beings on the planet by a wide margin, and forced humanity into servitude to them.
The most important of these traditions is that every five years the villages that are "blessed" by a dragon presence must choose a sacrifice to the great dragon, who will be eaten alive in exchange for the dragon continuing to bless the town.
Ewig is the smallest of the dragons, and while most of the dragons have chosen grand libraries, impenetrable fortresses, or capitals to inhabit, Ewig chose the sleepy town of Yesiburgh.
He is as feared as his siblings, but he is quiet and prefers solitude. Now, at the hundredth year of this ritual, Gilda was chosen as the sacrifice, and in meeting with the great dragon Ewig, everything in the world will change.
Gilda was chosen at birth as a sacrifice to the great dragon, Ewig. She had no choice in the matter. She was a victim of circumstance. Her life was one of privilege, but solitude, with only the other sacrifices for friendship, and one that would end with her death, being eaten alive by a dragon in her 15th year of life.
She will never have children. She will never find love. She will, forever, be an innocent, trapped in a no-win situation by forces beyond her control.
Today, I will die.
This wasn’t a surprise to me. I had been preparing for it my whole life, but I never thought it would come until it crashed upon me this morning like a suffocating wave. Fifteen years on this Earth seemed like so much time when I was younger, but now, at the end, I realized how little time it really was.
I was always an early bird. I woke with the sun, ready for the start of a new day. However, when the tender kiss of light touched my eyes on my final morning alive, I shut them tighter and pulled my sheets over my head. If I didn’t face the day, then perhaps my death would never come.
I trained for this since I was a small child, but there is no amount of preparation that readied you for being swallowed by a dragon; its horrible, jagged teeth ripping through the white dress Sister Milka sewed special for the occasion and tearing your flesh as it gnashed against your virgin body.
Somebody softly knocked on the door to my room. “Gilda, we need to get started. Today is a big day.”
Sacrifices were given every privilege. We wanted for nothing in our short lives, and after our deaths, those we loved were taken care of for the rest of their days. It was what the villagers bestowed upon us to assuage their guilt, and it was a small price to pay compared to the one we paid.
We were the salvation of the village, after all. It was only because of our noble sacrifice that the great dragon lord Ewig stayed satiated in his cave inside the volcano that loomed above us and didn’t sweep down to destroy us.
That was the pact, cemented in blood a hundred years ago. Every five years, one of us must willingly walk to our deaths, and in return, the great dragon would watch over our village, and prevent the great volcano that loomed over us from erupting, burying our village under its magma.
It was a great honor to be chosen as the sacrificial lamb. That was what the line they told me at least, but today it certainly didn’t seem like an honor. It seemed like I was raised like a lamb for slaughter, provided every luxury to die at the right moment.
“Coming!” I said after a long pause. Sister Milka was a harsh and unforgiving mistress, and would not accept anything but perfection today, on my last day of life. Every day of my life she watched over me, training me to die well. Even now, at the end, she would not take her foot off my neck. Especially now, with so much on the line, with the prosperity of our town riding on the spillage of my blood before the clock struck midnight tonight.
I slipped my sandals on my feet and rose to stand. Before I answered the door, I spun and made my bed, as I was trained to do; the first sign of an uncluttered mind was a perfectly made bed. It was the least we could do to show how much we appreciated all we were given.
As I pulled the corner of the bed taut, I thought about not tucking in the final edge as a little sign of rebellion. However, when I tried to leave it mussed, pangs of guilt washed over me, until they were so overwhelming that, with shaking hands, I forced the last edge of my blanket in tightly.
Once I was dead, my house would become a museum, and my room a shrine, preserved exactly how I left it, and I didn’t want my mother to have to explain that her perfect daughter died a slob. Why do I care what people think of me after my death?
With the bed made, I walked to the door and placed my hand on the knob. The minute I opened it, the machinations of my last hours, those that I trained for my whole life, would wash over me one after another.
“It’s time to open this door, missy.”
I closed my eyes and felt my breath against my chest, rising and lowering in slow, rhythmic time with the beating of my heart. They were small gestures, in the grand scheme, but right now, they were everything, and soon, much too soon, they would fall fallow and motionless forever.
What would happen after I took my final breath? According to the church, I would rise up into the sky and take my place among the stars, but what did they know? The gods were long dead, and the dragons that remained had none of their love of humanity.
Banging came from the other side of the door, and Sister Milka’s shrill voice cut through the air. “That’s quite enough of this dawdling, Gilda! Open the door this instant.”
Her shouting pulled me out of my calm, and I turned the doorknob. She exploded into the room, her trim frame and long face cutting an imposing image against the harsh light that fell into the room. She was not a big woman, but her presence filled my small room like none other.
“Good morning, mistress,” I said, bowing my head to avoid her gaze. You never looked the nuns in the eyes.
She didn’t answer for a long moment, busying herself with checking my room, inspecting my bed, and running her fingers across the top of my dresser, looking for dust. She rubbed her fingers together and gave a small nod. “I see your mother took this cleaning seriously.”
I nodded to her, keeping my eyes turned to the ground. “Of course, mistress. She scrubbed all day and into the evening.”
Sister Milka not only ran the monastery and school in town, but personally looked over all of us chosen for sacrifice, of which there were three at any time. It was a job she took seriously and had since taking her vows fifty years ago.
“Well, let me get a look at you,” she said. “Stand up straight.”
It was crucial that I not have a flaw or imperfection on my naked body, and for fifteen years I can’t remember a time when I lifted a finger in manual labor. My mother made all my meals, or a member of the community would deliver it, and everything else was taken care of so I could keep myself flawless for my date with Ewig.
I dropped my nightgown to the floor and endured the intense gaze of Sister Milka as she examined every inch of me. Two years ago, I judged a livestock competition, and she looked at me like the other judges looked at the cattle on display, trying to decide which one would give the best meat.
“You need to shave every inch of you, except your head,” she said. “We do not want the great dragon lord to get a hairball now, do we?”
I shook my head. “No, mistress.”
“Good, good.” She placed her hands under my breasts, and then pinched the sides of my waist. “You have put on decent weight in the past year, my dear. Yes, I think the dragon lord will be most impressed with you.” Then she moved her hand to my face, and brushed her hand along my cheek. “You are truly one of my greatest girls. I am so proud of what you have become.”
A compliment? She never gave me a compliment before. She had nothing but bitter, terse words for me, that stuck into my gut with pain and tore at my mind.
“T-thank you, mistress.”
She moved her hand to my chin and pulled it up to meet her eyes, a great honor she afforded very few. “No, thank you, my dear. The sacrifice you make tonight is a greater burden than any child should bear.”
Tears filled my eyes as I stared into Sister Milka’s face. Her eyes were a cold, dark brown, and even though her words were kind, her face was sharp, and her voice terse, taking much of the tenderness from them.
“No need for that.” Sister Milka pulled her hand from my face and slid a white handkerchief from her pocket. “This is a happy occasion, after all. Your sacrifice will save us all. There is no greater gift. Now, clean yourself up, and I will draw your bath.”
Every morning, I soaked in a tub of buttermilk and rose petals for one hour. A small fire pit under the porcelain tub heated the buttermilk, so it would soak into my skin better, making it satin smooth. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized it also helped make me taste delicious to the great dragon who would consume me later in the day, like a hunk of stew meat marinated overnight for a great feast. Like the one we would have tonight in my honor, the one time in the last five years everyone in the town would eat as well as I did every night.
Even with Ewig’s blessing, my village was a harsh place to live, even in the best of times. The land was unyielding, and it took hardened souls to work it. Children were raised from a young age for a hard life in the fields or cutting timber in the forest. Time chiseled our jaws and hardened our bodies until our palms were little more than one large callus.
Not me, though. My hands were as smooth as a newborn’s, and my face never lost its baby fat. While my classmates wanted for food all the time and their stomachs cried out for even a sliver of a morsel, my belly was always full. Fifteen years of a full belly in exchange for my life seemed like a worse deal the older I became, but it was a good way to live.
“Don’t forget to scrub off the dead flesh,” Sister Milka said from the other room. “Nothing but the newest, freshest skin for Ewig’s feast.”
The hardest part of my day was pumicing the dead skin off my arms and legs. When I was done, my legs were red and raw, and after I shaved, my body was smooth and hairless, except for the three-foot long hair on top of my head. After an hour, I stood and stepped out of the tub, dripping myself dry as I wiped the fogged mirror on the far side of the room. My face was round, and the freckles on either side of my cheeks popped against my pale, ivory skin. I was not allowed in the light of the sun, and if I needed to step outside during the day, a parasol was absolutely essential so as to not spoil Ewig’s prize.
I touched my cheek, feeling the fresh, smooth skin underneath it, and longed for a long life of hardship, like the others in my village, instead of a short life of decadence like I had lived for far too short a time.
I received jealous looks whenever others had to sacrifice their rations to me during a famine, or a drought, but Sister Milka was quick to point out that I would burn bright and fast, then extinguish brilliantly in order to save them all. Compared to that, any other sacrifice was inconsequential. All that mattered was keeping me and the other girls safe so that the village may live on in prosperity.
I wondered often, as they glowered at me, how many of them would trade places with me if they could. It was impolite to ask, but if I mustered the courage, and they were honest with their answers, I wondered what they would say. Could they even understand what it meant to live my life, to know without a doubt that you would never live to graduate, get married, or have a child? My life was full of frivolities, yes, and I was granted access to a level of wealth that I could never hope to achieve on my own, but that access came at the price of my life.
“One hundred brushes for every strand,” Sister Milka said from the other room. “I will know if you have slacked off.”
What did it matter if I brushed my hair a hundred times, or twenty? Would the others hold it against me when I would be dead by the next sunrise? Would Ewig refuse to rip me apart if I chose to stow my brush, or if I cut my hair in the short bob I always coveted on the other girls in class?
“Yes, mistress,” I said.
No, it didn’t matter what I did, I was sure of it. Ewig would eat me either way. This part wasn’t about me. It was about Sister Milka, who would return to the village after escorting me to the entrance of Ewig’s cave, tears in her eyes, and give a final blessing to those gathered at the edge of town; the mayor, the elders of the town, the soldiers who would report back to the king of our success, the other cedars who would sacrifice their lives in due time, and my mother.
This was about her appearance, as the elders gathered around and praised her fortitude, patting her on the back for raising such a strong sacrifice. She was such a powerful force in town because she knew how to put on a performance and gain the approval of those in power.
As I ran the brush through my long, straight hair, I counted to myself. I had never been able to cut it even once in my whole life. Gods forbid the hairdresser accidentally nicked me with the scissors, and spoiled Ewig’s great prize.
1, 2, 3...
The vanity where I sat had a mirror perched atop it, an ivory thing with gold-inlaid, worth more than Mama could hope to earn in three lifetimes as a tailor, and yet, its opulence was matched by every piece in the room, all delicate enough to break with the slightest touch, which made them all the more valuable.
I couldn’t help but feel as delicate as the mirror that reflected my white skin back to me. We were the same shade of alabaster, and neither had lived much life outside of the walls of my room. However, it would continue on, entombed in this bathroom, for a hundred years or more, while I would be dead when the sun dipped below the horizon.
12, 13, 14...
It was a silly little thing, having grown up as a sacrifice my whole life, but I never thought this day was coming. Nobody ever thought they were going to die, and yet here I was, preparing for my willing demise. Why are you so pathetic that you would allow them to kill you without a fight?
The tears came, and I swallowed them back. This was my duty to the town, to my mother, to myself. So few have a great destiny, who was I to deny mine? “Try not to think about it, Gilda,” I said with a calming breath. “Lose yourself in the counting, as you do every other morning.”
24, 25, 25, 27...
It will all be over soon. It will all be done, and there will be nothing left but the great beyond, and the eternal reward of never-ending non-existence, and never having to worry about another thing ever again.
Won’t that be nice?
After brushing my hair, I had to present myself naked to Sister Milka before getting dressed. She walked into the bathroom and ran her knobby knuckles through my hair. If I had even one knot, she would make me do everything again, one hundred brushes for each strand of hair.
This morning I must have pleased her, because she looked at me through the mirror with delicate eyes and squeezed my shoulders tightly. “You have become quite a woman.”
I smiled at her, trying hard not to spew the venom that filled my mouth. “That’s very kind.”
I’m not going to become a woman. That’s what I wanted to say as I grabbed the vanity and smashed her over the head with it. The thought of it brought a small smile to my face, which she must have taken as appreciation for her kindness, instead of exhilaration at the fleeting image of her death at my hand, but I could never do that. I was a good girl after all, who dutifully did as she was told.
I clenched my fist tightly as she pulled my arms to stand and guided me by the small of my back into the other room. I absolutely hated the liberty she took touching my body, but there was nothing to be done about it. I had none of the power here. If I did, then I certainly wouldn’t be walking to my death tonight.
“Now, state the cedar’s creed,” she said.
The cedar’s creed was the reason we did what we did. It was the recitation of the reason behind everything.
“Every five years, the Dragon Lord Ewig must be appeased with a sacrifice to renew his pact with his chosen people. I have been chosen to fulfill a great purpose, to act as kindling on the pyre of our love for him.”
It was our mantra, and Sister Milka made us say it a dozen times a day.
“Good,” Sister Milka said. “Now, the compact.”
I nodded. “Great dragon Ewig, I offer myself to you, for the protection of my people, as payment for your grace and your love. For your fealty, I offer my blood, as a symbol of the bond between your chosen people and your grace. As it washes down your throat, remember your oath to them. I offer my flesh, as remembrance of the protection your countenance provides from the looming volcano threat that has long plagued us. As it coats your tongue, allow our pact to be renewed for another half a decade, and know all we do is in service to your glory. I offer my soul to you, complete and unmolested. As it touches every inch of you, know that we are powerless in your company, and look to you to light the way for us.”
I had said those words every morning since I could remember, and before I could speak, they were recited to me, until they had bored into the base of my brain. They used to give me pause, and some days I would cry as I stuttered over them, thinking of my flesh being torn from my body and my soul being enveloped in the dragon’s flame.
Now, they came out of my mouth with droll, rote emotion.
“Very good,” Sister Milka said with as much enthusiasm as I gave to her. “Now, remember, in the moment, when the great eye of Ewig falls on you, summon all your courage, and your training, to say the verses perfectly.”
“And what will happen if I don’t, sister?” I asked. It was something I thought about these last long, hard months, but never had the strength to push out of my mouth. “Will he not devour me if I don’t speak flawlessly?”
“What he does to you is not my concern,” Sister Milka said. “My concern is for the village, and in order to renew our pact with the great dragon, the words are as important as the vessel. They must be spoken impeccably.”
I was not her concern. That much had been clear for a long time now. Years ago, when I was young, I thought Sister Milka was a friend. I once considered her family. It wasn’t until I grew into my role, and truly understood it backwards and forwards, that I realized that she was not on my side. Her job was to teach me how to die well; to fulfill my duty without question; to pound me into submission so I would not run under any circumstances.
“Gilda!” my mother shouted from the other room. I heard her loud steps down the hall, and she opened the creaky door. “Breakfast.”
My mother never wanted to sacrifice me. That much she made clear as often as possible, but she still accepted the gifts the elders bestowed on her. She did not steal me away in the night. She did not rail against my fate, nor would she do so today, on my last day of life.
“We haven’t finished yet, Odine,” Sister Milka said. “We have much to discuss. This is a very important day, after all. Leave us to it.”
My mother was a stout woman, with a round face and eyes like coal that burned with rage as they caught Sister Milka’s gaze, unafraid of the consequence borne of doing so.
Most women wore tanned dresses of dark brown that mixed with the mud and grime of the village during a rainstorm, but she wore bright colors, embroidered with flowers and jewels. Color was a sign of wealth, and if she was going to give her daughter away as the virginal sacrifice to the great dragon inside the mountain, she would not fade quietly into the darkness.
This morning, she covered the green dress with a red and white checkered apron, and when she smiled a curt smile, the dimples on each side of her face cut deep grooves in her cheeks.
“I think she’s studied enough for one lifetime,” Mom said.
“That is not your choice, Odine,” Sister Milka said, her voice growing deeper, and more authoritative, with each word. “The church ha—”
“This is my daughter’s last day,” Mom said. “And I made all her favorites. We will sit down as a family, her and I, and you will leave so that we might enjoy a final meal together before the eyes of the town fall on her. I think I’ve entertained you quite enough for one lifetime.”
Sister Milka growled, darting her eyes between us, before she sighed. “Very well. I suppose she is as ready as we will ever be.” She turned to me. “You have a ten o’clock meeting with the mayor, and the tailor will be here in thirty minutes to fit you with your dress for this evening. Do not eat so much that you cannot fit into it.”
“Hey!” my mother said. “If she wants to eat until she bursts, that’s her right today, especially today of all days.”
“Quite.” Sister Milka turned to the door. “See that she doesn’t burst, Odine. She must make it to her betrothed.”
My mother’s voice vibrated and cracked as the tears filled her eyes. “Don’t tell me what to do, Sister. I have just about lost my patience with you.”
Sister Milka smirked at her. “Have a good day, Odine.”
Without another word, she slid out the door and slithered down the hall, her long black dress swishing against the wood floors.
“Come on now,” Mom said. “Get dressed and then come to breakfast.”
I stood and walked to my dresser. “Did you really make my favorites?”
“Of course, my sweet baby,” she replied. The tears streamed down either side of her red-cheeked face. “It’s your special day.”
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