Each issue, we choose a winning entry from all the submissions sent to us. For the winter issue of PaperBound Magazine 2021/22, our winning entry is short story ‘Fable’ by Emma Whitehall. Keep reading below to find out more.
by Emma Whitehall
When the witch told my parents their First Born would be a Hero, they were ecstatic. There’s a reason I’m named Fable, after all. They were so excited, so eager to set me up for greatness. Until I was born, that is.
Heroes come around once every generation or so, always special in their own ways; full of potential for bravery or cunning or magic, or even just really good at swinging a weapon in the right direction. Whatever their specification, Heroes are always born with strong hearts and big dreams and a jaunty song forever on their lips. They don’t need to be beautiful – not beautiful like a princess in a tower, at least – but they all have…something. Dark, intense eyes, or a beguiling smile. Some magnetism around them that pulls you in, dares you to join them on their adventure. To tie yourself to their cause. To adore them. They find themselves a band of merry men, a quest to embark upon, and happy endings just wrap around them like warm shawls on a cold day.
And then there was me. The Custodians say I was probably born with a book in my hand, since I’m never seen without one. I’m prickly. And mousey, in hair and in personality; even when I’m happy (usually an occasion involving a hot drink, a cold night, and a novel). I apparently give off a general aura of ‘please leave me alone before I bite you and make this situation much worse than it already is’. So Carys, my roommate, says. And so, when I turned five and no quest nor curse nor blessing seemed to be coming for me, my parents sold me to the Custodians of History, shrugged, and started planning for their second First Born.
I spent years haunting the Custodial Halls like a ghost. Years spent leafing through books with crisp, light-brown pages, tracing my fingers over the words of authors long since dead. Ten years of rats, dust motes, and Carys as my only playmates, with a pat on the head from a friendlier-than-usual Custodian the closest experience I ever had to having a parent. Nothing ever happened at the Custodial Halls.
So you can imagine my surprise when the dragon attacked.
I was in the mess hall, trying to balance a bowl of porridge and honey with a book on combining fortune-telling and Herbal Magic to create the perfect cup of tea. The huge, oak doors flung themselves open, and every single Custodian – as well as the entirety of the nearest small village – poured into the hall. It was suddenly very noisy. I didn’t care for it. Then, the entire building shook as something incredibly, unfathomably heavy landed outside. A sound – part roar, part shriek – tore through the air like a rusty knife. The villagers screamed. I put my book down.
‘It’s a dragon!’ Carys whimpered, flinging herself into my lap. ‘They’re saying it came down from the mountain, destroyed the capital … the King, the Queen, the Prince … all gone …’
‘What about the Hero?’ I asked, trying in vain to disentangle Carys’ arms from around my waist. She’d always been clingy. I pretended I didn’t enjoy it. ‘They live at the castle – isn’t she betrothed to the prince?’
I knew full well that she was betrothed to the prince. The Hero of our kingdom was my younger sister – married to the prince after some adventure they’d shared involving a hoard of angry gnomes, a terrible curse and a forest made of sugar. I wouldn’t be invited to the wedding. Why would you invite a sibling you’ve never met?
‘Why didn’t she protect –’
‘She ran,’ a villager behind me sobbed, sinking to their knees beside me. ‘She ran, and she left them … she left us to burn. My shop, my home … it’s been in my family for a century, and now … now it’s ashes…’
I reached out an arm and patted the villager on the head. ‘There, there,’ I offered.
‘What are we going to do?’ a small child said, clambering into my lap.
‘Um,’ I suggested.
The dragon roared again outside, accompanied by the unmistakable crash of age-old masonry crashing to the ground not too far away.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ an old woman murmured, lost in her terror, ‘not in all my sixty-seven years. A horrible, evil beast – black as death, with wings dipped in blood …’
Something inside me clicked into place.
‘Red wing trim?’ I asked, turning my head towards the woman slowly. ‘Are you sure?’ She nodded.
‘Not pink? Definitely not maroon?’
‘I know the colour of blood when I see it,’ she said. ‘Does it matter?’
‘Of course it matters,’ I snapped, standing up and vaulting over the table towards the library, launching Carys and various villagers who’d attached themselves to me into the air as I went.
I dashed through the halls, dodging falling brickwork and destroyed artifacts as I went. More than once, I saw a brilliant flash of flame crest over my head, or slash past what was once a windowpane. I kept going. What I needed was on the sixth shelf down on the third bookshelf to the right in the library, behind the books on architecture throughout the centuries and animal husbandry for unusual winters. An old, half-rotted, forgotten tome I’d read from cover to cover when I was ten and kept my own little secret.
Cursing Dragons: The Novice Dragon-Rider’s Guide to Binding Your First Mount.
Every dragon was vulnerable to a specific set of words; an enchantment that would bring them to heel and make them biddable. But, since dragons were perpetually hungry, angry and breathing fire, you only got one chance. Even after binding, the book said they were barely tamed, and so the practice had fallen out of fashion. Heroes these days seemed to prefer swords – perhaps slaying dragons was more in line with the stories than controlling them was.
Luckily, the library was still intact; though the wall of the room opposite had vanished as if it had never stood there, giving me a perfect view of the scarred, broken lands around my home. Another quake rattled the Custodial Hall walls as I yanked books off the shelves. I paid it no mind as my hand closed over the soft, over-used leather of my prize. I sat on my backside with a thump and began to flick frantically through the pages. Green Horned Vipers, Blue-Tipped Wyverns … come on, come on, where were the Blood-Doused Hellions?!
Something moved in the corner of my vision. I ignored it, humming some half-imagined tune absently as I skimmed the pages.
‘Can I help?’
I looked up with a jolt. There was Carys, standing in the doorway. Her blonde hair was a tangle around her head, and she shook like a leaf in a storm. Close by, something crashed to the floor, and she jumped. I glared at her before snapping my attention back to the book.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked, flicking to the next page.
‘I wanted…’ Carys looked at the floor, embarrassed and confused. ‘I don’t know. I think I wanted … to help you. I need to help you. Fable, just tell me what to do.’
But there was nothing to do. Because, snaking up behind her with a silence that should have been impossible, was the dragon. A huge, battle-scarred, scale-and-pock-marked creature, with eyes like hot coals and a snarl that seemed more like a smirk.
I’d always been good at ignoring things that I didn’t want to deal with. Like interruptions when I was reading. Or the fact my parents hadn’t wanted me. Or that a colossal, world-destroying beast had spotted me minutes ago.
Carys’ eyes widened as the dragon’s breath brushed over her back, and her mouth fell open in a soundless scream just as the book fell open on the right page. Almost like fate.
‘Blood-Doused Hellions are a difficult breed to bind, but not impossible for a skilled, or particularly lucky, rider…’
The Hellion growled. It opened its mouth, yellow-stained teeth as long as my arm filling the space behind Carys. I stumbled to my feet, book clutched in hand. This probably wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t a Hero, after all. But the Hero had left us to die. So I had to try.
‘I love you, Fable,’ Carys whispered, tears dripping down her cheeks. ‘I always have.’
I stood my ground. So did the dragon. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and spoke the words.
Emma Whitehall is an author, bookseller, editor and introvert from the North East of England. A former Waterstones bookseller turned indie bookshop champion, Emma writes fun, emotion-driven fantasy with characters that you’ll want to take for a coffee. Or wrap in a blanket. Or both. Her debut YA novel, Clockwork Magpies, is being published in February 2022 with Northodox Press. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and visit her website here.
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