Dragontide's Daughter by Strewnpapers | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

Chapter 17: The Guardian

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Ellie looked down to the churning river and jagged rocks far below; if she fell, she would certainly be dashed to pieces, her life snuffed out in an instant. Glancing up, she spotted a massive, predatory bird circling overhead, its eyes already fixed upon her as if sensing the prospect of a fresh meal.

Ellie let out a desperate scream for help, her grip on the fraying ropes beginning to slip through her trembling fingers. Just as her hold gave way, she felt a firm hand wrap around her wrist, yanking her upward with surprising strength.

Ellie found herself standing back on the fragile bridge, face-to-face with a handsome, dark-haired man clad in weathered leathers, a sword sheathed at his hip.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

Still shaken, Ellie could only manage a nod in response.

"Let's get you off this death trap," the man said, ushering her quickly toward the solid ground.

As they reached the safety of land, Ellie turned to her rescuer. "Thank you for saving me. I don't know what would've happened if you hadn't been here."

The man looked back toward the rickety bridge. "I should probably take that down, but the forest sprites rely on it to cross." Turning his attention back to Ellie, he introduced himself. "I'm Bram Wildshore, the Guardian of Dragontide. I live nearby."

"I'm Ellie." She paused, brow furrowing. "I didn't realize anyone lived out here in the Wilds."

"Not many do," Bram said. "What brings a young lady like yourself so deep into these dangerous woods?"

"My grandpa is sick, and I'm searching for Dragonscale Moss to make a cure called Elixiron."

Bram's expression shifted to one of mingled admiration and concern. "You are quite brave . . . and foolish, to venture into these wilds alone. You're lucky I happened to be in the area, or you might not have made it."

Ellie couldn't deny the truth. "Yeah, I know."

Bram regarded her for a long moment, then gestured toward a faint trail leading along the ravine. "The Dragonscale Moss is a good distance from here; it looks like you're traveling light. Would you like to come back to my home and rest, perhaps have a bite to eat?"

Ellie eyed the man warily, her instincts warning her against trusting this stranger, no matter how kind his offer. "I should probably keep going. I'd like to be back home by tomorrow at the latest."

"Very well. But take heed—the Thornveil Wilds are a treacherous realm, full of unseen perils. Come grab a bite to eat.”

Ellie hesitated, then said, "That would be appreciated."

With a reassuring smile, Bram gestured for her to follow.

"Your trip is going to take longer than you think," Bram said. "Besides, no one crosses over without my permission."

It had never occurred to her that she would need a guardian's approval to venture deeper into the Thornveil Wilds. "Do I have your permission, then?"

"I need to get to know you better, to see if you're worthy to cross."

"Well, I think I'm worthy."

Bram turned and began walking away. "Come back to my place and we'll talk. Otherwise, you must turn around now."

Ellie's heart sank. "But I can't turn around. I need to get the moss."

Without a backward glance, Bram continued down the path. Ellie hesitated, torn between pressing on and heeding his warning. But the thought of returning home empty-handed was unthinkable.

Ellie kept several paces behind him as they walked along the ravine until reaching a small stone fortress with a tower. Maybe Bram really was a guardian of the forest.

As Ellie approached the structure, Bram reached the iron gate, he turned to face her. "Are you coming inside?"

Ellie paused, considering her options. This man clearly held some authority over the Thornveil Wilds, and she couldn't afford to antagonize him. With a nod, she stepped forward. "Just for a minute."

Ellie followed Bram inside the grand, stone fortress and into a cozy chamber off the main hall. A crackling fire burned in the hearth, filling the air with the comforting scents of wood smoke and savory stew.

Bram motioned toward a long table. "Have a seat." He walked to a cast-iron pot simmering over the flames and gave it a stir. "You're just in time for a hearty bowl of Winterberry Venison Stew. I'll serve you up a portion."

Ellie's stomach let out an audible rumble; she realized she had foolishly neglected to eat anything before embarking on her journey. "I've never heard of that dish before. What exactly is it?"

Bram ladled the fragrant, thick broth into a wooden bowl and set it down in front of Ellie. "It's a local specialty, made with tender venison, root vegetables, and the tart berries that grow wild in these woods." He gestured to the bowl. "Go on, try it. It'll put some much-needed strength back in you for whatever lies ahead."

Ellie eyed the stew skeptically, the chunks of meat and vibrant purple berries swimming in the rich, burgundy liquid. She tentatively dipped her spoon in, bringing a small taste to her lips. To her surprise it tasted good—the savory venison mingling with the tangy sweetness of the berries in a way that was both comforting and invigorating.

"This tastes kinda like the beef and barley stew my mom makes," she said, taking another, more enthusiastic spoonful.

"I'm happy you're enjoying it," Bram said, settling into the chair across from her and tucking into his own bowl.

As Ellie ate, she couldn't help but let her gaze wander around the chamber. The room was adorned with an array of weapons and armor, each piece meticulously maintained. Tapestries depicting heroic battles and mythical creatures hung on the stone walls, and a large, ornate shield bearing an unfamiliar crest dominated the mantelpiece above the fireplace.

It was clear that this was no mere vagabond's shelter, but rather the private quarters of a seasoned warrior or knight. Ellie couldn't help but wonder about Bram's past and how he had come to reside in this remote, fortified outpost deep within the forbidden forest.

"Thank you for your hospitality," Ellie said, setting down her empty bowl. "And for saving me from falling off that bridge.”

Bram offered her a warm smile. "Think nothing of it. The Thornveil Wilds can be a treacherous place, and I'm always glad to lend a hand to a fellow traveler in need."

"You're welcome to have seconds if you'd like," Bram said, rising from his seat and gesturing toward the steaming pot on the hearth.

“Yes, please.” Ellie watched as the regal-looking man refilled her wooden bowl.

As Bram settled back into his chair, Ellie seized the opportunity to broach the subject that had been weighing heavily on her mind. Without revealing the Seafarer's Sigil and map hidden in her pockets, she asked, "Do you happen to know where I might find the Dragonscale Moss?"

Bram took a measured sip from his own bowl. "I do. But it's not a place you should be venturing to."

Ellie leaned forward. "Why not?"

"First and foremost, the path to the moss is fraught with all manner of fell creatures and treacherous trials—the likes of which you've likely never encountered. Are you familiar with the dangers that lurk within these woods?"

Ellie hesitated, recalling the gnarled Dryads and the perilous bridge crossing she had narrowly survived. "Well, I know it's a perilous place. But if I stay on the path marked by the Drakken runes, I should be safe, right?"

Bram shook his head solemnly. "You’re simply not prepared for what lies ahead. Others have come this way before, seeking the Dragonscale Moss, and most I've had to turn away, for their own safety."

Ellie knew Bram would likely turn her away. "Is there a way to cross the ravine?"

“There is," he said. "My drawbridge, but I rarely ever lower it."

"If I were to get across the ravine, where would I find the moss?"

Bram's almost boyish features darkened. "The Dragonscale Moss you desire lies in one of the most perilous areas of Dragontide—the lair of the great dragon, Aurathorn."

"The dragon?"

"Of course." Bram began gathering up the empty bowls. "And even if you were to somehow evade the dragon and collect the moss, the journey back would be just as treacherous, if not more so, than the trip there." He fixed Ellie with a stern look. "You would be carrying something more valuable than the dragon's hoard—a prize that would undoubtedly draw the attention of every predator in these accursed woods."

Ellie was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the dangers Bram described. She had not fully considered the risks involved, the possibility of being stalked and hunted on her return. Perhaps this quest was truly too dangerous for her to undertake alone.

"Do I have your permission to cross the ravine, then?"

Bram shook his head. "You are woefully unprepared, Ellie. I would be derelict in my duties if I allowed a young—I presume you’re a Shorling, cross only to meet your demise. No, I cannot grant you passage. Turn around and go home."

Ellie was crushed. But then, an idea struck her.

Reaching into her jacket, Ellie withdrew the pulsing Seafarer's Sigil, its glow casting light across Bram's attractive features. "What if I have this to guide me?"

Bram was in awe as he eyed the Seafarer's Sigil in Ellie's outstretched hand. "Where did you get that?"

"I saw it glowing in an iceberg, so I dug it out.”

"Is that so?" Bram gently took the artifact from her. He turned it over in his hands.

After a moment, Bram said, "You know, all Drakken Knights know how to properly wield these ancient relics." He continued his slow circuit around the room, testing the compass. "And it appears this one is functioning as it should."

"You have quite the remarkable find here.” Bram turned to face Ellie. “You have one of the original ones that the Drakken Lords made. They don’t show themselves to just anyone.” He handed it back to Ellie. “What makes you so special?”

Ellie suddenly felt self-conscious. "I'm not special. I'm just a student from Crystal Shores."

Bram's gaze drifted to the carved dragon pendant resting against Ellie's chest, the ruby-hued essence within the glass bubble glimmering softly. "Ah, but you see, it's your bloodline that has drawn the sigil to you." He pointed toward the fluid. "This draconic essence—it flows through your veins, a connection to the ancient power of the Drakken."

Ellie's eyes widened in surprise. "Dragon blood? But I'm not a dragon."

Bram chuckled. "No, not in the literal sense. But the lineage of the Drakken Lords runs through your family." He paused, then said, "Which is why I've reconsidered my initial decision."

"What is your decision?"

"Everyone who wishes to cross over into the heart of the Thornveil Wilds must make a sacrifice—a price to be paid for the privilege of venturing into those forbidden lands.” Bram paused, glancing toward the fire. “The sacrifice I require is this: your connection to your family, your loved ones, will be severed. Your mother, your grandfather—they will no longer recognize or know you."

Bram’s words weighed heavy on her. To sever her ties to her family, the very people she was risking everything to save—The thought was almost too much to bear.

Ellie sat in stunned silence, her gaze drifting to the pendant that had marked her as kin to the Drakken. The choice before her was a cruel one—to preserve her family's love, or to risk it all in pursuit of the cure that could save her grandpa's life.

Bram Wildshore
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