Today I’ve submitted my story to the AutoCrit Community Writing Challenge
I’ve learned a ton in the last two weeks. Specifically how to write to a schedule and meet a deadline. I had to learn to let go of perfect and let good enough be. I learned the best revision is often deletion. The rough draft for Siobhan and Dhoul was just under 5,700 words, the submitted version came in around 4,300. Cutting out 1,400 and still keeping the narrative taught me a lot about eliminating redundancy. I have a tendency to rephrase passages that don’t need elaboration. I learned I can miss the same error after several readings and that text-to-speech helps point out choppy sentence construction.
The story isn’t finished and I’ll definitely spend more time with it since the contest doesn’t publish the stories in a way that prevents commercial publishing. I’m glad I went through the process and I’m looking forward to the next project.
For now I’ll let this story rest and come back to it with fresh ideas, until then the story goes like this:
SIOBHAN AND DHOUL
“Siobhan,” The Archdruid lingered in the grove as the Elders filed out. “We need to talk about your dragon.”
“He’s young.” Siobhan waved.
“It’s a phase. Many creatures go through awkward spells during adolescence.”
“Awkward?” the Archdruid crossed his arms and scowled. “He razed Rodagh Farm, ate every ox and sheep. He plucked the arms and legs off Mr. Rodagh and left him to bleed out in his own field.”
“I will speak with him. He doesn’t understand.” She shook her head.
“Either do you. The Circle will not abide by this. Dhoul, as you call him. He is Nilfáilte.”
“My brother,” Siobhan pressed her hands together. His face was hard, but his eyes were soft. “He wants to learn. I can show you he can be gentle. Our duty is to protect life.”
The Archdruid raised a finger.
“Our duty is to preserve the natural balance of life. The Circle has already decided. I’m here out of courtesy to let you know in person so you won’t be surprised. We shall drive him out. Do not lose sight of your purpose.”
“I will show you. He can be trained.”
The Archdruid shook his head and turned away. She stepped toward him.
“How can we call ourselves stewards of life if we turn our backs on difficult subjects? They who need us most?” He spun around and folded his arms in the way she knew he was done listening.
“Tell that to Mr. Rodagh’s family. Who needs us most? You’re teetering on favoritism.”
“I will show you.”
“Nilfáilte! Favoritism!” She stormed down the trail toward Rodagh Farm. Her staff pierced deep holes in the soil as she stamped down the lane. “Blind old fool!” She flailed and muttered. “The right thing is seldom the easy thing. I will make him see. They will all see.”
At the fork in the trail waited a giant tortoise. It bobbed its head as she approached. Siobhan dropped her shoulders, took a breath, and smiled back.
“Hello, Alice,” she stooped to meet her, reached into her sleeve, and produced a prickly pear. Alice snapped her jaws around it, pink juice and pulp ran down her arm.
“Ick!” she said and rubbed her hand on her moss green robe. Alice bobbed her head and chewed and sudden darkness swept over them.
Dhoul landed beside her. Grayish-green scales and leathery wings, a gust of hot carrion hit her in the face. He smelled like ox flesh, three days in the sun. He snapped up the tortoise into his claw.
“Dhoul?” Siobhan inclined her head. The dragon placed the tip of his talon under Alice’s shell and began to pry.
“Stad!” she rapped him on the foot with her staff. He cocked his head, looked at the tortoise, and back again.
“No?” His golden eyes narrowed.
Dhoul discarded Alice over his wing and sat on all fours. With a loud crack, Alice bounced hard off a stone and lay still on her back.
“Not everything is yours!” Siobhan pushed past him and rushed to kneel beside Alice.
“It was. Until you said it wasn’t.” Dhoul flattened himself onto the ground and nudged her with the tip of his nose. She batted him away and put her shoulder under the rim of Alice’s shell. With a grunt, she leveraged her right-side-up again. Alice rolled onto her feet and wobbled. Siobhan bit her lip and felt the sharp edges around the crack in the shell. Blood oozed from a seam between two plates.
“Do you see what you’ve done?” Siobhan licked the blood from her fingers and pulled a curved blade from her belt. Dhoul scampered around the other side of Alice and leaned in close.
“The shells need to come off, or they get stuck in my teeth.”
“Not everything is food.”
“Even if I can eat it?” He flicked his tongue.
Siobhan rolled her right sleeve and examined her arm for a bit of unscarred skin. Between the ridges of scars, she dragged the knife along a valley of tender flesh. Dhoul peeled back his scaly green lips in a grimace and uncovered tight rows of meshed teeth.
Siobhan pressed her palm against the crack in the shell and let her blood flow down her arm into Alice’s wound. Their blood mingled and retracted back into the wound as Siobhan grunted and chanted through clenched teeth. The crack sealed and Siobhan’s arm quaked with the effort. Her scars flared red, faded to orange, and back to pale white. She jerked her hand free and shook out the pain. A thin white scar remained where the shell fused together, then Alice opened her eyes.
“Even if you can eat it, doesn’t make it your food,” she said as the tortoise moved away in a manner that almost resembled haste.
“Why?” said Dhoul.
“Do you remember what I taught you about sharing?”
Siobhan and Dhoul made their way through fields of clover in the heat of the day. Past the remains of Rodagh Farm, through long hedges, and up to the edge of the cliff which overlooked the still waters of the lake. The air was thick and humid and tinged sweet with the aroma of honeysuckle.
“Where are the little boats? And the birds?” said Dhoul.
“In time, they will return. For now, they’ve fled.
“Because I ate their food.” Dhoul hung his head. Siobhan smiled and sat with him.
“Do you remember the ox and sheep?”
“Mmm…” He closed his eyes and clucked. “Will there be more?”
“No,” she jabbed his foot with her staff. “You ate them all. Even the ones not set aside for you.”
“Gone?” He lifted his head and searched the countryside.
“If you take them all, there will be nothing left.”
“I had to take them before they were gone. The man took all the food from the field into that wooden cave of his. He wasn’t eating it, just hoarding it.”
“Harvesting it. Is that why you stopped him?”
Dhoul ducked his head and glanced toward the ruined farm. “Yes?”
“The man called Rodagh, he was my friend, and now he is gone.”
Dhoul blinked and cocked his head. “But there are more of those.”
She squinted and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Not quite.”
She picked a blossom from the hedge, plucked the stem, dragged it through the bloom, then popped it into her mouth. She took a long breath and let the petals fall into the water.
“When I eat only enough for me, there will be more later.”
“Should I bring more sheep?” he said after a long moment. “I won’t eat any of them.”
“Maybe after a while. The people are angry with us.”
“That’s why there are no boats.” He looked out over the water.
“Alice, you hurt my friend Alice too.”
“You helped her.”
“Had I not, she would be gone. There are more tortoises and more people but no more Alice and no more Mr. Rodagh.”
Dhoul clamped his eyes shut and covered his snout with both claws.
“Look at me. Who am I?”
“You are called Siobhan.” He perked up. “Yes?”
“Yes, but if there is no more Siobhan, then you have lost a friend. Like the village has lost Mr. Rodagh.”
They spent the afternoon together under the sun. Dhoul lay flat on his back and let the rays of the sun darken his scales into a rich dark green.
“I need you to help me with something.” She said and took his claw into her lap and pulled a rough file from her sleeve.
“Need something eaten?” Dhoul rolled over to face her.
“No, in fact, I need you to show my friends you can not eat things of your choosing.” She knocked away loose dirt from his talon and filed down the point.”Hmm… I don’t like not eating. For how long?” He chewed on the points of his talons then held them out to examine.
“A short while, one day. Can you do this for me?”
“Then,” she motioned at another claw and beckoned it toward her. “You can eat your fill. Only those I point out to you.”
“For your friends, we do this?”
“Maybe, our friends, if we can show them.” She pushed one talon away and pulled forward another. Dhoul sighed, flicked his tongue, and tasted the air.
“There are more sheep over that ridge.” He pointed with a rear foot to the south. “I can drive them here. We can all have more sheep. Fewer sheep is a poor plan.”
“Leave that to me.” she kicked his last claw away and stood up.Dhoul flopped belly first onto the boulder and draped himself over the hot stone. His wings slumped and contoured around his bulk. The heat of the day turned his scales so dark a green as to be nearly black. Siobhan climbed onto his back and picked out the rotten ox remains still wedged between his scales.
“We want you to look your best for tomorrow.”After her hands worked out their restlessness, she slid down his flank and tucked herself under his wing. She sang a lilting, trilling scale and Dhoul inclined his head toward her. She hummed the tunes to his favorite lullabies as they dozed away the hottest part of the day.
The fury of the afternoon sun yielded to the gentle warmth of evening and faded into dusk.With the appearance of fireflies, Dhoul stretched and yawned. Siobhan rocked herself onto her feet and reached high overhead and rolled her wrists. Below, she spotted a procession of torches. Dozens of them, interspersed between hundreds of flashing pitchforks and spearheads. She muttered a curse.
“Rude,” said Dhoul.
“You don’t know the half of it.”
Dhoul flicked his tongue. “Fear, and… hatred.” He hissed at the torches and the men who waved them.
“Shh… pet.” she placed a finger to her lips. “Rest here a moment. I will take care of this.”
“I know what to do!” He leaped from his perch and plunged over the cliff.
“What? No!” she said, too late. She took up the hem of her robe and sprinted down the trail. With her staff overhead, she waved and called out to the villagers. Her breath ragged, her voice lost in the cries of angry men.
“Wait!” She pressed her hands together, dropped to her knees before them, and blocked the path up the hill. Behind her, a great splash.
“Bring him out!” said the biggest and angriest man at the head of the mob. He thrust a torch at her and through the yellowish-white glare appeared the gin-blossomed nose of Mayor Hugh.
“Bring him out!”
“You really don’t want that.” Siobhan shook her head. “I’m working with him. I know you’re angry and stricken with grief. I too, mourn the loss of dear Mr. Ro-.”
“We’ve had enough of your promises, and your magic cannot make this right.” The crowd growled their support and Mayor Hugh towered over her. “We have everything we need to see justice served to that beast!” The pack of men bayed and thrust their implements of destruction into the air.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” pleaded Siobhan. “This won’t end as you think, and not at all well. We can make peace.”
“We will have peace when we have justice!” Their shouts slid ragged across their throats. “We will not suffer another family torn apart by your monster.”
A familiar sound rushed up behind her and for an instant, a massive shape blotted the stars from the sky. Water and fish streamed from Dhoul’s gullet in a jet of chum. He strafed down the line and dumped his payload onto the mob. The torches hissed as they were extinguished, along with the spirits of angry men. Siobhan stifled a giggle and waited for their reaction. Nothing at first, then from the rear of the crowd, the men lowered their weapons, slumped their shoulders, and shuffled back toward the village.
“I shared!” Dhoul circled around, landed beside her, and flapped his wings.
“They’re not angry anymore?” He flicked his tongue and tasted the air again. “All I can taste is fish.”
The sun rose over the oak grove and Siobhan and Dhoul cuddled together and waited for the Circle of Elders. There was no reason to seek them and no reason to hide. She would show them. Siobhan stretched and worked a kink from her back.
She put two fingers into her mouth and let out a two-tone whistle. She pressed her lips into a thin line as the fauna entered the grove. First the harts and hinds, then rams and ewes, followed by bulls and heifers, billys and nannies, and finally boars and sows. She swirled her staff and each animal guest settled into the wet grass. Siobhan leaned over and scratched Dhoul under his jaw. “It’s time,” she said and rubbed his snout.
“Five more moons, I just settled.”
“This is no time for slumber. Time to show them.”
Dhoul opened his eyes to find a bounty of animals. He sprang to his feet and reared back on his hind legs.
“Breakfast!” he roared and flapped his wings. “You brought these to me? These are mine!” He dropped into a crouch.
“No, my friend. These are not yours.”
“Yes! No. No? There are so many! You brought them here. I-“
His eyes darted from one target to another, he peeled back his lips and snapped his jaws.
“So many flavors and smells and they’re so still!” Dhoul let out a groan. “This hurts my belly.”
“If we do well today, by the time the sun sets again you will be sated and we will have new friends.”
“Did the men like their fish?” He turned in a circle taking stock of his not-prey. “I shared!”
“They may not appreciate having it dumped all over them in a heap. But, you shared. You understood.”
“When do we get to share this food?” He sucked air through clenched teeth.
“These are not yours. They came on their own. I did not bring them to you.”
He groaned and rubbed his belly. “Yes. Only those you bring. The rest are…” he clamped his eyes shut and drummed his talons on his chin. “Not mine!”
“Better every day. You’re going to do fine. All you must do is listen to my voice and ignore everything else.”
“Your voice, not the food. Not my food. I’ll listen.”
Dhoul held his jaws shut tight and cast his eyes to the sky, away from the not-prey.
First to enter the grove was the Archdruid, followed by seven Elders in their moss green robes with golden embroidery. The Archdruid cast a furtive glance toward Dhoul. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do we all,” she said.
“If this doesn’t work. Casting him out will no longer be an option. We will proceed with the binding.”
“That!” she jabbed a finger at him and advanced a step. “Was never discussed!”
“I discussed it. With the Circle of Elders. You forget yourself.”
“If this does work,” said a white-haired Elder as he pushed past the Archdruid into the grove. “We’ll have to make room in the circle. I’m excited to see the results. Come what may.”
The Archdruid narrowed his eyes. “Come what may.”
The Elders filed in and took up their positions around the grove. Dhoul glanced at each in turn and back to Siobhan. He worked his jaw and crushed the earth in his talons. A cardinal swooped through the grove and, quick as a serpent, Dhoul snapped it out of the air and burped red feathers. Siobhan widened her eyes, Dhoul clamped his claws over his snout. The white-haired Elder stifled a smile while the Archdruid glared at her.
“Thank you all for giving us this opportunity. I am aware of your decision and will comply with your wisdom.” She spoke directly to the Archdruid. “You have been more than gracious and we are excited to show you what we’ve been working on. Indeed, I trust you’ll find the results remarkable. If I may be so bold as to hope, we can employ the same methods with feral dragons.”
“One step at a time sister. Proceed as we discussed.”
The knot in her throat moved down into her gut and roiled back up. Her stage set, she strolled through and around the gathered animals to stand before Dhoul’s snout. His labored breath created a slight buzz she felt in her feet.
“Gathered Elders,” she waved in an arc toward the Circle. “Guests, friends.” She patted Dhoul on the head. “Today is truly remarkable, for today we will demonstrate a dragon is not bound by his nature.” She shot a glance at the Archdruid who pursed his lips and scowled.
“Indeed, he is able to choose. To select his prey and most importantly, he knows why.”
“Are you suggesting this creature has achieved sapience?” The Archdruid scoffed.
“Exactly, and I intend to prove it.” One by one she brought the gathered animals around Dhoul, circled behind him out of sight. Dhoul clutched at the ground and pulled huge chunks of soil into his claws. The livestock paraded around him in a circle.
“This is a lovely maypole but, it proves nothing.” The Archdruid crossed his arms.
Siobhan leaned in close and whispered to Dhoul, he grunted and nodded his head. The livestock climbed, single file onto his snout, up his neck, over his back, and down his tail. Dhoul shuddered. She tapped the last sheep on the rump and beckoned it back to rest beneath Dhoul’s jaws.
“This sheep, is it yours?” she asked. Dhoul clamped his eyes shut and grit his teeth.
“No,” he said at last.
“You didn’t say I can have it.”
“Hmm… there are some sheep you can have. Yes?”
“Not the farmer’s sheep.”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because there is only one Alice?” Siobhan raised an eyebrow. “… and there’s only one Mr. Rodagh.”
“What happens when you take what is not yours?”
Dhoul looked at the sheep and flicked his tongue. “Fear, hatred,” his gaze followed the livestock out of the grove. “Loneliness.”
Siobhan patted him on the leg and smiled up at him with a toothy grin.
She pulled her curved blade from her belt, seized the sheep by the nape of the neck, and dragged her knife across its throat. Hot blood pumped forth, gushed over her hands, and stained her robe. The sheep fell and laid still at her feet. Dhoul opened his eyes wide and bared his teeth.
“I can have it?”
Siobhan shrugged and turned her back. She lifted her chin and stared down the Archdruid. She savored the quiet fury in his eyes, she grinned when she saw him tremble with rage.
“Well, can he?” The white-haired Elder glared at each of them and drummed his fingers on his crossed arms. “Well, somebody say something! A sacrifice has been made in the grove.”
The Archdruid screwed up his face and shook his head.
Yet, he said, “Yes.”
Dhoul snapped up the bloody sheep. He hummed as he chewed and spit out half a sheep carcass. He nudged it toward Siobhan.
“Are you sharing this with me?” She asked in feigned surprise. “Why would you give me something which is clearly yours.”
Dhoul narrowed his eyes. “Because you are my friend?”
She covered her mouth with one hand and leaned on her staff. Siobhan wept. Her heart fluttered at the sound of soft applause. The white-haired Elder gave her a wink and pumped his fist. Dhoul lowered his head and whispered to her.
“Did we make friends?”
She leaned into him, “Maybe. But first, finish your meal. I’m not hungry and we mustn’t let it go to waste.” Dhoul slurped up the wet sheep remains.
Through the boughed entry of the grove, two boys pulled a heavy cart, inside it a massive chain fixed with dragon-sized manacles. Her brow furrowed and her eyes shot open. She looked to the Archdruid, mouth agape. He shook his head and said to the boys,
“Leave it. We don’t need it after all.” He smiled at Siobhan. She barked out a laugh that twisted into a cry and she clamped her hand over her mouth again.
“In the matter of the dragon called Dhoul,” began the Archdruid. “Let the Circle speak their judgment. Welcome or no?”
“Fáilte.” said the first of the eight.
“Fáilte.” said the second and so on around the circle until finally, it came to the Archdruid’s turn to speak.
“I see no reason why this creature should be cast out. However Siobhan, you and he both will make amends to the Rodagh family and to the village. You will bear the burden of the victim’s children and their children for as long as you are able.”
She flung her arms around Dhoul’s neck. “We did it.” She nuzzled her face into his neck. “You can stay.” Thank you, she mouthed to the Archdruid and wiped her face. “We agree to the terms, and furthermore, I will demonstrate for you a contingency in the event of another accident.” She stared into the surprised faces of the Elders.
Siobhan rummaged around in her pockets and retrieved a plump, red grape. She popped it into her mouth, chewed slowly, and hummed a bit. She lifted her voice in an ancient melody. The birds fell silent, the wind died down, the grove itself held its breath. As she sang, her voice became louder, resonant, clarion.
Dhoul’s head sagged, he settled in the grass and curled in upon himself. A draft of air buzzed by her and swept the bloody hem of her robe against her leg as he breathed. With the force of a thousand ancestors, she sang and held her staff aloft. Dhoul wheeled a rear leg and snorted. Her song faded, yet Dhoul remained calm and softly snored.
“Cast that terrible thing over the cliff.” She said to the boys with the cart and scurried to obey her.
In his sleep, Dhoul kicked and barked. The white-haired Elder laughed and smiled until the beast thrashed again. The tip of his lance-like tail darted out and skewered the Elder. Aghast, he lurched forward, the tail retracted and flung him into the boughs of an ancient oak. His bones cracked against the limbs and landed in an embroidered green pile at the base of the tree. Siobhan’s legs buckled and she fell to one knee.
“No,” she staggered as everything came undone. Time slipped away along with her agency as they shackled Dhoul by his legs and around his neck. Even as they dragged him through the grove he slumbered and offered no resistance. The seven finally pulled him up the hillside to where the boulder overlooked the lake. Siobhan sobbed and clutched at her gut. Doubled over and wretched, but produced nothing.
The heavy chain encircled the boulder as the Elders chanted and withdrew their knives. Their blood sacrifices fused with the chainlinks and bored into the stone. It wasn’t until the circle wedged heavy oak timbers under the stone and began to lever it off the cliff that Dhoul shook off his enchanted sleep and awoke to find his situation most dire.
Siobhan ran to him and pressed her face against his snout and wept. “What is happening?” he said.
The boulder rocked toward the edge, the chain went taut. She shook her head and failed to speak.
“I am sorry,” she said finally. When Siobhan saw in his eyes that he understood, her heart shattered utterly. Dhoul reached for her and blinked. He waited for the plunge.
“No,” she whispered when she caught a breath. “No.” She shook her head and pulled her blade from her belt. She cast a final glance around the Circle and the oaken levers. She drove her knife into Dhoul’s claw and dragged open a wound. Black blood flowed from him. When her knife plunged into her belly she didn’t feel pain, but pressure. First in, over, then out, as she gutted herself. Their blood mingled and swirled into a frothy torrent of reddish black. She vented her pain and rage into a prolonged scream.
The Elders pressed their hands over their ears. The boys shrieked and flung themselves over the cliff to escape her furious keen. Dhoul rallied, jumped to his feet, and ripped off his chains. He grabbed Siobhan with his wounded claw and held her gently. She writhed and kicked until finally, she screamed her fire out.
“Take them, these are no friends of ours,” her voice deep and unfamiliar. Dhoul tore a chunk from the boulder and crushed it to powder. He drew a long breath and the intake of air made a shrill whistle. As he exhaled, a jet of scathing gravel blasted the skin from the Elders’ bones. Red, wet skeletons loitered a moment then crumbled into piles. Siobhan thrust out her staff and chanted, the red mist obeyed. It coalesced and hardened into a bloody red crystal that now topped her staff. It glistened at the tip, like a plump red grape.
Her belly pumped fire and spilled ash down her legs. Dhoul wrapped his claw around her and chanted. Siobhan’s eyes flared red and faded to orange before going black. She chanted and lifted her voice to challenge the dragon. Their wounds knit together and formed a shared scar across their souls. Dhoul placed her gently on his back and flicked his tongue.
“Where will we go?”
“You shall have your bounty. I will bring to you flavors, such delicacies you have never known.”