There was something wrong on the island of Illium.
Stretched across the beaten and weather-torn ground, Hal slowed her breathing, her ear pressed to the soft grass. She gently inhaled the comforting scent of the earth, the moss still damp from the morning dew. She kept her eyes closed, appearing to be asleep, when in actuality she did not want her sight to influence her hearing. She could feel the soft vibrations of the herd of deer almost a mile away, preparing to continue moving north as they had been for the past two days. She listened to the skies, hearing nothing unusual as the birds chirped, the wind howled, and the leaves on the trees were rustled from stasis. The air was cool this early in the day, but she could feel the high humidity beginning to press down on her skin. It would be another hot day.
Eventually Hal sat up, crossing her legs and pulling bits of grass from her hair. She discerned nothing out of the ordinary. Except…she twisted her torso around and stared at the tracks she had been following for two days, turning her already atypical hunting trip into an irritating game of cat and mouse. She needed to focus on tracking the predators that had been spotted near her village several times over the last few months. But this was too concerning to ignore.
The clearing she now occupied, like the few others she had managed to find, was riddled with signs that something large was on her island. The smaller, weaker trees had snapped as if suddenly burdened with a heavy weight. The length of that damage alone was about three houses. The deep imprints of the claws she had been following told her the size and weight of the beast was a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention, on another set of tracks, the claws dug deep into the earth, furthering Hal's belief that the reason she could not catch up to the creature was because it was flying — otherwise the sheer size of it would've made it slow on foot and much easier to keep up with. And she was hardly humble when it came to her skills. She was very good.
The island of Illium was home to very few indigenous persons, but the wildlife was abundant. It had taken Hal most of her late childhood and young adulthood to memorize and recognize the different species, their patterns, and their ways of life. She knew every sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste of the forest. She knew that whatever creature she was tracking was not native, and the sudden intrusion worried her. Was it friend or foe? Here temporarily or to stay? She saw no reason to concern her people, but the longer her questions went unanswered, the harder it would be for her to keep quiet.
Hal rose to her feet, brushing the dirt off her fitted, linen trousers with one hand and reaching into her small, brown knapsack, pulling out a leather-bound book with binding stretched from use. She flipped to the last marked page, staring at her own rushed sketch of the print from an earlier discovery. The exact same, unless there were multiple creatures the exact same weight and size. So as far as she knew, there was only one. That was something, at least.
She picked up her bow and slung it over her torso, frustration making her muscles tense. Whatever she was following, she didn't like being outsmarted. She walked over to her horse, Nani, a strong black mare that she had received as a gift when she entered womanhood at thirteen. Nani herself had not even been born yet until six weeks later. They had both grown up together.
"I'm not crazy, am I?" she asked those wide brown eyes, and Nani grunted as if to say otherwise. "What do you say then, should we carry on?"
She stomped her hooves and Hal smiled, lifting herself up and over the horse with a practiced — now natural — ease. She gripped the reigns and Nani, as if reading her owner's mind, took off, continuing south towards the coast.
As the sun rose higher, the island itself seem to become more awake with life. Hal felt like her spirits were soaring in response, the sun warming her face as the trees thinned around her. They were so close to the shore she could hear the waves and smell the salt in the air. She veered Nani left so that she was traveling parallel with the ocean as she rode towards the cliffs.
Although they traveled at a slow trot, Hal found no other signs of the strange creature as the day waned. She knew the likelihood of it still being in the general vicinity was slim, but it was still an animal. They were creatures of habit after all; it would scour the land and see if it was fitting enough before just moving on. And the tracks were no more than a day or two old. It couldn't have possibly left already. Although she certainly wouldn't complain if it had.
But how would she know? She didn't even understand what she was dealing with. Was it simply a large bird, a creature of magic, or something else entirely?
That's when she heard it. Had she not been so close to it, she might've mistaken it for the wind. But a roar filled with ferocity and pain startled her half to death, and Nani whined in fear, slowing to a stop. Birds flew maddeningly from the trees and Hal felt her heart pound in her chest. Something that loud and terrifying had to be the creature she had been tracking, but dare she be so foolish as to follow it?
She rode a reluctant Nani towards a cliff that overlooked the water. Once she cleared the trees, she heard the roar again, more distinctly, and grabbed her bow and quiver of arrows before ordering Nani to stay put. Then she took off for the edge just as she heard a giant splash.
When she made it to the edge, she watched the water and the skies carefully but saw nothing out of the ordinary except for several unusually large ripples that caught her attention, located just below where she was standing, branching out in wide circles. But whatever had hit the water didn't come back up. The water smoothed out except for the occasional wave and Hal frowned as several long minutes passed. Suddenly a large movement broke the surface, the ocean water rising like a spout, and Hal jumped back, landing hard on her backside as she was splashed with water, her eyes witnessing an unbelievable sight.
She had to control herself to keep from screaming, swallowing the fear and concentrating on the sight before her. For it was a ferocious fight between two creatures she had never before seen with her own eyes but lived in legend amongst her people. A Nïdhwal, a large sea serpent, known for its cruelty, dark nature, and immense size. Although it could not fly, it's long neck and quick reflexes made it a threat to creatures and large ships in the water. Its jaw was so wide that it could swallow Nani and Hal whole, probably with room to spare. There were a few in her village who claimed to have barely avoided disaster when crossing the water for trade purposes, but Hal herself doubted such tales. The creature wouldn't leave survivors.
But the other beast was far more unbelievable and far scarier and exciting. A deep red dragon had gotten itself tangled up with the Nïdhwal. The dragon's neck was trapped in the jaws of the sea serpent, and Hal soon realized what the roar of pain had been. It was struggling to fly, one wing bent horribly out of shape and a deep gash down's its back leg. It must've flown to close to the water, giving the sea monster an easy avenue for attack. It was clawing at the Nïdhwal with brute force, but Hal wasn't sure it was going to make it. Nïdhwals were known to be the only creatures capable of killing a dragon. The sea serpent tightened its iron-tight jaw, digging its teeth deeper into the dragon's neck and it roared in pain. Hal flinched sympathetically.
But Hal observed something that she couldn't quite place. At least not at first. The dragon was roaring fiercely, but not at the creature that held it captive. It was looking down at the ocean, as if something else had caught its attention. Hal dared to take a look and her eyes widened. There was a man in the water!
"Dammit all," she swore, glancing up at the dragon with understanding. Not just a wild dragon, but it had a rider. She eased back from the edge as the weight of the threat began to wash over her. She stared at beach, knowing she could ride Nani and get there in less than five minutes.
She ran to Nani and quickly pulled off her leather boots and jerkin, bow and quiver, and knapsack and tied them onto the horse with her other bags, cursing madly under her breath the entire time. She removed the small dagger she kept in her boots at all times so that she would at least still have something to protect herself with, just in case.
She gave her disapproving steed a stern order to stay. Then she took a deep breath and took off running towards the edge. Throwing herself over would have been less terrifying if she hadn't been diving into a battle between a Nïdhwal and a dragon. But they hardly paid her any attention as she hit the water. It was warm, pleasant even, as she swam back to the surface to locate the drowning stranger.
He was only a few feet away, and she made her way to him, grabbing him under his arms. Hal wondered if the man had been on the dragon when they were attacked. She had no way of knowing his injuries, but his face was deathly pale and he wasn't breathing. If he had been dragged under the water before, there was no telling how long he had been under or how far deep he had been pulled.
Hal didn't have time to wait until she made it to the beach, so she began performing mouth-to-mouth, his beard tickling her cheeks. Suddenly the dragon dove into the water with such power that it created a large wave that pelted right towards Hal. She didn't even have anything to tether the stranger to her, and they were easily separated as the wave broke right on top of them.
Hal felt herself being tossed around the water like a rag doll, and she clutched her dagger tightly so as not to lose it. She briefly lost sight of which way was up. But fortunately, the sun, although setting, was still bright enough, allowing Hal to easily swim towards the light. When she broke the surface, she gasped for air then searched desperately for the man. He had been tossed much further away and the currents were carrying him out with ease. Hal was a strong swimmer but if they got too far out, she would have to make the decision of whether to head back alone before she too was dragged out by currents.
She reached him and quickly and unashamedly searched his person until she found what felt like a belt. Something heavy was attached to his hip and she cut it from him, and the difference in his weight was astounding. She put her dagger between her teeth to free her other hand and undid the strap, struggling in the water as she tied herself to him. Again, she performed mouth-to-mouth, but they were undisturbed. But it took several moments before he coughed up water, but remained unconscious. But Hal breathed in relief. He was, for the moment, alive.
She struggled to swim for the beach, slower than before and fighting against the heavy currents and dragging the man's dead weight as water filled her nose and mouth. The Nïdhwal and the dragon broke the surface yet again, and Hal watched in horror as the dragon was tossed, its body weak and limp. She couldn't understand the tears that pricked her eyes. She had seen the brutality of nature, of life, dozens of times. And although she was always sympathetic, this hurt her more than she thought possible. Maybe it was because it felt as though the Nïdhwal was now toying with its meal, whereas most predators went in for a quicker kill. Cruelty for the sake of being cruel. It made her sick.
But she had to focus on saving the man, if she could. The Nïdhwal ducked under the water. Hal forced herself to keep swimming, peddling hard with one arm and dagger in hand, the other wrapped around the figure of the man. Something felt off and she turned around and gasped, the shock ripping any suitable scream out of her lungs. The jaws of the Nïdhwal were opened, coming right for them and they had nowhere to go, nothing to defend themselves with.
It was a human, gut reaction for her to close her eyes and turn her head, waiting for the impact that would never come. For the red dragon burst from the water with a final burst of energy and clamped its jaws around the neck of the Nïdhwal in retaliation, spreading its one, uninjured wing and lifting the creature from the water, tightening its grip. The dragon slammed the sea serpent into the cliff Hal had been standing on moments before, pulling on the neck. Hal realized in an instant what it was doing and she turned her head. The Nïdhwal screamed until its head was ripped from its body. Then the dragon dropped the creature into the water.
The waves were much larger, and Hal held her breath as they hit. They were fortunate, able to ride the strength of the water closer to the shore. And this time, Hal managed to keep hold of the man. She gained her footing, having never been so relieved to feel the earth beneath her feet, pulling them to the shore. She dropped him with exhaustion, coughing up water as she did so. Her arms were weak, her body aching. And she was shaking horribly.
Sand clung to her as she rolled herself over to her back, the water hitting the shore underneath her, just strong enough to push her further up the bank, but not strong enough to drag her back in. And Hal was grateful for that, because she found herself unable to move. Something — exhaustion, maybe fear — was keeping her frozen as she stared up at the fading blue sky, trying to calm her breathing. But she realized in horror that her resolve was crumbling, and she clamped a hand over her mouth as tears blurred her vision.
She had been unbelievably, stupidly, foolishly reckless. More so than usual anyway. And for what? Now that her mind could catch up with her actions, she realized what grave danger she had put herself in. Not just by placing herself in the water with a Nïdhwal so close, but by saving and bringing to her island a stranger. A dragon rider.
The ridiculousness of it all put her close to hysterics and she laughed uncontrollably while tears leaked from the corners of her eyes and into her hairline. Denu was going to kill her. She didn't even know what more she could do for the man — her knowledge of medicine and healing extended only as far as the type of injuries she herself had gained while hunting: minor cuts and infections, burns, fevers, and broken bones.
She sighed, her adrenaline wearing down to a minor shake in her hands. She waited for calm to claim her but found that it was far from coming. The air was quiet, and there was almost no evidence of the spectacular fight she was already struggling to believe she had witnessed.
Something hard and wet nudged the side of her head and she reached to stroke Nani's nose. The horse was becoming impatient, whining, until Hal finally rolled over and got to her knees. She surveyed her predicament. The man wasn't moving, hardly breathing if he was at all. She scanned the beach, frowning. The dragon was nowhere in sight. Her eyes searched the water, but found no sign that it was alive or dead. She swallowed nervously, unsure of how to proceed.
She scooted closer to where the man lay still, untying the belt that kept them tethered together before pressing her ear to his chest. His heartbeat was weak, but it was there and she breathed. The thought of a dragon rider made her uneasy. On Illium, there was no magic that she knew of, although they had stories and legends. And the war against the Broddring Kingdom and Galbatorix had left the island, and its inhabitants, unscathed. Hal feared what this man's presence could mean for the balance of the peaceful island.
"What to do? What to do?" She sighed, staring solemnly across the abandoned beach as if the answer would stroll across the sand and drop beside her to offer its assistance. But she felt obligated to make sure she at least tried to see to his health for the time being. Stranger or not, she would want someone to do the same for her. Not to mention she had already brought him this far.
The wet and bloody fabric of his tunic pulled apart easily as she ripped it to get to his injuries. When the damage was exposed for her to see, she closed her eyes in pity, sympathetic to the wounds. If she had to guess, the unlucky stranger had been caught in or close to the grip of the Nïdhwal at some point. Not only were there gaping gashes across this chest, but his body looked as though it had been crushed. The bruising was horrible, covering his entire chest, and Hal could see that one of his legs appeared to be equally damaged, twisted and bent at an awkward angle. It was a relief he was unconscious, because if he woke up now the pain alone might kill him.
Hal worked quickly, realizing that his injuries were, indeed, beyond her expertise. She quickly searched the entrance to the forest for healing herbs and flowers which she chewed vigorously, her saliva mixing with the natural and bitter leaves to activate their healing properties. She ripped several from the ground and brought them with her. She spread the leaves across his injuries. They were to help with pain and infection, but she wasn't sure what good they would do. She had few supplies on her persons, doing her best to wrap the deep gashes on his torso, but having a hard time lifting his dead weight to do even a decent job.
Normally she would have made a splint for his leg, but he had no time. She had a lot of ground to cover after her travels before darkness would begin to settle soon. She had no safe means of getting him there, but Nani would have to do. Once they were settled on top of the steed, the man's head rolled back on Hal's shoulder, her arms under his to hold the reigns, they took off. Hal dared a final look back, her eyes downcast in sadness at the dragon's mysterious disappearance.