The girl and the dragon walked side by side through the scorched field. The girl’s red hair had been hacked short and had the appearance of the few remaining sheaves of grain struggling up through the earth to reach sunlight. The dragon fluttered his copper wings, stirring ash to swirl through the air in a small gust of wind. He glanced back at each of the wings as if to check they were truly there, then opened his mouth to howl.
It whipped into the sunny afternoon sky and seconds later, matching howls echoed back.
/Nothing yet,/ he told the girl, his gravelly voice tapping gently on the inside of her head.
Giselle sighed, squatting to brush a hand through the charcoal and ash. No tracks. No carcasses of goats or sheep or even rabbits. How could a creature disappear like this for two days with no sightings or sign of where she had gone?
“She could be in Ikjor by now,” Giselle said, dumping the ash back to the ground and standing. “Or halfway to Tyrun.”
/Shula would not go so far. She must be close./
She turned her eyes to Baltair’s face, trying to examine his expression. “Unless someone took her that far.”
/No. We will find her, Giselle. We need her./
Baltair trailed off, leaving the number unsaid. Nine dragons. A vast improvement on their official extinction just a few months ago, but still too few by far.
Giselle chewed on her lower lip as they left the field that had been wiped out by a bush fire thanks to an unusually hot summer and entered the trees once again. She opened her mouth to say something then snapped it shut, staring at her feet. Baltair’s eyes darted through the shrubbery for any sign of the missing dragon. Four months ago, before he was reborn in his own body and had shared Giselle’s mind, he would have known in an instant of her torment. But with this new layer of separation between their thoughts, how could she explain it?
Baltair crouched, shoulders high and wings half-raised as if he were about to pounce and tear something apart. A low rumbling escaped his throat. Giselle reached out to place a hand on his shoulder in comfort, searching for whatever he had seen or smelled. His scales were normally soft and leathery to the touch, but now they had solidified into hundreds of tiny metal shards. She focused in on that, cutting out the surrounding chirps of birds or rustling wind so she could speak to him mentally instead of aloud. If he had found the missing dragon, it was not good news.
/It stinks,/ he snarled, prowling to the left.
Giselle drew her knife and crept after him. Newly fallen leaves crunched under Baltair’s feet, as good as drums announcing their arrival.
Wait here. I’m quieter. I’ll tell you what’s there.
Baltair rumbled his unhappiness but held back as she continued on through the trees, picking her way through the forest’s debris as if she was back in Tyrun avoiding the guards. Baltair was still getting used to having a body; she had a lifetime of experience at avoiding attention.
The smell found her first—rancid, like rotting meat left out in the sun for too long. She tried to wave it away, but with every step it got stronger. It crept into her nostrils and drew her closer to whatever this was—
She stopped. It was in front of her. A shape—bloody, disfigured, abandoned in the middle of a small clearing. Multiple shivers ran through her before she could bring herself to step forward. She leaned over to get a better look, knuckles whitening around the knife’s hilt with dread rumbling in her stomach. Flies buzzed up for a moment then settled down again. Creamy maggots crawled in the creature’s eye sockets—eye sockets attached to a long, distinctive face. It had been skinned, but its legs were the wrong shape for a horse. Her eyes ran over the animal again and found stumps where wings should have been…
She spun, tripping as she vomited all over the leaves.
Her body shook erratically. She started to turn back then stopped and squeezed her eyes shut, pressing her hands over her face. The image of the mutilated dragon wouldn’t budge from the back of her eyelids.
Baltair crashed through the trees and she opened her eyes in time to see him rear in fury. His screams echoed through the surrounding trees until Giselle jumped up to latch onto a leg and yank him down with all her strength.
/Another!/ Baltair screeched, shoving her aside to free his leg. She stumbled backwards and landed in the mud and leaves, the force of his words making her head spin. /Another gone!/
“You’re telling everyone where we are!” Giselle shouted, shaking her head to clear it. “What if the thing that did this is still close?”
/Human./ His tone switched to whispered venom. /Only a human could do this./
He stalked past her and she scrambled up to follow him, trying not to look at the dead dragon. He kept walking in a circle, his claws drawing up big rifts of earth from the ground. Without any warning he stopped and turned back to the corpse, opening his mouth. Something rumbled in his chest. White hot heat flashed under his scales, then an eruption of flames engulfed the dragon’s body. She said nothing when Baltair stopped breathing fire, but kept her distance. She stared at him instead of the pyre until his voice rumbled in her head.
/Look at her, Giselle./
She turned her head slowly and was relieved to find that the worst of the grotesque shape was now blurred by flames. It stank worse than before and occasionally something would pop. The heat blew off in ever increasing waves and the smoke smarted her eyes but she stayed perfectly still alongside Baltair.
/They did this in the war. At the start. They were meant to keep the peace, but groups of them would leave to attack us at night when they were off duty. Then in the day. Then when they were on duty. They would go after the hatchlings and any dragon who flew alone./
“They’re monsters,” Giselle whispered.
/They are still out there. We are not safe. They are coming for us again./
Baltair turned to her, approaching around the pyre.
/Climb on my back./
She had never asked to fly on him before, even once he had grown big enough. Humans had never been allowed to ride dragons before the Flier ceremony. He lowered his neck and fixed her with a stony stare.
/We must warn the others, and everyone in Cridhal. I am alpha, I must protect them./
She gulped, but nodded her agreement. Carefully, she placed both hands on the other side of his spine and scrambled up. It was difficult at first to find a position that worked. She would fall off if she just sat up straight and his wings stopped her sitting on him as she would a horse. All the while, her heart beat unsteadily as the dragon’s pyre continued to burn in the corner of her eye.
/Lie down. Arms around neck./
She shuffled to do as he said, curling her ankles around his body behind his wings. At first it felt precarious, but when his wings spread out she was firmly in place.
He jumped, claws catching onto a pine tree and slashing through its bark, then jumped again. She clutched his neck tighter, almost slipping off. Up and up the trees they went, leaving the burning dragon far behind, until all that surrounded them was blue sky littered with wafts of foul smoke. The tree bent and cracked dangerously beneath them, and Baltair leapt away. His wings beat fiercely, lifting them higher and higher as they soared back in the direction of Cridhal.
Baltair howled again, the mournful sound being whipped away by the wind. Distant howls returned, but no other dragons joined them in the air. They would make their way back to Cridhal by foot with their humans. Silence reigned except for the wind whipping past, blowing Giselle’s short hair into her eyes. Every so often she would glance back at the smoke they had left behind. Even without their old connection, she could feel the tension in Baltair. She opened her mouth several times to speak, but closed it again when the words of comfort she was trying to voice failed.
“Who did it? Dunslades?” Giselle asked eventually, naming the family who had almost prevented dragons returning at all. If they had got their way, all dragons and their temporary human hosts would be dead by now. One of the brothers was dead, but the other three had not been seen since in months.
/Perhaps. But they are not the only ones who hate us that much./
A shudder ran through Giselle, the image of the mutilated dragon tainting her first flight. She could feel Baltair’s powerful wings twitching to adjust to the winds that buffeted them and the connection between their minds seemed somehow rekindled. She knew to move when he moved, in which direction and how far. The mix of fields and forest below was a green blur set against the mountains, currently devoid of snow except for the highest peaks. Occasional flashes of black marked the bush fires from summer and in some patches of forest the trees had begun to turn their colours to red and orange. She twisted her head back and could still make out the small plume of smoke marking the dragon’s grave.
It had taken half a day of walking to get so far away from Cridhal, but twenty minutes of flying to return. Tiny dots marked the volunteers helping to strap together the last posts of a fence that wrapped in a semi-circle around the village, right up to the cliff face that several houses had been built against. A steady patrol of guards stood watch and smoke rose steadily from the Goldsmoke House, signalling a new shipment of gold from Droighair.
The other Firesouls were still out with the dragons but a huddle of villagers formed to stare. Simon, the one-armed man who was mayor of Cridhal and had once been Baltair’s Flier, stood in the centre with pride shining in his eyes as Baltair swooped down. It almost disguised the concern buried in the rest of his expression.
Baltair landed with a heavy thump and Giselle almost slid off his back at the impact. She twisted to jump down and the crowd parted to let Simon through.
“You have news?” he asked.
Giselle nodded, her lips pressed tight together.
Something huge crashed behind them, sending a shudder through the earth and knocking her to the ground. A blue dragon as large as Baltair but with several spikes swaying on the end of her tail had landed. The Firesoul she had ventured out with to search for the missing dragon was nowhere to be seen. She snarled at Baltair but Giselle could only understand Baltair’s reply.
/Morag, be calm! Things are not the same as before. We cannot wait on ceremony./
Morag growled, shooting a venomous gaze at Giselle.
There was some power Giselle did not understand in Baltair’s voice that made her quake and Morag cowered back with narrowed eyes, pawing at the ground.
/Tell the council, Giselle. There is a monster in our forest. We will not be safe until we destroy it./
His muscles burned. His head spun. His vision blurred. But still Corran Dunslade forced himself up again, touch the ceiling, to the floor, press up, squat. And again.
The bell to mark the guard change rang and Corran bent over, gasping for air as his limbs cried out in relief. It was working. He could go for twice as long as when he had first been chucked in this excuse for a prison cell with a latrine bucket and a thin grey blanket. Soup with bread and the occasional scraps of rabbit or veal was barely enough to sustain him, but he pushed as hard as he could. He would not be weak if—when—he got out of here. He would be strong enough to take on Ingvar. He wouldn’t need a dragon or his family to defend him. He would take care of himself.
Right on time, the door rattled open to reveal Ingvar, the huge guard who had brought his meals in the mornings and evenings for the past four months. A new ring on his hand marked his dice win last night that Corran had listened in on through the door, trying to catch new words.
“What news, Ingvar?” Corran asked in his best Ikjorian. The words spilled out awkwardly.
Ingvar had a bowl in one hand, but instead of passing it to Corran and ordering him to eat, he stepped aside. A woman stood in the door, wearing the thick red furs of a clan leader over her shoulders.
“This Gulla. Answer questions,” Ingvar said, balancing the bowl of food in one big hand.
Gulla hefted a spear up to brush against the lacing of Corran’s shirt collar then pushed the blade forward so he had no choice but to walk backwards through the muddy straw to press himself against the wall. The circular tattoos marking a battle won overlapped each other on her arms, far more than Ingvar’s and disappearing under her furs.
Her spear tapped his chin up, forcing him to meet her eyes.
“How to catch dragon?” she asked, in an accent so thick he could barely follow her words.
Corran gulped and felt the blade scrape his throat.
She frowned, confusion shining through her eyes.
“Why? To catch dragon, of course.”
“But why now? You’ve had me locked up for months—and you only decide to start questioning me now? What do you want with me? What are you going to do with me?”
Ingvar spat on the ground of his cell, shaking his head. Corran had tried and failed to get the same answers out of him every day of his captivity. Gulla waved a dismissive hand at Ingvar but her eyes never left Corran’s and she smirked.
“When we have dragon, you tell everything. Food, flying, fighting. But first, we catch.”
“You want to catch Frang and get me to teach you about him?”
She smiled, revealing a missing tooth, and nodded. “You will be rich. Have power. Dragon is close. If you help, you have tent. Furs. Meat. No more cell.”
Corran’s heart leapt. Frang had not abandoned him after all? Or was he simply living wild in the forest, taking what he wanted and ignoring all humans? What about Tilda? Had he hurt her? Had he looked after her?
The sharp slice of Gulla’s blade against his cheek brought Corran back from his reel of questions to reality.
“Tell me! How to catch dragon?”
Something trickled down to his chin from where the spear rested.
“Oh Soan, I don’t know! He’s small, it can’t be that hard. I’ll think, okay? I don’t know now but I’ll work it out.”
She pulled the spear back down to her side.
“Tomorrow. You will tell me tomorrow. The dragon is not small.”
She walked out without another word and Corran wiped away the droplet of blood that had fallen down his cheek, staining his hand red. How fast did dragons grow?
“Eat,” Ingvar grunted in Ikjorian, pushing the bowl at him. No meat today.
Corran met Ingvar’s eyes as he accepted the food. The bigger man was as alert as ever and his gaze did not falter until he slammed the door shut again.
Wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of one hand, Corran settled down with the soup. He wrapped his hands around the bowl, trying to soak in the feeble warmth even as his stomach grumbled in protest at the delay. When would he find out his fate? Was this a special form of Ikjorian torture, leaving him to wonder at what they would do to him in the dark while they marched against Auland?
It could be worse, though. Tilda could be imprisoned with him. Frang could have been caught and used as the Ikjorians’ weapon. He thought of the last time he had seen them both and Frang’s mindless screeching, keeping everyone away. But had it been mindless?
“Bloody dragons,” he grunted, slurping down the soup. A drop spilled over into the patchy stubble on his chin that refused to grow evenly, even after months of not shaving.
Something crashed nearby and Corran jumped, slopping some of the soup onto the floor. He swore at the loss and shouting began outside. At the second crash, Corran gulped down the soup as fast as he could. He knelt to scrape up a couple of soggy vegetable chunks from the dust and swallowed those too. He placed his bowl down and hurried over to the east side of the cell where there was the biggest crack in the clay wall to peer out.
Ikjorians sprinted towards a burning watchtower, but as they did a rock careened from the sky, scattering them. Another rock flattened a tent. Corran peered up, praying nothing would fall on his cell and trying to see the cause of the mayhem. A shadow flashed overhead and his heart leapt.
There was another crash, much closer, but on the other side of the cell. Corran tripped over his feet rushing over, finding a smaller gap to peer through and search for Frang. A flag post in the middle of a clearing had toppled over, crushing tents and some temporary wooden buildings. The shouts and crashes and flames were deafening—then his door swung open.
He spun, fists raised instinctively even though he knew he could not fight Ingvar yet—but standing there, in Ikjorian dress and with red patterns spiralling up her arms, was Tilda.
For a moment, he couldn’t move. The moment after that, he had her in his arms.
“What are you doing, how are you here, what—”
His words were halted by her pressing a hand to his mouth.
“Shh, later!” she whispered. “We’ve got to be quick.”
“Where’s Ingvar? The guard,” he added in a suitably hushed voice when she frowned. He frowned back as he took in her appearance properly. Pale cheeks jutted out in a way they never had before and the long blonde hair Corran had always loved was cut short. She didn’t look well.
“Told him they needed his strength to help a man who was getting crushed,” she answered, pulling a bag off her shoulder and rummaging inside. She pushed clothes into his arms. “Put those on.”
“You don’t speak Ikjorian.”
He pulled the hide jacket on over his shirt and Tilda twisted his arm up and around to paint on a pattern with red clay, ignoring his obvious discomfort.
“I learnt. Hurry!”
He laced up the boots, submitting to Tilda’s prodding with the clay, and stood. She grabbed his hand, yanked him out of the cell and through the door to the outside world.
He had to stop as the sun pressed in on him, far brighter than he ever remembered it being. A cold breeze rustled his dark hair, pushing long strands into his eyes. Tilda wrenched at his arm and he followed her, half-blind, through the chaos of the camp. A shadow passed over them and he squinted up, halting again to stare at Frang.
The dragon had grown far faster than he had ever imagined it could. Huge wings beating down created draughts that battered them where they stood. Black scales gleamed, the sunlight turning them silver and blinding him even more. He blew a stream of white fire at another watch tower and spiralled back into the air. It was everything from the stories that had given him nightmares as a child.
/No need to dawdle, Dunslade!/
Nightmare or not, that ferocious-looking dragon could only be the same sarcastic Frang who had been stuck in his head. He did as he was told and ran after Tilda.
The shout came loud and clear. Corran glanced back to see Ingvar charging after them. Other heads turned to stare and Ingvar shouted something else, in Ikjorian this time. Swords sprang up all around them and Corran found himself and Tilda backed up against a tent. The smouldering, crushed tents elsewhere in the camp were abandoned by fierce warriors intent on keeping him captive and catching Frang.
An anguished howl sounded out from the other side of the camp and flames flew into the air. One of Frang’s legs had been caught in a net and Ikjorian soldiers were now battling him down, pulling him from the sky.
The tower! Frang, the tower next to you—pull it down! Corran shouted.
Frang’s enormous tail slammed into the watch tower, shattering wood all over the soldiers. He hit it again, beating his wings to get up, get higher, get free… The tower collapsed, scattering over the soldiers trying to hold the net down, and Frang soared into the sky. One wing lifted and he turned, the net still dangling from his leg as he hurtled towards Corran. The Ikjorians bellowed their alarm but stood their ground in the circle trapping Corran and Tilda. Arrows flew up at Frang and he dodged them then dived with astonishing speed. A rush of wind knocked Corran to the floor and a cry echoed in his ears, then Frang was in the air again—with Tilda in his claws. Corran stared up with his mouth open, heart thudding against his chest as Frang struggled to regain enough height. A spear flew far too close to Tilda’s head but finally he was high enough to avoid the reach of even the arrows.
The Ikjorians turned to face Corran again as Frang and Tilda disappeared into the trees. Corran’s stomach plummeted. He’d been so close. Tilda’s plan had worked so well right up to the point that Ingvar had shouted after them. The guard arrived now, scowling fiercely. Gulla marched next to him, shouting orders and gesturing at the trees. A small group of soldiers gathered and started off towards the forest—it seemed they were chasing.
Ingvar stepped forward and Corran lifted his fists. This was his chance. He wasn’t as strong as he could be and his odds were minute—but he couldn’t just go back to the dark cell, always hungry and lonely.
A piercing shriek echoed across the camp and Corran leapt away from Ingvar. Had they caught Frang, or Tilda?
His feet left the ground and he shouted wordlessly. Sharp claws pricked into his chest but he reached up and hung on instinctively as the ground got further and further away, Ingvar shouting up at him in Ikjorian. An arrow skimmed past him but Frang kept pulling him higher, giving him a wide view of the camp. Corran’s heart sank as he stared over it. It had grown immeasurably since he had last had a glimpse just after his capture. There weren’t hundreds of soldiers—there were thousands. Frang’s attack had barely made a dent in their ranks.
/Sorry. Not quite the plan we had in mind,/ Frang said, his claws digging in deeper as he turned to swoop towards the forest.
The Ikjorians would never catch them as long as they had Frang to move quickly—but that wouldn’t matter if they got through the Wall and invaded Auland. There was no army of human soldiers and dragons to fend them off like there had been decades ago, before the Wall had been built. If his brothers had succeeded in living up to the Dunslade name and killed the Firesouls then Frang could be the only dragon left alive. If the Wall fell, so did the rest of Auland.
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