by Hannah Steenbock
Dorelle scrambled up the steep path in the dawn light, panting and clawing frantically to get to the top of the cliff on time, not caring about dignity or being technically an adult. She just knew there was a dragon winging in any moment now, to pick up the week’s catch and deliver it to the Dragon Tower.
And she intended to see it.
From the cliff heights, for the best view.
When she reached the top, she flopped to the ground and turned her head southeast. That’s where the dragon would come from.
Soon enough, she spotted a little dot against the gray clouds. Her heart soared with the beast in the sky.
She couldn’t explain it, but the simple sight of one of them, or the mere thought of seeing one woke an excitement that was pure thrill, pure longing.
When it got closer, Dorelle could see it was wearing green, the color of couriers and messengers. She focused her mind, as she had practiced countless times, and sent a thought towards the dragon.
“Welcome to Hery Bay.”
She had never received an answer, and didn’t expect one now, either. When it came, she sat in stunned amazement.
Thank you, my dear.
Dorelle’s heart leapt. A dragon had spoken to her!
She heard the words over and over in her mind, marveled at the gentleness of them, at the soft voice, and the recognition she had felt.
The dragon backwinged and landed on the beach in front of the houses of Hery Bay, a small fishing village at the northwestern corner of the Western Kingdom.
Dorelle ran down the path at a headlong speed, needing to get closer to the dragon and see her more clearly. She knew beyond doubt that it was a female dragon that had spoken to her.
When she stumbled and fell, a gentle presence in her mind gasped. Dorelle caught herself after a quick tumble, and raced on.
“I’m fine,” she told the dragon. “Don’t worry.”
Relief flooded her, and Dorelle grinned, despite the scrapes on her knees and hands. The dragon cared!
She kept running, even as she reached the sandy beach. The rider had dismounted and was staring at her.
Dorelle faltered and slowed to a walk. Had she made a mistake by speaking to the dragon?
Come, the voice said in her mind.
Dorelle bit her lip, but she moved closer. The dragonrider smiled, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Kranis and I have been watching you for the last few months,” the dragonrider said. “And we decided that we need to talk to your parents and you.”
Dorelle still worried despite the smile. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Not at all, my dear. You have been doing something very right.” The smile on the dragonrider’s face was augmented by a wave of support from the dragon herself. “Do take me to your parents.”
“Well, they no longer decide anything about me,” Dorelle said quietly. “I turned eighteen last week.”
The dragonrider lifted an eyebrow. “You do look younger. But even so, this is something I don’t want to do behind their backs.”
Dorelle quickly led the rider to her parents’ house. It stood a little back, close to the cliff. She just hoped their parents were home. Her father had a lot of work as village elder, but it was close to noon, and her mother would be preparing a meal.
She opened the door and called out to her. “Mom, I’m home, and I brought a visitor.”
She breathed a sigh of relief when her father walked out of the kitchen with her mother. Soon, they were all seated in the living room.
“First, let me introduce myself,” the dragonrider said. “I’m Hinesi, and my dragon is Kranis. I’ve only been here a few times, and I apologize for never stopping long enough to get to know you.”
“That’s all right,” Kirey said graciously. “You’re busy, and fish doesn’t stay fresh very long. Having said that, I’m please you are here now. Welcome to Hery Bay. I’m Kirey, my husband is called Tamir, and my daughter is Dorelle.”
“Thank you. You see, I’m here because of Dorelle.”
Tamir frowned. “What has she done?”
Hinesi smiled. “She has been talking to my dragon.”
Both parents stared at Dorelle.
“And today, Kranis talked back to me.” She couldn’t hide her delight any longer. “She has such a gentle voice.”
Hinesi laughed outright. “Thank you. It is obvious that you love dragons.”
“Yes, I do.” Dorelle ducked her head a little, because her parents had endured her dragon love for many years.
Kirey was shaking her head, while Tamir looked amused.
“But I’m not just here to indulge your daughter. The fact is, we need dragonriders like her.”
Tamir’s chin dropped. “You are recruiting? But we’re not a traditional dragonrider family.”
“No, you’re not. That is both a problem and hopefully part of the solution. I can’t explain this in detail right now, but both Kranis and I would be delighted to count Dorelle among our number.”
“So let’s talk about the problem first.” Tamir leaned back in his chair.
“The problem is that I can only get Dorelle into the selection pool if I pretend she’s my niece. My youngest sister does have a daughter her age, even though she’s deaf and dumb to dragons.”
Kirey chewed on her lower lip. “That would be a lie, then.”
“Yes. But a necessary, temporary lie.”
“I’ll do it!” Dorelle jumped to her feet. “I’ll do anything to ride a dragon!”
Her parents exchanged a look, and her mother sighed and nodded. And then her father did, as well.
Dorelle settled herself on Kranis’s back and couldn’t believe the wave of joy that rushed through her. She was sitting on a dragon!
Kranis laughed in her mind. You’ll do much more soon.
Dorelle bit her lip. How could having a dream come true feel so scary and good at the same time?
“Be safe, little minnow,” Tamir called out to her. He pulled her mother close to him, and for a moment, she could see their pain. It was worth it, she told herself fiercely. And she would be back with her own dragon!
Kranis ducked and jumped into the air, wings beating hard. Dorelle could feel how much she strained to lift herself and her rider and passenger from the beach. Soon however, the dragon had cleared the cliffs, and spread her wings, catching an updraft.
Dorelle breathed easier and finally allowed herself to look around. The small houses of Hery Bay disappeared behind her, while the sun gleamed on the sea. She could barely make out a boat or two before Kranis turned inland.
She couldn’t get enough of the view from above. Little creeks, running through the hills, patches of forest, an odd farm, they all formed new and fascinating patterns to her.
“It’s so beautiful!” she called out.
Yes. Our kingdom is very beautiful. I’m glad you enjoy it. I never tire of flying over it myself.
“Is that why you’re a courier?”
That, and getting too old for any serious fighting.
“Dragons are fighting?”
Kranis sighed. Well, officially, we’re still at war with the Carmine Empire. And there are small skirmishes from time to time.
“Oh.” Dorelle bit her lip once again. “That means my dragon and I might have to fight?”
Yes. Do you still want to come?
Dorelle nodded without hesitation. “Yes. And maybe we could work towards peace.”
A wave of approval rolled over her.
King Elsen will like you.
“I’ll see the King?” Dorelle felt overwhelmed.
Not anytime soon, Kranis said gently. He doesn’t visit the Dragon Tower often.
They flew on in silence after that. Dorelle decided to forget about the possibility of meeting the King and focused on the land below Kranis’ wings instead. She needed to learn how the Western Kingdom looked from above.
When they spiraled down after a long flight and the delivery of the fish, Dorelle could barely keep her eyes open. It was dark already, and all she could see was the flickering light of many torches and the walls they illuminated. She was too tired to make sense of the images she saw.
We’re almost home, Kranis said.
With a start, Dorelle realized she had no idea where she would sleep.
With us. The dragon laughed. It’s too late to get you quarters.
“Where are we going?”
Our quarters in the dragon tower.
Dorelle blinked and rubbed her eyes.
Never mind. We’ll show you in the morning. Kranis sounded amused and a little contrite. I’m sorry we kidnapped you like this. But you’re important for us dragons.
“I just want to be with a dragon.”
You’ll get there.
Dorelle felt the dragon slow down. She couldn’t see a thing in the dark, but suddenly Kranis flapped her wings hard. Her claws scrabbled on rock, then the dragon lunged and folded her wings.
“Well done,” Hinesi said.
The rider slipped from her dragon’s back. Dorelle could hear her stride across a hard floor, then a light flickered. Moments later, the rays from a lantern illuminated a large cavern. It looked like rock, but it was too regular to be a cave.
We’re inside the Dragon Tower, Kranis explained.
“Come. I hope you don’t mind sharing a bed for the night.”
Dorelle was too tired to care. “Not at all.” She stumbled after the dragonrider carrying the lantern and blinked when the woman pulled aside a drape.
“Here we are.”
The bed looked wide and inviting. Dorelle simply sat on the edge and pulled her boots off.
“That’s the girl”.
Dorelle realized the dragonrider had done the same. Soon, she was curled up under a blanket, while Hinesi grabbed a second one.
“Sleep well,” she said, and Dorelle mumbled an answer, just as her eyes fell shut.
Wake up, a voice said in Dorelle’s mind, and joy filled her the moment she remembered that it was Kranis talking to her. A dragon!
“Thank you,” she whispered, still finding it hard to believe that she was waking up in the Dragon Tower, the one place in the whole Kingdom she had thought unreachable.
Today, you’ll see the Dragon Master. You must firmly think of being Hinesi’s niece. Your name is Helna.
“I understand.” Dorelle said that name several times in my mind, doing her best to make it her own.
Her dragon will look at you very closely. You can speak to him, although the Dragon Master doesn’t like that.
She. Her name is Pesuma.
Next to Dorelle, Hinesi stretched and sighed before flinging the blanket aside.
“Let’s get breakfast first. Kranis, would you drop us down?”
Was a dragon the only way down? Dorelle had no idea of the layout of the Dragon Tower.
No, but Hinesi’s knees don’t like the stairs.
Dorelle had the sense that the words had been directed at her privately, and wasn’t certain that it was proper.
She also doesn’t like to be reminded of that. Amusement accompanied those words, and Dorelle had to make an effort not to laugh.
Moments later, Dorelle sat behind Hinesi on Kranis’ back. The dragon merely walked out of the opening and into the air, spreading her wings to break their fall.
Dorelle hid a gasp when it felt as if her stomach had dropped to her knees. Yet the moment Kranis soared, joy filled her again, and she relished the short flight to the ground.
Together, Hinesi and Dorelle walked to a low building. It was warm enough that some people sat on benches outside, with plates and mugs set on tables in front of them. Clearly, this was some kind of kitchen.
“Hey, Hinesi, who’s that slip of a girl?” A dragonrider waved them over.
Hinesi sat down with a grin. “My niece. She finally decided to talk to dragons.”
The two riders at that table gave knowing nods. “Good of you to bring her in. Did Kranis sniff her out?”
“What’s your name?” One of them turned to Dorelle, to look at her directly. And while she felt honored to be included in the talk, she couldn’t remember the name she was supposed to use.
Helna, Kranis said quickly, and Dorelle repeated the name out loud.
“That’s a nice name.” Both riders smiled, and Dorelle blushed fiercely, feeling that she was betraying them.
“Welcome to Asbanmor. I’m Flinder, and that is Mishgan.”
“I’m honored to meet you,” Dorelle managed to say.
“Your timing is very good,” Mishgan said. “I heard of matings going on at the Breeding Grounds, so there will be eggs soon. And a class of recruits.”
“We know.” Hinesi grinned.
“Hah. Trust couriers to know the latest gossip.” Both men laughed, and Dorelle blushed again. She had no idea what recruits would do.
Flinder glanced at her and his smile became more gentle. “Now don’t worry, Helna. You’ll fit right in, especially if you can hear dragons already. And my Tryshk tells me you’re a good one. So you’ll have your dragon soon, mark my words.”
Joy rushed through Dorelle at those words. Her very own dragon! She couldn’t stifle a gasp, and all three dragonriders laughed, very gently this time.
“We know how that feels,” Mishgan said. “But don’t let it show too much. Not all people here love dragons the way we do.”
All three of them exchanged knowing looks, and Dorelle did her best not to stare. How could there be dragonriders who didn’t love their dragons?
“Especially as a recruit,” Flinder added. “Be careful.”
Dorelle’s joy diminished. “They don’t love dragons?”
Hinesi sighed. “It is true, as sad as it is. Our Dragon Master believes that dragons must be controlled at all times. And that’s what she teaches. Do not let her drive out your love of dragons, but also don’t show it openly.”
Dorelle managed not to stare. “I… that will be hard.”
“Yes. But if you really want your dragon, you can do it.” Mishgan looked very serious.
“And we need you.” Hinesi touched her hand. “We very badly need people who love dragons.”
New determination filled Dorelle. “I will do this. And I will have my dragon.”
“That’s the way to go, girl.” Flinder smiled at her. “And I’ll go and get you some breakfast, it seems that Badani is too busy inside again.”
“Thank you, Flinder.”
Dorelle assumed that those two dragonriders knew about Hinesi’s bad knees. She would have volunteered to help, but Flinder was faster that she could think of it. So she just sat there, all senses open, surprised at the number of dragons she could feel. Just now, a flight of a dozen was leaving from the Dragon Tower.
Close your mind just a little, Kranis said gently. More of use are noticing you, and not all in a good way.
“Oh.” Dorelle made an effort to focus on the table in front of her, and the dragon presences faded away.
That’s good. You can also focus on my mind, since I already know you.
“Thank you,” she whispered. What had she gotten herself into? All she wanted was to be close to dragons.
And that is very honorable of you, my dear.
Flinder soon returned with a tray, two bowls and two steaming mugs, which he placed in front of Hinesi and Dorelle. “There you go. Nobody should face the Dragon Master on an empty stomach.”
His wink took away most of the dread for Dorelle, and she looked at the food. The bowl contained something that looked like gray goo and she frowned.
“Porridge”, Hinesi said quickly, and Dorelle assumed it was the name of that food. Not that it helped, she had no idea what it was. But she had to pretend that she did, because surely Hinesi’s niece would know.
So she took a spoonful and shoved it into her mouth as if she knew what she was doing and was surprised that it was both sweet and tasty. The liquid in the mug, however, was bitter, and it took her a moment to be able to swallow it.
Flinder must have seen her grimace, because he laughed. “Yes, we make the morning brew strong here. A true dragonrider will always enjoy it.”
Dorelle caught his eyes while she took a large mouthful of the brew and swallowed it, despite the taste.
He laughed even more. “That’s the way to go, Helna. You’ll make a brave dragonrider.”
That strange porridge did a lot to mitigate the awful taste, and so she alternated between eating and drinking.
He got you very strong brew on purpose, Kranis said in her mind. He’s a trickster.
“I see,” Dorelle whispered, letting the dragon read her answer. And was relieved she wouldn’t have to drink that vile stuff every morning.
Even so, it was doing something to her. She felt wide awake, all her senses thrumming, her heart beating fast.
When she put the empty bowl back onto the tray, she thought she was close to trembling. What was that stuff?
She wouldn’t find out any time soon, though, because Hinesi suddenly stood.
“Master Pesuma is calling us now. It’s a good thing we got up early.”
Just a few heartbeats later, Kranis landed close to the eating area, raising dust and causing some cries of protest.
Flinder stood as well. “Good luck, Helna. But if you ask me, you’ll fit right in.” Mishgan nodded at that.
“Thank you.” The confidence of those two dragonriders helped a lot, despite the trick that Flinder had pulled on her. She should get used to the teasing, she thought, not that it was anything new. The boys in Hery Bay had teased her just as mercilessly.
Kranis waited only until they had settled on her back before lifting herself off the ground, once again sweeping dust across the valley floor. She circled the Dragon Tower several times, flying higher and higher, and Dorelle realized that she was taking them to the top level of the huge tower.
It had three openings, large enough for a dragon to enter, and that’s what Kranis did. She landed in darkness, and it took Dorelle’s eyes a few moments to adjust.
“Come.” A harsh voice, old and rough. Dorelle remembered the Hinesi had mentioned the Dragon Master was a woman.
Hinesi got off her dragon, making a little grunt of pain when she stood. Probably her knees were hurting, Dorelle thought.
“Come, come. I don’t have all day.”
The Dragon Master was either impatient, or determined to display her power. Neither impressed Dorelle, but she tried to keep that thought to herself.
They walked towards an area set up with several wooden armchairs, grouped in an arc on two sides of a much bigger one. An old woman was sitting on the big one, and a dragon was curled behind it.
Dorelle did her best not to stare. She had never seen a white dragon before.
“So you’re Hinesi’s niece. About time you discover your dragonrider roots, girl.”
The old woman still sounded annoyed, and Dorelle wondered why.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Dorelle swallowed. “Yes, Dragon Master,” she said, making her voice as firm as she could.
“There we go. Now talk to my dragon.”
“Mind you, never do that without permission,” the old woman went on, before Dorelle had a chance to focus her mind. She wondered why, but quickly shoved that thought away.
“Yes, Dragon Master.”
“Fewer words, more action.”
Dorelle could hear Kranis sigh in her mind and forced herself to focus on the white dragon behind that chair.
“Hello,” she said, sending her thoughts at him. “I’m happy to meet you.”
That dragon laughed in her mind. Welcome, dragonrider.
Dorelle smiled. The dragon’s voice was old, as well, but gentle, deep and calm. She hoped she would get to talk to him some more.
“Very good. You have demonstrated you can talk to dragons.” The Dragon Master nodded once. “Take her away, Hinesi. She can join the recruits.”
Was that all? Dorelle blinked.
“And don’t ever dare to talk to Kollamer again.”
“Of course not, Dragon Master,” Dorelle said, without even thinking about it. Had that even been her own thought?
She glanced at the dragon, and he gave her a wink, behind the Dragon Master’s back. It took an effort for Dorelle to keep her face still.
“Come.” Hinesi took Dorelle’s hand and dragged her back to Kranis. They quickly got up on the dragon, and for some reason, Dorelle thought that Hinesi only took a full breath after Kranis had taken them to the air.
“Take us to the recruit camp, please,” Hinesi said a moment later, and Kranis tilted dramatically. Dorelle instinctively clung to her side with her knees, and the dragon approved wholeheartedly.
Flying bareback will not be encouraged, Kranis said, but you need to know in case of emergencies. You’re doing well.
They flew away from the Dragon Tower, and Dorelle saw a large town below her, with a very large building nestled among the hills.
That’s the Palace, Kranis explained.
The Palace! Dorelle took a closer look. So that was where King Elsen lived, with his Queen and his family, she assumed. Somehow, she had expected it to be spectacular, but it only looked large. Then she laughed at herself.
Soon, they left the town behind, and Dorelle could see something glisten in the far distance.
“Is that the sea?”
Yes, but we won’t go that far today.
In fact, Kranis spiraled down sooner than Dorelle had expected, landing near a camp with several tents. Two dragons roared a greeting, and two older men walked towards them.
Hinesi slid off her dragon’s back, and Dorelle hurried to do the same.
“Hello Ferren, hello Alesmo,” she said. “I’m bringing a new recruit, my niece Helna. The Dragon Master is sending her.”
“She’s too old.” The one called Ferren frowned at her.
Hinesi shrugged. “She only recently discovered she can talk to dragons.”
“That can happen.” Alesmo looked a lot friendlier and gave Dorelle a nod. “Welcome to the camp. We’re building a new Wing here, so these kids might be part of your future life.”
“I see.” Dorelle nodded, more interested in the two dragons sitting close to the tents than in any youngsters.
“Thank you for bringing her, Hinesi.” Ferren gave the old dragonrider a nod. “Let’s hope she’s any good.”
“Come, Helna,” Alesmo said. “Let me introduce you to the others.”
Dorelle cast a last look at Hinesi and Kranis, suddenly feeling rather alone.
You’ll do great, Kranis said in her mind.
It helped, a little. And then Alesmo guided her towards the tents, while Ferren stayed to chat a little longer with Hinesi.
The tents were arranged in a half-circle, similar to the chairs in the Dragon Tower’s top room. Dorelle wondered if that was a coincidence.
Alesmo called out, and young people arrived from all directions. Dorelle tried to take a quick count and ended thinking that with her, there were almost twenty trainees. Would they all get a dragon?
Suddenly, excitement sparked, and she felt as if her heart lit up. She would get a dragon!
She heard Kranis laugh in her mind, and was even happier. She already had a dragon friend.
Alesmo made them all say hello and tell her their names, but the only one that stuck in her mind right away was Bryal, a slim young woman almost her own age. She seemed to share Dorelle’s excitement about dragons. Most of the others quickly returned to whatever tasks they had been given. Soon, Dorelle stood alone with Bryal and wondered what was going to happen.
“Bryal, why don’t you take Helna with you and show her what we’ve been working on?”
“Of course, Alesmo.”
Bryal took her to a spot behind one tent. “We’re to pretend that we got stranded and have to repair our gear.”
Dorelle looked at the heap of leather straps on the ground. “All of that goes on a dragon?”
Her new friend laughed. “Oh, yes. Mosgar is good about letting us practice.”
“Is that one of the dragons?”
Almost instinctively, Dorelle reached out to them with her mind.
“Yes, that’s Alesmo’s dragon. Zomel is less friendly.”
“Oh.” Dorelle withdrew from both of them, remembering the Dragon Master’s words about not talking to her dragon. “Do you ever talk to them?”
Bryal stared at her. “Nobody talks to someone else’s dragon. That’s terribly rude. You know that.”
“I…” Dorelle felt utterly guilty. No, she hadn’t known that, and now she was even more grateful to Kranis to have answered her little welcoming thought. And she quickly withdrew her mind from looking at Mosgar.
“You didn’t know, did you?” Bryal shook her head. “You’re from a dragonrider family and didn’t know?”
“I… I was not expected to… to become one.”
Bryal frowned at her. “Most of us are here because their parents are dragonriders. I happen to like dragons, but not everyone does. It’s our duty to do it anyway. How did your family ignore that?”
“I… we live far away.” Dorelle didn’t even know if that was true.
“That’s a stupid reason.” Bryal looked angry. “Dragons fly everywhere.”
“They do, don’t they?” Dorelle tried to change the subject, hoping to mollify the young woman. She needed friends here in this camp.
“Yes.” Bryal was grinning again. “And if you want to ride one, you need to learn about the harness.”
“Show me.” Dorelle managed a grin that was quickly echoed. And then she desperately tried to remember all the names for the different pieces of leather.
“And… and how do you mend it all?”
“Well, we’re supposed to carry a needle and thread at all times,” Bryal explained.
“That makes sense.” Dorelle fingered a place on a strap that seemed worn and stretched. “I would replace this, if I could.”
Bryal took it from her. “Yes, that is a weak spot. Harness breaking in mid-flight is a very bad thing.”
“A dragon doesn’t drop their rider, do they?”
“No, but Ferren said that during fighting, there will be many fast turns.”
Fighting. Dorelle’s heart twisted in her chest. Would her dragon have to fight other dragons? She made herself nod.
“Now, let me teach you how to replace a worn part of a strap. Leather is expensive.”
The rest of the day went quickly, and Bryal clearly enjoyed having company. Dorelle was used to not eating much during the day, but she was very hungry once Alesmo called them all to the middle of the camp. A fire was burning there.
“And now, you get to roast your own food,” their teacher announced.
Dorelle grinned to herself. She had roasted fish over a fire many times in her life. And getting meat was a real treat. Soon, she had spitted pieces of it on a sharpened twig, alternating it with slices of vegetables, just as she would have done with fish.
“Oh, I never thought about that,” Bryal said, copying her. “That’s clever.
Alesmo gave her a little nod, but Ferren frowned. Did that man like anyone at all, she wondered.
Just as they had all settled down to roast their spitted meat, Dorelle sensed a dragon coming closer. Instinctively, she reached out with her mind, to take a closer look, and read anger in his mind.
“Get away!” she called, jumped up still grabbing her food and dashed among the tents. Bryal followed her immediately, but most others just stared at her.
A moment later, a black dragon swooped in on them, roaring wildly. It didn’t flame, however, and in a heartbeat, she recognized Zomel, Ferren’s dragon.
Dorelle stopped her flight, turned around and watched the dragon circle the camp and chase the stragglers. They would be dead by now, if that had been a real attack.
“So,” a voice said, too close for her liking. “You knew he was coming.”
Dorelle turned and faced Ferren. He looked less than pleased. “Yes,” she said simply. “I could sense him. But why is he so angry?”
Ferren’s eyebrows drew together. “You’re too clever for your own good, girl. Keep your mind where it belongs, away from my dragon.”
There was only one thing to do. “Yes, Ferren,” she said, looking at the ground.
“Good.” Their trainer growled the word, and Dorelle told herself to be much more careful. Even though she couldn’t help sensing dragons and their moods.
“You knew.” Bryal was staring at her, whispering the words. “But how did you know?”
Dorelle shrugged. “I can sense him. And Mosgar. It’s easy.”
“I can, too, but only if I focus on them.”
“I… I practiced that a lot.”
“Really? But Alesmo said you just learned to hear dragons.”
Dorelle blushed, shocked she had been caught in a lie already. “I… I didn’t tell them right away.”
Bryal frowned. “But why wouldn’t you?”
That was the problem with lies. Start telling them, and they got worse.
Dorelle thought hard but couldn’t come up with anything that made sense. And that woman was waiting for an answer.
“I… just wasn’t sure.”
Bryal cocked her head and lowered her voice. “I know when someone is hiding something. So we’ll just let it go.”
“Thank you.” Dorelle couldn’t believe that someone would just let her off the hook. But she knew that from now on, Bryal would be her friend, no matter what.
Bryal patted her shoulder. “We all hide things. So tell me, what do you like best about dragons?”
“Their strength!” Dorelle didn’t have to think about that. “And you?”
“The majestic way they look.” Bryal grinned.
“They do look majestic, true.” Dorelle watched Zomel land and return to a boring blue color. She quietly admitted to herself that she liked the black better.
“Why is he turning blue?” she asked Bryal, glad that nobody else was near.
“Ah, I think he and Ferren belong to the Third Blue Wing. That’s their color. See the rings on his neck?”
Dorelle took a closer look and counted three of them. “Yes. I had no idea.”
“All dragons have a color assigned to them, according to the jobs they do. The Wings have various colors, the couriers are green, and the Royal Guards are purple.”
“Of course.” Dorelle felt stupid again.
“And you really should know that if you come from a dragonrider family.” Bryal looked at her with renewed curiosity.
Dorelle decided to stop lying. “I don’t. But don’t tell anyone.”
“Oh.” Her new friend’s eyes went wide. “But you’re better than most of us recruits. I didn’t even sense Zomel coming.”
“I was keeping my mind open,” Dorelle admitted. “I just love sensing them. And I didn’t think they would mind.”
“They probably don’t.” Bryal sighed. “But Ferren does.”
“Do you know why?”
Bryal looked around. “Dragons are supposed to listen only to their riders. And never to speak to anyone else. Master Pesuma says that is necessary to control them.”
“Control them?” Dorelle didn’t like that thought. “But they are… they are wonderful and friendly and…”
“Not all of them.” Bryal sighed. “And you’d better keep those thoughts to yourself.”
“I… suppose.” Dorelle felt the joy in her heart shrivel. Why would people think dragons needed to be controlled?
“Everyone come back to the fire!” Alesmo called at that moment, and Dorelle sighed. At least Bryal sat next to her, and neither of them had dropped their food in all the excitement.
Dorelle was the first to hold her skewer over the fire, and it took a moment for the others to copy her. She tried not to mind, but knew she was making their trainers notice her again. This was something she should avoid as much as possible.
But she couldn’t help herself. Why was everyone else so… strange?
“So. You all blithely ignored a dragon moving in on our camp. Except for Helna, and she hasn’t even been in training yet. What is wrong with you?” Ferren looked angry, and Dorelle couldn’t blame him.
Several of the other trainees glared at Dorelle, however, and she realized that she had made enemies of them, without intending to do so.
She felt bad and focused on turning her skewer for a while. And then she forced herself to listen to their trainer.
“You must be aware of your surroundings at all times,” Ferren was saying. “And once you have a dragon, you must, absolutely must be aware of it at every moment in your life. Dragons do unexpected things, and they can be ferocious beasts.”
Dorelle didn’t doubt that, but she also thought that no dragon would become a ferocious beast without a reason. Of course, it was possible that there were grumpy dragons, just as there were grumpy people.
Bryal was nodding, and Dorelle wondered what she was thinking. Maybe she could ask her later one.
“Helna. Tell us. How did you know about Zomel coming in?”
“Come on. Stand up and speak. You need to be able to follow orders, you know.” Scathing irony in those words, and they stung.
She stood, her skewer still in hand.
“I… I like dragons,” she said, unable to think much, trembling with a strange fear. She did not like Ferren and didn’t trust him.
“That is not good enough,” her trainer growled.
Dorelle took a deep breath, doing her best to calm herself and come up with an answer that would satisfy Ferren.
“I used to get teased by the boys,” she said, bending the truth a little. “So I tried to be aware of them all the time. And I just do the same with dragons.”
Alesmo nodded, and Ferren grinned. “There you have it. And let me tell you, I will be just like those boys. I will tease you and hound you until you learn to be aware.”
Silence fell, and Dorelle sat down again, doing her best to become unnoticeable. The last thing she wanted was for Ferren to hound her.
Feeling rather inane, she held her skewer to the flames again, and when the meat was done, she ate her dinner directly from it, dripping hot.
Dorelle could feel all the eyes on her when she did that and soon, the others were copying her. And she didn’t like it one bit.
Dorelle was woken by a dragon roar, and it took her a moment to remember where she was.
Wake up, wake up! the dragon was saying in her mind, and she recognized Zomel’s voice.
“I’m awake,” she muttered in answer, and felt the dragon’s amusement before it withdrew from her mind.
Did that Zomel have a nice side?
She opened her eyes and remembered that Bryal had invited her to share her tent. The air was different than anything she was used to, and so she lay there for a moment, sniffing and trying to sort scents into something she could relate to.
It was near impossible. The only smell she could easily identify was the scent of some water nearby, but it clearly wasn’t the sea.
Next to her, Bryal groaned and sat up, rubbing her eyes.
Move it, Zomel growled in her mind, and Dorelle decided that she probably imagined that dragon having a nicer side. She quickly pulled on her boots and dragged Bryal out of the tent. They were among the first ones out, which pleased Dorelle.
What pleased her much less was the sight of Ferren standing outside a ring marked on the ground, with a heap of swords lying on the ground next to him.
Would he really insist on making them practice before breakfast?
Dorelle hid a shudder when he waved her and Bryal closer.
“You two. Show me what you can do with a sword.”
His grin promised little good. Dorelle made herself pick up one of the swords. This was the first time she had ever handled one, and she was certain that it showed.
Bryal pulled one from the pile, tossed it back and picked another one, before walking to Dorelle.
“Get into the circle,” Ferren ordered.
Dorelle did so, standing there, and when Bryal lifted her sword, she copied the movement.
“Go on, try to hit each other.”
Bryal gave her an apologetic shrug and swung her sword at Dorelle.
Dorelle simply jumped to once side, still holding her sword up high.
Alesmo laughed, but at least not in a nasty way.
Dorelle kept avoiding Bryal’s swings since she had no idea what else to do. She realized she was supposed to stay in the ring, so she managed to do that.
Finally, Ferren lifted a hand. “Stop that nonsense,” he barked.
“It is rather obvious,” Alesmo said. “Helna has no idea what do to with a sword. Right?”
Dorelle lowered the sword, bit her lip and nodded.
“And you come from a dragonrider family? That’s disgusting.” Ferren looked as if he wanted to spit on the ground.
“I… wasn’t expected to become a dragonrider,” Dorelle said in a small voice. At least that wasn’t exactly a lie.
Ferren laughed, a nasty bark. “With your brother being a Wing Second?”
Dorelle did her best to hide her shock. Helna had a brother who was a dragonrider? Why hadn’t Hinesi warned her?
“That’s why I was supposed to stay home,” she managed to say.
Alesmo nodded. “It is understandable. Ferren, ease up on her. It is what it is, and now we simply have to teach her.”
“She should just go back home.” Ferren wasn’t appeased at all.
“We need dragonriders,” Alesmo said, his voice getting softer. “Especially ones who can easily talk to dragons, like her.”
Ferren heaved a huge sigh. “Well, maybe we can keep her from getting into fights until she’s ready. I just don’t like half-trained riders in the Wings.”
One of the young men in the group raised his hand, and Alesmo gave him a nod. “Yes, Telden?”
“Well, you always said that teaching a skill also helps to get better in it yourself. How about we all take turns teaching Helna how to use a sword?”
“That is a very good idea.” Alesmo beamed at him. “And it’s exactly the kind of cooperation we need in the Wings.”
Dorelle did see Ferren gloat but he didn’t contradict his fellow trainer. And at the same time, more of the recruits came up to them, smiling and nodding.
“I’m willing to help,” another man said, and three women chimed in with similar offers.
“And I’ll teach you archery.” Bryal grinned at her. “Because I’m really good at it.”
“Thank you.” Dorelle could hardly believe how the entire group was suddenly smiling at her.
“What did they teach you at home?” Telden asked, quite innocently.
Dorelle immediately blushed. There was no way she could tell them about fishing, diving, gutting fish, repairing nets and all the other things she had done at Hery Bay every day.
“Why, housekeeping, of course.” Bryal laughed and clapped her on the shoulder. “What else would they teach her when they wanted to keep her home?”
“Exactly this,” Dorelle managed to say.
“It is done, then. You’ll get fighting lessons from the others.” Alesmo smiled and then looked at the recruits. “You will all take turns teaching Helna.”
Dorelle took good noticed of the two young men who did not nod a his words. And told herself to be very careful with them.
“Then let’s begin,” Telden said and picked up a sword. A moment later, he took Dorelle’s and replaced with with another one. “That one was too heavy for you. You need a quick fighting style, with a slim blade.”
“Oh?” Dorelle didn’t know what to make of that.
“You’re not heavy, not like Ferren,” he explained. “Ferren could fight someone using his weight and power, battering them down. You cannot.”
Dorelle cast a quick look at their trainer and nodded. “That make sense.”
“Good. If you had to fight Ferren, you’d have to be quick on your feet and evade his blows, while getting in your own between them.”
She looked at their trainer some more, watched him berate one of the women, and nodded. “I can see that, yes.”
“Which means you can’t lug around a heavy blade that slows you down.”
“Yes!” Dorelle blinked and then smiled at him. “I understand that. And I can feel that this one is less heavy.”
“Good. Then let’s begin.”
Telden lifted his blade and sank into a bit of a crouch, and Dorelle simply copied him. This would be interesting. And probably painful, she thought. And then she needed all of her attention to follow what he was teaching her.
The next several days were a blur of fighting lessons and soreness for Dorelle. Ferren always hovered at the edge of her awareness, watching her, frowning at her.
At night, she fell asleep in Bryal’s tent as soon as she put her head down, and the young woman had to shake her awake, despite Zomel’s roar in her mind.
At least the dragon seemed to have a bit of compassion when she had to move through the pain of her sore body every morning.
But even Ferren had to grudgingly admit that she was picking up fighting skills fast. And Alesmo gave her many satisfied nods, so she gritted her teeth and carried on as best as she could.
When Alesmo announced a rest day, Dorelle felt deep relief. One day, where she wouldn’t have to endure more bruises, where her old ones might be able to heal at least a little. And then he added that they’d be traveling on other dragons to a nearby lake to let the dragons swim, and her heart jumped with joy.
There would be more dragons!
A moment later she had to sternly remind herself that she wasn’t supposed to talk to them. If Ferren found out, he would be angry, and she had been trying so hard to make him like her.
Soon after breakfast, three more dragons spiraled down to their camp, and Dorelle did her best to simply sense them rather than to reach out to them with her mind, even though she would have loved to do that.
All three riders were male, but one dragon was a female. They also all wore the blue that Zomel wore, so she assumed they were from the same Wing.
Quickly, Alesmo sorted them into groups of three and assigned them to a dragon. To Dorelle’s chagrin, she was supposed to ride behind Ferren.
So she kept a tight rein on her mind as she climbed up on Zomel’s back. It took her a moment to sort out the straps and to attach them to her belt, and that made Ferren scowl again. At least the others had the same problem, she thought.
Zomel lifted up quickly, although she could tell it was hard work, made harder by carrying passenger. She made her mind small, but sent him a little encouragement anyway. He didn’t acknowledge it, which was probably a good thing.
The flight didn’t last long.
Dorelle was looking forward to a swim of her own. She missed that activity more than she wanted to admit, and just washing with cold water didn’t make her feel clean, either.
The lake didn’t look very inviting, she thought, and tried not to feel disappointed. It was small, and lined with a kind of tall grass. How would they even get to enter it?
The dragons settled down at one side of it, and Dorelle saw a line of rocks leading into the lake, past all that grass. That looked better, although it didn’t offer secure footing. Maybe it was a pier that was still under construction.
As soon as Zomel had settled down, she removed the straps and slid down his side.
“Thank you,” she said to him, both with words and her mind, without thinking about it.
You’re welcome, he answered quietly.
“I told you to stay out of my dragons mind,” Ferren roared a moment later, and Dorelle ducked.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I was just thanking him for the flight.”
“You need to learn to control your thoughts,” he fumed. “If you cannot do that, I’ll have that mind of yours removed from the reach of dragons.”
Dorelle shuddered, even though she wasn’t certain what that meant.
“Come on, Ferren. That was just a basic courtesy,” one of the other dragonriders said. “I wish more people would respect our dragons.”
“This girl is constantly overstepping boundaries.” Ferren was not giving in quickly. “And if I cannot whip her in line, she’ll bring disaster to the Skyforce. Mark my words.”
The other dragonrider laughed. “She’ll learn. And once she has her dragon, she won’t have time for making trouble.”
Dorelle ducked her head, trying to be invisible. Not that Ferren would forgive her for that slip.
“Let’s get the dragons into the water,” Alesmo said. “That’s what today is about, after all.”
“Right.” The other dragonrider grinned and started unbuckling the harness from his dragon. Soon, even Ferren was getting Zomel ready for a swim.
Dorelle hung back, trying to hide behind Bryal.
“He really hates you, doesn’t he?” the young woman said.
“I suppose.” Dorelle sighed. “I just wish I knew why. Does he hate that I can talk easily to all dragons?”
“Maybe. Or maybe he doesn’t like how much your love of dragons shows.”
“Oh, yes.” Bryal smiled. “It’s rather obvious. You watch them all the time.”
“Oh.” Dorelle sighed. “I can’t help it. They are so awesome.”
“They are, aren’t they?” Bryal grinned with her.
Just then, the first dragon took off, flapped his wings a few times and landed in the lake, head and wings high, looking almost like swan. Dorelle hid a chuckle.
The others followed quickly, and soon, there were five dragons swimming and diving in the water. The riders walked out on those rocks, and Dorelle followed their example, with all the other recruits on her heels. Soon, they had found perches to sit and watch the dragons play.
She could tell that their riders were egging them on, since they dove and splashed more and more. And she could clearly tell how much fun those dragons had. One even started flipping around, making massive splashes with his wings.
Mosgar, Alesmo’s dragon, kept diving and disappearing for quite a long time, only to come up below one of the other dragons, roaring with laughter when he did so.
All riders were grinning, except Ferren. And Dorelle could tell that Zomel was not fully participating in the fun, either. Did Ferren stop him from joining in?
Their trainer really was a dour person, she thought, if he disliked any fun that much.
Just as she was mulling over reasons why someone would be so averse to simple fun, a dragon scream filled her mind.
She clapped her hands over her ears, in a completely futile move.
Dorelle realized that she couldn’t see Mosgar anywhere, and was already making her way to the water before her brain caught up with what her heart already knew.
The dragon was stuck underwater somehow.
She jumped the last bit, carefully, feet first. One never jumped into an unknown body of water, and so she didn’t do it here, either, despite the hurry.
“Where are you?” she shouted.
Yes, the voice definitely came from below.
“Hold your breath! I’m coming!”
I’m trying. Panic tinged the voice.
She took a deep breath and dove under the water. The lake was deeper than she had thought, but she could see a shape further out and down.
Mosgar was struggling, in vain.
Hold still, she thought at him, unable to speak underwater. She went up again, swimming to where she had seen him at top speed. It was a good thing she was carrying a belt knife.
“If you struggle, you’ll churn up mud, and I won’t be able to see. And you’ll use up your air faster.”
I understand. He was sounding a little calmer.
Dorelle took another deep breath and dove down.
Yes, his right hind paw was tangled in something, a kind of vine or root. It would be difficult to cut through it in time to prevent Mosgar from drowning. She needed another idea.
She swam back up to the surface.
“Listen to me, dragons!” she shouted. “I need your help to save Mosgar!”
All of them were panicking, that was clearly visible, even Zomel. Dorelle assumed that their riders were, as well.
“You!” she shouted at the dragon closest to her. It was the female. “Listen to me!”
The dragon turned her head, glaring at her, her mind whirling with fear.
“Listen to me!” Dorelle reinforced her shout with a mental one, and the dragon visibly flinched. But she turned her head towards Dorelle.
Yes. I hear you.
She heaved a sigh of relief. “I need your help. You must breathe for Mosgar.”
What? The dragon stared at her.
“Mosgar will drown soon.” She could tell he was already in distress.
“So you need to take a deep breath, dive to him, breathe into his nostrils and go back up. And repeat that until I have freed him.”
The dragon blinked a few times.
“Can you do that?” They were running out of time, Dorelle could tell. Suddenly big bubbles were breaking on the surface, as Mosgar exhaled, no longer able to hold his breath.
“Now!” she shouted at the dragon. “Do it now!”
The dragon gulped, rose halfway out of the water and dove into it.
“Mosgar, let her breathe into your nose!” Dorelle shouted, hoping to overcome the panic in the dragon’s mind.
Somehow, she was watching the struggle through two dragon minds, which was confusing and difficult to handle. But she could see that the female dragon was managing to get some air into Mosgar’s nose.
Yes, this would work.
“Keep doing it!” she shouted.
We will. The female dragon’s voice was more confident, and Dorelle felt relief wash through her body. Mosgar had a chance now.
She took another one of those deep breaths and dove down. Mosgar’s struggle had churned up some mud, but she could see his leg well enough.
Hold still, Mosgar. I’ll be very close to you, and you could hurt me if you move, she sent to him.
I will. Thank you.
She felt her way down his leg and started slashing at the vine. She made little progress before she had to surface again for another breath of air, but that wasn’t unusual. She had done her share of gathering mussels and pearls from the bottom of the ocean.
Soon, she found a rhythm of breathing, diving and slashing. Along with her, the female dragon was breathing for Mosgar. They both worked diligently, and Dorelle was finally able to cut through some of the roots.
But the work was taking a toll on her, and she was getting more and more lightheaded with every dive. Still, she wouldn’t stop. A dragon’s life was at risk, and she had the skill to save him.
When she finally cut through the last root, feeling it slip away and release Mosgar’s leg, dizziness wrapped around her mind.
The dragon moved and his joy filled her, even as he kicked her accidentally. She tumbled through the water, completely losing her bearings, quickly running out of air.
Just as darkness descended and she could no longer hold her breath, she felt talons close around her chest.
When Dorelle opened her eyes again, she was lying on firm ground. Two riders and one dragon were peering down at her anxiously.
“Mosgar,” she managed to say, even though she felt nauseous and dizzy. “Mosgar?”
I am here. The dragon’s voice was filled with love.
“You saved him.” Tears were running down Alesmo’s face, and he grabbed her hand. “You saved him.”
And I picked you out of the water. The female dragon looked rather smug.
“Thank you,” Dorelle whispered, more with her mind than her voice.
I’m Ilgrin. What is your name?
Dorelle was more than surprised that she remembered the name she was supposed to use. “Helna,” she whispered.
“That’s funny. Just like my sister.” The second dragonrider smiled at her and Dorelle’s heart froze.
“But this is your sister,” Alesmo said, frowning at him. “Isn’t she?”
The dragonrider shook his head. “I’ve never seen this woman.”
Dorelle felt fear and panic rush through her body. “I… I…”
“Wait. I was under the impression that she is Hinesi’s niece.” Alesmo stared at the dragonrider.
“Maybe she is, but she’s not my sister.” The dragonrider was still smiling, which didn’t reassure Dorelle.
“What is going on here?” That was Ferren, and of course, he was angry.
“Oh, nothing.” The other dragonrider laughed. “We’re just a little baffled by Helna here.”
“Yes, Hinesi brought her in a few days ago, telling us she finally discovered she could talk to dragons, after all.” Ferren’s mouth twisted in a sneer. “Master Pesuma sent her here.”
“My sister is completely deaf to dragons,” the dragonrider said. Dorelle wondered what his name was, trying to focus on something else than Ferren’s rage.
Sevell, his dragon said in her mind.
“Well, this woman isn’t.” Alesmo smiled at her. “She certainly cut through Mosgar’s panic easily.”
“Who are you?” Ferren glared at her, and Dorelle felt herself quake before his anger. She gulped and fought her panic.
“Tell us!” he yelled at her. “Because nobody learns how to dive like that where Helna lives.”
Oh. Dorelle gritted her teeth, but there was no chance she could keep that lie alive. She took a deep breath and started coughing immediately. When she struggled to sit up, Sevell supported her, and she sent gratitude to his dragon.
“Easy. Easy. You saved a dragon’s life, you have nothing to fear from us.”
Dorelle wasn’t so certain about that, considering the fury she saw in Ferren’s eyes.
“Tell us.” Alesmo was still smiling. “I want to know who saved my dragon.”
There was no point in fighting them anymore, and she let her shoulders slump in defeat, leaning against Sevell.
“My name is Dorelle. And I’m from Hery Bay.”
“A blasted fisher girl,” Ferren growled.
“A hero,” Sevell said quietly. “Nobody else here had the wits or the ability to save Mosgar.”
“Fisher girls do not become dragonriders.” Ferren was still livid.
“Hery Bay was founded by dragonriders,” Sevell said in a gentle rebuke. “She might well have dragonrider blood, Ferren. She can certainly talk to dragons well enough.”
Ferren just snorted. “She will never be allowed to bond with a dragon.”
Of course, she will. Ilgrin’s voice was loud enough that Dorelle knew she had spoken to all dragonriders in the group. She saved a dragon’s life.
Ferren just shook his head angrily.
“Relax, Dorelle,” Sevell said quietly. “We’ll take care of that. Ferren, go for a walk.”
She found that she was trembling when tried to stand, and he held her for a little longer. But Ferren did leave them, and that helped a lot.
“You’ll let me have a dragon?” she asked, still not sure what was going to happen to her now that the lie had been revealed.
“If anyone deserves a dragon, it’s you.” Alesmo patted her shoulder. “And now we’ll all get back to camp and you will lie down and get some more rest. That is an order.”
It took a while for the fear to subside, but when Sevell made sure that she rode on Ilgrin’s back and that Bryal was sitting behind her, she allowed herself to find some hope.
Yes, there is hope, the dragon said in her mind.
“Ferren hates me,” Dorelle said.
Ferren hates everyone.
That certainly seemed true. And if Ilgrin and Sevell knew that, most other dragonriders would know that, too.
Rest. Don’t worry now.
Ilgrin was right, Dorelle knew that deep down. And with an effort, she decided to focus on the ride, to enjoy flying with a dragon.
If only she could do that always.
She fought against falling asleep, determined to commit every moment of this flight to her memory. She marveled at the strength of this wonderful dragon, at her gentleness, and at the fact that she had managed to pluck her out of the water, probably by sheer luck.
No. I sensed your mind.
And you are definitely worth saving. Now rest.
Dorelle had to smile at that. And she promised this wonderful dragon that she would, the moment she had managed to reach Bryal’s tent and her blanket. Until then, she would enjoy being with a dragon.
You are determined. Ilgrin sounded amused, rather than angry, and Dorelle was relieved at that. And their flight ended much too soon for her liking.
It took Bryal’s support to reach the tent and her blanket, and yet, Dorelle couldn’t fall asleep once she had lain down.
That look on Sevell’s face haunted her. He had seemed so surprised and then disappointed, for one heartbeat. He had covered it up quickly, unlike Ferren who had fumed. And who was still fuming, she could tell, because Zomel was radiating his anger.
Had she lost her chance to bond with a dragon by rescuing another dragon’s life?
She hoped not, but she couldn’t help worrying.
When she finally fell asleep, her fears followed her into her dreams. She found dragons, each more wonderful than the next, and they all turned away from her. She was handed an egg, and it slipped through her fingers and fell, shattering into a thousand pieces. When she screamed, Ferren laughed at her.
“You’ll never get a dragon,” he said, sneering, and she choked back her tears.
Bryal was shaking her, and she woke with a start.
“You were screaming,” her friend said.
“I…” Dorelle took a deep, shuddering breath and sighed it out. “Nightmares. I’m sorry.”
Bryal actually hugged her, something that utterly surprised Dorelle.
“I understand. You’ve been through a lot. I thought you were dead when Ilgrin brought you over.”
“It’s not that.” Dorelle bit her lip.
Dorelle could only shake her head, the dread was becoming overwhelming.
“Tell me.” Bryal patted her shoulder.
“Ferren won’t ever let me get a dragon.” As soon as she said that, she burst into tears.
“That’s nonsense.” Bryal hugged her some more. “That is not Ferren’s decision to make.”
“No. The Dragon Court decides, based on reports. And you can bet that Alesmo and Sevell will give very good ones about you. Ferren won’t, granted, but he doesn’t decide on his own.”
Dorelle rubbed her eyes. “Really?”
“Really. We all know that.”
“Well, I’m just a stupid fisher girl,” Dorelle said, feeling her spirits return. If Bryal was right, she would meet her dragon, after all.
Bryal laughed. “You’re not. You’re an exceptional swimmer and diver. Ferren is just jealous.”
Dorelle’s mouth dropped open. That was something she had never even considered. What could a dragonrider be jealous of?
“Yes. You effortlessly talk to all dragons. Very few people can do that.”
Dorelle blinked. “That… I thought all dragonriders could do that.”
Bryal shook her head slowly. “None of the rest of us can do that. When I need to speak to Zomel, I have to shout at him so hard that it gives me a headache.”
“But…” Dorelle could hardly believe that. “You know what, I think that might be Zomel’s problem, not yours. Have you tried talking to Mosgar?”
“No. We’re not supposed to.”
“I see.” And she did. Zomel must be very aware that his rider didn’t want him to talk to other people.
Which was more than foolish of Ferren, she thought. If she ever got her dragon, she would want him to speak to everyone and most of all, she would want him to listen to anyone attempting to speak to him.
“Do you think you can go back to sleep now?” Bryal didn’t bother to hide a yawn, and Dorelle felt guilty for keeping her friend away.
“Yes. Thank you for… everything.”
“You’re welcome.” Bryal patted her shoulder one more time and then lay back.
Dorelle curled up and closed her eyes, determined to be still and let her friend sleep.
The next thing Dorelle heard was Zomel’s voice in her mind.
Wake up, everyone!
It dragged her out of deep sleep, and she groggily rubbed her eyes.
Get up! It is time to fly back to the Dragon Tower!
Excitement flowed through Dorelle, only to be coupled with dread a moment later. Would they send her back home?
Would she have to go back to a boring life of fishing and diving for mussels?
She hoped not, even as she forced herself to sit up. Her body protested, she was sore in many places. That wasn’t really a surprise, she had worked very hard to free Mosgar. But it made moving difficult, just when she wanted to appear as normal as possible.
After some stretches, she crawled out of the tent, blinking at the morning sun. Once there, she stretched some more, carefully and painfully.
“Are you all right?” Bryal had come out after her.
“Yes. Just sore.” Dorelle smiled at her, glad that her friend was at her side.
Breakfast will be at the Dragon Tower, Zomel said. Pack up now.
“They are in a hurry, aren’t they?” Bryal grimaced. “Let’s get the tent down.”
Fortunately, Bryal was able to give her precise commands and descriptions, and so they soon had a stack of canvas and blankets lying in front of them. It was shocking how little there actually was to a tent, Dorelle thought.
Alesmo made the round and handed everyone a large bag for the tent. Moments later, they gathered in a half-circle, with Ferren taking command. He quickly assigned them to a dragon, two people and their tent for each.
“And you two will fly with me.” He glared at Dorelle and Bryal.
Dorelle tried not to mind. She would have preferred to ride on Ilgrin’s back, but there was nothing she could do about Ferren’s orders.
Within moments, the group was on dragonback, and Ferren gave the order to fly.
Take off, Zomel said clearly, and Dorelle wondered if he had intended to speak to her. A moment later, all dragons lifted their wings and jumped, for that important first downstroke.
Zomel was strong, she could sense that, and before she could tamp down her mind, she sent some appreciation to the dragon.
He ignored it, of course.
Ferren took the lead, with the other dragons following him in a V-formation. Dorelle was a little disappointed, she would have liked to watch the other dragons fly, but since they were behind her, she couldn’t.
Bryal patted her shoulder, and she did her best to relax.
Soon, they were flying over Asbanmor again, with the Dragon Tower visible in the distance. Dorelle glanced at the Palace, and then made herself focus on the Dragon Tower.
That would be her new home, she told herself. Even if she didn’t get a dragon, she suddenly knew that. She could not go back to Hery Bay, she would find a way to be close to dragons, somehow. Maybe she could work at that kitchen.
Zomel landed at the base of the Dragon Tower.
Get off, everyone. And then wait here.
Bryal went down first, and Dorelle followed her quickly. Together, they removed the pack with the tent from Zomel’s back and stepped away from the dragon.
Ferren quickly sent them over to the kitchen that Dorelle already knew, and they got breakfast there. The dragons that had transported them lifted off and flew away, and then people took away the equipment they had used. If Bryal hadn’t been sitting next to her, Dorelle would have felt completely abandoned.
Even Alesmo and Sevell had left, and only Ferren sat at a table by himself, still looking angry.
Maybe that was the only way he could be, Dorelle thought after a while. Maybe he needed his anger to feel like himself. That didn’t excuse anything, but it made her wonder what happened to him in the past. And to stay away from him as much as possible.
Under Ferren’s hard eyes, everyone in the group hurried up with their breakfast. Dorelle actually was one of the last to finish the bowl with that sweet food she had when Hinesi had taken her here. Porridge, she remembered.
“Now off with you to the barracks, and you’ll be tested on your sword skills.” Ferren stood, glaring at them. “And don’t try anything stupid.” His eyes met hers, and Dorelle managed not to flinch.
She had to follow Bryal because she didn’t know what the barracks were, and discovered they were a set of low houses with rooms for two. They were a little larger than their tent, held two beds and not much else. At the foot of each bed stood a chest for clothes and other belongings, Dorelle assumed. Not that she had much.
Just a little later, she stood in an area where sand had been spread on the ground. She wondered why, just as someone pointed at her.
“You. I haven’t seen you here yet. Come and show me what you can do.”
Dorelle stepped towards that man, doing her best to hide her apprehension. Yes, she had learned much during those days in the camp, but she doubted it would be enough for this man. He looked like another trainer.
He tossed her a wooden sword, and it slipped through her trembling fingers when she tried to catch it. She picked it up quickly, doing her best not to look at him.
To her surprise, he simply waited until she had regained her composure and held the sword in her right hand. Only then did he lift his in a kind of greeting, and she followed his example.
Then he lunged and slashed at her, and she jumped back and felt a strange kind of fury rise in her. Who were those people that they thought they could slap her around? Mentally thinking of Ferren and all the ways he had put her down, she put all her new knowledge and strength into the bout with that man, and actually managed to slap his sword aside and push the point of her training sword at his chest.
He stepped back and lowered his sword.
“That was very good.” There was even a hint of a smile on his face.
“And you channeled your anger well.”
“Let’s try again.” He lifted his sword in the same greeting, and then attacked her once more. This time, Dorelle had to fight harder and longer before she managed to get through his defense and touch his chest once more.
His smile was real.
Dorelle stared at him, feeling confused. This trainer actually liked it when she beat him? A moment later, realization dawned.
No, she hadn’t beaten him. He was letting her succeed, controlling the effort she had to make for it.
Anger flared again at being manipulated that way. This time, she raised her sword, and he gave her an appreciating nod.
Dorelle was panting and sweating hard, and she had taken a few punches from him, knowing that he could have killed her several times over in a real fight. But she didn’t quit, she couldn’t. She poured all that anger into the fight, harnessing it to give her strength and determination, and finally, she ducked under one of his swings and touched the point of her sword to his ribs under his left arm.
He stepped back and lowered his sword, and Dorelle did the same, gasping for breath and wiping sweat from her brow with the back of her hand.
“So. When did you start practicing with a sword?”
Dorelle thought back. How many days had it been?
“A week ago,” Bryal said from the sidelines and the trainer turned to look at her.
“We all took turns training with her,” one of the young men said.
The teacher took a deep breath and looked at her. “You have more strength in your arms than a week of training could give you.”
Dorelle bit back wild laughter. “I’ve been hauling nets since I was a child,” she said, managing to make her voice gentle.
“Ah.” He nodded several times. “Thank you. I think I can place your ability with a sword now.”
She knew he was dismissing her, so she lifted the sword, intending to ask where to put it.
“You want another round?” A challenge twinkled in his eyes, and she couldn’t refuse it. So she took a stance and he nodded at her.
A moment later, he was attacking her with blinding speed, and she barely managed to jump back and slam his sword away with hers. And then she was fighting harder than she had ever fought anything in her life, despite the soreness in her body, despite the fact that the sword got heavier with every slash and parry.
She ducked under another one of his swings, and recklessly used her remaining strength to lash out with that sword, swinging up right under his arm, and felt it hit the trainer’s head, the shock running up her arm.
He stumbled back, hand on his head, while she dropped her sword in dismay.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
She watched in horror as he sank to his knees and blood dripped between his fingers, and ran to him, grabbing his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she babbled, and was only able to take a breath when he looked at her with a wobbly grin.
“That’s what I get for pushing a natural,” he said, his voice strong enough to reassure her.
He lifted his fingers from his head and stared at the blood for a moment, before looking at her again. “Looks worse than it is. Do not worry.”
A moment later, he crumbled to the ground, and Dorelle screamed in shock.
He will be fine, Ilgrin said in her mind, but Dorelle couldn’t quite believe the dragon.
Just as she was kneeling down at his side, he groaned, stirred and opened his eyes. Dorelle helped him sit up, and he cleared his throat and sighed.
“Sorry for scaring you. That is why I train swordfighters, rather than go out there myself. I wouldn’t last a day.”
Dorelle blinked several times. “Are you all right?”
He can’t stand the sight of blood. Ilgrin sounded amused. Everyone here knows that.
“That is a relief,” she managed to say.
“Now, you need to practice technique and learn how to handle a real sword, but you’re good.” His smile got stronger. “It will be a pleasure to train with you.”
“I… thank you.” Dorelle gathered her wits, stood and offered him a hand. He took it with a nod.
“Thanks. Now go and let me get myself sorted.” He clapped her on the shoulder and Dorelle knew that she was dismissed.
Bryal was grinning when she got back to her. “That was awesome.”
“It wasn’t.” Dorelle didn’t know why she was still angry. That trainer had been nice. “And I don’t even know his name.”
“He’s Bengan. And he’s fun to work with. Really.”
“I… I hope so.”
Bryal hugged her. “Don’t worry so much. You’ll fit right in.”
“When everyone else is from dragonrider families?” Dorelle bit her lip a moment later, sorry about her outburst.
“Yeah, we can be stuffy, but honestly, you’re good. Even Ferren will have to see that.”
Dorelle wasn’t convinced. Instead, she thought that Ferren was already jealous of her ability to hear dragons easily, and being good at handling a sword made things worse. He would hate her, and she could only hope that if she got a dragon, she would be able to get far away from him.
They all gathered in front of the Dragon Tower a few days later, on the large square that was obviously designed to hold entire Wings of dragons. Dorelle stayed close to Bryal, her heart beating fast. This was the moment when her fate would be decided.
Ferren stood tall as he unrolled a scroll and held it before him before lowering it and looking at their group of recruits.
“I will read out the names of those of you who have been approved by the Dragon Court to receive a dragon. Once you hear your name, walk over to stand near Zomel.”
The black dragon stood just as tall, looking proud.
Dorelle bit her lip and glanced at the other dragons. Oh, how she wanted to have a dragon as her friend!
Mosgar was looking at her, and she felt a wave of approval from him. Maybe she already had dragon friends, she thought suddenly. And nobody could take that away from her.
Ferren unrolled the scroll again and started reading names, slowly and precisely.
One by one, the recruits walked to Zomel. When Bryal’s name was called, Dorelle felt a spike of envy, and then clapped her friend on the shoulder. There was no time for more, as the young woman headed over to Zomel with an obvious spring in her step.
Dorelle gritted her teeth, hoping to hear her name, her fear of being rejected growing with each person called. A Wing had ten riders, she knew that much.
There were only four people left from the original group when Ferren lowered his scroll and looked at them.
“You may leave now.”
Dorelle stared at him, all hope gone, feeling crushed at her core. They had not accepted her, after all. Just as she felt the tears come, Zomel swung his head and Mosgar raised his, so both dragons peered at Ferren.
Alesmo walked up to Ferren, reaching for the scroll, muttering something. Ferren turned away, but Alesmo suddenly snatched the scroll from him and took a quick look.
Mosgar growled in sudden fury, and Alesmo straightened.
“Dorelle!” he called out, and she looked at him, not understanding why he waved at her. Slowly, she walked over to him, while Ferren snatched the scroll back.
“Stay out of this, Alesmo!”
The other rider shook his head. “Dorelle is on the list, and she deserves her dragon after what she did for us. You can’t just ignore that.”
Dorelle held her breath. Had Ferren tried to keep her away on his own initiative?
“You fool,” Ferren hissed. “She is not suited and you are too blind to see it.”
“The Court approved her. Who are you to second-guess the Court?”
That was unbelievable. Dorelle gritted her teeth, feeling fury rise inside her. She pushed it down, fury wouldn’t get her anywhere here. Instead, she looked at the dragons.
Sevell walked up to them, looking annoyed. “Ferren, you are the one who is foolish here. Dorelle is more than qualified to ride a dragon. Now quit that meddling.” He turned to Dorelle and smiled. “Welcome. Ilgrin and I will personally take you to the Breeding grounds to meet your dragon.”
Don’t look like that. Ilgrin grinned at her. We dragons will look out for you.
Slowly, carefully, Dorelle allowed herself to breathe again, to feel the joy that had almost been stolen by Ferren.
“You are fools,” Ferren seethed. “I tell you now, nothing good will come of letting that woman bond with a dragon.”
“The Dragon Court has decided, Ferren. Now let it go.”
The dragonrider stepped aside, still looking beyond furious. Dorelle vowed to avoid him at all cost. And then she remembered that she would be allowed to have a dragon, and that joy drove out all other feelings.
With a huge smile, she looked up at Sevell. “Thank you,” she said, and felt all dragons smile at her.
She glanced back at the three recruits who had not been chosen. They all looked relieved, and that made Dorelle realize the Dragon Court had decided in their interest.
All recruits, mount the dragons, Zomel roared. There was some anger in his voice, and Dorelle was certain it was aimed at her.
This time, she managed to ignore it. She was on her way to meet her dragon!
She hurried to Ilgrin, and that dragon smiled at her. Sevell clapped her on the shoulder and grinned.
“Let’s take you to your dragon!”
His enthusiasm kindled even more joy, and she climbed on Ilgrin’s back feeling that her heart would burst any moment.
As usually, she felt the dragon’s effort when she launched herself into the air, burdened with her rider and three recruits. But she didn’t seem to mind at all, and soon, they were flying in formation, with Zomel in the lead.
Dorelle thought she could spot Bryal sitting behind Ferren and didn’t envy her at all.
The flight lasted only about three hours, taking them north of Asbanmor and into the mountains there. Dorelle stared at the wide valley that opened up ahead of them. It was almost a perfect circle, with a lake at the one end where the steep walls of the valley were lowest. The breech through which the water flew out of the lake looked narrow and dangerous.
Dragons were sitting on several peaks and ledges, and Dorelle quickly gave up counting them. A moment later she remembered Ilgrin’s advice about not letting every dragon read her mind and closed it as much as she could.
This is the valley of the Breeding Grounds, Ilgrin told her. It is one of the oldest places where we dragons settled.
“That’s amazing.” Dorelle kept craning her head while the dragon formation spiraled to the ground.
And there is the Breeding Master. Like the Dragon Master, she doesn’t like us talking to others. So watch your mind.
Ilgrin fell silent, and Dorelle did her best to lock her mind instead of reaching out to all the dragons as she wanted to.
A woman was standing on the floor of the valley. Despite her feelings about that particular dragon, Dorelle admired how precisely Zomel landed in front of her.
“Took your time, Ferren, didn’t you?” The Breeding Master glared at him. Dorelle watched him squirm a little with some glee.
“There were… complications,” Ferren said. “But I brought you recruits.”
“Let’s get them into the cavern. Now.”
Move it, Zomel growled in Dorelle’s mind, and she slipped off Ilgrin’s back, just like all the other recruits were doing. Moments later, they all stood next to Zomel, enduring the Breeding Master’s sharp eyes.
“I hope you’ll do well. The eggs are close to hatching.”
Excitement flooded Dorelle’s heart and it took an effort to tone it down. She didn’t want any dragons to notice.
She turned and marched off, clearly expecting the recruits to follow her. Dorelle glanced over her shoulder at Sevell and Ilgrin, and the dragonrider gave her a quick wave. A moment later, she hurried after the others.
It wasn’t far to the cliff edge. At the bottom of it, a hole opened up, a cave entrance, Dorelle realized. She studied the cliff wall as they hurried towards it and noticed several more holes at higher levels.
Did dragons live there? Or humans?
She didn’t expect an answer, not with a dragon sitting up on a ledge above that entrance, also glaring at them. She knew right away that this must be the Breeding Master’s dragon. Another one that wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone except her rider.
Would she be able to give her dragon more freedom?
Clearly, she wanted that, but it seemed as if she would need some luck to get there. She hoped they’d be assigned to the Couriers, so she could meet Hinesi and Kranis again.
Before she could think more about them, they had reached the large opening. As they hurried through it and into the darkness, Dorelle thought that the walls had been shaped artificially, but she had no time to confirm her impression.
The air was clean and there even was a draft which took away the smoke from the lanterns hung at intervals. The Breeding Master hurried on, taking them deeper into the cave, just as it curved around. Now the only source of light were the lanterns, and then Dorelle’s breath caught.
A dragon was curled around a heap of eggs. She lifted her head when they came closer and rumbled at them.
Dorelle could tell it was a welcome, rather than a defensive sound, but most of the recruits hesitated. She did not. Following the Breeding Master, she stepped up to the dragon and gave her a warm nod.
The dragon visibly mellowed.
“Now. Walk among the eggs,” the Breeding Master ordered. “And you, take your hide off. The riders are here now, and those eggs no longer need you.”
Reluctantly, the dragon slunk back, away from her eggs. Dorelle’s heart ached for her. She received a tiny hint of gratitude, which surprised her. She hadn’t sent any of her emotion to the dragon, after all.
“You heard me, recruits,” the Breeding Master called out. “Go to the eggs, touch them, and if you want to, you can pick one.”
Pick one? Just like that?
Already, three of the young men were bickering over the biggest egg of them all.
She watched Bryal step to a smaller egg, one that nobody else seemed to be interested in. That was typical of her friend, she thought. And following her example, she picked an egg that was looking a little crooked and not as smooth as most of them. Somehow, it seemed to have personality, and that drew her to it.
When she got close and touched it, she noticed some golden flecks on the rough skin, and somehow, that confirmed her choice. She put both hands flat on the surface of the egg, carefully opening her mind to the little dragon inside.
It was asleep. Or rather, she was, Dorelle noticed that a moment later and smiled to herself. This was a little dragon girl, and with any luck, she would be become her life-long friend.
“You will spend your time here until they hatch,” the Breeding Master announced. “Food and water will be brought to you.”
A sigh went through the group, but Dorelle didn’t mind. She simply sat down and kept one hand on the egg.
She didn’t know how much time had passed when the little dragon girl in her egg woke and noticed her. She just knew that joy filled her immediately.
“Hello, little one,” she whispered, caressing the egg shell.
Hello, the dragon girl answered in her mind, that tiny voice also filled with joy. I am not little. I am Mashira.
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