“So you’re sure, absolutely sure, no-one else knows about this?” the wizard asked.
The old dragonrider leaned into the side of his small green dragon, slipped a hand inside his riding leathers and scratched while he thought. “Be all over the country, if word was out,” he said.
“I’ve heard no rumour,” the wizard said.
“There you go, then.” The dragonrider thumped the ribs behind him. “My dragon will tell you the same thing. We’ve not told anybody.”
Grandmaster Wizard Sam Dinsmore locked eyes with the dragon. He wondered if it saw through his disguise. “That won’t be necessary.”
After wrenching his eyes from the dragon’s gaze, Sam peered up at the ghostly ridges, seeking Watchward Skerby. He found the faint outline of the distant tower top above the skyline, its travl-ring brushed by the rising sun. His heart skipped.
The meet must end.
He glanced down at his wizardly robe. With the sight of the black leather illusion bolstering his confidence, he reached through to his trouser pocket and took out a moneybag. “My people will take over from here,” he said, tossing the bagged price of silence.
The dragonrider freed his hand and snatched the bag as it rebounded from his chest. After gauging the weight with a few hefts, he shoved it inside his flying jacket. “Right, then,” he said, clambering up on his dragon. “It’s always a pleasure doing business with you, Wizard.”
Mocking a salute, he cracked a grizzled grin, bringing his hand down and slapping the scaly shoulder by his knee.
The green dragon’s hindquarters bunched and, with a single thrust of powerful leg muscles, launched. Once clear of the ground, its leathery wings snapped open, spattering the wizard with dewy droplets.
Sam scowled and muttered curses. He used his sleeve to wipe his face as he watched the low-flying duo vanish in the mist. His annoyance did not last.
A growing excitement buoyed his steps as he scampered far enough into the forest to convince himself that he was out from under the scope of the watchward. He banished his magicked robe and strode deeper amid the dripping trees, drying his face on his shirt hem. He fisted his short beard and flicked the water away.
Satisfaction filled him.
It was about time all the coin he spent courting his coterie of dragonriders proved worthwhile. This new dragontalker held a huge reservoir of wild magic of no use to anyone but a wizard.
A horse whinnied, close behind him.
He whirled about, his eyes wide with fright.
Sam broke into loud laughter when he recognised his hired mount tied to a tree. He had walked right by. He clapped a hand over his mouth, muffling his mirth, mindful of the nearby road. On reaching the bay mare, he cursed the knotted reins.
With the reins untangled, he hesitated, worried, one foot in a stirrup. His meet had been hidden from Watchward Skerby by sea mist and folded hills, but a lone equestrian could attract unwanted attention. Under the trees, the foliage screened him from patrolling dragons.
He resumed walking. His mind galloped. Dare he do this?
He had managed to get away with intercepting lesser ones in the past, but they were all destined for the dragon patrols. Sam had trouble wrapping his head around the ramifications if he should be caught stealing a magic-filled girl from the system. He risked dismissal, at best.
Others must hire dragons to mindscape dream patterns. While he was undercover in the west, consorting with pirates, the girl might already have been reported to his citadel office.
How could he not take the risk! Imagine never again having to worry about renewing his magical stores.
The sun sat higher and his dampness dissipated by time he decided the road was safe enough. Exhausted, he pulled aside some branches and scanned the narrow track. With the way clear, he hauled himself up, groaning, into the saddle. Earlier, his bruised behind made him question the need to hear his informant’s information in person. Now, the secrecy proved justifiable and the soreness worthy.
How could a female hold so much power?
Happiness surged through him as he tried to guess the levels of magic he might siphon from the waiting reservoir. And he mustn’t forget the best bit; there was the afterbir–.”
“Hey! Look out, you fool!”
Startled out of his reverie, he grabbed at the pommel, almost falling when his mount reared but it grounded, briefly, before prancing away from a pair of carriage blacks barrelling over a crest ahead. The rest of the rig hove into view, the driver glaring from the riding box as they sashayed past, punctuating his displeasure with a loud whip-crack overhead.
Dust swirled in their wake.
Sam almost strangled the animal, so tight did his arms encircle its neck.
As the pandemonium behind him diminished, he regained control. He decided to walk until his heartbeat settled. Leading the way over the rim, he paused a moment to stare at the fishing village of Skerby on the far side of the river valley.
Watchward Skerby soared above the town, its foundations deep inside the rocky ridge rearing out of the sea. Only a few homes perched on the cliffs. Most straggled about the shoreline.
Sam shuddered, imagining eyes on him. He fingered his beard, a reminder that even without the growth, none would place him. At least a century had passed since he had last journeyed from Eighall and he had made it this far by coach, boat, ferry and horseback without being marked.
He would do the same, going back.
The still skittish mare shied, sidestepping the shadow of a shrub, snorting and rolling accusing eyes at him.
“I know, I know,” he said, smoothing its neck. “A feed would do us both good.”
Sam’s thoughts turned to investigating the girl, himself, instead of sending his usual lackey. He was nearly there and he might as well have a meal and a bit of a look-see. See what is what.
Action now would save time.
Reluctant, he swung himself up and prodded the mount with his heels.
“Let’s eat,” he said.
The horse jolted into a canter.