“So you’re sure, absolutely sure, no one else knows about this?”
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 Corrangorach, if word was out,” he said.
The wizard pursed his lips. “I’ve heard no rumour,” he admitted.
“There you go then.” The dragonrider thumped the ribs behind him. “Mason will tell you the same. We’ve not told anyone.”
The wizard locked eyes with the dragon. He had enough trouble keeping the mist from slipping out to sea without the distraction of dragonspeak. He wondered if the green dragon saw through his disguise. One never knew for sure, not with dragons.
He wrenched his eyes free and peered up at the ghostly ridge. His heart skipped for a faint outline of the watchward tower now poked above the skyline, its travl-ring brushed by the rising sun.
His meet must end.
He glanced down at his wizardly robe. With the black leather illusion bolstering his resolve, the wizard reached into the pocket of his trousers for the moneybag. “My people will take over from here,” he said. He tossed the bagged price of silence.
His informant snatched the bag from the air and, after he gauged the weight with a swift heft, shoved the coin inside his jacket. “Right then,” the dragonrider said, clambering up on his dragon. He cracked a grizzled grin and mocked a salute. “A pleasure doing business with you, Master Wizard.”
“Likewise,” the wizard said.
The dragonrider slapped the green scales by his knee. The dragon’s hindquarters bunched. With a single thrust of powerful leg muscles the small dragon launched. Wheeling overhead, its leathery wings snapped open, spattering the wizard with cold droplets.
The wizard scowled and muttered an oath. He dried his face on the hem of his shirt and fisted his short beard into shape.
His annoyance could not last. Excitement buoyed his steps as he strode into the forest. Damp leaves slapped at him as he pushed through the undergrowth to the road. When he reckoned himself out from under the scope of the watchward, he banished his magicked robe and released his grip on the mist.
Satisfaction filled him. It was about time all the coin he spent courting his coterie of dragonriders proved worthwhile. The new dragonspeaker held a huge reservoir of wild magic of no use to anyone but a wizard. He might as well make use of it before anyone else did.
A horse whinnied behind him.
He whirled about, eyes wide. He burst into loud laughter when he saw his hired mount tied to a tree. He had walked right by it. He muffled his mirth, mindful of the nearby road. It took him some time to get the knotted reins untangled but, with one foot in the stirrup, he had second thoughts about taking to the road. His meeting had been hidden from the watchward by sea mist and folded hills, but a lone rider on the edge of the wilderness could attract unwanted attention. He led the horse, keeping a few trees between him and the road, hoping overhead foliage screened him from patrolling dragons.
His mind galloped ahead.
Dare he do this?
He had managed to get away with intercepting lesser dragon-touched, in the past, but they were all young men destined for the dragonwatch. He had trouble wrapping his head around the ramifications if he should be caught stealing a girl from the system.
How could he not? Imagine never running out of magic again.
I leaned against the stone wall of Castle Skerby, a little weary, having been in the hiring line since dawn. I had left the tavern before the morning man had arrived to stoke the fires and fill the woodbins. None saw me go.
After slogging my way up the steep road to the castle forecourt, I found most of my fellow job seekers were already in place. I wished I had thought to come through the night. I stood barely inside the gates. Supply wagons rumbled by, the constant stream kicking up dust. People jostled me as they sidled through the small gap and it seemed forever before the waiting line moved forward.
Whispers said there were few positions available this year and, as the morning lengthened, it was hard not to feel glad when some in the line gave up and left. Taut lips and glistening eyes revealed the ones interviewed and found wanting, their hopes of becoming an elite dragonrider dashed. I did not feel sorry for them. If they loved dragons as much as I did, they would be willing to accept menial tasks. I was willing to muck out stalls and chop mountains of meat.
Standing there, bored, I daydreamed of becoming a dragon rider. It was not the first time. Of course, asking to be tested for the necessary talent would be met with laughter. Girls did not become dragon riders. Few girls tried placement on Dragonhold Day, preferring other methods to attract a dragonrider. Been there, done that. I had found out, the hard way, that a dragonrider’s notice was not enough. It did not guarantee entry. Not if your father owned a tavern.
As if my thoughts had conjured him, my unbetrothed came through the gateway with Father’s ox-cart. I had nowhere to hide from his startled stare. Peter narrowed his eyes and mouthed a what are you doing at me. The team of oxen plodded on and he had no choice but to run to keep up with them.
I eyed the line snaked ahead of me. The line crawled. The seneschal must be recording life histories, I thought. Surely, the robed wizard and the leather-clad dragon rider at the table could tell in an instant if a person could dragonspeak. It seemed unlikely that my turn would come before Peter delivered the beer barrels. He would make me go home with him. I was sure of it.
I did not want to leave. This was my last chance to be near the dragons. I deserved it. I was willing to do anything -– anything — to become part of the dragons’ world.
The boy ahead of me shuffled forward.
I stepped closer to my dream.
The sun was higher and the forest had dried before the wizard decided that the road was safe enough to use. He scanned the narrow track. The way was clear. He mounted. Though groaning his way in the saddle, he now appreciated his informant’s insistence on the personal meeting. The extreme secrecy, not to mention the pain in his backside, was well worth the effort.
How could a female dragonspeaker hold so much power? He tried to guess at the levels of wild magic he might siphon. And he mustn’t forget the best part; there was the afterb-.”
“Watch out ya idiot.”
Startled out of his reverie, he was nearly unseated when his horse reared. He grabbed at the pommel. Grounding, his horse pranced away from a pair of carriage blacks barreling over the valley rim. The rest of the rig hove into view.
The driver glared from the riding box, punctuating his displeasure with a crack of his whip over the wizard’s head as they sashayed past.
Heart in his throat, the wizard almost strangled his mount, so tight were his arms around its neck. Instead of flinging a rock at the driver’s head — his first instinct — he magicked a pebble into the rump of the near horse. It lunged against the harness. The uneven gait unsettled the already swaying carriage.
A wheel lifted.
The driver sprang to his feet, hauling hard on the traces and swearing viciously until the carriage righted. A woman looked back from the carriage window. Her bloodied fingers held a cloth at the side of a face he felt he should know.
Dust swirled in their wake and, as the pandemonium faded, he dismissed the woman from his thoughts.
He almost fell in his eagerness to gain solid ground. On shaky legs, he led the horse over the crest. The Skerby river valley opened in front of him.
Easily identified by its travl-ring, the watchward soared above the town and was the tallest of the castle towers. The castle dug deep inside the rocky ridge rearing out of the sea. Only a few homes shared the same rugged cliff top. Most of the town straggled around the shoreline where the river met the sea.
He imagined eyes from the watchward on him. He fingered his beard, Even without the growth, few could place him. A century had passed since he had last ventured from Eighalh.
His worry was diverted by the still skittish horse as it shied, sidestepping a shadow of a shrub. It snorted and rolled accusing eyes at him.
“I know. I know,” he soothed, patting its neck. “We had quite a fright. A drink, some food, both will do us good.” He might as well have a meal at the tavern and look at the girl, since he was so close.
“Let’s eat.” Reluctant, the wizard swung into the saddle and prodded the horse into a canter.
If only he had a dragon at hand. He would do the interception himself.
Some time later, he rode along the main street of Skerby, looking around with interest. It had been dark when he arrived by coach from Ferryton and he had left right after hiring the horse. Now, he saw that Skerby was like every other fishing village he had the misfortune to visit in his two hundred and thirty-one years. Ramshackle homes, scattered on both sides of the road, escorted him to the village proper. The shops looked prosperous enough, from trade with the castle, no doubt. Beyond the cobblestones, the houses jostled for the best position against the shelter of the ridge.
He wrinkled his nose. Typical seaside, all right, stinking of sea, seaweed, and slimy sea fishes. How did they put up with it?
With fond thoughts of fresh mountain air, he dismounted in front of the livery stable and pondered the irony of picking a horse from the very establishment attached to the tavern he now sought. He handed the reins to the liveryman and paid out the extra coin he owed without haggling. The day had dragged on long enough.
He examined the yard. Yawning, he stretched. If he never got back on a hoofed beast again, it would be too soon. The wizard massaged his mangled backside while he took in the tavern: a sturdy two-storied structure made of sandstone.
A tantalizing, almost taste-able smell of cooking drifted over him, convincing him of the rightness of his next move. A drink and a feed would be an excellent way to fill in the time while waiting for the coach. After thanking the liveryman who was still busy taking the gear off the horse, he pulled out his timepiece. Plenty of time.
Stiff-legged, he walked toward the back of the building. He hoped for a good feel of the layout on his way to the common room should he return to conduct the interception instead of sending his man. Best he did it himself anyway. You cannot trust anyone he mused, patting his chest. Surprised, he squinted down.
His medallion of office was gone.
Idiot, you are incognito, he reminded himself. His itching beard reinforced his memory.
Once around the corner of the tavern, he slowed to take in the backyard. Flowers along the far edge of a thriving kitchen garden suggested a woman’s hand. A gardener, garbed in homespun, hoed among the vegetables.
Sudden laughter nearby startled him from his gawking. Ahead, he saw an opening in the stonework. He peered in as he went past. Two women leaned over a steaming copper, twisting and turning hot washing. They laughed again, smiling at each other. An involuntary smile curved his lips. His squat shadow sidled across the dirt floor.
They looked his way. “Ladies.” He smiled, too conscious of his dishevelment to linger. He hastened to the back door. A fresh outburst of merriment made him clench his jaw. They now laughed at him.
He stepped inside the hall. Pausing, he allowed his eyes time to adjust to the change of light. Muted talk marked the common room at the end of the hallway. A stairwell rose on his right. The wizard sauntered a few steps, his eyes darting about. A glance to the left revealed a businesslike den. A small parlour faced the dining room. Everything looked well cared for, unlike some taverns he frequented. As if the lovely aroma was not enough, a swirling mass of flies identified the final door on his right as the kitchen.
Ravenous now, he peeped down the passageway peeling off from his left shoulder. The closed doors revealed naught of what lay beyond but he guessed they were probably bedrooms.
“Can I help you, sir?”
Dragging his attention from counting, the wizard paid heed to the man standing in the doorway of the common room. A big man, with the countenance of one well used to handling troublesome people, he sported a pair of steely blue eyes that brooked no nonsense. Each bare arm bore several wooden bands. Empty tankards dangled from his fingers.
“Just looking for the privy, my good man,” he blurted.
“What, indoors? You aren’t in the city now, you know.” The fellow’s eyes raked him. After pushing the contents of one hand under his armpit, he extended his fingers. “Hanrey Bartle,” he said.
They shook hands.
“Out yonder,” the taverner said, pointing back the way the wizard had come. “The outhouse.”
Obedient, he about-faced, his appetite threatened.
“You want a feed? Food’s ready.”
The fellow sounded friendlier now so he waved agreement on his way out the door. His business did not take long. He washed in the water barrel outside the privy. He straightened his sleeves. This time, on the way to the common room, he did not so much as squint to either side of him.
The front room was large and airy, and clean, like everything else he had noted. The long bar was minus the token maudlin drunks. The wizard sat at an empty table and watched a group of noisy labourers jostle in from the street, their dirty coveralls impertinent in the tidy surroundings.
He half-expected Bartle to eject the scruffy lot, but instead the taverner smiled cheerfully at them before unlatching a hatch in the wall and yelling into the kitchen. “Jimbo, gang’s here.”
Amid a clatter of dishes, a man responded.
Moments later a slender girl came out bearing a tray of hot stew-filled bowls. In her late teens, she was the right age to be coming into dragonspeak — unless it worked different for a girl. He tried to remember how old his sister had been when her talent found her.
A throat cleared behind him. He swung his head around to encounter the frowning taverner. He glanced to where the man was but a moment before; he moved surprisingly fast, considering his size.
“I’ll have the stew and bread.” He winced at the unintended snap in his voice. “Please.”
The big man flapped his towel over his shoulder and, returning to the bar, gave the order through the hole in the wall without relinquishing his gaze.
Best he thinks I was ogling the girl, the wizard thought.
During his meal, each time he sneaked a peek, he had Bartle’s full attention. He reminded himself he had nothing to fear, once letting their eyes clash while he tried exuding confidence. Still, he avoided gawking at the girl again as she moved about the room, bringing and taking away dishes and utensils.
He downed a tankard of the good ale with his stew-soaked bread. Satisfied, he pushed the plate away.
Bartle approached, hand outstretched. “I didn’t catch your name, before,” he said, one eyebrow raised. “You’re new in town?”
He jumped to his feet, glad of another chance to gauge the man. Gripping firmly, he magicked the proffered palm. “Cecil Chadbyrne,” he said. “Just passing through.”
The magical probe failed to penetrate. The wizard calling himself Cecil Chadbyrne forced a smile. “I must be off, mustn’t miss my coach.” He released his hand as soon as decent, mumbled inanities, and made for the street. From the door, he checked over his shoulder.
Bartle stared after him; his feet apart and his hands hipped.
The dazed wizard strode down the street. Why had he not felt the taverner’s life force? Whatever was going on here, he knew he must rush his people into place before he lost his advantage. He hoped he had not just tipped his hand. The other Eighalh wizards, be damned.
The girl would be his.
And, if she proved fertile, he would be a king.
Fighting the urge to rip off his hot armring, Hanrey Bartle watched the wizard rush out the front door of the common room. The taverner held his stinging forearm. His arm hair had damn near smoked when the wizard trickled magic into his palm. But, this fellow was no ordinary wizard, oh no, Hanrey was sure he was one of those winged bastards.
Though the constant warmth annoyed him when the dragonriders came in, he liked to know when the dragon-touched were about.
He growled. The dragonriders angered him. They swaggered in, intent on being fortified with grog before foraging for romance. Despite having their own drinking hole and castle whores, they loved messing with the town girls.
A clatter near his elbow announced Katie on her way to the kitchen with dirty dishes. Hanrey took the tray from her.
“Lass, have you seen Taniel?” he asked.
Katie’s eyes darted away as she shook her head. Before he could call her out on a lie, she scooted away and snatched up an empty tankard.
First, he finds a Cladling wizard nosing about, and now his only child was off somewhere doing who knows what. He stomped to the kitchen. The beds would not make themselves. He would do the damned things himself but his back still hurt from stripping them earlier. The laundry maid refused to go upstairs. She had insisted her job was to wash sheets, not collect them.
His arm tingled. He dropped the dishes on the sink and rushed to the common room. His glare vanished when the only decent man ever to grace the dragonrider ranks came in. He still had trouble believing that he had agreed to let a dragon-touched betroth his daughter. He hoped they wed soon. The wizard’s visit left unease in his gut. He only wanted freedom from the tavern, not the town.
Hanrey joined Peter behind the bar. “Have you seen Taniel?” he asked. “Do you know where she is?”
“It’s Dragonhold Day — where do you think she is,” Peter said, pouring himself a beer. “I told you. She will have none of me since I bought into this place.”
Hanrey reached for his apron ties. “We will see about that,” he said.
I guessed it was well past noon. I’d already eaten the snacks I’d brought with me. Castle girls had doled out water throughout the morning after one of the few girls in the line had passed out from standing too long in the sun. Just a handful of youths stood between the seneschal and me.
Earlier, a young green dragon had dropped into the forecourt and it now crouched near the hiring table. It stared at me. The dragonrider spoke to the seneschal. I held my breath. The boy behind me was the one called.
The fortunate new dragonrider signed his training papers. Punching the air, he raced to the watchward with his bright future in his fist. Jealousy narrowed my eyes and bit my lip.
The dragon looked at me one last time before taking to the air and dropping out of sight behind the high stone outer wall. I wondered if it flew down to the adjoining dragonhold.
We moved another pace forward. They were still hiring, it seemed. I might not miss getting into service.
The loud voicing of my name startled me. I shrank against the back of the boy in front of me. I had not given my full name.
“Taniel Bartle, step out of the line now, please.”
I peered around the boy.
Seneschal Bister beckoned. When he saw me obeying his command, he turned away to speak to a big man standing at his side.
Father somehow looked different without his apron. He must have arrived while I watched the dragon. Father stared at me, arms crossed, feet apart. A scowl marred his usually good-natured face. His visage did not soften whilst telling the seneschal of my betrothal. Coin probably crossed palms as they shook hands.
Father stalked around the table. Curious eyes marked me. My cheeks warmed. I reminded myself I was a grown woman. I could make decisions on my own, surely. I had difficulty holding my ground. The closer he got, the more flight seemed the best option. Before I could make my feet move, Father was by my side and leaning down to my ear.
“C’mon lass, you’ve got some explaining to do,” he said in his growly voice. He took my arm.
I shrugged off his hand and fled.
I rushed out of the castle through the double gates. The guards did not try to stop me. On my way down the hill, my anger shook me so much that it was hard dodging around the slow-moving groups of people and carts struggling up the steep slope. I wanted to knock something over.
Breathing was difficult by the time I reached the gate at the front corner of the tavern where I paused. I needed time to calm down before trusting myself to speak. I needed to gather my thoughts somewhere, anywhere. It hardly mattered where, as long as it was not in my room. There, confrontation would come before I had decent reasons ready.
My mind whirled as I shut the gate behind me and hurried down the side path. I needed new reasons for wanting to get away. Suddenly showering scorn on my banal life seemed ridiculously childish. If only I had been given work at the dragonhold, then nothing could have prevented my two years servitude with the dragons — not Father and certainly not Peter.
I had lost two more years of freedom.
Again, as if I had magicked him, my unbetrothed popped out of the kitchen door, right into my path. Peter caught me about the waist. My momentum swung us around until my face pressed against the sandstone wall. He smelled of warm beer. I pushed off the building and tried to twist free. He bettered his hold. Once, such closeness would have sent my pulse fluttering. Now, it only deepened my anger. I tried stamping on his feet.
Peter laughed and lifted me off the ground. “So then, my lovely, Hanrey arrived in time.”
“Aye, I did,” Father said from the gate.
My rude retort to Peter died on my lips.
“Put her down Pete. She’s not going to run away.” Father wiped his mouth with his hand. His piercing blue eyes pinned me. “Taniel, lass, get to your tasks,” he said.
I nodded. My rebellion fell away as the extent of his rage rammed home. I skulked toward the back of the tavern. At the corner, I glanced back. Father flicked his fingers in a shooing motion before stepping through the kitchen doorway.
Peter grinned at me. He followed Father inside, like a faithful hound.
My fists clenched.
I couldn’t stand looking at him.
Jarryd Langley slapped the bug biting his neck. He wiped the crushed carcass down the leg of his pants. Every insect in this patch of woodland had already had a turn at his dirty sweat and were back for more.
“Three bloody days,” he said through clenched teeth. He wanted to shout his frustration. It would be just his luck, if he did yell, he would frighten away the new dragon-touched. Then all his waiting would be for naught.
When Mother had given him his instructions, she said the interception should not take long. The lad was supposed to visit the cave every day, sometimes twice, to watch the dragons feed.
Jarryd understood the lure. Dragons dragged on the inexperienced minds of those with the calling.
On his arrival, he had searched the cave. He found narrow manmade tunnels riddled most of the ridge. Each ended in an empty chamber. In one, a small hole in the rock wall afforded the lad a splendid view of the Skerby dragonhold.
This was his brother’s job, he thought for the hundredth time. Mother said he must do it for his brother’s firedrake was too big to hide in the woods behind the tavern. Why the secrecy, anyway. Dax was not constrained during his testing of trainee dragonriders. Dax would not lurk outdoors for days on end.
Jarryd cut short a lengthy sigh. Dax must have known that this would take forever. Apparently, his own work was not important enough to be missed should he be stuck here the rest of his life. None of his family appreciated him.
A movement above the ridge snagged his attention. A firedrake, with red and gold scales flashing in the lowering sun, vanished behind the rocky outcrop towering over him.
He ought to check on his own dragon. Rufus grew crankier each day but what else could they do, except wait. He dared not approach the village, nor ask Rufus to mindscape.
His instructions were clear.
The Skerby Watch must never know he had visited.
He listened to the sounds of the woods. Birds twittered, frogs croaked and, from further away, came the lowing of a cow. Jarryd eased out from his hiding, mindful where he walked as he edged past scrubby bushes.
Moments later, he arrived at his camp. The clearing was barely big enough to conceal Rufus, despite the dragon being a small green. He would have picked a bigger clearing if he had known the waiting would take this long.
“Are you alright?” Jarryd kept his voice low.
Rufus pulled his head out from under a silver-tipped wing. “I must fly. My wings are stiff.” He put on his most mournful look, his emerald eyes wide. “My mindpath is closing over.”
Jarryd winced. “Shush.” He stroked the silvery snout. “This new lad must turn up soon. It’s nearly feeding time. Once we secure his promise, we can go home.”
“I am getting hungry,” the dragon declared. “I want to hunt.”
Wishing he had not mentioned food, Jarryd examined his dragon’s scales. Though Rufus’s glossy green hide bore little evidence of hunger, Jarryd considered his obligation to the dragon’s welfare.
“We will see,” he said. They should not compromise their hideout. A pleasure flight would be folly.
After some more snout scratching, Jarryd cautiously returned to his vantage point near the cave, reckoning he had wasted three days of his life. Dragonhold Day was nearly done.
The castle would have the lad.
Forget it, he thought. If the dragon-touched does not come soon, we might as well pack up and go home.
Father’s new barmaid studied me from underneath her long eyelashes as we tucked in the sheet on our respective side of the bed. “If your bottom lip gets any lower,” she said, “You’ll be stepping on it. I heard about you hanging around the castle.”
My jaw tightened. “I wasn’t hanging about. I wanted work.”
“You have a job here.”
I sighed. “I miss the dragonriders now that I’m not allowed in the common room.”
“Got a thing for ‘riders, have you?” She shrugged. “Haven’t we all.”
“It’s not like that. We just talk about their dragons.”
“Ever flown on one?”
“Of course not,” I snapped. “They don’t let just anyone on them.”
Erin flicked the eiderdown over the bed. When done tucking in her end, she straightened and stared at me until I had to meet her gaze.
“Taniel, I don’t know why you don’t like me.”
“I don’t even know you,” I retorted.
She fixed me with her pale eyes. “Peter said you haven’t worked out front for months. I did not take your job.”
Looking down, I applied myself to smoothing the bedclothes. The mention of my unbetrothed threw my mind on a different track. Maybe I could shift his attention to Erin. It should not be too hard. My lips lifted in an unwomanly sneer as I plumped a pillow.
Admiration followed Erin.
The blokes downstairs probably did not even know what her face looked like. I wondered how many body-sculpting dresses she had. She wore a bright yellow one today though, while she helped me catch up on my work, a voluminous pinafore hid her abundant curves. Peter did not need me. He had half the tavern.
“What?” Erin said in a sharp voice.
I dropped my top lip. “Nothing,” I mumbled, blushing, finding myself unable to come up with anything clever to say.
She carried sheets over to the other bed.
We smoothed and tucked in unison, without further talk. I wanted to ask her why she insisted on helping me. Ask her why she kept trying to be my friend. She was old enough to be my mother and I had managed just fine without a mother.
I did not need one now.
The bed done, I made myself smile as I thanked her for her help with the beds. After Erin had gone, I put out clean chamber pots and gave the rooms a quick dust.
With my upstairs tasks done, I found the laundry girls were long gone. Katie had already picked the vegetables for the evening.
I helped myself to an apple while I was in the kitchen, then went outside and leaned over the back gate and looked over the cow paddock. There was little point in wishing I could linger in my favourite spot by the creek, or watch the dragons. I regretted my time wasted up at the castle this morning.
I eyed the ridge rising behind the small wood beyond the cows. The presence of a firedrake told me that the changing of the watch had already begun. If Father’s father had purchased the tavern at the other end of the street, I might see dragons offloading their riders at the watchward before coasting down to the dragonhold.
I could see none of it, not from here. But, if I hurried with totting the numbers, I might yet catch one feeding before the sun set.
As I dragged myself back inside, I went over my conversation with Erin. Somewhat shamed, I resolved to improve my attitude towards her. Father had only given her the job because she had shown up and declared she could double his custom. It had naught to do with me.
I pushed open the door to the den, breathing in the welcoming fatherly smell. I sat in Father’s big leather chair behind the desk, peeled back the ledger at the marker, positioned the inkwell, and reached for the pen. Part of me was glad to be still here. It might be strange living in a castle. Exciting, for sure, what with all the dragon comings and goings, but odd all the same.
“Knock, knock,” said Peter, poking his head into the room and grinning at me like an idiot. “Are you over your snoot, my love?”
I hurled the apple core. He ducked. It thumped off the doorjamb.
He laughed. “I take it you don’t want to make those wedding arrangements just yet, my lovely.”
“Piss off,” I snarled.
Peter’s laughter marked his progress back to the common room. I sighed, pushed off from the desk, and went to the doorway to pick up the splattered apple.
I would never wed that fool.
END OF CHAPTER ONE