Meghan chewed on her roasted turkey leg, or at least she thought it was some sort of wild turkey, and listened to the riders swapping stories in the flickering light of the campfire. A faerie with curly black hair called Never, was spinning a tale with great skill about the time he and his dragon had landed on Mount Tabletop, the highest mountain in Spring. The others listened with a reasonable amount of skepticism. She knew a few of the other riders’ names, but there were twenty of them, and their names were so strange. Hardly and Never had been riding together for years, hundreds of years if she really believed them. She often saw them in serious conversation before they took off for the day.
She inspected her bone for any last strips of meat, but it was picked clean so she threw it behind her into the woods. Noodles sat gnawing his bone at her feet. Then she wiped her greasy hands on the back of her jeans, and took out a folded paper she kept in her jacket pocket. She opened it up and looked at it again. It was her day pass, her permission to enter Faerie. In vain she tried to read the small print at the bottom above her signature, but the print was so small there was no way she could see what it meant without a magnifying glass.
Although she had enjoyed her two weeks riding with the Dragon Owners Group, she was a little worried about her visa. What would happen to her if someone asked her for her pass and saw that she had been here past its expiration? All the stories she had been told included harsh consequences for breaking rules in Faerie. Nothing I can do about it now. Carefully she folded it back up and put it away.
“Meghan, sing us a song,” one of the faeries, a red head named Sometimes, pulled her out of her thoughts. “You know, the one about the kids who climbed the hill and broke their noggins!”
“But it’s only a nursery rhyme!” she protested, knowing that she would be forced to give in. What is it about faeries that they love children’s songs?
“We told you that you would have to pay for traveling with us,” Hardly reminded her with a smile. “Come on, now. Your voice is so lovely.”
Meghan took a pull of water from her waterskin, and started to sing:
“Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water,
Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”
The riders cheered when she was done, and toasted each other with the strong dark ale that they drank every night. Stories resumed, and Meghan wrapped up in a blanket close enough to the fire to enjoy its warmth, Noodles curled up beside her. In this region of Faery, nights were chilly, although not too cold for camping outside. Soon her head nodded, and when she woke the next morning, she was lying next to the other bundled up faeries at the base of a large oak tree.
That morning began as any other. Steamy porridge with strong tea, then everything was packed up and loaded onto the dragons. During the night, the dragons had hunted and slept, so they were ready to go. Hardly’s dragon, the largest with the longest spikes, was named Petal. Such a strange name for a dangerous beast. Petal had warmed up to Meghan quickly, purring in his growling manner, and thrusting his head in her chest for petting. Even Noodles adjusted to being around the dragons, although her dog kept close to her at all times.
Hardly called out “Time to fly!” and the riders and Meghan mounted the dragons. Petal was fidgeting, anxious to rise up into the sky where he belonged. Meghan inserted her boots into the stirrups that were adjusted to her smaller stature, and checked the straps on Noodles’ harness that held him to her chest. Looking around at the magnificent dragons bobbing their heads and letting out clouds of steam made her feel small. But at the same time she felt more grown-up than her ten years, riding with the daring faeries through the skies. If her parents saw her now, they would not see their daughter, but instead an adventurer, clad in black leather clothes and helmet.
That’s strange! I haven’t thought about my parents for a long time. She supposed she should feel guilty for not missing them, but it was such a relief to be away from the fighting that she pushed them out of her mind. I deserve to have an adventure.
Hardly nodded to Never, who waited while the rest of the dragons rose into the air. Never was their sweep, so he would ride last to make sure that everyone stayed together. The riders rode west, away from the still pink morning sun.
Last night, Meghan heard Hardly say they were headed toward the Great Grove, a forest of birch that was a day’s distance. Noodles slept peacefully in the pack, by this time accustomed to this strange form of transportation. Perhaps he thinks he’s in some type of car. Below her the farmland formed a green patterned quilt, broken up by brown dirt roads and dots of trees. Then the dragons pierced the canopy of puffy clouds, and all she could see was a landscape of white.
Hours passed without the dragons tiring, and Meghan pulled her scarf tighter around her neck. It was cold up here, cold enough to keep her awake even with the monotony of white. She looked up ahead and saw a black speck. As she watched, it grew larger until it became the shape of another dragon.
“King’s boils!” Hardly cried, and he held up his left fist, signaling the others for a landing. The riders followed him down as he shot suddenly through the clouds, dropping like a duck shot in a hunt. Meghan held Noodles close with one hand, and the other clasped the horn of her saddle desperately. Who could that other rider be?
The quilt of farms below her had been replaced by woods and hills while they flew above the clouds. The ground came up quickly as Petal put them down in a tiny valley surrounded by trees. Meghan braced for the jolt as they hit the ground, and the dragon’s strong legs slowed them to a stop.
“Hurry, Meghan, get down!” Hardly shouted to her as he slid down the mounting rope.
“What’s going on?” Meghan asked as she slid down her rope. All around her riders were leading their dragons under a shelf of rock that would hide them from eyes in the sky. She kept Noodles in her pack as she picked her way through the piles of jumbled rocks.
“The queen’s sky patrol,” Hardly said as he caught up to her, carrying a large green blanket. Sometimes and Never helped him fold it out, larger than a blanket of that size could. Meghan watched in amazement as they kept unfolding until it took six of the faeries to hold it out. Then they lifted it up, the blanket stretching out like a firm wall and it attached to the roof of the rock ledge. Immediately they were in darkness as the blanket blocked out the sunlight.
Never lit a small lamp, and everyone sat down, seeming to hold their breath. They heard a dragon roar somewhere out in the valley. No one spoke a word, but faery, girl, and dragon alike sat perfectly still. The woosh of flapping wings came close and then faded away. Minutes stretched into at least an hour before anyone moved.
“Come on,” Hardly said. “He’s gone.” The riders got up and removed the blanket, and crawled out of the crevice.
“Why did we hide from the queen’s patrol?” Meghan asked as they prepared to continue their journey.
Never paused and looked at Hardly, who nodded slightly. “Once there were many dragon riders clubs. We used to have parties and races. But one night in Littleton, things got out of hand. No one was watching the dragons, and the next thing you know the whole village was burnt down. Now the queen hunts us like animals.”
“How terrible!” Meghan said. Up to this point, she had seen the riders as fun-loving travel companions. She had forgotten the Nod’s warning back in the field. The dragons were dragons after all, fire-breathing beasts that could be destructive.
Just as she was thinking that, a large group of soldiers holding swords stood up from the rocks surrounding them. A tall faerie in chain mail shouted something, and a large net flew through the air and trapped the dragon riders. Hardly and the others took out their knives and tried to cut the net, but it was enchanted and they couldn’t break a strand.
Never looked at Hardly and said, “That’s what happens when the dragons get into the ale.”