A sudden cross wind ripped Emeri’s gloved hand from the saddle horn and shoved her back against the high rim of her saddle. She gasped and set her feet so that she wouldn’t tumble off her dragon and fall like a huge rain drop to the far away ground. Then the young princess ducked her head, gripped the blankets with her knees, and placed more weight in her stirrups. The constant roar of the wind buffeting her leather helmet had lulled her into a sleep-like trance. Even though the Dragon Owners Group had been riding for hours, any gust of wind could cause disaster.
Ahead of her the group spread out toward the horizon in staggered two by two formation. The sun was far behind them now, as they rode eastward toward the Crystal Mountains. As the sweep, she was responsible for making sure that none of the others were left behind. During the long day, the cloud of dragons flew as one with no incident. Soon they would reach Ferrytown and set down for the night.
The growing dusk revealed glimmering lights below them, reflected into the dark still lake that bordered the town. The tiny lit boxes that would be houses and buildings once they landed were arranged in a horseshoe, the open end meeting a large dock at the waterfront.
Suddenly the dragons in front of her dove straight down. Emeri and Petal followed into the twilight chill, joining the large group of dragons that had landed in a meadow outside of town. The princess quickly unbuckled her straps, and threw down the rope ladder she kept for group rides. Her sore muscles protesting, she climbed down the ladder to the welcome ground.
“Hey, Sweep,” Twinkle greeted her, already with her tack and bag in hand. “Great ride today. We all stayed together.”
“Not much for me to do,” Emeri replied. “Great dragons and great riding. My throat’s parched from that wind though.” She hopped back up the ladder a little to release her saddle and blanket. The heavy pile of leather and wool landed with a whoosh on the cool grass.
“Time for supper,” Twinkle said, “See you there.” Their leader hoisted up her load and headed to the inn.
A while later Emeri stumbled downstairs after a long bath, clean and stomach rumbling. The common room had a low ceiling with a roaring fireplace at one end, and was stuffed with long wood tables. Travelers laughed over tales as they converged upon Ferrytown before they set out for faraway destinations in the surrounding mountains.
“Emeri! Over here!” Worley shouted over the din, and she could barely glimpse his familiar face in the smoky room. Large women in tight-fitting dresses wove their way in between the tables with large tankards of ale that sloshed over the side on unsuspecting patrons. The princess carefully made her way to her friends, thinking that she might have waiting on the bath until after supper.
Anzel, Worley, Twinkle, and four other riders were crammed into table, jealously guarding their bowls of savory stew. She squeezed in next to Worley, and as if on cue one of the bar maids slapped a tankard and bowl in front of her.
Gratefully, Emeri raised the bowl to her mouth and delicately sipped the hot soup. Chunks of tender meat, savory but of unknown origin, tasting better than any royal feast after a long day riding. She took a swig of her icy, bitter ale, and sighed with contentment.
Several bowls and tankards later, when their ferocious appetites had been appeased, the riders sat back, loosened their trousers and talked about their day. The surrounding chatter provided the illusion of privacy.
“What a great ride today,” Twinkle said, lifting her mug. “All our riders did a great job staying in formation.”
“That wind was fierce,” Worley said. “I felt like my head got whipped all the way around!”
“It could be worse,” his brother encouraged. “The further we get into the mountains, the more the wind shoots through the passes. Need to keep your head down.” Although his tone was light, concern glowed in his eyes. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Emeri almost get swept out of her saddle.”
“It wasn’t as bad as that,” the princess corrected. “I was being lulled to sleep by Petal’s smooth ride. It’s hard to stay awake when you’re riding the strongest dragon in the group.”
“Hold your tongue!” Twinkle said with a grin. “The ride’s more set by the rider than the dragon. Don’t you remember what I taught you?” She tipped back the dregs of her mug and motioned with it to a passing bar maid.
“I remember everything you told me,” Emeri said. She looked at the circle of friends around her and wondered if these would be the memories she would take out, like old love letters, when her life had been diminished into her royal duties.
“It was so clear today, I could see all the way to edge of Tessar,” Anzel said. “But not as clear as the day we flew over Razor Ridge.” He gave a conspiring nod toward Twinkle.
“How could I forget?” Twinkle added. “The air was so clear it hurt to look too long. We could see caterpillars crawling on the leaves of Razor Forest.” She gratefully accepted a full tankard from the bar maid.
“Razor Ridge?” Worley gasped. “Isn’t that where the Bearded Ones live? Did you see any of them?”
Emeri hid her smirk behind her tankard. This was the same story that she had been told on her first dragon riding trip.
“Oh, there were hundreds of them running around,” Anzel continued in a deadly serious voice. “They had carts pulled by oxen. Carts full of gold, rubies, and diamonds from their mines deep in the heart of the mountains.”
“And even with clear skies, they weren’t able to see us,” Twinkle added. “Their eyes couldn’t see in the bright sunshine after all the time they spend inside the mountain.”
“That’s when Tonlon came up with a great idea,” Anzel said with a nod to an older rider with a long grey braid that sat with them at their table. “Tonlon, do you want to tell my brother what your idea was?”
The man took a long drink, and answered. “We wanted a remembrance, a token of that day. So that when we sat around and talked about seeing the Bearded Ones, people would believe us.” He narrowed his eyes at Worley, who hung on his every word. “You do believe us, right?”
“Of course,” Worley said. “We’re all dragon riders here.”
Emeri choked back a laugh.
“Were you there, Emeri?” Worley asked.
“No,no,” Emeri managed to answer. “That was before my time as a rider.”
“Well, you see, as that day was so clear, we could fly next to each other and make up a plan,” the man continued.
“So Tonlon and Anzel followed the Bearded Ones’ caravan that wound its way through the mountains,” Twinkle added to the tale. “Anzel took the lead, and told Blade to set some trees on fire in the canyon, right after the other wagons passed, separating the last wagon from the group.”
“Tonlon came from behind and his Beauty stole one of the chests right off the wagon, in a flash, before anyone could do anything,” Anzel said.
“What did the Bearded Ones do?” Worley asked.
“Not a lot they could do, I guess,” Tonlon said. “The dragon riders were gone in an instant, and they had to rescue their wagon from the fire. What an adventure!”
“But what was in the chest?” Worley wondered.
“That’s the funny thing,” Twinkle said. “When we finally got to our stop for the night, we decided to open it up. It was so heavy; we were sure it was filled with gold.”
“What was in it?” Worley said, his ale forgotten.
“Biscuits,” Tonlon said with a sigh.
“Heaviest biscuits I’ve ever seen,” Anzel said, shaking his head.
“Hard as rocks,” Twinkle said.
Then the entire table erupted in laughter. Worley looked around in puzzlement, until Emeri couldn’t bear it any longer.
“They’re yanking on your saddle strap, Worley!” the princess confessed. “They told the same story to me on my first trip. It never happened.”
The young man’s face turned from confusion to anger to realization. “This is part of my initiation, isn’t it? I’m really a dragon rider now!”
“If your sore bottom doesn’t do it, Anzel’s stories will guarantee it,” she said, giving him a quick hug.
The fire finally burned low, and it was time for sleep before the long ride tomorrow. Twinkle settled their account with the bar maid. Emeri eased her sore legs up the stairs behind the rest of the riders, again swept with grief for the life she would leave behind.