Emeri’s breath circled her like dragon smoke as she saddled up Petal, her fingers stiff with cold. Why do dragon riders always leave at dawn’s light? She was grateful for her heavy leathers as she readied her dragon for the day’s ride, her boots crunching in the frosted grass. After sharing ale with the local druid last night, Twinkle had confirmed that a winter storm was on its way. The dragons would be pushed today to make it to the lodge at Crystal Bowl.
“Ready, Sweep?” Twinkle called to her as she walked by dragging her water skins.
“Ready to ride,” the princess called over her shoulder as she climbed up the ladder to her saddle. “Are we going to make it before the snow?”
“It’ll be close, but we have the fastest dragons in the land,” Twinkle answered, already headed down the line of dragons. The flurry of riders ahead was fastening saddles and attaching their bags. Some already sat mounted with helmets and goggles, holding their reins tight against the nervous energy of the dragons. The dragons seemed to sense the urgency of this day’s ride and were eager to be on their way.
“Let’s ride!” Twinkle called from the front, and two by two dragon wings lifted up the riders into the clear pink sky.
Hours passed as the dragon riders soared over the dense forests surrounding the Crystal Mountains. The shimmering white peaks grew closer to meet them. Emeri adjusted her position in her saddle and pushed her feet forward. Her bottom was numb and her fingers frozen to her reins, but still the group did not stop. Wanting to avoid drifting off to sleep again, her mind turned to the problem of Petal.
The icy sculpted mountain ahead was the birthplace of her dragon. If she was going to follow through with her plan, she would need to find a way to leave Petal somewhere down there. Even though her heart ached from the thought of leaving Petal alone in the wilderness, she knew it would be better for her.
Dragons, solitary creatures by nature, only bonded with a human once in their lifetime. Since there were not many tame dragons, Emeri would doubtless have many buyers for Petal. A rare pink dragon could demand many chests filled with gold. But Petal would resist, and spend the rest of her long years in chains and cages. Releasing her would be the kinder choice.
The forests below gave way to sharp-edged rock, tiny trees forcing their roots into cracks. Ridges became higher until they became windswept mountain peaks dusted with shimmering ice. Emeri was wide awake now, her stiffness forgotten. Would Twinkle ever call for a rest stop? The princess was afraid that if she landed by herself, her teacher would turn the whole group around to find her.
A wide plateau appeared, and shouts passed back through the line announced they were headed down. Emeri sighed and pulled up on Petal’s reins, joining the downward spiral to the ground.
Once the dragons were settled on the rock, riders slowly crawled down to stretch out and eat some jerky.
“Come on, Emeri,” Worley called. “You’ve got to see the view from the edge.” Her friend’s face was bright red from the wind and cold and his hair stuck out in all directions after its release from his helmet.
“I’ll be there shortly,” she replied. “I need to take care of personal business first.” She glanced over to the cluster of rocks that stood as sentinels over the ridge.
“See you then,” Worley said, bounding away with the energy of his first real adventure. Emeri envied his carefree life, working on the estate as his father did before him. If only that could be her fate. Seeing that the other riders had gone ahead to the viewpoint, she quickly released Petal’s saddle and her baggage. If Petal was going back to the wild, she wouldn’t need it.
Petal watched her with questioning eyes as Emeri commanded her to lower her head and gently removed the dragon’s bridle. Her dragon didn’t understand why the ride was over when the other dragons stood ready to go.
“Come on now,” Emeri coaxed. “We’re going for a walk, Just the two of us.” Petal followed her into the maze of huge boulders that looked like a giant’s blocks tossed carelessly into a toy chest. They wound their way down a path that barely accommodated the large dragon until they reached the edge of an evergreen forest. The towering trees swayed and whispered in the biting cold wind.
The princess looked around her, the rocks stacked up the hill and the endless sea of trees in front of her. This was as good a place as any.
She knew what she had to do. Lacey had helped her with research in the palace libraries. There was only one way to sever a dragon’s bond. Like other lizards, a dragon’s tail would snap off in a fight to ensure its survival. A few weeks later, a new tail would grow back.
“Sit, Petal,” the princess commanded in a wavering voice. With a thud, her dragon complied, still watching her with violet eyes. Emeri drew her sword, the one First Mistress had given her for her twelfth season, the one with pale pink pearls on the handle, the color of Petal’s scales.
Before she could change her mind, she raised her sword over her head and with two hands brought it down on the smallest section of her dragon’s tail, near its barbed tip. Dark red blood squirted out all over the snow, Petal roared in anguish, and with huge sweeps of her wings, launched herself into the air, trailing blood behind her.
The dragon rose quickly into the sky and disappeared from view.
With trembling hands, Emeri wiped her sword with a rag she had brought, and replaced it in its scabbard. With the help of a nearby stream, she cleaned Petal’s blood off her leathers and tossed the cloth into the water. It floated away on the current, carrying her guilt down the mountain to the sea.
It was over. Tears flooded her eyes, but she held them back. She would need them later to sell her story. She had done the unthinkable for a dragon rider. No one must know that she had set her dragon free.
As she trudged back, a heavy curtain of snow began to fall and dance in the gusting wind. Petal’s huge footprints in the frost were soon covered, and Emeri had to look carefully to find her way back up through the rocks. By the time she reached the other dragons, she could barely see the huge animals through the white swirl of sky and matching snow drifts.
Emeri shuddered, but the cold felt good. Without Petal, her heart felt frozen and useless. The icy emptiness was a comfort, preparing her for her royal future.