The princess squinted through the swirling snow. In the sea of white, the dragons surrounding her shivered and pleaded with their large eyes. No riders to be seen.
“Anzel! Worley! Twinkle!” Emeri’s shouts were swallowed up by the storm’s fury. Where was everyone? Their road captain would have taken the dragons to shelter by now. Only certain types of dragons could tolerate long exposure to freezing temperatures. Petal, being a Crystal Dragon, didn’t mind the cold at all.
Petal! Her stomach churned again, like it had on the way back up from the forest. She couldn’t believe she had really gone through with it –broken the bond between dragon and rider. It was the hardest decision she had ever made. And no one must know.
“Emeri? Is that you?” she barely heard over the wind. Suddenly, Worley’s snow-covered grey hair popped into focus in front of her. His dark eyes flashed at the sight of his friend. “There you are! Everyone was looking for you –well, except Twinkle and Anzel, who are out looking for a cave large enough for the dragons. Where were you?”
Suddenly, it was real. She would have to lie to her best friend, the riders, and her family. Emeri took a breath.
“Petal and I went on a short ride, to see the forest,” she began. “Then, out of nowhere, a huge dragon appeared and began to attack us. Petal fought valiantly but it wasn’t enough. The wild dragon carried her off, and I was left alone.” She was glad that she hid her riding tack in a deep crevice before leaving with her dragon. It would be hard to explain why she took off her saddle and bridle when they weren’t yet stopped for the night.
Worley gave her hug, sending powder flying off both their shoulders. “Oh, Emeri. I’m so sorry! Petal’s strong! She’ll survive and come back to you!”
“Not this time,” the princess said softly.
More snow-covered shapes appeared out of the storm, and the dragons rumbled at the sight of their owners. The riders quickly grabbed their dragons’ bridles and started leading them toward their chosen shelter. Twinkle hugged Emeri and spoke into her ear.
“You should know better than to wander off at a rest stop.” Her eyes looked as cold as her face.
“I’m sorry, Twinkle,” Emeri said, her stomach cramping up more fiercely than before. “I think I’m sick!” Then she fell to the ground and emptied her breakfast onto her teacher’s boots.
The road captain jumped back and wiped her boots in the gathering snow bank. “Come on, let’s get out of here. You’re not well.”
She pulled the groaning princess up to her feet, and between Worley and her were able to drag her down to a natural shelter created when a huge boulder had fallen down on top of two upright stones. The dragons sat huddled together at the entrance while in the rear a roaring fire provided relief from the storm. Anzel brought blankets, and they settled the princess close to the warmth.
The storm continued and the only way they knew that night had fallen was that the whiteout had turned to black. However, the dragon riders were in good spirits as they had plenty of food and whiskey to share from their packs. Emeri ate nothing, but held a mug of tea to warm her hands as she watched shadows shaped like dragons in the fire.
The next day, Emeri still felt weak. The previous evening, she had answered everyone’s questions about Petal’s disappearance, and more than once she caught sight of Twinkle watching her with narrowed eyes. But it seemed like her story was accepted, and with blue skies in the morning, the dragon riders had decided to go on with their journey.
“Are you sure Mist will be able to carry both of us?” Emeri asked Worley as she climbed up the ladder to sit behind her friend.
“She’s a strong dragon, even if she’s shorter than some,” Worley reassured her. “Besides, I am the smallest rider. Both of us together don’t weigh as much as Manley!”
“I don’t think all of us together weigh as much as Manley!” Emeri said, in an attempt to keep her spirits up. She was concerned that her weak stomach might cause one of the riders to leave the trip and carry her back to the palace, the last place she wanted to be right now.
“Let’s ride!” Twinkle shouted back to the riders, and they lifted into the sky, headed directly for Silverpointe.
“It’s too bad we’re not staying at the lodge,” Worley called back to Emeri, who was seated on a blanket behind his saddle and holding onto him securely. “I’ve never seen it. I hear they have apple ale there that is the finest of all the mountain settlements.”
“You’ll always have another ride,” Emeri reminded him. “We’re a day behind so we need to reach Silverpointe today. You’ll love it there. The mountains are beautiful!” She tried to focus on their conversation and not on her lurching stomach. She chewed on the herbs Twinkle had given her. Dragon riding was not as much fun when your stomach had become a bucking horse.
After a short break for food and drink, the riders soared back up, Twinkle pushing them to gain Silverpointe before dark. None of the riders had slept well during the storm, and many were draped over their dragon’s neck, allowing their mounts to follow each other without much direction. Emeri had noticed that Worley’s eyes seemed glazed, his usual enthusiasm tempered by Petal’s loss.
Every time her friend glanced back at her, Emeri’s stomach hurt more. Her lie about Petal was almost worse than her dragon’s absence. What would be gained by telling him the truth? “A secret shared is twice as hard to keep,” Twinkle used to say.
Fortunately, after the first night, no one spoke aloud about her dragon. There was an unwritten rule that mishaps on a ride were not discussed until after the trip was completed. Dragon riders thought it brought bad luck upon a riding group. So everyone pretended that Emeri had begun her ride behind Worley. And her stomach never stopped aching.
Hour after hour passed and still they rode on. Worley at first had done his best to stay upright in his saddle, but his weariness overcame him at last and he rested on Mist’s sturdy neck, leaving Emeri to lean forward on his back.
Then suddenly, he was gone.
Without her friend to lean on, Emeri sprawled onto the saddle, catching the pommel with her chin. That woke her up. She slid into the saddle and grabbed the reins that lay on the dragon’s neck. Then she called out, “Rider down!” and pulled back hard.
Mist immediately dropped straight down below the line of riders, and Emeri ordered, “Catch Worley!” Mist responded to her training, and swooped down on the falling boy, catching him on his spiny tail.
“Ouch!” a now fully awake Worley shouted, as he took an unexpected seat between two sharp ridges. Emeri laid down the reins and turned around, guiding Worley back up to the saddle.
Meanwhile several riders had gathered below their dragon, available to catch him if needed. When the new sweep, Manley, saw that Worley was safe, he whistled, and the group reformed into their staggered line. They rode on, with their youngest rider holding his reins firmly.
Finally, the huddled town of Silverpointe came into view, and Twinkle led the grateful riders back down to the ground.
Emeri helped Worley unfasten Mist’s saddle and bags. “Are you alright?” she asked him quietly.
“Sure, I don’t know what happened back there,” Worley said. “I was trying so hard to pay attention. Thanks for having my back.”
“That’s what riders do,” Emeri said.
Twinkle stormed down the line of dragons toward them.
“What was that about?” she shouted at Worley. “You never NEVER fall asleep on your dragon! You might have been killed!” Then she grabbed him in a crushing hug.
“I’m sorry,” the boy said. “I didn’t get enough sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about Petal.”
“Worley,” Emeri warned. “You mustn’t talk about it. Not now.”
“That’s right,” Twinkle said. “Get your tack put away and go in and get some food in you. And no ale for you tonight!” She started to continue down the line, and then she stopped and turned back to them. “Emeri, how’s your stomach?”
At that moment, the princess’ stomach, which had settled when she was chasing after Worley, began to churn again. “Not too bad,” she answered, trying to smile.
“Well, that’s good,” Twinkle said, lowering her voice so that only Emeri and Worley could hear. “Because I could have sworn last night you looked like you were bond-cursed. But you couldn’t be since Petal was carried off by a dragon.”
“Bond-cursed?” Emeri asked, her face turning even more pale. “What’s that?”
Twinkle looked around to make sure no one else was close enough to hear them. “Riders get bond-cursed if they break the bond with their dragon. The farther away they get from their dragon, the sicker they get. But that’s not the worst of it.” She sighed.
“Not the worst?” Worley echoed.
“No, the worst part about getting bond-cursed is that everyone around you starts to have bad luck. The fatal kind.” She looked at Emeri’s wide eyes and squeezed her arm. “But you don’t need to worry about that. I’m sure you just got a simple case of air-sickness. A hot cup of tea and some chicken soup, and you’ll be set to rights! See you at the pub!” she said and continued to check on the other riders.
“Is bond-cursed real or is it another one of those dragon rider initiation jokes?” Worley asked with a frown.
“I’ve never heard of it before,” Emeri said, her hands clutching her stomach. “But I’m afraid that it just might be real. Worley, I need to tell you something.”