After a long day watching the tops of clouds, Silverpointe looked like a mountain paradise. Steep pitched roofs covered in snow, smells of wood smoke, roasting venison, and pine trees contrasted with the crisp cold air. The inn, stables, blacksmith, mercantile, and homes formed a circle on a flat ledge hanging over the mountain range. There was barely room for the dragons in the center of town. Locals gawked as the huge beasts huffed smoke and stomped the hard ground to get comfortable. Stable boys brought out buckets of dead mice and squirrels and dumped them in front of the dragons. Other boys dragged out huge wooden troughs of water.
Emeri helped Worley carry his tack into the stable, adding it to the pile stacked in the corner. She looked around for a place where she could speak to her friend privately. Even though she had sworn that she would tell no one what she had done, the bond-curse changed things.
“Come on,” she gestured to the boy, who continued to watch her with puzzled eyes. They walked behind the stable to a fenced in lookout point on the mountain’s edge. As she looked down into the deepening shadows of snow-softened boulders, her head started to spin. Her decision to let Petal go had seemed so simple, and yet it had become as jumbled as the pile of rocks below her.
“What’s up?” Worley took her arm, turning her back to him. “I’m sorry I scared you by falling off Mist. It’s not your fault I fell asleep. You’re going through enough right now.”
Emeri hesitated, still not certain she was doing the right thing. “It wasn’t your fault. There’s something else going on.” How would she begin? “I told you that First Mistress ordered me to sell Petal when I return from this ride.”
“Of course, but you were going to find a way to change her mind,” Worley said, his eyes narrowed with curiosity, watching her intently.
“First Mistress never changes her mind,” the princess said, “unless she decides to do so, and even then it would be a completely new idea. So I had to take action. I know it sounds looney, but Petal wouldn’t survive another owner. She chose me when she was a tiny whelp. She’s grown up with me.” Her stomach threatened to betray her again, but she took a deep breath. “I severed the bond between us. It had to be done.”
“What?” Worley shouted to the mountains. “Emeri, you’ve taught me everything I know about dragons, especially since my brother was too busy riding to be bothered. When a dragon chooses you, it is a sacred bond! Humans can’t do anything to force it. And Petal, a Crystal Dragon! You’ll never have a dragon like her again!” He turned away from her and started pacing back and forth, holding his head. Then he stopped as a new thought struck him. “First Mistress will be furious!”
Emeri took his hands. “You trust me, don’t you?”
“Of course,” he said, his face betraying the opposite. He shifted his feet, perhaps remembering how the First Mistress’ anger had come down on the estate workers the year of the bad harvest.
“Petal needed to be free.”
“I know,” he agreed. “But she’ll be suspicious. It’s a little convenient that you lost your dragon on your last ride before you had to sell her. That dragon was a gold mine, and she’ll make us all pay.”
“Buck up, my friend. You can’t go on living in fear of her. I know I can’t. Even though I want to do what’s best for the queendom, I still need to consider others, even Petal.”
“Still, severing your bond?” Worley said, shaking his head. “You didn’t have to actually chop off…”
“I did, but that’s not the worst of it. I didn’t know about the bond-curse.”
“That’s dragon dung, Emeri! Twinkle was joking, trying to get you to spill the truth,” Worley said. “Avery’s never said anything about a bond-curse.”
“That’s because no dragon rider would ever break the bond with their dragon,” Emeri said. “Seriously, Worley, I’ve seen you ride long days before, and you never have nodded off. It’s got to be the curse.”
“I think you’re over-reacting,” Worley said, giving her hug. “You’re just distraught over losing Petal. Let’s get back to the others so I can taste some of that famous Silverpointe venison stew. The smell has been making my mouth water since we landed.” He started to walk back to the inn.
Emeri followed him, feeling a bit foolish. Of course she was jumping to conclusions. She just had a bad case of air-sickness and Worley was just tired, that was all.
The inn’s small common room was packed with the addition of the dragon riders. Emeri and Worley joined the others at their long table, pleasantly surprised to see steaming bowls of stew and tankards of ale waiting for them.
Emeri actually had a small appetite and was able to swallow a little stew, although she passed her ale over to Avery. After dinner, they relaxed in the hot springs, drinking brandy and sharing stories. Every once in a while, the princess was certain she caught Twinkle staring at her, her face grim.
Morning came too early, as Emeri fought nightmares most of the night, ending up tangled up in her cloak on the floor. After they ate thick soft bread smothered in blackberry jam and strong hot tea, the dragon riders got ready to leave. Twinkle decided that Emeri should ride with her. The princess wasn’t sure if their leader felt that she was a distraction for Worley, or if she was still suspicious about the bond-curse.
Twinkle’s dragon, Sparkle, was a grey Crystal Dragon, similar in size to Petal. His large violet eyes regarded his additional cargo with curiosity, perhaps wondering why Emeri wasn’t riding her own dragon. After climbing up, Emeri made sure she fastened the belt her teacher had attached to the saddle. No one was taking chances about another fall.
As they rode through the day, Emeri enjoyed the view from the lead. The bright blue sky stretched out forever in all directions and the clouds below appeared as a solid puffy white surface. Behind them the dragon riders spread out in a long line, flying together in unity.
The princess finally felt relaxed after the morning ride had passed without incident. She was just scaring herself for no reason. There was no bond-curse.
That’s when she heard the loud crack.
Sparkle’s right wing flew straight, useless, and the dragon tried to keep flying with one wing, roaring in pain. Twinkle yelled commands and tried to keep them in the air, but they began to spiral downward. Emeri could hear the shouts of the other riders as they tried to rally around them.
“What should we do?” the princess shouted in the ride captain’s ear.
“Hang on,” Twinkle called back. “We’re going to land.”
“Not too quickly, I hope!” Emeri replied and ducked her head down behind Twinkle’s back. They dropped through the sky, covered in dragon smoke.
And then suddenly there was a huge jolt and scratchy flashes of green as they fell through the arms of a pine tree, finally resting in thick pile of dry needles. Sparkle roared once more and then collapsed into unconsciousness.
“Are you hurt?” Emeri asked, as she unbuckled herself and rolled down the ladder.
“I think I’m good,” Twinkle said. She crawled down stiffly, stroked her dragon’s neck, and started to walk around to inspect her dragon’s wing. “Sparkle’s not so good, though. Her wing is broken, that’s for sure. Let me get out my med kit.” She unfastened a leather bag and took out a pot and a roll of linen.
“Where are the others?” Emeri said, peering through the heavy canopy of branches above them. “Will they be able to find us?”
“The dragons should be able to smell Sparkle,” Twinkle replied. With practiced ease, she gently applied a thick coating of salve and wound linen around the wing, leaving it closed up on itself. Sparkle didn’t wake, but he rumbled in protest and sent out billowing smoke. “When dragons are hurt, they send out different smoke that alerts other dragons in the area that they need help.”
“Nowhere to land around here,” the princess observed. The densely forested ridge was steep and there was no open area that she would see.
“Don’t worry, they’ll find us,” Twinkle said as she put back her medicines. “Do you want some water?” she offered Emeri her canteen.
“Thanks,” Emeri said, as she took a small swig. There wasn’t much water left.
Suddenly, Sparkle’s head shot up, and the injured dragon struggled to his feet. He growled deep in his throat, staring at the trees.
“Quick, Emeri, jump up on her,” Twinkle said. The riders scurried up to the saddle and waited. They had barely caught their breath when a large tawny creature emerged soundlessly. It was a mountain cat, larger than any Emeri had ever seen, and it looked hungry.