“Hang on!” Twinkle shouted, as her dragon reared up on his hind legs, pulling his passengers out of the mountain cat’s reach. Emeri held onto her road captain and watched the cow-sized tawny cat pace back and forth, growling its disappointment with finding an easy kill.
With spikes standing like a warrior’s mace, Sparkle roared back in response, shooting out smoke and flame and making the pine trees surrounding them vibrate. Hidden behind the dragon’s back, the two women were safe for the moment. Emeri knew that Crystal Dragons had no natural enemies except other dragons, especially since they could fly away to safety. However, with a broken wing, Sparkle was more vulnerable. She noticed that Twinkle had her sword ready the same way she did as they waited to see what the dragon would do.
The dragon sat back on his haunches like a huge dog, his tail thumping a warning on the ground, sending piles of pine needles flying through the air. The cat seemed unimpressed as it continued to pace, coming closer each lap. Its eyes were lit with an otherworldly glow and saliva dripped from its finger length fangs. The raised fur on its back made it look twice as big, but it was dwarfed by the dragon.
The standoff continued for what seemed to Emeri to be hours, until finally the cat made its play. With a giant leap, the creature bounded into the air, headed for Sparkle’s neck. Sparkle reacted with a burst of flame that threw the cat to the ground. As the cat raised its singed body, the dragon fixed his gaze on its murderous eyes. Then suddenly, the cat slid back down and fell limp.
“What did Sparkle do?” Emeri asked as she eased her stiff body down to the ground. “Is the cat dead?”
“No, it’s just sleeping,” Twinkle said as she replaced her sword. “Crystal Dragons have empathic telepathic powers. When both creatures were wounded, Sparkle was able to establish a mental link. Then he could put the animal to sleep. We were never in any real danger.” She gently checked the bandages on her dragon’s wing.
“But why didn’t Sparkle just kill the cat?” Emeri wondered, staying close to the dragon despite Twinkle’s assurance that the creature slept.
“Crystal Dragons are an unusual type of dragon,” Twinkle said, stroking Sparkles jaw, offered to her in thanks for mending his wing. “They abhor violence of any kind. Rarely will they ever take a life, only if they can’t mentally sidetrack the attack.” She turned to look at Emeri. “That’s why your story about Petal doesn’t add up. If Petal was attacked by another dragon, she could use her mental powers to protect herself. Let’s get out of here, and then you’re going to tell me what really happened to Petal.”
The relief that had flooded Emeri’s heart at their escape from the cat drained away and left a sour ache in its place. Should she tell her friend the truth? A darker thought blossomed in her mind –what if Sparkle’s broken wing was due to the bond-curse? It that were true, so far she had managed to endanger the lives of two dear friends and a dragon. Twinkle had years of experience with dragons. Maybe she knew a way to defeat the curse.
The dragon riders crunched through the needles in the direction Twinkle’s compass indicated was east. The older woman hoped that they landed on one of the main ridges that intersected with Crystal Lake, so there should be a stream nearby. If they made the stream, they could follow it downhill to the lake and find rest at a village there. Or the other riders would find them.
“It’s time for truth,” Twinkle said, when they finally heard the welcome rush of water. After Sparkle and the women drank the cool mountain water, they paused for a rest, sharing their last pouch of jerky.
Emeri took a breath, uneaten jerky in her hand, feeling the weight of her actions pressing down on her like a huge rock. “This is my last dragon riding trip. When we get back to the palace, I have to begin my courtship. First Mistress was going to sell Petal.”
“Bad news,” Twinkle said with a sigh, “but not unexpected. There are no other royal dragon riders. But I was hoping that you might be the first.” Her blue eyes held understanding that had been forged during miles of dragon rides.
“I vowed that Petal would not be kept captive,” Emeri continued, wiping her moist hands against her trousers. “So I took her to the edge of the Crystal Forest, and I cut off the tip of her tail.”
Her teacher sighed even deeper, and looked at her dragon, who was resting his broken wing in the stream. “I’m not sure what I would done in your place, Emeri,” she said after a while. “But that’s a hard decision to make on your own. Why didn’t you come to me? We could have figured out some way to buy Petal for our group, and sneak you out to ride her when you could. Severing the bond is an extreme solution.”
Emeri’s mind swirled with Twinkle’s words. She could have kept her dragon? Telling the dragon rider group, outside of Avery and Worley, had not even occurred to her. Obstacles to Twinkle’s plan flashed before her –someone would see her and tell First Mistress, her future husband would not allow her to travel anywhere alone. But none of that mattered anymore. She broke the bond. Petal was gone.
“Twinkle, I didn’t know about the bond-curse,” Emeri said. “I am so sorry that I put Worley and the rest of the group at risk. If I had known…”
“But we can’t do anything about that,” Twinkle said. “Besides, the effects of the bond-curse don’t last forever. It’s worse at the beginning, and then after a while it fades away. As long as you don’t ride on another dragon, you should be safe enough.”
Emeri perked up at the thought that the curse would diminish. “So the bond-curse goes away on its own? How long do I have to wait?”
“Not certain,” Twinkle said, shaking her head. “Only known a few people who went through it. They had suffered crippling injuries in a dragon fall, and could never ride again. So they stayed away from the dragon riders for many years. The next time someone took them for a ride, they were fine.”
“How long did they wait?”
“I think it was near to fifty years.”
Emeri’s broken heart splintered even further. Not only did she lose her dragon, but now she would be forced to break contact with the whole dragon rider group. She held her breath to prevent tears from rushing down her face.
Her friend gave her a fierce hug and handed her a rag from her pack. “It’s not weak to cry, Emeri. Losing a dragon is worse than losing a husband. When my husband went down in the Battle of Bones, I thought that life was over for me. After the memorial, I walked through the forest, thinking to find a cliff to jump. But then Sparkle appeared out of nowhere, whooshing down to land at my feet, and I had a reason to go on. If I lost my dragon, nothing would keep me here.”
“That’s not encouraging,” Emeri said, her sobs muffled by the roaring stream. “I have to do my part for Thorington. I know my duty to the crown. Dragon riding was just a childhood dream that I must give up.”
“That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt,” Twinkle said, holding her close. “Come on, now. Rinse your face. Dragon riders don’t give up. We need to reach the lake before nightfall.”
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