Dragon Rider Part Eight- Truth Told

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“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.”

Dragon Rider Part Six- Cursed

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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.”

Dragon Rider Part Four: Ferrytown

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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.

Dragon Rider- Part Three

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The pale dawn’s light drew a sigh from Emeri as she watched Lacey jerk open the curtains in her bedchamber. Her bleach white room was bathed in pink, like the shimmering scales of her dragon. Lately, everything around her reminded her that her time with Petal was coming to an end.

“Good dawn, my Lady,” her maid greeted her mistress with red eyes. Both of them had sat up and talked away the night. They knew that after Silverpointe, nothing would be the same. Emeri’s carefree days spent riding the wind would be replaced by fittings, meetings, and party arrangements. Although her maid lacked the courage to ride with Emeri on Petal, nonetheless she enjoyed the contagious excitement of the dragon riders, and felt her mistress’ approaching loss.

“Everything is packed?” Emeri said as she struggled out of her bedcovers.

“The saddlebags are down at the stables, along with your riding costume,” Lacey confirmed, as she opened the heavy armoire and pulled out a black tunic and trousers, Emeri’s favorite outfit. Definitely not something First Mistress would choose for her. But delicate silk had no place on top of a rough dragon’s back.

After she was dressed and devoured her tea and toast, Emeri rushed down to the stables. Anzel and Worley, as well as the rest of the dragon riders would meet her there. The open field near the stables provided a good place to stage the dragons. Outside the main castle gate, the vendors for the Flower Festival were setting up their stalls. Farmers came from distant lands to compete in contests for the finest roses, creating an overwhelming perfume that blanketed the estate for days.

As she drew near, Emeri smelled her favorite fragrance—the sulfurous smoke of dragons. The soft meadow grass was beaten down by trampling dragon feet, and a grey cloud clung to the morning mist. Row after row of bobbing heads and flapping wings waiting with nervous excitement for the ride to begin. Stable hands ran back and forth between them with buckets of water and freshly killed rabbits.

“Well, now that you’ve finally gotten out of your big, puffy princess bed, I guess we can leave,” a voice said behind her. She whirled around and gave a huge hug to a large woman with two long silver braids.

“Good dawn, Twinkle,” Emeri said. “I’m glad you’re leading the ride.” Her eyes seemed a little blurry, so she dabbed them with her hankie, for what she knew would not be the last time.

“Well, of course I wouldn’t miss Silverpointe,” Twinkle replied, her wrinkled face arranged into a big smile. “No yellow fever can keep me down!” The ride captain had recently recovered from a long bout with the dread disease that had ravaged the queendom last winter.

“I don’t think death would keep you from a ride,” the princess agreed. It was fitting that her first dragon riding instructor would lead her last ride. Many hours of flying lessons had convinced her that the older woman was the tougher than an old goat, as well as the finest dragon rider in the land.

“Gather round, everyone!” Anzel shouted from the main stable door. Riders popped out from the rows of dragons and spilled out from the stable, crowding close. Twinkle stood up on a box on the front steps, and addressed the group.

“On our first day, we’re going as far as Ferrytown,” Twinkle said, and a rumbling started through the crowd. “I know some of you think that’s too far to push our dragons, but the court druids predict a storm by the end of our second day, and I’d like to get as far into the mountains as we can, in case we have to wait it out at the lodge.”

Emeri nodded her approval and caught a wink from her instructor. Some of the riders were more interested in the food and drink than the actual riding. She had complete confidence in Petal’s endurance. Also she knew Twinkle would allow the dragons rest stops.

“After we make the lodge,” the ride captain continued, “we’ll cross over the mountains at Crystal Bowl, and drop down into Silverpointe. The innkeeper is expecting us, so he has hired out the rest of the village to provide enough beds. You’ll be ready for the hot springs and mountain brandy by that time.”
“Are we heading back on weeksend?” Worley asked with a flushed face. This was his first overnight ride, and he had been insufferable for weeks.

“Of course, weather permitting,” Twinkle replied. “But we’re not gathered here to talk. Dragon riders, let’s ride!” At her cry, the group dispersed to their mounts, donning helmets and jackets as they went.

“Emeri, we’re with you,” Anzel said as he passed her by, loaded down with bulging saddlebags. She closed her leather jacket with its silver fasteners and grabbed her helmet and gloves. Her saddlebags were already loaded onto Petal, thanks to Lacey. As she walked through the downy grass, her eyes savored the commotion surrounding her. These were people who loved adventure, not politics. Her kind of people.

Petal waited expectantly for her, standing still in the sea of multicolored dragons. She was the only pink one there, as her breed was rare to be tamed. Emeri remembered the first time she had seen her dragon, when the royal family had taken a holiday at the lodge in the Crystal Mountains. She was only a child of eight seasons, full of curiosity and devoid of fear. While her nurse was settling the other royal children down after the evening meal, Emeri had snuck out to see the famous sunset over the shimmering mountains. When she heard honking, she had to investigate, expecting a wayward goose. But instead, a cat-sized pink lizard belched tiny puffs of smoke and scurried over to jump in her arms.

So her dragon had found her, and they were inseparable ever since. Since it was rare that a dragon chose to be gentled, First Mistress could not forbid Emeri to keep Petal. When the First Mistress showed only a cold disapproval to any of Emeri’s accomplishments, her dragon always showered her with affection. If being wrapped with prickly scales and hot breath could be called affection.

“It’s going to be alright,” Emeri said, as she climbed up the ladder to her saddle. “You’ll love the Crystal Mountains. We’ll find more of your kind so you won’t be alone.” She tried to keep her voice strong and confident.

She waited silently as the rows of dragons formed into pairs. Since she rode sweep, she had to wait for everyone else to take off. It was her job to make sure no rider was left behind on their journey. Worley turned back and waved, and then followed his brother up into the sky. Emeri clicked her tongue and powerful wings lifted them both up to join the other riders. The roaring wind, the woolly blanket of clouds and the morning sun’s sudden brilliance were captured in her heart where she would treasure them, even when her future kept her caged on the cold ground.

Finding Gold in My Story

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A weekend in the mountains sounds restful, but for the twenty five writers that attended the Southern California Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Spring Retreat in Idyllwild, it turned out to be three days of hard work. The focus was on middle grade and young adult works in progress, which placed me in the company of my genre peers, rather than in the mixed company of most critique groups I had attended.

For me it was the last effort I was willing to extend toward a project I had been writing for three years. A book that I had thought I had finished, but had been quietly rejected by agents for the past two years. The College of the Crones had sat unloved in my document files, while my creative nonfiction articles were getting snapped up by travel journals. The first time I’d thought the book was finished, I spent worthwhile money on professional editing. I had even pitched my book to an agent at a writing conference, and took her advice to heart, getting rid of one of my main characters. But I was tired of working without result. The title of the retreat was “Finding Gold,” but I wasn’t sure that my book had anything valuable left.

The dream team of masterminds behind the weekend included Heather Buchta, who organized a group of writers who mostly had never met each other into focused critique groups. A few weeks before I headed up the mountain, Heather emailed our group with a request to share our photo and synopsis of the work we were planning to share. This proved to be brilliant, as we knew who to look for when we arrived. Also we didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting our group up to speed on our stories.

Although I had attended previous writing conferences, this one proved to be the most productive. We had four sessions of critiques with our small group of six and our leader. In addition, an agent, editor, or published author would also sit in with us. Each writer had fifteen minutes during each session to use as they wished, timed by our leader. Some writers read different chapters each session, while others took the feedback and revised the same passage, printing out copies for the group on the printers that some of the leaders brought with them.

Between critique sessions, Kate Sullivan, senior editor at Delacorte Press, and Erin Young, agent at Dystel, Goderich and Bourret, gave brief, useful presentations on theme, query letters, and pitches. Estelle Laure and Steve Bramucci, published authors, told their tales about being in the trenches as writers. These session drew laughs as well as tears, and plenty of “ah-ha!” moments.

But I will always treasure Kate and Estelle contributing to my critique group. They set a high bar for courtesy and professionalism. And I will never forget the passion and meticulous attention they showed toward my manuscript. Priceless.

Hikes and writing time were built into our schedule, which provided additional time to share with other writers. Wine and appetizers in front of a roaring fire at a nearby restaurant made us feel like we were in a story. The weather became a main character over the weekend, as we changed from sunny spring weather on Friday to a Sunday morning blanket of snow.

All weekend long, I cherished each stolen moment to revise a few more chapters. With the help of one of the leaders, I reprinted two chapters that I reworked after the first two critique sessions. I worked with a feverish zeal that reminded me of my rough draft days. It was hard to put my computer away.

Suddenly, it was Sunday morning and time for awards. If we chose, we could have submitted our first ten pages for a contest a month before the retreat. A team of published writers and editors judged the manuscripts in a blind contest. The two categories of middle grade and young adult were judged separately, with first place and honorable mention in each. As the leaders announced the young adult winners, I hoped that someone from my critique group would win since the quality of the work shared had been excellent. What I wasn’t prepared for was when they called my name for honorable mention.

As I stood up to receive my certificate in a daze, I realized that my book, almost abandoned for the immediate gratification of shorter articles, deserved to live. The College of the Crones would be finished, but with new direction and inspiration.

After lunch, I headed down the mountain through a snowstorm, eager to get home and continue revisions on my book. Instead of rocks, I had found the gold hidden in my story. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a writing retreat for works in progress, don’t hesitate to sign up. It turned out to be a weekend I will always treasure.

 

 

 

The Dragon Rider- Part Two

dragon 2

 

“You’re selling your dragon?” Worley interrupted, as he caught up to Emeri and Anzel who were deep in serious conversation. His dusty grey hair hung over his widened eyes, his usual happy face darkened.

“That’s no way to address a royal, even though she may be the youngest,” his brother snapped as he cuffed the back of Worley’s head. He wanted to do more, but his other hand was full of saddle and tack.

“Sorry, Lady Emeri,” the younger brother said as he rubbed his head with one hand. The other hand held a dark brown leather saddle with a strap wound around it.

“You’re excused,” Emeri said, crinkling her tiny nose. “I never liked all that formal stuff anyway. When we’re riding, I’m just Emeri, dragon rider. I don’t have to think about all the duties that I’ll be immersed in when I return.” She sighed and looked toward the dragon stables they were headed toward. “The First Mistress wants me to sell Petal after the Silverpoint ride.”

“But we’re going to come up with a plan so she won’t have to do that,” Anzel added.

“But you’re a princess, Emeri,” Worley protested. “You can do whatever you want to!”

“Actually, it means I have practically no control over my life,” Emeri said. “First Mistress is determined to marry me off like my sisters. It seems that there’s no shortage of trade agreements that need to be cemented with a “joyful union.” I would have thought that Evelon’s marriage to the Baron of Duns and Ellenia’s with the Prince of Overland would have been enough. The suffering needs to be complete with taking away my freedom as well.” She shifted the weight of her saddle to the other shoulder, as if the weight of her words was adding to her burden.

“That too heavy for you. Let me take it,” Anzel pleaded with her. “Why do you always insist on carrying your own saddle?”

“It makes me feel like a real dragon rider,” Emeri replied. “Just let me do it. No one will see.”

“Why can’t you be a dragon rider anymore?” Worley wondered.

Emeri sighed, and the crunch of their steps filled the silence. The path led them through a speckled glade of white trees that separated the castle from the animal enclosures. It was a perfect sunny day for the capricious days of planting season. Finally she said, “First Mistress says that I must be married. It is her royal opinion that a prince would not want to marry a dragon rider. I need to settle down and take on more responsibilities.”

Anzel grinned. “Like producing royal heirs?” He was the oldest of the trio, nearly sixteen, and thought he was very worldly.

Flipping back her hair, Emeri retorted, “That’s not the only responsibility I’ll have. I will entertain leaders from all over Tessar. I’ll have to study what foods they prefer and how to greet them properly.”

“Doesn’t sound as fun as dragon riding,” Worley concluded.

The three friends arrived at the tall stone building that had a large chimney coming out of the center of the tiled roof. Smoke was curling out of it, but it wasn’t from a fire in the hearth.

A rumble of excitement greeted them as they walked in. “Petal,” Emeri cried, “I’ve missed you. Are you ready for a short trip around the queendom?” Her shimmering pale grey dragon shook its head, sending puffs of smoke up toward the high ceiling. The dragon stalls were huge, as was needed for keeping dragons, and built of special wood that was naturally fire resistant. Petal’s head hung over the six foot gate, and eagerly sniffed her mistress. At the familiar sound, three dragon grooms emerged from the tack room to saddle up their mounts.

Anzel and Worley greeted their dragons with apples they had brought from the main house. The older brother’s dragon, Blade, was dark green, with curly feathers that made a ring around the base of its long neck. Mist was Worley’s dragon, a smaller dark grey dragon with a shorter neck and a tail that had a hard bone shaped like a hammer at its end. The smaller dragons gobbled up the treats, turning their juices into steam as they crunched.

The grooms led the dragons outside and carried over the ladders to help the riders climb up onto the large creatures. Emeri scooted up her ladder with practiced ease and strapped in around her waist and legs. Petal watched her with a large purple reptilian eye, smoking curling out of her nostrils, waiting for her command.

When they were all ready, Emeri shouted in an unprincess-like voice, “Let’s ride!” and a loud whoosh of wings signaled their departure.

As they rose through the clouds, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. Rushing wind whispered promises of freedom, and crisp fresh air filled her lungs with renewed energy. Dragon riding was her escape from a world she had no control over. To her right flew Anzel and Blade, who was wearing a huge grin. A glance to the left showed Worley holding his reins in one hand, his other on Mist’s neck.

The clouds below them thinned, and she could see the multicolored patchwork of fields surrounding Thorington Castle. For generations the Thorington line had controlled vast holdings of fertile farmland, which ensured their place as the bread basket of Tessar. Far to the south rose the wrinkled mountains of the Bearded Ones, the source of strange tales. To the west the deep blue ocean caressed the beaches of Ingest, while behind her stood the icy tips of the Crystal Mountains. All lovely lands of deep forests and tinkling streams. Only the eastern deserts were barren. From up here, all existed in harmony with no political turmoil or peasant squabbles.

The pulsing rhythm of Petal’s muscled wings reminded her of a pendulum clock, one that was counting her moments until she would have to give up dragon riding. What could she do? She knew that she could enlist the help of her dragon riding club, but to do what? Could she hide Petal somewhere with another rider’s help, and sneak away to ride as much as she could?

She knew in her heart it wouldn’t be fair to her spirited dragon to keep her secreted away. And she wasn’t sure how much sneaking away she’d be able to do once she was a royal wife. But she knew one thing — there was no way she was going to sell her dragon. If she couldn’t find a way to keep her, there was only one thing left to do.

Emeri would ride her back to the land of her dragon’s hatching in the Crystal Mountains and set her free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

College of the Crones- Chp.3 Part Three

mask

The prince calmed himself as he composed his reply. Everything inside him wanted to scream in this insignificant worm’s face. He called upon his magic to quiet the storm, difficult as it was to do so in this iron-filled land. His face relaxed, and he released his grip on the arms of his chair. The silence was as weighty as the pause before a judge’s verdict.

“I…understand… your… concern,” replied the prince. He took a deep breath, letting it out completely before he continued. “I know that the men of Beautiful work hard for the glory of my land. I sincerely wish that I could give my beauty tonic freely to all who ask.” He chuckled a bit under his breath, its sound causing the dancers near him to stop in mid twirl. “But its ingredients are rare and growing more scarce by the year. And my men already travel long distances through dangerous lands to obtain what is needed. As the risk to my men increases, so must the price of the tonic.” He paused, the corners of his mouth twitching.  “If men don’t wish to pay the price, they can simply choose not to buy it.” His jewel-like eyes glittered behind his feathered mask. The eavesdropping dancers hurried away to another part of the hall.

“Of course, Your Highness,” the scarecrow said. His face turned paler than his makeup as he considered the possible future with men married to ugly crones. No man would choose that. He shuddered at the thought. “Your generosity is well known in Beautiful. I am certain you are doing everything you can. I will disturb you no longer. Good evening, my prince.” He made a hasty bow and darted back into the noisy crowd. The guards and ladies nearest to him relaxed as the tension dissipated.

The prince exhaled and drained his cup with a shaking hand.  How ungrateful these humans are! I give them perfect beauty to gaze upon for their entire lives, and they grumble about a little labor. Subjects. How they tried his patience! How they interrupted his pleasures! If he didn’t do something, they might become difficult to control. Back in Faerie, a mere gesture alone would accomplish his desires. But his power was weakened here, away from his magical homeland. If not for my potion-making talents, I might have had to actually work for a living.

Shaking his head free of unwanted thoughts, the prince beckoned to the guard nearby. The masked soldier hastened to his master’s side. The prince whispered into his ear, “Make sure that the mayor has a fatal carriage accident on his way home.” The soldier nodded his understanding and left the hall. With a contented sigh, the prince turned back to the festivities. Learning to delegate is not so difficult after all.

College of the Crones- Chp.3 Part Two

mask

“Of course, I would be pleased to have a word with the mayor,” the prince answered instead.  He had to continue the charade if he was going to achieve his goals. Still, maybe he could appoint a royal advisor to address these trivial matters in the future. This interacting with the local simpletons is a waste of my abilities.

At the wave of the mouse, a tall scarecrow approached the prince’s table. His face was covered with white paint, his lips and eyes traced in black. He was wearing a rough burlap shirt, well-worn and patched pants, and a large straw hat. Straw was falling out of his hat, sleeves, and neckline. In spite of the playful disguise, his eyes looked worried. As he bowed low before the prince, a pile of straw formed on the floor.

“You may address me,” the prince said without enthusiasm.

“Your Highness,” he began as he stood up. “You look splendid this evening. May you live forever! Your masquerade is breathtaking. My wife and I are having a marvelous time.” The scarecrow took a breath. He seemed to consider his words. “However, there is a small matter that prevents my complete enjoyment. Earlier this week, some of the other mayors visited me, and we have discovered a common concern. I urgently bring that concern to Your Highness.” The scarecrow paused, waiting for his ruler’s acknowledgement. The prince graced him with a thin smile and nodded.

“The tonic price has gone up three times already this year, and your representatives have informed us that it will go up again before Yuletide. The price is already quite high. The men are working diligently from dawn to sunset every day. They can barely afford to buy bread. How much more can they work before they collapse? Of course, the potion is worth the price, but if the men’s strength fails, who will tend the fields and sell goods? Your Highness knows the crones and wives can’t do it.” The scarecrow reddened, shocked at frankness of the words that rushed out of his mouth. He waited tensely for the prince’s answer.

 

 

College of the Crones- Chp 3 Part One

mask

Interruption

As he descended the spiral staircase into the great hall, the prince was pleased to see his servants, dressed as mice, standing quietly at their posts, ready to receive guests. Masked musicians had begun to play, filling the hall with feet-stirring melodies. Long linen draped tables ran the length of the far wall, piled high with every delicacy a royal or commoner could imagine. Roasted ducks, pheasants, and chickens were kept warm under silver covers. A large tree made of pears, apples, and plums decorated one of the tables as if in bloom. Huge bowls of potatoes, puddings, gravies, and stuffing sat hot and overflowing on some tables, while cakes, pies, and pastries were stacked sweet and high on others. Servants stood by with goblets of wine and beer, their jobs to ensure no one could walk a straight line home at the end of the night. The prince surveyed it with satisfaction. No lord in all the lands provided a feast this grand.

Guests began pouring through the main entrance, and the dance floor quickly filled up. A kaleidoscope of brilliant costumes, feathered masks, dramatic capes, and silk sashes spun in obedience to magical music. The prince sat down at his head table surrounded by his court ladies, who dressed as rabbits, complete with long fur ears. They filled his goblet, loaded his plate, and competed for his glance. He would smile at one lady, admire the face of another, and then turn back to survey the dancers. Those he addressed sighed with pleasure, under the glare of the slighted. When their attentions failed to distract the prince from studying the other party goers, they turned their attention there also, watching from their luxurious perch.

The prince entertained himself by evaluating the swirling women as they passed him. I certainly don’t want that swan woman with all the droopy feathers.  She’s excessively tall, and her neck is too short. A red and yellow clown caught his eye. Maybe that one. I love fair hair, and hers is like spun gold. There is always room for another beautiful face in my court.

“Your Highness,” squeaked one of the prince’s mice. “If it pleases you, Sire, the Mayor of Oakbottom would like to have a word with you.” The twitchy mouse awaited his reply. Now what? The prince barely muffled a yawn. Not another problem with wolves? It took so much of his energy to feign compassion for any extended length of time. He needed to enjoy this ball. Didn’t these rude villagers realize it was after official business hours? I should have this annoyance thrown into the dungeon.

 

 

College of the Crones-Chp 2 pt 2

 

mask

As the days grew shorter and the nights longer, the prince could not help but brood on his once perfect life. Being immortal gave him endless years to think on what he had lost. This world was a desolate wasteland, cold and dry in comparison to Faery. No one, man or faerie, could leave that perfect place behind and be satisfied elsewhere. That undoubtedly was the reason he had been exiled rather than destroyed. The King knew this would provide long years of punishment.

But I’ve done the best I could to adapt to this barren land.  His smile in the mirror looked convincing enough. He set himself up as a ruler, after disposing of the prior occupants of the castle, and began winning the countrymen’s favor. To those with no conscience, he offered positions as his personal guards. Their obedience could be guaranteed with gold.  He also hired soldiers to keep the peace, and administrators to keep order in the outlying villages. After the wild abandon of Faery, he needed structure around him. It made him feel like he still maintained some measure of control over his life.

Most landowners and peasants were won over easily when they learned of the astounding powers of the prince’s tonic. His potion making prowess had afforded him the perfect weapon. Once the people learned what the tonic could do, his position as their leader was secured.

Of course, I am perfectly suited to be their prince. His charm was legendary. Everyone loved him. Why wouldn’t they? He gave men beautiful wives, and women beautiful parties. That they gave up certain things for these pleasures seemed a logical and fair trade to him.

A quiet knock roused him from his daydreaming. “Your Highness, carriages have been spotted on the road. Your guests are arriving,” a small voice called through the door.

The interruption flashed his anger, and the prince took his heavy silver goblet in hand, ready to pitch it at the messenger as he came in. But the servant waited outside for his reply, accustomed to his master’s moods.

“I’ll come down when I’m ready, not a moment before,” the prince replied. He smoothed his features and sighed.

Slowly he untangled himself from the layers of silk and woolen blankets that trapped him into the red velvet arm chair. He picked up his feather-covered mask and put it on. He admired himself in his golden full length mirror on his wardrobe door. Two bright green eyes twinkled at him from behind black feathers and an orange beak nose. He was clothed completely head to toe in black leather. Who could resist me? He pulled himself up straight, set his shoulders, and lifted his chin in his most dashing gentleman pose. Then he buttoned on his feather cape and the costume was complete. Tonight he would reprise his role as the Raven.

 

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