Dragon Rider Part Seven- Stranded

white_dragon_by_sandara-d6ha2cv

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.

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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.”

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Dragon Rider Part Five- Storm

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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Under the Thunder: our first time riding West Coast Thunder

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The moon cast ghostly shadows on the asphalt as my husband backed our Harley into the curb on a deserted side street.  I yawned in spite of my racing heart. Four thirty in the morning is not the usual kickstands-up time for a HOG ride. Clutching my thermos of coffee close to my leather jacket like a favorite teddy bear, Frank and I walked down the row of k-rails to a table. This was our first West Coast Thunder, and we had chosen to see it from a volunteer’s perspective.

Slowly others joined us, zipped up in jackets against the breaking day chill. “Gather round,” our leader called and we pressed closer for last minute instructions. Everything was organized to make sure that riders that registered this morning would move quickly through the lines and get set up for the ride. Since midnight, teams had been tirelessly working, setting up the rails and blocking off the streets in order to stage thousands of motorcycle riders for the parade.

Our marching orders given, we scattered to our tables with our box of registration forms, credit card machines, and cash box. Monica and Jeff were the other couple assigned to our table, for which I was grateful as she had already been doing registration before the event.

The sporadic growl of engines disrupted the early morning silence. The sun emerged and everything was bathed in a pale pink glow. Suddenly we were in business as a long line of bikers wearing the same colors pulled up and parked in front of us. Beyond them, on the other side of the rail, prepaid riders were riding up to their spot in line.

Monica and I pointed at the places on the forms that needed to be completed and signed. We passed out headlight stickers, drawing tickets, and concert tickets. As our line grew, Jeff and Frank greeted riders and collected money.

In the variety of faces we saw that morning, there was one common factor. Whether young or old, male or female, married or single, all reflected the same respect. Respect for our military, those who serve, those who had served, and those who gave their lives for their country. No matter what political view they might hold, today’s parade was for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Hour after hour passed, and the rows of rails were jammed with all types of motorcycles. A hum of thousands of conversations hung over the cluster of chrome and metal like a gigantic bee hive. I wondered if there would be enough room for everyone, but the bikes kept coming. In the midst of the excitement, HOG officers rode around on golf carts, picking up cash, delivering pastries, and checking on us.

Finally, we got the signal to shut down and join the party. Frank fired up our bike and we circled around the block to find the end of the prepaid riders’ line. At first I thought we would take off right away, but this was the next stage of waiting, as the color guard ceremony and other festivities up at the dealership were still playing out. Later I would look at the video that other HOGs made and entertain a twinge of regret. If we hadn’t been doing registration, we could have been up there with our other HOG friends watching the show.

Squinting in the bright morning sun, I finished my last sip of coffee and looked around at the small group of volunteers ready to ride. Even though we were some of the first people to arrive, we would ride around the middle of the pack. But West Coast Thunder wasn’t really about the ceremonies, or even the concert to follow later. It was about remembering those who had served our country, who probably never received honor during their lives. Perhaps the best way to honor them was through serving others.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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