Dragon Rider Part Nine- Change Arrives

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Music swirled around the ballroom, wafting through the twirling gowns and tickling the drooping mustaches of noblemen. Emeri sighed, a shallow one because of her corset, and pulled up her scandalous bodice with her free hand. Her head ached from the pounds of curls that cascaded down the back of her head. At least her feet didn’t hurt, already numb from being squeezed into satin slippers. She endured the endless change of dance partners with a practiced smile, and longed for a large glass of Silverpointe brandy.

Two weeks had passed since the dragon riders returned from their ride to the Crystal Mountains, but to Emeri it seemed a season ago. Although First Mistress had frowned at news of Petal’s disappearance, her reaction to Emeri’s rescue at the lake almost resembled concern. Concern for her political card game.

“We’re relieved that our daughter finally got dragon riding out of her system,” her foster mother had said with a sniff, assessing her like she was a horse ready for auction. “Thank the Goddess you didn’t break any teeth in the crash. And all your bones are hale.”

When Twinkle and Emeri had arrived at the lake, a local fisherman and his wife took them in. Sparkle waded into the water and pulled out fish after fish, eating them like chips. Signal smoke poured out of his nostrils, leaving a trail up into the skies. As the sun lowered its heavy lids on the horizon, dark shapes loomed over the cottage. The dragon riders had found them! That night’s celebration had included liberal amounts of brandy that Avery had brought back with him from Silverpointe.

Now she longed for that homemade brandy, but must be content with hundred season vintage wine. Tonight’s ball was even more opulent than the three previous. Golden candelabras lit up the palace ballroom as bright as daylight over the crush of dancers and party goers who watched from the sides. At one end of the hall a large orchestra played the latest dance music and the open doors at the other end led into the dining room, where some guests still sat at table eating cake.

Finally, the conductor held his hands still, and the music stopped. The princess curtsied to her current partner, and dashed onto the outside garden. The selection of princes provided for tonight’s ball had been especially tedious. All she wanted was relief from the blaring music and endless prattle of meaningless conversation. One of Avery’s stories, even though she had probably heard it at least ten times, would be preferable at this point.

Emeri followed the flagstone path through the rose trellis, seeking her favorite place. The white gazebo loomed like a ghost in the waxing moon, hiding the two silhouettes who rustled on the bench inside.

Boldly she invaded their space, not caring how important these guests might be. The nobleman released the curl topped young woman, who shrieked at Emeri’s sudden appearance. It was Morrison, of course, one of the available suitors, with some baron’s daughter that she had met tonight but already forgot her name. The woman glared at Emeri while she readjusted the neckline of her gown. At least Morrison had enough conscience to look embarrassed. Emeri would be sure that he got crossed off her list. The couple fled back in the direction of the palace.

Finally, she was alone with the crickets and moonlight, the cool breeze rustling through her bouquet of curls.

Emeri stretched out on the bench, causing splinters to snag her top layers of silk. She didn’t care at the moment. It felt so good to lay down, even if it caused the volume of her dress to pile on top of her. She kicked off her slippers, and flexed her toes to get the feeling back. There was no way she would be able to get those shoes back on her swollen feet tonight.

From her hiding place, Emeri could hear the faint strains of music from the ball. She knew she should go back in. First Mistress would send a guard to find her eventually. It was so hard to hold up her part of the bargain she struck with her foster mother. How easy it had seemed, that night in the library, to promise that she would enter the courtship game when she returned from Silverpointe!

She had done her best. The princess had held her tongue while she was measured and fitted for new gowns worthy of the courtship dances. A wedding planner was called in, and Lacey was forced to step aside as a new stylist curled and pinned up her mistress’ long locks, powdered her face, and carefully outlined her eyes and lips. Emeri watched in the mirror as a stranger emerged before her eyes. A stranger that would be given in marriage to another stranger to strengthen the queendom.

Over and over she replayed Twinkle’s words in the forest. If Emeri hadn’t been so certain that she alone had to make a plan, she might have been able to keep her dragon in secret. It had never occurred to her that she should enlist the support of the dragon riding group. She had been certain that she could solve her problem by herself.

The ground shook beneath the bench, and the princess sat up quickly. A blast of familiar smoke made her cough, followed by a welcome face poking out of First Mistress’ prize rose bushes, crushing them under her massive feet.

It was Petal! The princess’ heart stopped, and she couldn’t catch her breath. What was her dragon doing here? Her former dragon, since she had broken their bond.

The dragon reached her long neck into Emeri’s lap, begging to be petted. She sat outside the gazebo and curled her long tail around her. Emeri could see that the barbed tip was restored.

At first, she sat there, stroking Petal’s jaw and gently patting her neck. The dragon’s actions were clear. Petal was choosing to bond with her again. Even after her mistress had caused her great pain. Emeri felt all the walls she had built up around her heart over the past weeks come crashing down. In rushed unconditional love and acceptance that she would never find at court. This was why she became a dragon rider.

Checking first to make sure she wouldn’t be interrupted like she had done to the couple, Emeri pulled down the underskirts from her gown and loosened her corset, no small feat without servants. Then she tossed her skirts and slippers into the bushes. She was left with her knee length upper gown, much easier to ride a dragon.

Climbing up Petal’s down-stretched neck, she seated herself as comfortably as possible without a saddle, clicked her tongue and kicked Petal’s rough sides with her bare feet. Petal drew them both up into the sky with a few sweeps of her wings. The bright lights of the palace became smaller and smaller until they were but stars upon the black ground.

Emeri held onto the spikes on Petal’s neck as the night wind tugged at her curls, pulling out the pins, and leaving her hair a long twisting ribbon behind her. The chill night air caused a shiver to run down her back. She felt so alive!

Where were they going? The princess attempted to direct their flight, but Petal seemed determined to take them somewhere. They left Thorington Castle behind and headed south. Emeri could see a pinpoint of light that grew larger as they approached, revealing itself as a campfire. Petal descended to the meadow near it.

As they were landing, Emeri could see shapes in the darkness. When she slipped down Petal’s neck to the ground, she fell into an immediate hug.

“Emeri! I knew Petal would bring you!” Worley said, twirling her around.

“Worley, what are the riders doing out here?” the princess asked, all thought of her problems forgotten. The circle of riders emerged from the trees where their dragons were still hidden, curls of smoke creating a haze in the broken down underbrush.

Twinkle stepped forward with a mug. She handed it to Emeri, who sipped it with delight when she realized it was brandy. “We were out on a moonlight ride when Petal appeared. She landed here so we followed her. After we all were settled, Petal wouldn’t let us near her. Instead she took off in the sky, and we decided to see what would happen.”

“Petal went to find you,” Avery said, as he led Emeri over to their fire. “Come, sit down. While we were waiting, we came up with a plan.”

“But I broke the bond,” Emeri said as she sat down on a log and warmed herself at the fire. She wished Petal would have brought her leather riding clothes and gloves. Worley saw her shiver and brought a blanket for her shoulders. “How could Petal come back to me?”

“Your dragon is unique,” Twinkle said with a smile. “She chose you twice. So we should make sure you two stay together.”

Emeri shook her head. “But I don’t even know who I will marry or where I will live,” she said, her face pale in the firelight.

“That’s why we need a flexible plan,” Avery said, taking another sip of his brandy.

“You’ll love it!” Worley said, his words muffled by the roasted corn he was inhaling.

“But I don’t deserve it,” Emeri said. “I didn’t seek your counsel, instead choosing to do the unthinkable. I don’t know why Petal came back, but I don’t deserve a second chance to be a dragon rider. I’ll go back to my dresses and curls and parties. And wedding.” She choked on her words and looked away.

Twinkle handed her a cloth. “Get yourself together, Dragon Rider. Now that you’ve done the most difficult thing a rider can do, anything else we can come up with will be easy.” Emeri wiped her eyes.

“That’s better,” Twinkle said, giving her a hug. “Now sit there and listen.”

Emeri pulled the blanket closer around her and spread her gown over her bare legs. She was afraid to hope, and yet here were her friends, gathered around her.

“Petal will stay with Sparkle, who’s still on the mend. I’ve got room. And I live by myself, except for Molly, so no one’s tongue will be wagging about me having another Crystal Dragon,” Twinkle said.

“Then you can send messages through Worley when you can get away to ride. You can meet Petal in Avery’s family’s field, near their cottage. We’ll keep your riding clothes and tack at their home. First Mistress or her servants would never think to look there,” Avery continued.

“If you move away, it will even be easier,” Worley insisted. “With dragons, we can be wherever you are.”

The princess looked at their eager faces reflected in the firelight. What they neglected to mention was that if First Mistress discovered their secret, they would all be thrown in the dungeon and their dragons sold. Emeri would escape because of her marriage plans. Why would her friends take this risk for her? For Petal?

Petal had been quietly resting behind her the whole time. Emeri turned and patted her nose. She dared not send away the only people, and dragon, that accepted her for herself, with no hidden motives. Even though she knew her future was at royal court, she now realized how much she needed to keep this part of her life. Even if it must remain secret, her dragon would help her keep her balanced.

“Thank you, everyone, for taking on this enormous task,” Emeri said to her friends. “Trying to go on without Petal for these past weeks has proved to me that it’s impossible. I can’t live without being a dragon rider. I will go along with your intrigue.”

“I told you she’d do it!” Worley shouted.

“We must swear an oath,” Twinkle said. She took out a small knife and made a cut on her finger. After that she squeezed a drop of blood into her empty mug. Then she passed the knife, and each rider did the same. When all had contributed, Twinkle poured more brandy into the mug and threw it into the fire. The flames burst higher for a moment, like the hope in Emeri’s heart.

“We are bound by friendship, blood, and fire,” their leader said, as they stood around the fire holding hands. “Emeri of Thorington, First Royal Dragon Rider, we are bound to your secret service and the service of your dragon, Petal, until the release of death.”

The determined faces of her friends convinced the princess that whatever title she might gain in the future; none would be greater than Dragon Rider.

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 Seven- Stranded

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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.

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.

The Cave Part Six

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As they traveled down hallways decorated with elaborate paintings of flowers, Meghan and Hardly said nothing to each other. The faery’s boots pounded on the polished wood floors, as Meghan walked silently in her slippers behind him. She held Noodles firmly in her arms, grateful that the Queen had given him back. Too delicate for a pet, the Queen had said.

When they reached a door at the end, Hardly opened it with the ease of someone who was at home. He spoke a word and torches burst into life down the stone staircase. As he led her down the smooth steps, Meghan could stand it no longer.

“What about your friends?” she said. “You’re just going to leave them in prison?”

The faery stopped and turned toward her. “Of course not! I’ll find a way to get them out. I can’t act too concerned about them in front of my sister or she’ll be sure to seek a more permanent solution.” His eyes gripped hers with determination.

“But why did your sister, the Queen, allow you to remain free, and me to return to my world? It seems like favor to me.”

Hardly sighed, and turned to continue down the steps. “Keeping me at court and sending you away are ways to show perfect cruelty.”

“Doesn’t she read minds or something?” Meghan asked. “I felt really weird at times, like she was rummaging around in my memories.”

The faery stopped at the bottom of the steps and faced her. “You are more aware of her talents than most humans. My sister has a rare magic that allows her free access to anyone’s mind, even mine. She uses what she discovers against you. Even I can’t keep her out. That’s why I have to get out of here.”

They walked down a tunnel, their steps echoing off the earthen walls until they reached a large cavern with a wood shack at one end. At their approach, a faery in green scrambled out of his office with a chicken leg in his hand. Noodles started to bark, more for the food than for the sudden appearance of a stranger. Recognizing Hardly, the faery dashed back inside and emerged with clean hands.

Meghan saw a familiar beam of light coming from a hole in the ceiling and a disk centered below it. Although she had been eager to escape the attentions of the Queen, now she was reluctant to approach the portal. Riding with the Dragon Riders Group had been an exciting adventure, and going home only meant locking herself away in her room to avoid the war between her parents. School wouldn’t be starting yet, would it? Her sense of time had become foggy in Faerie.

“Welcome, Prince Heatherope,” the porter greeted his ruler with a deep bow.

“Come on, Greyleaf,” Hardly protested. “It’s just me. You don’t need to give me the prince treatment.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” the porter replied as he raised his eyes. “Where are you going today with this pretty human child and her creature?”

“I’m not leaving, but they are,” Hardly answered. “And she’s my friend. Her name is Meghan. The creature is a dog, and he’s named Noodle.”

“Welcome to the Queen’s portal, Meghan and Noodle,” the porter said. “Friendship with Hardly is not easily won. You must have some magic of your own.” He bowed to her with a knowing grin. “Your ticket and destination, please.” He held out his hand.

Meghan had the overwhelming desire to turn and run back down the tunnel toward the palace. Maybe she could help Hardly rescue the other riders and dragons. She turned toward him, as he stood there with an unreadable expression. Does he want me to stay? I wish I had his sister’s magic for just five minutes!

            “I want to stay and help you,” is what blurted out of her mouth.

Hardly looked startled, and then smiled. “I know you do, but it’s too dangerous for you here. This is not your world. You have no magic here.” He handed her an embroidered handkerchief from his pocket. “Come now, Meghan. You’ve had a magical adventure. Now it’s time to go home.”

She gratefully took the tiny linen cloth trimmed with blue flowers and dabbed her face. Why am I crying? I never cry. Noodles sniffed at the handkerchief curiously. She wondered at her feelings that had been buried for so long. It was too embarrassing to have close friends when your parents might erupt like a volcano at any time. For a long time, it had been Noodles and her only.

Now she had a friend, and actually more friends, although they were locked up. But Hardly was right. She had to go back.

“Thank you for being my friend,” Meghan said, trying to smile. She hugged Noodles and handed the silver ring to the porter. Then she stepped onto the portal disk. “Back to my world. Carlsbad campground, please.”

The faery prince acknowledged her with a bob of his head right before the light whited everything out around her. She felt like she was flying, riding on Petal again, but she could see nothing.

Then she landed firmly on wet sand and realized she was back at the mouth of the sea cave once more. Noodles barked and wriggled out of her arms to chase a sea gull. The surf crashed close to her feet. She got up and brushed off sand, and headed off after her dog.

The Cave Part Five

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Washed up and dressed in a green gown, Meghan was escorted to a large dining room lit by giant pine cone chandeliers. Her stomach grumbled when she smelled the platters of savory meat that the servants were passing around a long table draped in white linen. All the chairs were filled except one, and the human servant gestured toward it without a word. All of her interactions with the young girl were wordless, as hand signs had told Meghan she was incapable of speech. Whether it was the result of disease or spell Meghan couldn’t discover, but it hampered her ability to find out more about the Queen and the Spring Court.

As she sat down to her meal, Meghan looked around to find familiar faces, but only Hardly was present, seated next to the Queen. His eyes darted toward her but looked away quickly. He was too far away for conversation, so she turned her attention toward their meal, as the servant was waiting to her attention to give her some meat. It looked and smelled like beef, seasoned with herbs and roasted to perfection. Another servant brought her potatoes and tiny carrots. She was so hungry she forgot her captivity and ate heartily.

But her eyes kept wandering back toward the dragon rider. If he really is the Queen’s brother, why aren’t we free to go? On either side of her were faery ladies, the one on the right in a shimmering dove grey gown, and the other wearing yellow satin. Maybe I can find out more about what’s going on from one of the courtiers.

“Pardon me,” Meghan asked the one in yellow, thinking the color was more cheerful so perhaps the owner was as well, “My name is Meghan. Your dress is beautiful! It looks like a sunny spring morning.”

“You will have to excuse me,” the faery said, wrinkling her tiny nose. “But I don’t give my name to humans.” She turned her shoulders so that Meghan couldn’t see her face.

Maybe I’ll try the other one. She waited until after a few more bites of potato. “Excuse me,” Meghan said to the faery on her right. “The feast tonight is unbelievable! Is the food always this good?”

But the faery acted as if Meghan was invisible, talking and laughing with another faery to her right.

After all had finished, the servants whisked away all the plates, and everyone’s eyes looked expectantly toward the Queen at the far end of the table. To Meghan’s surprise, she patted Hardly’s hand, and then addressed the guests.

“Many thanks we give to you for feasting with us this evening. Communion knits us together as one family,” the Queen said, her voice unnaturally loud and clear even from Meghan’s end of the table. “We are pleased to have my brother, Heatherope, back from his travels.” She nodded, and the assembled faeries clapped obediently. Hardly hunched his shoulders and looked away from Meghan’s curious stare.

“As many of you know, our soldiers have captured the DOGS, and they have been thrown down the dungeon well, awaiting their trial.” Her dragon rider brother looked like he might throw up at any time.

Meghan’s heart pounded as she thought about the gruff but kind faeries she had ridden with over the past weeks. What will happen to them? It appeared that Hardly’s relation to the Queen had saved him, and possibly Meghan, but had not extended to his friends.

“But what are we to do with the human child?” The Queen’s words brought Meghan’s attention back. “She is neither changeling nor tithe. In fact, she has no contract at all. Her day pass has expired, and her fate is in our hands.” At that moment Meghan felt the pressure of the Queen’s mind pressing against hers again. Why am I thinking about my parents and their fighting?

            “Perhaps it would be punishment enough to send her back,” the Queen pondered aloud. “But she’ll have to buy another ticket.” Meghan felt a strong compulsion to stand up. She stood and fought her legs as they brought her over beside the Queen, who smiled at her like a cat does at a mouse. “What can she do for the price? Can she weave gold or make shaved ice for our drinks?

“I don’t think I can do anything like that,” Meghan said quietly. She felt Hardly’s eyes in back of her head as she stood between him and his sister. She dared not look at him, and jumped when he spoke for the first time that evening.

“She can sing human songs,” Hardly said, standing up and moving Meghan aside so that he faced the Queen directly.

Murmurs rose around the table as the faeries looked at each other in pleased surprise.

“Songs? We care nothing for silly human songs!” the Queen scoffed. But then she looked around at the eager faces surrounding her. “Maybe if she knows a song about death. That would be a song we would like. Death has some weight.”

Instantly Meghan knew what song she needed to sing. “I have a song.”

The faeries clapped their hands and sat back in their chairs. The Queen slowly nodded, and Meghan knew this was her chance. She began to sing another children’s song:

“Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies,

Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.”

She sang it three times, each time more confident than the previous. The faeries seemed captivated by a silly song that mocked the Black Plague. When she had learned the true meaning of the lyrics, she had been shocked. But the faeries sure seem to love it!

            When Meghan finished, all the guests stood and applauded her. The Queen didn’t rise, but she clapped as well. Hardly let out a deep breath, and his eyes shone as he looked at her.

“Human child, you have purchased your ticket,” the Queen said as she relaxed back in her chair. She took one tiny silver band off her finger and handed it to her brother. “Hardly, take her to the portal. This ring is her ticket home.”

 

 

 

 

The Cave Part Four

 

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Meghan and the dragon riders, cocooned by a regiment of faerie soldiers, walked directly to the Queen’s audience chamber. Her stomach still felt queasy from their portal jump. Besides the stationary portals, the faeries had field portals that could be transported easily wherever they traveled. So here they were, moments after they had been caught in a net like witless rabbits.

Where did they put Noodles? Her terrier had been taken from her arms without a bark when they were captured. Meghan had cried for her dog, but the soldiers told her he would not be harmed. With nothing she could do about it, she hoped that they spoke the truth. She glanced behind her at Hardly, Never, and the rest of the Dragon Owners Group. The riding club walked with their heads down, their hands bound behind them and their mouths gagged. Their captors took no chances that one of them would cast a spell. Their dragons were back in the woods, still held in nets.

Since they knew she was human, Meghan walked in front unbound. The soldiers had no fear that a young child could escape. She looked around at the overarching trees that formed the hall they walked. Behind the trees, which looked like some sort of overgrown elms, tall hedges formed walls on both sides of them. They were still outside in the woods, although it was easy to think that they were inside since the only light provided was from tiny lamps that hung in strings from the trees. She expected them to be electric, and looked for outlets, but the lamps were glowing with their own power.

At the end of the hall stood a large oak tree with an enormous knot in front of its trunk that looked like a door. The soldier on Meghan’s right knocked, and it was opened by a faerie in a bright green tunic and pants. They exchanged words in that strange murmuring language that Meghan heard Hardly speak with the other riders. Then the door opened wide, and they were escorted inside.

The chamber inside was vast, impossible to be contained within the oak tree. Meghan squinted in the bright light that filled the ceiling of the room from an unseen source. On both sides were faerie courtiers, dressed in every color of the rainbow with silks and laces. Their beautiful faces frowned at their procession, their cherry lips turned down. Hardly seemed to perk up at their reaction, and he grinned wickedly at a lady in front, who prompted melted back into the rear of the crowd.

Then Meghan felt unsettled, like someone was staring at her. She saw steep stairs straight in front of them that led up to a dais. Upon the dais sat a throne made of two living birches, twisted together to form a chair. The soldiers stopped at the base of the stairs, and bowed on one knee. When she saw the dragon riders fall on their knees and bow their heads, she copied them. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the soldiers look up, so she followed their gaze but remained on her knees. Better not to offend the Queen any more than what’s been done.

On the tree chair sat the most beautiful woman Meghan had ever seen. Even though she was seated, the queen was tall and thin, her skin like eggshell, and her eyes like a deep pond. Those eyes were inside of Meghan’s head, rummaging through her thoughts and memories like thrift store owners at a garage sale. One moment, she was playing catch with Noodles in her back yard, and the next she was back in the cave, looking for her lost dog.

Noodles! Meghan gasped when she saw her tiny dog sitting on the queen’s lap, her hand on his head. Why doesn’t Noodles come to me? Or at least bark? Perhaps he was under a spell, but at least he looked unharmed, nestled into the dark green silk of the queen’s ruffled gown. The faery queen’s arms were bare and covered in sparkling bracelets of gold and jewels. Her hair was twisted on top of her head where rested a crown covered in glowing opals.

Meghan’s mind quieted, and she realized the queen must have completed her probe for the moment.

“A human, in the company of dragon riders?” she said in a musical voice that reminded Meghan of a babbling stream. The Queen frowned, and it seemed that everyone in the room frowned with her. “Finally the DOGs are brought to judgment, and they bring us this prize. A human who entered Faerie of her own free will, therefore not under any contract.” She stroked Noodles’ head and sighed. “Guard, bring us her visa.”

Meghan took the folded paper out of her jacket and handed it to the guard. He carried it up the stairs to the queen. He unfolded it and handed it to her. Her frown increased when she read it.

“Let me explain,” Meghan said. “I would have gone home that first day, but the dragon riders took me with them. It was days before I realized my mistake, and by then it was too late.”

“Do not address the queen unless she gives permission,” one of the guards growled, kicking her to the ground. Meghan laid there, her ribs aching, afraid to look up.

“Just keep quiet.” She could hear Hardly’s whispered advice.

“We will take care of the dragon riders first,” the Queen announced. “Guards, take this child to get cleaned up. She smells of dragon.” Instantly, Meghan was pulled to her feet and marched out of the room.

As she was going through the door, she heard the Queen say, “Guards, unbind him.” A heatbeat passed, and then, “Heatherope Hallowhill McDreary! On your feet!”

And a familiar voice answered, “Uggh! Come on, Sis. You know I hate it when you call me by my true name!”

The Cave Part Three

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Meghan chewed on her roasted turkey leg, or at least she thought it was some sort of wild turkey, and listened to the riders swapping stories in the flickering light of the campfire. A faerie with curly black hair called Never, was spinning a tale with great skill about the time he and his dragon had landed on Mount Tabletop, the highest mountain in Spring. The others listened with a reasonable amount of skepticism. She knew a few of the other riders’ names, but there were twenty of them, and their names were so strange. Hardly and Never had been riding together for years, hundreds of years if she really believed them. She often saw them in serious conversation before they took off for the day.

She inspected her bone for any last strips of meat, but it was picked clean so she threw it behind her into the woods. Noodles sat gnawing his bone at her feet. Then she wiped her greasy hands on the back of her jeans, and took out a folded paper she kept in her jacket pocket. She opened it up and looked at it again. It was her day pass, her permission to enter Faerie. In vain she tried to read the small print at the bottom above her signature, but the print was so small there was no way she could see what it meant without a magnifying glass.

Although she had enjoyed her two weeks riding with the Dragon Owners Group, she was a little worried about her visa. What would happen to her if someone asked her for her pass and saw that she had been here past its expiration? All the stories she had been told included harsh consequences for breaking rules in Faerie. Nothing I can do about it now. Carefully she folded it back up and put it away.

“Meghan, sing us a song,” one of the faeries, a red head named Sometimes, pulled her out of her thoughts. “You know, the one about the kids who climbed the hill and broke their noggins!”

“But it’s only a nursery rhyme!” she protested, knowing that she would be forced to give in. What is it about faeries that they love children’s songs?

            “We told you that you would have to pay for traveling with us,” Hardly reminded her with a smile. “Come on, now. Your voice is so lovely.”

Meghan took a pull of water from her waterskin, and started to sing:

“Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water,

Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”

The riders cheered when she was done, and toasted each other with the strong dark ale that they drank every night. Stories resumed, and Meghan wrapped up in a blanket close enough to the fire to enjoy its warmth, Noodles curled up beside her. In this region of Faery, nights were chilly, although not too cold for camping outside. Soon her head nodded, and when she woke the next morning, she was lying next to the other bundled up faeries at the base of a large oak tree.

That morning began as any other. Steamy porridge with strong tea, then everything was packed up and loaded onto the dragons. During the night, the dragons had hunted and slept, so they were ready to go. Hardly’s dragon, the largest with the longest spikes, was named Petal. Such a strange name for a dangerous beast. Petal had warmed up to Meghan quickly, purring in his growling manner, and thrusting his head in her chest for petting. Even Noodles adjusted to being around the dragons, although her dog kept close to her at all times.

Hardly called out “Time to fly!” and the riders and Meghan mounted the dragons. Petal was fidgeting, anxious to rise up into the sky where he belonged. Meghan inserted her boots into the stirrups that were adjusted to her smaller stature, and checked the straps on Noodles’ harness that held him to her chest. Looking around at the magnificent dragons bobbing their heads and letting out clouds of steam made her feel small. But at the same time she felt more grown-up than her ten years, riding with the daring faeries through the skies. If her parents saw her now, they would not see their daughter, but instead an adventurer, clad in black leather clothes and helmet.

That’s strange! I haven’t thought about my parents for a long time. She supposed she should feel guilty for not missing them, but it was such a relief to be away from the fighting that she pushed them out of her mind. I deserve to have an adventure.

Hardly nodded to Never, who waited while the rest of the dragons rose into the air.  Never was their sweep, so he would ride last to make sure that everyone stayed together. The riders rode west, away from the still pink morning sun.

Last night, Meghan heard Hardly say they were headed toward the Great Grove, a forest of birch that was a day’s distance. Noodles slept peacefully in the pack, by this time accustomed to this strange form of transportation. Perhaps he thinks he’s in some type of car. Below her the farmland formed a green patterned quilt, broken up by brown dirt roads and dots of trees. Then the dragons pierced the canopy of puffy clouds, and all she could see was a landscape of white.

Hours passed without the dragons tiring, and Meghan pulled her scarf tighter around her neck. It was cold up here, cold enough to keep her awake even with the monotony of white. She looked up ahead and saw a black speck. As she watched, it grew larger until it became the shape of another dragon.

“King’s boils!” Hardly cried, and he held up his left fist, signaling the others for a landing. The riders followed him down as he shot suddenly through the clouds, dropping like a duck shot in a hunt. Meghan held Noodles close with one hand, and the other clasped the horn of her saddle desperately. Who could that other rider be?

            The quilt of farms below her had been replaced by woods and hills while they flew above the clouds. The ground came up quickly as Petal put them down in a tiny valley surrounded by trees. Meghan braced for the jolt as they hit the ground, and the dragon’s strong legs slowed them to a stop.

“Hurry, Meghan, get down!” Hardly shouted to her as he slid down the mounting rope.

“What’s going on?” Meghan asked as she slid down her rope. All around her riders were leading their dragons under a shelf of rock that would hide them from eyes in the sky. She kept Noodles in her pack as she picked her way through the piles of jumbled rocks.

“The queen’s sky patrol,” Hardly said as he caught up to her, carrying a large green blanket. Sometimes and Never helped him fold it out, larger than a blanket of that size could. Meghan watched in amazement as they kept unfolding until it took six of the faeries to hold it out. Then they lifted it up, the blanket stretching out like a firm wall and it attached to the roof of the rock ledge. Immediately they were in darkness as the blanket blocked out the sunlight.

Never lit a small lamp, and everyone sat down, seeming to hold their breath. They heard a dragon roar somewhere out in the valley. No one spoke a word, but faery, girl, and dragon alike sat perfectly still. The woosh of flapping wings came close and then faded away. Minutes stretched into at least an hour before anyone moved.

“Come on,” Hardly said. “He’s gone.” The riders got up and removed the blanket, and crawled out of the crevice.

“Why did we hide from the queen’s patrol?” Meghan asked as they prepared to continue their journey.

Never paused and looked at Hardly, who nodded slightly. “Once there were many dragon riders clubs. We used to have parties and races. But one night in Littleton, things got out of hand. No one was watching the dragons, and the next thing you know the whole village was burnt down. Now the queen hunts us like animals.”

“How terrible!” Meghan said. Up to this point, she had seen the riders as fun-loving travel companions. She had forgotten the Nod’s warning back in the field. The dragons were dragons after all, fire-breathing beasts that could be destructive.

Just as she was thinking that, a large group of soldiers holding swords stood up from the rocks surrounding them. A tall faerie in chain mail shouted something, and a large net flew through the air and trapped the dragon riders. Hardly and the others took out their knives and tried to cut the net, but it was enchanted and they couldn’t break a strand.

Never looked at Hardly and said, “That’s what happens when the dragons get into the ale.”