Dragongift: Chapter 14, Part 3

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Previous Chapter ~

I do believe this update contains a clue…



Cleansed Lands

“THIS IS THE Seeing Stone, which we dragons call Askhan Zaher.” Deep inside the Archives, Reglian had led Lyrai, Mhysra and Dhori to a cave where glowing pebbles were scattered across the floor and walls. Reglian’s golden eyes shone as he touched the boulder in the centre of the chamber.

Somehow Mhysra’s hand had found its way into Lyrai’s, comforting him even as he squeezed it reassuringly, stepping between the green and blue pebbles on the floor. Dhori walked ahead, eyes shining silver as he pressed both hands against the stone.

“What does it see?” Mhysra asked, raising her free hand to trace the uneven surface.

Curious as to what it felt like, Lyrai copied her. A tingle shot through his palm, somehow feeling both cold and hot. It raced up his arm and neck, prickling along his cheekbones and forehead, until he had to close his eyes. An ache settled behind them, as though he’d read for too long by candlelight.

“Everything,” Reglian replied, voice echoing in the small chamber. “All that is in this moment, the Stone sees. All that was, it remembers.”

“And all that will be?” Lyrai asked, opening his eyes as the surface beneath his fingertips became nothing but rough, uneven stone. He blinked at the sight of his hand, colourless but perfectly visible though the chamber was as dark as before. Beside him, he could see every detail of Mhysra’s expression, her eyes widening in astonishment as she likely discovered the same amazing night-sight. Catching his wondering gaze, she smiled and turned back to the stone.

“Who knows what will be?” Dhori murmured, his fingers tracing tiny trails of light across the boulder’s surface. The specks of grey and green crawled like ants, small and faint, only visible to the most sensitive eyes. “While we possess independent will and the freedom to choose, the future remains uncertain.”

“Indeed,” Reglian agreed. “Many futures are already half-formed, but just the slightest difference in the present will see them change, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. There are too many variables for a clear future. Those who try to see what will be go mad. Life is choice. The only certain thing is the past, and even that can become clouded, distorted and misinterpreted according to one’s beliefs and personal agenda. So we stay mostly with the present, where action is always occurring and changing, leaving the consequences to be dealt with afterwards. If you would all step back now, the Stone knows what you wish to see.”

Blinking, Lyrai did as he was told, Dhori on one side, Mhysra on the other, unaware that he had communicated with the boulder at all.

“You think too hard, Lieutenant Prince Lyrai,” Reglian chided gently, as the antlike lights gathered on the stone, coalescing in the centre where Mhysra’s hand had rested moments before. “Sometimes it is best to simply be.”

As the lights merged, they grew larger and brighter, the colours swirling into purest white.

“Now you will see.”

Light flashed, and when the spots cleared Lyrai was back at Aquila.

Dressed in a tattered uniform that had definitely seen better days, Dean Marshall sat cross-legged on the bed, bent over the body of a boy whose head rested in his lap. He was rocking back and forth, his unwashed, overlong hair shadowing his expression. Indeed, if it hadnt been for the bars on his shoulder, Lyrai wouldnt have recognised him.

A gasp distracted him and he looked at the boy the dean was holding. Beaten and bloodied, with a face swollen by bruises and pain, he was still familiar enough to name.

Mouse. Poor Mouse.

“Sweet Maegla,” the dean whispered, keeping a hand on Mouse’s chest as if to check he was still alive, while his other ghosted over the boys face, wanting to soothe, yet not daring to touch. Sweet Maegla, how did it come to this? Who could do such a thing? Goddess, aid me. Im not strong enough. I cant hold. I cannot, I cannot.

As a tear dropped onto his face, Mouse stirred, his swollen lips cracking. He turned his head to one side, then the other, searching. Nehtl, he whispered. No surrender.

The dean lifted a cup and tipped it gently against the boys mouth. No surrender, he repeated. Youre stronger than I, son.

“Not monsters,” Mouse murmured, and relaxed back into sleep.

Dean Marshall put the water aside, smoothed the boys hair and resumed his watch in the dark Aquilan night.

The scene faded to black and the ground shifted beneath Lyrai’s feet. Light flashed.

“Four days, a tall, young man with muddied skin and filthy grey hair growled. How can there be no news? Its been four whole days. They could be dead! Why arent we doing anything?

In front of him, slumped on a crude chair, a familiar man stared at the floor. Lieutenant Imaino, gaunt and drawn but unmistakable. What, Silveo? What can we do? We dont know where they are. We don’t even know if they’re alive.”

“They are,” said another voice, another student, smaller and stockier, but with familiar eyes and the same stubborn jaw: Stirla’s nephew, Greig. “I know it. Neither would have run. They have to have been taken.

Imaino looked up, eyes narrowed, mouth pulled in a tight grimace. Four days and not a word, not a whisper. Ive searched the cellars and lower levels twice over, and nothing. I never should have left them so poorly defended. I never should have raided. If it werent for that, if I hadnt been so careless, they would never have known we were out here.

“Nehtl would have fought,” Rider Mallow said, another man Lyrai knew from his years training with Captain Myran. “Mouse too. Just because they didn’t want to, didnt mean they couldnt.

“Someone found us,” Silveo said, bending to stroke the nakhound by his feet. Her ribs and head were heavily bandaged, but Lyrai still recognised the black and white pup that had befriended him when he fought on the Heights. “But we don’t know how. It might have been an accident or they might have been tracking us for months. No one knows, but if they were taken, they’d be kept alive for questioning.”

“And since we’ve yet to be invaded by slavering kaz-naghkt, we can assume their silence holds, Mallow added, shaking Imainos shoulder with rough affection. Wailing and gnashing our teeth wont help them, sir, but searching will.

“Searching will,” Imaino agreed, his head rising sharply. “We need -”

Darkness surged in as the scene was wrenched abruptly loose and dragged upwards. Lyrai’s stomach heaved and he stumbled sideways, colliding with the others.

Then stopped with a jolt that threw him to his knees.

The chamber was unfamiliar, dark and grey, hewn from rock, with no softness except the clouds beyond the window. Lightning flashed and Lyrai flinched as strong fingers gripped his jaw, forcing his face upwards.

“Can it be?” the tall woman whispered, her voice throbbing in the heavy air, calling forth thunder from the skies. Her skin was luminous, a gold-dusted brown that shone in the lightning. Her eyes were deep pools of stormy silver glowing in the gloom. Her hair was a mass of tumbled black curls that stirred in an unfelt breeze.

“I thought you lost,” she said, bringing rain to dance on the windowpane. “Auriaen, my Auriaen.” Her touch, which had turned soft and caressing, tightened once more. Her eyes blazed with anger as her voice deepened, bringing the storm inside. “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?”

Light exploded, kicking Lyrai hard in the chest and his back hit the floor with enough force to knock the breath clean out of him. Beside him, Mhysra and Dhori landed with equal force. He could still feel the implacable grip of the woman’s hand on his jaw, but when he touched his neck he felt nothing. On his left, Mhysra’s fingers were making the same explorations, though there wasn’t a mark on her either.

On his right, Dhori sat with his arms braced on his knees, head hanging as he gasped for breath. Four fierce welts seared his neck, as though he’d ripped himself from a burning grip.

“What was that?” Lyrai asked, wincing as he sat up.

“You saw your friends,” Reglian replied with unruffled calm, as if the stone sucked people in and spat them out every day. Perhaps it did. “The Stone showed you what you wanted to see.”

“Mouse,” Mhysra whispered, rubbing her neck as she sat up, eyes fixed on Dhori. “He’s been hurt.”

“Tortured,” Dhori croaked, voice broken and breathless. “He was tortured.”

“Imaino and the others will rescue him,” Lyrai said confidently. The future might be ever-changing, according to the dragons, but that was one thing Lyrai knew was true. Imaino wouldn’t leave anyone behind. Rift Riders didn’t do that.

“But then -” Mhysra began, and stopped.

Lyrai didn’t blame her. He had no words to describe what had happened next either. That woman, those words, that storm. He knew that face from paintings and statues. He’d never expected to see it in truth.

“There are some who are stronger than the Stone,” Reglian murmured. “Sometimes they can reach in from afar and twist everything around in order to see the seer. Even if they might not wish to be seen.” His golden eyes glowed as he stared at Dhori’s lowered head.

As Lyrai watched, the student regained control of his breathing and the welts on his neck healed as if they’d never been.

“What was that?” Mhysra asked, repeating Lyrai’s earlier question.

Dhori raised his head, turned his glowing eyes towards them and gave a crooked smile. “Maegla is unhappy with me.”


~ Next Chapter ~

Thanks for reading!

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Dragongift: Chapter 14, Part 2

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

Chatting with Captain Korfei and Yullik is up to something. Again.



Havia

“SO, LIEUTENANT STIRLA, tell me about Misthome.” Captain Korfei sat behind a large desk and linked his fingers together, watching Stirla over the top. Shrewd blue eyes awaited his answer, but Stirla was too busy looking around to care. Korfei’s room was a surprise. Dean Marshall’s study at Aquila had been full of bits and pieces – gifts from students and Riders, presents from his family, things he had picked up along the way. And books, the dean had a lot of books.

That had been the study Stirla knew best, but he’d seen many other commanding officers’ rooms across the Overworld, especially of late. Like Dean Marshall’s they usually contained items of personal importance, a shelf of books and a desk buried beneath stacks of paperwork. Most captain’s offices were a mess of scattered papers, the men too busy to organise flittering scraps of information two moons out of date.

Captain Korfei’s study had none of that. Situated at the tip of Sherpoint, where the building folded around the mountain edge and jutted over the Cloud Sea, the front wall curved gently outwards, making the room semi-circular. A series of shuttered windows provided a breathtaking view and access to the balcony beyond. The walls were carved from the stone of the mountain, while the floor was a broad expanse of polished wood.

No pictures or carpets softened the surfaces, leaving the natural colours to fill the space. Of which there was a lot. A large desk sat before the windows, ten feet wide at least, and half that in width, with a padded leather chair to match. Behind it crouched a map chest, while a couple of bookshelves flanked the curved walls on either side of the room. Spare chairs were lined up along the wall, patiently waiting until needed.

Other than that there was nothing. Not one thing out of place, not one identifying feature. It could have belonged to anyone, or no one. It left Stirla feeling curiously adrift. So he filled the silence with his story, since he could do nothing to fill the space. As he recalled his disastrous foray into the taverns of Misthome, Korfei relaxed into his chair, eyelids drooping, index fingers tapping against his lips.

Then he sat up. “Where is Lieutenant Lyrai?”

Having expected a reprimand over his dealings with the exasperating Lorfyn and company, and braced for a lecture, the question caught Stirla by surprise. “Lyrai?” he repeated blankly. “He took some students on a separate mission.”

Korfei’s lips quirked in a dry smile that refused to be deflected by empty words and half truths. “A mission to where, lieutenant?”

This was why Stirla was going to kill Lyrai if he ever saw him again: there was simply no way to tell the truth without sounding like he was having fun at his commander’s expense – or was completely crazy. He was in enough trouble as it was; he didn’t need to add delusional to his list of faults.

Besides this captain could tell a princess what to do with a waggle of his eyebrows. Stirla would rather Korfei didn’t think he was mad, and thus incapable of making his own decisions. Not yet anyway, though it might come in useful later. The only problem was that Stirla couldn’t think of an adequate alternative to the truth. If only he’d had more time.

When he opened his mouth, still frantically thinking, Korfei raised a hand. “Lying to your superiors is a difficult habit to break, lieutenant.” He smiled and rubbed a knuckle over his freckled nose. “So before you start, just tell me the truth. All of it.”

As a student Stirla had often believed Captain Myran to be omniscient, but as a lieutenant he’d learned about messengers, body language and a good information network. He raised his eyebrows. “Been talking to my Riders, captain?”

“Without your permission?” Korfei’s eyes narrowed with amusement. “Of course not.” Before Stirla could even think of relaxing, the captain smirked. “I’ve been talking to my Riders.”

Stirla sighed. He should have known: Riders were the worst gossips. “In that case, though I doubt you’ll believe me, Lyrai and four students left Misthome a quarter-moon ago. He flew south.”

“It’s astonishing what a man will believe,” Korfei murmured, pushing back his chair to look out of the wide window. “Especially those assigned to Havia. The only thing south of Misthome is the Stormwash. Which might explain why it was in such a frenzy a few days ago. Have you any notion what took him in that direction?”

This captain just kept surprising him. Stirla blinked. “According to my miryhl, two students went first. Lyrai and two more followed shortly after. I have no idea why.”

“Hm.” Korfei linked his fingers again, tapping them against his lip. “We certainly need all the help we can get, but I wonder if the dragons will care.”

“If they reach them,” Stirla mumbled, staring at the wall of roiling clouds.

Korfei shot him a reassuring smile. “They’ll be fine. If they can’t get through, the Stormwash will spit them back out again somewhere between here and the Wrathlen. But if they do get across…” He stared at the view, his smile growing. “What wonders they’ll see. I almost envy them, though I doubt the dragons will do more than send them back. Dragons rarely do anything else.”

Stirla raised his eyebrows: Korfei spoke like a man with experience. Yet it had been a good hundred years since the dragons had sealed themselves away and some time before that since they’d ventured out of their lands to show any interest in human affairs. Or so he’d been taught. Then again, Havia was very close to the Stormwash. Who knew what things that tempestuous barrier might throw out?

The captain shook his head with a amused snort and turned back to his desk. “Enough of conjecture, time to discuss why we’re here. Tell me about the fall of Aquila, the evacuation to Heighlen and beyond. And then, if you can possibly find the words, please explain what the Havian Special Force is supposed to be, and why you’ve brought the second-most important person in the country to my base, drawing the attention and wrath of the most inhospitable man in the West.”

Stirla winced as the captain’s voice turned from mild interest to tightly-leashed anger, laced with disapproval. So he was in trouble, after all. Wonderful.

Captain Korfei took in the resigned slump of Stirla’s shoulders and smiled mercilessly as he resumed his seat and waved a languid hand. “Begin, lieutenant. My attention is entirely yours.”

* * *

Aquila

IT WAS WARM in the darkness, warmer than he’d been for ages. Mouse wrapped it tightly around himself, content to slip back into the flow of forgetfulness. Something was whispering, calling him onwards. A sense of rightness, of comfort, of home. Except something else tugged at him. A flash of gold in the black.

The call drifted into silence, leaving only light. Curious, he drifted closer. Another flash. This one struck his arm and clung to his skin. He touched it wonderingly, and recoiled as pain spread across his back. More gold, more light, the warmth began to seep away as the darkness was driven back.

“No,” he gasped, pain tightening his muscles, his fingers curling into claws. “No!”

Too late. Pain roared inside with the golden light, and Mouse was wrenched awake.

“Shh,” a dry voice soothed. “Not so fierce. Breathe deep, take it steady or all my work will be for naught.” Something cool wiped across Mouse’s forehead, and the voice chuckled. “And as I’m not used to putting myself out for anyone, you’d better make my effort worthwhile.”

Taking shuddering breaths, Mouse turned his head. “Blind.” He panicked. “I’m blind.”

“Not quite,” his attendant replied. “Merely stuck. Let me finish.” The damp cloth pressed against his eyes, passing gently back and forth. “Try again.”

Afraid of failure, yet desperate to see where he was, Mouse prised his eyelids open. Like every other part of his body they ached and he could only open them so far before they stopped. Yet despite having such a narrow view of the world, he could see. Turning his head, he search for the stranger, noticing that he was inside somewhere. The walls were solid, old and familiar: Aquila. It looked like the dean’s office, but since he’d only visited that lofty place once, he couldn’t be sure. He certainly didn’t remember there being great cracks in the wall, but Aquila had changed. Everything had changed.

“How’s that?” A man appeared above Mouse, and he cowered away from the black hair and brown skin.

“No,” he whimpered, then cried out as agony flared across his upper back and shoulders.

“Fool,” his attendant snapped, pressing him down.

It allowed Mouse to see that this man had pale gold eyes instead of the black he’d expected. Nor was his face a portrait in arrogant beauty. His features were sharper, his skin more dark gold than deep tan. He wasn’t Willym. Willym wasn’t here. He had been sent away. Mouse sagged with relief.

“Better,” the stranger murmured. “Much better. I make allowances for your illness, but confuse me with Willym again and I’ll hand you back.”

Mouse’s breath hitched painfully, and the stranger laughed as he let him go. “Calm yourself. After all the work I’ve done on you it would be the height of futility to give you back. Besides, I never abandon a job half done. Here.” He placed a glowing hand against Mouse’s temple, easing the headache he hadn’t even noticed.

It did nothing for the pain everywhere else, but it allowed Mouse a moment of clarity to think as the beautiful heat washed through him in pulsing waves. He remembered being with Willym, the rage over Nehtl’s death roaring inside, and he remembered someone interrupting.

This man. The one who was healing him, though he clearly lived inside Aquila – which made him the enemy.

Mouse’s breath hissed through his teeth as the man took his hand away, taking the heat with it and allowing pain to fill the void. “Why?”

The stranger wiped his bloodied hands before picking up a clean cloth to sponge Mouse’s chest. Pale gold eyes glowed as the man looked up and shrugged. “We are not all monsters.” He returned to his task with an intentness that spoke of deep thoughts and far-off memories. “Even if it takes witnessing one in action to remind me of that.”

Confused but grateful, Mouse licked his cracked lips and murmured, “Thank you.”

The stranger looked up, smile crooked. “Don’t thank me, boy. I’m not done with you yet.”

And a flash of golden light chased Mouse back into the darkness.


~ Next Chapter ~

Thanks for reading!

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A Courtship of Dragons: Part 35

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A Courtship of Dragons is a M/M Romance short novel (approximately 60,000 words) told in short scenes, between two young dragons, Estenarven kin Boulderforce Clan Stoneheart and Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight. It’s pure fluff ‘n’ stuff and not intended to be anything other than that.

|| First Part || All Parts || Last Part ||

So what now?


35
My Precious

12th Storm Month

“I DON’T SEE what all the fuss is about,” Lieutenant Vish remarked from the back of his miryhl the next morning. “You’re a stone dragon. Don’t you carry lots of shiny gems around with you all the time? They’re precious, aren’t they? Can’t you just use one of them?”

Taking advantage of a lull in the weather, Estenarven and three of the Rift Rider lieutenants had escaped from Highstrike to fly in the mountains. With the storms lying thick and heavy around the Tempestfury kinlands, all of them – humans, miryhls and dragon – were starting to go a little crazy from being inside all the time.

Although some of Estenarven’s restlessness was down to the fact that two whole days had passed since his dinner with Mastekh and he was still no closer to knowing what his sixth gift should be.

“Maybe he wants to be a little less obvious,” Anhardyne said, her miryhl flying directly over Estenarven’s head. “A diamond or an emerald from a stone dragon? How predictable is that?”

The other Riders and miryhls murmured in agreement, but Estenarven kept his thoughts to himself. He knew they were just trying to be helpful, but contrary to human beliefs, not all stone dragons (as they crudely insisted on labelling him) collected shiny gems. That was the province of kin Jewelwing, as their name suggested.

Yes, all right, Boulderforces did like shiny things every now and then, but they were just as likely to collect a piece of quartz or hematite as gather up diamonds and sapphires.

“But if we rule out precious gems as too obvious,” Nera called from her position on Estenarven’s left, “what else is there?”

And therein lay Estenarven’s problem. He had limited time and extremely finite resources, yet somehow he had to uncover something precious enough to give to his Puddle. Not because the courtship demanded it, but because he wanted to. The rock rose that now sat pride of place on his narrow windowsill was the most perfect and unlikely gift anyone had ever given him. He loved it. The feelings that had bubbled up within him when he’d first laid eyes on it – tenderness and love and a sense of being thought special enough to care for such a thing – were wondrous. He wanted Mastekh to feel every last one. So he needed a good gift, a precious gift, a thoughtful, well considered gift.

“Urgh, rain,” Anhardyne muttered as big fat droplets began splattering down. “I’d hoped we’d escape it.”

“Try down there,” Nera shouted, her miryhl already diving for a gap between the spurs of two mountains.

Estenarven allowed the miryhls to go ahead of him, his scales rippling a protest at the worsening weather. The rain was drumming on his wings now. It wouldn’t hurt him, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. As he dove after the miryhls, his magic tingled through his bones and he grinned as he realised what Nera had spotted.

A cave, low and narrow but with space enough for three miryhls, three humans and one human-sized dragon to fit in reasonable comfort.

“Good eyes, Ni,” he remarked, back-winging and shifting midair to land on bare feet. As he crouched to absorb the drop, his hand brushed the ground.

With his magical senses still open, exploring the parameters of the cave, something bright and cool flashed across his mind and he looked up.

“Very good eyes indeed,” he murmured, smiling at the veins that rippled through the stone like ancient, fossilised rivers, glinting in the pallid light of the overcast day.

When he slowly stood, head canted backwards, the three Riders and their miryhls looked up too.

“Is that…?” Nera asked softly.

“Gold,” the others agreed in a reverent whisper.

“In quartz,” Estenarven said, pressing his palms against the nearest wall and grinning with excitement. “Rivers of quartz and gold flow right through the heart of this mountain.”

Anhardyne chuckled. “Well, there’s a gift to please any Flowflight.”

Estenarven grinned. “We may need a little more light,” he suggested, keeping one hand pressed against the wall as he moved deeper into the cave, following the shining river in search of the perfect piece to take home.


More next week.

Take care, my lovelies.

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Dragongift: Chapter 14, Part 1

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

What Corin and Jaymes did next…


Fourteen
All Seeing

Cleansed Lands

“ALL RIGHT, CONFESS,” Corin sighed, sinking wearily on a wind-blasted rock and refusing to move any further. “You have no idea where we’re going, do you?”

With an annoying amount of energy that seemed never-ending, Jaymes jumped behind her onto the same rock to survey the ragged cliff top and churning sea far below. Corin watched him as while a cool breeze tossed her hair into her eyes and coated her tongue with salt. It was a welcome break from the relentless heat of the day, but its relief was fleeting in the face of her frustration.

“Jaymes!”

He looked down, face reddened by the breeze and winter sun, and shrugged. “Why should I know where we’re going?”

“Because I’ve been following you all day, you ginger idiot,” she growled, thumping his leg. “Now we’re lost and it’s your fault.”

Chuckling, he hopped down to sit beside her. “Hardly. I’m not the reason you’re here.”

“Speaking of which, where is that little voice when we could use some directions?” Corin grumbled, picking at the sole of her flying boot and wondering if it had been designed for long-distance walking. The blisters forming on her heel suggested not.

Here.

Corin’s head shot up and Jaymes grinned. “You did ask.”

Indeed she had and, since it had been silent from the moment they’d left the Archive walls and started into the woods – which was before the meadow, the stream, the steep upward climb and the scrubby headland – she couldn’t help also asking, “Where have you been?” If she happened to sound frighteningly like her own mother it was purely coincidental, and her glare at Jaymes warned him against ever telling anyone of it.

Here, the voice repeated.

“Useful as always,” Corin sighed, getting to her aching feet. “Where next?”

Down.

She looked at Jaymes, hoping he might have heard something different, something that didn’t mean what she dreaded it might. Except he was already heading towards the cliff edge to peer over the long and most likely fatal drop.

Down. Come, Jaymes. Come, Corin.

“There’s a path,” Jaymes called over his shoulder.

“Isn’t there always?” Corin sighed, resigned to her fate.

Pushing his hair out of his face, Jaymes smiled. “Ladies first.”

“Walk, laughing boy,” she ordered, having no interest in manners as she prodded him between the shoulder blades. “This way if I fall, you can do you gentlemanly duty and catch me.” When he opened his mouth, she smiled sweetly. “Or give me something soft to land on.”

Down.

“We’re coming.” Shaking his head at both her and the voice, Jaymes jumped, landing on the path a couple of feet below. Pebbles and dirt puffed from the edge and tumbled into the rocky sea far below.

Corin eyed the cracks riddling the narrow strip of earth with a dubious eye, then shrugged and hopped down. If she was going to die here at least it would be dramatic. “Lead on, good Jaymes. If we’re lucky we might find a cave at the end of it.”

“With pirate treasure,” he agreed. “Though hopefully no pirates.”

Down.

For a voice that had kept quiet for most of the day, it was suddenly very pushy. “Maybe some mermen,” Corin suggested, watching her feet and the grass-tufted edge less than half a pace away. “With thick biceps and beautiful bare chests.”

“What about mermaids?” Jaymes asked.

“I’d rather their chests weren’t bare, if it’s all the same to you.” Corin walked a few more paces and couldn’t resist adding, “Which it probably is.”

He stopped and she walked into him. They both tottered precariously for a stomach-churning moment, rattling more dirt loose from the cracks in the path.

Grabbing her wildly flailing arm, Jaymes’ threw their combined weight back against the cliff wall and scowled. “I have no idea what you mean.”

Smiling, she patted his cheek. “Your secret is safe with me, sweetheart.” Winking, she wriggled past him and hopped down a steep section of the path.

Here. Corin, Jaymes. Down.

“Coming,” she called merrily. “And I hope you have lots of hunky mermen awaiting us. We deserve a reward. Although Jaymes might prefer a skinnier version. Preferably with silvery hair and a general know-it-all air? Am I right?” Glancing teasingly over her shoulder, she tripped over a tree root and almost shot head-first off the path.

Jaymes caught her with a sigh. “Save the jokes until we’re somewhere flat, if you please.” It was his turn to wriggle past her. “And let me go first. That way next time you fall it’ll be easier to catch you.”

She scowled at his back. “You think you’re funny, don’t you?”

He winked over his shoulder. “Funnier than you.” He tripped over a root.

Corin was laughing so hard she almost missed her chance to catch him. “Save the jokes until we’re somewhere flat, if you please,” she mocked.

He shook his head and walked on – but he didn’t get far.

Stop.

“Just what I was thinking,” Corin murmured, standing on tiptoe to peer over Jaymes’ shoulder at where the path ended. Sharply, suddenly, definitively. There was no evidence of erosion or a landslip, the ground simply ran out, the solid cliff they had been following turning into a gaping hole where a cathedral arch of a cave cut into the rocks. The only thing that stood between them and the surging sea, more than fifty feet below, was three feet of cracked earth and an awful lot of air.

“I think this might be a good time to turn back,” Jaymes recommended, shuffling nervously away from the edge. “How about you?”

“Good plan,” Corin agreed, looking at the top of the cliffs, about three body lengths away and wondering if a straight climb would be safer than retracing the path.

No! the voice protested shrilly. Stop. Down. Here. Now.

They exchanged a disbelieving look and peered over the edge. The cave yawned to their left, scooped perfectly out of the slick granite, offering no foot or handholds or possibility of hope. It looked too perfect to be natural.

“Not a chance,” Corin declared.

“Unless you have some wings we can borrow,” Jaymes added, stroking the smooth stone just inside the cave entrance. “I don’t think we can get down any other way. Unless you’re trying to kill us?”

No, the voice sounded disgruntled. Wait.

“As if we’d dream of doing anything else,” Jaymes muttered and sat down, his feet dangling over the drop.

“This is stupid,” Corin said. “We don’t even know why we’re out here.”

Wait, the voice repeated, and since her curiosity left her no choice, Corin sat behind Jaymes.

“Hurry up then,” she grumbled, even though she knew that no matter how long the voice took, she wasn’t going anywhere. They’d come too far to turn back now.

* * *

Aquila

Very little could surprise Yullik these days. He’d seen too much, knew the inner workings of people’s minds too well. And yet, the one thing about humans that remained forever interesting was their infinite capacity for change. So while it came as no surprise to find Willym lurking in the bowels of Aquila, delighting in another poor unfortunate’s agony, the reaction of his victim was unexpected.

Such anger, such pain, such rage. So small a boy, so young. Yullik descended Aquila’s stairways and shadows, studying the child who wasn’t yet a man as his fury filled the citadel. A mouse, the pain whispered, a harmless little mouse… with the roar of a lion. How could he not be intrigued?

“What happened to the miryhls? Where have they been hidden?”

The scent of hot metal filled the air, a jingling of chains and a wordless snarl. Willym tsked sharply behind a locked door, his footsteps heavy and firm across the stone floor.

“You grow tiresome, boy. Is there still a tongue in your witless head, or have you bitten it off?”

A sizzle, the rank stench of burning skin and fat, a pained hiss.

“Speak, Mouse, or you’ll lose something more precious than your tongue. How many? Who are they? Where are the miryhls? Tell me or join your dear Nehtl. You know the kaz-naghkt are always hungry, while my patience grows thin.”

“And it is such a virtue,” Yullik interrupted, finding no joy in this scene. “Those who lay claim to so few should cultivate the ones still within reach.”

The brand clattered to the floor as Willym spun around. His eyes flew to the door, no longer locked, then to the man he had clearly never expected to find down here in the bowels of the citadel. Foolish and so very arrogant.

“Lord Yullik.” Uncertainty replaced his mocking sneer, but Yullik had no time for him.

Instead he studied the boy, barely more than skin and bone. And bruises, burns and welts. He’d been used hard in recent days, Yullik noted, seeing the over-bright, wild glaze in his eyes. His cracked lips parted but no words emerged as he stared unseeing at his unexpected rescuer.

Yullik narrowed his eyes. “What do you do here, Willym?”

Willym licked his lips, uncharacteristically hesitant. “He’s a Rider, found on the mountain.”

“Ah.” Yullik stepped close to the boy. “Interesting. So you brought him here for questioning. Have you had much success?”

At his approach, Willym stepped nervously back. The boy, by contrast, had closed his eyes. His head hung loose and heavy between his bound arms, while his breathing was rapid and shallow. Yullik marvelled that so undersized a body could contain so much pain. It stirred old, unwanted memories.

Yullik pinned his servant with a glare. “Well?” he demanded. “Have your crude methods borne fruit? Or are you simply enjoying yourself instead of serving me?”

Dark eyes flashed, and Willym took a step forward before remembering where he was – and who he was talking to.

“Yes, Lord Willym?” Yullik mocked. “Is there something you wished to say?”

The disgraced lieutenant’s nostrils flared with affront and his chin rose to a haughty height, but he was here on sufferance and they both knew it. His life had worth only as long as Yullik found a reason for it. He amused and was vaguely useful on occasion but was also straying perilously close to pointless.

“I thought not.” Yullik turned back to the battered boy. “I will take over now.”

A frustrated growl escaped Willym’s clenched teeth. “He won’t talk. He has nothing to tell.”

Yullik arched an eyebrow at him. “And yet you persisted with your methods anyway.” The corner of his mouth quirked upwards in a half smile. “One might wonder about you, Willym, and the enjoyments you seek.” His smile turned into a sneer. “Half your size, yet you must chain him up to beat him. Weak, Willym. I have no use for weak servants, and even less for disobedient fools. Go. I will deal with you later.”

He turned his back to further the insult and waited. The former Rift Rider’s knuckles cracked as he clenched his hands and shifted his weight uncertainly. Finally, Willym growled again, spun on his heel and marched out, slamming the door behind him.

Yullik smiled and looked into the bruised gaze of the boy. It stirred old memories best left forgotten, but that was no fault of his and Yullik wouldn’t leave him to suffer because of it. For one thing it wasn’t always clever to kill one’s prisoners.

“Well, Morri Sorenran,” he said, savouring the name and tasting its full of history, “also known as Mouse, let’s see what we can do about these bruises.” Golden light coated his hands and he touched his fingertips to the prisoner’s chest.

A panicked gasp escaped the boy as cool light poured over his skin, coalescing around the worst of his wounds. He gasped again when the light burrowed inside, his head falling back with a choked sob.

“Sleep,” Yullik murmured, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder and flattening the other on his chest. His fingers twitched and his palm tingled from the pain coursing through Mouse’s body. Yet there was resistance there, waves of suspicion pushing back against the healing. So much will, surprisingly strong and still willing to fight despite everything.

Yullik gave a grim smile and a small mental push. “Sleep. Healing is better in the dark.”

Defeated by exhaustion as much as anything, the boy shuddered and shut his eyes. The tension dropped from his body and the pulse of his pain made Yullik’s arms numb to the elbows. Gritting his teeth, he pressed deeper and turned the world to gold.


~ Next Chapter ~

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Dragongift: Chapter 13, Part 2

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Swordplay and rage.



Cleansed Lands

MHYSRA’S STOMACH GROWLED as she headed to the kitchen, expecting to find the others nearby. The sun was bright and high when she’d finally woken, but since they’d talked so late last night she didn’t think anyone would accuse her of being lazy. Although the fact that Corin was already up surprised her. Her friend liked to claim as much sleep as and when she could.

The kitchens were empty when Mhysra found them, although food had been left out by the mysterious lizard servants – more politely known as dracos. She tucked into a sweet pastry filled with stewed apples and wished she could thank the cook. They were clearly a genius, whoever and whatever they were.

Taking a second pastry, she headed towards the backdoor and the noises coming from outside. After passing through a kitchen garden of meticulously arranged vegetables, growing well despite the winter season, Mhysra followed the sound of swordplay into a pretty orchard.

“If he keeps his guard too high,” – Lyrai’s voice rang out clearly between clashes of metal – “it leaves his lower body exposed.” A flurry of blows ended in breathless laughter and staggering footsteps. “But only if you’re quick.”

Wandering through the leafless trees, picking at her pastry, Mhysra spotted figures on the wide field beyond. Stretched out on the far side, Rhiddyl’s silvery wings shimmered as she watched the swordplay with rapt attention.

“And if he concentrates too much on trying to get beneath my guard,” Dhori said, backing away from Lyrai’s onslaught, “the next thing he knows –”

Mhysra didn’t see quite how he did it, but somehow the student slipped his sword beneath the lieutenant’s and spun past him, taking Lyrai’s weapon with him. Sunlight flashed on steel as the lieutenant’s sword was flung onto the grass.

“Oh, marvellous!” Rhiddyl praised, patting the ground with appreciation. “Can you do it again? More slowly?”

“Indeed. I too would like to see how you did that, but more slowly.” Lyrai smiled ruefully as he retrieved his sword. “It’s been a while since I was so summarily disarmed, I’d hate for it to become a habit.”

Dhori saluted him with the tip of his blade and smiled. “We’ve all been guilty of complacency a time or two, sir. Better it happen in practise than elsewhere, and it never hurts to be reminded that we’ve all still got things to learn.”

“Consider me your student then,” Lyrai chuckled, shifting back into the position just before Dhori had disarmed him.

Licking pastry crumbs from her fingers, Mhysra crossed the grass while Dhori took Lyrai and Rhiddyl through the move, falling so naturally into the role of instructor that Mhysra had to wonder whether he’d done it before. Then again there were a lot of things Dhori was so good at that he could have done them before. Surely no one could be born so naturally competent. Yet he looked as young as the other students. A real mystery that.

“Now you try,” Dhori offered, as Lyrai retrieved his sword for the second time.

While Dhori talked the lieutenant through the move, Rhiddyl looked up and saw her. “Good morning, Mhysra,” she greeted cheerfully. “How are you this fine day?”

She smiled at the dragon, marvelling at how quickly Rhiddyl had become familiar. “Better for the rest, thank you. And you? I hope you’re feeling no ill effects after our adventures.”

“No indeed. I feel quite refreshed by all the exercise,” she agreed, then spoiled it with a wide yawn. “Or at least I will, once I have enjoyed this delicious sunshine a little longer.” She flexed her shimmering wings and swished her tail over the short grass. “Your friends have been teaching me the finer points of swordplay. It is quite fascinating. Almost makes me wish I were human-shaped.” Her talons tolled like a bell as Dhori’s sword clattered against them.

“Sorry!” Lyrai called.

“A fine disarm,” Rhiddyl fluted, daintily pinching the blade between two sharp claws. “It takes more than a spinning sword to harm me, though you should be more careful of your friends.” She dropped the hilt into Dhori’s waiting hand.

“Decided to rejoin the world at last?” Lyrai smiled at Mhysra, spinning his sword in his grip and flexing his fingers. “Is Corin coming? Or is she still sleeping?”

“I thought she was with you,” Mhysra said, raising her voice to be heard as the men resumed their sparring. “Her bed was empty when I woke.”

“As was Jaymes’.” Dhori frowned, parrying Lyrai’s attack before countering. “I haven’t seen either of them and I was up early. Perhaps they’re in the eyries.”

“They weren’t when I visited Hurricane,” Lyrai replied, blocking a flurry of blows and side-stepping Dhori’s attack. He ducked an overhead swipe and kicked out at the student’s legs.

Caught by surprise, Dhori stumbled back a pace and tripped over some loose ground, ending up flat on his back. Before Lyrai could press his advantage, Dhori rolled, flipped to his feet and knocked Lyrai’s attack high enough to kick his lieutenant in the chest.

“Hardly sporting,” Rhiddyl exclaimed, as they broke apart, circling, breathless and grinning.

Mhysra shrugged. “They seem to be enjoying themselves.”

“Yes, but they are human. Fragile, foolish, strange.”

“Not just human,” Mhysra corrected, smiling. “Men. Human women aren’t nearly so silly.”

Lyrai straightened up with a snort. “Says the girl who fought the kaz-naghkt after only a few moons’ training and shouted at me when I tried to reprimand her.”

When she opened her mouth to defend herself, Dhori offered her his sword. “Show don’t tell.”

She took his sword with a raised eyebrow, surprised to find that the balance wasn’t much different to her own, despite Dhori being a few inches taller and much better skilled.

“Nothing to say?” Lyrai taunted. “Perhaps you agree with me.”

“Hardly,” she retorted, swinging an inelegant attack at his head.

“Is this fair?” Rhiddyl murmured, as Mhysra backed away from a series of strong, linked attacks. Lyrai was at full speed and she was struggling to keep up. “She is much younger, is she not?”

“They are close in height,” Dhori assured the dragon. “Which means their reach is fairly equal, and the lieutenant is only six years older, though he has been training for longer.”

“He is stronger,” Rhiddyl said worriedly. “And more skilled.”

Gritting her teeth, Mhysra knocked aside a throat thrust and followed with a jab towards Lyrai’s stomach, driving him back a step. She managed to get in a couple of wild swipes, before he got her on the back foot again. Her arms ached and she’d hardly done anything.

“We all have to learn some time,” Dhori said, just as Lyrai slid his sword down her blade, catching it in the grip of his eagle-headed hilt and, with a deft twist, sent it flying. At the same moment he hooked a foot around her ankle.

She hit the ground moments after her sword, flat on her back, staring at the clouds drifting slowly apart in the endless blue sky above.

Then Rhiddyl was peering down at her, pearly scales almost pewter with concern. “Is she well?”

“She’s fine,” Dhori assured the dragon.

“She’s out of practise,” Lyrai said, seizing her wrist and hauling her to her feet.

Rubbing her back, she narrowed her eyes and looked for Dhori’s sword. “I’d been doing well until everything went wrong,” she grumbled, holding in a groan as she bent to pick up the discarded blade. “You can hardly blame me for getting distracted.”

“Blame, no.” Lyrai shook his head, shifting his sword to his left hand and warming up his wrist. “But I can and will still punish you. Rift Riders should never be caught napping.”

“Is she not just a student?” Rhiddyl asked, crest rising protectively. She’d already shifted her weight forward, ready to intervene.

“She is, but the kaz-naghkt and their allies make no allowances for age or inexperience,” Lyrai said. “And neither can we. All Riders need to be able to defend themselves, students included. The Overworld is too dangerous for tender considerations.”

“It’s my own fault,” Mhysra reassured Rhiddyl, thinking her sweet, if a little misguided. “That’s why I’m so annoyed.”

The dragon flattened her crest and scratched the edge of her nose. “You are all so strange.”

“They are human, Rhidystel, and thus incapable of being anything else.”

Mhysra was relieved to lower her sword as Reglian walked out of the orchard in his human form, golden eyes glinting in the sun. Smiling, he patted the young dragon’s claw and studied the Riders. “It is good to see you all up and about after your recent travels.”

“All?” Mhysra asked. “Have you seen Jaymes and Corin then?”

“Indeed.” His smile showed his teeth. “They left quite early. Do not fret,” he added, seeing the worried look Mhysra exchanged with the others. “They had their own reason for coming through the Veil. It is time for them to meet it.”

Mhysra didn’t like the sound of that, but Lyrai beat her to the question. “Where are they?”

“Nearby,” Reglian replied, his smile like his answer infuriatingly vague. “There is no reason to worry. They are safe and will be back soon. It is important that they do this.”

Dhori folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes. “They will come to know harm? Your word on this?”

Reglian raised his golden eyebrows. “You have my word that no harm will come to your friends. This happened in the times before, and as the circle turns ever onwards, it is right that it should happen again. Need is what guides them, regardless of borders. All will be well.”

When none of them looked convinced, Reglian frowned, resting against Rhiddyl’s foot and tapping his fingers against her silver claw. “I had forgotten the scepticism of humans. It is not an endearing trait.”

Lyrai stared flatly back. “If you expect an apology, you will have a long wait.”

Almost without thinking, Mhysra moved closer to her lieutenant, the sword heavy in her hand. Dhori stood just in front of her, the three of them tense and ready.

Rhiddyl tipped her head down and fluted a chuckle, while Reglian gave an exasperated sigh.

“They are in no danger,” the male dragon growled. “Nor are you. All is well in the Cleansed Lands, which cannot be said of your own cursed Overworld. Put those swords down before you hurt yourselves. A different dragon might take offence.”

“You are keeping secrets,” Dhori said, his own voice close to a growl. “Why should we trust you?”

Reglian laughed, loud and long. “Secrets!” he boomed. “You accuse me of keeping secrets, Dhoriaen Aure? A fine one to talk. How you do not get tangled up in all the lies you weave, I will never know. Why, it’s almost miraculous.”

Mhysra glanced at her mysterious friend and was surprised to see him blush. “We are not speaking of me,” Dhori said between gritted teeth. “But of our friends.”

“Yes, your friends,” Reglian murmured, and shifted away from Rhiddyl’s foot. “You must be so curious about your friends.” He tipped his head as if listening to a far-off voice, then smiled. “Come, I will show you your friends, so that you might put your minds at ease.” He strode into the orchard without looking back.

Lyrai turned to Dhori and sheathed his sword. “Well?”

Mhysra wasn’t certain what the lieutenant was asking. The closed expression on Dhori’s face said that he knew and wasn’t going to answer. He shook his head and turned away. “We should follow.”

“Yes,” Rhiddyl hummed, making them jump. “You will find it enlightening.”

“And you?” Dhori asked, narrowing his eyes.

Rhiddyl chuckled, lay her head on the ground and rolled onto her side. “I am enlightened enough for one day. Anything else the sun will tell me.” Closing her eyes, she fell asleep.

“Dragons.” Dhori shook his head and stalked away.

Mhysra raised her eyebrows at Lyrai, who smiled and offered his arm. “When things get this strange, it’s safer to follow. Shall we?”

Tucking her arm through his, she smiled as he tugged her closer. “I trust you’re not keeping any secrets, sir. I’m not sure I could bear any more surprises.”

As they headed towards the orchard, Lyrai looked at her with a small smile. “Not I,” he said. “There’s nothing surprising about me.”

She laughed, and he spent the rest of the walk back to the Archives trying to find what was so amusing. Not that she was going to tell him. Some secrets were better kept private.

* * *

Aquila

FIRE RACED ACROSS his body, connecting wounds and injuries, causing the pain to march in a continuous circuit of heat. He didn’t feel it, not as he had before. It still hurt, but he used that to further fuel his flames. He stared into the darkness, half delirious from fever and fatigue but refused to sleep. Instead he hung from his shackles and kept the rats off by shouting, shaking his chains and snarling in wordless fury. With his head stuck out, eyes straining against the darkness, he glared when the key turned in the lock.

His lips peeled back over his teeth and he growled before Willym even stepped inside. The torchlight burned his strained and throbbing eyes, but he didn’t blink. Tears of pain dribbled down his face, but he simply kept on breathing, deep and strong, like a bullwing about to charge.

“What’s this?” Willym entered without a single glance at the boy and crouched beside Nehtl’s rigid form. He prodded his cheek.

“Do not,” the creature in the darkness snarled.

Willym snorted and shoved Nehtl’s shoulder. Chains rattled, the body rocked, but there was no other response.

“Do not touch him again.”

The traitor paused and raised his head. “Little Mouse?” he murmured, turning slowly to look at him.

The creature growled, leaning as far forward as his chains would allow, oblivious to the burn of his abused bones and muscles.

Willym smiled and stood up. “Well, well, what has happened to you?”

“Murderer,” the creature snarled in response.

The disgraced lieutenant sketched a gracious bow. “One does one’s best,” he mocked, and pulled his whip from his belt. “Let’s see what you have to offer this time, shall we?”

The creature bared his teeth at his tormentor, even as the whip lashed and bit deep into the reddened skin of the burn on his side.

“So silent?” Willym sneered. “There’s no one here but me, little Mouse. And I don’t care if you scream.”

The whip cracked again and this time the rage inside the creature rushed to the surface, breaking through with a furious roar.

And Willym laughed.

*

FAR OVERHEAD, HIGH in the east tower, Yullik opened his eyes and stepped back from the window, retrieving his wandering senses. Something had changed in the citadel, something was different. Something had disturbed the winter tranquillity, breaking his focus.

Frowning, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His senses spread out through the stones and halls of Aquila, searching, testing, tasting.

Yullik smiled. So that was what Willym was up to.

*

DOWN BELOW, FAR, far beneath the stones of Aquila, the rage seeped into the bones of the mountain, opening a different set of eyes.

A tremor rippled through the rocks and something stirred in the dark.


~ Next Chapter ~

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Dragongift: Chapter 13, Part 1

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

Urgh. This week hasn’t been great. Electricians technically still haven’t finished and will be back one day in the nebulous future to do a few final things. I also have a cold and am feeling sorry for myself.

But have some Dragongift anyway! There will be an update today, tomorrow and Sunday, since today and tomorrow’s updates are both a little longer than usual. If I’d split them by scene there would have been two really short updates and two still too big ones, so have two big chunks instead.

And in case you’ve forgotten everything since the last time I updated, Mhysra and co are still hanging out with dragons, Stirla is still plagued with nobles and Mouse… will be in tomorrow’s update.

Enjoy, my lovelies, and may you have had/be having a much less frustrating week than me.


Thirteen
Awaken

 The Cleansed Lands
16th Blizzard

CORIN.

The whisper broke through Corin’s dreamless sleep and she grumbled as she settled deeper into the bed. It was so soft and she was so tired. They’d talked late with Reglian, discussing everything, finding no answers. It was just so exciting to be somewhere new, with dragons, real dragons. So tiring too, after all that flying, then the fighting, then the talking. It was no wonder she was so sleepy – and this bed was so soft…

Corin, come.

Muttering dark threats, she turned over, still less than half awake.

Come, Corin.

She batted the unknown voice away from her ear and hunched her shoulder.

Outside, Corin. Come outside.

She stuck her head under the pillow in a futile attempt to keep the wretched whispers away. What good was outside? There were dragons inside – and all those strange little lizard people who cooked the most marvellous food. She wondered what breakfast would be like…

Corin. Come. Jaymes.

She sat up. “Oh, Gods, not again.”

Hands on her head, she looked around the room she’d been given. Bright fingers of daylight peeked around the edges of the shutters, showing that morning was here. Across the room Mhysra slept on oblivious, proving to Corin that it was too early to wake, sunshine or not.

“Go away.” Grumbling, she settled down again, hoping she’d been dreaming.

Come.

“No.”

Corin.

“No.”

Jaymes.

“Blast it.”

Come, Corin. Come, Jaymes. Come now. Come fast. Please.

Corin sat up again with a groan of defeat.

Please.

She pushed away the covers.

Please.

Swinging her legs out of bed, she reached for the clothes an unseen hand must have cleaned for her during her far-too-short sleep. It was the please that did it, although once the voice had mentioned Jaymes she’d known she was doomed. Mostly because she’d never dream Jaymes’ name. Not that she didn’t like him, but he wasn’t her type. She also knew Jaymes would go, whether she did or not, and she didn’t want to be left out. Add to that the gathering urgency, followed by soft pleas getting weaker, and she was done.

“I am an idiot,” she muttered, pulling on her boots and shrugging into her jacket. “A complete and utter fool.” As she left the room, she almost collided with a tousle-haired Jaymes and reflected that at least she wasn’t the only one.

Corin. Jaymes.

She rolled her eyes. “We’re coming.”

Fast. Please.

“As fast as we can,” Jaymes promised. “Which should be interesting, since I’ve no idea where we’re going. You?” He raised his eyebrows at Corin and she shook her head on the way down the stairs. “Great.”

Show. Come now. Please.

“We are,” Corin grumbled, stepping out into the courtyard that led to the miryhl eyries.

Before she could head in that direction, Jaymes grabbed her arm and tugged her down a smaller path leading off to the left. “This way.”

Frowning, she shook him off and took a stubborn step towards the eyries.

No! cried the voice, making them both wince at the unaccustomed volume and shrillness. Wrong way. It dropped to a humble level and added, Please.

“I guess we go this way,” Corin muttered, rubbing her aching head as she followed Jaymes down the overgrown path to where ivy had all but covered a rotting door. As they broke through it to reveal a pool with steam curling off the surface, the voice purred approvingly inside Corin’s mind.

“Glad someone’s happy.”

Jaymes grinned over his shoulder and walked on, taking them beyond the walls of the Archives and through a quiet woodland to the wider world ahead. Neither noticed the distance or how much time passed, all they knew was the need to keep going until they found the voice whispering inside their minds.

* * *

Havia

STIRLA TUGGED NERVOUSLY on his cuffs and rolled his shoulders, remembering why he hated his dress uniform. White breeches were bad enough, but putting this much red on a man of his stature was like painting a barn door. Skinny runts like Lyrai could just about pull it off, but Stirla knew he looked like a fool. A fool who had to walk past his Riders, all of whom for no fathomable reason were still gathered in the landing courtyard.

It was Stirla’s first visit to the East Havian Rider base and so far he was impressed. A sprawling stone structure built in the days when Riders were still favoured by the monarchy, its clean lines and sun-bleached stone reminded him poignantly of Aquila. Folded around the edges of a sharp peak that jutted out over the Cloud Sea, there was no sheltered valley for Sherpoint – but the view was amazing.

The moment he exited the guest wing the courtyard fell silent. With snow on the ground, the miryhls had long since taken to the eyries, but their human bondeds had nothing better to do than wait in the cold to watch their lieutenant walk to his execution.

Metaphorically speaking.

He hoped.

He was halfway across the courtyard, aware that every eye was on him, when someone shouted, “Lieutenant, wait!”

Stirla closed his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Derry,” he pleaded.

“Huh. And here’s me fresh out of miracles,” Derrain replied, abandoning the supplies he’d been pretending to sort through to step into Lorfyn’s path. “Lieutenant Stirla’s been called to see Captain Korfei, my lord. It won’t do to keep him waiting.”

Called was a polite way of saying ordered in no uncertain terms to appear in the captain’s presence within a half-bell of his arrival – or find somewhere else to spend the night.

“I know.” Lorfyn brushed past Derrain as if he didn’t exist. “That’s why I’m here.”

Stirla spun to stare at the lordling. “Excuse me?”

“For our meeting with the captain,” Lorfyn said, beaming. “I didn’t want to be late, so I am afraid I rushed my toilette. I do hope the captain will not object to my linen, though it is sadly crushed, and I simply hadn’t enough time to tie my neckcloth correctly. But since Riders dress informally, I assumed it wouldn’t appear too rude.”

“Good Gods, no!” Stirla half-shouted, unable to bear the thought of meeting Captain Korfei with this idiot alongside. It was bad enough that he’d brought him here in the first place.

In his own world as always, Lorfyn gave a relieved smile. “Oh, excellent, I had hoped it would not. Though I must say your jacket and breeches look very fine, lieutenant.”

“I believe that panicked expostulation was against your presence and intentions, Lord Lorfyn, not your woeful neckwear.” The lazy drawl drew all eyes across the courtyard as a ray of light pierced the overcast clouds, illuminating Princess Neryth in Heirayk’s blessing. Stirla had always appreciated a dramatic entrance, especially one so impressively presented. Although how the princess had managed to keep her silver pantaloons, white shirt, frothing lace cuffs and blue velvet coat so spotless and crisp during their journey so far, he had no idea. Perhaps there was a touch of magic about royalty, after all. The circlet on Neryth’s brow certainly glistened like an enchantment. One cast to bring Stirla nothing but ill luck.

The sunlight faded and Neryth strode confidently across the courtyard, the motion all wrong in an outfit designed for fluttering hand gestures and mincing steps. Such as Lorfyn was demonstrating as he hurried to catch up to Stirla before his princess could reach him.

He failed and eyed his princess sullenly, pouting down at her shiny but practical boots as she swiftly overtook him in his clattering lacquered heels. “I am the founder of the HSF,” he grumbled. “I should go.”

Neryth paused to look at him, one dark eyebrow raised. “Indeed?”

“Well, it may have been Lieutenant Stirla’s idea,” Lorfyn admitted grudgingly. “But I gathered our troops, found our mounts, prepared the uniforms and designed the hats. I even recruited you, Highness. That makes me the founder.” He perked up again. Sadly, nothing could keep him down for long.

Neryth’s upper lip curled and Lorfyn deflated right before Stirla’s eyes.

He had to learn that trick.

“Perhaps you should go, Highness?” Lorfyn mumbled, shoulders hunched. “After all, you are much better at this sort of thing.”

The princess smiled and brushed an imaginary speck of dirt from her sleeve. “Well, if you insist,” she purred, and nodded at Stirla. “Shall we, lieutenant?” Not bothering to wait for an answer, she stalked towards the archway on the far side of the courtyard: a predator in princess form.

Stirla slapped Lorfyn consolingly on the shoulder, sent Derrain a glance commanding him not to let the lord follow and strode after the princess. Was it so much to ask to meet the captain alone? He already knew he was in deep trouble and would rather be reprimanded without witnesses. But he had yet to learn how to say no to the princess and make it stick. He couldn’t even get Lorfyn to obey him, for Maegla’s sake.

He needed Lyrai for all this noble-handling. Farm boys from Etheria were not raised with this kind of training.

“Which way now, do you think?” Neryth awaited him beyond the archway leading to another courtyard enclosed on all sides by cloistered walkways. At its centre a fountain was frozen silent, the flowerbeds around it empty for the winter.

“Someone should come,” Stirla replied, walking over to study the fountain.

Following, Neryth leant back against the rim and stirred the gravel with her shiny booted toe. “I am not doing this simply to vex you, you know,” she murmured, glancing sidelong at Stirla. “Lorfyn would have accompanied you if I hadn’t intervened. But much as it pleases me to thwart our puppyish friend, he did make a valid point. I am good at this sort of thing. I was trained for it.”

Stirla stared at the bubbles trapped within the fountain, the miryhl statue in the centre dusted with snow, and wondered why this had to happen to him. What stupid thing had he done for the Gods to plague him so. “As well we all know, Highness, though you fly with us, I have no authority over you. You may do as you please.”

“Ah.” Neryth grimaced. “Quite. My apologies, lieutenant. I know you wish me far away, but I promise that this is for your own good.” When Stirla snorted, the princess smiled. “Truly. How many Rift Riders know how to turn down royalty? Particularly Havian royalty, whose good opinion is so important in the face of my father’s prejudice. Once your captain meets me, I assure you he’ll no longer lay the blame for this ridiculous start entirely at your feet.”

“If I wished to reapportion blame, Highness, I would have let Lorfyn come.”

Neryth’s laughter rang out across the empty courtyard, the exuberance of it surprising considering her controlled nature. “Ah, so true. Once the captain meets him, he’ll be unable to blame you at all.” She shook her head and quickly sobered. “Do not think I am unaware of the position we have put you in, lieutenant. I promise to do all I can to lessen the consequences of our actions. Trust me, I intend you no harm.”

“Whenever royalty choose to interfere with the Rift Riders, Highness, they bring nothing but harm. Regardless of intent.” The deep voice came from the shadows, and Stirla turned as a white-haired man emerged, his captain stripes clear upon his shoulder. A fair-skinned easterner, as tall as Stirla but lean, he was not quite as old as his pale hair suggested. Bright blue eyes studied them intently as he approached, the freckles sprinkled across his nose adding an unexpected lightness to his stern expression.

After looking the newcomer up and down, Neryth inclined her head. “Captain Korfei.”

“Princess Neryth,” the captain replied, his lips forming a thin line of disapproval. “I’d believed you to have more sense than to pull a prank like this. You’re too old for games. Tell me it’s nonsense, Highness, then hie off home, if you please. I’ve no wish to suffer the lash of your father’s displeasure.”

When the princess chuckled, Stirla belatedly realised that the two were acquainted. Quite well, if Neryth’s relaxed stance was anything to judge by. “I think it best I stay where I am for the moment, captain. The poor lieutenant is rather in need of my help. Young Havian lords can be tricky, as well you know.”

The captain eyed her for a long moment and shook his head before turning to study Stirla. The corner of his mouth twitched. “He’s a big lad, Highness, I think he can look after himself. Consider your duty done and discharged – I’ll not be laying full blame at his feet, large though they are. Off with you. I wish to speak with the lieutenant alone.”

As Stirla watched, the other two held a silent conversation through twitching eyebrows and fierce frowns, until Neryth sighed and nodded. “I tried.” She shrugged at Stirla and left.

Captain Korfei turned to Stirla again. “Well, you must have made an impression there. Princess Neryth doesn’t try for anyone, in my experience – except her pampered featherheads.” He studied Stirla curiously this time. “I think it’s time we got to know one another, don’t you?”


~ Next Chapter ~

Thanks for reading.

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No Dragongift this week

So sorry, everyone, but as I feared I haven’t had time to edit the next batch of Dragongift. Which was why there was no post yesterday and there won’t be one tomorrow. My home is currently all upside down and sideways, covered in dust and appears to have been invaded by grey alien squid poking through the walls and down through the ceilings… either that or the electrics haven’t been finished yet.

If it is indeed the latter, then hopefully they should be done by the middle of next week and I can offer up double posts next weekend as penance.

If it’s the former… it was nice knowing you all and maybe one day I will return with tales of the further reaches of outer space.

Every cloud, eh?

In the meantime, I hope you’re all enjoying your weekends wheresoever in the world you may be.

Take care, my lovelies!

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A Courtship of Dragons: Part 34

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A Courtship of Dragons is a M/M Romance short novel (approximately 60,000 words) told in short scenes, between two young dragons, Estenarven kin Boulderforce Clan Stoneheart and Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight. It’s pure fluff ‘n’ stuff and not intended to be anything other than that.

|| First Part || All Parts || Last Part ||

I want one of these.



34

The Rose

THEY BOTH STARED at the rose that was just visible through the fog on the glass. Mastekh bit his lip, hoping against hope that he’d done the right thing.

“May I?” Estenarven asked softly, raising his hands either side of the dome.

Mastekh nodded, making a low sound of agreement. Unlike some of the roses and flowers in Elder Gwyllen’s collection this one wasn’t delicate, but the shock of going from the humid glasshouse to the cold hallways had prompted the gardener to provide the dome. Hopefully by now the air inside would have cooled enough to be less of a shock.

Estenarven lifted, revealing the rose beneath in all its understated glory. When the Boulderforce said nothing, simply stared at the grey bloom that was the size of Mastekh’s fist and appeared to be growing out of a bed of pebbles and moss, nerves struck.

“It’s a r-r-rock r-rose,” he rushed to explain. “Hardy, I’m t-told. They g-g-grow all over the n-north. But this one is sp-special. They’re mostly wh-white, sometimes p-p-pink, but this one is g-g-grey. Like you.”

The Boulderforce kept looking at the rose and Mastekh felt the first tendril of panic. Even though he’d jokingly thought that he would gladly keep the rose if Estenarven didn’t want it, the simple act of refusing a gift would bring their whole courtship crashing down.

Estenarven couldn’t refuse. He couldnt.

Mastekh wrung his hands, unable to help the fact that they were dripping. He’d thought he was being so clever. Estenarven’s first gift to him had been a flower. The fact that Estenarven had chosen food as his fifth gift seemed a beautifully positive sign, since Mastekh’s first gift to him had been food. They had mirrored each other without even knowing.

Except Estenarven was a Boulderforce. Who would be stupid enough to give such a hard, solid, sturdy dragon flowers?

Fine tremors shivered up Mastekh’s spine, turning his knees to water. After everything they’d been through, after the wonder of the last few evenings, he’d gone and ruined it with a stupid gift. A rose from Elder Gwyllen’s private collection was special, yes, but only if you cared for such fragile, frippery things.

“A rock rose,” Estenarven said at last, his voice sounding like he was gargling gravel.

“Yes,” Mastekh breathed softly.

“It’s beautiful.”

The relief was so strong that Mastekh had to hold onto the table to stop himself from melting all over the floor.

Estenarven didn’t notice, he was too busy touching the pebbles and moss that made up the rose’s bed. Despite his big, broad hands, he was exquisitely gentle as he brushed the winding stem and stroked a grey petal.

“No one has ever given me flowers before,” he said wistfully. “People don’t think Boulderforces need them. They don’t think we value pretty, fragile things.” He looked up, dark eyes shining straight into Mastekh’s heart. “But I do. Because they’re not frail, they’re survivors. They’re strong.”

That did it. Mastekh’s knees collapsed and he would have fallen, except Estenarven was there to catch him, pulling him onto his lap and cradling him tight.

“Thank you, Puddle. Thank you.”

Tucking himself beneath Estenarven’s chin, head resting on his broad chest, Mastekh closed his eyes and sighed with relief. He’d chosen right, the courtship would continue. He thought about protesting that he wasn’t strong, that Estenarven had got it wrong, but he wouldn’t allow anything to spoil this moment. No negative thoughts. Just relief – and acceptance.

Only two gifts left to go. Something handmade, something hard to get.

Listening to the steady beat of Estenarven’s heart, Mastekh smiled as his Boulderforce cooed at his rock rose and knew he would never find a more precious, hard to find gift than the love and trust of this dragon.

But he’d try his best anyway, because that was what courtship was for. He would live up to his Estenarven’s expectations and be strong. Then he would hold onto this amazing gift he’d found with all the strength in his heart.


More next week.

Take care, my lovelies.

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Dragongift: Chapter 12, Part 3

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

Short update today.

Oh, Mouse…


Aquila

IT HAPPENED IN the dark, one of the too short respites between Willym’s brutal games. Limp after the stressful prospect of being branded, the pain of the shallow burn on Mouse’s side was a constant, low beat. At the time it had been almost an anticlimax after the terror of his imagination while Willym played and teased and tormented. Now it joined with his other wounds to wear him down, not letting him sleep.

After Willym had gone, leaving the dying brazier behind as a spiteful reminder of what could have been, and what might yet occur, Mouse had sobbed without cease. Part relief, part despair. It could have been so much worse – and yet how much worse could it become. They were just toys to him, kept in the dark for his private amusement. He wanted to break them, to turn them into little more than animals, stealing away their honour. Why did he want to know about the others? He’d found them once, surely he could and would do so again. Why did they have to tell him anything?

Yet as the light of the coals slowly died, so too did Mouse’s panic. He was still alive. There were things to be thankful for. He’d kept his honour and, for once, Nehtl had not been touched.

Reminded of his companion, Mouse shifted against the wall to try and ease the ache in his arms from being left chained up. Damn Willym. Nehtl wasn’t well, he needed help. He needed care. All through Mouse’s crying the healer had been silent. That more than anything told him that something was seriously wrong.

So he settled his chains and listened. He’d grown good at listening, here in the darkness.

A ragged breath sounded from the other side of the cell. It caught at the height of the inhale and paused. For a long moment there was silence, then the rattle of Nehtl’s shaky exhale.

Mouse sighed with relief and started counting the ins and outs, willing his friend to stay alive.

One moment the cold cell was filled with laboured breathing, then Nehtl choked on a gargle. A scrape of chains, a strangled gasp. Then silence.

Mouse’s heart thumped heavily in his chest. “Healer Nehtl?” his voice sounded thin and tremulous. Reedy, weak, sorrowful. He pulled at his chains and cursed Willym for the thousandth time for leaving them chained apart.

“He won’t last much longer. Cant have you doing something stupid. Just hang around over here, little Mouse. That should keep you out of trouble.

“Sir?”

Nothing.

“Healer Nehtl? Please, please don’t…”

No answer. An eager squeak was followed by scrabbling from the shadows, seeking, hungry. Always hungry.

“No,” Mouse snarled. “No! Get away. Leave him alone!” He thrashed and roared and rattled his chains, sending the creatures skittering back into the dark. It wouldn’t last. He knew they’d be back, but he’d be ready for them. Even if he never slept again, he’d be ready.

“No surrender,” he panted, hanging loose and exhausted and burning inside. “No surrender.”

Not to the rats, not to the pain, not even to the grief he could feel building within. It pressed against his pounding heart, making breathing difficult, but he forced it down, held it back. Grief was of no use here.

Only anger.

“Willym,” he growled, sending more rats fleeing for cover. His hands clenched.

“No surrender,” he vowed to the darkness. “No more mending.” It was time to start breaking things.

All alone in the depths of Aquila, Mouse breathed life into the spark burning inside. And the coals of his rage ignited into flame.


~ Next Chapter ~

Thanks for reading!

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Dragongift: Chapter 12, Part 2

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

Previous Chapter ~

Slightly longer than usual update, but there’s no good way to split this scene, so Sunday’s update will be a little shorter than usual too.

Regardless of that, Reglian’s waiting for a chat. (If you’ve been reading the Dragonlands books, no, he hasn’t changed too much in two hundred years – except to take a few obscurity lessons from Goryal.)



Cleansed Lands

Mhysra and Corin left the hot springs long before the others. The miryhls seemed content to roost in the warm, moist air for the rest of the day, while Lyrai, Jaymes and Dhori had politely allowed the girls wash first. Rhiddyl had approved of such chivalry, but Mhysra knew better. With no one waiting to get in after them, the boys could now take as long as they wanted. She might have complained, except she was too curious about everything else to care.

The entrance to the Archives sat across a broad, beautifully tiled courtyard, where fountains played in the corners and vines crept along the walls. The main doors were enormous, as one would expect in a building designed by dragons. Yet as they followed the twists and turns of the main passage, the corridor grew smaller and smaller, the ceilings lowering, the walls closing in.

By the time the reached the heart of the Archives it was practically human-sized. Mhysra stared in wonder at the sight beyond the double doors. A stained-glass dome shed coloured light over cream tiles, while shelves rose from floor to ceiling, crammed with books, papers and scrolls. Several desks filled the open space beneath the glass dome, one of which looked large enough for several dragons to share. For now, though, the room was empty except for a solitary man sitting at one of the smaller desk, writing swiftly in a notebook.

Mhysra and her friend paused in the doorway. Reglian had told them to meet him here, but there was no sign of the black dragon – and a creature of that size would be difficult to miss. Even amongst these bookshelves. Not wanting to disturb the stranger, she dithered over what to do.

Apparently Corin had no such qualms since she strode straight towards the only occupied desk. “Sorry to interrupt, but I wonder if you could help us.”

Still writing, the stranger raised his free hand without looking up. “One moment,” he said, his voice deep.

Unable to do anything except wait, Mhysra studied the stranger, wondering what sort of man made his life amongst dragons. Even in the rainbow light streaming down through the skylight, his skin was almost pure black with only the slightest undertone of brown across his bald head. Though he seemed tall even while sitting and his shoulders were broad, the down-turned features of his face were firm and clean, as if carved from stone rather than moulded of clay. He was compellingly beautiful, in a way Mhysra rarely regarded older men. Yet there was something breathtaking about him that made it impossible not to stare and admire.

As if he could hear her thoughts, the stranger finished his sentence with a flourish and looked up, golden eyes alight with humour. His smile showed teeth that were sharper than usual, and the back of the hand he used to beckon them forward rippled with a patch of scales.

“You were quick. I did not expect to see any of you for a good while yet. I hope you didn’t rush on my behalf.”

The floor seemed to tilt beneath Mhysra’s feet as she left the doorway. Those golden eyes, dark skin and scales combined with that deep, rolling voice produced a startling realisation. She shook her head; it simply wasn’t possible.

“Archivist Reglian?” Corin’s incredulous voice echoed Mhysra’s ludicrous thoughts.

Golden eyes narrowed as the man behind the desk chuckled. It wasn’t as deep or resonant as the dragon they’d met outside, but as close as a human body could produce. When he put his hands on the desk and stood up, Mhysra realised his fingernails were actually golden claws.

“I had forgotten how quick you humans could be.” Smiling, he strode around his desk and bowed. “Archivist Reglian kin Thunderwing Clan Skystorm at your service, my lady Rift Riders. Be welcome in the Archives, heart of the Draconian records.”

When he straightened, he fixed Mhysra with a bright look of enquiry and she cleared her throat to return the introductions. “This is my friend, Corin Bathel Gennanma of Nimbys, and I am Lady Mhysra Kilpapan Kilrenma of Wrentheria, and we are both Rift Rider students lately of Aquila. It’s an honour to meet you, sir.”

“And a pleasure to meet you both.” Studying them in open fascination, he reached towards Mhysra’s shoulder then paused. “Ah, forgive me.” He lowered his hand, fingers rubbing together as he glanced away. “It has been so long since last I spoke with humans, I forget the formalities. You have beautiful hair.”

She blinked. “It’s brown.”

Reglian’s eyes glowed with humour. “Indeed, brown, but with many shades. And such curls. I assume they are natural.”

Mhysra shared a nonplussed glance with a giggling Corin. She’d always hated her hair, and only kept it as long as she did because when it was cut short it was even worse. Still wet from her bath, it currently hung down her back in limp rat tails. True, it was curling as it dried, but it was also starting to stick out in all directions. However, she’d been raised to be polite, even to mad dragons, so she didn’t protest. “Thank you,” she murmured.

The dragon man smiled ruefully, obliviously noticing her bemusement. “Dragons struggle to form hair, since it is not natural to us. Some expend an awful lot of time and power to achieve rather poor results. Others know better than to waste the time.” He ran a hand over his bald head and stared at the length of her hair again with envious eyes. “It is regarded as a great skill amongst the rare few who can achieve it with any great length or shade.”

“Oh.” She blinked, having never thought of growing hair as anything other than a nuisance.

“You must be very skilled then, Mhysra,” Corin chuckled, ruffling her own crop, as dark as the dragon himself.

Reglian gave a booming laugh. “Highly skilled indeed. You’ll have to watch yourself during your stay. Many a human in times past either sold their hair or had it stolen to furnish fine wigs for my kind. But in recent centuries the practise has fallen out of fashion, since we did not have many humans around to inspire us. No one cares these days if our youngsters walk bald, while the vainest continue to wear their mouldering wigs. Come,” he said, with a sharp change of subject and a move towards a group of chairs arranged directly beneath the dome, “let us be comfortable while we wait for the others.”

“They let us wash first,” Corin explained, happily taking the seat nearest the dragon, though Mhysra was a little more reserved. “Rhiddyl was impressed with their manners.”

The deep chuckle rolled again. “She is young,” Reglian said, “with much still to learn. I trust you did not rush too much.”

“Oh no!” Corin shook her head, tucking her hair behind her ears. “I’d much rather be here than in there, wouldn’t you, Mhysra?”

Busy staring at the back of Reglian’s neck, where smooth skin turned once again into rounded scales, Mhysra blinked, having not heard a word. “Yes?” she guessed, and smiled when Corin beamed and turned back to the dragon.

“Who wants a boring old soak when they could be talking to you?” her friend burbled. “I had no idea dragons could change shape. I’ve not read much about you, I’m now very sorry to say, but Mhysra has. Haven’t you, Mhysra? Did you know dragons could change shape?”

Reglian’s fingers were overly long, the ends tapering into claws rather than flesh and nails, Mhysra noticed. She shook her head at Corin’s question. “No.” When she looked up, Reglian was watching her. The skin above his eyes shimmered with gold; scaly eyebrows that mimicked the golden ridges of his dragon form.

He smiled at her scrutiny. “It is no secret. Clan dragons have always been able to change once we reached a certain age, though when varies from Clan to Clan. Amongst my own, Clan Skystorm, it usually begins during our third century. We are amongst the fastest.”

Drawn in as surely as Corin, Mhysra asked, “Can you take many forms?”

“And why human?” Corin wanted to know. “Is it different for each Clan?”

Pleased by their questions, Reglian stretched out his legs and crossed one ankle over the other, resting his folded hands across his belly. “I have just two forms. This and my natural one. During my third century, though, I could change into many things. But it hurt if I practised too many, until I began to favour one particular form more than the others. The more I got used to this form, the easier it became and the more painful it was to shift into something else. Eventually the pain got to the point where it was impossible to choose anything but this or my true form. By the time I reached my fourth century I could no longer change beyond them. Almost all dragons experience this. We call it our Change Time.”

Four centuries, Mhysra thought weakly. He made it sound so young. Just how old was he?

He smiled at Mhysra again as if he could hear her thoughts before turning back to Corin. “A human form is not the only shape we can choose. If we can imagine it, we can assume it. However, most of us settle for human. For those of my age and above it was out of convenience. In those days we communicated and traded with humans more often and were a working part of your world. As such it was easier to assume a human size and shape, and to be able to converse easily was important. It became traditional and still mostly continues to this day. Few are the dragons who change into another form even in these times, though we are fully capable of communicating with any species or life form on the Overworld.

“Mostly those with different forms are older, from the time before the Curse, or from kins with particular traits, although there are always a few independent youngsters who prefer not to follow the crowd. Most often they become birds, wishing to experience the joys of flight in a smaller, more intimate form.”

“Before the Curse?” Corin repeated, blinking. “Do dragons live so long?”

“Some,” he said. “Not all, though all Clans are capable of it, but it can be a wearisome burden to carry the weight of long years. Wisdom is not always a gift.”

“No,” Mhysra murmured, trying to wrap her mind around a thousand year life, and not quite managing it. The prospect made her dizzy. “A life that long must see so many mistakes, most of them repeated.”

“Indeed,” he agreed solemnly. “At that point one either turns one’s face from the world or seeks a higher path for the enlightenment of others.”

Corin snorted, then blushed as Reglian raised a golden eyebrow. “Sorry, but it sounds so pompous. Just because you’ve lived a long time, doesn’t mean you know all there is to know.”

The dragon grinned. “You are correct, young Corin. I doubt it would surprise you that there are many older dragons whom the youngsters avoid. Unfortunately those are usually the most active.”

“Elder Goryal seemed nice,” Mhysra said. “Not pompous at all.”

“Goryal is one of the less intrusive elders,” Reglian agreed. “And though they have lived a long, long count of years, they prefer to look to the stars for wisdom, only dispensing it to those who ask. Otherwise they are happy to let us make our own mistakes, young or old. They say that’s the best way for us to learn.”

“I knew I liked them,” Corin said happily. “Especially when they told those dragons off.”

“Indeed. Those dragons,” Reglian murmured, rubbing his chin with golden claws. “Perhaps you would be so good as to tell me about your encounter with them. I gather from what Rhiddyl said that she only took care of one. Am I right in concluding that you, your Rift Rider friends and your miryhls grounded the others?”

“Ha, did we ever!” Corin crowed, and between them the two girls described how they took down the pebbly dragon. By the time they were finished, the boys and Rhiddyl had arrived so Lyrai could explain how Hurricane and Argon had defeated the venomous Jarvenerald.

“Astonishing,” Reglian said, once they were finished. “And fascinating. How dull life has grown since the Barrier Veil was created. Humans certainly make life more interesting. Would you not agree, Rhiddyl?”

The young dragon was curled around their circle of chairs, head and forefeet taking her own place in the group. Her stormy eyes were bright as she listened to them talk and she nodded eagerly. “They certainly do. I never thought to see the day when humans entered the Cleansed Lands, but I am so very glad they have and that I am here to experience it.”

“Indeed. Which leads us neatly to the important question – why are you here?”

“For help,” Lyrai started to say, but Reglian wasn’t looking at him. Instead his golden eyes were fixed on Corin. Then he looked at Jaymes.

The redhead paled under the attention, but Corin bounced in her chair. “Something called us,” she said. “A voice came out of the Stormwash and told us to come, Jaymes and me. I don’t know about the others.”

Reglian looked at the rest of them, finishing with Dhori, whose grey eyes were narrowed.

The dragon man smiled. “No,” he said. “They were not called. They came to protect you.”

“I would have preferred to stop them,” Lyrai said, and this time Reglian paid attention to him. “That was why I left Misthome. I thought it would be suicide to let them do anything else.”

“Protection,” the dragon repeated. “Yes. You have good friends, Corin and Jaymes. I trust you know this.”

“Of course,” Corin said, bumping her shoulder against Mhysra, while Lyrai ruffled Jaymes’ hair.

“As we have in them,” Dhori added solemnly.

Reglian smiled again. “No one is denying that, nor suggesting anything different. But it is important to know why you are here. What caused you to come.”

“We do need help,” Jaymes admitted.

“True,” Reglian agreed. “Yet were it not for this call you would never have thought to come.”

No one spoke, since there was no point disputing this valid point.

The dragon man leant forward and rested his arms across his knees, looking at them all in turn. “But now that you are here and you do need help, all you have to decide is what you want and how to ask for it.”


~ Next Chapter ~

Thanks for reading.

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