Here’s the second chapter of my soon-to-be-published Dragon Rider adventure. The first chapter is here if you missed it.
Night fell, but the fires continued to burn in the groves and the town, lighting up the cloudy horizon with a reddish tint that made Taylina sick to her stomach. The bag full of tools had grown heavy, and she leaned on her staff as she picked her way along the goat trails in the center of the island. She could no longer hear the cries of people nor the clanging of the town bell, and she tried to tell herself that was simply because she had walked too far away. It didn’t mean that everything was destroyed and everyone was dead. It couldn’t.
She hadn’t seen any of the dragons since twilight, but she would not have lit a lantern, even if she’d had one. She worried about being spotted from the skies. Thinking of the way those soldiers had shot at people who were fleeing, people who had clearly been no threat, she couldn’t help but fear for her safety, so she moved as quietly as she could in the dark. She kept her ears open, too, hoping to hear the rustling of brush that might mean others of her people were around. After all, she’d seen them fleeing away from town. But perhaps they had stopped once they reached the wilderness, turning to watch what unfolded back in the harbor.
Taylina passed through the rocky contours of the center of the island. It was quiet there, only the roar of the ocean audible in the distance. Whenever the clouds parted and the moon shone through, she could make out the cliffs ahead of her, the rugged terrain marking the dragon’s half of the island.
“Taylina?” came a soft call from behind her.
She froze, leaning against a boulder to blend in with the night. But the voice was familiar.
“Raff?” she called quietly.
“Yes.” Pebbles crunched under his feet. “When I told you to hide, I didn’t mean for you to hide so far away.”
“I gave myself a mission.”
One she hated to delay. Even though she was relieved to hear her friend’s voice, and her aching body appreciated the rest stop, she did not want to linger. She had to convince Bergethor the Bleak to help before it was too late to matter, before there was nothing left to fight for.
Raff appeared in the shadows, picking his way toward her. He grunted softly as he walked, as if in pain.
“Are you all right?” she asked, remembering that he had gone off to try and stop those soldiers.
“I’ve had better days.”
It was too dark for her to see much, other than his dark body silhouetted against the reddish sky behind him, but he seemed to be holding his ribs.
“Do you need anything?” she asked, though she did not know what she could give. She hadn’t had time to grab food or water. Nothing.
“Nothing I can have right now,” he said with a sigh.
“What happened? Mind if we keep walking?” She pointed down the path.
“Why? I think we’re far enough from the invaders.” His tone turned even grimmer than it had been. “They’ve got the whole town to worry about. I doubt they’ll come looking for us.”
“What’s happening back there? Can you tell?” She touched her temple to indicate that he might “tell” with magic.
“They’re rounding everybody up—a lot of our people escaped and are hiding in the hills. I met up with your brother there, but he didn’t know where your parents and sister were—he’d been running errands when the attack came and hadn’t been able to get back to the woodworking shop. Do you want me to take you to them? It’s a good four miles back. Tay, what are you doing way up here? If I didn’t know your aura so well, I never would have found you.”
“Then I’m glad my aura is distinctive, because I think I’m going to need you.”
“Oh, that’s a given, but for what, in particular?”
“Only sorcerers and sorceresses get to become dragon riders, right?”
“Uh, right,” Raff said, his confusion evident in his tone, even if she couldn’t see his face. “As far as I know. Usually powerful sorcerers with soulblades—magical, sentient swords.”
“What about toolmakers?” Taylina asked.
“I might be given the honor of buffing a dragon’s claws.”
“Well, you’re going to do more than that.” She grabbed his arm. “We’re going to talk to Bergethor the Bleak.”
Raff had started to step toward her, but he faltered. “We’re what?”
“He’s the only one who can help.”
“Help what? Eat us so that we die quickly and aren’t captured by the Cofah?”
“We’re going to talk him into helping us.” Taylina started down the path toward the cliffs again, hoping to show that she would go whether Raff came with her or not. But she hoped he came with her. He knew so much more about magic, and probably about dragons too. Maybe this mission was suicidal, but to simply hide in the hills and wait for the Cofah to leave—or settle in—was not acceptable.
“How are you going to do that?” Raff asked. “Note: I said you and not we.”
“You’re leaving the lowly woodworker to confront the dragon alone?”
“You promised me you weren’t lowly.”
“I just told you not to call me that or I’d club you.” She shook her head, continuing on. This wasn’t the time for jokes. Not when most of her family was still missing, as far as she knew. Not when the world was in chaos.
“Taylina…” Raff grumbled but trailed after her, jogging to catch up. “Do you have a plan? What are you carrying anyway?”
“As many tools as I could gather, so the Cofah wouldn’t get them.”
“Here, let me carry the bag.”
Taylina almost told him that she could handle it, but in truth, toting them while leaning on her staff was wearying. Even though the salty, smoky night air was not hot, sweat dampened her brow and her back under the bag. She paused to give it to him.
“Thank you,” she said when he accepted it. “As to the plan, that’s part of it. I’m going to offer to trade him our tools.”
“What does a dragon need tools for? They don’t even have hands.”
“Well, he’s got a big cave in the cliffs, doesn’t he? I’m sure he likes collecting treasures to stick in it. Some of those wands we made are colorful and glow perkily.”
“Perky wands, just what a dragon needs. As far as treasures, I think you’ve been reading too many books. I bet his cave is full of bones, the bones of those he’s eaten.”
“If he’s not interested in the tools,” Taylina said, “I’ll point out that the Cofah are invading his island, just as much as they’re invading our island. Maybe he’ll be territorial and go out and attack them to drive them away. He’s lived here for centuries, the tales say.”
“Wouldn’t he have already done that? I’m positive he knows what’s happening. He probably knew those Cofah dragons were coming before they were anywhere near our island.”
“Are you going to stomp all over all of my plans?”
“Just the ones that are likely to lead to you—us—being eaten.”
“Better than being Cofah slaves for the rest of our lives.”
Raff grumbled something under his breath, but he continued to follow her. He uttered a prayer to the sea god when they crossed the Creviced Tiers, the official dividing line between the dragon’s half of the island and the humans’ half. Even though Taylina believed Bergethor would be too busy monitoring the invaders to pay attention to two humans crossing onto his side, she couldn’t help but glance up often. The moon came out as they climbed, and that left more of the sky visible.
“I’ve noticed the Cofah dragons haven’t come to this side,” Raff observed as they used the moonlight to guide them up the craggy terrain, higher and higher, toward the peak of the island—and the cave where Bergethor made his home. As a girl, when Taylina had gone out in fishing boats with her father and brother, she had seen it, the dark opening high in the cliffs that overlooked the Southern Shoals. She had only seen it from a great distance, as the town’s fishing and trading ships did not venture close to land on that side of the island, but she remembered it well, and how ominous it had appeared. She’d thought she had seen yellow eyes peering out from the darkness, though her father had told her it was her imagination.
“There’s nothing over here for them but trouble,” Taylina said. She feared there was nothing over here for her and Raff but trouble too. He was considerate enough not to mention it. “I appreciate you coming with me,” she said, glancing over her shoulder.
“Nobody should have to face a dragon alone.”
“You’re a noble man.”
“Uh huh. Just to be clear, you will be the one in front when we face the dragon. Far in front.”
Taylina wiped her brow again, more from the exertion than from nervousness over walking into a dragon’s cave. Climbing up steep slopes and clambering over the rocks where there were no trails was taking its toll, and she had jammed her leg awkwardly so many times that her hips throbbed, even the perfectly normal one. She almost welcomed a confrontation with a dragon, if only to end this night.
They came around a natural rock tower, and sea air blasted at them, the strong southerly winds that always buffeted this end of the island. They had reached the far side.
Taylina squinted at the cliffs overlooking the water. They were far more sheer than she had realized. In the dark, she couldn’t see the cave entrance or even guess at its location. Nor could she imagine how they would climb along those steep cliffs. Even climbing them during the day would be difficult, especially for her.
“Don’t tell me we’ll be stuck waiting until dawn,” she said.
“I’ll risk a light,” Raff said, and unfurled a hand.
A glowing, silvery globe appeared in the air in front of Taylina, illuminating the rocks for ten feet in all directions. It also illuminated Raff’s face, and she sucked in a startled breath at the dried blood on his cheek and jaw, and the huge purple knot at his temple.
“I better not make it any brighter,” he said, “in case the other dragons are about, searching. I also sensed another warship to the south of the island, maybe watching to make sure our people don’t escape in ships.”
“Lovely of the Cofah to be so thorough.” Taylina waved at his face. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. The Cofah didn’t like my magic, as it turns out. They informed me in a physical manner.”
“They’re a rude people.”
Taylina nodded at the globe. “Can you send it along the cliffs so we can look for the cave?”
He hesitated. “The dragon may see it. Or sense it. It’s minuscule power compared to what he can make, but with nobody else making magic on this side of the island, it’ll stand out like a beacon.”
“Then he’ll come out of his cave to check it out. I fail to see the problem.” Taylina would be happy if the dragon came to them, so long as he didn’t incinerate them with gouts of fire before she could offer her deal.
“You’re a strange girl, Tay.”
“Says the only man in the village who waves his fingers and makes things glow.”
“I’d be more proud of the ability if people didn’t squint at me and mutter under their breath when I pass.” Raff flexed his fingers, and the silvery globe drifted away from them, traveling along the cliffs and shining its light into nooks and crevices. “They didn’t do that when I was apprenticed to Kraig the baker and had no idea I had dragon blood in my veins.”
“Nobody gives bakers squinty eyes. Everyone loves bread and sweets.” While leaning on her staff, Taylina watched the cliffs as the light traveled higher, wondering how she would climb up there if they spotted the cave. “And the fact that your bread always rose, your loaves never oozed over the side of the pan, and your dragon-horn cookies were always perfectly shaped should have alerted Kraig to your strangeness.”
“Oh, he knew I was strange. Just not in a magically gifted sense. I—oh.”
The light stopped moving, its glow now illuminating a large opening in the rock.
“That’s the spot,” Raff said.
“Maybe you can shine your light more brightly, so it’ll wake him up, and he’ll come out.”
He frowned at her. “I don’t think you read the right kinds of books as a girl. Don’t you know it’s never a good idea to wake dragons from a good sleep? Or at all. Ever. Let sleeping dragons lie.” He scraped his fingers through his lank hair. “Tay, this is not a good idea. I think we should go back. Once things have settled down, we can work to free our people if they’ve been captured.”
“Captured? Are we sure that’s all they’ll do? How many are already dead, Raff?”
“I…” He looked away. “I’m not sure. A lot of people were in pain. My senses told me that much. I didn’t want to—I was afraid to look too closely.”
“We have to do this.” Taylina imagined Raff astride Bergethor’s back, swooping in to attack the other dragons and drive the Cofah away from their shores. Maybe she would be allowed to ride along. She couldn’t do anything to help in a battle, but she would give a great deal right now not to have to walk all the way back across the island, with its rough terrain. “We have to,” she said again, more quietly.
As Raff sighed, Taylina leaned her staff against the rocks and braced herself to navigate the cliff. The cave entrance lay thirty or forty feet to her left and at least twenty feet up. She hated the idea of limping into a dragon’s den, of showing any weakness at all to Bergethor, but she couldn’t climb and carry it with her.
“I don’t suppose you can telepathically call to him and ask him to come out?” she asked.
“I’m not good at telepathy.”
That wasn’t quite an answer to her question, and she remembered him speaking into her mind before, but she supposed she couldn’t blame him for being afraid. Maybe she was being foolish and naive for not sharing that intense fear.
Determined, and not wanting to examine that fear too closely lest it dissuade her from her path, Taylina climbed out onto the rock face. Raff’s light floated closer to her again, illuminating the cliff so she could pick the least challenging route. She could put weight on her right leg, but not as much as her left, and it ached so much that she simply wanted to lie down in bed and go to sleep. Her bed in her little cottage out behind her parents’ house. In the past, she had lamented that she hadn’t found a husband and moved into a more proper home, but that cottage sounded like paradise right now. She wondered if it was still standing.
“Focus,” she whispered to herself, looking up to find the next handhold.
After finding a way to tie the bag of tools around his shoulders so he could use both hands, Raff followed her onto the cliff. After a few moments of climbing in silence, a high-pitched shriek came from above them.
Taylina’s hand slipped, and her heart tried to leap out of her throat. Raff’s light winked out, leaving her in darkness.
“What was that?” she whispered.
Raff groaned, pressing his forehead to the rock. “The dragon. Couldn’t you feel the psychic power in that cry?”
“Psychic power? It sounded like someone stepped on a cat. A big, loud cat.” She squinted toward the cave entrance, but she could see little without the light. She grew more aware of the roar of the surf below, of how deadly a fall would be from up here.
The shriek came again, then cut off abruptly.
“That’s not how I imagined a dragon’s roar,” Taylina said, her heart hammering in her chest and the hairs standing up on the back of her neck.
“I don’t think that was a roar. I can sense… someone—something—is in pain.”
“I don’t know.”
“Could one of the Cofah dragons have come over here and confronted him for some reason?” Taylina asked. “Or even attacked him?”
Why would they bother if he was staying out of the invasion? It wasn’t as if Bergethor had proclaimed himself an ally to Iskandoth.
“I don’t know any more than you do,” Raff said, his voice tight and terse, as if he had a pounding headache. Maybe he did.
“Can you make the light come back?”
“You’re a tyrannical lowly woodworker.”
“And you’re too far away for me to club,” she said.
“How unfortunate.” Raff took a deep breath, one she could hear from several feet away, and the light reappeared.
As she continued her climb, a third shriek came, the power in it seeming to rattle her bones. Maybe Bergethor was having nightmares. Either way, he was certainly distracted by something. That might explain why he hadn’t noticed Raff’s light globe.
Taylina reached the cave opening, a vast hole wide enough for a dragon to fly through with his wings spread. She pulled herself up, her arms and hands having always been stronger than her legs. Even so, they were exhausted, the muscles trembling, and she collapsed in the entrance, only glancing inside to make sure nothing was preparing to leap out at her. The light’s influence did not extend far, and she couldn’t see more than a few meters into the cave, but she could make out a wide tunnel. Wide enough for a dragon to lurk in.
Raff pulled himself up beside her, and a sorrowful moan came from deep within the cave.
“It must be the Cofah,” Taylina reasoned. “Hurting him or purposely torturing him because…” She shrugged helplessly, still not certain why a Cofah dragon would be bothering Bergethor. Unless he had sent out some telepathic threats from within his cave?
Raff knelt with one hand braced against the rock wall, his eyes distant as he looked inside with his mind. The globe of light waned as he concentrated on something else.
“There are two dragons in there,” he said, a note of wonder in his voice.
Taylina pushed herself to her feet, using the wall for support since she did not have her staff. “Maybe if we can help Bergethor, he’ll be grateful and want to help us.”
“I don’t think gratitude is an emotion dragons experience toward humans. And how would we be of help against another dragon?”
“I did bring some of our better tools.” Taylina lifted the bag from his shoulder and poked into it. She remembered stuffing a healing wand in there. It had the power to seal wounds and knit flesh back together. If Bergethor was injured, perhaps it would help.
“That’s the Rod of Fecundity,” Raff observed as she pulled the wrong tool out. “I don’t know much about Bergethor’s problems, but I doubt he’s crying about his lack of fecundity.”
“You never know. I hear he doesn’t get out of this cave much.” Taylina stuck the rod back in and found the tool she wanted, an ebony wand with a white crystal that glowed softly, illuminating their surroundings.
“That sounds like a sociability problem rather than a fecundity issue.”
“Maybe we can discuss all of his problems with him.”
“Oh, I’ll relish that conversation.” Raff muttered something about not being a “dragon therapist” under his breath.
Taylina figured it would be a victory if they could get the grumpy Bergethor to speak with them at all. With the healing wand in hand, she headed into the tunnel and rehearsed possible ways to open a conversation. She leaned against the cool, damp stone as she advanced, wishing she’d found a way to carry her staff up here, and also wishing that the healing wand could fix her hip, but she had been born with the deformity. No healer had ever had a solution for her.
An indignant roar echoed from the depths ahead, wind stirring Taylina’s hair and raw power flowing across her body like a lightning bolt striking nearby. Raff gasped and hunched over, hands gripping his knees.
“Is that the same dragon?” Taylina asked. The roar had sounded nothing like those shrieks of pain.
“I—” Raff pressed his palm to the side of his head. “It’s hard for me to tell. There’s so much power, I can barely sense my own body.” He squinted at her. “Isn’t this pounding in your head? Can’t you feel them?”
“Not as much as you. I feel some irritation, some power. That’s it.”
“For once, I wish I was mundane.”
“There are perks to being lowly,” Taylina said and continued forward.
A yellowish glow came from around a bend, flickering slightly, as a campfire might. She had a hard time imagining a dragon lighting a campfire.
Raff stumbled as he walked after her, also using the stone wall for support. Taylina wished she could do something for him, but doubted the healing wand would help with headaches created by the proximity to dragons.
I am the god, Bhrava Saruth, a powerful voice spoke into her mind, ringing inside of her skull. Taylina stumbled, almost dropping to her knees. I am—ow, you cow-molesting, limp-snouted—ow!
Taylina gaped at Raff. “Did you hear that?”
Both of his hands were pressed to his skull now, but he managed a pained nod. “Yes.”
“Was it a dragon?”
“I have no idea.”
I’ll post the next chapter in a few days, but if you’re interested, you can also pre-order Beginnings (which contains Dragon Rider) in the usual spots: