Dragonhearted by Abbey Franer
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Author: Abbey Franer
Get up! Eric, get up!
Like a light piercing dense fog, Eric of Idesmoor’s senses returned. His head buzzed and ached. His tongue felt heavy and ashen in his mouth. The shouts of his fellow knights were dim as echoes through the ringing in his ears. Bright flashes half blinded his vision as he winced, sitting up slowly. His sword arm was broken from the fall and his crunched breastplate compressed his chest. Warmth bathed one side of his head and he touched his matted hair, staining his fingers red.
Who had called to him? There were no other knights near where he lay by the tree line. Gritting his teeth, Eric unfastened the buckles and pried off his breastplate. His sweat-dampened chest heaved with his ragged breaths. Tucking his sword arm against his chest, he leaned heavily on a charred tree trunk to get his feet under him.
The moon was full, casting a silver sheen on the battlefield and reflecting off blades. Dragon Knights filled the skies, sending arrows and blasts of orange flame on the Alharzatian army below. The black-coated enemies, Dragon Slayers they’d called them, hurled hooked spears and barbed arrows, piercing the soft leather armor that protected the dragons’ vulnerable necks. The metallic tang of blood stifled the air. There were too many fallen bodies. Not enough in the sky.
Favoring his non-mangled wing, an onyx-scaled yearling shuffled to Eric’s side. A puff of white smoke escaped his flared nostrils as he huffed apologetically, the sharp-edged fan along his neck sagging.
“Still too young to fly,” Eric said, leaning on his dragon. Surveying the Dragon Knights rapidly falling under the brutal onslaught while a wringing fist of despair gripped his core, the
Knight muttered, “What have I done?” He never should have brought them back. Pinned between the cliffs and the River Beal, surrounded on all sides by vicious enemies, the Dragon Knights of Calagon were facing certain doom.
The tall grass, dry from the hot summer, crackled as dragon fire burned through the fields. A rallying cry rose and Eric bent to grip his sword with his good hand. Even as the twisted bitterness secretly harbored in the depths of his mind wondered if they deserved this, he steeled himself to fight and die alongside his brethren. He wouldn’t let his thoughts drift to home, to the what ifs.
“May a knight’s death by the blade await you,” he whispered, and uttered a prayer of blessing on the battlefield. His young dragon leaping and coasting beside him, Eric raced towards the band of grounded Dragon Knights just beyond the tree line.
It began as a spark, a single, green-edged spark.
With a piercing roar, the largest of the dragons swooped overhead, breathing a searing blast that ignited. It was a blinding flash of ravenous green and hoar-frost white, expanding until the entire sky was engulfed.
Eric skidded to a stop, falling to his knees and shielding his eyes, his hoarse cry drowned by the erupting ball of fire that enveloped the dragons and their knights in midair. Pained shrieks deafened him as the dragons plummeted, the rubbery webbing of their wings eaten by unearthly fire. Drakonbane, the rumored flammable poison was real. His stomach heaved at the smell. The Dragon Slayers tore through the fallen ranks, leaving none living.
An arrow whizzed past, embedding itself in the black yearling’s eye. The dragon shrieked and threw back his head. A metal-toed boot planted on Eric’s chest, pinning him to the ground, and a barbed arrow pointed down at his throat.
“Our Drakonbane reduces your beasts to ash,” the Alharzatian said with a snarl. “This is the end of Dragon Knights.”
And he loosed his arrow.
Torliana’s breath clouded before her, a pale puff like the early morning mist that covered the rolling grasslands on the northern side of the palace. Her horse huffed, shaking his head, and she bent to pat his sweaty neck. Dawn would be spreading saffron fingers across the horizon within minutes and the gray shadows that bathed the world would dissipate. The snow-tipped, crimson hued mountain range that spread before her, skirted by a dense wood, was already beginning to shine. The treacherous and naturally crimson peaks of the Ruaidhri Mountains stretched across the northern border of Calagon all the way to the borders of Alharzat to the east. Little was known about the countries beyond the impassable mountains.
Shifting in the saddle, Tori reached for the journal she’d tucked into the small leather bag tied to the pommel. She flipped to the earmarked page, scanning the crudely sketched map. The peaks were a lazy jagged line across the top of the page and didn’t match the outline of the range before her. Though she muttered a curse under her breath she supposed she shouldn’t hold it against the long-passed Dragon Knights for taking the knowledge for granted. How could they have known everything would fall apart and dragons would be lost, considered little more than legend now barely a century later?
Tori knew all the legends by heart. Her mother had always begun them the same: in the dawn of the First Age, Man battled dragons. The winged beasts were vicious and had the keen intelligence to wage war against Man, burning farmlands, setting traps in mountain ranges, and dragging children below the surfaces of lakes never to rise again. Coming together against the common enemy, the Clans of Man united under a mighty warrior whom they named their king, Brannagh of Clan Calagon, the Dragon Tamer. Brannagh and his fellow warriors crossed the treacherous bloodred Ruaidhri Mountain peaks to the dragons’ nesting site and stole away their eggs, leaving their nests bare. Filled with mournful rage, the dragons descended upon Man’s villages and found Brannagh awaiting their arrival with the dragon eggs.
“Now, here the tales differ,” Elaine of Perfghast told her young daughter as they curled together in the grassy fields, bathed in starlight. “Some say Brannagh kept a dozen of the dragon eggs and raised the hatchlings to be his steeds in battle with other kingdoms. Some say the dragons offered peace. What we know for certain is that the brave warriors known as Dragon Knights, descended from King Brannagh, tamed dragons and thus began the dawn of the Second Age. The Age of Dragons.”
Though the Age of Dragons was marked with brutal wars as Calagonian kings expanded borders and gained dominance over the neighboring countries of Narda and Alharzat, there was wonder and prosperity and dragons aplenty. While Narda had become an ally, Alharzat was ruled by cruel and bitter warlords who sought the destruction of Calagon and death of all dragons.
In the Third Age, dragons were extinct. But Torliana didn’t believe that for a moment, not when she was a child, and not now. They hadn’t been seen since the treaty had been signed with Alharzat, ending the war between the Dragon Slayers and the Dragon Knights of the Kingdom of Calagon, but surely they hadn’t all died out when Drakonbane, the flammable poison, had erupted on that final battlefield. That had been many, many decades ago. Not a single dragon sighting. But they weren’t extinct. They couldn’t be.
Stashing the journal again, Tori glanced once more towards the dense wood, scanning for any sign. Please, she just needed the smallest bit of hope. Just a flash of wings. A distant roar. A shadowy outline behind the clouds. Some sign that she wasn’t just a foolish girl chasing dreams of dragons and the stories her mother had told her. Time was slipping through her fingers too quickly. The two-sentence letter, a reminder of her obligations, laying where she’d left it in her room was evidence of that.
Dawn yawned and the horizon bloomed in shades of rich coral and gold to rival Queen Reyna’s prized rose garden. Clicking softly, Tori turned her horse back towards the Calagonian palace.
For five years she’d ridden as close to the mountains as she could every morning. For five years, since she first arrived at the palace, she’d harbored that tiny spark of hope. At first she’d been a homesick thirteen-year-old girl seeking the familiar solace of a horse beneath her
and the emptiness of open fields. After her mother had passed when she was barely six years old, her father had sequestered himself in his office not to be bothered with raising his only child. The expansive Perfghast estate that had once been a home filled with her mother’s laughter had turned into a silent labyrinth of loneliness.
One night she’d been determined not to return to those suffocatingly empty rooms, to not cry herself to sleep and be woken by nightmares. She’d been shivering with her arms around her knees, curled up in one of the pastures when Bertrand had found her. The widower hunter had scooped her in his arms and taken her to his small stone house where his three young sons had fussed over her like a stray. She’d then spent her days exploring the woods with his sons and practicing shooting arrows through horseshoes.
Bertrand had been the one to bring her to the palace just before her thirteenth birthday. To be turned into a proper lady, her father had said, and to find a suitable husband to manage the business of the Perfghast estate. Bertrand’s voice had been gruff when he’d wished her well, wrapping her in a tight embrace and lifting her feet from the ground. His beard had caught the handful of tears he’d been unable to hide when he told her to keep her chin up, to take care of herself, and to be sure to keep up her archery practice.
The letter in her room was a sharp reminder of her avoided duty. There were now only months, not years, between her and the ladies’ gala and it loomed like a storm cloud she was trying, and failing, to outrun. Most young ladies were married within a year of the gala. If she hurried maybe she’d at least get a say.
The stone walls that surrounded the palace grounds rose ahead, the long-abandoned dragon roost towers still shrouded in misty gray, and Tori slowed her horse to a trot. She followed the worn path to the main iron gate which was open to the expansive stable yards and the training grounds beyond. The knights and squires were just stirring. Within an hour the training grounds would be bustling with the regimented schedule of sparring, drills, and exercises.
A large portion of the Calagonian forces were stationed at the training camps near the southeastern border, but the knights all began their training at the palace. The best of the best remained for further training as guards, marked by the green capes bearing the gold dragon insignia fastened to their shoulders.
Tori dismounted, leaving her horse to the attentive care of the stable hands, and entered the small training armory beside the stables. The stone building was narrow, lined with rows of simple breastplates, lances, and blunted training swords. Along the far wall were quivers and bows. Shouldering a full quiver, Tori selected a bow and strung it. The archery range behind the stables was usually empty just after dawn and she should have time for a little practice before breakfast.
Settling her bow on her back, she braided her hair, the dark amber locks twisting into curls at the ends. A bit of dragon fire, her mother had said. Tori had always envied her mother’s fiery red curls, the common trait of the Idesmoor clan, and wished hers were more like that flame.
A sharp twang, whistle, and dull thump pulled her up short as she rounded the corner to the range. The archer lowered his bow, reaching over his shoulder with a gloved hand for another arrow. Tori’s breath caught and every thought of that looming letter vanished when she recognized the dark, disheveled locks.
The archer paused, lowering his bow. “Miss me?” He turned, his eyes flashing though not as brilliantly as his smile.
“When?” Her chest constricted.
“Late last night. I’m honestly surprised I made it out of bed this morning.” He returned his arrow to the quiver and laid his bow on the low wall. He turned, running the gloved hand through the hair that clung to his forehead. “How are you, Torliana? Found any dragons yet?”
The smile that burst across her face erupted into a laugh as Tori ran to the open arms of her best friend. Crispin had been gone for nearly six months, following his eighteenth birthday, to train at the camps. He staggered a bit as she launched into him, but wrapped her tight and echoed her laugh, his breath warm on her neck.
“I missed you too,” he said.
“I found a map. I have so much to tell you!” Tori pushed back as he set her on her feet again. “You didn’t send a single letter while you were gone. I’m actually quite mad at you.” “I meant to, but General Aillard is stricter than Lord Rourke, if you can believe it. My every second was planned out for me.”
Crispin was taller, if that was possible, and had obviously benefited from the rigorous training schedule. His coat was snug across his broad shoulders and his arms when he’d lifted her…
“Good to see you’re back and clearly ready to train, Your Highness,” Lord Rourke, the Captain of the Guard, called, his voice booming across the range as he led a group of squires forward. “Prince or not, I won’t go easy on you.”
“Crown prince, heir to the throne, and I can’t get a day off,” Crispin muttered under his breath, but his smile was genuine as he strode forward to reclaim his bow and his spot at the low wall.
The handful of squires flowed to their places, each carrying a bow and quiver. These few, the sons of noblemen, were soon to be knighted along with Prince Crispin. Tori had trained with them daily since her arrival after gaining their respect with a quiverful of well-aimed arrows. She adjusted her quiver and nocked an arrow to her bowstring, drawing the fletched end to brush her cheek as she sighted down the shaft to the target. The supple wood of the bow creaked ever so slightly as she took aim.
A faint whistle followed by a dull thud. The arrow pierced just outside the center ring of the target.
“Off day?” Sam, to her left, said. He grinned as he drew, his gloved hand brushing his tanned and freckled cheek. The only son of the Lord of Kaernow, a small farming estate near the eastern border of Calagon, was perhaps her only rival on the archery range. His arrow hit the center with a thump.
“It’s just my first arrow,” Tori replied. Her second found the target’s center.
Sam chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to lose my competition.”
“Don’t get cocky or she’ll take it as a personal challenge,” Ayan said from Sam’s other side. His home estate of Karollinia was nestled in the rolling hills beside Kaernow, and he and Sam had grown up thick as thieves. Ayan cursed colorfully as his arrow embedded itself in the left corner, nearly toppling the target.
“You haven’t improved your aim in six months, Ayan?” Crispin said. He’d sunk four arrows in his target, all dancing around the center.
“You’re one to talk, Your Highness,” Ayan snapped, fitting another arrow to his string. “Did you spend the last six months behind a desk?”
“Give me a sword and I’ll show you what I’ve been doing,” Crispin said with a laugh.
“Did anyone dare take you on quite as fiercely as Ayan does?” Sam asked. “Not at first.” Another of Crispin’s arrows narrowly missed the center. “But once they’d gotten used to the idea of swinging a blade at the prince, I had my work cut out for me. It was a good six months.”
“I look forward to testing your new skills,” Raphael, Crispin’s second cousin, said. As heir to the Torshall estate, he was second only to the royal line. Every young lady at court had her eye on him, if not for his fortune then for his unrivaled good looks. He swore he didn’t spend a second on his perfectly swept chestnut locks, but no one woke up with hair that perfect every day.
On the other side of Raphael, Liam drew his final arrow. His shoulders dipped slightly as he released his steady breath and his arrow thumped into the center of his target. The only one of their group not of noble descent, Liam came from Tori’s home, the Perfghast estate. Bertrand’s second son had followed her to the palace for training. Summer evenings spent together fletching arrows for Bertrand had been filled with his grand plans to become a member of the royal guard, an honor typically reserved for the finest knights of the highest lineage.
“Sam and Tori, I believe you have another contender in your pissing matches,” Ayan said with a snort.
“Tori and I have been rivals since you sheared your first sheep, Sam,” Liam said. His grin brought out his deep dimples. “Though I do believe my father favored her.” “If you’re all just going to spend the morning chatting, why not set up a tea table and invite some of the ladies,” Lord Rourke said, his boots thumping in the packed dirt behind the row of squires. “Retrieve your arrows and get to the arena. Raphael and Sam, you’re first up with swords.”
Hand flat around an embedded arrow, Tori gave a quick tug and returned it to her quiver. Crispin joined her, his arrows in his fist. He leaned his shoulder against the target and Tori purposefully did not think about the warm tickle of his breath against her cheek as he leaned in close to say, “I have council meetings all afternoon and my mother wants to have dinner to discuss some news, probably about my sister, but I can come to your room after. I want to see this map.”
Tori’s mind drifted, unbidden, to that damned letter. How many more chances would she get to meet with her friend to discuss their hunt for dragons? A weight pressed on her chest. Shaking it off, she said, “I’ll be waiting,” and watched Crispin’s long strides carry him towards the armory. He really had gotten taller.
Stashing the arrows in her quiver, Tori ran her thumb along the curve of her bow as she looked down the line to Liam’s target. Counting her steps, she put twice as many yards between herself and the target. She smoothed the fletching of her arrow and nocked it to the bowstring. Planting her feet, she drew a deep breath. A misty breeze sent stray wisps of her braided hair dancing across her cheekbone. In one smooth motion she drew back her arrow, the fletching touching those stray wisps. Her muscles began to ache in a familiar, welcome sort of way, as she sighted her target’s dark green center.
Exhale. And release.
A whistle followed by a thud. The twang of the arrow shuddering where it had pierced the dead center of the target reverberated across the range.
A large shadow swept over the stable yards. The soft gray misty clouds shifted ever so slightly.
Something darker moved swiftly behind the gray cover. Then it was gone.
. . . . . .
The wide, marble-floored halls to the nobles’ apartments in the southern wing were a calm flow of activity. Pages, marked by their dark green uniform coats, trudged along in pairs undoubtedly at the beck and call of the knights they served. Servants carted canvas bins to the laundresses in the city at the base of the hill that housed the palace grounds. Many of the girls nodded and smiled as Tori passed. Some kitchen staff set about clearing the breakfast dishes from the rooms of the early-rising nobles while others delivered covered dishes to the late sleepers.
Tori reached the double doors of her chambers and, leaving her muddy boots outside, stepped in. As the heiress of one of the kingdom’s wealthiest estates she’d been given one of the most luxurious suites. Before a stone hearth she had a cozy sitting area with a settee, a pair of small leather armchairs, and a low table set atop a worn wool rug. A dressing room and tiled bathing area adjoined her bedroom which had large windows overlooking the orchards and, if she twisted just so, the tops of the city buildings.
The letter sat on the low table before the hearth. Tori’s stomach dropped and she turned away, unbuttoning her coat. “Sara?”
A rustling in the bathing room preceded Sara as she emerged, a bolt of fabric in her slender arms. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Crispin is back,” Tori said as she dropped onto the settee, eyeing the cursed letter.
“So I heard.”
Sara had been her companion since Tori was eight years old. Her father had brought her back from the southern country of Narda along with a new batch of stud horses. Someone to look after you, he’d said, though Sara was barely two years older. Tall, slender, and strikingly beautiful with silky black hair and smooth, golden skin, Sara looked more like an heiress than Tori thought she did. Though she was more like a sister, her Nardinian heritage kept her at an arm’s length from most of the other nobles. They didn’t care that her father had once been a well-respected elected governor of Narda’s capital city of Firoz.
“Did you read this letter?” Tori plucked it off the table, staring at the Perfghast seal.
“I did not. What did he say?” Sara sat beside her, untangling Tori’s hair as she unbraided it.
Two sentences. She could count on one hand how many letters her father had bothered to send since she’d come to the palace. This time he’d only bothered with two sentences.
My wife will be arriving soon to direct the process of choosing your suitor. You’ve put your duty off for too long.
He hadn’t even signed it. He hadn’t even told her when he’d remarried. The paper shook between Tori’s fingers as it had early that morning when she’d first read it. She knew Sara had read it over her shoulder and was glad she didn’t have to repeat the words. Smoothing Tori’s hair once more, Sara let out a small sigh of sympathy.
“The gala is still a couple months away. I can…” What could she do, really? She couldn’t outrun this. It was what was expected and, as the only child, there was no one else to take up the Perfghast name if she shied away from the responsibility. Perhaps she could at least barter for time. Perhaps she could plead with this new wife, her stepmother. She said as much to Sara.
“Or maybe she’ll be just as eager to get me married off so I’m not a drain on my father’s resources.”
“Don’t judge her before you meet her.” Sara’s steady voice, lilting with her Nardinian accent, had always been calming. Sara was everything Tori felt she wasn’t: poised, graceful, self-assured, free. Though she’d been dealt an awful hand at life all at once, she’d never let it dampen her spirits or her knowledge of her worth. She had been sold like a commodity to satisfy her late father’s debts, forced to leave her homeland, made to follow a noble’s daughter to a palace where she was often seen as less than the ladies’ maids who served the noblewomen of the court. Tori always hated to think that Sara had been given to her, though Sara’s sisterly presence in her life was indeed a gift.
“Crispin and I will be riding later so I will take dinner in my rooms,” Tori said, turning to face Sara and taking her hands. “Eat with me?”
. . . . . .
Rolling hills and open fields of swaying grass spread from the wall to the dense wood of towering pines before the Ruaidhri Mountains. Heavy clouds rolled across the sky, casting blankets of shadow over the patches of sunlit grasses. Dusk would be settling soon. Crispin’s hair was windswept into stiff peaks and his stallion was glistening with sweat, his snorts loud as he shook out his mane. Dismounting, Tori rubbed her horse’s dappled neck and squinted up at the dark-edged clouds on the horizon.
“We should make it back before the storm,” Crispin said as though he could read her thoughts. He glanced again at the open journal in her hands. “I wouldn’t exactly call this a map. Do the peaks line up at all?” He led the way into the woods, boots crunching on layers of fallen leaves and pine needles.
“Not that I could tell; I rode out here this morning. I wanted to try to find a better map in the library since the Dragon Knights don’t seem to have been skilled cartographers. This journal is mostly measurements and a training schedule.”
“You still haven’t found Eric’s journals?”
“No, and I’ve searched just about every inch of the archives.” The endless rain of last week had kept her inside long enough to drive the librarians crazy.
“And I’ve gone through the royal library in my father’s office. I brought everything I found about dragons to the camps with me. Just a lot of sketches and measurements, like the Dragon Knight journals. And lists of Dragon Knights.”
A whole lot of nothing, per usual.
My wife will be arriving soon to direct the process of choosing your suitor. More likely to make the choice for her if she refused. Time was ripping the ground from beneath her feet, leaving her on an unsteady precipice with only one path forward. “We need to find something soon.”
“Why the urgency?” Crispin cast her a sidelong, questioning look.
Part of her wanted to show him the letter; he was her closest friend and trusted confidant. But something about letting it enter their friendship twisted her gut.
“Because…because with spring approaching the dragons should be broadening their hunting grounds and there could be more curious yearlings. We have a better chance of spotting something, anything, if we don’t put it off.” She wanted to try while she still had the freedom to do so.
The evening sunlight barely reached through the thick canopy as they ventured deeper. Tori drew a small dagger from her belt and marked their path with a few slashes in tree trunks. Chittering animals and bird calls occasionally joined the quiet swishing of the trees. A faint watery gurgle grew as they reached a clearing and Tori scraped another mark on the trunk of a sturdy oak.
“If we can find the stream we could follow it to its source,” she said. The air was chilling as evening stretched and the shadows grew. She rubbed her hands together to bring warmth to her fingertips. Crispin was a few paces ahead in a pale patch of sunlight, scanning the higher branches of the ring of birches that circled the clearing. Dodging a small stack of smooth rocks, she joined him.
“What do you make of that mark?” he asked, pointing to one of the pines beyond the ring of curly-barked birches. The pine appeared to have lost a patch of bark just above its lowest branch. “I can’t tell if it’s a shadow or if there’s a gouge.”
A sharp wind rustled the branches and swirled the dry leaves at their feet. Tori shivered again and followed the sound of the stream. Crispin fell into step beside her, his shoulder half a head taller than her. How was it even possible for him to have grown so much in just six months? His jaw seemed sharper, his arms thicker, his hands rougher.
“I really did miss you,” he said, and she quickly glanced away, hoping he hadn’t noticed her contemplative inspection. “And I’m sorry I didn’t write. I wanted to. Messengers only come to the camps once a month and I missed him the first time. The next two months he was delayed, something about activity near the border.”
“The Alharzatian border?”
“Merchants, I heard. We haven’t had trade with Alharzat since before the war. Our borders make it extremely difficult for them to reach Narda, though, and I’m honestly surprised we haven’t heard anything from them sooner.”
“Should we be worried?” Tori sniffed, nose wrinkling. What was that rancid smell?
“I don’t think we have any reason to be. The treaty didn’t forbid travel between our nations. We haven’t had spies across their borders in decades, but my father doesn’t believe we need to send eyes and ears just because merchants are stirring. And he’s a bit preoccupied with my sister’s upcoming engagement.”
“Princess Ciara accepted a suitor?”
“I’m not sure I’d say she accepted. The Lord of Forla has been quite persistent. He manages our trade routes and relations with Narda and wants to climb the ranks by marrying his eldest son to the Princess.”
You’ve put off your duty for too long.
Tori shoved her father’s letter from her mind. Once an advantageous match had been made for her, she’d be forced to leave her friends and the palace which was more home to her than Perfghast had been. Married off to some nobleman she surely wouldn’t be able to spend her evenings trekking through the woods with Crispin. While she wasn’t opposed to the idea of marriage, the icy fingers of fear gripped her at the thought of being bartered and trapped. What had her mother thought of being wed to the Lord of Perfghast? Had she mourned having to leave the Idesmoor lands? Had she wanted the match? Had she even liked him? Tori had never had a chance to ask her such questions. The ache in her heart that she’d years ago buried deep and locked tightly swelled.
That rancid smell filled Tori’s nose again. Her boot knocked against something in the underbrush and she glanced down, toeing the leaves aside. A flash of white. Something hard. Then a buzzing and a cluster of flies and a writhing bunch of maggots. Buried under the leaves was a ribcage with bits of rotten flesh still clinging to the bones. Uncovered, the smell was overwhelming and Tori covered her mouth and nose, stumbling back.
“What is it?” Crispin asked, covering his mouth and nose with his elbow as he leaned over her shoulder. “It’s too big to have been a rabbit or fox. More likely a stag.” Tori kicked at the leaves nearby and uncovered more scattered bones. The long, thick bones of the legs were close to one another, but there were only three. A few steps further she found the fourth, snapped in half. “It would have to be a large predator to snap bones like this.” She thought of the stags Bertrand had hunted, how they’d leapt through the fields in powerful bounds when dusk neared.
“Some sort of mountain cat?” Crispin suggested. He’d moved in the other direction where he’d found more bones.
Or a dragon.
Tori didn’t dare say the words, didn’t dare fan the flicker of hope. Finding dragons wouldn’t change her fate. Her father would still demand her duty as heiress be fulfilled whether or not dragons were extinct. But perhaps he would stop thinking she was a fool, her head filled with ‘those ridiculous stories’ her mother had told her. Perhaps she’d discover a different kind of freedom beyond the bounds of the earth. A winged freedom.
The shadows lengthened in the woods. Crispin was many paces ahead, finding the marks she’d left in the trees to make their way back.
A sudden whoosh of air swept down followed by the crackling snap of dozens of small branches. Dry leaves crunched. A huff. Warm, moist air tickled the back of her neck.
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