DRAGON RESCUE – Part 2

DRAGON RESCUE – The Captive Draman is the conclusion of a two-part story which began with Dragon Quest and is the final installment in my series of fantasy novelettes. This FREE serialized novella won’t be found anywhere else, and you get to see it first – but only for a limited time!

An enemy ambush leaves Croft imprisoned and Rueloo injured. When Spiredale learns of his capture, a special team is sent to Pinnacle to rescue him and end the despotic reign of Whitehaven’s king. In a plan fraught with risk, who will pay the price to set Croft free and reunite him with his dragon? Prepare for the exciting conclusion in DRAGON RESCUE!

Author’s Note – the books must be read in order to be understood, beginning with Dragon Child, Dragon Valley, Dragon Bonds, and Dragon Quest.

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Dragon Rescue by Alexander Elliott

First Edition     Copyright © 2019

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written permission of the author. This includes any means whether electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system. UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION OR DISTRIBUTION OF THIS COPYRIGHTED WORK IS ILLEGAL AND SUBJECT TO PUNISHMENT BY LAW.

For permissions and other inquiries, contact Alexander Elliott at aelliottbooks@gmail.com

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DRAGON RESCUE – PART 2

 

Chapter 7

Dramanshire, mid-afternoon, the same day

With the long day’s lesson completed, Dane and his men packed up the training equipment. The Draman and their dragons stood nearby, spending a few moments together before the children returned to the tower for chores and the evening meal. Since Dane needed to see Wheet, he planned to send his companions back to Orchid, intending to follow later. He was about to send for the horses when the tower door flew open with a loud crack.

Margery, tears streaming and hair askew, rushed towards him and latched onto his arm.

“Our poor Croft! There is a message from the king. Come quickly!”

Expecting the worst, Dane ordered his men to wait and asked Sabina to get Echo and the hatchlings ready for a flight. Margery refused to let him go as they hurried back to the tower. Inside, he found Hugh comforting a white-faced and weeping Juliana. Hugh’s troubled expression told him almost as much as the tiny scroll.

“Augustus, King of Spiredale, to the orphanage at Dramanshire and NestMaster Wheet: News of Croft. The presence of Wheet, Captain Dane, Echo, and Sabina are hereby requested immediately to confer. Most urgent.”

As a father, Dane’s heart filled with dread; yet he was also a soldier who had been summoned by the king. There would be time later for worry, and he began handing out orders.

“Margery, prepare food and water for travel. Hugh, gather the children for prayers and do thy best to comfort them. If the king sends us to Pinnacle, it may be some time before we return. We will send word when more is known.”

Dane returned to his men, explained the situation, and passed on orders for Lieutenant Umfrey to take command in his absence. Both Draman and dragon were told what little he knew and several pairs chose to accompany him, Echo, and Sabina to see the nestmaster. Margery reappeared with their provisions and swept Dane into a rib-cracking hug. She smelled of tears and baking bread, and Dane gave up his usual restraint, allowing her to sniffle on his shoulder for a moment. He finally released her and stepped back, but she wasn’t finished.

“I know not what ill has befallen our Croft, and I bless the king for sending thee. Bring them both and thyself home, Captain, and Godspeed!”

Caught up in her emotions, Dane boldly leaned down to kiss her chastely on the cheek with a whispered promise and request.

“Thee have my word, and I covet thy prayers.”

Flustered and red-faced, the poor girl rushed back into the tower. Dazed by the rather intimate encounter, he turned to find Sabina watching him with a knowing smile. Moments later they were airborne. It would take hours to collect Wheet, reach Rose, and discover what lay behind the king’s urgent message. Keeping his worst fears at bay would be difficult, but his heart told him one thing clearly; he would sacrifice anything to bring his son safely home.

####

Early evening, en route to Rose

After sending a message via carrier pigeon to Dramanshire, the king made several quick decisions before heading home from the seashore. First, he commandeered the Whitehaven vessel, ordering Barda’s men to treat them as guests until further notice. Second, Augustus explained to Whitehaven’s envoy, Lord Wallington, that he must confer with his ministers before responding to the message. The oblivious man claimed not to know the actual contents of the communique he bore, though Augustus found this difficult to believe. At the moment, only Commander Barda knew what the foreign missive contained, and he was sworn to secrecy.

Favian’s response to the diplomatic note he sent via Croft and Rueloo was… unimaginable for a simple expression of condolence and an offer of friendship. To have dispatched a ship all the way to Spiredale was extremely unusual, to say nothing of an envoy on a secret mission for his sovereign! None of it made sense until Augustus read the message, and he cursed his own foolishness for putting Croft in harm’s way.

This entire affair would have to be handled delicately if he wanted to avoid war, but there were other considerations. Croft was in danger, Rueloo’s condition unknown, and his relationship with the dragons in jeopardy. Amid a roiling stomach and too much time to think, Augustus suffered an internal battle of the mind and heart. Could he save his friend and protect the kingdom at the same time? Somehow he must – yet the solution, for now, eluded him.

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Rose, after dark

From Wheet’s back, Dane spotted a large circle of torches on the palace lawn, guiding them to their usual landing place. The dragons and Draman enjoyed traveling at night; he found it eerie and uncomfortable. More important, he was glad to have finally arrived, eager to learn exactly why they were summoned. He and Wheet, along with Echo, Sabina and the four dragonlets landed within the large circle, while the reinforcements settled in around the small lake nearby. Dane and Sabina dismounted as the king and several torchbearers approached. The king wasted no time on formalities.

“I am pleased ye came so quickly. We will meet with my counselors to discuss what has transpired, but I want ye to know first. Croft has been captured and is being held prisoner at Whitehaven.”

Dane flinched, Sabina gasped, and both dragons growled ominously at the news. Augustus then directed his remarks at Wheet, translated by Sabina.

“I take full responsibility for this tragedy. My diplomatic note must have brought Croft to Favian’s attention.”

Smoke billowed from Wheet’s nostrils; claws kneading the soft ground.

“You are not to blame, for it was I who sent them. What of Rueloo?”

“We do not know. The envoy knows nothing of Croft’s capture, or even the contents of Favian’s note! He is, in fact, little more than a messenger. I do not expect to glean further information from him.”

“What is to be done?”

“I will not leave Croft in enemy hands. I asked ye here to help us make plans, and we will speak more after thee and thy friends have eaten. Meet us at the new dragon stables.”

Dane and Sabina followed the king into the palace to eat and freshen up while Wheet, Echo, and the dragonlets flew off to the lake, joining the others for their meal. It all made for a somber mood, but it relieved Augustus to know Wheet’s anger was not, as he feared, directed at him.

 

Chapter 8

The enormous new stone and timber structure was built on the pattern of a horse stable. Large doors on either end of the building kept out winds, rain and snow, while the interior held individual stalls for the privacy and comfort of each bonded pair. Several oversized fireplaces would help keep the interior warm during the cold winter months. The building was not currently in use, since Draman were not scheduled to begin their palace training until the spring. Each of the six dragons rested comfortably in a stall, their long necks enabling them to see and hear what took place in the central stone-paved corridor.

Augustus and his advisers were seated around a long table, strewn with maps and surrounded by torchbearers. Other than Augustus, only the minister of war knew what Favian’s message said. The king himself stood to read it.

“To Augustus, King of Spiredale, from His Royal Majesty, Favian of Whitehaven.

I have been informed of thy riches in gold and the dragons which protect thee. The nearby nation of Pinnacle has become a thorn in my side and must be removed.  I call upon thee to send thy dragons to my aid in destroying this troublesome nest.

“I have in my possession the child known as Croft. If thee wish to see him released unharmed, neither delay nor refuse to come to my aid. If necessary, the child will be executed as a spy and we will then take by force what thee refuse to give freely.

Thee will send a response within five days by the hand of Lord Wallington aboard the Falcon.”

 The reaction, as he knew it would, filled the large building with growls and shouts of incredulity. The boldness and audacity of this man went beyond the bounds of decency and reason! What he demanded was simply not possible, yet they must respond quickly or Croft would die. The king waited patiently to address them while they worked through their initial anger.

Dane, almost out of his mind with worry, needed to DO SOMETHING and do it now. Augustus caught his eye, and with a reassuring nod, let him know he was thinking the same thing. The king rapped one knuckle on the tabletop, bringing the confused babel to a halt. With Sabina’s help, he turned to address the agitated dragons.

“NestMaster Wheet, how does the nest respond to Favian’s message?”

Wisps of dark smoke escaped his open mouth, even as his wings trembled.

“We are at peace with the nest of Pinnacle, and will not help Favian destroy them. He must know we would defend Spiredale if his people attacked us here. If he was not holding one of our own, we would not involve ourselves. Croft must be rescued. If he harms the child or Rueloo – he will die.”

The humans gave hearty approval to Wheet’s words, yet Augustus noticed Dane had stopped his nervous fidgeting, apparently deep in thought and unaware of his surroundings. He wondered what the man could be thinking and stilled the room once again with an upraised hand to address him.

“Of all the souls assembled here, thee have the greatest claim on Croft. Do thee have an idea, Captain?”

Startled out of his thoughts, Dane looked up to find everyone waiting for him to speak.

“I would leave this very moment to rescue my son, but we must work together. If Favian truly believed he could conquer Spiredale, he would not be holding Croft. He needs the dragons to fight each other because he cannot. Did ye notice he mentioned “thorn” in his message? Perhaps he believes our dragons are nothing more than a winged army, to be sent wherever we wish. Since they fought Thorn for us, why not for him? Favian clearly does not understand our connection with the dragons or how they think.”

Dane’s ideas met with hearty agreement, though he was not finished. With a nod, Augustus gave the shrewd soldier permission to continue.

“What if… what if we appear to do what Favian demands? Send the ship back to Whitehaven with a message saying we and the dragons will arrive within the five days, but will not attack unless we have assurances of Croft’s safety. When we reach Pinnacle, we can secretly confer with them and find out what is truly happening. They may already have plans to rescue Croft or at least be able to help us.”

Dane’s idea closely matched the king’s earlier discussion with the minister of war, and Augustus smiled broadly. Enthusiastic discussion broke out among the assembly, and while dragons were unskilled at subterfuge, they believed the idea had merit. With a basic plan in place, the group worked well into the night discussing details until everyone was satisfied – well, almost everyone.

It seemed both Wheet and Augustus, feeling responsible for Croft’s predicament, intended to lead the expedition themselves, and the others simply wouldn’t have it. With a stubborn unanimity, the nestmaster and the king were convinced they could not be risked. Besides, if something went wrong and Whitehaven attacked, their leadership would be sorely needed here at home. Neither was happy about the compromise, but they understood the reasons and, grudgingly, agreed with them.

The Whitehaven ship would be sent off first thing in the morning with a carefully crafted message. Lord Wallington would have no reason to suspect any type of deception from Spiredale, and his report to Favian would give the foreign king a useful overconfidence. Once the ship left port, the contingent of human, dragon, and Draman would head directly for Pinnacle using a different route.

Except for Wheet, the others were all part of the rescue effort and bedded down for the night to get some much-needed sleep. Though the nestmaster did not normally travel alone, someone was needed to take word back to Dramanshire. Being awakened so early would not be appreciated, but supplies must be gathered and the Draman ready to leave at first light. Once they learned of their mission, no one would even think of complaining.

 

Chapter 9

Following yesterday’s overwhelming victory, the last thing Pinnacle expected was an offer of truce from Whitehaven. Favian’s unctuous ambassador waited on the terrace as Zelara and Mirabelle met with their advisers. On the surface, Favian’s desire to make peace seemed reasonable. After all, Pinnacle clearly held the advantage and Whitehaven risked losing much more if things continued to escalate. So, while they welcomed the overture, something about it felt distinctly wrong.

Without making a final decision, Zelara dismissed the advisers and sent Mirabelle to fetch Merek. His response to the peaceful overture surprised neither of them.

“My brother is both clever and ruthless – do not trust him. His goal is to destroy thee, not make peace. I suspect he is stalling for time before making his next move.”

Mirabelle spoke first.

“What iss it thee expect him to do?”

Merek’s expression soured.

“I was uncertain until last night when Quinn passed on information from one of my palace spies. The very night they took Croft, Favian summoned a special envoy and sent him off in his fastest ship on a secret mission – headed south.”

Neither Mirabelle nor Zelara seemed to grasp his meaning.

“Consider this – at present, Favian cannot defeat thee alone and went to great lengths to capture Croft. Why? The child is not important to him, only the kingdom from which he came. Spiredale has two things Favian desperately wants; gold and… dragons.”

Zelara gnashed her teeth and growled as she began to understand her enemy’s twisted thinking. Using Croft as a pawn of war was abhorrent. Pitting one nest of dragons against another spoke of madness.

“This cannot be! How could Favian compel Spiredale to join him against us?”

Mirabelle translated, battling both fear and indignation.

“There are many ways. The most obvious is to threaten Croft’s life or perhaps military action. If my suspicions are correct, we have only a few days to prepare before they arrive. We know very little about Spiredale, but there is someone on Pinnacle who may be able to answer our questions.”

####

Rueloo grunted with pain as the healers manipulated the joints of her wing. Leaving it extended for days on end without use left her stiff and aching, and she longed to touch the sky once again. Though the wing continued to mend, and the healers believed she would fully recover in time, she was still grounded and limited in her movements. When they finished the exercises, a soothing balm mixed with gold dust was applied to ease the pain. She settled down to rest, allowing her injured wing to soak up the warm sunshine as she daydreamed of Croft and her precious hatchlings.

Zelara’s scent reached Rueloo long before she arrived at the temporary shelter. She, too, remained unable to fly until her belly healed and the scales re-grew. While Mirabelle could now walk without too much difficulty, she chose to ride; proudly seated on Zelara’s back. As they always did, the pair spoke to the healers first about Rueloo’s condition, pleased with her progress. Mirabelle spoke with her mind, intent to keep the conversation private.

“One of our advisers has suggested Croft is being held to ensure Spiredale’s cooperation.”

Puzzled, Rueloo lifted her head.

“I do not understand. What could Favian want from Spiredale?”

“It is believed he wants thy nest to attack us. Is this possible?”

Black smoke billowed from Rueloo’s flared nostrils.

“NO! We are at peace with Pinnacle. Neither Wheet nor Augustus would ever agree to such a thing!”

 “And if he threatened Croft’s life? We believe thy people are on their way, and we do not know what to expect.”

 Rueloo’s deep growl vibrated the ground and she turned her attention to Zelara.

“If our people are coming to Pinnacle, it will be to rescue Croft, and they cannot do so without consulting you. I tell you, sister, if Favian has threatened to harm my beloved, it will be his final mistake.”

Zelara had every reason to believe Rueloo’s words, and they ignited a spark of hope.

“Then you expect them to enlist our help rather than attack?”

 “Yes. Even if they have plans of their own, you have nothing to fear. Alert your scouts to keep a careful watch.”

Zelara’s worry disappeared like a wisp of smoke in the wind.

“I will, sister. Their help may be the key to our success. Together, we must find a way to turn Favian’s plans on his own head and remove Croft from the castle unharmed. And, if we are fortunate, the people of Whitehaven will soon have an important choice to make.”

Rueloo did not know what Zelara referred to, but it warmed her heart knowing her people were on their way. Her only wish, aside from being reunited with Croft, was the death of Whitehaven’s king.

####

To keep Croft from being harmed, Favian must believe his plans were bearing fruit. Though it galled Zelara to deal with Whitehaven’s oily ambassador, she made a show of cooperating with the peace negotiations, buying time for the delegation from Spiredale to arrive. Meanwhile, she encouraged Prince Merek and the queen mother to begin plotting his ascension to the throne. It would be a delicate process; fraught with danger and depending on the goodwill and assistance of others.

Spiredale’s involvement remained unknown. How many were coming? What was their purpose? Would they cooperate with Pinnacle? Instead of uniting Whitehaven’s people under Merek’s leadership, a single misstep could cause unwanted bloodshed and needless division. Revealing the Prince’s existence and intentions too soon created a situation which might actually backfire; resulting in sympathy for Favian. In the end, Merek would have to risk everything to take his place on the throne. Only time would tell the best way to proceed, and it was running out.

 

Chapter 10

Day three, aboard the Falcon

Roused from a fitful sleep by the first mate, Lord Wallington left his narrow bunk to appear on deck. The sun, a thin sliver on the horizon, revealed the familiar and welcome shores of Whitehaven. With thanks to God for a fast voyage, Wallington heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of home. Following a brief consultation with the captain, he scurried below to gather his things and conclude this curious assignment.

He waited patiently as the vessel returned to port, docked, and then received permission to depart. Wallington’s sea legs forced him to step carefully; no doubt a source of amusement to the watching sailors. He paid them no heed, and with the sealed message from Spiredale tucked safely in his dress tunic, hired a carriage to take him to the castle. Whatever this business between Favian and Augustus meant, he was eager to give his report and hoped never to be sent anywhere by ship again.

####

After careful questioning, Favian dismissed Lord Wallington with a flick of his wrist and retired to his private chambers to read the missive from Spiredale. Hands shaking, he broke the heavy wax seal and unrolled the scroll.

“To Favian, King of Whitehaven, from His Royal Majesty, Augustus of Spiredale.

Thy message has been received and understood. A large contingent of dragons and their riders should appear within two days of the arrival of thy envoy. They bring with them as much gold as could be carried. Once Croft is released to us, Captain Dane will commence with the battle. Victory shall be ours!”

Favian’s lip briefly curled upwards as he read the message over twice more. Short and somewhat ambiguous, it promised the very assistance he’d demanded. The child must indeed be as valuable to Augustus as Favian assumed. He, of course, would not release the boy until every Pinnacle dragon was dead. If they refused to cooperate he could always execute the filthy little scalie and use his fleet of ships to take what he wanted from Spiredale. With enough gold he could afford the troops and weapons needed to smash Pinnacle into the dust.

It was time to reveal his plans to the war minister and begin planning the attack. First, however, there was someone he wished to see.

####

Croft’s cell

Quinn unwrapped Croft’s arm, setting aside the wooden planks, gold bars and bandages so he could examine the limb closely. Probing gently, he noticed no bruising, swelling, or complaints of pain. In his experience, this type of complete healing in such a short time was akin to a miracle. Obviously, those bonded to a dragon enjoyed some distinct advantages. When Croft demonstrated normal use of the hand and arm without discomfort, Quinn slipped the gold bars into his satchel and set about re-wrapping the splint.

“I know this bothers thee, child, but if thee were completely human the splint would remain for many more days. It is best to hide thy abilities, especially around the soldiers or the king.”

Croft nodded and smiled at the kind man.

“I thank thee, Quinn. How iss Rueloo?”

The healer winked at Croft and finished tying off the bandages.

“Rueloo’s wing is almost completely healed, but she cannot yet fly. She misses thee terribly and sends her love.”

“Oh! Tell her to be careful and that I dream of her at night. When can sshe come for me?”

Quinn glanced nervously at the closed cell door and lowered his voice.

“Listen carefully, child. Rueloo cannot come, but thy friends from Spiredale will be here soon. Their true mission is to rescue thee, though Favian thinks they are coming to help him fight Pinnacle. There may be a battle, even if a way is found to get thee out safely.”

Croft was taken aback. Tears welled up as he realized his people were coming for him!

“When? Will it be today?”

Quinn hated to disappoint the boy, and lay an open hand on his mop of dark curls.

“No, not today, but very soon. There now, child, do not cry. Perhaps Moss and Catrain will be able to tell thee more tonight.”

The conversation ended abruptly with the arrival of someone outside the cell. When the guard was heard to say, “Thy Majesty”, Croft’s heart began to pound. Quinn whispered a final admonition.

“Remember – thee know nothing except what has happened in this cell. Take care with what thee say and do not provoke him!”

As the door opened, Quinn placed his ear against Croft’s chest, pretending to listen to his heart. The guard’s words brought both of them to their feet.

“Rise for His Royal Majesty!”

Favian swept into the small room, glanced about quickly, and settled on the pair before him. Quinn gave a half-bow, encouraging Croft to do the same. He felt no allegiance to this man, only hatred and anger at what he’d done. With some difficulty, Croft kept his thoughts to himself and stared at the floor. Finally, the king spoke.

“Why did thee come to Pinnacle?”

Dragging eyes upward, Croft looked at his enemy for the first time. Though nothing at all like Augustus, he certainly looked like a king. Favian was well-muscled and tall, with dark features and a stern, bearded face. Croft swallowed.

“We came to vissit the dragonss.”

Favian considered the simple answer briefly before replying.

“Did ye? And why would thy king send a message to us by the hand of a mere child?”

“I do not know. Do thee wissh to ssend me home with a ressponsse?”

Favian grunted in amusement.

“No. Thee will remain here as long as I find thee useful.”

Favian then turned to Quinn.

“Thee have cared well for the scalie. Is the arm healing?”

“Yes, Thy Majesty. If I may be so bold, it would do the child much good to walk about the palace grounds. Fresh air and sunshine may also help to lift his spirits.”

Favian’s eyes narrowed as he considered the request.

“Very well. Thee are responsible for him, healer. Should anything unfortunate happen, it will be thy head. The guards will accompany thee.”

With a swish of purple robes, Favian turned to exit the cell, giving the guards new instructions before making his way down the long winding staircase. He believed the scalie knew more than he was willing to reveal, yet it made no difference. The dragons of Spiredale were on their way, bringing victory over his enemies at last. Once the child served his purpose, nothing else mattered.

 

Chapter 11

Near Pinnacle, after moonrise that same day

Dane leaned forward to stroke Cymbal’s neck as they neared the island chain, prompting a friendly growl in response. He’d come to know the great green-scaled beast very well on the exhausting journey here and wished he could speak mind-to-mind with him as the Draman did. During their frequent stops for food, water, and rest, Dane relied on Sabina to translate for them. His curiosity about the dragon was exceeded only by his concern for Croft, and they forged a unique bond of sorts.

Dane did not consider himself to be the best leader of the mission, believing one of the seasoned generals a more suitable choice. Once he heard Croft was being held captive, he intended to go to Pinnacle, with or without the king’s blessing. Augustus had other ideas. When he’d voiced his doubts, the king assured him of his unique qualifications.

“Captain, there is no other I would trust in this matter. Thee are a brave and accomplished soldier, are already familiar with the dragons, have a firm grasp of what must be done, and will put Crofts’ safety above all else. Tell me, on whose shoulders should this task rest, if not thine?”

Put in those terms, and in front of the kingdom’s trusted advisers, Dane acquiesced. The other chief concern was the youth and inexperience of his team. At first, he expected to take other battle-tested soldiers with him, not the Draman. Again, the king convinced him they were the best choice available.

“I understand thy concern, Captain, both as thy King and as a father. I do not send my precious Draman without misgivings, yet they are the only ones who can communicate with their dragons, have experience flying, and know how to defend themselves. Thee have trained them well and know what they can do. Thee will find no one more motivated than they to bring Croft and Rueloo home safely, and there is no combatant more fierce than one who has been wronged. I almost pity the ones who will face them when the time comes.”

Since landing earlier in the day, all nine pairs enjoyed the hospitality of a friendly nest of forest dragons. Early on, they were told of Croft and Rueloo’s visit on their way to Pinnacle, and that Moss and Catrain were even now deep inside enemy territory. Dane and the others were relieved to discover Rueloo was recovering from her injuries on the island of Dome, and not dead as feared. They were shocked by Whitehaven’s ambush, and saddened by the deaths and injuries among their Pinnacle comrades. If nothing else, it made them more determined to rescue Croft and put a stop to Whitehaven’s aggression.

The forest dragons knew nothing of more recent events, and they urged Dane to be cautious. Only two dragons would be going in tonight so as not to raise alarms, and they would determine when to signal for the others to join them. Several scouts from the nest were selected to wait on the southwestern shore of the sea; close enough to relay messages from the advance team headed for the islands. Once the moon lit up the night sky, Dane, Cymbal, Sabina and Echo started on their brief journey.

Detouring to the west took longer than a direct flight, but it would prevent them from being spotted. Now, the moon glistened across the still water, revealing the mostly dark islands ahead. Dome, as the largest, was easily recognized and, for some reason, partially lit. Though very unlikely, it was almost as though they were expecting visitors at this time of night.

At his signal, Cymbal announced their arrival with his distinct call and they slowed their approach. Moments later, four dragons and their riders rose from Dome’s surface, heading in their direction with a friendly call of welcome. When they were close enough, Cymbal told them who they were and what they wanted. The response was immediate.

“You are expected. Our NestMistress and her scale-sister are waiting to welcome you.”

Echo changed position so Sabina could get close enough to shout an explanation to Dane. Arriving over the island, they were guided towards a broad, torch-lit terrace. Before they could land a familiar call burst happily through the cool, dark air and Dane’s heart leapt with joy at the sound.

“Rueloo!”

Both Echo and Cymbal answered her, and a glance at Sabina revealed a wide smile. When they landed, the four of them surrounded her with laughter and hugs. She responded with wet licks, growls of joy and a swaying tail. Dane, foregoing all decorum, threw his arms around the beautiful blue beast while Sabina translated for him.

“Rueloo! I have missed thee so! We have come to rescue Croft and return ye safely to Dramanshire. What can thee tell me of my son?”

“He was injured in the attack and taken prisoner. I am told his arm is fully healed now and he yearns for home. Catrain and Moss have been speaking with him in secret each night. He will be very happy to see you.”

Before he could respond, she asked Echo how her hatchlings fared.

“They are well and strong, but miss thee and Croft. The nestmaster is caring for them until thee return.”

Rueloo was surprised Wheet would take on four energetic little ones and wondered what kind of things they were learning from him in her absence. While it was a highly unusual task for a NestMaster, she trusted him to keep them safe.

Dane reached up to stroke her neck, happy to see her again and hoping to reunite her with his son very soon. Abruptly, he realized two strangers were waiting to speak with him. He bowed to the orange-scaled dragon and rider and introduced himself.

“Captain Dane, of His Royal Majesty’s forces at Spiredale. We have come to rescue Croft and assist ye in defeating Whitehaven.”

Zelara lowered her head to scent him and the others, growling in satisfaction. Sabina continued to translate.

“Welcome to Pinnacle, my friends. I am Zelara and this is my scale-sister, Mirabelle. Much has happened here and time is short. Have you brought others with you?”

 “Yes, there are seven more waiting with the forest dragons for our signal.”

“Call them. Once everyone is settled we have many things to discuss.”

 

Chapter 12

The next morning

The large central cavern was crowded. At a large table sat Zelara’s advisers, while the dragons and Draman formed a tight circle around it. At Dane’s insistence, all of his people were included in the meetings and Zelara welcomed them.

First, the situation between Pinnacle and Whitehaven was explained – including the attack involving Croft and the subsequent destruction of Whitehaven’s weapons. Dane then read the message from Favian and Spiredale’s response, confirming what Zelara already suspected. Lastly, Dane and the others were introduced to Prince Merek and his plans to take Favian’s throne. The surprising revelation required him to hastily re-think his orders.

Dane glanced up at Zelara, nodded respectfully, and then addressed his concerns to Mirabelle.

“Do ye trust this man to replace thine enemy?”

“We do. Our nationss enjoyed peace and prossperity under his father’s rule, and will once again when Merek becomess King. It iss not an eassy thing to ally thysself with sstrangers, yet we assk thee to trusst uss.”

Glancing at Merek, Dane continued.

“My instructions from the king were to rescue Croft and assist Pinnacle in defeating the enemy. If possible, we are to destroy Whitehaven’s fleet of ships and cripple their forces. I presume Prince Merek would prefer a more… reasoned approach?”

When the laughter subsided, Merek stood to speak.

“Indeed, Captain Dane! As Augustus knew nothing of my plans, his orders were quite reasonable. We are all agreed Favian must be stopped, but there is a way to accomplish our goals without further bloodshed and destruction. By sundown tomorrow, and with heaven’s blessing, Croft shall be free and Whitehaven will have a new king!”

####

Whitehaven, mid-morning

The trumpeter’s alarm startled Lord Montague and he rushed from the command tent to find out what was going on. His third-regiment soldiers were pointing at the sky amid fearful shouts. Dragons! With Pinnacle’s latest attack fresh in their minds, and no ballistas for defense, they were an easy target. Curiously, the dragons did not seem intent on attacking, even as they surrounded he and his men from above.

One of the great beasts, carrying a long white banner of truce in its jaws, came in for a landing on the nearby clearing. Two robed and hooded figures dismounted and approached. With one dragon on the ground and a dozen more in the air above, it was obvious who held the upper hand. With a brief gesture, Montague ordered the men to lower their weapons and stepped forward, curious who Zelara might have sent to see him – and why.

Without a word, the taller figure pointed at Montague and his second in command before gesturing to the tent behind them. Apparently, whatever they had come to say required privacy, and he was in no position to refuse them. As they turned to go, the dragon followed – effectively blocking the entrance as it guarded the mysterious visitors. Inside the tent, Montague and his officer faced the strangers, waiting for an explanation.

Once again the taller figure moved first, reaching up to draw back the hood and expose his face. Shock and confusion wrenched disbelieving gasps from both soldiers, and the robed man put a finger to his lips to quiet them. It couldn’t be! Where has he been? What was happening here? The figure simply smiled as both men dropped to one knee, heads bowed. Montague’s whisper was thick with emotion.

“Prince Merek! We feared thee dead or missing, Thy Highness.”

“As thee were meant to, my friend. The time has come to take my place on Whitehaven’s throne. Will thee stand with me?”

Both men smiled, relief warring with surprise. Montague replied.

“I will, indeed, my Prince. How may I serve?”

Unprepared for another shock, the second figure slipped free of the hood and the men gaped at the apparition before them. Everyone knew the queen mother was long dead; yet here she stood beside her son, a lively twinkle in her eyes.

“Lord Montague. It pleases me to see thee once again. What we ask of thee is not without risk to thyself, but before we proceed I would have a pledge of loyalty to my son.”

Both men willingly repeated the ancient words, swearing allegiance to Merek alone as their sovereign. Merek then bid them rise and quickly got down to business.

“Bring me the most trustworthy of thy men. Once they have pledged their loyalty, thee must quietly detain any of thy number who support Favian. I cannot allow my brother to get wind of this or there will be bloodshed. Consult with thy spies and pull in the scouts and watchmen. Every man must be accounted for. When all is in order, we will do the same for the second regiment in the north.”

Montague looked uneasy.

“What of the first regiment at the castle? Is it thy plan to attack?”

Merek glanced at his mother, an impish grin on his face.

“Not exactly, Lord Montague. We have allies who are planning something of a surprise for the king. We will discuss it later. For now, we must move quickly.”

####

By nightfall, two thirds of Whitehaven’s forces pledged themselves to Merek. Favian’s spies and loyalists were rooted out, resulting in the quiet detention of a few dozen men, now closely guarded at a remote outpost. At the same time, the prince sent word to his own network of spies to round up Favian’s eyes and ears at large, lest word get back to the king before Merek could spring the trap. Well into the night, he and the queen mother met with Lord Montague and others, explaining their carefully crafted plan to remove Favian from the throne with as little bloodshed and disturbance as possible. If all went well, this dark chapter of Whitehaven’s history would be soon be forgotten.

####

Croft’s cell, later that night

Something was happening near the castle and Croft lay quietly in the darkness listening to the muted shouts of soldiers even as the acrid smell of smoke wafted in from outside. Since Moss and Catrain were late arriving for their nightly visit, Croft wondered if they were responsible for the disturbance. After some time, he heard only the soft chorus of insects and had almost fallen asleep when Catrain called to him.

“Croft! Are thee awake? We have exciting news!”

 “I am here! I heard shouting and smelled smoke. What has happened?”

 “Fear not! We found more ballistas and destroyed them. We do not want any of your friends from Spiredale to get hurt tomorrow.”

 “What? Has someone come?”

 “Yes! Nine of your Draman and their dragons arrived to help us. Dane is among them!”

 Croft’s jaw dropped in delighted surprise.

“Father is here? Will they take me from this place? When can I see Rueloo?”

 Moss chose to answer his questions.

 “You will be rescued tomorrow, little Draman. Rueloo cannot be here, but you will be taken to her once it is safe. Favian believes Dane and the others have come to help him defeat Pinnacle, though your father will demand to see you first. We have spoken to Quinn and he is willing to help us. The plan is dangerous, Croft, and much could go wrong. Listen carefully, and I will explain what you must do.”

As Croft listened, his heart soared with hope, even as he worried about the dangerous task of setting him free. Long after Catrain and Moss left him, he lay awake rehearsing the plan in his mind, impatient for the sun to rise and get the day started. Oh, to see his father’s face and be reunited with Rueloo! Jittery with excitement, Croft fell into a fitful sleep whispering her name.

####

Rueloo awoke with the sudden flare of Croft’s presence in her mind. Having heard Moss and Catrain’s encouraging message, her beloved was now a powerful flame; strong and bright. Very soon, she would be reunited with her blood-bonded, and the wrenching separation brought to a merciful end.

 

Chapter 13

Whitehaven’s castle, the next morning

Warning trumpets blared as the king’s men scurried into a defensive position in the courtyard. A messenger was dispatched, despite a standing order not to disturb the king’s council chamber. This situation demanded an immediate response and the frightened guard knocked once before entering. Favian looked up at the hapless man with an angry snarl.

“What is it, fool? Can thee not follow simple orders?”

The messenger hastily bent a knee and looked down at the floor.

“Forgive me, Thy Majesty. A large group of dragons have landed in the inner bailey. Their leader claims they are here at thy behest, from… Spiredale.”

The excited chatter ceased as Favian rose from his comfortable chair to lean over the table.

“Could they be from Pinnacle? What do the dragons look like? Quickly, man!”

Confused by the question, the guard swallowed hard before replying.

“They… they do not have the same colors as the Pinnacle dragons, and all have armed riders. Does thy majesty wish us to…remove them?”

Favian’s rusty chuckle, born of satisfaction rather than amusement, gave rise to a calculated smile. His skeptical advisers would now have little reason to doubt his sanity in the future.

“We will meet with them – now. Form a heavily armed escort and tell thy men to remain alert to my orders.”

As the harried guard left to do his bidding, Favian called for his battle armor, sword, and shield. He wasn’t about to provoke an incident, but the presence of so many dragons on his doorstep made him nervous. Though well aware of the stakes, he controlled this situation, and it would not do well for the king to hesitate.

The unwieldy entourage briskly made its way through the castle corridors to the main entrance and stepped out into warm sunshine. Waiting in the courtyard was a rather small number of dragons in an array of colors – not the orange and crimson of the Pinnacle beasts. On each of them hung a saddle of sorts, along with leather bags for weapons. The riders, save one, were all half-dragon children! What kind of fool was Augustus not to send properly trained warriors?

Favian shuddered as the loathsome scalies fixed their altered eyes upon him. He hated dragons for their power and influence, but scalies were hellish traitors to humanity and his skin crawled in the presence of so many of them. Thankfully, at the front of the group waited a grown human man in a soldier’s uniform atop a grass-green dragon. As Favian’s retinue drew closer, the foreign soldier dismounted and approached with a small bow. Favian looked him over, unimpressed with his bearing or lack of proper obeisance. The tension abated somewhat when the man spoke.

“I am Captain Dane, commanding the forces of Spiredale.”

Favian glared from a distance, surrounded by guards.

“Make no mistake, Captain; I am in command here. What is the meaning of bringing nothing but a few children?”

The agitated dragons shifted in place, watching the bellicose monarch intently with huge green and yellow eyes. Irritation flickered across Dane’s face before he replied.

“What thee see is only a small portion of our forces. I did not wish to reveal our true numbers to thine enemy. The others will remain hidden until the signal is given.”

Surprised, Favian cocked an eyebrow.

“A wise strategy, Captain, despite what I see before me. My counselors stand ready to explain the battle plans, if thee will follow.”

Dane stood his ground, shaking his head slightly.

“There is one thing I must first ask of thee. King Augustus requires I see and speak with the young boy, Croft, before we place our forces under thy command.”

Favian bristled. The request was not entirely unexpected, and his estimation of both Augustus and Captain Dane altered slightly. Still, it rankled him to endure another delay.

“Very well, Captain. I shall send for the child while thee wait here. If thee wish him to remain in good health, it will require both obedience and action on thy part.”

A disquieting rustle of movement and angry glares made it plain both dragon and scalie heard the implied threat, even as their leader nodded in agreement.

“I understand, Thy Majesty. Once I am assured of Croft’s well-being, we are prepared to engage with the enemy.”

There was something off about the man’s odd choice of words, but Favian had more important things on his mind. A pair of guards were sent to bring Croft down immediately and the two groups settled in to wait. Favian’s gamble paid off handsomely, and very soon, his vexsome neighbor would cease to be a problem – freeing him to meet his true destiny.

####

Meanwhile, outside the castle walls

Guarding the refuse gate was not considered a choice assignment. Only two soldiers were normally stationed there, and the pair on duty today were still fighting off the effects of too much ale the previous night. Due to a regular flow of carts laden with human waste or garbage, the gate remained open during the day, providing a perfect entry point for Lord Montague’s advance team.

A ragtag group of about thirty soldiers approached the gate amid painful moans and bandaged bodies. Startled, the guards readily believed their story of being attacked by dragons while patrolling the western boundary. Once through the gate, they hobbled off towards the barracks in search of healers, leaving the guards to their odiferous assignment.

Once they were out of sight, they cast off their phony bandages. The group split in two and made for the main gates on the east and north walls. Caught unawares, the palace soldiers were quietly removed, leaving Merek’s loyalists in their place. With friendly forces on the inside, there would be nothing to impede Lord Montague’s men from gaining entrance when the signal was given.

END of Part 2

 

 

DRAGON RESCUE – Part 1

DRAGON RESCUE – The Captive Draman is part two of a story which began with Dragon Quest and is the final installment in my series of fantasy novelettes. Readers may notice the finale is double the size of the other four books, so it may take a bit longer to read. It  won’t be found anywhere else, and you get to see it first – but only for a limited time!

An enemy ambush leaves Croft imprisoned and Rueloo seriously injured. When Spiredale learns of his capture, a special team is sent to Pinnacle to rescue him and end the despotic reign of Whitehaven’s king. In a plan fraught with risk, who will pay the price to set Croft free and reunite him with his dragon? Prepare for the exciting conclusion in DRAGON RESCUE!

Author’s Note – the books must be read in order to be understood, beginning with Dragon Child, Dragon Valley, Dragon Bonds, and Dragon Quest.

 

DRAGON RESCUE by Alexander Elliott

First Edition     Copyright © 2019

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written permission of the author. This includes any means whether electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system. UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION OR DISTRIBUTION OF THIS COPYRIGHTED WORK IS ILLEGAL AND SUBJECT TO PUNISHMENT BY LAW.

For permissions and other inquiries, contact Alexander Elliott at aelliottbooks@gmail.com

 

DRAGON RESCUE – PART 1

Continued from Dragon Quest…

 

Prologue

On the return trip to Dome

Every stroke of Zelara’s wings sent fiery jolts of pain through the sliced skin and muscle of her abdomen. The flying spear grazed her underbelly, shearing off a wide row of scales and cutting into the tender tissue beneath. She was fortunate, knowing full well some of her people were dead and many others injured, including Mirabelle.

The ambush by Favian’s soldiers took them all by surprise, and the chaotic, moon-lit escape which followed left no time to treat injuries or collect the dead. The rag-tag group behind her shared a singular goal; return home and assess the damage. Zelara broadcast a distress call over and over as she neared the island, alerting the others to stand by. Mirabelle moaned in agony, clinging tightly to the dragon’s neck as each movement jarred her leg. The arrow was lodged deep in her upper thigh and she hung on with white-knuckled determination as Zelara came in for a bumpy landing on the terrace outside their nest.

She crouched low, allowing Mirabelle to slide awkwardly off her back and onto the soft grass with an undignified grunt. They were met by several dragons and a large group bearing torches – faces creased with worry and shock. Zelara leaned down to scent her scale-sister and lick the tears from her face. Mirabelle reached up a trembling hand to stroke her neck.

“Yes, I love thee also. Leave me with the healers. Do what thee can for the others and then have them look at thy wound. Thee cannot hide thy pain from me, dear one.”

They carried Mirabelle off to the nest where the healers could get a better look at her leg. It was difficult leaving her, but Zelara forced herself to focus on the others as they arrived, counting heads and sending messengers to the other islands for additional healers and supplies of gold. Two injured dragons landed nearby with no riders, keening with grief for their now-dead bonded. More came to the terrace with puncture wounds, torn wings, and broken bones.

The shared anger and sense of betrayal was deeply felt by all, and Zelara kept her fury barely contained. This she knew – Favian would pay for this outrage, even if she could not attend to it herself. Her thoughts were interrupted by the distinct bark of WaveWatcher’s call, and she reached out with her mind to speak with him.

“What is it, my brother?”

 “I have brought Rueloo- gravely injured. She will have to be carried.”

 “I will send two with a net. What of Croft?”

The water dragon hesitated, and Zelara braced herself for the worst.

“Taken by the soldiers. I do not know if he lives.”

Zelara’s dismay caused more pain than her injury, and she knew Rueloo would be wild with fear when she realized the truth.

“If the soldiers have moved on, there is nothing we can do for him tonight. I would ask you for one more thing.”

 “Name it, sister.”

 “Search the waters for our dead and bring them to us.”

Two strong defenders were sent to the shore to retrieve an unconscious Rueloo from WaveWatcher’s broad back. Human helpers spread out a heavy net in the shallow water next to the sea dragon, catching her body as it slid off. The dragons quickly snatched up either end in their talons and flew the swaying burden to the Terrace of Meeting. As they laid her gently on the grass, Rueloo finally awoke with a start. The agony of her crumpled wing became secondary when she realized Croft was gone. Zelara’s sharp voice cut through the haze of pain and alarm.

“Remain still! If you wish to fly again, the healers must do their work.”

Rueloo obeyed, scenting the air for her bonded.

“Where is Croft? Why do I not sense him? Did he… has he been killed?”

“Steady yourself, sister. The soldiers have taken him. We know nothing more.”

“NO! He trusted me to protect him and I failed. I must find him!”

“Croft is strong and there is nothing we can do for him tonight. Seek him out carefully. If he lives, at least you will know.”

Rueloo ignored the pain as healers began stitching her mangled wing back together and opened her mind. She focused her thoughts towards Whitehaven, searching…searching…until, yes! Like a tiny candle flame, the smallest flicker of Croft’s presence burned in the darkness. Alive! She could not go to him or even speak at this distance, yet her beloved lived. If there were any way to rescue him, she would find it – or die trying.

 

Chapter 1

Meanwhile, at Favian’s castle

Quinn hurried across the cold stone floors at the base of the south tower, eager to reach his patient before he awakened. The young prisoner had been taken to one of the uppermost cells, leaving the aging healer out of breath when he finally emerged at the top. With a grunt of recognition, the guard on duty unbarred the door and allowed him inside. The small room, lit with several torches, smelled of mold and disuse. The scale-brother, or scalie, as the king derisively called him, lay motionless on the thin straw mattress, clothes still damp with seawater.

Quinn knelt down and carefully examined the boy, noting the blue patterns on his skin. While the coloring looked like scales, the flesh was slightly ridged and cool to the touch. Except for the clearly broken left arm, he appeared to be in good condition. Concern for his unconscious state remained, though the traumatic separation from his dragon probably affected him more than the arm. He would need to quickly set the bone before the child awoke, or the pain might be overwhelming.

King Favian’s orders were quite clear. For now, his instructions were to treat the boy’s injuries and keep him healthy and reasonably comfortable. Whatever the king planned, Quinn feared for the child’s life and wondered if there were any way to help him escape. Such thoughts betrayed his true loyalties, and if discovered, would result in imprisonment or death. He’d served the old king for many years with joy and honor, but Favian was nothing like him and Quinn desperately wished Prince Merek were on the throne instead.

Long before Favian’s reign began, Quinn learned to treat both dragon and their bonded – one of the reasons the king selected him to care for the young prisoner. Fortunately, it was a clean break, and he splinted the arm with ease. What he lacked was fresh gold to wrap around the wound. He knew the scale-brother would need it to encourage healing and reduce the pain, but the king would not approve. Instead, Quinn resolved to bring it with him first thing in the morning when he checked on the boy.

As he finished wrapping the splint in place, the child began to stir, moaning softly. His odd green eyes opened and the look of confusion quickly morphed into desperation.

“Where iss Rueloo? Sshe is hurt – I musst find her!”

Quinn quieted him, lest the guards take an interest, and helped the boy sit up.

“Hush now! Thy dragon is not here and thee are a prisoner of King Favian.”

Croft’s face crumpled as he began to cry.

“Let me go! Rueloo needss me!”

Quinn gently rubbed Croft’s back as he leaned closer to whisper an explanation.

“Listen carefully, child! The king ordered thy capture and will not let thee go. I will help thee if I can, but the guards must not know. Pay no heed if I speak harshly to thee in front of them. Thine arm is set, and I will return in the morning with gold. We must keep it a secret – do thee understand?”

Croft nodded his head and winced when he glanced down at his left arm, wrapped in the bulky splint. The worry about Rueloo prevented him from fully noticing the source of his pain, and the arm throbbed beneath the wood and bandages. The older man seemed kind yet Croft did not know if he could trust him.

“Who are thee?”

“I am Quinn, one of the palace healers. What is thy name, child?”

“My name iss Croft. Pleasse help me – I cannot sstay here!”

Quinn reached down to pull a small bottle from his satchel.

“There now, one thing at a time. First, thee must get well. Drink this, Croft. It will help with the pain and make thee sleep.”

Croft swallowed the nasty liquid and lay down again as his head began to feel very strange. Before his heavy eyes closed, Quinn pointed out the chamber pot and water bucket in the corner.

“Rest now, and when I come in the morning we will speak again.”

Croft barely noticed as Quinn gathered his things and opened the cell door. He could hear the healer talking to the soldiers and then a heavy thud as the crossbar dropped into place. The strong medicine he’d been given eased the pain in his arm and made him sleepy, leaving only his sluggish thoughts of Rueloo. He could not sense her in his mind, and it frightened him. Had the soldiers killed her? Could he live without his dragon? Would he ever escape this place?

Fear and worry were finally swept away by a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

Chapter 2

On the Talon Sea, early next morning

Lord Wallington’s stomach heaved again as he retched over the handrail aboard Favian’s fastest sailing ship, the Falcon. Unused to sea voyages, the special envoy was having difficulty adjusting to the lurching movements which upset his digestion. While the captain sympathized, he and the crew took secret delight in his obvious discomfort. Having spent the entirety of his life on solid ground, Wallington did not fully understand why he had been chosen for this particular mission when others were better suited to the task.

He’d been awakened in the wee hours of the morning by a royal messenger, instructed to pack for sea voyage, and then hustled into the king’s presence before dawn. There, Favian hurriedly explained his task, handed him the official documents, and sent him to the docks in haste. Moments after reporting aboard the Falcon, the ship set sail and his misery began in earnest. Between bouts of nausea, Wallington pondered the short and highly unusual exchange with the king.

“I have chosen thee to deliver a message to King Augustus of Spiredale. Ye shall travel by my fastest ship, and if winds and weather favor us, return in seven days time with a response.”

 “May I inquire as to the contents of the message, Thy Majesty?”

 “Thee may not. The message and response are to remain sealed, and thee will not discuss the mission with anyone, Lord Wallington. Understand?”

 “Of course, Sire. I am thy obedient servant.”

He’d never been sent on a mission of such importance without knowing the purpose. As an experienced envoy, it was insulting to think Favian considered him nothing more than a messenger. Even so, he would do as instructed and keep the king’s secrets – no matter what he might learn along the way. Assuming, of course, he survived the voyage in the first place.

####

Orchid, Dane’s quarters

A fortnight came and went without word from Croft and Rueloo. Dane tried not to be overly concerned, failing miserably as worry turned to frustration and anger. Perhaps they were comfortably ensconced in their nest at Dramanshire this very minute, too tired from the journey to make a trip into Orchid. This was highly unlikely, Dane admitted, as Croft would surely want to see him as soon as he returned. No, this situation required less worry and more patience. Besides, he would be in Dramanshire in a few days for another round of weapons training with his students. Perhaps they would know more by then and he could relax. If not, he may be forced to track them down himself.

####

Rose, the royal chambers

Queen Nelia knew her husband well, and something was obviously amiss. He’d been unusually quiet, distracted, and unnecessarily curt with the servants; past time to find out what was on his mind. After dinner, she took him aside privately.

“Thee are not thyself, husband. What vexes thee so?”

Chagrinned, Augustus sighed deeply and turned to pace as he spoke, robes rustling with the movement.

“Forgive me, wife. It is pointless to hide my true feelings from thee. Croft and Rueloo have not returned, and I am concerned with the delay.”

Nelia was unsurprised, as she herself waited anxiously to hear from their dear friends.

“I take it there has been no word from Dramanshire. Is there anything to be done?”

Augustus shook his head.

“Not yet. There could be any number of reasons for the delay, yet I wonder at the wisdom of them going alone on such a long journey. Wheet seemed confident they would have no trouble, and perhaps they are on their way home already.”

Nelia stopped his nervous pacing, embraced him, and pulled back to cup the side of his face with a bejeweled hand.

“Thee are not the only one who worries for them. There are whispers in the court and Lillain watches the sky every day. How long will thee wait?”

“It is no simple matter to travel such a distance, and if they have begun their journey we could miss them on the way. I will wait a few more days and then consult with the dragons. Perhaps they would be better suited to the task.”

####

Back on Dome

To assist the healers in their work, all the wounded were camped out on the terrace of meeting, creating a colorful patchwork of temporary shelters. Volunteers provided food and drink, cleared away waste, and made their friends as comfortable as possible. Gold sped the healing process, yet some of the more seriously hurt would be recovering for many days. Injuries on this scale were unheard of on Pinnacle, and the devastating attack left everyone angry and on edge.

Though both Zelara and Mirabelle were themselves bandaged and healing, they insisted on visiting the others being cared for. Most were making steady progress, needing nothing from their leaders except a few encouraging words. While plans were being made to respond to Whitehaven’s aggression, Zelara chose to wait until things settled down here on Dome before acting. Tonight’s ceremony for the dead would help her people grieve properly and unite them for the difficult days to come.

The additional problem of Croft and Rueloo weighed heavily on Zelara and her scale-sister. They were responsible for protecting honored guests and failed spectacularly when both were injured and separated during the attack. Yes, duty required them to help their new friends, though this went well beyond duty. They represented another nest who’d sent them in good faith and would no doubt be distraught when they learned what happened. Croft was in enemy hands and no one knew his condition or what Favian wanted with him.

Rueloo’s situation was no less traumatic, as she not only suffered a serious injury, but was desperate to rescue her beloved. Along with guilt, anger, and forced separation, she remained helpless and at the mercy of strangers, far away from home. Zelara resolved to do everything in her power to make things right and reunite the pair as soon as possible.

At the moment, Rueloo partially rested under a large awning; her left wing fully extended in the warm sun and propped up by large stacks of freshly-cut summer grasses. Several healers hovered over their patient, applying a thick gooey paste of fragrant pine sap and gold dust to the stitched up remnants of her wing. The beautiful blue dragon lifted her head as Zelara and Mirabelle approached, yellow eyes shadowed with pain and worry. They stopped first to speak with one of the healers about Rueloo’s condition and whether she was cooperating with the treatment.

Mirabelle, knowing the dragon missed Croft’s touch, asked Zelara to bring her closer so she could reach out to stroke the smooth portions of Rueloo’s neck. She rumbled with pleasure at the simple gesture, eyes closed as thoughts of Croft overwhelmed her. After a minute of silence, Zelara opened the conversation.

“You are not alone here, my sister. We will do all we can to treat your injuries and reunite you with your bonded. The healers tell me they are encouraged by the new growth, and your wing is responding to their treatments.”

 “I am grateful. Will I be able to fly again?”

 “They believe so, but you must be patient. Remain here and rebuild your strength before attempting a journey home.”

 “What of Croft? Where is he? Why was he taken?”

“I have heard nothing. I believe Favian has a plan, but do not know what he intends. Croft will be well-guarded and difficult to reach, especially if he is being kept in the castle. I wish I could tell you more.”

“He is too far away to sense me, and will be afraid and confused. I must be able to contact him!”

 “If you have an idea, I will hear it.”

 “Is there contact with your forest brethren to the south?”

 “We trade with them occasionally. Why?”

 “On our journey here we met a pair of scouts, Moss and Catrain. If they would be willing to come, I believe they could get close enough to speak with Croft and relay messages or even find a way for us to rescue him.”

 Mirabelle spoke before Zelara could respond.

“Yes! Forest dragons are small, fast, and stealthy. They should have no trouble getting past the guards! We usually send Russet when trading, so they already know him. He could easily bring them back in a carry net.”

 Stirred with excitement at the possibility, Rueloo’s tail thwapped repeatedly against the soft ground, startling the healers into nervous laughter. Zelara rumbled in agreement at the idea, eager to actually do something helpful.

 “An excellent idea. We will send Russet to speak with you first. If he leaves soon, and can convince them to come, they could be here by nightfall.”

 

Chapter 3

Croft’s cell, Whitehaven

With nothing to keep him occupied and no one to talk to, Croft sat on the cold stone floor of his dreary cell. His thoughts and dreams were filled with Rueloo, the attack, and of going home. Was Rueloo alive? Would someone rescue him? How many of the others were injured that night? Did Dane miss him? Would he ever see Dramanshire again? Unanswered questions swirled round and round, leaving him close to despair.

The only bright spot in his day was when Quinn came to see him, telling the guards he needed to adjust Croft’s splint and look after his welfare. Though the arm continued to throb, the pain was far less noticeable once Quinn placed thin gold bars against the bruised skin. Thankfully, there were no more doses of the bitter medicine which made his head feel so strange. The kind healer also promised to return later today with some surprises, and Croft wondered what they might be.

At length, several new voices were heard outside his cell before the door hastily opened in a rush of cool castle air. In strode Quinn and several others carrying various things, including a heavier mattress, a small table and chair, additional blankets, and a fresh set of clothing. When the new items were in place, a bucket of warm water and a rag were brought in and Quinn removed the splint gently before instructing Croft to bathe himself.

He winked at the boy and then complained loudly to the guards that the cell smelled of excrement, instructing them to empty the chamber pot more often. In addition, the prisoner should receive more food, “lest the king arrive to find nothing but bones!”. Croft smiled at Quinn’s performance, grateful to the kind man for seeing to his comfort. He was, however, having a difficult time cleaning himself one-handed while keeping an amused eye on the healer.

Quinn closed the cell door and opened his worn leather satchel, removing fresh bandages and a small bag of thin gold bars. Noticing Croft’s predicament, he took the rag and gently finished washing the boy down before redressing him in the clean set of clothes. He then steered Croft to a chair and carefully laid his broken arm on the tabletop. With quick efficient movements, Quinn re-set the splint with fresh gold, wrapping the arm with clean strips of white cloth to hold everything in place. He spoke softly to the curly-headed child while he worked.

“The king may visit thee soon. Be respectful and answer his questions – no more. He dislikes dragons and their bonded, so do nothing to upset him. I do not know why he holds thee prisoner, but Favian does nothing unless it gives him an advantage. I hope to find a way to get thee out of here, and there are others who would help me. Not everyone in Whitehaven supports the king.”

Croft leaned forward to hug Quinn’s neck, spilling tears.

“I thank thee, Quinn. Thee have been very kind.”

“Take heart, child. I will do what I can without getting both of us into trouble, but I must go. Rest easy, and I will return in the morning.”

As Quinn gathered his things, he slipped two dark leather pouches under the new mattress and put a finger to his lips. Croft smiled, nodding silently as the healer opened the heavy door and stepped out into the hallway. With the door barred, Croft’s curiosity prompted him to investigate. Under the bedding, he discovered one bag contained a handful of colorful marbles, while the other held little wood figurines of horses and soldiers. Normally, he would have no interest in such games, but anything which helped pass the time was glorious treasure.

####

Dome, late afternoon

The sun was low in the sky by the time Russet returned, his carry net heavy with passengers. Though an uncomfortable way to travel, Russet was forced to take an even longer route to avoid being seen by Whitehaven’s spies. Moss and Catrain did not seem to mind since it gave them the opportunity to fly – something forest-dwellers would not normally experience.

As they neared Dome, Russet’s call prompted Zelara and Mirabelle to join Rueloo on the terrace, ready to greet their new comrades and explain the mission in more detail. At any other time, the inhabitants of Pinnacle would have welcomed the newcomers en masse, offering them food and a tour of the islands. Tonight, however, was the ceremony for the dead, and with everyone busy making preparations, they’d had to forego the pleasantries.

Russet pumped powerful wings to slow his descent, gently placing the heavy carry net on the grassy terrace. Moss and Catrain quickly disentangled themselves and thanked their winged brother for his assistance. After meeting Zelara and Mirabelle, they rushed to Rueloo’s side to comfort her. Informed by Russet about the attack, they were eager to help find Croft and make contact.

Zelara explained their mission as Mirabelle unrolled a map of Whitehaven, pointing out the castle’s location and surrounding forest land. Next, they decided how they would contact one another and relay messages. Tonight’s mission: locate Croft, pass on Rueloo’s message, and look for a way to rescue him safely. Everything else could be dealt with later. After a hurried meal, Moss and Catrain stepped into the net once more and were lifted back into the sky.

With the sun now set, Russet would have less chance of being seen by the enemy, yet an indirect approach remained the safest option. He headed south across the calm, glassy sea before circling eastward over the dense forestland abutting Favian’s castle. Gliding silently above the treetops, he scented the air for soldiers and looked for a safe place to land. Ahead, he spotted a clearing formed by an old burn scar – far enough from prying eyes and ears, though easy to see from the air. With a quick warning to his passengers, Russet set them down gently; scenting the air again as they freed themselves from the net. After a silent dash to the tree line, Moss chirruped softly and they disappeared into the forest. Russet scooped up the empty net in his rear talons, lifted into the sky, and returned home the way he came.

 

Chapter 4

Pinnacle, after moonrise

Dragons and their bonded are both long-lived, and many years had passed since the last ceremony for the dead. The humans living on Pinnacle practiced their own burial traditions and customs, yet they too were in attendance. Virtually everyone on the seven islands gathered on Dome to pay their respects. Participants filled the Terrace of Meeting while observers crowded around the edges to watch. On the nearest stretch of shoreline, water dragons and merfolk waited patiently for the ceremony to begin.

Near the center of the grassy terrace, large flat stones were placed close together to form a temporary bier. Surrounding it were smaller piles of kindling, spaced at regular intervals. On top of the bier sat what looked like an enormous bird’s nest, made of intricately twisted branches. Side by side in the center, much like oversize eggs, lay the bodies of Emeline and Lief; each wrapped in multiple layers of dried brown moss.

Their grieving dragons, Patch and Thunder, stood nearby keening softly. They had both lost bonded before to old age; never ones so young, or at the hands of an enemy. Their pain was deeply felt by all, and Mirabelle openly wept as Zelara began the ceremony, widely broadcasting her thoughts.

“A bond is never easily broken. Today we honor the memory of our scale-sister Emeline and our scale-brother Lief. In life they brought us joy, kindness, love, and friendship. These things transcend the body, enriching us all, and they will live on in our memories. My brothers – it is time to say farewell to your beloved.”

Patch and Thunder approached the platform from opposite sides, facing one another across the pyre. Together, fire streamed from their open jaws, enveloping the bodies in a maelstrom of flame. As the wood crackled and consumed, they sent calls of grief into the night sky, joined by the nest in a cacophonous wave of mourning. So loud was the lament, it could be heard across the water in Whitehaven, frightening people out of sound sleep. Favian himself was roused from his bed by the awful clamor, seeking someone who could tell him what it might mean.

When the heartbroken cries finally stopped, individual mourners approached the pyre to show their respects. Dragons added gouts of flame. Scale-brothers and sisters each tossed a branch or log onto the fire, uttering words of farewell or fond memories of the dead. Some paused to offer physical comfort to Patch and Thunder, gently stroking their scales.

By the time the bereaved filed past, the rocky platform contained only a large pile of ash and bits of bone. In the morning, it would be gathered up and deposited in the burial nest; a large cave on the island of Plume. Out of sight; never forgotten.

####

Awakened by the awful sounds of mourning from across the water, Croft wept for his friends. Outside his cell, the frightened guard fell to his knees, muttering half-hearted prayers for protection from the unknown. When quiet finally returned, Croft lay awake for some time wondering who died, fearing it might have been Rueloo. The last time he saw her, she lay still and broken in the water – their connection gone dark. Somehow, they had never discussed the possibility of separation or death, leaving Croft totally unprepared. His future, if he had one, seemed pointless without her.

Exhausted in mind and body, his eyes eventually grew heavy as he lay on the more comfortable mattress Quinn brought him. When the dreams came, they provided no solace – only disjointed images of the attack, the nest at Dramanshire, and the faces of those he loved. If time passed, it did so without his notice until an urgent voice roused him from slumber.

“Croft! Croft, can thee hear me?”

He sat up in the dark room and tried to focus. A mind-voice! How could any of his friends get close enough to speak with him?

“I am here! In the castle!”

“This is Catrain. Moss and I are outside!”

Heart pounding, Croft stood and looked up at the small moon-lit opening far above his head. Someone had come for him!

“Catrain! How did thee find me?”

“Rueloo sent for us and we came to tell thee she is alive and well.”

Alive! Not among the dead after all!

“Take me out of here! I need to be with her!”

This time, Moss answered.

“We cannot. I am sorry, Croft. You are in a high tower of the castle and well guarded. Rueloo’s wing is healing, so she cannot come. Are you well, little Draman? Do you know why they have taken you?”

“My arm is broken, but the healer, Quinn, has wrapped it with gold. He does not know why I am here and is the only one who sees me. If ye could talk to him, he might be able to help.”

“Do you trust him?”

“Yes. He has been very kind and protects me from the guards. I am no longer hungry or cold and he comes to see me every day. He says there are others like him who pretend to follow the king.”

“He may be of some use to us. Wait a moment…”

His friends fell silent, leaving Croft to his own thoughts. Now that he knew Rueloo lived, all was not lost. If a way could be found, Zelara’s people would come for him. He ached to be with Rueloo, but knew he would not be leaving this place soon. The last thing he wanted was for anyone else to be hurt or killed in a rescue attempt. Catrain startled him when she spoke again.

“We have an idea. Healers use willow bark, and there is a large group of willow trees near the shore where the fishermen bring their catch. If Quinn will meet us there, we will talk to him and see what can be done. When will thee see him again?”

“He comes every morning. What shall I tell him?”

“Ask him to meet us there at midday. If he comes to gather bark, no one will be suspicious. We will remain hidden in the treetops, so tell him not to look up when he hears me speak. If he cannot come then, we will try again after dark.”

“Yes, I think he will do it! Will ye come again tomorrow?”

“We will. Do thee have a message for Rueloo?”

“I love her and miss her so! I think of her always, and she must get better so we can go home before the others start to worry.”

“We will tell her. Be brave, Croft. Thee have not been forgotten!”

With the connection broken, silence returned, and Croft lay down in the darkness wide awake. Rueloo lived! Help was on the way! Seeds of hope began to grow in his anxious heart, and though no one could see it, the little Draman smiled.

 

Chapter 5

On the seashore, later that night

At the appointed place, far from any soldiers, Moss’s strange cricket-like chirrup carried over the calm waters of the sea. The thick fog made it difficult to see much of anything, though he and Catrain soon heard a splash in the distance. Rippled waves began lapping at their feet as they cautiously waded out to meet their ride. WaveWatcher surfaced, just far enough for them to climb aboard, and headed directly for Dome. The great sea dragon listened to their report on the way, relieved to hear of Croft’s condition. The merfolk had been worried, speaking of little else lately, and the sea dragon was eager to share the news with them.

When they reached the protected cove, Moss and Catrain thanked WaveWatcher and agreed to meet him again before sunrise for a trip back to Whitehaven. Minutes later they found Rueloo awake, eagerly awaiting news of her beloved. They left nothing out, describing Croft’s location in detail, as well as the placement of soldiers and weapons along the seashore and around Favian’s castle. Rueloo’s tail thumped lightly against the ground when she heard Croft’s message and learned he was being looked after by the healer. The news of a possible meeting with Quinn surprised and worried her.

“Be careful. It may be a trap if the healer is secretly working for the king.”

Moss replied.

“We will, sister. Be sure to tell Zelara what we have discovered. We will return tomorrow after visiting Croft.”

Catrain wrapped her arms around Rueloo’s neck, stroking her scales, as she’d seen Croft do.

“As soon as a way is found, we will bring him to thee. Take heart, Rueloo. Thy bond is strong and the boy loves thee.”

Rueloo thanked her friends for their help and settled down to sleep. Reaching out with her mind, she found the strong flicker of Croft’s presence. It wasn’t enough, but for now it was all she had.

####

Dramanshire, early the next morning

At mid-morning, Dane and two of his men came to the terminus of Dragons Road, removed their gear, and handed over the horses to Edward. The Draman were not quite ready for their weapons class, so Dane took the opportunity to ask about his son.

“Any word from Croft and Rueloo? I am beginning to worry.”

Edward’s expression gave him the answer.

“We, too, are concerned. Hugh has led the household in prayers for them every day, but we have heard nothing at all. I suspect Wheet is also worried by the delay, and wants to see thee when the lessons are done.”

As Edward led the horses to the barn, Echo and Sabina, along with the dragonlets, landed nearby, buffeting he and his men with the downdraft. Much to the soldier’s amusement, the hatchlings swarmed Dane, taking in his scent and covering him with wet licks. Sabina frantically tried to relay their questions and concerns.

“Is Croft coming back?”

“Where is our Dam?”

“I want my nestmate!”

“Why have they not returned?”

Echo quieted them down with a sharp growl and Dane did his best to sound reassuring.

“I miss them also, but we must be patient. When the lessons are finished, we will all go see the nestmaster. Perhaps he will have an idea of what we should do.”

Echo managed to get the whole group airborne again for their morning hunt, leaving Dane and the soldiers to prepare for the lesson. Today they were working with spears, specially-made for the children, though no less deadly. He was pleasantly surprised how quickly his students caught on to each of the weapons he’d introduced.

They needed more practice with bow and arrow, yet were doing well with the crossbow, dagger, and baton. His chief concern now was how they would react when actually threatened and under pressure. He believed they would perform well if properly motivated, but still hoped they would never really need to use the skills he taught them.

The tower door opened and Dane watched as Hugh led his charges out, dressed, fed, and ready for their lesson. Juliana followed him as far as the doorway, leaning heavily on Margery for support. She’d been feeling ill the last time Dane visited and he hoped she would improve soon. Margery met his eye with a shy smile, fanning herself in the cool morning air. The pretty girl always seemed to flutter about whenever Dane came to Dramanshire, though she rarely spoke to him. He’d seen such behavior before and knew what it meant. He would not be encouraging her interest, however sincere.

At thirty and one, he was at least a decade older and already married to his occupation. Certainly, she could find someone younger and more suitable, though convincing her to look elsewhere might hurt her feelings. She loved Croft deeply, which meant a great deal to Dane, but he didn’t see how a match between them could ever work. He acknowledged both ladies with a courteous nod before turning to his students and the task at hand.

####

Meanwhile, on Spiredale’s seashore

The commissioning of ships in the king’s navy was a rather new practice, started shortly before Augustus began his reign. On the beach stood a small platform, adorned with colorful banners, a crimson carpet, and a small podium. In the harbor, a magnificent new galley and three smaller cogs sat proudly at anchor.

Opposite the platform were the captains and crews, standing at attention on the warm sand. True to his word, King Augustus was in attendance, and all bowed their heads as a priest began the ceremony with a blessing on both sailor and vessel alike. After the prayers were finished, the assembly waited for the speeches to begin.

As the chief naval officer of Spiredale’s growing navy, Commander Barda made suitable remarks, thanking the shipbuilders and sailors for their service to the crown. Never fond of long public address, Barda quickly relinquished his place at the podium, bowing as the king stepped forward to speak.

“There are many nations along the shores of this great Sea, yet it is our navy they envy, and with good reason. These fine ships, and the others before them, remind us all of the blessings Spiredale enjoys, but it is thy toil and sacrifices which safeguard our shores and enable a thriving trade. Wherever the winds may take ye, ye serve a grateful nation and a proud king.”

With Barda by his side, Augustus descended the platform to speak with the newly-appointed captains and mingle with the crew. It was a long journey from Rose to the seashore, making opportunities like this rare, and he wanted to make the most of it. Likewise, most sailors never interacted personally with the king, and they were honored to meet the man to whom they swore allegiance.

Even more pleased were the shipbuilders, who were rewarded with a bit of gold for their excellent work and the attention of a very interested monarch. After plying them with questions, a small group was chosen to accompany the king on a tour of the new galley. Before they even left the beach, an alarm sounded and one of Barda’s men approached with an urgent message.

“Forgive the intrusion, Commander. A vessel has entered our waters flying a diplomatic flag.”

Barda considered this unusual and possibly dangerous. He needed more information.

“Which nation? What type of vessel?”

“It is a small ship built for speed. Their flag is unknown to us.”

Barda made a quick decision and turned to the king.

“Thee are exposed here, Thy Majesty, and it is my duty to keep thee safe. My men will accompany thee to the fort and will keep thee informed. Until we know more, thy presence will be kept secret.”

“Very well, Commander. I will await thy word.”

Augustus and his entourage were hurriedly ushered off the beach, and the platform removed. Barda then ordered an escort for the visiting vessel and the crews hastily boarded their new ships, leaving the shoreline deserted. It may turn out to be nothing at all, but the king’s presence meant Barda would take no chances. Hopefully, the newcomer was simply a visiting dignitary and they could all go about their business as usual.

Chapter 6

Pinnacle, that same morning

By dawn, Dome was teeming with over a hundred determined dragons, teeth gnashing as they waited for the final signal to move out. Pinnacle’s carefully planned retaliation for Favian’s ambush would soon begin, though Zelara, Rueloo, and four others who were still healing would have to stay behind. With the advice of Prince Merek, the reconnaissance information supplied by Catrain and Moss, and a useful trick revealed by Rueloo, every precaution was taken to minimize the loss of life on both sides.

The ballista remained the primary human weapon most feared by the dragons. Pinnacle not only knew where they were stationed, but where they were being made. If successfully destroyed, the odds would be even and bring them one step closer to rescuing Croft. Though it would infuriate Favian and escalate their conflict, a response to the king’s aggression was overdue.

With a final admonition to be careful, Zelara’s battle cry pierced the peaceful morning calm. Armed with large boulders, nets of loose rock, and tree trunks, the dragons took to the air, settled into three formations, and headed towards Whitehaven. In the nearby coastal waters, a group of sea dragons made a very public show on the surface, clearly warning Favian’s navy to remain at anchor and out of the fray.

Even as the ships nervously watched scores of dragons pass overhead, trumpets up and down the coast sounded alarms. Unsure of Pinnacle’s intentions, soldiers near the shoreline remained at their posts until the first rocks rained from the sky. Terrified, they fled or risked being crushed to death. To keep them on the run, they were harried from above and behind by gouts of flame and ear-shattering calls. On the ground, small fires filled the air with smoke as the ballistas were crushed or burned to ash.

Further inland, the second group went after those who were building the king’s deadly tools of war. Ballistas and other large weapons were produced in two different yards, and the dragons knew precisely where they were. Making as much noise as possible on the first pass, they surprised the workers, causing them to scatter like frightened ants.

Coming back around, the dragons dropped heavy tree trunks in waves with enough momentum to flatten the forges and buildings in their path. Once it was safe to land, they burned everything in sight; consuming even the stacks of dry lumber. By the time they returned to the sky, only blackened soil and smoke remained.

The third group faced the most dangerous task – taking out ballistas surrounding the castle. Those in the open were crushed with stones, while the devices hidden in the woods were swept up in purposely started forest fires. Only a few weapons survived the purge, leaving Moss and Catrain to sabotage them individually. Favian’s men, taken completely by surprise, were unable to fire more than a few arrows and spears before fleeing their posts.

In a short time, Whitehaven found itself stripped of its primary defensive weapon, and the victorious dragons returned to Pinnacle without a single injury. If the king decided to attack again, he would find himself at a distinct disadvantage and more lives would be lost. Zelara, and all of Pinnacle, hoped Favian would give up this foolish war before it got completely out of hand.

####

Favian’s castle, late morning

One after another, the king’s ministers reported on the aftermath of Zelara’s multiple attacks. Weapons production completely destroyed. Two key craftsmen and a dozen soldiers dead. Great sections of forest and shoreline reduced to ash. The goldmine near Exeter once again under Pinnacle’s control.

Whitehaven’s monarch sprang from his chair, leaning over the polished table on white-knuckled fists.

“Damn her! Damn them all. Those hell-spawn dragons will regret the day they were hatched before I have finished with them!”

Favian’s minister of war attempted to reason with the king.

“The situation is dire, Thy Majesty. Our most effective weapon against the dragons has been destroyed and our ships are of no use while the sea serpents patrol the waters. The people are crying out for protection and we have none to give them. We are powerless to strike the enemy, leaving victory beyond our reach. Perhaps it is time to seek a… diplomatic solution.”

Favian’s eyes narrowed, but instead of lashing out he turned away from the expectant stares. Hands clasped behind his back, the king walked slowly around the table, face pinched in concentration. No one dared speak, having learned the hard way not to interrupt him while deep in thought. Faces flushed and sweaty, the assembled ministers waited for the king’s next pronouncement. At length, Favian returned to his chair; a crooked grin raising hackles all around the table.

“No doubt Zelara believes she has the upper hand and surrender is our only choice. Let them enjoy their victory even as we send diplomats to argue over terms of peace.”

Smiles broke out around the table and just as quickly vanished when Favian continued.

“Know this – neither I nor this great nation will become vassals to Pinnacle! Very soon, when my plans come to fruition, it is we who will have the upper hand and the islands will be cleansed of the filthy beasts once and for all.”

Favian remained quiet as the astonished ministers began arguing amongst themselves. The only person involved in his plan should have arrived in Spiredale by now. If they responded quickly, the conflict here would be over in a few short days and his ministers could stop wondering if he had lost his mind.

END of part one.

Author Update

The last few weeks have been brutal! Pre-move, move, post-move. It’s all been very moving, but at last I’m settled in my new place and can stop for a breath. Obviously, my writing has taken a back seat and I’m eager to get caught up.

Story five of Rise of the Draman is almost complete. The last of the story threads are being carefully tied, and then it’s off to my beta readers. When that’s done, it will appear on my blog in serialized format, and your anxious wait will be over! Leaving readers dangling from a cliff this long was never my intention, though be prepared for a much longer installment this time.

I received a wonderful note from a reader recently regarding my Gladstone Shifters books. The poor soul is hooked (yeah for me!) and wants to get her hands on the next in series – only it hasn’t been written yet and I have no idea when it will be. I have three new series begging to be written, and am still deciding what to do. Given my crazy work schedule and limited writing time, any novel-length project I choose to tackle means at least a nine month commitment. My tendency is to get bored and antsy to move on to something else long before I’m done!

Winter made a rude and unwelcome early start here and I’m faced with unfamiliar routes for shopping and work. I don’t mind the change of seasons, but driving on snowy/icy roads makes me tense. In 2014, I hit some black ice and found myself upside down in a snow-filled ditch. The car was totaled, and neither my back nor my nerves have fully recovered. Maybe I’ll work that into a book someday…

 

Photo Prompt – GREETINGS EARTHLING

112

Twenty years of scavenging the galaxy, and I’d finally found the mother lode. Not just a piece of space junk this time, but an intact vessel. Seemingly powerless and drifting, but whole, beautiful, and utterly alien. I nudged the Galileo, my scout ship, alongside the perfect silver-gray sphere, looking for an entry point. Closer inspection revealed only one possibility – a circular seam at the apex of the sphere, perhaps ten feet in diameter. Without an airlock or other obvious opening it would be impossible to get inside, but I wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

“Thor, initiate contact.”

My trusty AI and companion responded immediately.

“Acknowledged. Beginning sequence.”

Thor began cycling through a standard range of protocols, but there was no response.

“Extend the grappler, Thor. I’m going to take a closer look.”

While I suited up, Thor positioned Galileo above the circular seam and extended the grappler. When it made contact, a warning claxon sounded.

“Response from the alien vessel. Ship now under power. Change in configuration. Caution is advised.”

Sensors showed the area within the circular seam rising like a pillar from within the vessel. The shaft contained an oval aperture, large enough for a human to pass through, and lit with a blueish glow. With the welcome mat out, I wasn’t about to refuse the invitation.

After further warnings from Thor, I slipped out the airlock and towed myself over. Magnetic boots kept me from drifting off into space as I made my way to the portal and stepped inside. The light intensified as the shaft descended into the vessel and came to a stop. Before me was a brightly lit V-shaped cavern, unlike anything I’d seen before. It thrummed with power, extending over my head and deep into the vessel below. I took a cautious step forward and startled when the ship spoke.

“Acquisition complete. Dilation in three, two, one…”

With alarms blaring aboard the Galileo, Thor disengaged the grappler as the alien sphere began to undulate, shrink to a tiny dot, and disappear.

Photo Prompt – FOLLOW ME

Z4-044A

The letter arrived shortly before the one year anniversary of my grandfather’s disappearance. We’d always been very close and his sudden absence from my life left me bewildered and lonely. He vanished like a fart in the wind, as he used to say, and no one could explain what happened. No body, no note, nothing.

I discovered the plain white envelope mixed in with my usual mail, no stamp or return address, and handwritten with a familiar script. If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny, and my hands trembled as I carefully sliced it open. For a fleeting moment I imagined him getting word to me he’d run off with a rich widow to some foreign country and was having the time of his life. What was in the enclosed letter was more fanciful by far and I had to sit down to keep from falling over. 

My dear James,

 Forgive me for leaving you so abruptly, but it could not be helped. In a few days time you will have a chance to see me again, but it will require you to leave everything behind and start anew. Despite what you are about to read, this is not the babblings of a crazy old man!

Remember the grand sundial I was so fond of in Centennial park? Quite by accident, I discovered it is actually a portal to another place and time. When the dial reads between noon and one o’clock, you have only to slip into the shadow behind it and you will be transported. There are wonders you cannot imagine, and I long to share them with you.

I cannot be certain there will be another opportunity like this, so if you decide to come, be there Saturday without fail. I beg you, set your affairs in order and come to me, James! Destroy this letter and tell no one what you intend to do.

 If you choose to remain, know that I love you with all my heart. Be happy, my boy, and remember me.

 Pops

 I read the letter through several times before putting it down. Even as I acknowledged the far-fetched madness of it all, my mind was busy. If anyone could have found a way to leave this crazy world in such an unconventional fashion, it was my grandfather! He certainly sounded happier than I’d ever know him, yet he wanted me with him. How could I disappoint the old man?

Saturday turned out to be a lovely day for an adventure…

Weekly Roundup – What a Summer!

Weekly Roundup is an update on what’s going on in my world. Welcome!

I cannot express, in polite words, how relieved I am to see the end of summer. Hot weather, work hassles, financial woes, writing issues – yikes! It’s time to put it all behind me and focus on what promises to be an interesting fall. I welcome the cooler weather, despite being hay-fever season, as my personal life and writing enter a different phase.

I’m moving again. Yes, you heard me correctly. In about five weeks I’m relocating to another part of the metro area. I was able to secure an apartment which not only offers more amenities for less, but is closer to my jobs and my son. This move will be well worth the hassle, as it should improve my living situation, reduce commute times, and make it easier to see my grandson.

I got a second job. What? Yep, I’ve taken on a Saturday job cleaning offices to help sort out my finances. Last weekend was my first solo appearance and it just about killed me! Cleaning sounds easy, but my body reminded me of all the muscles I hadn’t been using. Aside from aching head to foot and being bone tired, I slept poorly two nights in a row. Reporting for work on Monday looked iffy at best, but thanks to pain medication I made it. Hopefully I’ll get used to the new routine quickly and be able to enjoy at least a little of my weekends in the future. More important, the extra money will relieve some financial pressure and provide much-needed breathing room.

Given the above, it’s no surprise my writing has taken a hit. I don’t expect much to change until after the move, but a lot depends on how much overtime is required at my full time job. It will be a challenge just to produce a weekly post, let alone anything else. I’m going to focus on completing the Rise of the Draman series, including a very thorough edit & polish. The tentative goal is to have it finished by December, and if I have the funds, publish the stories as one volume. Anything else I might have time for is simply gravy.

Things are a bit crazy right now, and certainly not what I wanted, but I know the sacrifices will be worth it in the end. Margo Channing knew what she was talking about when she said, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

DRAGON QUEST – Part 4

Dragon Quest – The Traveling Draman is the fourth installment in my series of fantasy novelettes. This FREE serialized story won’t be found anywhere else, and you get to see it first! (In case you missed it, here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Croft and Rueloo journey to a far away land, seeking information about their special bond. Along the way, they meet new dragons, make friends, and arrive to find a nation on the brink of war. Caught up in Pinnacle’s problems, the two become pawns in a dangerous game of conquest. Follow Croft and Rueloo on an exciting DRAGON QUEST

Author’s Note – the books must be read in order to be understood, beginning with DRAGON CHILD, DRAGON VALLEY, and DRAGON BONDS. Get started!

 

Dragon Quest by Alexander Elliott

First Edition     Copyright © 2019

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written permission of the author. This includes any means whether electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system. UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION OR DISTRIBUTION OF THIS COPYRIGHTED WORK IS ILLEGAL AND SUBJECT TO PUNISHMENT BY LAW.

For permissions and other inquiries, contact Alexander Elliott at aelliottbooks@gmail.com

 

DRAGON QUEST – PART 4

 

Chapter 8

The castle at Whitehaven

The role of Chamberlain was not the easiest or most pleasant at the royal court. While the position enjoyed almost unlimited access to the king, a deep level of trust, and a valued opinion, it also meant having to deliver bad news and suffer the displeasure of the monarch – not an easy task when one served Favian. The Chamberlain hurried through the castle corridors to answer his summons, and found His Majesty pacing in an otherwise empty throne room. He dropped to one knee, bowed his head, and waited for the king to address him.

“Speak! When will my orders be carried out?”

The Chamberlain lifted his head and replied cautiously.

“It is taking more time than we hoped, Thy Majesty. The new soldiers must be equipped and given at least minimal training before we send them out. As thee know, our borders are extensive and we can only cover the most obvious routes in and out of the kingdom. Our ships will be ready sooner, however, only needing to take on sufficient supplies.”

“Thee have not answered the question, Chamberlain! How long will it take?”

“Three days for the ships, and at least five for the troops. I apologize, Thy Majesty. The men are moving as fast as they can.”

Favian grunted in annoyance. The delay was not totally unexpected, but it galled him not to be able to put that blasted dragon in her place immediately. He may not be able to attack Pinnacle yet, but he could certainly make things difficult for Zelara in the meantime.

“Remind them I wish to act at the earliest possible moment. When all is in readiness, I will have one more message for the Ambassador to deliver and then we can watch them squirm.”

####

The royal palace at Rose

Trumpet blasts rent the warm air as eleven dragons, their riders, and three dragonlets were spotted approaching the palace. King Augustus, Queen Nelia, Prince Jahn, and Princess Lillain hurried outside to welcome their guests. This task was usually the monarch’s alone, but Augustus planned to involve his children in every aspect of the week’s training and events. They, too, needed to understand the changes taking place in Spiredale and how they would alter the way the kingdom was ruled. One day Jahn would ascend to the throne, and he must be prepared to work hand in hand with the dragons and Draman.

Lillain, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to be surrounded by the wondrous beasts. If her interest turned out to be more than casual, as Nelia believed, the royal family might have some interesting issues to face in the near future.

After circling once, the dragons landed one at a time, facing each other in a rough circle on the grassy lawn. Echo, Sabina, Dane, and the dragonlets placed themselves nearest the royal family. Augustus, pleased to see them all, secretly wished Croft and Rueloo could have also been in attendance. Dane and Sabina approached, bowed, and led the king and his family to the center of the large circle where they stopped to greet each dragon/Draman pair.

The midday meal appeared first on the day’s agenda. While the Draman were escorted into the palace, the dragons flew to the far side of the king’s private lake for their dinner. Some of the children were unhappy being separated from their dragon, even for a short time. Dane and Sabina reminded them this, too, was part of their training and that they still remained close enough to mind-speak.

After dinner, there were tours of the palace, a trip into town, and games on the great lawn. When it came time to bed down, small tents were provided for the Draman to stow their things or change clothes. Everyone knew they would be sleeping out in the open with their dragons, and as long as it did not rain, there would be no hardship. By the time the first orphans arrived for their formal studies next year, the new dragon stables would be complete and the pairs would enjoy the finest of accommodations. Until then, camping out in the warm summer air kept everyone content.

As the week progressed, the orphans were exposed to life at court and service as a soldier in the royal forces. If a child expressed a particular interest, they and their dragon were given additional instruction. As expected, not every Draman was well-suited for palace work or military service. Through careful questioning and suggestions, Augustus sought meaningful work for each bonded pair. By doing so, he hoped to convince them to settle in Rose when they left Dramanshire instead of scattering all over the kingdom.

As an apprentice, Elenore spent a great deal of time with the palace and military healers. She presented them with a copy of Juliana’s book containing everything she knew about dragons, the bonding process, and the use of gold. She and Scree allowed themselves to be poked and prodded, answered endless questions, and talked about their own experiences. In turn, they were taught about herbal remedies, tending and stitching wounds, setting bones, and dealing with the most common ailments. Elenore thrived under the attention, eager to return home and share what she’d learned with Juliana.

While Prince Jahn and Princess Lillain were unaccustomed to rubbing elbows with commoners, they ended up learning just as much about the kingdom as their new orphan friends. Jahn, always a quick study, began to understand what kind of kingdom Spiredale would become in the future and it excited him. The foundation his father laid now would serve him well when it came time for him to take the throne. He enjoyed exchanging new ideas with his father and the advisers, pleased to finally do something other than watch quietly in the background.

Princess Lillain, to no one’s surprise, spent every possible moment with the dragons. After several days of begging, the queen finally agreed to allow her to go for a brief flight, and the girl talked of nothing else. The dragonlets, missing their Dam and nest mate, decided to lavish their attention on the Princess instead. Small enough to go indoors, they followed her around the palace like a pack of dogs, investigating everyone and everything. It was anyone’s guess where her love of dragons might lead, and despite the opposition of some, Augustus quietly encouraged her.

 

Chapter 9

Pinnacle

Croft’s original idea of spending a day or two gathering information, and then returning home, proved to be unrealistic. The dragons of Pinnacle were spread out, requiring at least one visit to each of the seven islands. Delighted to have visitors from a far away kingdom, Croft and Rueloo were welcomed with celebration at every turn. Untold hours were spent listening to personal stories, old legends, and practical observations about the blood bonds between dragon and human. Croft’s own bonding experience, filled with danger and drama, left many speechless or in tears.

Like Catrain, Croft met many adult scale-brothers and sisters who looked much more like their dragons than he did. While some wore clothing, many did not, and Croft couldn’t help being curious about how certain things were done. When they enjoyed a few moments alone, he asked Rueloo to explain.

“They are all smooth down there! How do they excrete or make babies?”

Almost nothing shocked a dragon, and she answered his question as she would any other.

“Their bodies only look different on the outside. The scales move aside when they need to eliminate or if they wish to mate. Your body will undergo the same changes when you mature, and it will feel right to you.”

Most of the bonded humans on Pinnacle had children, and Croft took some comfort in their company. Apparently, they did not have to undergo the dangerous blood fever, but were born looking much as he did: pseudo-scales, flat nose, forked tongue, and clawed hands and feet. Even a mixed pair of bonded and human gave birth to children with the same dragon features as the others.

The presence of little ones, however, brought momentary heartache for both Croft and Rueloo. While it was necessary to leave the hatchlings behind, they were sorely missed. Spark, Huff, Billow, and Ember were being cared for by Echo and Sabina, but everyday life simply wasn’t the same without their antics and endless questions. For Croft, the absence of his nestmates threatened another wave of homesickness and Rueloo gently reminded him they would be reunited soon.

Interaction with such a large and well-established community brought Croft face to face with another striking truth – he and his Draman friends would live much longer lives than their fully human counterparts. Still, it did not compare to the normal age of a healthy dragon, and it led to interesting consequences. Some bonded to more than one human at the same time, while others enjoyed a long string of bondings over the years. Rueloo explained.

“Dragons live a very long time compared to humans. My brothers and sisters tell me that once we experience the bond, it is very difficult and lonely to live without it. Many years from now, when you die, I will be compelled to find another in your place.”

Croft’s initial feelings were a jumbled mix of sadness, jealousy, and resentment. Further thought led him to the conclusion that he wanted Rueloo to be happy no matter what might happen to him. Still, he wondered how the dragons could stand loving and losing so many in their long lives. Rueloo sensed his discomfort and made a point to remind him they had only started their life together and there was no reason to dwell on the distant future.

####

During a visit to Plume, at the southern end of the island chain, they were taken to a protected cove to meet with their kin from the sea. There in the clear waters were several sea dragons, including WaveWatcher, and a large group of merfolk. Croft, Rueloo, and their hosts waded into the shallow water to meet them for an unusual, and wet, afternoon of play and discussion. While all bonds shared certain similarities, Croft found the human transformation into merfolk fascinating. Their life in the sea was so different from his own, and he peppered them with questions.

When it came time to eat, the merfolk provided freshly caught fish – roasted for the scale-brothers and sisters or eaten raw by everyone else. Following their meal on the beach, WaveWatcher offered to take Croft for a ride through the waves. Rueloo agreed, insisting on flying overhead to make sure nothing happened to her beloved. Croft whooped with delight as WaveWatcher and two other dragons played racing games, zig-zagging across the surface at high speeds.

Once they returned to the cove, Croft retrieved gifts for the merfolk from the pack he carried. Most were necklaces and bracelets made of worked gold, shells, or small colorful stones. Croft blushed as they showered him with kisses or petted his curly hair. As the day came to a close, he and Rueloo said their goodbyes and watched as the water dragons and merfolk swam away and out of sight.

####

The days flew by as Rueloo and Croft made new friends and gathered the information they were sent to collect. In return, they told Zelara and Mirabelle about the nest in the Great Peak Mountains and the growing number of orphans and Draman among them. They also relayed warm greetings from King Augustus and described Spiredale and its people. When they revealed their intention to deliver the king’s diplomatic note to Whitehaven, Zelara strongly advised against it, citing Favian’s aggression.

The problem solved itself when Whitehaven’s Ambassador arrived on Dome several days later. It was an unusually brief visit, as he stayed only long enough to hand over a sealed document before leaving. At Mirabelle’s suggestion, Croft and Rueloo interrupted his return to the ship by introducing themselves and presenting him with the king’s message. While it wasn’t delivered exactly as Augustus intended, it enabled Croft to discharge his duty without putting himself or Rueloo at risk.

This temporary triumph was soon overshadowed by the upsetting news their friends received. Favian’s message turned out to be an official notice of hostilities between Whitehaven and Pinnacle. Zelara hastily called her advisers together and asked Croft and Rueloo to observe as her guests. The enormous cavern where they met erupted with anger and confusion when the note was read aloud. In response to opening a new gold mine on land “already claimed by the kingdom of Whitehaven” and Pinnacle’s “unlawful agreement with the kingdom of Exeter”, Favian chose to enact harsh penalties.

All borders with Whitehaven were now closed, trade by land or sea halted, and all diplomatic ties cut. Any attempt by Pinnacle to continue mining gold or trade with neighboring kingdoms would be met with deadly force. While not exactly a declaration of war, Pinnacle was effectively isolated from her neighbors and left to fend for herself. As the impact of the restrictions began to sink in, Zelara’s advisers grew quiet and pensive. Since worry never produced results, she quickly explained how they were going to respond.

“Favian believess he can frighten uss into giving him what he wantss or sslowly sstarve uss to death. The mine is ourss, even if we musst wait until it iss ssafe to operate. He hass forgotten we rule the air and our brotherss rule the ssea. If hiss sships attack, we will ssink them, and if he harmss our people we will retaliate.

“There will be no reply to hiss demandss, and we will continue trading at night when they cannot ssee uss. We have access to the ssea and other kingdomss too far away for Whitehaven to cut off all of our ssuppliess. It will require sstealth and hard work, but it can be done! Call in our defenderss and courierss – we must begin immediately.”

####

Meanwhile, in Favian’s private chambers

Several hours passed before Favian opened the message passed on by the Ambassador. Why, after all, should he care about some insignificant kingdom on the backside of nowhere? There were enough troubles on his mind without wasting energy on useless diplomatic overtures. In the quiet of his own rooms, he reconsidered his first response and opened the message from Spiredale. The unremarkable missive contained only a friendly greeting, condolences on the death of Favian’s father, and a vague offer of mutual cooperation.

While the king knew of Spiredale’s existence, he remained ignorant of the place and its people. It seemed significant that the messengers were a Scalie and a dragon – specifically mentioned as “honored representatives” of the kingdom. Favian needed more information and called for his Chamberlain. When the man arrived, he read the short note and told the king everything he knew about Spiredale.

“It is a small, peaceful, kingdom along the shores of the Talon Sea, and is reported to be rich in gold. The nearby mountains contain a large nest of dragons who defeated the armies of Thorn when they attacked some two years ago. Our spies tell us Thorn’s forces were destroyed in a matter of minutes. A close relationship with them could prove very beneficial. It is unfortunate they did not bring the message directly to us, for we could have obtained additional information.”

Favian’s mind began to turn with possibilities. If Whitehaven had access to abundant gold and a fierce nest of dragons as Spiredale did, he could finally wipe out Pinnacle, expand his kingdom, and enjoy the riches he should have inherited from his idiot father. Spiredale was too distant to conquer easily, but perhaps he could gain their cooperation another way.

“Do we know how long the Scalie and his dragon will remain at Pinnacle?”

“No, Thy Majesty. The Ambassador was on his way back to the ship when they handed him the message and he did not ask questions or extend an invitation to the palace. Apparently, both the boy and his dragon are blue, and should be easy to identify. We may have to move quickly if thee wish to… intercept them.”

Favian’s eye’s narrowed as an audacious plan blossomed in his mind. It might be risky and complicated, but the opportunity could not be wasted. The operation required precise timing and careful cooperation to be successful, and if it failed he was no worse off than before. If the plan bore fruit – Zelara and her people would forever cease to be a problem.

####

Caught up in Pinnacle’s troubles, Croft and Rueloo offered to stay a while longer and help their friends establish the new supply lines. With so much to do, Zelara expressed her gratitude and put them to work. The job became much easier after Croft suggested they use giant nets to carry supplies back and forth, as was done when building the orphanage. Soon, every available pair of hands on all seven islands set to making rope and weaving it together.

Clandestine meetings with the surrounding kingdoms arranged pick up and delivery times and locations. Mirabelle assigned a different person for each place and tasked them with keeping track of the schedule. As soon as the sun set each night, the dragons began carrying nets full of island goods such as fish, fruit, pottery, and gold jewelry the humans loved so much. In exchange, they brought back grain, firewood, metal, leather, or other things not readily found on Pinnacle.

Flights over Whitehaven were avoided for the most part, and even then, much higher than the dragons usually flew. The soldiers possessed many of the spear-throwing devices, called ballistas, stationed along portions of the shoreline and near the disputed gold mine. There may have been others, but without flying dangerously low they remained hidden. The only other obvious change in their enemy’s behavior was an increased naval presence.

Every day, one or more ships were chased away from the islands and back to Whitehaven’s shoreline. Twice, Zelara’s defenders raked a ship with fire in order to force them out of their waters. At least once so far, a sea dragon nearly swamped a ship before it got the message and backed away. Zelara believed these were clumsy attempts to spy on them, though they could not understand what Favian hoped to see. Most of their activity was hidden in darkness or on the opposite side of the islands where Whitehaven’s ships wouldn’t dare go.

Mirabelle, certain Favian was up to no good, urged everyone working near Whitehaven’s borders to be especially cautious. In her mind, a quiet enemy presented the most danger, and the king already proved he lacked honor. Whatever he planned did not bode well for her people and she remained on edge, expecting something to happen. As it turned out, she didn’t have to wait much longer.

####

Whitehaven’s border, shortly before sunset

Favian’s network of spies finally uncovered useful information when the village of Shorewood, which included Lord Wellington’s estate, was caught red-handed trading with Pinnacle. Outraged, the king made an example of the disobedient Lord by throwing him in the dungeon and seizing his home and lands. To pay for their disloyalty, he levied a new tax on the entire village and a stationed a permanent squadron of soldiers there to keep watch on them.

Punishing his citizens became secondary, however, when Favian learned the blue dragon took part in the secret food pickups. This was exactly the break he needed to bring his plans to fruition, and he moved quickly to intercept tonight’s exchange. The ballistas were carefully placed and well-hidden along the heavily wooded shoreline, while the archers were instructed to target Scalies only – with one exception.

####

Pinnacle, after dark

Croft shifted uneasily on Rueloo’s back, eager to get tonight’s pick up over with and weary with late nights and lack of sleep. Tomorrow would be their last day on the islands before heading home, and he yearned to see Dane and his friends. The trip back would take just as long, but at least they would be heading towards Spiredale instead of away from it. He leaned down to stroke Rueloo’s neck, reassuring her of his love. In turn, she sent a mental image of the day he awoke from the bonding fever, awash with wonder and the reassurance she would never leave him.

While tonight’s supply run was already familiar to most of the assigned group, it would be considerably larger than the previous ones. Ten dragon-and-rider pairs finally took to the air for the short flight, including Zelara and Mirabelle. Though urged by their advisers to stay behind, Pinnacle’s leaders insisted on doing their part and no one could dissuade them. A crisp breeze followed them across the water, masking whatever scents they would normally pick up from shore.

Zelara and Mirabelle took point, coming in cautiously when they did not see the usual signal torches. The darkened beach put Mirabelle instantly on guard and she broadcast her thoughts to the entire group.

“The torches are missing and the wind masks the scent. Wait here while we take a closer look.”

The others obeyed, circling offshore above the water. Though Croft understood Mirabelle’s caution, he simply wanted to complete the task and return to Dome. After another low pass, Mirabelle broadcast the all-clear. The dragons quickly lined up along the beach to enter the narrow opening in the trees and retrieve the filled nets. Rueloo, third to go in, wasted no time snatching one of the bundles in her powerful jaws. Once on the beach, she could grasp it in her talons before taking flight.

As the moonlight bounced off her scales, one of the soldiers recognized the blue dragon and fired. The “thwip”, “thwip”, “thwip” sound of arrows and ballistas filled the air as bellows of pain and confusion erupted all around them. Spears lodged in dragon flesh as the alarmed beasts struggled for room to take off. Some managed it, only to be struck while in the air. Their riders fared no better, with sharp arrows penetrating bodies amid screams and spilled blood.

Croft lay as flat as he could on Rueloo’s back as she ran into the shallow water near the beach where there was more room to fly. As they lifted into the air, Rueloo’s left wing was shredded by spears and she tumbled from the sky with a roar of pain and confusion. She landed with an enormous splash, spilling Croft from her back. The frightened boy struck a large rock hidden just below the surface, snapping his left arm like a dry stick. His scream was lost in the confusion, and he struggled to keep his head above water as the pain and nausea tried to pull him under the cold waves.

“Rueloo! Help me!”

She did not answer – the warm mental connection with her having gone dark and silent. She lay crumpled in the water, unmoving, as blood flowed from her injured wing. He opened his mind to find someone to help them, but was battered by a maelstrom of anger and agony as the others dealt with their own injuries and attempts to get away.

The sound of hurried splashing caused Croft to look up in alarm as two soldiers waded through the water towards him. He screamed again for help, but no one heard his pleas.

“NO! Wake up Rueloo! Don’t let them take me! Rueloo!”

The soldiers roughly grabbed his arms to drag him to shore, wrenching his broken arm. The pain was too much for Croft and his troubled mind plunged mercifully into darkness.

END OF BOOK 4

   To be continued in book 5, DRAGON RESCUE!

Photo Prompt – CRYSTALS

51 - 274A

I drew back the curtain and gasped; they were here. Deceptively beautiful, they befouled the glass with gangrenous feathered patterns of death. I had to leave – now. 

It didn’t take long to gather my things, always ready to flee the ever-advancing crystals. I escaped the abandoned house I’d called home for several days, careful to remain in direct sunlight, and headed south. The last news reports indicated people were fleeing to the equator, but had anyone reached it? Would the crystals travel that far and kill us all anyway?

Originating at the poles, the spreading chill and death was initially blamed on climate change and portended a new ice age. Soon, it became clear the mysterious effect was much more; a new life form with malevolent intent. As the aggressive “crystals” began infiltrating populated areas, the great migration began. If there truly was a safe haven, I had a long journey ahead to find it.

DRAGON QUEST – Part 3

Dragon Quest – The Traveling Draman is the fourth installment in my series of fantasy novelettes. This FREE serialized story won’t be found anywhere else, and you get to see it first! (In case you missed it, here’s part 1 and part 2)

Croft and Rueloo journey to a far away land, seeking information about their special bond. Along the way, they meet new dragons, make friends, and arrive to find a nation on the brink of war. Caught up in Pinnacle’s problems, the two become pawns in a dangerous game of conquest. Follow Croft and Rueloo on an exciting DRAGON QUEST

Author’s Note – the books must be read in order to be understood, beginning with DRAGON CHILD, DRAGON VALLEY, and DRAGON BONDS. Get started!

 

Dragon Quest by Alexander Elliott

First Edition     Copyright © 2019

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written permission of the author. This includes any means whether electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system. UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION OR DISTRIBUTION OF THIS COPYRIGHTED WORK IS ILLEGAL AND SUBJECT TO PUNISHMENT BY LAW.

For permissions and other inquiries, contact Alexander Elliott at aelliottbooks@gmail.com

 

DRAGON QUEST – PART 3

 

Chapter 5

Dramanshire, early morning

Juliana knew exactly where her husband would be, walking carefully down two flights of darkened stone stairs and across the great hall to the library door. She knocked softly once, paused, then knocked twice. Without waiting, she opened the heavy door, slipped inside the candlelit room, and joined Hugh on the kneeling bench in the corner. Without interrupting his prayers, Juliana silently joined him, interceding for the orphans under their care.

He finished in due time, lifting his head to find Juliana watching him. He kissed her once, twice, three times, before wrapping his arms around her. Hugh considered her a treasured gift from God and did everything in his power to remind her of it. She pulled back to find a look of concern on his handsome face and reached up to smooth the creases between his eyes.

“Thee are worried about Croft and Rueloo, are thee not? God holds them in the palm of His hand, husband. We must trust Him.”

Shamed, Hugh wished for greater faith.

“Thee have the right of it, wife. Dane worries so, and I promised him my prayers. He was reluctant to see them go alone, and I agree with him. I will feel much better when they have returned safely to us.”

Noises from the kitchen interrupted their discussion as Margery busied herself making breakfast. They left the quiet library, making their way upstairs to awaken the children for another busy day. Life at Dramanshire continued without pause, despite the absence of Croft and Rueloo.

Thomas planned another trip to Orchid today for supplies, with an aside visit to see Beatrix at the Inn. The Boar’s Head was a respectable place, serving an ever-increasing number of travelers through Orchid. Smitten from their first meeting, the pair were expected to make a marriage announcement soon.

All recently-bonded orphans were busy planning for their trip to Rose. The king’s invitation caused quite a stir at Dramanshire and Wheet agreed they needed to learn first-hand about life at the palace. It was important for he and Augustus to understand each other’s intentions as they moved ever closer to an integrated kingdom. The dragonlets, who missed their Dam and nestmate, would travel to Rose with Echo and Sabina. They were still too young to be left unattended, and the trip would be a good learning experience.

The construction of Snapdragon, the king’s new summer home, was well underway. The main tower sat atop the hills near the crossroads of the King’s Highway and Dragon Road. Nearby sat the new dragon stables, barn, and barracks for the soldiers. Thanks to the overflow of gold into the treasury, there were many other projects being financed around Spiredale: road improvements, more dragon stables at Rose, and new sailing ships down by the harbor. At the same time, Orchid blossomed from a sleepy village into a busy town, adding new homes and businesses wherever space could be found.

Dane continued his weapons training instruction for the Draman, bringing pairs of soldiers with him to demonstrate the use of the baton, crossbow, longbow, and spear. Plans were being made for special saddle bags to hold various weapons and supplies while the dragons were in flight. Eventually, the Draman would learn to use them whether on the ground or in the air, making the dragon and its rider a lethal pair.

Planning ahead, Juliana consulted with the military healers at Rose to identify and treat common wounds of war. The gold worked wonders for healing, but setting bones, stitching up gashes, and removing arrows was knowledge all Draman and their dragons might need to know. Juliana spent long hours preparing Elenore and Scree for more intensive training when they reached Rose with the others.

####

Whitehaven, the king’s council chambers

Favian pounded the tabletop with both fists, startling his advisers.

“Explain thyself! What do thee mean, Merek is missing?”

The king’s unofficial spymaster remained unnaturally calm as he gave Favian the bad news.

“Thy brother has not been seen since the evening before the storm. His horse remains in the stable and his bedchamber undisturbed. It is possible he heard of our plans and fled the kingdom, but not a trace has been found. If he did escape, it was on foot and with only the clothes on his back.”

The king’s steely glare could stop a beating heart, and his advisers flinched as it was trained on them.

“Redouble thy efforts. Find him, or his rotting carcass, and bring it to me! Remember this – he will not stop at removing my head only. Thou art also in peril as long as he lives, and all our plans are for naught.”

While the king’s foul mood was understandable, it threatened to get worse when his Chamberlain shared another bit of troubling information.

“There is a matter of some concern, Thy Majesty. We have received news from the northern reaches that Pinnacle is mining for gold near Exeter.”

Favian’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward over the table.

“Who lays claim to the land?”

“There has been no claim, as yet. Thy father considered annexing the area some time ago, but decided against it. I expect Pinnacle to send us an official declaration at any time.”

The king’s expression twisted with fury.

“Damn those infernal dragons! They would take over the world if we let them! How is the place guarded?”

“We are told they have a very generous agreement with Exeter to help mine the ore and protect the site. Short of diplomacy, we would have to take the land by force if we want the mine for ourselves.”

Favian turned to his Minister of War.

“Do it then! How soon can we take what is rightfully ours?”

“We cannot, Thy Majesty. Our forces are undermanned and in disarray. Between Exeter’s army and the dragons, we would suffer tremendous losses and gain nothing in return.”

Favian’s curses prevented the ministers from saying anything else, and he finally fell silent in thought. At every turn he faced problems inherited from his father’s incompetent handling of the kingdom. The coffers were nearly empty, his army gutted and ineffective, and the long-established agreements with neighboring kingdoms left Whitehaven weakened. He would have to address the issues one at a time, starting with Pinnacle’s claim to the gold.

“Since this cannot be settled as I wish, I will send formal notices to both Pinnacle and Exeter that my father did indeed officially lay claim to the land in question. While the ambassadors are busy talking, we will start rebuilding the army with conscripts and prepare to take the land by force.

“Send for my scribe. I want those dispatches delivered before the sun sets.”

 

Chapter 6

Pinnacle, later that day

Zelara and Mirabelle finished up a long day of visiting each of the islands; something they did regularly to deal with problems, listen to complaints, and interact with their people. So it was, as they approached Dome, a Whitehaven ship sat in the harbor, flying the Ambassador’s flag. Zelara’s displeasure could be clearly felt by her scale-sister.

“Unless the ambassador is here about something else, Favian wasted no time lodging a complaint about the new mines.”

“It was expected, and no doubt Exeter received the same message. Had it been his father, we would have received a note of congratulations and nothing more. Oh, how I miss the old king!”

 “As do I, but there is hope for changing the situation.”

 “Hmph…hope moves too slowly for my taste.”

Merek was still getting settled in among them, rarely seen in public, and then only in disguise. So far, only Zelara, Mirabelle, and their trusted inner council were aware of his true identity and purpose. He would be invited to witness today’s meeting, as his insight and advice could prove invaluable.

Zelara swooped down from the sky to land on the terrace of meeting. The Ambassador’s retinue began making their way towards them from the ship, but she and Mirabelle needed a few moments to refresh themselves after a rigorous day. If King Favian’s representatives were kept waiting in the wind, so be it.

####

Mirabelle finished reading the king’s missive aloud, mostly for the sake of the advisers standing behind her, but also because it made the Ambassador and his party more uncomfortable. She lowered the parchment scroll and cocked her head as Zelara provided her initial response, turning her gaze on Whitehaven’s official representatives.

“King Favian’ss claimss have no merit. We were informed by hiss father that Whitehaven wass not interessted in the land ssome time ago, and we have no intention of giving up the miness or altering our arrangement with Exeter.”

The Ambassador’s sour expression made it clear he was neither surprised nor pleased to hear Zelara’s words. He opened his mouth to express a more sternly worded warning, but the dragon wasn’t finished speaking. Mirabelle continued to translate.

“You may alsso inform the king that any attempt to interfere with our planss or alliess will result in… sserious conssequencess.”

The Ambassador stiffened, allowing anger and sarcasm to color his response.

“I see. I find thy unjustified threats amusing, though His Majesty will not. Surely we can come to a more beneficial agreement, unless this is thy final word?”

Mirabelle spoke for herself this time.

“Our nationss were once closse alliess, but the king’ss greed hass now caussed a rift between uss. Let there be no missunderstanding – the miness and the land belong to Pinnacle and we will defend them as we would the ssoil upon which thee sstand. There iss nothing more to negotiate regarding this matter. Thee may leave uss.”

The Ambassador did not take kindly to being summarily dismissed, keeping his anger in abeyance long enough to bow stiffly and hastily return to his ship. Mirabelle looked up at Zelara to see smoke pouring from her snout, even as her claws made deep gouges in the soft soil of the terrace. Without another word, they all turned and retreated to Zelara’s caverns.

####

Merek listened carefully to the heated discussion, keeping his opinions to himself as they tried to understand Favian’s latest move. Some considered it mere posturing and bluster, while others, including Zelara, were convinced the situation could get much worse. Once everyone had their say, Mirabelle asked him what he thought of the whole affair.

“There is no question Whitehaven needs the gold, but Favian wants it for other reasons as well. He needs to prove he is a strong and decisive leader for all to see, and is desperate to demonstrate his rule will be nothing like our father’s. He also fears Pinnacle’s power and influence in the region and wants to put ye in thy place. His pride will not allow anyone, especially Pinnacle, to be bigger, better, richer, or smarter than he.”

Zelara, sharp as always, sensed something more. Mirabelle spoke for her.

“What iss it you are not telling uss, Merek? We musst know if we are to avoid the wrong decisson.”

Embarrassed and worried, Merek found it difficult to meet their eyes.

“Favian would like nothing better than to destroy the nest on Pinnacle and take the islands for himself. When he is able he will attack, and ye may soon find thyself at war. Forgive me, friends, if my words seem harsh, but they are the truth.”

####

Though Zelara appreciated his honesty, Merek thought it best to remove himself from the discussion. He felt terrible for having to tell them what they did not want to hear, and it hurt knowing his own brother caused their fear and resentment. He bade them good evening and headed home with a heavy heart. He’d been given a small stone cottage, close to the meeting terrace, but isolated from the other inhabitants of the island. This, too, was more difficult to bear than he imagined, unaccustomed to spending so much time alone.

Distracted by dreary thoughts, Merek stopped abruptly when he spied a lone figure through the open window. A merry fire burned on the hearth and the comforting smell of food made his stomach grumble. Who had made themselves at home while he was away? Zelara had spoken of someone on the island he might wish to see – could this be the one?

Caution won out over curiosity and he pulled the dagger from his boot to quietly approach the house. He yanked the door opened and stepped inside, brandishing the knife.

“Who are thee? Why are thee here?”

The stranger turned, gracing him with a small, sad smile.

“Have thy manners left thee so soon, my son?”

Merek gaped at what must be an apparition. There before him stood the queen mother, dressed in common clothes and seemingly alive.

“Mother? How can it be you? Thee are dead and buried!”

The familiar voice held firm, even as her face reflected shadows of grief and loss.

“Put away thy knife and trust thy eyes and ears. I fled the kingdom when thy brother’s plans became known to me. The fire was set to make him think me dead, and I escaped to Pinnacle. Forgive me for not telling thee, Son, but I could not risk thy life as well as mine.”

Merek put away the dagger and approached the woman. He reached out slowly to touch her hair, convincing himself of the reality before him. They burst into tears at the same moment, clinging to one another in joyous relief – impossible to express with words. After the tears came laughter and a hundred questions which they asked and answered over their meal.

The body found after the fire belonged to a poor beggar woman who died at the palace gate. The queen’s devoted ministers came up with the plan and helped her escape across the border. From there, a message to Zelara brought the dragon to the rendezvous herself, and she flew the queen back to Pinnacle for safekeeping.

When Merek set out to describe his own arrival on the islands, including the miraculous rescue at sea, his mother nearly fainted.

“To have lost thee so would have broken my heart. Perhaps it was best this way, as Favian cannot be certain if thee are alive or dead. We are safe here from his spies, but I want to hear of thy plans for the kingdom, my son. Thy brother’s black heart will surely bring destruction to Whitehaven unless he can be stopped.”

Far into the night they relived happy memories, grieved the departed king, and tested ideas for regaining Whitehaven’s throne. More importantly, they rejoiced in simply being together once again, pushing back the shadows which had hounded them into exile.

 

Chapter 7

The next morning

Having arisen early, Croft and Rueloo ate a hasty breakfast and broke camp – eager to reach Pinnacle, complete their mission, and start for home. If things went according to plan, they would only be away from Dramanshire for a fortnight. Early in their flight, Rueloo banked sharply to the left, altering course away from the coastal Kingdom of Whitehaven and over the Talon Sea.

Croft filled his lungs with the distinctive scent of open water, even as the lush green of field and forest disappeared from view. A flock of noisy gulls parted, wisely avoiding Rueloo’s powerful wings and went about their business. In the distance, the islands of Pinnacle broke up the vast expanse of the sea, illuminated by warm sunshine. While his home in the mountains was beautiful, he relished the change of scenery, and the panorama below drove every other thought from his mind.

Gliding lower for a better look, Rueloo skimmed over the calm surface of the water, filling the air with her distinctive call. Up ahead, the sea suddenly came alive with a burst of foam and bubbles, startling Croft.

“Rueloo! Look!”

The large head and upper body of a gray-green water dragon rose out of the water, answering Rueloo’s call with one of its own. Croft knew they were speaking, but only caught part of the exchange.

“What did he say?”

“He wants us to land on the island up ahead.”

At last, Croft would meet one of the great creatures of the sea Wheet described months ago. Oh, the stories he would tell when they returned home! The water dragon began swimming near the surface, churning the sea as he went, twisting this way and that like a serpent on land. He traveled much faster than Croft imagined he could, headed for a tiny spit of rocky land rising above the water. Not really an island, but he and Rueloo needed something solid on which to stand and this was the only spot available.

When the great sea serpent reached it, he pulled himself up on dry ground, leaving his back half in the water. Plenty of room remained to alight and Rueloo brought them down on a relatively flat patch of sandy soil, speckled with moss and scrubby plants. The dragons leaned forward to scent one another, both rumbling with pleasure. Rueloo made the introductions.

“This is WaveWatcher, Croft. His pod lives here in the waters near Pinnacle. Do not fear him, little one. You are unlike the merfolk, and he is curious.”

Rueloo crouched down so Croft could dismount, and a few short steps brought him face to face with the intriguing water dragon. They scented each other first and then WaveWatcher licked his face and outstretched hand with a long, black, tongue which smelled of fish. Croft reached out to stroke the fine smooth scales of his face, avoiding the rows of sharp spines which ringed a wedge-shaped head. His enormous, heavy flippers began halfway down the long body, scaled like the rest of him, and the same gray-green color. Croft finally thought of something to say.

“Thee are a fine dragon, and very fast in the water! Do thee ever wish to fly the way Rueloo does?”

A rumble of laughter shook the rocks beneath Croft’s feet.

“No. Rueloo and her kind command the sky, while my kind rules the sea. This is the way of the world and I am content.”

“Are thee bonded to a human? I have been told they are called merfolk here, but I have never met one of them. Where I am from, we are called Draman.”

“I am not bonded. If you were unclaimed, I would take you into the sea with me, little Draman.”

 The idea startled Croft and Rueloo assured him he could not be bonded to two dragons at the same time. She remained unworried, slightly amused, and a little bit jealous. Croft relaxed.

 “I thank thee. Would thee like me to look for someone for thee while we are here?”

 WaveWatcher laughed, both pleased and amused.

“If you wish. I will tell the merfolk you want to see them. Be sure to bring gifts or they will be offended.”

Croft smiled at the strange idea.

“Oh! All right. Will I see thee again?”

“I hope so, yes. Take care on your journey.”

With that, the sea dragon bid them farewell, slithering backwards into the sea and beneath the surface. Croft hated to part with him, but they still had a ways to travel before reaching the islands. Rueloo licked his outstretched hand in a dragon kiss and he climbed aboard to continue on their way.

####

Approaching from the south, they crossed over the islands of Lava, Plume, and Fissure before reaching Dome. Rueloo made no attempt to land, calling out instead to alert the nest of their presence. Four dragons flew up to meet them; three males and a female, all brightly scaled in shades of orange, yellow, and brown. Aside from their coloring and fewer horns, they looked much the same as the dragons back home. The most obvious difference was the shape of their tails, which did not taper to a point. Instead, they ended with a flat, diamond-shaped piece of heavy bone, and Croft wondered if it served some special purpose.

Rueloo explained why they were here and that they wished to see Zelara and Mirabelle. Forming a protective circle, the dragons escorted Rueloo and Croft to Dome’s surface, landing on a broad grassy terrace. Fortunately, the NestMistress and her scale-sister were not busy with other matters and came out to greet their visitors. When they reached the elevated platform, both Rueloo and Croft bowed in respect and waited to be addressed. Mirabelle spoke first.

“Welcome travelers. From where do thee come?”

Croft answered for them.

“We are from Dramanshire, in the kingdom of Spiredale.”

Mirabelle’s eyes widened in surprise.

“We know of Spiredale and the great nest residing there. What is the purpose of your long journey?”

Our NestMaster, Wheet, sent us to learn more about dragon bonds.”

Intrigued, Zelara lowered her head to scent Croft first, and then Rueloo. Satisfied, she responded.

“We were not aware of any bonded among you. Why have you come to us for help?”

 Rueloo spoke this time, as she would be able to explain it better.

“Our NestMaster’s Sire and Dam were hatched in Pinnacle. He has ancient memories handed down to him of this place. He hoped we would be welcome here and provided with the information we seek.”

 “How may we help you?”

 “Our understanding is limited and there are things we must know to protect both human and dragon. There are no nests close to us who bond with humans and we have traveled many days to reach this place. If you so desire, we will leave…”

 Embarrassed, Mirabelle interrupted and stepped forward.

“No! Forgive us, please. Thee are our guests and most welcome here, only… thee have come at a difficult time. Whitehaven has disrupted the nest, and we are suspicious of strangers and their motives. Thee are not to blame, of course, but thee must be made aware of our situation. Please, come inside where we may talk further.”

Croft expected a somewhat warmer welcome, but Rueloo assured him privately that these were honorable people. He wondered if Wheet or Augustus would have sent them here alone had they known there was trouble. Still, they should be able to accomplish their primary mission of learning more about bonds. The remaining question of what to do with the diplomatic note for Whitehaven would have to be answered later.

Next time – the conclusion of DRAGON QUEST!

 

 

Photo Prompt – CAT’S EYE

Z1-001A

I watched my adopted human leave in a primitive conveyance, abandoned once more in her box-like dwelling. In just a few more days my observations would be complete and I could escape this torture, returning to the comfort of the ship. I was certain no one would believe my report, for how could things have changed so drastically in only a few thousand years? Had it not been for the crisis on Whiska, requiring a hasty retreat, we would never have left in the first place.

In Egypt, the humans worshipped and pampered us as we ruled alongside the great Pharaohs. They built statues and created great works of art in our honor, fed us sumptuous meals, and included us in their religious ceremonies. Now, there was no trace of our ancestors and the humans regarded “cats” as mere pets! Our distant cousins are locked up inside, fed canned food, amused with cheap toys, and know nothing of the universe except for this tiny backward planet.

Earth will have to be abandoned permanently, as it is too late to repair the damage and return to our former glory. Perhaps on another world, with other beings, we will find partners worthy of our greatness.