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Jakob walked halfway across the clearing, following the river back to the forest, before he thought to consider his destination. He could not return home. He could not stay with the Dragonya. There was nowhere among the living that could welcome his presence.
He was nearly overcome with a sense of helplessness and confusion, and he paused and stood motionless. The wind in the valley was a gentle breeze. Birds chirped, cheerful as they flew overhead. The water gurgled as it flew steadily from its source in the mountains. Overhead, the sky was a bright blue, with only white, fluffy clouds to occasionally cast a fleeting shadow over the bright green grass.
It was hot. Summer was in full swing now. Had he been in Antella, he would have seen golden fields of wheat stretching as far as the eye could see. Great herds of sheep, coats of wool shorn for the summer, would be grazing over the hillsides, gorging on the plentiful grass, tended by families of shepherds and their faithful dogs.
Would he see it again?
Was it the same, even now? Had the Emperor’s armies burned the fields to the ground, potentially driving the surrounding villages into starvation? Had the shepherds been taken as prisoners or made into slaves? Was his sister safe? Was his father taken prisoner, or killed?
Would he ever know?
He couldn’t return there. He couldn’t stay where he was. The only option left was to keep moving. To become a wanderer, perhaps until true death took him. Unless he was already dead, after all.
He stopped to rest several times in the forest, to drink of the stream he continued to follow, to eat a bit of the stolen food, to empty his bladder, to wash his face, and to rest his tired feet, unused to such exertions.
From the Dragonya he had stolen a simple bow and a handful of arrows, which he had stuffed into the haversack. Though he had practiced at archery for sport, Jakob had never been hunting, and had some doubts as to his ability to kill his own food. Even less was his confidence in his ability to prepare any kill for eating. He had seen both the preparation of the meat and the cooking done, but had never attempted such a thing on his own. Though some of the nobles of Damorey hunted for sport, it was unnecessary, and he had never had an interest.
How impractical his life had been, he thought. How comfortable to live the life of a noble, to concern himself with such things as courtship and marriage these last few years, with social niceties, with appropriate clothing and words. Never had he wondered about where his meals might come from. Never had he needed to.
He was so lost in thought that he took no notice at first of the absence of shade and the presence of suddenly bright sunlight. When he did look up, he saw that he had somehow wandered into a clearing. A few trees had recently been broken in half, their tops lying upon the ground.
He stared at the nearest of these trees for a few moments, wondering what might have caused such a thing to happen – wind, or lighting perhaps? He looked up at the clear sky, and shuddered to think about the inevitability of a thunderstorm. It would not be pleasant to be caught outside in such a storm which was powerful enough to break trees in half, and yet, what choice was there?
Losing himself yet again in hypothetical horrors and self-abasement, he paid no attention to the long blue object lying his path, and was thus quite surprised to trip over it and suddenly find himself lying in the dirt.
Even as he stumbled to regain his feet, he was not quite clear what had happened, and assumed that it had simply been a rock or a root sticking out of the dirt. He was brushing the dirt from his trousers, hoping he had not seriously damaged them (and recalling as well that he had little knowledge of how to repair clothing, even if he had materials for such) when a low rumbling noise made him stop such self-absorbed thoughts and turn toward the sound.
He saw first the eyes, a pair of glowing orange orbs peering through the relative shadow of the overhanging trees. They moved closer, and then he felt a warm – no, a hot breeze blow over him. There was an odd scent in the air.
It was a dragon. Covered in dark blue scales, with dark orange eyes and black horns poking from its skull and sharp, long teeth extending from the upper jaw. Again, the hot breeze blew – the dragon’s breath!
Jakob took a step backward, almost stumbling over his own feet. He had never been so close to a dragon without its rider present. So long as Li Tan was standing by reassuringly, he had seen no reason to fear Alorno, but this dragon was an unknown.
Why do you disturb my sleep?
He heard the voice not in his ears, but in his head, speaking almost through his mind. It was the first time in two days that someone had spoken to him, and Jakob had nearly forgotten that it was considered appropriate to reply to a question. He took another half step backward, eyes wide, fear shivering through his mind.
The dragon was looking directly at him.
The dragon could see him.
Why do you disturb my sleep?
The voice spoke again, and now Jakob heard the words and comprehended them. As it spoke, the dragon raised its head, its long neck extending upward. Leaning his head back, Jakob watched it rise, towering overhead.
His legs were shaking. His body was quivering. He lost the ability to stand, and fell to his knees. As it seemed an appropriate thing to do, he dropped the rest of his body to the ground, resting his head on his hands.
“I-I’m sorry,” he managed to say, wondering if this creature could hear him as well as see him. Were the two abilities connected?
The dragon said nothing for a long time. Jakob dared not move, dared not to lift his head and face the glowing orange eyes. Even now, he was shivering with fear.
Another gust of hot air passed over him. The dragon sighed a heavy sigh.
You are not Dragonya.
Jakob wondered what had given him away – the fact that he was dressed abnormally, wandering through the world with such carelessness, or the fact that he was so terrified. Even the youngest of children in the settlement had not been afraid of the Dragons in their midst.
“No,” he admitted. “I’m not. I’m sorry if I’m trespassing….”
Another burst of hot air came from the dragon, this time a snort of mild amusement. Jakob looked up at last and saw that he had lowered his head once more and was resting it upon a bed of soft leaves, eyes already half-shut.
Dragons have no interest in Human territory. Go where you wish.
A wave of relief washed over Jakob, but he had no strength to attempt to rise to his feet. Instead, he remained where he was, curiosity and exhaustion overwhelming his fear at last. For a long moment he sat, staring, and then the dragon sighed again and opened his eyes.
If you are not Dragonya, why are you here?
“I don’t know,” Jakob admitted. “I’m supposed to be dead.”
You do not look dead to me.
“I do to everyone else,” he answered with a sigh of his own. Sensing confusion from the dragon, he said, “It’s a long story.”
Curiously enough, this seemed to interest the dragon.
Is it a good story?
“I don’t know.”
Tell it to me. It has been a long time since I heard a good story.
Seeing no reason to object, Jakob explained his story as best he could – how he had been captured on the road to the palace, how he had felt the rope of the noose around his neck and heard Olivia’s screams, how he had been then prepared for death, and then awakened in the forest, hungry and exhausted.
Ah, a tale of magic and love, the dragon said, still sounding wistful.
“I suppose,” Jakob replied glumly, as it did not seem particularly romantic to him to be separated from Olivia.
After a long silence had passed, he said, “I don’t know what to do now.”
That much is easy, the dragon told him. You must go back and rescue your princess.
That is how the stories go. The princess is rescued by her prince.
“I am no prince,” Jakob replied, to which the dragon made an amused sort of noise that might have been a laugh.
Did you not say you married her? That makes you her prince.
“Perhaps,” he admitted, for he did not wish to explain the politics of titles and the way they functioned in Damorey, “but in any case I cannot be a prince if I am dead.”
Why do you say you are dead?
“Because no one but you can see me!”
It was only once he had said it aloud that Jakob realized what he had said. This dragon could see and hear him.
“You can see me. You can hear me,” he said aloud. “None of the other dragons could….” He gestured vaguely toward the settlement. “…Why can you?”
A mystery, the dragon replied evasively. In any case, you are not dead. If you wish to be, it is easily accomplished.
Jakob considered these words. Easily accomplished. He was already thought to be dead. He could not return home, could no longer interact with any others. What difference would it make if he really did die?
But then, who would save the princess? the dragon continued. Did you not say the Emperor’s son has imprisoned her? Would you leave her to that fate?
“Is it really imprisonment, though?” Jakob wondered. “If Igor wants to marry her – if marrying her means the war ends – then maybe she should. Especially if…I am not there to complicate matters.”
The dragon considered this matter for a time. At last he seemed to shrug, for he nodded his head in a sideways manner.
If you wish not to conduct an heroic rescue, then do not, he said at last. It is no concern of mine. In any case, your princess may well be dead by now.
If this invading prince is as evil as he seems to be, taking prisoners upon the road and invading countries on a whim, perhaps he is also the type to murder princesses who do not give him what he wants. Certainly he is not shy of executions, if he executed you.
Jakob considered this for some time. “I should go and see, at least,” he said finally, turning his head toward the south, as though his eyes could pass through hundreds of miles of forest with a single glance. “If she is hurt, then I ought to rescue her, even if I cannot be with her.”
The dragon said nothing, but seemed to be in agreement with this statement.
With a sigh, the young man fell backward on the ground, all energy and strength draining from his limbs. He let his eyes fall shut, and the world seemed to spin around him.
“It should be no difficult task to break into the palace when no one can see me,” he said thoughtfully, “but as for escaping with her, that might be more difficult.”
A distraction would help.
“That would be helpful,” Jakob agreed. “If perhaps there is an organized rebellion, and they happen to do something which distracts the majority of the imperial soldiers at the same time….” He sighed in frustration. “But to plan such a thing is nearly impossible if they cannot see or hear me.”
Perhaps a dragon attacking might serve the purpose.
He opened his eyes and leaned up on his elbows. “A dragon?”
I can be rather intimidating, if you recall, the dragon himself replied. Especially if I appear to be attacking.
“Are you offering to help me?” Jakob asked in astonishment.
Perhaps, he admitted. Perhaps we might make a temporary contract.
Ah, that’s right, you are not Dragonya. How easily I forget. The dragon sighed, his hot breath scattering a few leaves into the air. Jakob felt the gust blow through his hair.
A contract is formed between a Dragon and his Rider, he explained. A bond is formed which is not easily broken.
“Are you suggesting I become a Dragon Rider?” Jakob asked. “I…?”
Temporarily, the dragon replied immediately. He raised one claw for emphasis, the sharpened tip of it glinting in the sunlight. I have no desire to bond with a Human, but I do have a desire for…something to happen. You are not Dragonya.
“Does that matter?”
It matters to me, he answered succinctly. Will you agree? It will be easier for you to rescue your princess if you have the aid of a Dragon.
Jakob had to admit this was true. With a dragon, he could fly to the palace in far less time than it would take him to walk, or even to ride, if he were to manage to somehow obtain a horse. With a dragon, he could easily save Olivia and take her north, to safety.
To safety where? he wondered, and immediately knew the answer. He would take her north, across the border, into Edyon, to seek asylum with the Queen, who would certainly aid her cousin.
“What does a Contract involve?” he asked.