Adelaide had died. Twice.
Once, when the Gyndilians had murdered her sister. Emma had been surrounded in desperate shouts and sticky crimson when so often she’d been surrounded by bright laughter and tender kindness. Her sister had faced the end alone—smoke, terror, and screams her only companions.
Perhaps her sister would still be alive if Adelaide hadn’t left to buy leather. At least Emma wouldn’t have died alone.
Adelaide knew Elias would still be alive if she hadn’t begun the rebellion to overthrow him. Honorable Elias, her once enemy, prince, king, dragon, friend, had gazed up at her, his life draining away from the wound that Gunter, her best friend, had given him.
She’d been the one, though, to present that dagger to Gunter, to inflame him and the others with her fiery words.
And now Elias was gone forever, drifting alone in the sea, never to flash those stone-blue eyes on her, never to stretch his golden wings again, never to rule their kingdom justly.
Adelaide shivered. It was so cold in this cell without him, so quiet without his deep voice soaring into song. She shrunk into herself. I’m so sorry, Elias. He had healed her from her grief and prejudices, and she had rewarded him with death at the hand of her friend.
She clenched her legs tight to her chest, willing herself to shrink into nothing. If she couldn’t have Emma’s arms wrapped tight around her or Elias’s cloak draped around her, then it would be better not to exist at all.
If only Elias had executed her for planning to overthrow him and his father instead of branding his own shoulder. Then he’d still be alive, uniting the dragons and humans, and Adelaide would be gone, unable to make any more mistakes.
Boots scuffed the tower’s steps below, and Adelaide stood. It wasn’t time for either of her meals; the sunlight slanting through the tiny window in her cell showed it to be early afternoon.
Berold’s stubble-lined face came into view outside the room’s barred door. He looked as if he’d aged ten years since Elias had died. Adelaide probably looked little better. The days since Elias’s death seemed a lifetime—a lifetime of tears, regrets, and longings.
After her first flight as a dragon, she’d landed beside Elias’ body. She hadn’t been able to bear seeing him alone on the cliff, so, in her dragon form, she had gently placed him into the sea that he had loved so much. Perhaps it would carry him to Niclond, the land of dragons.
Then she had turned, painfully and unwillingly, back into a human.
Just as the glow of the transformation had dimmed, Berold had showed up and Cyr darted away.
“What have you done?” Berold had gazed at Elias’s bobbing form as if a dagger had struck him as well.
Adelaide hadn’t denied his accusation, and Berold had marched her here to this cell two days ago.
“Why did you do it?” Berold now asked, shaking the bars.
As much as Adelaide blamed herself for Elias’s murder, she also blamed Gunter. “I already told you. My friend, Gunter, threw the dagger.”
Berold stared at her. Then, his face scrunched up as if someone was stepping on his foot, he asked, “Why did you kill him? He took that burn for you. He loved you.”
“I know. I know,” Adelaide whispered, sinking to her knees.
As she had so often, she again watched the brand meant for her skin turn at the last moment and sear Elias’s flesh by his own hand. She smelled the smoke and nauseating scent of his burned skin. She heard him answer Berold’s astonishment at such an action by saying, “Because I love her,” with the intensity of a dance.
Tears trickled down her dusty cheeks. “I did care for him.” The realization had come too late, and now there was nothing she could do about it.
Berold looked past her at the wall, his face impassive. “We need him now more than ever.”
Adelaide stood. “Why? What’s happened?” For the first time since Elias’s death, she thought of her parents and Odo back in Alesfirth.
Berold’s gaze was an ice storm as he met her eyes. “Why should I tell you?”
“Because I care about this country.”
“Then why did you kill our king?”
Adelaide closed her eyes. What was the point in arguing? Berold had never liked her and was clearly not going to remove the blame from her unless he saw proof. Proof that she didn’t have.
“Because I was wrong and foolish.” Adelaide hung her head, waiting for the axe to fall. She was not disappointed.
Emotionless, Berold said, “You are to hang at dawn.”
Cyr saw everything. He saw ants crisscrossing in the grass, people scurrying to and fro in the large stone nest below, and a squirrel puffing up its tail at the top of a tree. But he didn’t see the one thing he wanted to: his mistress.
He didn’t hear her whistle, nor could he smell her, since she had turned into a fire-flyer like Elias. Cyr didn’t see him either—as a fire-flyer or a man—but he didn’t expect to, because the last time Cyr had seen him, the man had smelled like death.
The hawk landed on a branch above the people darting about in the stone nest, weary from his search. He wondered why his mistress hadn’t flown out of wherever she hid. But perhaps, like a fledgling, she didn’t know how.
He had tried calling to her with his thoughts as he had done several times with the human-sometimes-fire-flyer Elias, but to no avail.
Movement out of the corner of Cyr’s eye caught his attention. He opened his wings wide, soared on a draft, then landed on a branch of a sweet-smelling tree.
Ack! A sparrow squeaked, darting away.
Wait, Cyr said. Have you seen a human girl with black feathers on her head?
The sparrow disappeared into the forest’s leafy clutches. Cyr considered giving chase, but that would just frighten the dim-witted creature more.
He turned his gaze to the grass far below. A bushy tail and two little ears stuck up. He dove and attacked the rabbit.
After devouring every scrap of the creature, Cyr flew high into the sunny sky. He then spiraled down toward the humans to look for his mistress, his heart hammering at their proximity. But the risk of getting caught would be worth it if he found her.
Adelaide would die in the morning. She had nothing left to spend on the thought after the storm of Elias’s death and Gunter’s betrayal. She wasn’t surprised, for the punishment was deserved.
But it would have been nice to fly once more as a dragon, to lose herself in the salty taste of the ocean, the power of her silvery wings, the sound of the wind crooning her name, and the scents of evening sunlight and wild freshness as she had on her first flight after drinking the potion Elias had given her.
Mistress? Where are you?
Adelaide turned to the window. The thought was like a voice, but not quite. It was more internal like when Elias had spoken inside her mind as a dragon.
And then she remembered how Elias had communicated with Cyr in his mind. She didn’t know if it would work while she was a human or even how it worked, but she longed for some friendly company in her last hours.
Cyr, is that you? I’m in here, she thought as loud as she could, imagining the hawk that she had healed.
A few moments later a familiar, dark-brown shape landed on the windowsill, and Adelaide’s dead heart warmed. But then it faltered again. What would he do when she died? She supposed he would then be truly free.
Mistress? Are you here? His voice was airy and somehow familiar.
Adelaide walked over to him. Yes, I’m here.
His amber gaze landed on her. You look like a bird that’s been fighting the wind all night.
Adelaide rubbed her swollen eyes. Well, Elias was just killed by my best friend, and I’m to hang at dawn.
The fire-flyer is dead? I am much saddened to hear it. Cyr’s wings dropped. What does it mean to hang?
It means the man who now rules this place is going to kill me in the morning. She sat down and picked up a piece of straw.
Then you must become a fire-flyer again and escape.
I don’t know what will happen if I turn into a dragon in here. The room could collapse on me. Besides—she let the piece of straw float back onto the floor—I deserve to die.
Because I gave Gunter the dagger that he used to kill Elias, and I created the rebellion that overthrew him. It would be better for our kingdom if I was gone. Adelaide placed her head on her knees.
A soft, fluffy shape landed on her lap, but she refused to look at Cyr for fear she’d start sobbing.
Would it be better for your family if you were dead?
His words brought up blackberry-sweet memories: Adelaide chasing the chickens with Odo, talking with her mom as they made a pie for the festival, and her father’s help—even after a long day in the fields—making a perch for Cyr when he was a fledgling.
Then she remembered Emma lying in the grave, pale as a fish’s underbelly, and leaving her family in the middle of the night without any explanation. How much fear and worry had she caused her parents since she’d been gone?
What would they think of her when they heard about what she’d been doing and that she was a dragon now? Would they turn away in disgust or dread?
Yes, it would be better, Adelaide said.
I doubt that. But even so, didn’t you make a promise to Elias before he died?
Why were birds so annoying? But Cyr was right; Adelaide had promised Elias to unite the dragons and humans. She glanced at the hawk’s piercing eyes. I’m the worst person to do that. I killed their king.
Nay, that male with the silver weapon killed him. Cyr clicked his beak at her, and she flinched. Elias believed you could do it, so you can. Besides, the sooner we get out of here, the better. It stinks.
It was a little pathetic that Adelaide needed to be talked out of her despondency by her hawk. But Cyr was right about at least one thing: she had promised Elias to unite their two species, and she didn’t want to let his memory down. Perhaps it could help make up for her failures.
Very well. I won’t let Berold kill me in the morning. But in that case, I’ll need the key for the door. She glanced at the barred entrance. Do you think you can find it for me?
What’s a key?
After she explained, Cyr said, I’ll look.
Adelaide folded her hands and stared at them. And thanks for… well, convincing me to live.
He rubbed his beak against her cheek. Of course. Who else would I fly with?
The sun set, casting Adelaide’s cell in shadow. She pulled her cloak closer. Apparently, possessing the ability to turn into a dragon hadn’t given her everlasting heat, although the fire from the potion still smoldered deep inside her.
She ate the stale bread and moldy cheese the guard had slid under the door. She wasn’t hungry, but she had starved too many times to pass up a chance to eat.
The sound of flapping wings and the scent of sunlight and grass reached her. She glanced up.
Cyr squeezed through the bars and landed on her shoulder. Is this the key? He lifted one of his talons.
Adelaide opened her hand, and something cold and metallic dropped into it. She hoped it was the right one; she didn’t have time to wait for Cyr to fly around the castle looking for another one.
Thanks, Cyr. Let’s see if this works.
She inserted the key into the lock and tried twisting it. Nothing. The key remained stuck no matter how she twisted, fiddled, or groaned.
It’s not the right key, Adelaide told Cyr. Can you look for a different one? Maybe from someone inside this time?
It’ll be difficult not to be caught if I stay inside. I’ll look around outside first.
Thank you. And hurry.
He flew away, leaving Adelaide alone. Again.
Now that she had chosen to escape and live, the walls of the cell seemed to press in on her. The shadows from the sinking sun writhed closer as if hoping to hold her until her execution.
Turning from them and her doubts about whether Cyr would find another key in time, Adelaide kept fiddling with the one she had until her hand ached.
Then she slipped it into her girdle and glanced out the window. The sun had fully set now, and a beam of moonlight fell across the floor, the same color as her dragon scales. The desire to be out there flying flared bright inside her.
Would this be the way she spent her last night alive, cooped up between walls of stone, longing for the wind in her face? Her parents wouldn’t even know what had happened to her.
Hurry, Cyr, Adelaide urged as she paced across the room. She tried not to think about what it felt like to hang and how it would pain her parents to lose another child.
Then there was a whoosh of wings, and Adelaide darted to the window where Cyr surveyed her with luminous eyes. Did you find another one?
Yes. I hope it works because those humans smell disgusting and are starting to suspect me.
Adelaide took the key from him, a heavier and thicker one than the previous key, and pushed it into the lock, holding her breath.
Click. The lock opened, and Adelaide let out her breath. Good. Now we can get out of here.
I was already free.
You know what I mean. She slipped the key into her girdle.
The cell door opened onto a stairway lit by a guttering torch on the wall. Adelaide didn’t see anyone, but men’s voices resounded from somewhere below.
Let’s go up, Adelaide thought to Cyr, who sat on her shoulder, and stepped onto the winding stone stairs.
Good idea. It’s closer to the sky.
Adelaide and Cyr passed several more doors and flickering torches, but they didn’t see or hear anyone. As tense as a hunted hare, Adelaide jumped when her foot knocked a pebble off the steps.
Faster, Cyr urged. I smell fresh air.
I’m going as fast as I can. But Adelaide smelled it too: air ripe with the scents of the sea, sap, smoke, and fish. It promised her a second chance, a chance to right her wrongs and discover what it meant to be a dragon. She quickened her pace, careful to stay quiet.
They soon arrived at the top of the stairs before a locked wooden door. The first key Cyr had given Adelaide opened it.
She stepped into a circular, tall room with a window dappling the straw floor in silvery moonlight. Something scuttled in the rafters above.
It smells much better up here. Cyr took off and landed on the windowsill. He turned back to Adelaide, his eyes reflecting the star-strung sky. Let’s fly.
It’s not so simple. Adelaide eyed the window halfway up the wall. She’d have to jump up to reach it. At least it didn’t have any bars.
She wasn’t sure how she would get out of the tower once she was up there; she had climbed too many stairs for it to be a safe height to jump from.
You just flew two days ago, Cyr said.
Yes, but do you see any wings on me now?
Cyr cocked his head as if looking for them.
I have to turn into a dragon, which would alert everyone where I am. We don’t want people chasing us, especially angry, frightened people.
Adelaide surveyed the room again, looking for anything that could aid in her escape. Her gaze alit on a door to her left, smaller than the one they had entered. She placed her ear against it and heard the scuffing of boots and a man’s voice saying, “It’s chilly tonight. I wish we didn’t have to be out here.”
“Yes,” another male voice answered. “But as you know, Dhalion needs all the eyes available with the threat of the Gyndilians looming. I don’t know how Berold—”
Adelaide moved away from the door that must lead to the tower’s parapet. She wouldn’t be able to escape that way, and going back down would be giving up, which she had already resolved not to do.
So, it would have to be the window, then, where Cyr sat. She couldn’t jump from it as a human, but perhaps as a dragon.
“It’ll be just like climbing a tree,” she told herself, although that wasn’t much comfort. She had never liked heights, even when she’d climbed trees with Emma. That terror had vanished when she’d flown the other night. Hopefully, turning into a dragon had killed it for good.
Adelaide rebraided her hair, made sure the dagger that Berold had forgotten to look for in his grief wouldn’t slip out of her girdle, and walked toward Cyr.
She hurled herself up the wall toward the window, arms reaching, and grasped nothing.
When she tried again, her hands seized the edge of the crumbling stone. With a grunt, she heaved herself up until she sat on the narrow ledge. Her head nearly hit the top of the window.
Adelaide looked out, then wished she hadn’t. The grass was far, far below, and only with her new, sharp eyesight could she make it out. The trees in the forest looked like sticks, fragile and tiny. The castle wall loomed below and to her right, ready to crush her if she fell the wrong way.
She closed her eyes against an onslaught of dizziness. This is not the same as climbing a tree. It’s much worse.
You look like a hatchling before its first flight, Cyr said from in front of her. Do you need help?
No, thanks, Adelaide grunted.
She thought about Elias thrusting the potion into her hand and asking her to unite their two species. He had picked her out of everyone in Klinhun. She would show him and everyone else—dragon and human—that his belief in her hadn’t been misguided. She could do this. She had to do this.
She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and leapt into the night.
Gunter was weary. Weary of sleeping in the cold shadow of the mountains, of trying to ignore his Gyndilian captors’ taunts, of gnawing on crusty bread. But most of all, he was weary of reliving those last few moments on the cliff where he had killed King Elias.
Sneaking into the castle had been surprisingly easy. Gunter and Baldwin, one of the Gyndilians who had accompanied him from Gyndilad to Dhalion, had dressed up like beggars while the other Gyndilians waited in the forest. Gunter told the castle guard a tragic story of thieves overpowering them and pleaded for justice.
After the guard consulted with a nearby knight, Gunter and Baldwin were let in under their watchful gazes.
Another man trotted off to find them some victuals and to make sure there was room in the stables to sleep. The knight stood nearby, watching them. At some motioning from Baldwin, Gunter spoke to the knight.
He couldn’t remember what he had said. His hands hadn’t stopped shaking, and he’d thrust them into his trouser pockets before the man could notice.
While Gunter had prattled on, Baldwin stalked behind the knight and knocked him out with the hilt of his sword.
Gunter stared at the crumpled man while Baldwin grabbed his arm. “Come on, runt, before someone sees us.”
They pushed the knight behind a cart, pulled their cloaks over their faces, and prowled around looking for King Elias. They didn’t have long before the knight was found or he returned to consciousness.
“We might have to wait until nightfall and find some servants’ clothes to gain access to the royal family’s chambers,” Baldwin muttered as they lurked by the stables while trying not to look like they were lurking. “We can’t come back. Our story won’t hold up a second time.”
Gunter noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He glanced over and saw a familiar profile walking on the other side of the stable.
He crept around the building toward the cliff to better see the person and caught his breath.
Could that be …?
Yes, it was Adelaide. She was talking to a man with short brown hair who wore a crimson cloak stitched in gold. Gunter recognized him from Alesfirth as King Elias, his prey.
The sight of the man conversing with Adelaide made Gunter’s head pound. Why did this man, who had taxed them until they starved and had done nothing to save Adelaide’s sister, think that he could talk to Adelaide as if they were friends?
And why was Ade talking with him at all? Perhaps she was about to kill him. That was the only reason he could think of for his friend who hated nobility more than anyone he knew to be talking alone with a king.
Ade must have earned the king’s trust on the way here and now would kill him. Relief bubbled inside him; he wouldn’t have to do the deed after all.
But after several long moments, nothing happened. The two continued talking. What could Adelaide possibly have to say to a king that didn’t end with the man stomping away in fury? Or dead?
“Do it now,” Baldwin hissed beside Gunter, his hand on his sword hilt.
Gunter moved to the other side of the stable, making sure no one was looking. A horse from inside stamped its hoof, and Gunter almost yelled. Once his heart reentered his body, he peered around the stable.
The king’s back now faced him.
Gunter pulled out the dagger Adelaide had given him, his hands shaking so much that he almost dropped it.
“Do it,” Baldwin commanded from the shadows behind him.
Gunter’s stomach crawled over itself. He was no murderer. But this was no ordinary man. This was the man who had caused his parents to go to bed hungry so he, Conrad, and Elysande could have enough to eat. The man who hadn’t sent aid when their town was burning. Who bled them all dry for his greed and the sprawling castle towering over them.
Gunter grasped the weapon tighter. He would show Adelaide that he was just as brave as she, that he was worthy of her.
He stepped out from behind the building, stared at the middle of the king’s red cloak, and threw the dagger with all his might, his eyes never leaving his target just as he’d practiced.
The king let out a groan and fell to the ground.
“You did it. Come on,” Baldwin whispered, tugging on Gunter’s cloak.
Then why didn’t Gunter feel more elated, or at least relieved, as he stared at the crumpled form spilling blood onto the ground?
But then Adelaide did something that shocked Gunter more than his dagger striking the king.
She dropped beside King Elias, her eyes wide. Then she actually tried to stanch his blood.
What was going on? Killing or deposing the king had been Adelaide’s desire ever since King Ganelon and Prince Elias had let her sister be murdered by the Gyndilians. And now she was trying to save the king? This was not the Adelaide he knew.
“Come on,” Baldwin urged, but Gunter ignored him. His feet had become roots, holding him to the ground.
Adelaide leaned down to kiss King Elias, and Gunter clenched his hands. She began crying, making awful dying-animal sounds. Gunter had only seen her in this much pain when Emma had died, and he had never wanted to witness such anguish again.
This time, he had caused it. But why had the death of this man, the king, hurt her so much? Did she truly care so much for one of the nobility?
“Ade? Are you—”
Adelaide’s scream for him to leave her alone ripped through Gunter, leaving shards of him on the grass.
He ached for her, but how dare she yell at him? He had risked his life to find her, had been kidnapped by the Gyndilians, and now had killed the very man she had wanted dead. And now she loathed him? It made no sense. Gunter wanted to shake her into answering his questions.
But Gunter was too fragile for such a confrontation, and so was Adelaide. Instead, he staggered away, barely conscious of Baldwin’s grip on his arm.
It was that scream sheathed in loathing that kept Gunter awake at night and stirred him restless during the day. Surely Adelaide couldn’t have loved—he winced at the word—King Elias.
The king must have manipulated her somehow, although Gunter had thought Ade would have seen through such tricks. But it was easier and less excruciating to believe that Adelaide had been manipulated than that she would choose an arrogant noble over Gunter. Was he so appalling?
He clenched his reins, and his horse tottered to a stop.
“So, you think you’re in charge now, just because you killed the king of Klinhun?” Ligulf said from behind him, and the pig-squeal laugh of his brother, Leofric, followed.
Gunter urged his red roan forward. The men’s teasing hadn’t stopped after Gunter killed King Elias. In fact, it had increased, as if the men needed to remind themselves how superior they were by flinging insults at him.
At least Dunstan never taunted him. The quiet, large-eyed Gyndilian rarely spoke.
“Why can’t I return home?” Gunter asked. He missed his mother’s reassuring gaze, his father’s dusty, windblown smell, his sister’s bouncy laughter, and even the way Conrad would ruffle his hair.
He wondered if Conrad and the other members of the rebellion had reached Dhalion. They would probably return to Alesfirth now that Gunter had fulfilled their mission. And what was he getting for all his trouble? Nightmares and taunts.
“I already told you, runt,” Baldwin said from the front of the group, “you’re going back with us to Gyndilad and staying there until the deal is fulfilled and King Aethelmaer sets up his own king in Dhalion.”
“What will I do in Gyndilad?”
Baldwin shrugged. “You won’t be our problem then. The Master will decide.”
The thought of standing again before the man who had held Gunter’s life in his hands when he was first captured outside Alesfirth rose in his mind like a mountain lion about to pounce. His hands began to sweat. Would he ever escape the man’s control?
“He could make you muck the horses’ stalls,” Leofric suggested.
“Or stand still while we shoot you for target practice,” Ligulf joined in.
The brothers and Baldwin laughed; Gunter sucked in deep breaths to stop himself from heaving.
The group plodded by the Wymar River in silence; sparrows flitted about on the trees above them. Gunter envied their freedom and gaiety. He considered options for escape, but none were feasible.
“How much farther until Fernohn?” Ligulf asked a while later.
“Another two days or so if that man from Dhalion was correct,” Dunstan said from behind Gunter.
“Two more days?” Ligulf complained. “I could use some ale and a bed.”
“We won’t be visiting a tavern,” Dunstan said. “Drinking will only loosen your tongues, and we can’t afford that when we’re so close to the end of our mission.”
Leofric spat to the side of his horse. “We can hold our ale better than that.”
“Perhaps, but we need to reach Gyndilad as soon as possible with our news,” Baldwin said. “We must attack Klinhun while the country is vulnerable.” Baldwin looked at Gunter. “And it’s all due to this fine Klinian here. You, runt, are on your way to making a good Gyndilian.”
Gunter shuddered. “I’ll never be a Gyndilian.” He recalled the wet-hot blood, the wailing of children, and Ade’s scream when the Gyndilians had attacked Alesfirth more than two years ago. Too many people—old and young—had been slain just so the Gyndilians could grab more land and power.
“I wouldn’t say that.” Baldwin’s grin revealed rotting teeth. “Four days ago, you killed your own king.”
That night, they camped under a grove of budding trees a few paces away from the Wymar River so as not to be spotted by other travelers or thieves.
The men were bundles of shadows beneath their blankets, their snores and the gurgling river the only sounds in the night. Dunstan, who had taken the first watch, was nowhere to be seen.
It was time to try to escape.
Gunter’s stomach writhed like worms after a rainstorm as he grabbed his satchel and tiptoed through the forest.
“I can’t let you leave.” A shape materialized in front of him before he had taken five steps.
Gunter sighed. It hadn’t been a well-thought-out escape, more like a desperate wish. He sat down on a boulder.
A breeze blew through the trees, and Gunter shuddered.
“Here.” Dunstan retrieved a blanket from a satchel and handed it to him.
“Thanks.” Gunter wrapped the blanket around him. Even though the days had warmed, the nights still bit, especially this close to the mountains. “Why are you nicer to me than the others?”
Dunstan settled on the ground across from him. “Because my head’s not full of rocks.”
For the first time in months, Gunter smiled.
“They hate everyone from Klinhun just because they’re Klinians. But that’s foolish. You’re a man like me. You just happened to be born somewhere else.”
“That makes sense. But the Gyndilians killed so many people in Alesfirth.” Gunter gripped his blanket tighter as the screams and smoke returned.
“I know.” Dunstan picked up a pine needle. “They shouldn’t have attacked. I wasn’t there, but I heard about it.”
Gunter had begun to drift asleep when Dunstan asked, “Do you love her? That Ade girl?”
Gunter jerked up. “Don’t say her name.” Dunstan was part of the reason that Gunter might never see her again.
The Gyndilian looked up at him. “Sorry. You say her name frequently when you sleep.”
“She was my best friend.” Gunter had once dreamed of asking for her hand in marriage, but hadn’t thought he deserved her. Now, with her shout echoing in his ears, he knew he didn’t.
“It seems like she was more than that. I’m here if you ever want to discuss it.” Dunstan nodded at him, then walked away.
Gunter stared after him, startled that a Gyndilian was treating him better than his best friend had.
As Adelaide fell, she scrunched her eyes shut. The wind buffeted her, spinning her around and around. It was the same helpless, nauseous feeling she’d had when she’d watched the girl next door starve to death. She had been only five winters old.
Adelaide had given the girl some meat that Cyr had caught, but it hadn’t been enough. They’d buried her in the spring a few months later.
Mistress, why aren’t you flying?
Oh, yes. Adelaide didn’t have to be battered by the wind. She was a dragon with wings of her own now.
She forced herself to remember the pulsing heat in her stomach and the beauty and freedom of flight.
A raging fire roared through her bones until she couldn’t think about anything but the pain. And then the agony stopped as if the flames had been dumped with water.
Wings down, wings down! Cyr shouted into her mind.
Adelaide opened her eyes and wings just before she slammed into the ground. She grimaced as she thrust her wings down, not used to their weight or awkward movement.
The motion shot her into the sky, straight to the glimmering stars. A roar of delight built in her chest. With the land splayed out below like a map and the wind now something that held her up not threw her about, her task to unite the dragons and humans didn’t seem so impossible.
She felt as if she could fly forever, soaring past the stars to find Emma and Elias up there.
Adelaide swallowed her roar so she wouldn’t wake up the castle and shot it out as heat instead. It was just sparks, but, hopefully, one day it would be a blaze.
Careful, Cyr squawked beside her. He was a small, yellow shape with green-tipped feathers, which would have confused her if she hadn’t realized on her first flight that she had night vision. Apparently, only as a dragon. She guessed the colors had something to do with heat because the castle stones were a cool cobalt, but her legs pulsed a flaming red.
Why don’t you have your wings all the time? Cyr landed somewhere on her neck, his touch as light as a leaf.
Adelaide tried to level out since she was now far enough above the castle that no one would recognize her as a dragon, but her wings caught a breeze, sending her up a few spans.
Cyr screeched. You’re worse than a fledgling. Just do what I do.
He launched off and soared in front of her.
Adelaide tried to mirror Cyr’s wing and tail movements, but hers were so much larger that she kept turning in circles, over-correcting herself.
Slower, and don’t move your tail so much, Cyr said when he peeked back and noticed she wasn’t doing well at following.
Adelaide wished Elias was there to teach her. How could she learn to be a dragon without him? The task seemed as impossible as making pie without flour. She’d been broken and narrow-sighted until he’d come along and healed her. She’d led all those people in the rebellion to possible death. What if she did the same for the dragons?
Flames raced through her bones, and Adelaide began to fall. Her limbs glowed like when she changed form. Oh no. Not right now.
Why are you burning like a fire? Cyr asked from where he hovered nearby.
Think about your dragon form, Adelaide told herself. She forced herself to think about her slick scales, spiked tail, and the talons curving from each foot.
The glow and pain vanished. Adelaide was still a dragon. For now.
She took a deep breath, trembling. I think that’s enough lessons for now, she told Cyr. I’m going to find Conrad and the others and let them know that I’m alright.
Adelaide loathed the idea of returning to the castle so soon after escaping, but she couldn’t leave Conrad and the others to a fate they didn’t deserve. She would just have to be careful.
While drifting close to one of the towers to try to smell or hear Conrad, she almost ran into the spire. Cyr squawked.
Sorry, sorry, she said while twisting her tail and bringing her wing down. She whirled away, but then almost hit the other tower. She jerked up just in time.
I need to get out of this body before I kill myself, Adelaide thought to herself.
You just need to learn to control it better, Cyr said.
Well, Adelaide had tried to think the thought to herself. She’d have to practice that too.
Doubts rose like the Spearhead Mountains; would she ever become comfortable in this body?
Her skin began glowing again.
No. She was a dragon, and she could do it. She just had to think about Conrad. Where was he and the others?
She took another deep breath, only thinking about the scents she inhaled. A slightly rotten tang mixed with a resinous scent drifted by. She somehow knew the scent was worry.
Then the stones beneath her lit up like lightning, and she jerked back. What was that?
What? Cyr asked.
Those stones just lit up like a flash of lightning, Adelaide said, gesturing at the stone wall, now back to its normal bronze color.
I didn’t see it.
With no other clues to her friends’ location, Adelaide decided to check the place behind the wall that had lit up.
After making sure no one was around, she landed on the dirt beside the castle. I’m going inside as a human.
Be careful. I don’t want to have to go into that stinky stone nest again.
Adelaide gazed at Cyr as he glided away toward the castle. You be careful too.
She closed her eyes, thinking of her human form. The fire burned through her body, and when it flared so hot that she thought she must be lit up like a torch, the flames vanished.
Adelaide peeked around the corner and listened, missing her night vision and the strength of her body. But at least she didn’t have to worry about falling to her death now.
Not seeing or hearing anything but the hooting of an owl, she crept around the stone wall, remaining in the shadows. She edged toward a door. It wasn’t locked, but creaked loudly when she pushed it. She gritted her teeth, but no one came to investigate.
Inside, torches flickered on the walls, creating small domes of light. Adelaide stepped quickly and quietly, listening for any sign of people, especially her friends.
She heard a snore to her right and turned down a hall in that direction, hoping the sound came from a room where her friends resided.
The corridor ended at a simple wooden door guarded by a knight who stood leaning against the wall beside it, snoring softly, his head lolling to the side. His ability to sleep in such a position amazed Adelaide. But then, he probably had a lot of practice.
She snuck closer, her eyes straying to a bronze key dangling from his waist. She leaned in, yanked the key loose, and took a quick step back. The guard moaned but didn’t wake.
Adelaide let out a shaky breath, stole around him, and unlocked the door. She slipped inside, not daring to look back to see if the click of the door had woken the guard. She would know soon enough.