He thought about it while he watched the dragon. This was odd. She was just curled up there. The sun was up, and she hadn’t stirred. He had never met a dragon yet who slept past dawn. Then he noticed that the clearing was still dark. The sunlight couldn’t penetrate the heavy brush surrounding them. As he watched, the sun rose higher and a shaft of sunlight came down over the trees onto the dragon’s back. She opened her eyes, stretched, and whirled. Before he could move, Jeric found himself pinned between the dragon’s enormous front paws. He gulped, hoping he looked less like a mouse than he felt.
“Who are you?” the dragon hissed. “I sensed you last night, and now I find you hiding on the edge of my clearing, watching me sleep.”
How much of the truth should he tell her? He prayed his dilemma did not show in his eyes.
“Don’t hurt me, beautiful dragon. I am just a forester, wandering through the woods. I did see you last night with a girl, but I didn’t stay. I came back this morning to see the girl, she is so beautiful …” Would she believe him?
She lifted a paw and batted his head. He fell to the ground and rolled. He lay trembling at the base of a tree. Please, he prayed, don’t let her hit me again.
“I don’t believe you, man-child. There is something else going on here. But the girl is gone. Don’t wait for her or search for her. We have our own plans. Now get out of here, across the river where brats like you belong. If I see you again, I will kill you.”
Jeric scrambled into the bush, intent only on getting away from the dragon.
He found his pack where he had stashed it before going to spy on the dragon. He had no idea what to do next. He had a bad feeling about what was going on here. Should he go back to the regional capital and alert his father? They had parted on bad terms, though, and he didn’t want to bring back a false alarm. His father would be more furious than ever if he sent down a regiment and it turned out to be nothing. He needed to find out what was going on before he considered alerting his father.
He decided to head for the river, and remove the immediate danger of the dragon. He didn’t believe it would follow him, but what if it did? He must be seen to be obeying it.
Jeric hurried through the woods, always careful to stay hidden, in the general direction of the river. He stopped. What could he hear? He burrowed himself under a large bush to wait. Through the woods came the faint sound of cookware clanking and voices. Then he heard the noise he dreaded. Two sets of footsteps coming closer, in matched cadence. It must be the camp’s perimeter sentries. He had almost walked right into the camp without knowing it. He closed his eyes and pulled his hand down over his face.
He had never meant to walk into something complicated like this when he left three weeks ago. After that scene with his father, he simply thought it would be a good idea to get out of the city for a while. He got on well with dragons, and could even speak a bit of their language. With the woodcraft of his grandfather, he had thought he would be fine. He was starting to doubt that conclusion.
With the sentries past, he relaxed slightly. Perhaps he could get a little closer to the camp before he slipped away to the city. Whatever was going on, he was sure it was trouble enough his father should be informed. He crawled out from under the bush on his belly, staying in the thick under-brush. At the edge of a slight drop-off, he found himself looking straight down on the camp. He repressed a small gasp. There were no men to be seen, only women.
Christalos sighed. As if there wasn’t enough trouble, now she was fending off half-grown human boys. If she were going to be stalked, why couldn’t it be by someone with half a brain to make it a little challenging? Then she remembered her family, and their obviously experienced and intelligent stalker, and shivered. Maybe she should be grateful for stupid idiots. At least it was easy to get rid of them.
She heard a rustling in the bushes and looked over. Excellent. A first messenger from the spies she had sent to follow the human girl. She whispered to him, not wanting to scare him. “Het. How nice to see you. Were there any problems?”
“No, mira. Captain Zerjerik sent this, with his compliments.” He held up a small scroll, covered in tiny writing.
“Thank you, het.”
He saluted and ran back the way he had come.
From the notes of Captain Zerjezik, 1st Regiment
Following subject. She has capable woodcraft, obviously not using all her skills. Saw her step over a branch, look down, and step back to deliberately break the branch. Curious. She fords a stream at the ford, not farther down in the rapids. Encounters enemy scout, then smells-like-leader. Goes off with scout. We follow. I do not wish to stay near smells-like-leader. She is dangerous.
I am Sohata, Prince of the Empire. I have offended my sworn liege, Emperor Rogata. He has sent me to this measly backwater, the Capital of Dragons, until I am pleasing to him again.
I brought my son with me, thinking he would be better off away from The Capital and the Emperor’s all-seeing eye. Jeric could only benefit from living near, and learning from, the Empire’s vassals, the dragons, and seeing more of life than the pomp of The Capital.
The ungrateful wretch, he would not obey me and we quarreled. My instructions to him were only for his own safety, but he could not see that. We quarreled, and he ran away. Three weeks now he has been gone. No word, no sign, he is not to be found. Where can he be, my beautiful boy?
That week I let him spend last year with his mother’s father, the royal game warden, was obviously a mistake. He learned too much.
I will burn this paper now. No record of my feelings can be kept. I miss you, Jeric, the only reminder I have of your mother.
Flames crackled. The black-haired man straightened from the hearth. His heavy black brows were drawn together as he pulled the bell cord by the mantel. His servant hurried in. “Ah, Ven. I am ready for bed now.” Ven helped him into bed and lay down on a pallet next to the high bed.