Liadan took off her shoes to tiptoe into the tunnel. She schooled herself to breathe slowly, quietly as she picked her way, avoiding loose gravel and puddles of water that could betray her presence. She knew the tunnels by heart, so navigating them in the dark was no chore. To remain undetected was the hard part.
Sneaking past the treasure chamber, she peeked in to make sure the great dragon was still asleep before she turned to go deeper into the cave system.
You’re in trouble now. Her brother’s voice in her mind startled her, and she barely stifled a gasp.
Hush, you! Do you want me to get caught?
“And where do you think you’re going, little miss?”
Liadan cringed, freezing in her tracks.
You see? Fal said. You don’t need me to get caught.
She scowled at the wet cave wall. Fal’s scrying powers were still a mystery to most, but Liadan was quite certain if there was even a sheen of moisture around, her twin brother could see through it at whatever it faced. That’s why rain always exhausted him. When it rained, he could literally see everything, and he couldn’t always stop it from overtaking his mind.
“Where have you been, Liadan?”
“Fal tattled, didn’t he?”
The dragon stretched, bringing his snout an arm’s length from her. When he sniffed, the puff of his breath almost knocked her over. “I am a dragon, child. I do not need your twin brother to tell me when you are up to something. Now, would you care to tell me which tavern keeper I’ll be paying off this time?”
Liadan raised her head high. “None,” she said. “I didn’t go to any tavern.” She only ever went to those when she craved contact. She could blend in among the rowdy tavern crowds far better than at the markets, where those who saw her asked far too many questions. Unfortunately, whenever she did visit, some drunk inevitably decided to make a conquest of her, often forcing to spark a brawl to extricate herself. It wasn’t her fault! Why should she be made to answer for the actions of Wilderheim’s inebriates?
“Well, are you going to tell me where you did go?”
Liadan crossed her arms. “You’re a dragon. Shouldn’t you already know?”
He growled a little, the ground rumbling beneath her feet, and Liadan knew she was in trouble. “Pick up your sword, girl.”
She looked down at her new gown, the one she’d been saving for her friend’s wedding to the village elder’s son. “Now?”
With a swirl of fire and smoke, the dragon transformed into his almost-human body. In this shape he stood a head and a half taller than Liadan. He had the face of her father, but hair as dark as night and a pair of smooth, shimmery horns curling out of his temples, sweeping up and back along his head. His powerful build made him the perfect sparring partner. His tail made him a cheater.
“Sword. Now.” He was already stalking out of the cave and into the clearing.
“And don’t stomp your foot at me, little miss,” he said from the cave mouth.
Grumbling, Liadan retrieved her scabbard from the treasure room and strapped the plain-looking thing to her waist. The blade it held was without equal. Light as a feather, yet strong enough to shatter stone. The dragon had forged it for her alone, sharpened it on diamond rock and polished it with opal sand. The handle was wrapped in the softest of leathers; the pommel was a ruby encased in a cage of steel knotwork. Spells etched into the blade made it impervious to rust and fire, though provided no magical protection to the wielder. That would be cheating.
“Draw,” the dragon said.
Liadan did, and almost fell on her backside when the dragon attacked, knocking his blade against hers with enough force to drive her back against the rock face.
“You were not ready.”
“You were too fast.”
He leaned his weight on the blades between them. “It does not matter how fast I am. The moment your blade is free of its scabbard, you must be on your guard.”
Try as she might, she could not budge him. He was too strong. Magic was her only chance, and the mere thought of it summoned fire into her eyes and hands. She smelled smoke as the sword’s leather handle began charring.
But before she could use it, the dragon huffed at her, and just like that, her magic was gone. He shoved at her as he disengaged. “What is the rule, Liadan?” he demanded.
Liadan blushed. “No magic when we spar.”
She’d not taken two steps away from the rock, when he came at her again. This time, she blocked and twisted away from his sweeping cut. He could say what he would about her reflexes, but even he couldn’t deny her footwork was flawless. Liadan didn’t fight; she danced. Light on her toes, swift and precise, but when she bore down, she had strength enough to force her opponent back.
She hadn’t been able to do it with the dragon, until now. As she charged forward to launch her attack, he retreated, swiped his tail at her, but she was ready, jumping and ducking the appendage with ease. Liadan kept an eye on her opponent and where she wanted him to go, and pushed him precisely there: to the edge of the clearing, where a single row of trees hid the sharp drop-off of a dead-fall gorge. She almost smiled at how easily she was winning. The dragon was fast, but she knew his tricks now, and even when a dagger appeared in his free hand, she wasn’t worried. She had her own sheathed at her back. With two blades, she put on more speed, schooled her breathing, and kept aware of her surroundings. Several times over the years, she’d tripped on a protruding root or rock and had fallen face-first into whatever the dragon had chosen to place into her path. Horse dung was his favorite.
But not today. Today, she had him on the retreat.
Almost to the edge, Liadan twirled in a complicated block-and-thrust, then moved in for the kill, shoving with her shoulder to knock the dragon off balance.
But he was no longer there, and Liadan found herself tipping forward over the cliffside. Her scream cut short when the dragon grabbed her skirts, yanked her back onto solid ground.
Though she knew he’d never let her fall, the dragon kept her at the very edge while he stared her down through eyes slitted with displeasure. “What have you learned?”
“That you cheat!” she cried, heart racing, knees wobbly.
“Liadan,” he warned.
“I wasn’t paying attention. I got overconfident. I thought I had you.”
“Yes. It’s called strategy. Brute force and fancy footwork aren’t always enough to gain you a victory. Sometimes you must outwit your opponent. If you can’t maneuver them to retreat to your advantage, then you must feign retreat to achieve the same. But you must be careful not to reveal your path. Make your opponent think he has you in his grasp, let him toy with you, but never lose sight of the most important thing.”
“An overconfident opponent makes mistakes, and you can use that against him. But be careful not to let your own pride defeat you instead.”
“So, what have you learned?”
“Pride is a weapon I must learn to use.”
“And retreat is not only a coward’s way out. You must remember that. Promise me.”
“I promise, Grandfather.”
“Good girl.” He kissed the top of her head. “Now go pack your things. You ride before sunset.”
“Where am I going?”
“Home, Liadan. You are going home.”
She gaped at his retreating back. Did you hear that, Fal?
You’re coming home, he said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. She hadn’t seen the brat in years. While she was stuck here with the dragon, Fal was sequestered in Frastmir, being tutored by their mother and some water nymphs. She would have thought he’d be happy to have her home.
What’s the matter?
Nothing. I’ll leave you to it. You have a lot to do before you ride.
He was gone.
Something was wrong. Liadan hastened to her chambers, where she began tossing things into a bundle on her bed. She stripped off her gown and discarded it to the floor in favor of her leather breeches and tunic. Her deep blue linen shirt had been fashioned for a man, and it bore the crest of her father on each sleeve, embroidered in golden thread.
When trying to pack and braid her hair at the same time proved to be too much of a challenge, Liadan abandoned both to pull on her riding boots. Then she finished braiding her hair and packing her bundle. Her weapons would be strapped to her saddle, and she’d bring food in the satchel she always carried. Once she had everything packed, Liadan looked around the chamber that had been her home for the last nineteen years, and sighed.
“Yes?” He stood in the doorway, where she knew he’d be, hiding in illusion. Now, he showed himself, still mostly human and dressed in simple, serviceable clothes. For all the treasures the dragon hoarded, he rarely parted with the pieces.
“I will miss you,” she said.
He shrugged. “I am not going anywhere.”
Nevertheless, she ran into his arms and hugged him with all her might. “Why do I feel like something terrible is afoot?”
“Perhaps because it is,” the dragon said. He didn’t sound at all concerned.
She looked up into his face. “Why do I feel like I will never see you again?”
He cupped her cheeks in his large, scaled hands. “Listen well, Liadan. There will come a day when you will have to choose between your family and everything else. It’ll be a terrible choice, and either outcome will bring pain. But that day is not today.”
His words held the weight of portent, and cold fear slithered around her heart at the thought of losing her family. She loved the dragon dearly. Fal was her twin, her other half, and her parents were the only people in this world or any other on whom she could always rely no matter what. How could she ever consider giving them up? What else could be so important that the prospect of losing them was an acceptable choice?
The dragon smiled. “There now. Don’t fret. Here, something to remember me by.” He produced a silver torc, an almost-full circle of twisted rods with thick rings at each end, etched with intertwining knots. As he settled the weight of it around her neck, its power thrummed against her skin.
Swallowing back her tears, Liadan took a deep breath. “I have something for you, as well.” Fisting her hand, she summoned fire into her palm, stoked it white-hot, then hotter still until her skin glowed bright blue. When at last she was satisfied, she let the fire cool, then opened her hand. In her palm lay a ring forged of black gold that swirled with colors when held up to the light. On the inside, the language of the ancient race spelled out an incantation in symbols far older than any her learned mother knew.
No one could restore a broken heart. The dragon’s had shattered the day his beloved had died, and not even his descendants could repair it. But they could remind him that there was still happiness in the world for him to grasp; they could show him his mate would not have wanted him to mourn her for all eternity and that giving up his pain was not a betrayal, but an honor of her memory. When he wore the ring she’d forged, he’d remember the happy times he’d shared with all of them, and he’d know he was not alone, never had to be, if he didn’t wish it. The ring gave him the power to summon to him any and all of his blood kin.
When he took it, Liadan didn’t know whether he’d put it on or destroy it.
He did neither. The great dragon closed his fist around the ring and brought it to his heart. Then he smiled, the first smile she’d ever seen crease his handsome face. “Thank you,” he said, and truly, she needed to hear nothing else.
Picking up her satchel and weapons, the dragon walked her to the stables where her mount waited, already saddled and burdened with two large bags. He didn’t look happy about the unwieldy weight on his back.
Liadan frowned. “What is all this?”
“I am sending something for your brother. Perhaps he will find it useful.”
While she attached her weapons and her bundle, the dragon settled a heavy fur cloak over her shoulders. “Be safe, Liadan. Be happy.”
“And you, Grandfather.”
When she rode out into the woods, it was to the sight of the great dragon flying through the air, breathing great plumes of fire at the gathering clouds.