Hatched: Dragon Defender (Chapter 1)
Charl looked down at Prax from the top of the mule’s broad back and tried not to hate him.
“There. That’s not so bad, right?” His soothing tone was either meant for her or the mule. She couldn’t tell which.
“Now what?” she asked through gritted teeth.
“Keep your eyes focused straight ahead, right between his ears. Now give him a little nudge with your heels.”
Prax stood at the mule’s head, holding onto its rope halter. He was bundled against the late autumn chill, wearing a thick wool coat and a scarf around his neck. He’d been different ever since they left the cave. Charl didn’t know if it was relief from shedding the secrecy behind who he really was that had allowed him to assume a new confidence, or if it was her changed perspective that made him seem different in her eyes.
Either way, she marveled that someone like him had come into her life and then decided to stay.
Charl tapped the animal’s broad sides with her boots.
“A bigger nudge than that.”
“He doesn’t want to move.”
“So make him want to. Kick harder.”
She tried again, her heels bouncing off the mule’s belly. This time he lumbered forward at a crawl, and the swaying jolt made Charl grip his mane.
“It’s okay. Just relax. Try to feel the rhythm instead of fighting against it.” Prax’s voice held the bright sound of someone holding back laughter.
“How do I control him?” Charl called over her shoulder.
The mule plodded over the frosted ground toward Prax’s stable, getting perilously close to the fence. Charl squeaked and lifted her right leg so it wouldn’t get pinned against the rough pine logs. The shift in her balance made her sway and she panicked, lost her grip, and slid unceremoniously off the mule’s back.
Prax caught her before she hit the ground, and she blushed with mortification. The skin around his eyes crinkled with amusement.
“You weren’t kidding when you said you didn’t know how to ride. I thought you were exaggerating, but you’ve really never done it before, have you?”
Prax was still holding her even though she’d found her feet. It made her a little breathless, in spite of her annoyance. They’d been friends for two years, and even though she’d tried not to, she’d fallen for his unique ability to be simultaneously annoying and irresistibly attractive. And she’d fallen hard.
Her cheeks flamed. “Is this a good time to tell you how much I dislike you?”
His eyes gleamed, and he tightened his grip. “Is that so? I could have sworn you were a tiny bit fond of me.”
His face was inches from hers, and her heart raced at his nearness. She fought a smile, refusing to surrender to his charm.
“‘Fond’ is a stretch. I’m fond of my copper teakettle and the stones I heat at night to warm my feet in bed. But you? I’d say I barely tolerate you on a good day.”
“I see. Well, then, maybe I need to warm your bed so your opinion of me will improve.”
Charl burst out a laugh and ducked her face against his shoulder. She knew she must be redder than the last of the maple leaves edging the woods behind his house.
“I thought you were raised to be a gentleman. That’s not the kind of thing a gentleman should say.”
“How would you know? You’ve never even left Ambrey.”
Yet. The unspoken word cast a pall over her humor and brought Charl’s feet firmly back to earth.
Her smile faltered, and she pulled away.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” Prax said.
“It’s fine.” She busied herself tying a boot lace that had loosened. “We’ve been avoiding talking about it for a month, but any day now Captain Wynne is going to decide she’s recovered enough to travel. Thanks for trying to teach me to ride. I doubt I could get Graegyn to carry me.”
The dragon’s thoughts broke into her own.
Little human, I’m not your pet. I’ve agreed to your ill-conceived scheme to secure a promise of safety for the hatchling. I never agreed to be your beast of burden.
I was joking.
This means nothing to me.
Charl looked up from her boot and scanned the trees. Was he watching her? He didn’t have to be very close to speak to her, but she always checked anyway. She didn’t like the idea of him spying.
A joke is like…a lie you don’t mean that’s meant to make people laugh.
Your male didn’t laugh.
Okay, so it was a bad joke.
Charl started and turned to Prax. “Sorry. Did you say something?”
His expression was half amused, half annoyed. “It doesn’t matter. Do you want to try again? I can go get Bones if you’d rather try riding her. She’s a little smaller.”
“No. I should go. I want to finish stacking firewood before dark.”
“All right, give me a minute to put Bags away and I’ll walk you home.”
Charl walked to the edge of the paddock while she waited.
You’ve got to stop interrupting my conversations like that, she complained to Graegyn. I can’t listen to anyone else with your voice in my head, and then I end up looking really rude.
His voice was clearer now than it had been a month ago when they’d first met. If she paid close attention, she could sense that he was back in the cave, just inside the entrance. He usually stayed there during the day, only venturing out at night when he was unlikely to be seen.
I am not responsible for the limits of your human brain. Don’t blame me that your mind is so underdeveloped.
Thanks for that, she snapped. Look, I’m just asking you not to talk to me while I’m talking to someone else. Is that so much to ask?
I’m not talking to you at all. Human speech is slow and impossible to achieve at these distances.
Are you intentionally missing the point? Just respect that, if I’m having a conversation with someone else, that is not the time to interrupt. I don’t go barging in on your thoughts whenever I want. For that matter, why can’t I? How come you can eavesdrop on me, but I only hear your thoughts when you want me to?
This isn’t surprising. You’re little more than a hatchling yourself.
Never mind. Charl sighed. Prax is coming and it would be really great if you gave us some privacy for a while.
When Prax joined her at the fence, he reached for her hand. His was warm and callused and hers fit neatly inside it, as comfortable as a fresh mattress before the ticking broke down. They followed the lane that led toward the hollow where her farm—and four dragons—waited. The maples and ash trees had lost their leaves and were taking on the barren look of winter. A chill in the air suggested that the first snows would come soon.
“Maybe Wynne will decide to stay in Ambrey through the winter,” Prax suggested hopefully. “In a few weeks, the Morrin Pass will be closed.”
“There would be a revolution in Ambrey if she did. I’ve never seen the Regs so tense. I heard that Therin raided the witch coven down by the river while actually sober!”
Prax chuckled. “I don’t believe it. Therin would never have the nerve to go near the coven without cozying up to a bottle first. Any sober man wouldn’t dare be seen in a Reg uniform within the coven’s boundaries.”
“My point is that if Captain Wynne can have such an influence after only a month, I shudder to think what she’d do if she were here all winter. I don’t think our local Regs could take it.”
They passed over a small rivulet that ran down the hillside and across the lane. Not a full stream, it could be tricky to cross in the spring, but now it was little more than damp earth and a shining path of rippling water.
“I worry more about Slip. At least Wynne has a title and a crest to command respect. People look at Slip like he’s about to eat their babies.”
“On the plus side, having him here has made me seem almost respectable. The miller’s wife forgot to make the sign of the evil eye when I passed her in the street the other day. Next thing I know, she’ll be inviting me to tea!”
Somehow the snubbing from the village didn’t bother Charl as much as it once had. Partly because what she said was true; having a renowned trapper around—whose scars and dragon hides meant you couldn’t forget who he was—meant that Charlotte, the simple farmer, seemed less of a threat. And no one knew about the wild Dwaillern that hid in her cave. Wynne and Slip had agreed that their extended stay would be easier if the villagers remained ignorant, and since Slip tended Wynne’s wounds directly, no one else learned the full extent of her injuries to suspect they were caused by any other creature than Charl’s domesticated hens.
Another reason Charl didn’t worry as much about what the villagers thought of her is that she knew when she left Ambrey, she might never return. She was facing serious criminal charges and hoping to argue a case for peaceful coexistence with dragons. It was very likely she would spend the rest of her days in a cell somewhere in Sorcester, however short or long they may be.
With prospects like that, petty gossip was hardly worth getting worked up about.
As they approached the hollow where Charl’s family farm lay, she veered off into the woods to check her traps. They were empty today. As autumn yielded to winter, it would be harder and harder to find small game to feed her dragons.
Prax watched her expression as she retightened a spring pole. “Don’t worry about it. Your dragons won’t starve. I’ll make sure of it.”
Charl nodded, but didn’t say anything. An idea had been growing in her mind but she was waiting for the right opportunity to bring it up.
She walked ahead until the barn came into view through the trees. Her cottage sat off to the side, looking a bit more respectable since Prax had been helping her tidy it up for winter. He’d even taken his team of mules into the forest and chopped down trees for Charl to use as firewood for the winter. With her parents dead and her brother missing, Prax had been her lifeline.
Charl paused at the edge of the woods. A figure sat on her front stoop, sharpening a dagger with a whetstone. The man was turned away, but she recognized Slip’s long, lean form and his sleeveless dragonhide coat. She raised a hand to Prax to still him.
Without making any noise, she skirted the edge of the woods and stepped lightly to the orchard on the south side of the barn. A few late apples had fallen to the ground after harvesting, and she picked one up now, hefting it in her hand.
Slip was intent on his work, inspecting the edge of his blade. She waited until he resumed his sharpening, then lobbed the apple as hard as she could toward his head.
With a motion so fast Charl couldn’t track it until it was over, Slip speared the apple with his dagger without even turning his head.
Charl gaped. Then grinned.
“I knew it!” she crowed, running toward him. “You’re still using faerie sand! You lied to Wynne about stopping, didn’t you?”
Slip turned and stood, his scarred mouth twisted in a lopsided smile. “Unless I’m mistaken, there’s still a Dwaillern dragon on the loose in this area. Technically, I’m still on the hunt.”
Charl shook her head as Prax caught up with her. “Wynne says it’s dangerous. It could kill you if you don’t lay off it.”
“Fortunately, Wynne isn’t my commanding officer.” Slip flung the apple into the dirt and wiped his blade clean on his leather trousers.
Prax watched him with a mixture of annoyance and begrudging admiration. They’d gotten off on the wrong foot from the beginning, and Prax hadn’t yet warmed up to the trapper.
“What brings you here, Slip?” he asked. “The people of Ambrey finally run you off for good?”
“Ambrey will be rid of me soon enough.” He looked steadily at Charl. “Wynne says we can’t delay any longer. Tomorrow we leave for Sorcester.”
* * *