Caren Hahn
This pre-publication excerpt may differ in minor ways from the final published version.

Hatched: Dragon Speaker (Chapter 1)

A bead of sweat ran down Charl’s back, tickling the sensitive skin between her shoulder blades. She twitched, earning her a stern look from Wynne on her left. They were crouched in the forest watching an abandoned farm for signs of life. Half the barn had collapsed and the cottage—with its missing windows and yawning doorway—reminded Charl of a skull.

Wynne gestured to Charl, pointing to her temple, and raised a questioning eyebrow.

Charl shook her head. If a dragon was present, she couldn’t sense it. But the absence of small game suggested a predator was close.

The wooden silo was the obvious choice, but how they would flush out the dragon without putting themselves at risk, Charl didn’t know.

A rustling sound behind her made her turn. Prax and Slip were approaching on foot, trailed by two soldiers who hadn’t yet mastered the ability to move silently through the woods. Wynne scowled and waved them back.

“You’re supposed to be on the east side,” she hissed.

“Change of plans,” Slip said in a low voice, crouching between them. “The ladder looks unstable. Even if it supports one of us on the way up, it’s unlikely we’ll make it safely back down. A ground attack is our only option.”

Charl eyed the single entrance to the silo, a weather-beaten door that had been wrenched off its lower hinge.

“Any luck communicating with it?” Prax whispered to Charl.

She shook her head. Over the past three months as they’d been hunting the dragons who had survived former Crown Prince Fortnum’s secret purge, she’d learned that her connection to Graegyn was unique for both its clarity and ease. Even when she could successfully hear a dragon’s thoughts, she wasn’t always successful in sending her own thoughts in return.

“There are a few loose planks on the far side that Prax and I can probably pull away, giving us another exit,” Slip said. “The trick is going to be not alarming it in the process. Charl, if you come with us, you can stand watch and alert Wynne if we get into trouble.”

“Sure,” Charl said, trying not to show the shame she felt at having no useful skills besides being an errand girl. She was only on this expedition in the first place because Slip had hoped her ability to speak with dragons would give them an edge. And it had, sometimes. But far more often, she’d contributed nothing useful and, although he never said so, she worried that Slip regretted bringing her along.

She left Wynne and the soldiers and followed Slip and Prax toward the silo. Insects buzzed so loud that she could hear almost nothing else. She batted away a cloud of wood sprites that zipped around her head. The heat was almost suffocating.

Slip squatted behind the remains of a small structure long forgotten—a privy or a drying shed, Charl guessed—and gestured back to where Wynne was waiting with Erik and Maas in the brush.

“If we get into trouble, you know the signal, right?”

Charl nodded. “I don’t like the look of that silo. It’ll be too easy to get trapped.”

Her gaze flickered to Prax, and in his eyes she saw the acknowledgment of what she hadn’t said. Long past were the days when she interrogated him before every dragon encounter, looking for reassurance that he would be alive and whole when it was over. But that didn’t mean she didn’t still worry. Prax had been trained as a soldier, but didn’t have the years of experience Slip did fighting dragons.

“We’ll try not to do anything stupid,” Prax said with a hint of a smile. He brushed his fingers against her own before following Slip to the silo. The men moved slowly, and Charl wondered if the heat was sapping their strength as much as it was hers.

While Slip inspected the broken plank, Prax found a stick to use as a pry bar. Charl sat in the shade of the sagging outbuilding and leaned against a post. Her shirt clung to her back and she felt a wave of drowsiness as she watched the men work. Her mouth was dry and she wished for water, but their supplies had been left back with the horses.

The first plank came away in two pieces. They tossed them into the tall grass where they landed with barely a shushing sound, then turned their attention to the plank next to it. This one was more intact and the minutes grew long. Charl’s eyelids grew heavy. It wouldn’t hurt to close her eyes for just a moment…

A great, splintering crack split through the air.

Charl shot to her feet.

Prax and Slip stood frozen in place, the cracked plank between them.

Meddlesome humans. Come to disturb my slumber?

Charl’s heart stopped. “It was sleeping.”

She waved, trying to get either of the men’s attention. But they’d gone back to their work. The gap was almost large enough for a man, but not quite. All was quiet on the outside of the silo, but Charl could hear the dragon clearly.

Two males. That will make a filling supper. The game have stayed away so long, and I am sick of the leavings of grain.

The first contact was always the hardest. Charl squinted as she tried to clear her mind and find the space where the dragon’s thoughts had slipped in.

Greetings, oh great one, she began. Forgive us for intruding on your rest.

There was no reply.

I am Charlotte the Defender. I seek the interests of dragon kind as did my ancestor before me, Meirdan the Protector.

She thinks to pry into my thoughts? The hubris of humans. They buy and sell and trade dragons as if we’re cattle, but no more. They’ll soon regret they ever came here.

“Prax! Watch out!” Charl shouted across the yard.

Prax and Slip jumped back just as a fireball shot out of the hole. Long and thin, it licked the wood and left it smoking.

Slip drew his anstil blade and disappeared around the silo, headed toward the entrance. Prax stayed, working feverishly on the last plank. Charl presumed Slip aimed to take advantage of the dragon’s distraction. But that meant Prax was the bait.

Please! We don’t mean you any harm. We need information and then we’ll be on our way.

What information could you ask of me? I know nothing of the world of men.

It was a good sign that the dragon had finally acknowledged her.

We seek information regarding the capture of Delius Falk. We believe you may have knowledge of his execution.

I care not for their names, nor the manner of their deaths. I care only how they fill my belly.

The long end of a snout reached out of the gap, sharp teeth snapping right where Prax stood. He jumped back just in time and dove to the side as another stream of fire shot where he’d been standing.

I have a proposition for you! Charl pleaded. You can’t be comfortable here. But there is a place where you can go to be free of humans. A land where you won’t be harassed or held captive or forced to hide in—

She was interrupted by a shrill, bestial scream. It reverberated up the silo and raised the hairs on her neck.

You lie. You trick me, humans. But I am done with your tricks. I am done with your kind.

A thumping within the silo sounded like something hitting the inside wall.

Prax yanked away the last plank and shouted, “Slip!” just as the inside of the silo erupted in bright, brilliant flame.

Charl held her breath.

A dark shape tumbled out of the gap in the side. Slip, tucked in his dragonskin cloak, rolled safely out of the way before another stream of fire spewed from the gap.

“Where’s Wynne?” Slip cried.

Dirty fangs. That was Charl’s job.

She ran back to her post to signal Wynne and the soldiers but a great crashing sound behind her made her whirl. The dragon had burst out of the top of the silo—flown straight through the roof—and was spiraling up into the air, thatch and grain raining down on the world below like glittering gold.

Charl stared. The slitherback was black and sleek without the spiny ridge plates so common in other breeds. His head was diamond shaped and his barbed tail split into three curling tentacles as he rose above the farm.

Wait! Please listen to me. I promise we won’t hurt you.

Your lies are as weak as your subtlety.

Prax and Slip scrambled to the edge of the wood, seeking shelter from the dragon’s attack.

Charl ran after them, gasping from the feeling that a wet blanket was covering her face.

But the attack didn’t come. The dragon ascended until it was little more than a speck in the sky, and then it drifted away.

“Are you all right?” Prax asked, glancing over her.

“Fine,” she said, panting.

But half a second later she wasn’t so sure, because Wynne had appeared with murder in her eyes. The silo blazed behind her, but its heat didn’t compare to the scorching tone in Wynne’s words.

“Would you care to explain this fang-sucking disaster?”

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