Authors: Donita K. Paul
The clamor of nine minor dragons in full alarm woke Kale with a start. She threw aside her blankets and jumped to her feet, grabbing her sword. The empty campground didn’t give her a clue. When they left Namee’s castle, Toopka had gone with Sir Dar to find Sittiponder. They’d meet up again farther along on the quest. Bardon was nowhere in sight, but he’d stirred up the fire in preparation for cooking. She glanced at the stream and surmised he’d gone fishing.
Greer and Celisse still grazed in the meadow some distance away. As she watched, they lifted their heads and stared off toward the mountains.
Kale tried to decipher the urgent calls from her dragons, but the noise would not separate into distinct words or images. The best she could envision from their thoughts was a swarm of big bees. She lowered her weapon. Her sword would be of little use swatting insects.
The minor dragons fell silent. Kale heard the drone of the approaching horde and gave the command, “Fly.”
She dove under the blanket and made sure none of her skin was exposed. At first her covering muffled the sound of the swarm, but then she heard the buzz distinctly. The slam of what felt like a rock against her leg surprised her completely. Kale jerked but remembered in time to keep herself swathed in the blanket. She was pelted again and again. Some of the hits stung and some burned. She rolled away from the campsite, hoping to reach the stream.
Kale tuned in to the commotion outside her cloth shell and recognized that her dragons had engaged this enemy in battle. She heard Bardon’s battle cry and knew he had joined them. The smell of smoke alerted her to another danger. She realized the strikes that felt like burns were exactly that. Bits of fire dotted the blanket. She quit rolling and struggled to free herself from the tangled cocoon.
A sudden calm enveloped her as her mind connected to her fighting husband. He swung his sword with practiced ease and batted small flying creatures from the air. She knew he had fought these black dragon-things before, and recently.
Dragon? These things are dragons? How—? Where—?
Putting aside the questions that bombarded her, she tore away the last of the shroud and rose to her feet, expecting to fight beside her husband. The black dragons abandoned their squabbles with the other dragons and Bardon, changed focus in unison, and dive-bombed the Dragon Keeper.
Kale shrieked as a dozen flying missiles battered her arms, back, and legs. A score more of the creatures flew by, hurling tiny jets of flame at her hair. She held her arms straight in front of her, crossed them at the wrists, and lowered her hands so that her outstretched fingers pointed down to the earth. Quickly, she built an energy charge.
Protect your eyes!
she warned, then flung her arms in a circle above her head.
Heeding the warning, Bardon and her fighting dragons turned their heads as soon as they saw what she was going to do. A blast of light issued from her body.
The black dragons had no forewarning. The explosion bounced the closest ones backward. They fell to the ground, lifeless. Others were tossed away, stunned. The remaining veered off and circled above.
Kale brought her arms down in front of her and again gathered energy. Some of the dazed dragons recovered quickly enough to join another onslaught. The black beasts gathered in the air, then plummeted downward. Kale’s minor dragons flew above the cloud of attackers and spit. Their caustic saliva knocked several dozen out of their formation, and Crispin’s spit fried the wings of others, causing them to drop out. But the majority of the black dragons continued their assault as if nothing had happened to their comrades.
Out of the corner of her eye, Kale saw Bardon pick up the blanket and race toward the center of the fight. She let off her blast of light right before he tackled her. She fell to the ground enveloped once again by a thick, scorched layer of cloth. Inexplicably, her husband slapped her head through the protection.
“What are you doing?” she screamed.
“Your hair is on fire.”
The muffled reply startled her. She felt hot. What little air she could pull into her lungs stank. But burning?
“Let me out!” She thrashed against the shroud once more.
Bardon released his wife, then gently lifted her to her feet and took her to the stream. “Bend over.”
She knelt beside the water, and he cupped his hand to splash the spots that still smoldered.
“Where are they?” she asked.
Bardon paused to look around. “Gone.”
“What were they?”
“Tiny black fire dragons.”
Kale sat back on her heels. Water streamed down her shoulders from her wet hair. She glared at what was their campsite, but now looked like a battleground.
The minor dragons lined up on a fallen log, all silently watching her. They didn’t look any worse for the battle. Greer and Celisse stood nearby with char marks on their scales. She hadn’t seen them join the fight. Her husband had red welts on his face and neck. He held one hand with the other as if to protect an injury. She felt the first prickles of pain on her scalp and her arms and legs. She’d been burned repeatedly.
“I’m a Dragon Keeper,” she said. “There are horrid black dragons I know nothing about, and they attacked me. They left fighting all of you and attacked me.” Her voice broke, and she shuddered. “What’s going on? And why do you know about these beasts? Why haven’t I been informed?”
Celisse stretched her long neck across the campsite and picked up the moonbeam cape from where Kale had used it as a pillow. She laid it in front of Kale. Gymn and Metta dove into the hollows and pulled out small brown jars of ointment.
Kale sniffed. “Let me see your hand.”
“The stings on my face hurt more than my hand.”
“I can see the welts. I want to see the hand.” She took hold of his wrist and pulled. “Oh, Bardon, you got burned helping me.”
He moved to sit closer to her as she relaxed into a more comfortable position. “It’s nothing.” His eyes examined her scalp. “Like I said, the stings are worse.”
She grabbed a jar, read the label, and picked up another. After looking at several, she found the one she wanted. “Here, this will help.”
She unscrewed the lid, plunged two fingers into the purplish goo, and began to rub salve over his palm. Bardon poked one big finger in the jar and dabbed the ointment on her head while she continued to work on his other hand. She moved to the welts on his neck as he pulled one of her legs onto his lap and smeared goo onto the small burns covering her calves. Gymn tsked and moved back and forth between them, aiding in their recovery with his special talent for healing.
She swiped her finger across Bardon’s throat, then spread the ointment over the edges of the welt. “There. You’re done.”
“You aren’t. Don’t these burns hurt?”
“Quite a bit. And they seem to hurt more as time passes. I suppose I was too shocked at first to feel much. When you apply the ointment, it helps.” She smiled at him. “I’m trying not to let my mind linger on the pain. Which reminds me.” She frowned. “You have some explaining to do. So why don’t you try talking your way out of not having told me about these nasty beasties. That should keep my thoughts occupied.”
Bardon rubbed the salve onto her big toe where a black dragon had managed to sting her. “Did you kick one of the downed creatures? Their spines secrete poison even after they’re dead.”
“You can include how you know that interesting piece of information in your general explanation.”
“I meant to tell you.”
“Seems like you’ve used that opening line before.”
“It’s been less than twenty-four hours since I learned of them.”
She didn’t reply but stared at him, waiting.
“You have pretty toes.”
“Nobody has pretty toes. Start talking.”
“We had an encounter with these dragon creatures yesterday morning on the training fields.”
“Maybe you should just remember it, and I’ll peek in on your thoughts.”
He started with Tieto grumbling and Mikkai directing him through the castle to join the others. Kale followed his memories all the way to the five men sitting around a table with various breakfast treats spread before them.
“While we ate,” said Bardon, “a messenger came to tell us that Namee wanted the incident to be kept quiet so as not to alarm his other guests. When you arrived, I thought to tell you but decided to wait until we were alone. Then, I forgot.”
He reached for her arm and put the soothing salve on the few spots there.
Kale sighed. “Well, I believe you. It’s just like you to forget you had something to tell me.” She pulled away from him, sat up straighter, clamped her fists, and put them in her lap. “Bardon, it’s one thing to forget to tell me you invited someone to dinner, or you are scheduled to go to council, or someone’s wife sent me a message through you. But this…this…”
“I know. All I can say is that I would have remembered, eventually. We were busy from the time we parted from breakfast to the time we went down to the dragon field and left the castle. I thought of telling you on several occasions during the day, but you weren’t available. Once we were in the air, it never crossed my mind again until I heard that horrible drone while I pulled in a fish. Then it was too late.”
She rested her cheek against his shoulder for a moment. Dibl did a flip on the log and sidestepped toward the end.
Kale sat up. “Oh, no you don’t. You stay right there.” She frowned at the minor dragons still sitting on the fallen tree trunk, lined up like wooden ducks to be knocked over at the fair. All but Gymn, who aided in administering healing.
“What about you?” Kale pointed a finger at the eight. “Why didn’t you tell me? If Mikkai, Tieto, and Filia knew, then the rest of you knew. You can’t keep a secret among you. And I am shocked that you would keep a secret from me. Shocked!”
The dragons hung their heads. Greer and Celisse moved as if they had decided it was time to go back to their grazing.
Kale’s finger swung around to point at them. “Don’t you leave. You knew too, didn’t you?”
Bardon took hold of the finger and brought her arm around so he could smear it with purple goo.
“Since when,” continued Kale, “do dragons keep secrets from their Dragon Keeper? Am I not trustworthy?” She glowered fiercely. “Am I such an ogre that I can’t be confided in?”
Her focus fell on Artross, and she listened. “So Mikkai was so overwhelmed by his experience of being attacked by ‘unheard of’ dragons that he couldn’t speak of it. Traumatized? Humph.”
Artross hopped down from the log and walked slowly toward her. Kale continued to voice his thoughts. “All the dragons were appalled that one of your species could be so vile, more like insects than noble dragons.
“Tieto and Filia heard the edict from Namee not to disturb the other guests with the news of the unusual attack. So?”
Artross came to a stop in front of her, placed his foreleg on her knee, and looked up with beseeching eyes. Kale tightened her lips and hardened her heart. At last she released the tension, accepting the explanation from the mottled white dragon.
“So you took that as an excuse not to discuss and not to even think of those—oh, my, Artross. That is not a nice word.”
The white dragon scowled. “And when Bardon didn’t tell me, you all assumed he thought I shouldn’t know of this event”—she hesitated—“because I’d been sick at the ball.”
Kale looked at Bardon.
He shrugged. “This is their excuse, not mine.”
She gazed down at the dragon and then swept her glance over the others on the log. “I wasn’t sick at the ball. I had an upset stomach from the excitement and the rich food. I was not sick!”
The minor dragons nodded their colorful heads and then shuffled off, apparently through with receiving her lecture. Pat pounced on a cricket that Kale had seen the chubby brown dragon eying while he waited for her to finish her tirade. Metta flew to a tree limb and sang with the local birds. Celisse and Greer departed as well.
“Well,” Kale said as she released a gust of air.