Bound by Dragons
Marius finished tying back his long Fae-white hair as he strode across the foyer of the Mist Knights’ castle, a structure that had been carved from the mighty cliffs of the Shrouded Mountains and specifically the peak called Dragon Tail. The pale light of pre-dawn streamed through the stained-glass windows. The click and knock of his boots echoed off the domed ceiling, where powerful crystals half the size of his dragon refracted the windows’ glow to scatter complicated patterns over the stone floor. Morning exercises would begin soon.
He pursed his lips and adjusted the whip coiled loosely around his shoulder. The place was empty. Was he the only one awake and prepared for the day’s schedule? It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t rather have a nice lie-in with a hot cup of tea and a novel that he wouldn’t want anyone to know he was reading, but now wasn’t the time for relaxation.
The ever-present mist of the Shrouded Mountains dampened his cheeks as he left the half-open doors of the foyer and hurried to the tournament grounds. The grounds were devoid of any activity. Frustration lanced through Marius. Could no one follow a schedule?
He threw up his hands and headed out of the tourney grounds and toward the stables just outside the inner gates of the cliffside castle. It was one thing for the knights to sleep in after a festival or during a holiday, but the tournament was days away. There was no time to waste.
The dragon stables were also cut out of the mountain and not even Marius had fully explored all of the inner pathways of the labyrinthine structure that housed the entirety of the Mist Knights’ dragon herd.
Outside the large doors, Marius’s squire, Remus, was polishing a saddle. The young lad’s straw-hued hair hung over his freckled face. He was just nineteen and though he was too jovial for Marius’s taste in assistants, he did seem remarkably brave and intelligent.
At Marius’s appearance, Remus stood, shoved his hair behind his ears, and bowed. “High Captain, I have your saddle ready. Would you like me to gear up Ragewing?”
Marius wanted to tell the lad to tie back his unruly hair, but he didn’t want to be too harsh quite yet. The lad had only started working for him a week ago when Marius’s former squire had been promoted to knighthood.
“Thank you, Remus, but you know I prefer doing that myself.”
The squire nodded and handed the saddle over. “Ragewing finished his morning meal, sir.”
The saddle’s smooth seat and straps gleamed in the rising sun’s light. The scent of the leather and the smoky odor of the dragons combined to calm Marius and chase away his frustration with the other knights and knights-in-training.
“If I may ask…” Remus swallowed.
Marius grunted. Remus was always asking the most inane questions.
“Why do you need a whip or a bow on the back of a fire-breathing dragon?”
Breathing out through his nose, Marius attempted to be less surly. It was a challenge he wasn’t sure he could conquer.
“Because dragons at their best can blaze maybe five times in a day. When they are injured or battle-fatigued, that capability decreases.”
“I would have thought one or two blasts of fire could end any fight.”
“Sadly, no. And fire should always be the last resort anyway. It isn’t a kind way to kill and should only be used when there is no alternative.”
Remus’s eyes widened and his lips parted.
“Why do you seem so surprised to hear that?” Marius asked.
“Because you are High Captain Marius Leos Valentius, defender of the Realm of Lights, Shadow of the Shrouded Mountains—”
Marius’s cheeks warmed at the praise and he held up a hand. “Please. It’s ridiculous to give me all the credit. Every battle was won by a unit of Mist Knights and our dragons. I am only one male and I do nothing without Ragewing and my knights.”
“Humble too.” Remus whistled quietly and shook his head. “You might hate it, but you’re my hero, High Captain.”
If the lad knew all Marius had done during those battles, he might feel otherwise. Marius didn’t regret his actions, but not all of them felt heroic upon reflection. More like desperation and panic laced with ingrained military skills.
“If that’s all, I need to get moving,” he said wryly.
The squire bowed. “I’ll meet you out here when you are ready, sir.”
The entryway to the stables had just enough space for three dragons to pass side by side. Torches blazed along the rough stone walls, lighting the way. Marius walked the familiar path to Ragewing’s cave and stopped outside the smaller gate. The cave was dark, lit only by the ventilation holes cut into the ceiling, but the shuffling of a tail along the sweet-scented rushes let Marius know his dragon stood inside.
“Ready to fly, my friend?”
Marius leaned on the waist-high gate and extended a hand. It was never smart to just march into a dragon’s cave without first gaining permission from the beast. More sounds issued from the dim enclosure and then a warm snout found his hand. Marius’s eyes adjusted to the low light and he gave Ragewing a smile. Ragewing was a Heartsworn, a dragon known for loyalty and intelligence. They were large and fiercely loyal to their riders. Stories had been told of Heartsworns sacrificing themselves for those they loved—other dragons and riders alike.
Ragewing’s scales held all the shades of red from scarlet to a color that was nearly pink. His dark orange eyes were slitted like Marius’s. The fiery eyes glittered in the low light and the second lid—the one that protected a dragon’s sight from fire damage—slipped up then back down again. Ragewing’s throat had a golden sheen that swept down his belly and ran along the underside of his spiked tail. He was a gorgeous creature and far larger than the other Heartsworns on the mountain. He was their alpha. Marius sometimes worried about that fact because Commander Gaius’s Heartsworn should have been alpha. But dragons were not high Fae and they didn’t really respect the Fae ranking system. They had their own way of determining pack leaders.
Running a hand down Ragewing’s snout, Marius whispered, “Good morning, my proud monster. How did you sleep? I hope it was a good night for you because we have a host of idiots to deal with this morning. Every last one of them will be late to the grounds.”
Ragewing snuffled into Marius’s flying leathers and he rubbed the animal’s long neck, checking a wound that he’d suffered in yesterday’s air sparring with the commander. Dragons healed quickly and the cut appeared nearly mended already. Swinging the gate wide, Marius went inside the cave and began to saddle him. Marius threw the saddle over the dragon’s back, then bent to retrieve the rope attached to the girth. Pulling the rope, he found the end of the strap. He untied the rope from the strap and buckled the girth to an appropriate tightness. Ragewing bumped his shoulder and threw a wing over his head.
“Yes, I know. You need a day off. You’ll get one very soon. I swear it.”
Ragewing truly did deserve a break. He was the hardest working dragon on the mountain, and probably in the world. Normally, they’d be training half days only this time of year, when the pirates had left the coastline due to storms and the commander had no missions for them. But it was a tournament year, so the work just kept coming.
Only one new Mist Knight would be named at the conclusion of the tourney, just one individual who showed the prowess and keen mind of a would-be expert military dragon rider. It was up to the commander to pick the winner from the combatants, but Commander Gaius would ask Marius his opinion.
At twenty-five years of age, Marius was the youngest person ever to be promoted to High Captain of the Fae Mist Knights. He wasn’t about to screw up this appointment by failing to rouse those under him to train thoroughly enough. The only one higher in rank than him was the commander, and someday, Marius would take over that position.
It was all part of his plan.
He would marry the commander’s daughter, Ophelia—another dragonriding Mist Knight and a great one to boot—and carry on the grand tradition of his people. His blood was nearly all Mistgold, and he and the commander’s daughter would produce young that were even stronger. His skill with the dragons was matched only by the commander, but Marius’s offspring would be better than either of them.
Your sacrifice won’t be for nothing, Bellona.
After his parents had died, his older sister had given up her chance to leave for the healing arts academy and handed over all of the inherited coin to support Marius’s training efforts.
Bellona had died shortly after his arrival here.
The courier Marius had paid to deliver his wages to Bellona had informed him that an invading party from the nearby seaside had ripped through the town and killed many. Marius squeezed his eyes shut, recalling the words as they’d spilled from the courier’s mouth, those terrible words. “…horrible tragedy, High Captain…” Marius pressed a hand to his chest. “…only a handful of survivors…”
He still couldn’t believe she was gone.
Bellona had valued Mistgold blood and the traditions of their people even more than Marius at that time.
Old Ones bless her wandering soul.
He would make her proud, he thought as he worked Ragewing’s bridle into place. If he failed in this, it would be akin to stomping on her grave. No, he refused to be anything less than excellent as he lived out his dream and hers for their family’s bloodline. With every pirate he killed on missions, he avenged Bellona’s death.
Once Ragewing was saddled and had finished the pear slices Marius had brought for him, the two met Squire Remus and started toward the arena.
“Pears again, hmm?” Remus’s lips twitched.
Marius pulled at the gold-embroidered collar of his uniform with one hand and held loosely to Ragewing’s reins with the other. “It’s not silly to give a dragon a treat now and then. They trust those who offer fine gifts. It’s in their nature.”
“Aye, Captain. I’m sure you’re right. You probably know more about the beasts than anyone alive.”
“The commander knows more.”
“All right. Maybe so. But you rode earlier in life, didn’t you? He didn’t start riding until age thirteen, if the rumors are right,” Remus said.
“I rode my first dragon at five.”
“Old Ones, but that was young! How did you ever manage that? Who taught you?”
This new squire talked too much. His appreciation of Marius’s talent and dedication was nice though.
“My mother and father instructed me at first.” Marius didn’t care to get into his entire family history right now. “Let’s focus on the task at hand, shall we?” He raised an eyebrow at the squire.
The young lad nodded and went quiet.
Three of Marius’s fellow knights stood in the arena and a few more were making their way in with their dragons. Ophelia stood ready—he was quite glad his future mate was punctual—while others soared toward the tournament grounds to land beside her and the others.
“Except you three,” Marius said, nodding to Titus, Maiwenn, and Morvan, “you are late. You will clean stalls after our morning flight and give your squires an hour off.”
“Aye, High Captain,” the knights said in chorus.
Ragewing’s reins were a soft, familiar texture in Marius’s right hand. “Justus, your uniform is wrinkled. Go.” He pointed to the castle keep then eyed the rest of the knights. “We can’t be less than our best, especially considering the king and queen might arrive soon to watch the tournament. Remember, your tidiness speaks to the attention you show your dragon and your position here. When I see unkempt clothing, I wonder if your tack has been checked properly and if you checked your dragon’s scales and their food. Dragons deserve the best care we have to offer.”
Justus handed his dragon’s reins to his squire, then hurried away to follow Marius’s orders.
“First, we will fly in formations. Once I give the signal,” Marius said, “Ewan will move out, turn, and fly as our enemy.”
“High Captain?” A female Mist Knight named Claudia raised a finger.
“How many dragons do the pirates have now?”
“At last count, only three. But three very capable full-sized Green-flanked Terrors.”
The knights murmured, their wary gazes going to the one Green-flanked Terror in the Mist Knights’ herd. Ophelia held that dragon’s reins, her blue-green hair rippling behind her. Though she was beautiful, neither his body nor his heart longed for her touch. Only his mind wanted her as his mate because she was a part of his plan. This wasn’t about love, but about upholding and protecting the Mist Fae’s way of life.
Ophelia glanced at him and her lips shifted into a subtle smile. She never smiled for anyone else. That did please him because perhaps she was indeed willing to go along with his plan.
“Double check your tack now and then we will fly,” Marius ordered.
The knights obeyed him, tugging girth straps and running hands over bridles and buckles. Squires prompted the dragons to spread their wings so they could do a last moment look for any injuries or disease.
Justus returned in a properly pressed uniform and as soon as he seemed ready, Marius climbed into Ragewing’s saddle.
“Bow and arrow formation to begin!”
Marius patted Ragewing and they burst into the sky. He would never stop being astounded by a dragon’s take-off capabilities.