Alexis D. Johnson


       The cabin door shuddered under an onslaught of blows.

       Mirren gasped and whirled around on her bench, bashing a knee against the supper table.


       The man’s gritty voice from outside was scarcely recognizable, its natural warmth turned cold with fear.

       Mirren spun back to her father. “What’s Pax doing here?”

       Getting to his feet, Papa exchanged a sober scowl with her mother. He wiped his mouth with the back of a large, calloused hand and reached for the ax leaning in the corner, fixing Mirren with a stare. “Stay here.”

       She glanced at her older brothers across the table scarred from years of axes cast onto its rough surface. Only Rhodes met her gaze, gold eyes wide. Kason, the eldest, looked past her with his jaw set.

       Papa crossed the small common room, yanked back the three stiff bolts on the door, and swung it wide.

       “What’s the trouble, Pax?”

       Mirren craned her neck to see around her father’s looming frame. Pax was much shorter than Papa, though his chest was broad as an oak stump.

       “It’s happened again.”

       Her father stiffened. “Who was it this time?”

       “Wharf. He’s dead.”

       Mirren’s stomach twisted.

       Swearing under his breath, Papa moved aside. “You’d better come in.”

       Pax hovered on the doorstep, deep lines of worry creasing his ruddy face in the day’s fast failing light. He wrung a rag in his hands and a thin stream of dark liquid splattered onto the wood porch.

       “There’s no time. We’ve got it contained, but we need more men to bring it down. I’ve got my wagon. We need to get the lights.”

       Papa eyed his sons and spoke in low tones that left little room for argument. “Kason, Rhodes, grab your axes. Mirren, stay with your mother.”

       At once, the boys leapt up and rushed to their room off the hall. Papa followed, turning through the bedroom door opposite theirs.

       Pax gave Mama an apologetic glance. “I’m sorry about this, Alaina.”

       She pressed her lips hard together and stared back at him.

       Kason and Rhodes stormed back into the room, axes gripped in their white-knuckled fists. When Papa re-emerged, he had traded his woodsman’s blade for a single edged battle ax strapped across his back.

       The front door slammed shut behind them, and Mirren and her mother were left alone. Every breath made the air feel thicker—a little closer. Her heart was hammering so hard her chest ached.


       It was the second time Mama had called her name.

       Swallowing hard past the lump forming in her throat, she turned to search her mother’s drawn face. “Is Wharf really dead?”

       Mama hesitated. “I don’t know. We’ll know more when your father gets back from the farm.”

       Silence. Everything had happened so quick, and still nothing felt real.

       “Everything will be all right. Don’t worry,” Mama said, rubbing her freckled arm like she always did when worried.

       Did she believe that? It sounded more like she was trying to convince herself.

       Mirren fidgeted in her seat, attention flitting down the short corridor leading to the rest of the house. “Can I go to my room?”

       Mama bit her trembling lip. “If you like. I’ll be out here if you decide you want company.”

       Rising, Mirren started down the hallway, but a twinge of guilt made her falter. She peered back over her shoulder. “What will you be doing?”

       “Just sewing.” Mama tugged a gray cloth bundle from a nearby cabinet and returned to her seat.

       Trying to appear in no great hurry, Mirren wandered past her brothers’ room toward the end of the hall. The moment she stepped into her bedroom, she closed the door and threw the lock. Silent as a cat, she rushed to the window beside her bed and unlatched the loose catches. Her fingers hovered under the window’s splintered lip. It always squeaked in the wet season. Mama would come to investigate if she heard and ruin any chance Mirren had to sneak out.

       She would have to chance it.

       The window let out a shrill squeal as it slid in its swollen frame. She froze, straining to hear her mother’s voice, or worse, footsteps, but nothing stirred.

       Snatching a sturdy stick from its hiding place behind her bed, she propped the window open and clambered onto the sill. She threw her legs over the far side and dropped.

       Dried leaves crunched beneath her boots, casting the mingled scent of bruised oak and pine into the crisp air. Skirting the vegetable garden, she dashed toward the dense tree line bordering her parents’ property. She had snuck out dozens of times before, but tonight was different. Tonight, someone had been killed.

       There was only one road leading down into Mossbury from the mountain saddle, and Pax’s cart would have to take it.

       Mirren forced her way through the undergrowth until she found a narrow game path. Eight minutes to the outskirts of town and Wharf’s farm—that was her record. She would beat it tonight.

       She sped down the mountainside, leaping over fallen trees and sprinting along the edge of a pond glittering gold in the last rays of light. Minutes slipped away. Her lungs burned as she fought to harness each new breath.

       The sun vanished, and darkness settled over the forest.

       A furious bellow rent the air. The ground quivered, sending Mirren stumbling. She caught herself, skinning a knee on the rocky ground.

       “It’s happened again,” Pax’s voice echoed in her head.

       Men were shouting ahead. Another roar thundered over them and their indistinct words turned to panicked yells.

       Staying low, she crept forward until the trees pulled back along the edge of a fallow field lit by the dull crescent moon. A dozen men swarmed around a beast crouching in their midst, cords lashed around the creature, its scaly neck and limbs as thick as the men themselves. It was the same color as the earth, though its dark eyes gleamed like a great demon, or Rawn himself, come from the underworld for these men’s souls.

       The dragon reared up three times the height of the tallest man. Its lips peeled back, exposing strong, crushing teeth. With a snarl, it lashed out at a man tightening a rope around its foreleg.

       The man yelled and threw himself back, the beast’s powerful jaws snapping shut where he had been a moment before. Scrambling to his feet, he staggered away as the creature lunged again. It was Jonas, the village baker.

       Mirren couldn’t tear her eyes away. Several more men arrived to aid those fighting to contain it. This couldn’t be Wharf’s plow dragon. It had been so docile, so complacent every time she’d seen it working the fields.

       A man called from the road running along the field’s edge. “Jonas, help us get these lights up. Everyone else, on the ropes!”

       Mirren recognized her father’s bark before she saw him. He heaved a bulky crate from Pax’s wagon and charged toward the fray while Kason and Rhodes dragged two more just like it behind him. The dragon harnessed to Pax’s cart shook its head and snorted as another bellow ripped across the field.

       “Stay put, Iggy,” Pax called to the nervous creature.

       His distinctive walk drew her eye. He hobbled through the soft soil to catch up with Rhodes, and together they lifted the heavy burden.

       “Matthias! Pax! Thank the gods you’re here!” Jonas yelled, rushing to help Kason with his load.

       She shrank down as they passed not thirty paces away from her hiding place.

       Lowering the crate to the ground, her father reached to loosen the weapon fastened across his back. It dropped, and a cold, metallic ring sang through the air.

       “Spread out in a triangle,” her father directed. “Kason, Rhodes, get across from us. Jonas, off to the right of the thing. Pax, you man this one. We have to blind the beast.”

       Another bellow erupted from the center of the field. Rearing back on its meaty hind legs, the dragon slammed its forefeet against the earth and deep layers of soil roiled up before it. The earthen wave swept into the advancing men, burying several of them beneath its weight.

       “What if it breaks free?” Jonas’ voice quivered, higher than usual.

       “If you back down, more will die. When I give the word, turn on the lights and aim for its eyes. Kason, help them set up, then grab your ax and meet me by the shed.” Ax in hand, her father jogged toward the weathered building a short distance from where the dragon was wreaking havoc.

       As the others hurried to their positions, Pax broke open the crate and began assembling a squat, metal stand. Bolting a cone-shaped housing on top, he fitted it with a huge glass bulb, then opened a hatch in the stand’s base.

       He pulled on sturdy gloves from the box and reached back inside. A silvery glow washed over his face. His hands reappeared, cradling an enormous, gray egg with tendrils of light shooting across its smooth surface. A pale flicker lit the inside of the egg like lightning glimmering inside a storm cloud. Carefully, he nestled it in the hatch and lowered the lid.

       A reverberating hum filled the air, pulsing through Mirren until her fingers tingled and burned.

       Pax’s hand lingered by a lever under the light bulb’s housing, but he waited, poised for her father’s signal.

       A long minute snaked by. Suddenly, the dragon reared back and contorted. The ropes around its forelegs jerked, flinging the men holding them off their feet.

       “Now!” her father’s voice rang over the villagers’ cries.

       Blinding, white light flooded the field. Mirren threw a hand up to shield her eyes as a blazing beam fell on her. She swore and flung herself back into the denser undergrowth. Rhodes had misdirected his light.

       After what seemed an eternity, it swung away.

       Three fierce beams struck the beast’s face and it shrank back with a snarl. It shied to one side, then the other, but it couldn’t escape the light.

       With a deafening roar, it rose again and pounded the earth, sending another wave of loam rolling over its captors. Those not buried in the dirt danced like marionettes as they struggled to regain any semblance of control.

       The dragon struck at a man trapped in the dirt, maw gaping.

       Pax’s shout could just be heard over the commotion. “Bring it down, Matthias! Do it now!”

       Everything in Mirren screamed for her to look away, but she couldn’t.

       Her father sprinted forward, ax raised high with Kason hard at his heels. He swung.

       She squeezed her eyes tight and the splintering crack of metal shearing through scale and bone filled the air. The blade wrenched free and two more thuds followed, then silence. Awful silence.

       The metallic scent of blood was overwhelming. Her fingers trembled against her lips as a rising chorus of cheers floated toward her. She slowly peeled her eyes open.

       The dragon lay still in the center of a growing black stain, lights mirrored in its dead eyes. Kason threw his ax aside and went to help find those buried in the earthen waves, but for a moment, their father stood motionless over the slain beast. Dark red blood dripped from his ax.

       Leaving the glaring light unmanned, Pax limped across the field. He paused by the dragon’s body. “Matthias.”

       The ax slid from her father’s fingers. His head rose. “Get those men unburied before they suffocate. I want each accounted for in three minutes.”

       As the last man was pulled gasping from the dirt, her father and Pax turned away. Rhodes joined them, and the three began murmuring.

       They all looked in her direction.

       She swore under her breath. Rhodes was staring straight at her. He must have seen her when his light first shone into the tree line. If he had ratted her out, she’d kill him.

       They started toward her.

       Mirren’s heart sank as they drew near. She held her breath, bracing for her father’s furious shout.

       Uneven steps paused mere paces away.

       “Over here,” Pax said grimly.

       The others joined, but no one spoke. They were standing in a ring, stares fixed on a mound at their feet.

       Her skin prickled. Something protruded from the form between them—a pale, grimy hand, half covered by a stained shred of sleeve.

       She stifled a gasp. A lump lodged in her throat, refusing to move no matter how many times she tried to swallow. She pressed both hands to her mouth as her whole body shook. She had to get away. Now.

       “May Wharf’s soul find rest among his departed kin…if fate allows.” Her father’s voice tore into her senses like an arrow through the temple. He ran a hand over his face, leaving dark trails wherever his fingers touched.

       “We’ve unburied all the men and they’re still alive,” Kason called, jogging up behind them. “There were a few injuries, but nothing too serious. I’ve bandaged those that needed it—they’ll be all right.”

       If their father heard, he gave no sign of it. Pax glanced up at him, then turned a weary smile on Kason. The lines creasing his face deepened. “I don’t know what we would have done without you boys.”

       Kason and Rhodes nodded.

       “Rhodes, you can go home. You too, Kason,” their father said, still examining the body.

       But Kason, the eldest, shook his head. “We’ll stay.”

       He set his jaw, then faced his sons and nodded. “We’ll need torches and pitch then. I don’t want the infection spreading. Pax, let’s get your wagon. We need to get Wharf to the priests.”

       Mirren crept back until their voices faded, then broke into a run.

       Bile burned in her throat. The forest sped by, a shadowy blur. She wanted to put as much distance as possible between herself and the place Wharf had died. The farmer’s body still lingered in her mind.

       She splashed along the edge of the pond, pale blue in the moonlight, and climbed higher up the mountainside. Dull, yellow light peeked between the trees—an aged lantern hung over the cabin’s door.

       Her bedroom window was still open, whispering her secret was safe as she swung her shaking legs over the sill. She eased the window shut and slid to the floor, a trembling mess.

       Moonlight filtered in through the glass pane, illuminating the room around her enough to see by shadows. There was a rip in the right knee of her trousers. She would have to stuff them somewhere Mama wouldn’t see until she had time to mend them. Maybe sewing wasn’t the evil she’d always thought it to be.

       She sat slumped beneath the window for a long time, staring at the crack beneath her door where a warm glow filtered in from the common room. It was getting late. How much longer before her father and brothers came back?

       Pulling herself up, she scrubbed her face with stale water from a basin perched on the wood chest beside her bed, then checked her reflection in a discolored mirror to make sure no obvious grime remained. Her large, green eyes looked gray in the dim light. The freckles dusting her skin were visible once more.

       Fresh clothes. Right.

       Stashing the old behind her bed, she donned a pair of faded, cut off trousers and an overlarge shirt Rhodes had passed down. Her long, dark hair had mostly fallen from the string holding it in place, but it wasn’t worth the effort of fixing.

       Exhausted, but too restless to even think of sleep, she paced the short length of her room. The frail petals of dried orchids pinned to paper on the cabin walls rustled with each pass.

       The clock in the hall chimed a new hour, and a few minutes later, a soft knock rapped on her door.


       Checking herself one last time, she went to undo the lock. She didn’t have to feign the tired croak in her voice as she pulled the door open. “What is it, Mama? Are they home?”

       Her mother stood in the hall wearing a worn smile. The lines on her face had softened, though not disappeared. “Yes, thank the gods. Pax is just warming himself by the fire before he goes home. Did I wake you?”

       Mirren covered her mouth, faking a small yawn. “No, I couldn’t sleep. I was just getting ready for bed.”

       Pax’s graveled voice carried down the hall. “Somewhere in these hills there’s an infected dragon causing this. No one will be safe until it’s brought down.”

       She strained to hear her father’s reply, but Mama was talking.

       “Thanks for telling me, Mama,” Mirren mumbled, uncertain of what had actually been said.

       Out in the common room, there was a scrape of chairs, and Pax groaned. “I’d best get home so I’m not completely useless tomorrow.”

       Wearied footsteps moved toward the front door.

       “Why don’t you get some sleep, Mirren? It’s been a long night for everyone,” Mama said.

       She suppressed a sigh and nodded. “It has. Goodnight, Mama.”

       “Sleep well.”

       With a soft click, the door latched, and Mirren settled down on her bed, hugging her knees.

       The floorboards groaned in the hall as everyone went to bed. Wherever a foot fell, the house creaked, but the hallway was worst of all.

       The soft light under her door died away, replaced by a creeping cold that soon drove her under the covers. She stared at the ceiling for what felt like hours, then started and sat up, listening. There it was again; a faint tapping.


       She scrambled out of bed and rushed to unlock the window for her brother waiting on the other side. Mercifully, it opened with only a small squeak this time.

       “What in Rawn’s Blazes were you doing out there?” Rhodes hissed as he climbed through.

       “So you did see!” She tried to control the trembling starting in her hands.

       He nodded, eyeing her up and down. “Are you okay?”

       “I couldn’t just stay behind! Not when you and Kason got to go,” she hissed.

       “Are you okay?”

       “I’m fine. Just…shaky. What about you?”

       He ignored the question. “I knew I’d be the one Papa blamed if you got hurt out there.”

       “Well I didn’t. And I’m sick of everyone treating me as the useless one,” she spat.

       “I would have traded places with you in a heartbeat. It’s a privilege not to go, not a punishment. Papa was trying to protect you.”

       “I saw Wharf.”

       He winced and looked away. “I don’t want to talk about it. The dragon’s burning now. It’s over.”

       They fell quiet.

       Scuffing a knothole in the floor with her toe, she said, “Thanks for not ratting on me. Papa would never let me out of the house again if he knew.”

       Rhodes shrugged. “Sure. But I don’t think he’s going to anyway.”

       “He has to. I’ve got the Aminoff’s order to deliver in the morning.” She looked up at him, but he didn’t meet her eye.

       “You can’t expect them to send you out alone after this.”

       “I’m taking that shipment,” she said, and clenched her jaw.


       She glared at him.

       “Hey, don’t blame me. I just came to make sure you’re all right. Are you going to be able to sleep tonight?” he asked.


       “Well, you know where I’ll be if you need anything. Just don’t let Kason catch you. He’ll wake the whole house.”

       “I won’t.”

       He heaved himself back onto the windowsill and slipped out. “Night.”

       As Rhodes crept back to his room, a low growl echoed through the night. Black clouds stretched out to hide the moon and its stars. It would be dark and rainy in the hills tomorrow, and who knew what might lurk in the secrecy of a storm?


       “You can’t send her out there by herself after what happened to Wharf!”

       “I can and I will, Alaina.”

       Papa’s voice boomed through the house, startling Mirren out of a doze. She struggled upright and stared at the door. Her bleary eyes grated with each blink as though full of sand.

“You could send one of the boys instead. Why does it have to be her?”

       “You know she’s not strong enough to substitute for either of them.”


       Her father cut Mama off before she could finish. “She still has to pull her weight, and right now that means getting the Aminoff order out. If the delivery isn’t made by sunset, the contract goes void.”

       Aminoff. She was supposed to make a delivery today! Troubled dreams had driven everything from her mind but last night’s excitement…if such a term could be used.

       Flinging the covers off, Mirren rolled out of bed. Cold raced up her legs the second her feet hit the floor. The first tinges of dawn’s gray light were only just breaking night’s hold on the world. She grabbed the first clean tunic and trousers she could lay her hands on.

       Mama was almost pleading. “I can make the delivery myself.”

       “If you don’t show up to the orchards, they’ll find someone else and you’ll never set foot in them again. We need that money. If last night hadn’t happened—”

       “But it did happen!”

       Mama was testing her fate. When Papa’s mind was made up, there was nothing for it. Knowing she had to interrupt before her mother got into worse hot water, Mirren finished getting dressed and pulled on her boots, then stepped out into the hall. It felt like walking into a violent storm with a lightning rod in her hands.

       The floorboards creaked and the conversation died.

       She fixed a smile on her lips. “Good morning!”

       That’s it, just pretend she didn’t hear a thing.

       “Morning,” Rhodes muttered. He and Kason were sitting at the table, eyes glued to their untouched breakfast. No one else spoke.

       Well, that was the only welcome it looked like she was going to get.

       Edging around her parents in the middle of the common room, she tried to reach the front door before they could stop her. “I thought I should get an early start on that delivery.”

       Her father glowered at Mama, who kept a resigned silence. “The cart’s stacked and ready in the shed. I fed Hess an hour ago. Do you remember how I told you to get there?”

       “I remember.”

       “Good. Kason, Rhodes, get up. We’re already late.”

       The brothers hurriedly stood and grabbed their axes while Mama retrieved a burlap lunch sack from the kitchen. She handed it to Rhodes, who murmured his thanks.

       “You could see if Pax could do it, or hire someone from town,” their mother said in one last, timid attempt.

       “I’m not going to ask another man to look after my family. Pax is just as busy as we are, and you know he couldn’t make that trek with his game leg if he wanted to. I don’t want to hear another word about it, understand?”

       “You’re the one so wary of dragons. I would think now of all times you’d refuse to let anyone out of the house until this gets sorted out.”


       Mama nodded, not meeting his burning gaze. She was right—but then so was Papa. Things had been tighter than ever the last two seasons, especially since several households nearby had moved to the region’s capital, Vildehall. Not many wanted to live so far removed from everything the more established cities had to offer. Threat of an infected dragon in those parts or not, they had to keep the Aminoff’s business if they ever hoped to make it through.

       Timbers groaned as a strengthening breeze washed over the house.

       “I better get going before it starts to rain,” Mirren said, eager to leave for more than one reason.

       She snatched her jacket from a rickety chair by the door and slipped out ahead of Papa and the boys. Cold wind cut through the worn, gray fabric as she pulled it around her shoulders. A dark blanket of clouds hovered low over the mountains. Stepping off the porch, she shivered and fastened the toggles of her coat against the damp air.

       Twenty yards from the cabin stood a woodshed almost as big as their house. The door had been left ajar and a dirty white mule was nibbling on the last pieces of grass strewn across the floor. Hess. The most unpleasant part of every delivery.

       A large, sturdy cart in the middle of the shed was stacked with chopped oak and cedar logs. Mirren had finished preparing the load yesterday afternoon, but she checked that every piece was in order before securing a tarp over the top. Swiping an old, grimy halter from its hook on the wall, she navigated between towering stacks of wood.

       The mule’s head raised, large, chocolate eyes settling on her as she approached with halter at the ready.

       “All right Hess, I’ll see you get an apple with your dinner if you make this easy,” she murmured.

       The animal snorted, pawing the ground.

       She groaned. “If you try to kick me like you did last week, I’ll tan your hide.”

       Hess looked unimpressed—perhaps even a little smug. Rhodes said she was crazy for thinking the mule had a vendetta against her, but Mirren knew. Oh boy did she know, and she still had the bruise on her arm to prove it.

       Coughing on the dust stirred by Hess’ hooves, she stretched out a hand to the creature, who had known and hated her all her fifteen years. It could only make matters worse, letting the stupid half-ass catch her scent, but it was a habit her parents instilled in her when she was too young to know better.

       Hess waited for Mirren to try to slip the halter on, then thwarted each attempt with a toss of her head. When at last the straps were fastened, the mule leaned back on her heels. Mirren pulled and cursed until Hess allowed herself to be led to the head of the cart and harnessed in place.

       Pushing back her dark hair in triumph, she tied it up with a strand of brown baling twine from the floor. Not too bad. She and Hess had suffered worse encounters.

       As she coaxed Hess out into the yard, Mama stepped in their path clutching a small burlap sack.

       “You should eat something before you go.”

       “I’m really not hungry.” Mirren thought she heard a soft sniffle and pretended to check the tarp.

       “Mirren, look at me.”

       She turned with a strained smile.

       “Don’t stray off the road for any reason. If you have to abandon the cart, that’s fine. Just so long as you’re safe. We would rather lose Lord Aminoff as a customer than have anything happen to you.”

       “You would,” Mirren said. She regretted her words as soon as she saw the hurt in her mother’s reddened eyes.

       “You know your father loves you.”

       “I’ll be fine, Mama. I’ve been doing this for a long time—”

       “I know,” her mother snapped, then checked herself, drawing a deep breath. “This is different. Wharf…you know it’s not natural for dragons to kill. There’s an infected one out there spreading its disease, and we won’t be safe until it’s found.”

       “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.”

       “It’s never been this close to home—not since the war.”

       Mirren shrugged. It was time to change the subject. “Is that for me?” she asked, gesturing to the sack in her mother’s hand.

       Mama looked down as though she had forgotten what she was holding. “Your lunch. Don’t eat it too soon. It has to last you until dinner.”


       “Don’t let it spill.”

       The warning formed a knot in Mirren’s stomach. “What is it?”

       “Carrot stew.”


       Her mother cracked a worn smile. “I promise we’ll have something else soon.”

       Mirren clicked her tongue and hauled on the mule’s lead until she got the creature moving. Hess leaned into the wide, dragon hide straps and set the cart rolling up the rocky path leading around the mountainside. She kept her gaze fixed straight ahead until the mountain’s curve shielded her from Mama’s watchful eye.

       The sweet scent of pine and dust permeated the air. She breathed deeply, spirits lifting a little with every step away from home, but her mother’s worry soon crept back into her mind.

       Coming to the main road, she turned left and set the village of Mossbury to her back. The Aminoff’s legendary mansion was nestled deep in the mountains, well away from anyone else. She had always wanted to see it, but four miles through forest and crag felt inaccessible. It was almost as though the Aminoffs saw themselves as too good to live near common folk.

       Thunder snarled among the iron peaks shrouded in fog. She swore under her breath, tightening her grip on the lead as Hess snorted and tossed her head.

       An uncanny still had fallen. Now that she thought about it, Mirren couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard the chirp of a bird or insect. The rumble and rattle of her cart wheels seemed to grow louder in the silence. She had yet to come across another living soul.

       Ahead, a broad path branched off the main road, working its way through the trees to her right. A sturdy signpost stood at the fork with sharpened planks pointing in three directions: Mossbury behind her, Bleakburn ahead, and Rimepeak to the right.

       A canvas was nailed beneath the lowest sign, emblazoned with the emblem of the Seventh Year Trials—two red and gold dragons battling over a shield clutched in their claws with a pair of swords crossed behind. Gilded letters above and below read, “The Seventh Year Trials, Local Competition. See friends and neighbors match wit and will atop their finest dragons, or enter yourself for a chance to earn a handsome purse and your place in the Regional Trial.”

       A pang of envy stung Mirren as she read the announcement. If Papa didn’t hate dragons so much, she might have had one to compete with. There wasn’t a single boy or girl who wouldn’t kill for a place in the Trials.

       Damp wind washed over her. She pulled her jacket tighter as the first raindrops began to fall. Shouldering Hess toward Rimepeak, they quickened their pace.

       Lightning streaked across the sky, and less than a second later, a thundering boom shook the ground.

       They flinched. The rain was starting to fall harder, blown sideways by a strengthening wind tearing at the tarp.

       She cursed darkly. She couldn’t turn back. Without the money, it would be another week of eating nothing but carrot stew. No, thank you.

       Hess stopped short and shied against the lead, nostrils flaring. Another growl echoed through the crags. That was just thunder, wasn’t it? Something about it didn’t sound quite right.

       All Mama’s worries crept to the front of Mirren’s mind. She eyed the trees, fighting to get the mule moving again. A thick curtain of undergrowth made it impossible to see beyond the towering firs lining the road.

       They rounded a tight bend and stopped dead. Not thirty paces on, several trees lay strewn across the path, torn up by their roots. A large, black stain on the dampening earth demanded her attention. It looked eerily similar to the pool of blood under Wharf’s slain dragon the night before.

       Hess snorted, tossing her head, but the harness and cart prevented her from withdrawing more than a few steps.

       The blood trailed down a wide channel broken through the vegetation.

       A branch snapped in the thicket to her left. Then another.

       Mirren’s heart punched against her rib cage. Something was coming closer. Creeping. It sounded a lot bigger than any deer or bear she had ever heard.

       Throat tightening, she wrestled Hess over to the nearest tree. Please go after the mule, she thought, fumbling to tie the trembling creature’s lead around the trunk. The road was too exposed. Her only chance was to get up a tree and hide.

       She dashed through a narrow gap in the bushes, trying to put as much ground between her and Hess as possible. Clawing through the undergrowth, she found a narrow patch of open ground and broke into a run.

       A deafening crash exploded to her right. She reeled away, staggering as a snarl like a pack of wolves tore at her heels.

       No, gods, please no.

       Desperate tears blinded her. She cast around for a place to hide and caught a glint of metallic blue whipping through the air. With no time to think, she hurled herself down behind a tree as a scaly tail thicker than her body smashed into it.

       The trunk splintered into a thousand pieces. The tree spun like a matchstick, snapping several others in its fall before striking the ground with a shuddering thud.

       Mirren shielded her head with her arms until the shards stopped raining. Dreading what she knew was coming, she looked up.


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