Please, take me home.
I clung to the sides of the rowboat, pleading silently for my life. Behind me lay a lush island that had appeared out of nowhere when I touched a pyrogem embedded on the ship’s rail. After I climbed aboard the much smaller craft that was no more than a glorified skiff, I couldn’t bear the sight of the white sand, the swaying fronds, and those imposing red cliffs any longer. I resisted every urge to look over my shoulder as the crew lowered Sanvar and me into the sea.
After too short a time, he stopped rowing.
“My lady, I have no choice. I’m so sorry.”
The wood-elf oarsman’s guilt-ridden face made me loosen my grip on my brave façade, and a sob broke through.
“I told you yesterday. I don’t belong here. Please, Sanvar, take me somewhere else, anywhere else. Tell them I died on the voyage. But, don’t leave me here alone.”
His lip quivered. “I have a wife and three boys. If your mother found out…please, Miss Loralee. You’re just having second thoughts. There’s a little house up there.” He pointed across the rolling waves to the cottage on a ledge—a thatched dot against rust-colored rock. “The last Keeper seemed quite content.”
Why did he have to remind me about his family? Over the course of the month-long voyage, I’d learned every detail of each crewmember’s life. Such conversation came naturally to me, after having spent the better part of a century talking to countless people during my duties at Leogard’s Temple. Being left indefinitely on a remote island without another soul to converse with had me on the verge of panic. I had to do something, but I knew only one other option.
“You can’t do this. The other Keeper is missing, presumed dead!” I let go of the rowboat to rummage through my bag, but the tears clouding my eyes kept me from finding that accursed journal. “Well, he is, and I don’t want to die here. I can’t die here!”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, snatched my bag from between my ankles, and tucked its bulk under one arm. I removed my slippers and hooked my fingers in the heels to hold them. Sanvar leapt from the boat and offered a hand, but I ignored him and swung both legs over the side, almost capsizing before adjusting my weight to steady the boat.
Sun-warmed seawater lapped at my ankles. Under any other circumstances, it would have been inviting. Giving up the last of my tiny refuge, I slipped into the knee-deep water. The boat rocked back into its natural position.
“Can I help you with your bag, Miss Loralee?”
I answered with a look that made him cringe. With one deep breath and sand retreating from beneath my feet, I wobbled and turned around to face my exile. Hints of fish and the perfume of tropical flowers tickled my nose. I’d never been anywhere like this, having spent most of my life behind Leogard’s city walls. The closest I’d been to the ocean was when I fished with my father as a child, dipping my toes in the cool waters of the Hansom Sea as we sat on the dock. There were also the days and nights I stared across the endless blue expanse from the battlements, wondering when he would come home from his latest campaign. But, this kind of intimacy with the sea, I’d never imagined nor wanted.
Oars splashed rhythmically behind me. Sanvar was already heading back for the ship. Fighting the temptation to go splashing back through the water to beg with all I had, I left the ocean and let my bag and slippers plop to the sand. If I fought back too much, they’d probably tie me to a palm tree and leave me there. At least I had the freedom to roam about, for whatever that was worth. I refused to look back at the sea, and decided to gather whatever visual knowledge I could about what lay ahead.
On the far side of the beach, palms and bushes crowded against a huge cliff that spanned the island. Unmarked crates waited on the sand a few yards away. The crewmen had left everything I needed to survive, but without Igrorio —could it ever be a life?
Remembering the instructions in my journal, I approached the stone pillar that housed a dull amber pyrogem identical to the one on the ship’s rail. Just like I did at sea, I put one hand to the birthmark on the back of my neck and closed my hand over the warm, uneven surface of the island’s beacon. The pyrogem flared with inner orange light. A subtle shockwave rippled through my body. Clamping my eyes shut, I feared everything around me might disappear into some unknown universe.
Thankfully, the island and I still felt intact. I opened my eyes, and nothing looked different. I could still see the ship, now hauling the rowboat and its lone occupant back up the side. Except, according to the journal and crew, the island would be invisible to anyone passing through on the ocean, thanks to the magical shrouding.
I’d essentially been transported to my own universe.
Loneliness wrapped its cold fingers around me, reminding me of my place in this world. Betrayed. Exiled. Sentenced to a life I never wanted.
I withdrew my hand from the now-dull pyrogem, picked up my bag and slippers, and willed my feet forward. With every step, yesterday’s worries drifted farther away. My fate lay beyond those cliffs. I had studied the creatures in the journal during the voyage, memorizing their names, ages, and lineage. Unseen insects buzzed near my ear. I fanned them away, but something scratched my heel. I nearly leapt from my skin.
At my feet, a snippet stared up at me with his round, yellow eyes. I let out a huge breath. “Puddle, you silly thing. Why on Tallenmere did you have to sneak aboard the ship?”
The creature leapt eagerly into my waiting arms and found his perch on my shoulder. I’d almost forgotten about the little gray creature with the black-striped tail who had been my constant companion on the voyage. At least I would have something familiar from home here with me.
He licked my ear. “Where Lo-lee goes, I goes.”
“But you’re Prysilla’s pet, not mine. You’d have been much happier and safer in Leogard.”
He sneezed, licked a slender, dexterous paw, and swiped it over his face.
I allowed myself to smile for the first time since this whole nightmare began. “I wish you’d stayed with Prysilla, but you’re here now, so we might as well make the best of it.”
Trudging through the white sand, I finally reached the rock wall and the inclined path leading up to the cottage. Puddle balanced on my shoulder as I started to climb. The well-worn trail hugged the cliff on its meandering journey ever upward.
Rocks of various shapes and sizes lined the outer edge. On each one, a patch of bright white paint had been swiped across it. Puzzled at first, I realized the intent behind the markings the higher I climbed. One look over the edge near the top made me dizzy enough to press my back against the safety of the cliff side. The paint must have helped to mark the path at night or during inclement weather. Is that how the former Keeper had died—plunging over the edge to splatter on the rocks below? I shuddered and stuck close to the wall until the trail evened out in front of the cottage.
Painted the same white hue as the rocks along the path, the tiny stone house had seen better days. Chipped paint and drooping shutters begged for maintenance, but the structure appeared solid.
A few weeds grew here and there along the foundation and between the flagstones that led to the entrance. Large bushes filled to bursting with fragrant yellow flowers grew on each side of the white plank door. Bees buzzed and butterflies flitted from blossom to blossom. The flowers were wilted and the leaves dry and brittle. I thought the journal mentioned heavy, frequent rains, but maybe the water didn’t reach this area of the cottage very well. On second thought, the palms and bushes at sea level were the same. A drought, perhaps, but the place still held an exotic beauty. Had I been here for pleasure, the setting would have proven nothing short of paradise.
But, I felt nothing of the sort as I peeked through the octagonal window. I cranked the knob and threw open the door. Before me was a one-room living space. An unmade bed sat in the left corner, dirty dishes cluttered the little dining table straight ahead, and towels were strewn about the floor near the bathing area to my right. A small hearth stood beside that, complete with a shelf full of cooking pots and utensils.
I wrinkled my nose at the musty, moldy smell. The place needed some airing out.
Puddle hopped from my shoulder to the floor in one graceful leap, sniffing intently at our surroundings. His gray and black-striped tail swished as it did when he was really curious.
I dropped my bag on the floor, surprised to find a divided door next to the dining table. I walked to it and opened the upper half. A lovely garden lay behind the cottage. From there, I could tell the tiny outer refuge had also been taken care of, but neglected for a little while. The grass needed trimming, but was turning brown like the bushes and trees in front. Leaves and wilted blossoms littered the stone walkway and a white bench under the twisted branches of a penuke tree.
The garden was tucked into a triangular nook inside the cliff walls. Though brown and wilted like the grass, sun-loving plants were situated in ideal positions to catch the light, while the vines and bushes that favored shade grew along the periphery. From the rightmost rock wall, a tiny waterfall flowed into a tiled, crystal clear pool. A ceramic pitcher hung from a hook beside it.
Despite all the signs of habitation, I didn’t see any obvious clues as to the previous Keeper’s disappearance. I’d probably stumble on his decaying corpse somewhere, or worse yet, maybe there was no corpse left to find. He could have been a tasty meal for this island’s inhabitants. I’d overheard the sailors talking about several that could do the job.
A full-body shudder ran through me. Twice.
I glanced over my shoulder and spotted the cloth-covered revaeri just next to the hearth. So that’s how the Keeper communicated with my mother—through the enchanted mirror I had thought was used only to speak with priestesses in the outlying temples.
I started back toward the front door to retrieve my bag when a shadow darkened the threshold. I froze.
The dark form lowered itself directly in front of the doorway. One dull green reptilian eye stared into the cottage from the side of a dragon’s head.
Puddle squealed and darted under the bed.
Smoke drifted upward in swirling tendrils from the creature’s nostrils. Dull gray scales covered its head and what I could see of its neck. Besides some short, blunt horns and spikes lining its wide jaw, the dragon’s head was smooth and lizard-like. The creature’s shoulders were even with the cottage’s roof. At least it couldn’t fit through the door.
Then, it spoke.
The rumbling voice reverberated in my chest. “You, mortal. Make yourself known. Step forward so I can see you.”
I gnawed on an already worn-down fingernail and wondered why the creature would make such a request. I stood no more than ten feet from it. Either it had a vision problem or it intended to eat me. At the taste of blood on my tongue, I forced myself to stop chewing on my raw fingertip and tucked both hands behind my back.
Trembling like a frightened snippet, I whispered, “I’m here.”
“Speak up, mortal, or face my wrath!”
“I’m Loralee, your new Keeper.” I took one wobbly step forward, waving my hands helplessly in what I hoped would be interpreted as a surrendering gesture.
The dragon’s horns and jaw spikes extended in one sudden burst. The journal never mentioned that aspect of dragon anatomy. My legs couldn’t hold me upright anymore. I fell to my knees, shaking so hard my teeth chattered.
“Who sent you?” the dragon thundered. “Who are your kin?”
The wisdom symbol on my forehead tingled—a timely reminder to watch my tongue. It would not be wise to explain how I had been forcibly sent here, not until I knew how to handle myself around these creatures.
Hugging myself tightly, I forced part of the truth past my clacking teeth, hoping it would suffice. “I am the eldest daughter of Priestess Arianne. I’m a high elf, as she and King Leopold are.”
“Daughter of the Priestess? Do you think me but a dragonling, ignorant of the deceitful ways of elven-kind?” He craned his head this way and that, as though trying to focus through his cloudy eye.
“N-not at all, kind dragon.” Goddess, that sounded pathetic. “I am here to care for you, not to do you harm.” I bowed my head to show my reverence, knowing any minute I could be reduced to ashes. The journal didn’t mention how to introduce myself to my charges, either. Another bit of information that would have proven useful before I became a snack.
“Who is with you?”
“No one but a harmless snippet.” Glancing toward the bed, only Puddle’s yellow eyes were visible, wide and startled as I’d ever seen them.
Another voice spoke from behind the gray dragon. Still as rumbling, but not as deep and more airy, like a bellows over a blacksmith’s fire. Female, perhaps? “Back away, Kershar! Let me get a look.” An olive-green dragon’s head nudged Kershar’s to one side and turned sideways to inspect me with a pale yellow eye. “You’ve frightened her to near death. Have I not told you to remain cave-bound while you go through the shedding?”
Shedding? I dared a look at Kershar, finally realizing why his eye, and to a lesser extent, his scales, were so dull. My sister Prysilla had raised a virtual zoo of pets over the years. Every reptile and amphibian replaced their skin on a regular basis. Like those, Kershar must have been molting. The edges of the shedding eye scale had already separated from the new tissue beneath.
The olive-green dragon spoke again. “Come closer, child. My mate will not harm you. He is all smoke and no fire, and he is as mortal as you are.”
Kershar butted the other dragon’s head. “What did you say to her?”
“Never mind, Kershar.” She butted him back. “Child, you are safe with us. A dragon’s promise is as firm as this rock upon which we stand.”
Having no choice, but feeling a little more comfortable in this creature’s presence, I pushed myself to my feet and swallowed in a futile attempt to wet my dry-as-cotton mouth. I stepped forward until I was so close, the dragon’s warm breath ruffled my acolyte robe.
“They’ve sent another Keeper, I see. I am Xaxony, matriarch of the clan. You’ve met Kershar, my mate.” Xaxony flicked a red, forked tongue and smiled.
Dragons can smile? Who knew? “I’m Loralee. Loralee Munroviel.”
“The Priestess’s daughter?” Xaxony puffed a cloud of smoke from her nostrils.
Kershar rumbled again. “The mortal is deceiving us. She cannot be a Keeper.”
“She smells like a Keeper to me. Where is your mark, child?”
Mark? What mark…oh!
I turned my back to Xaxony and parted the hair at the nape of my neck, hoping at least some of the dark birthmark was visible on my scalp.
After a pause that lasted too long for comfort, Xaxony said, “She is genuine. We should leave her in peace until she is settled. Come to the caves when you are ready, child, and I will show you the island.”
I nodded, then thought of something. “Oh, um, I think I can help you, Kershar.”
He butted his gray head into Xaxony’s to take center stage in the doorway again. “Help from a mortal! I sailed Tallenmere’s skies and fathered ten dragonlings before your king was even a twitch in his father’s groin.”
Xaxony butted in again. “Kershar, listen to her. Your stubbornness is as annoying as scale mites.”
He emitted a grumble that sounded like a rockslide. “Very well. Speak, mortal.”
“I’m a healer, like my mother. If you will hold still, I may be able to remove the shedding scales from your eyes.”
He grumbled again, but lowered his head to rest his chin on the threshold. Assuming this was Kershar’s acceptance of my plan, I bent toward one eye, and gently as possible, slid a fingertip under a loose edge of the scale. Then, I pulled on it slightly, testing the resistance. It loosened more, and behind it, I could see the bright green of an iris and the tip of a vertical pupil.
I paused to gauge the dragon’s reactions, not that I knew anything about dragon discomfort yet. But, Kershar hadn’t moved, and I remained uncooked. So far, so good.
Pulling as gently and evenly as I could, I slowly removed the scale from his eye, until the platter-sized opaque disk came off in my hands.
Kershar rumbled again, but in a way that sounded more satisfied than anything else. “It appears my mate is correct, as usual. You are genuine, mortal.”
“You may call me Loralee, if you wish.” He turned his head, allowing access to his other eye, and I repeated the process. “Is that better?”
He lifted his head and lowered his chin in a single nod.
I let out a pent-up breath. “If you have anywhere warm to soak, it should help with the rest of the shedding process.”
Kershar turned to go, with one long tail flashing by the door. “Your kindness will not be forgotten…Loralee.” He disappeared beyond an ivy curtain on the rock wall outside the cottage.
Xaxony nodded and started to follow her mate.
The dragon stopped, craning her neck in a graceful arc to face me again.
I blurted out my question before I lost my nerve. “What happened to the other Keeper?”
“I do not know. He was here one evening before our respite, and gone the next sunrise. Rayven was a good Keeper, better than the one prior. He served us for a century and witnessed the hatching of our last dragonling. We have missed him greatly these last three months. Though I do not know his fate, listen to me carefully. Kershar and I inhabit the caves adjacent to this cottage, just beyond the ivy. Should you have a concern with any of our clan, come to us first. Ten other dragons inhabit this island. Most keep to themselves, and you will rarely see them, but some, like our son, Draktor, do not warm quickly to new Keepers, but your presence is necessary for our survival. His last dragonling failed after the Keeper’s disappearance. He and his mate, Kerasha, were deeply saddened, and Draktor has been even more irritable ever since.”
Everything she said sounded like something I might have read in a childhood storybook. My voice shook as I admitted my ignorance. “It will take some time for me to understand all this.”
“Do not worry, child. I will show you how to survive here.”