Xiomara couldn’t take her eye off her coach ticket. For three years, she’d waited tables in the local pub, done every odd job she could, scrimping and saving for this trip. No more village life for her. Soon she would be in the city of Linn, and everything would change.
Maybe not everything, she thought, Life won’t be easier, but it will be different. So different. There will be opportunities... To do what? I’ll find something. Anything has to be better than in Mura. We can’t even afford basic patrols to keep the beasts out of the streets. I’ve never heard of someone getting mauled to death by a roving pack of abominations in Linn. At the very least, I will have options.
Xo shook her doubts and concerns out of her head. True she hadn’t planned past the journey, but that in and of itself took a lot of planning and focus. Life was hard in Mura since the copper mines ran dry. The land lacked the nutrients to grow more than the native scrub, no matter how much the farmers tried. They lit candles and prayed for a salvation that never came. Most of the people had moved away, but her family made a modest living off their dairy. A modest life was all they ever wanted. Not Xo. Working from dawn to dusk just to survive, that could never be a life for her. In Linn, they had steam powered trams, and gaslights illuminating the streets by night. Even with all the horrors this world had to offer, Linn had culture and refinement. It was a place you could live, not just survive.
Out the thin glass windows of the coach, everything looked different. The low scrublands had given way to a forest. Granted the trees had all lost their leaves, but they stood sentinel along the road.
Xiomara couldn’t help smiling. These weren’t the first trees she had ever seen, but right this moment they were the most beautiful. Their dark, winter hardened bark contrasted the lily white of the snow.
The sound of a whip cracked. Xo fell back in her seat as the driver pushed the horses to go faster.
The next sound was strange, somewhere between a pop and thunder.
That came from right above me. Xo looked up at the beige upholstered ceiling. Maybe it was a mage spell. I’m pretty sure I saw a mage when I boarded.
Another peel of thunder. That one came from behind us.
Pulling back the mustard yellow curtain, she craned her neck to see what was going on.
Something followed them. It kicked up muddy snow as it galloped.
Xo sat back in the seat, and for the first time on this trip wished someone was in the carriage with her. It’s passengers chose to stay in Mura for some reason. She was the only one who boarded.
The mage thunder filled the cabin. The blasts sped up. The bandits must be getting closer.
The carriage rocked, tilted hard to the right, and tumbled over.
Xo held onto the seat, but it didn’t do any good.
She hit the ceiling hard and bounced on the side.
The glass cut and scraped her skin.
After some brief shaking, the carriage came to an abrupt stop.
Xo couldn’t feel anything. She felt distant from herself, like she was watching the events of someone else’s life playing out in front of her.
Cold air rushed in through the broken windows.
She sighed. If she felt the cold, that meant she was alive. Doesn’t it? She assured herself that it did, and scrambled to her feet. Her head poked out of the glassless window. A group of bandits in leather coats, fox fur hats, and with bandanas over their mouths dismounted.
Crack from behind her.
She ducked into the carriage.
Our Mage must still be alive.
She peeked out again. The bandits scattered to avoid what looked like balls of fire with lightning arcing around it.
I have to run. Xiomara thought. If the mage wins, I can come back. If not, I don’t want to be here when those men start picking through the carriage.
After making sure the bandits were distracted by the mage, Xo pulled herself out of the wreck, and jumped into the snow on the side of the road. As she started running into the dead winter woods, she thanked her mother who recommended she wore jeans instead of the skirt she had planned.
The thunder of the dueling mages receded into the background. There was another sound though, keeping pace with her. She glanced back.
Two bandits chased her, and they weren’t as far behind her as she would have liked.
She started running scenarios through her mind of what she would do when they caught up to her. None of them ended well. She had been in a few fights in school, but she doubted that was any kind of preparation for fighting hardened criminals.
Something caught her eye ahead and to the right.
Dodging through the trees, she ran for it as fast as her legs could carry her.
It was a sword, and not a very old one. The blade hadn’t rusted at all. It must be strong and sharp if someone could stick it in that strange looking rock so deep.
Xo reached for the hilt as she approached, and to her utter amazement the blade slid out of the stone as easy as if she had pulled it from a scabbard. She turned to face the oncoming bandits, who she could see drawing there own blades. Daggers. This shouldn’t be all that hard. This wasn’t the first time she fought with a sword. Her father taught her how to fight so while she was on the range she could defend herself. She once fought off a wolf, but a lone wolf wasn’t the same thing as two grown men.
The bandits slowed to a walk as they got closer to her. They didn’t say anything. That bothered Xo more than anything else about the situation. No demands to drop her weapon. No call to surrender. They just leered at her with those wild eyes. Their breath steamed through their masks in the cold air.
The man on her left moved toward her.
Xo swung the sword at his wrist. To her horror, the blade crumbled to dust as it passed through the air. The hilt crushed into powder in her grip.
The bandits looked at each other, then back at her. And even though there was no possible way to see it, Xo was sure they smiled.
The ground shook.
Xo fell into the snow.
The earth quaked under her.
A dark shadow fell over Xo and stretched over the bandits who dropped their daggers.
As the bandits turned to run, massive fireballs streaked through the sky, incinerating one and then the other.
Xo turned around.
A large white dragon with long spiraling horns towered over her. Its massive wings filled the sky. It looked down at her, and belched a stream of blue fire at her.
Xo threw up her hands in a vain attempt to shield herself. The heat enveloped her. Everything faded to black.
Much to her own surprise, Xiomara woke up propped up against a tree. She didn’t look or feel burnt, even though the dragon definitely breathed fire on her. The dragon? Where is the dragon?
She looked up, and the dragon crouched a couple meters away from her feet. It stared at her with its crystal blue eyes.
“You pulled the sword from my chest?” a deep voice boomed in her ears.
Did a dragon just ask me a question? Xo didn’t know what to say, she had pulled the sword out of something. “I guess.” Her voice squeaked.
“You don’t know?” The dragon crept closer.
“I was being chased by bandits, and...”
“I dispatched them.” The dragon snorted a small cloud of smoke from its nostrils. “They were unclean. You need to cleanse their bodies.”
Xo shook her head, “I’m not washing the charred bodies of two men who wanted to kill me, or worse...”
The dragon snorted out another cloud. “You really have no idea what I am talking about, do you? You freed me by accident.” The dragon laughed.
“I don’t know if I should say I’m sorry, or you’re welcome.” Xo forced a smile. The sound of a dragon laughing unnerved her.
He stepped closer until they were almost nose to nose, and tilted its massive head to look at her. “My name is Anam Rakhato.”
“I am Xiomara Revan.” She stuttered.
“Revan, you are rider?”
Xo didn’t know how to answer that question. The Revan clan were proud cavalrymen for the Padisha for countless generations. In the Second Shou war, they earned their name, Revan, “The Star.” That was all so long ago. Her father made sure she knew how to ride. He wanted to keep up the family tradition even though they ran a dairy farm. So how did Anam want her to answer. She didn’t want to end up like the bandits.
“I can ride, but I am not a soldier.” Xo said.
Anam studied her carefully.
That probably wasn’t the answer he was looking for. The silence was almost more than Xo could take. She was at the dragon’s mercy, she knew that much. There was no where to run to or hide. If he decided to kill her, she was dead.
Finally, he said, “You don’t know what you have done then?”
Xo felt like she did that time she knocked over one of the cream separators when she was 10. “Something wonderful, I hope.” She forced another smile.
Anam laughed. His hot breath washing over her. “That depends on your perspective on things. When you freed me from that cursed blade, I was incomplete. My rider and I are bound one to another. My last rider died, what must have been years ago, if not more. You pulled the blade. You awakened me. You bound yourself to me. I bound myself to you after I dispatched the bandits.”
“The blue fire...” Xo muttered.
“Exactly,” Anam nodded.
“Then,” Xo chose her words carefully, “How do we unbind ourselves?”
Xo didn’t like the sound of that. She wasn’t ready to die, and she definitely didn’t want to die just to free a dragon. “That is not... Ideal.”
The dragon shook his head. He took a couple steps away, and sat on his haunches. “We need to get you to the Vagi Temple. They will be able to prepare you for the work ahead.”
“I can’t go to a temple, I have... Had a ticket to the city.” Part of her wanted to cry, but couldn’t. This was all too surreal. She wanted to believe she had fallen asleep on the coach and that this was all a dream. If only that icy breeze would stop blowing across her face.
This wasn’t a dream. She bound herself to a dragon. What does that even mean? She thought about asking Anam, but any answer would have been meaningless. She wasn’t ready to hear any answer that he might have to give. It was done. It can’t be undone. What more did she need to know? All of the possible lives she had dreamed about were reduced to either going with the dragon or dying here and now. That would probably happen to anyone who said no to a dragon.
She looked at Anam. He looked as worried as she was. He thought she was his rescuer. Turns out, she was just a dumb girl in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Or the right place at the right time.” Anam said. “Sorry, I was trying not to listen in, but your emotions are high right now.”
“You can read my mind?” Xo asked, the ramifications of that setting in.
“And once you learn how, you will hear mine too.” Anam said solemnly, “I told you, we where connected. I am not a monster, by the way, I wouldn’t just kill you to make my life easier.”
Xo felt bad about thinking that. “I don’t know. I’ve never met a dragon before, and the stories about your kind are always about battles.”
Trying to clear her mind, Xo didn’t want to even think about any of this. She didn’t want to cause Anam or herself anymore pain. But she couldn’t stop. She was bound to a dragon. She laughed. How much different could her life be from the one in the village. Something like this would never have happened there. She wanted an adventure. This was certainly that if nothing else.
She smiled at Anam, and this time it wasn’t forced. She meant it. He was as stuck in this situation as she was. Why not make the most of it.