The stag was slowly roasting over the large fire pit when Jet finally returned home. Ariella was laying on her back beside the fire, staring up at the sky and making pictures out of the clouds. On the other side of the fire lay a large dragon with silver fur and bright yellow eyes. She had sharp ivory horns curling backwards over her head and was holding half a stag in the giant talons at the end of her forelimbs. Skymeria gnawed loudly on the stag half, her strong teeth scraping against the bone. Ariella easily blocked out the sounds the dragon was making as she was so used to them. She continued gazing up at the clouds until Jet’s face appeared over hers as he looked down at her.
“I see your hunt was successful,” he said, gesturing to the two halves of the stag. Ariella sat up and shook the loose grass out of her thick curls. She looked up at Jet and frowned slightly. There was something off about the expression on his face. It was almost brooding though he tried to cover it with a half-smile. Ariella knew better than to question him when he had that look in his eyes.
“Caught this one pretty quickly,” she said, gesturing to the cooking stag. “Did you get the bread?” Jet nodded and produced it from apparent thin air. Then he reached into his pocket and produced a length of dark green and lace ribbon, which he held out to Ariella.
“Saw this in the market, I thought it would look pretty in your hair for the feast tomorrow,” he said as Ariella took the ribbon and inspected the lace pattern with a smile. She watched Jet carefully as he tended to the cooking stag. He always bought her things when something was upsetting or worrying him.
“It’s beautiful, thank you,” she said, still not taking her eyes off of him. He had a neutral expression but, after living with him for seventeen years, Ariella knew his eyes could not lie. When he turned to her to ask how hungry she was, she looked into his eyes and saw loss. The emptiness in his eyes sent a shiver down Ariella’s spine.
“Um, yes please?” she asked, hoping it was the right response. Jet turned away again to start slicing the meat off the deer and Ariella felt her heart reach out to him. He never ever spoke about his feelings, so she knew better than to ask, but this time it really hurt that she could not comfort him. She reached out to Skymeria with her mind.
He looks so sad. She said without moving her lips. Ariella was dragonborn, and possibly the very last one now that the dragons were beginning to disappear. A dragonborn was a half elf, half human born in the presence of a dragon. Because of this she had the ability to speak to dragons with her mind, and channel their magic as her own. She was bound to Skymeria, as the dragon was to her. It was said that a dragonborn and her dragon even shared a soul and, at the height of their power, could become a single entity strong enough to destroy the world. And that, quite obviously, was why the dragonborn had been hunted to near extinction and the union of elves and humans forbidden to prevent their creation. Skymeria lifted her bloody head from the stag carcass and turned to look at Jet.
His heart is lonely said the dragon. Ariella frowned. There was nothing she could do to soothe his loneliness if he continued to refuse to move into the city. He walked over to her and handed her a wooden plate with slices of bread and venison.
“Thank you,” she said as she took it from him, watching his eyes again as he smiled at her. The smile did not reach his eyes. Ariella couldn’t stand the sadness in them any longer.
“Dammit, Jet, will you just tell me what is wrong?” she snapped. Jet started at her outburst.
“What?” he asked. “There’s nothing…”
“Don’t lie, Jet, I know you better than that. You look awful. Please tell me, I cannot stand to see your eyes so sad,” she said. Jet sighed and sat down opposite her on the grass. He toyed for a moment with the strap of leather he always wore around his wrist. It was so tatty now as he never took it off. Then he rubbed his tired eyes.
“Ariella… there is a lot I haven’t told you and I am not going to explain everything now,” he said. As Ariella opened her mouth to protest, he continued. “However, I will answer every question you can think of once the Autumn Court has left. I promise. Can you wait that long?” Though he posed the last bit like a question, Ariella knew full well that it wasn’t and that she didn’t have a choice but to wait. She frowned and looked away from him, picking at the food on her plate. Jet sighed again at her sulking face and lay down in the grass. They sat in silence for a while. Ariella looked at the man who raised her and wondered just how terrible and frightening his demons were that he couldn’t tell her. Leaving Jet to his brooding, Ariella got to her feet and looked up at the beautifully clear sky.
Do you want to go for a wander? She asked Skymeria. The dragon stretched and got to her feet. Just in front of her wing joint was a cream leather saddle which Ariella pulled herself into with ease. She strapped her legs to the sides of the saddle as Skymeria stretched out her great wings and crouched, preparing to jump.
“Don’t be too long,” said Jet, without looking at them. Ariella ignored him and gripped the handle of the saddle hard. Skymeria leapt into the air, her wings pulling them up into the sky. The dragon climbed higher and higher until Ariella couldn’t even see Jet back on the ground. Once Skymeria had reached her desired altitude, she stopped climbing and coasted peacefully, wings outstretched. Ariella held her arms out and took a deep, full breath of the clear air. This was what she’d been born to do. There was nothing better than flying with Skymeria. Even if they had nowhere to go or nothing to do, just gliding in the open sky filled her heart with joy. The trees sprawled out beneath them like a deep green rug with a ribbon of blue snaking through it as the river flowed into the great lake just the other side of the forest. This was what it felt like to be alive. In truth, she pitied the people in the city below her. They would never know how it felt to soar through the sky like a dragon. They would never feel the wind beneath them, lifting them higher. They lived their lives like ants, trapped on the ground and never knowing the open sky. Never knowing what it felt like to fly. To be free. But for Ariella, like all things, freedom came at a price. Jet had once told her that her connection with Skymeria meant she could live forever. She would see great kingdoms rise but also see them fall. Everything she could see now, from the back of her dragon so high in the sky, would change and be lost in time. She would even outlive Jet one day. The thought of having to bury the man who raised her, even though it could be hundreds of years away, made her heart cold. That was the one thing that the people in the city below her had that she didn’t. They could spend the rest of their lives with her, if they wanted, but she couldn’t spend the rest of her life with them.
Do not be sad, little lark. I will always be with you said Skymeria in her mind. Ariella leant forwards and wrapped her arms around the dragon’s neck, resting her head in the silvery fur. Skymeria hummed gently to comfort Ariella as she banked towards the lake. The dragon flew lower and lower until they were level with the tops of the trees. The tree dwellers leapt out of the leaves in fright as Skymeria soared over them. She angled down until she aligned herself with the river, following it through the forest. Her claws skimmed the top of the water, gliding lower and lower until she hit the water with an almighty splash. Ariella laughed as a wave of lake water washed over them.
“Skymeria!” she shrieked, looking down at her soaking wet clothes. The dragon hummed happily as she snaked across the top of the river, leaving the saddle just inches from being submerged. Ariella’s boots quickly filled with water which made her feet cold, but she didn’t mind. Skymeria swam leisurely across the lake and Ariella felt so incredibly relaxed. Until, that was, she saw a hooded figure on the far side of the lake. She sat bolt upright and reached for the throwing knives hidden in the side of the saddle. Skymeria began to swim faster to the edge of the lake, keeping one golden eye on the stranger. He looked like one of the figures she’d seen riding on the back of great scarlet and black cats through the forest earlier. Curiosity filled her but Jet’s warning about strangers echoed harshly in her head. As Skymeria climbed out of the lake and shook herself, the cloaked figure began to walk towards them. Ariella hesitated. She wanted to see who had been watching her but Skymeria had other ideas. She turned to face the stranger and let out an almighty roar followed by a burst of blue flame. From her seat in the saddle, Ariella could feel the heat from the dragon fire and steam began to rise from her wet clothes. The stranger stopped in his tracks, lifting his arm up to shield his eyes from the bright flames. As he moved his arm, his cloak fell open to reveal a sword strapped to his waist. Ariella tightened her grip on her throwing knives. When the flames ceased, Skymeria roared again. Birds for miles around took off in fright but the stranger did not move.
“Who are you?” Ariella shouted. “What do you want?” But the stranger did not reply. He stayed where he was and though Ariella could not see his eyes, she could feel them watching her. She shuddered.
We are going back to Jet, now! Said Skymeria, stretching out her wings. Ariella wanted to protest but kept quiet as Skymeria leapt into the air once again. As they flew away from the lake, Ariella looked back. The cloaked figure was gone.
Moments later, Skymeria landed with a heavy thud back in the small clearing where they had left Jet. He was no longer lying on the grass and the stag had gone from the fire pit. Ariella unstrapped her legs and slid off the saddle. Who was that strange figure? Had he been one of the Autumn Court? He hadn’t looked tall enough to be an elf, but then he was standing quite a distance away so she could’ve been mistaken. Was it even a man? She had only assumed so because of the way the cloak fell over the stranger’s body. She stripped off her wet clothes right down to her underwear and rung out as much of the water as she could. Then Skymeria breathed hot air over her, drying her wet hair and vest. The hot air made her curls frizz slightly but she didn’t care, at least it wasn’t wet anymore.
Thank you, Sky. She said once she was dry. Skymeria bobbed her head then walked away to lie in the sun to dry off her fur. Ariella lay her clothes on the grass to finish drying and before deciding to find Jet. She walked towards the large treehouse built across the span of three giant trees. Around each tree was a two story pod and each pod was connected via a rope bridge. It wasn’t much but it had been Ariella’s home for as long as she could remember. Beneath the treehouse was a crude blacksmiths forge and racks of equipment and half-mended weapons. She climbed up the rope ladder to the first pod where all the food and supplies were kept.
“Jet?” she called. He stepped out from the bottom pod around the middle tree onto the walkway. He held out his arms to show off the clothes he was wearing. He wore a long, tight fitting deep blue silk tunic with silver stitching and tight black trousers. Ariella was astounded at how much like an elf he looked, the clothes showing off how tall and slim he was.
“What do you think?” he asked, grinning. Ariella laughed.
“You look like an idiot,” she teased. Jet let his arms dropped and pouted jokingly. Ariella walked across the rope bridge towards him.
“You look very handsome,” she assured him with a smile. Jet grinned brilliantly, making Ariella laugh.
“Okay, what hideous dress are you going to try and squeeze me into?” she asked. She had never enjoyed wearing dresses, much to Jet’s initial disappointment until he realised it was much easier and cheaper to make her tunics and breeches. His eyes twinkled as he gestured into the room he’d just walked out of. Ariella raised an eyebrow at him before looking round the door. On a wooden bust in the middle of the room was the most beautiful dress Ariella had ever seen. It was made of dark green velvet with a corset top and a full circle skirt held out with so much netting that Ariella wasn’t entirely sure there was room for her. The corset top half had two long ribbons meant for tying at the back of the neck. She pulled the dark green ribbon Jet had given her earlier out of her vest pocket. They were the same colour as the dress.
“You didn’t make this dress… did you?” she asked him. Jet shrugged.
“If I say yes, and say it took me hours and hours and I have so many holes in my thumbs from all the dress pins… will you wear it?” he asked, that cheeky grin in place again. Ariella rolled her eyes.
“Well I suppose I could at least try it on,” she teased, walking into the room and shutting the door behind her.
“Hurry up I want to see it!” called Jet through the door. Ariella laughed and peeled off the still slightly damp vest. Folded carefully beside the green dress was a thin white linin underdress. Ariella pulled it over her head and wriggled it down her body. It was a bit tight and stopped just halfway down her thighs, but no one was going to see it so it didn’t matter. She gently unlaced the back of the dress green and pulled it ever so carefully off of the dressmakers stand. The velvet and the layers of under netting made it feel quite heavy, and the bones in the corset only made it heavier. When lifting it above her head turned out to be an impossibility, she held it out in front of her and stepped into it. Much easier, she thought as she slipped her arms into the half sleeves and pulled the dress up. She tried to reach behind her to pull up the laces but she couldn’t reach.
“Uh, Jet? Little help please!” she called. The door opened and Jet’s jaw dropped.
“Ariella…. You look…”
“Like an idiot because I can’t fasten this stupid corset,” she said. Jet shook his head.
“Right, yes. I’ll lace you up.” He stepped behind her and began to pull the laces tight. Ariella almost fell over several times during the ordeal.
“Jet not so tight! I can’t breathe!” she complained. Jet put his knee in her back and pulled the final few laces.
“You’re not supposed to be able to breathe in it now hold still,” he said, fastening the laces into a neat bow in the small of her back. Apparently satisfied that Ariella was just the right level of suffocated, he turned her to face the mirror. Ariella’s eyes went wide. She looked…. Like a lady. The dress accentuated her curves, making her look more like a woman than she was ready for. She’d never been thin, but the dress gave her a very flattering figure. As beautiful as it was, she still much preferred her tunic and leggings. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jet pick up a brush.
“Don’t even think about it!” she warned.
“Come on, Ari, your hair looks like a rat is nesting in it,” he protested before attacking her with the hairbrush. Ariella screwed her eyes up and accepted the torture. She could hear Jet muttering curses under his breath every time the brush got caught on a knot in her hair and she was pretty sure she’d have no hair left by the end of his assault. The hair brush collided painfully with her skull several times but no matter how many times she cried out in pain, Jet ignored her and carried on ripping out her hair. Being squished into a dress had been bad enough but if she’d known he was going to go crazy on her hair she would’ve run a mile. After a few more excruciating minutes of having her hair ripped out, Ariella finally felt relief when Jet declared he was done. Fearing the worst, she slowly opened her eyes to look at the damage. Her usually ratty brown curls tumbled down her shoulders in sleek, soft corkscrews. Jet gathered up most of them and tied them with the ribbon in a large bow, leaving a couple small curls to frame her porcelain face.
“How did you…?” Ariella asked, gobsmacked at how soft and well-formed her curls were. Jet’s eyes twinkled and he grinned. Ariella laughed. His magic never ceased to amaze her. He slid a pair of green and black shoes towards her with his foot and produced the blue jewel from his pocket.
“I know it doesn’t match your dress,” he said as he gently placed it on her chest and fastened the chain at the back of her neck. Ariella was still staring at her reflection in disbelief. She looked pretty. Taking Jet’s arm to steady herself, she slipped her feet into the shoes. She’d never looked so feminine in her life, but she had to admit she kind of liked it. Jet fastened a green velvet cloak around her shoulders before donning a similar one himself. Ariella looked at the reflected image of them standing side by side and smiled. Jet kissed Ariella on the head.
“You look so much like your mother,” he said, brushing a rogue curl out of her face. Then he offered her his arm and they walked out onto the walkway together. Ariella wasn’t sure the rope ladder was going to be particularly manageable in a dress and shoes, but with Jet’s help she managed to make it to the bottom without falling. Skymeria bugled loudly when she saw Ariella.
You look beautiful, little lark. She said, touching Ariella’s forehead gently with her nose. Jet whistled and a chestnut horse came trotting out from the trees. He lifted a saddle much smaller than Skymeria’s, from the rack beside the forge and placed it on the horse. As he set about fastening the buckles, Ariella fiddled absent-midedly with the signet ring she wore on the thumb of her right hand. It bore the skylark sigil of her father and it was the only thing of his that she had. Once the saddle was secure, Jet turned to Ariella.
“Ready?” he asked her. Ariella didn’t know who was more nervous, her or Jet. She was excited to finally see inside the palace and to see the strangers, but Jet’s uneasy smile was making her nervous. He was putting on a brave face but Ariella could tell that the strangers frightened him. It frightened her too but she nodded anyway, letting her curiosity win. Jet pulled himself onto the horse and Ariella allowed him to lift her up in front of him where she awkwardly sat side saddle, not used to having a dress that stopped her from sitting in the saddle properly. Once they were settled in the right position, Jet took the reins.
“Behave yourself, Skymeria,” he said to the dragon who had already laid back down in the sun. Skymeria hummed her agreement and Jet spurred the horse forwards out of the forest.