Maay hummed as she worked the old loom, the dull clack of wood a lullaby to her ears. Sunlight blazed into the solarium, the normally stifling heat cooled every so often by a gust coming through the open windows. She cocked her head to the sound of footsteps echoing from down the hall. Men. It had to be, for their boots hit the stone with such a racket and the occasional, punctuating clink of metal.
Frowning at the woven threads before her, she idly looped another through the strands. It sounded like guards. What would they be doing here? Not many men came to this quarter of the castle, mostly servants with their soft shoes and the irritating habit of blending into the background.
She glanced over her shoulder and perused the room. Her gaze settled on the plants that separated the solarium from the other rooms and screened the bulk of the sunlight from those entering. The green leaves bobbed in the breeze. Bright, inviting and absent of extra shadows.
Yes, she was still alone. Figures. The first time she wanted a servant nearby and there were none around. But was that not why she'd chosen this section of the castle in the first place? To be alone?
Perhaps she was imagining things. Why earlier, Maay could have sworn she'd heard the mighty whump of wings overhead. Although she’d hurried to the window and risked falling as she leant out to see, nothing untoward had caught her eye. She could seek out answers. Someone would know. Except, in leaving her weaving incomplete, she risked returning to discover someone, like one of her sweet younger sisters, had lovingly unravelled it.
The shuttle skipped a thread. Grumbling, she redid the line. She had to finish it before the autumn banquet next week. This would be the year she finally completed a tapestry in time. Allowing herself to be treated like a child until the next year was unthinkable. Not when this autumn marked her eighteenth year.
Why were the men here? Were they emissaries on their way to greet one of her siblings? She recalled a few proposals made to some of the ladies, but no mention of acceptance. And the others of age would've already completed their tapestries by now. Perhaps they are knights. Surely, after almost two decades, the castle was due for a visit.
And with knights, came dragons.
Perched on the edge of the stool, she held her breath and strained to hear anything other than the tramp of boots. Leaving her work, she padded to the nearest window. Birdsong came in on the breeze, the flit of tiny wings filling the void between the tweets. Another window revealed cattle grazing in the paddocks far below. Surely they'd kick up a fuss at a dragon's presence.
Foolish to think there could be something as exciting as dragons nearby. That was something her young siblings were likely to believe. Such mighty beasts hadn't flown over Byron's Peak since before her birth. They were too busy guarding the kingdom's borders to travel this far inland.
Maay sighed. It had probably been a duck. But it had sounded so big. Not duck-like at all and many of the geese had already left, not to return for some months.
Shaking her head, she returned to the loom, hoping to regain the comfort she found in being blissfully alone. The footsteps no longer sounded urgent and rarely could she find time without her brothers and sisters, both the older and the younger, dogging her. One day, or so her adopted mother believed, she'd miss their presence and the foolish games they'd played.
A smile tweaked her lips at the memory of her siblings' cavorting and laughter. She stilled. That last giggle had sounded all too real. "Ilsa?"
Another giggle came, more muffled than the first.
I can hear you, sweet one. The words sung in her mind. "Guess I'm all alone then." Her gaze lazily followed the course of her fingers as they wove the shuttle through the upright cords. For the moment, the thread was a soft white. Below it, all neatly woven, sat the dark green wall of the castle's standard. "I suppose that means there's no one to tell me what's happening outside." Maay forced a sigh. "And I so wanted to know. Oh dear, what a shame." Wood resumed its rhythmic clacking, once again in counterpoint to her over-loud humming.
The patter of little feet crept up on her. Too small to be Ilsa.
Maay swung round, extending her hands as if they were claws. She caught the flash of a face just in time to put a name to it. "Lalee!"
The girl screamed, collapsing against Maay's dark skirts. "Maay," she whined. "You sacred me. You said you wouldn't." Her little face scrunched up. "You promised."
"And who was doing the sneaking?" Maay tweaked her sister's little nose, chuckling when she got the desired effect of crinkling it even further. "What are you doing up here?" Her gaze caught a patch on the tapestry where one line had tried to overlap another. Putting the shuttle down with a sigh, she stood to tease the thread back into position. The wood creaked, twisting the other way. "You know I can't play right now." Maay circled the frame, adjusting it and glaring at the simple design. How wonderful it would be to have the skill to weave dragons into the tapestry like her elder siblings did.
Brown eyes watched her every movement. So dark and big, complemented perfectly by her pale skin and auburn hair. The girl would have suitors fawning over her when she came of age. Not like Maay with her black hair, eyes and skin. She was more like a walking shadow. And no one here looked remotely like her. Not that anyone seemed to care. Mother could choose to raise a horse as her own baby and papa wouldn't bat an eye.
Lalee twisted from side-to-side, her skirts swishing. "There's dragons in the castle. Two of them."
Maay stared at her little sister. Lalee was still young enough to look at everything with wide eyes. It made the little face sweet, and also difficult to tell if Lalee was lying. Maay bent to pick up the shuttle. A lock of hair fell forward to swing back and forth across her vision. Sitting, she tipped her head up, trying to shake the tress back into place. "Who told you that?"
"And they were definitely dragons? Not swans like last spring?" Maay frowned as her sister nodded. What were dragons doing here? She glared at her tapestry, jamming the shuttle through the upright cords. It could wait. Surely an hour or two would not disrupt her weaving.
She froze, shuttle snarling in the cords. Papa? He never came up here, not with the increasingly pressing tasks of autumn and the lordly responsibilities of approaching winter. "Yes papa?" Maay spun on her stool to face him, eager for word of something beyond the silks and jewels and tales of men's battle prowess she got from her older sisters.
Lalee ran to her father's side, silently begging to be hoisted into his arms. She gave Maay a smug little smile that screamed "told you".
Their father hadn't come alone.
Two men stood behind him. The one standing at the forefront was bedecked in a vibrant shade of blue-grey. Not just his clothes, but the hair and skin also favoured this hue. And the other one ... he was a dull silver. No mere men had skin in such shades.
Dragons. Maay hastened to stand and, her black skirts spread wide, offered a low curtsy. "My lords," she murmured, voice breathy in its fight to be heard over the pounding in her breast. "It is an honour." She glanced up at them, gaze darting from face to face. Which of the two dragons was the elder?
The blue-grey one glanced at his companion. While both dragons chose to remain in their human guises, the silver one wore tight hunting leathers under a vest almost heavy and big enough to be a cloak, whereas the other garbed himself in a modest tunic and leggings. Had they been human, only the subtle embroidery on tunic and cape would've distinguished him from a well-to-do merchant.
The silver one's gaze had not left her since she'd faced them. Far from a welcoming or curious look, his silvery brows were lowered in a scowl. While his clothes were the consistent dull grey of unpolished steel, he bore a hoary tattoo on his face. A face that hinted at being a lot more handsome if it stopped scowling, it would certainly do much to smooth the delicate curves of that mark. And those eyes ... icy blue and just as cold. They held her attention far more than those of any man.
The uneasy sensation of being hunted crept up her spine.
"Dear lady," the blue-grey one said, taking a step closer. "We have been ordered to escort you back to Mountain Hall."
She fought to contain her gasp. Mountain Hall? They wanted to take her to a dragon lair? Maay glanced at her father, heart skipping a fearful beat as the man nodded. How long had he known? Her tongue darted out, vainly attempting to moisten her lips before flicking in again. "May I enquire as to the reason?"
Once again it was the blue-grey one who opened his mouth, then closed it again without a word. The silence grew thick before he finally spoke. "Your ... assistance is required."
Beside him, his companion gave up a short snort of amusement. "Our records name you as a dragon, Lady Maayin, and you have been instructed to return with us."
Maay took a step back from the trio. Reaching out, her fingers searched for, and finally grasped, the loom. Her? A dragon? The knots and hollows of the old wood were warm and smooth under her hand. She clung to the soothing feeling, her only reality in this crazed game the two dragons tried to play with her mind. They had to be mistaken. They were mistaken.
The blue-grey one glared at the other over his shoulder.
She turned her gaze upon the first. "I am no dragon ..." Unable to the stand even the blue-grey one's friendlier face, she stared at the floor. "... my lords."
"The records say otherwise, dear lady. The council is insistent you arrive at Mountain Hall this nightfall."
Again the silver one snorted at his companion.
"Mountain Hall?" she murmured. She struggled to remember her tutor's lessons on the territories of their draconic guardians. Was this land under the mountain's protection? It didn't sound right. Decades may have passed since the last dragon had been spotted around Byron's Peak, but things could not have changed that much. Had she not been told that they lay sheltered under the branches of the ... what did they call it? The Great Tree. Yes, that sounded right. "Byron's Peak doesn't answer to Mountain Hall."
The blue-grey one nodded. "They've agreed to relinquish you into our care."
Maay waited for the other dragon to remark again, surprised to hear silence. They'd relinquished her? Like I'm a thing. What if she didn't wish to go? No, she already knew the answer to that one. It sat in the silver one's icy eyes. Willingly or not, they would see she left the only home she'd ever known. But why? She'd seen the blue-grey one's indecision in replying when she'd first asked. She needed to know. "What do you want with me?" She wouldn't let them take her anywhere until she received a clearer answer. Something didn't feel right. What assistance could she possibly give that another could not?
The silver one stepped forward, closing the gap between them in a rush. She heard Lalee scream. "You are needed," he snarled. Fingers, bearing nails akin to the talons of a hunting falcon, encircled her wrist. "You will come with us."
She jerked back, surprised to find his grip holding fast. There was barely a twitch of his arm. How dare he presume he could lay his hands on her. She may not be as regal as a dragon, but she was a lady of the highest born family to ever grace this land. "Release me!"
"Jaimin!" the other snapped, the word exploding into a snarl.
Jaimin growled wordlessly at the other over his shoulder. His grip loosened, allowing Maay to slip free. She rounded the loom, putting the web of thread and wood between her and the dragon. A whisper of logic chided her for the move. How silly to rely on such a frail barrier to protect her. But it made her feel better to have it there.
"Peace." The blue-grey one came closer, laying a hand on Jaimin's shoulder. "It'll do us no good having her arrive scared beyond reason."
"I'm not going anywhere."
Jaimin turned his attention back to her, the elliptical pupils narrowing into a slit as he resumed his glaring. The heavy-set jaw tightened with his displeasure, his top lip quivering in the ghost of a sneer. "You speak as if you've a choice."
Maay struggled to stop looking into his eyes. So commanding and hypnotic. How did they pull at her and seem to dive into her mind at the same time? Her gaze twitched to his ears, large and pointed, like the hearing organ of a human had been merged with that of a deer's or a cow's. With him standing closer than before, she could make out the nicks along the outer edges. The breeze shifted his unkempt hair, silvery like the tattoo, and she returned to stare into the icy pools of his eyes.
Beyond the pair stood her father. He clutched his daughter as if anticipating the dragons to take her too.
A flicker of anger reared its head at the sight. How could he just stand there? How could he wait for the dragons to decide her fate without a word towards stopping them? By her mother's own fond admission, Gyron was not the smartest count Byron's Peak had ever seen when it came to some things - like the running of his castle. Yet he must have known the outcome here for he shuffled from one foot to the other, his discomfort plain even with the heavy beard obscuring much of his face.
They protect us. The small thought wove its way through the muddle of questions writhing in her mind; a remnant of her teachings. They shunt back our invaders at the cost of their own lives. No doubt he saw it as a small thing to do as they requested. Less troubling than releasing a cow into their care. At least they didn't eat humans. Not anymore.
She fought back the tears stinging her eyes. He wouldn't be standing aside if she'd been like Lalee and actually had his blood in her veins. Or if I even looked the same.
She'd never met anyone who came close to having skin as dark as hers. Though her tutors had told her of sunburnt savages that lived under the dormant volcanoes to the west. And there were others in the kingdom beyond the dragon-patrolled borders of the eastern jungle. Did those people possess the same velvety sheen her skin bore? And what of the pixie-pointed ears that had led to teasing in her younger years?
She could've believed the dragons had she been some exotic shade. Even brown skin would've let the worm of doubt to find its way in. But there were no black dragons. Every other colour you could imagine, just not black. Or red. Perhaps these dragons knew more of her origins. Or at least that of her people. They couldn't fly all over these lands and not know something.
Lifting her chin, she quietly skirted the loom to stand in front of the pair. Maay mustered what courage she could. Cobweb thin and fading fast, she clutched it before her as the knights of old had done with their shields. Though unlike them, she'd no weapon to use upon her winged foes. "I'll go to Mountain Hall with you, but I demand to be returned once it's proven I am not the one you're looking for." There had to be some sort of test. One she would undoubtedly fail. Perhaps she could be home in time for the autumn banquet.
"I am sorry my lady," the blue-grey one said, inclining his head as he spoke. "Such a request cannot be granted."
Maay crossed her arms before her, crushing the stiff panels of her corset against her chest. On the edge of her vision, she saw the other dragon twitch a pale brow. "Then I refuse."
"I'll agree to your terms," Jaimin said. "If we are indeed proven to be wrong, then I'll happily fly you back myself."
She spun to face him. "You are wrong." How could they be right? She would've been the first to know if the very idea that she may have been a dragon had ever crossed her mind. To soar over the kingdom under the mighty power of a dragon's wings. She shook her head. Every young woman dreamed of doing such a thing upon hearing the tales of the first women knights. Below queen, there was no higher status than knighthood. And they die alongside their dragons. Dust and bones. Like the woman who'd borne her to this castle when Maay was just a baby. These dragons knew something of her past. "I'm not a dragon," she whispered.
"We shall see, my lady," Jaimin said, his head dipping in a small bow. The glint in his blue eyes shone with a strange inner glow, speaking of knowledge she hadn't been privy to.
Maay bit her bottom lip, confidence wavering under that stare. He shouldn't look so sure. No one had any right to seem so certain of another. Did she dare to court the belief at she really was one of them? Me? A dragon? It couldn't be true.
"No, my lord, we keep no saddles here."
Gyron's words jerked Maay from her thoughts. Puzzled, she frowned at her father and the blue-grey one he'd spoken to. They'd plenty of saddles. More than they had mounts to wear them. Why would a dragon have need of one anyhow? They flew under the power of their own wings, not sitting astride a horse.
The blue-grey one looked her way. "We'll manage without then." He bowed, indicating with a wave of his hand for her to leave the solarium.
They were taking her now? Would they not give her a chance to say goodbye? Her gaze flicked to her little sister. The girl's tiny brow was creased in a puzzled frown. Maay wasn't the first sibling to have left abruptly. How much did Lalee understand? Did the girl think it was no different to the other older siblings who had married and left the castle? But they come back. For a time, anyway. Maay, as much as she hated to think of the possibility, might never return.
She stretched out a hand towards the girl, only to let it drop. No. She would be back. No matter her form, she would return to Byron's Peak. She would come home.
Maay stumbled down the steps in a numb, lurching gait, the footsteps of others coming fast behind her. The sound followed her out into the shadows of the courtyard. From the corner of her vision, she caught sight of the two dragons flanking her. People halted in their tasks, watching them. Watching her.
A small girl, Ilsa, struggled against the grasp of her handmaiden. Maay longed to run to her sister's side. Comfort her. Promise her little sister that she would return. Why wasn't the woman letting her sister go? She took a step towards the pair, marking at how the woman flinched. What had they heard? The dragons. What rumour had their presence sparked?
Maay made for the stables, a hand on her shoulder stopping her. She frowned down at the grey hand with its slate-like claws. Where was she to go if not to the stables? Greatest One of all! She was leaving via dragonback! Without a saddle. A dragon's saddle. That's what they'd asked for. Not some horse's gear. Riding upon a dragon. To soar above the clouds. So high. With nothing to stop her from falling should she lose her grip. Her stomach fluttered at the thought. She took a step back, the movement halted as she bumped into one of the pair.
She heeded Jaimin's touch as he steered her towards another set of stairs; ones which fast led back up into the sunlight. Blinking, she looked about her and halted at the top of the steps. Few people lingered near the western parapet. Most of the area was dominated by a slab of rock jutting from the wall. A landing area for the kingdom's mighty protectors. Though typically, they were the tiny, feathered dragons of the eastern jungle.
Jaimin strode out into the middle of the pad. He grew in size with each step, his limbs becoming longer and thicker. Clothes melted into an equally pale hide. Horns sprouted from his head, which was fast elongating into a narrow triangle and being pushed far from his shoulders by a sinuous neck. At his back, feathered wings grew, more luxurious than any plumage she'd seen on the hunting falcons.
The dragon's smooth skin took on the fuzziness of thick hair. Mountain stock then. She should've guessed it by the pale colouring.
"You'll find climbing aboard my back easier than his," the other yelled over the muffled whumps of the silver dragon's wings. The very sound she'd heard earlier, though amplified a hundredfold.
Faster and faster they beat against the air, stirring up a great cloud of dust. Finally, Jaimin leapt into the sky. The gust of his wings hit Maay, rocking her backwards. She clung to the still-human form of the other, very much aware of the unobstructed drop to the courtyard lurking behind her.
Finally able to steady herself, she watched Jaimin as he circled the castle. Beyond the castle walls, the familiar low of cattle turned into a terrified bellow. As massive as he was, he still cut through the sky with a deadly grace. So powerful. Would he swoop down and pluck her from the very wall if she tried to flee? A shudder ran through her. Dare she risk it?
Sensing a large presence behind her, she turned to find the other dragon had already retaken his true form. Shuffling closer, he dropped his shoulder, offering his leg as a step up. Shaking, she clambered onto the wide, blue-grey back to settle between the large wings.
Maay closed her eyes as he started flapping, screaming when he finally lurched into the sky. All other sounds became lost to the wind blasting in her face. Its chillness burrowing into her skin and tugged at her skirts.
Flattening herself against the dragon's warm bulk, she clutched tightly to the thin hair and prayed she wouldn't be plucked from his back. Maay struggled to open her eyes, her efforts bringing naught but tears. Did she really want to see? She could be witnessing her descent to the unyielding earth that she knew now lay far below them.
This wasn't at all like how the ballads made flying sound.