Like what you see? Start at the beginning.
“And you’re sure they’re holding her here?” Gina asked. She pointed at a spot marked on the map. It was apparently the location of a warehouse in a neighboring city not far from where they were now. At least, they’d told her it was a city. Oversized town seemed more accurate.
“Seeing as how they didn’t specify a place for a meet, this is my best guess,” her uncle explained. “It’s the only location that they know we know about. Our last visit was rather, ah, unforgettable. There are other locations here and here,” he gestured, “that we think they occupy, but we can’t know for certain without investigating further. Of course, we don’t know that they’re actually keeping her at any of these. She could be anywhere at the moment.”
“Any luck with building plans? Blueprints? That sort of thing?”
“A little. We have the original blueprints that the developer submitted, but who knows how they’ve partitioned the space since then?”
Gina eyed the map with care and tapped one of the other places her uncle had pointed out. “Tell me about this one. This one’s close, right?”
“It’s a detached house that went up for auction a few years back. Old money fallen on hard times, that sort of thing. Anyway, a known dragon couple purchased it and renovated it. Judging by the low traffic in and out of the grounds, I think they really did intend it to be their new family home. They live there with a few others, possibly cousins or whatever passes for close family ties in dragon circles, and a small household staff. It doesn’t look like they’re very high up in dragon social circles. I suppose it’s possible they were sent here to spy on us, but we’ve seen no sign of it.”
“How likely is it that we could oust them and take over?”
“I don’t understand,” her uncle said. “What does this have to do with freeing your mother?”
“I’m not an idiot,” Gina explained. “If I walk into that warehouse, alone and unarmed, my mother and I are both as good as dead. So I’m not going to do that. Instead, we’ll draw them out.”
“There are only five of us, you realize,” her uncle said. “That’s not much of an army.”
Gina looked straight at her aunt. “Last time I checked, there were seven able bodies, if I include myself. My Aunt Claudia failed to remind me that she’s a crack shot with a bow, but I remember her participating in our archery practice sessions when I was a girl. And dear old grandfather used to entertain us with homemade fireworks. It’s a small step from that frivolity to bomb making, unless I miss my guess.”
There were some startled looks from the adults in the room, but before they could say anything, Daniel pushed his way into the group. Tristan was right behind him, looking appropriately apologetic and hurrying to grab his brother before he made a scene. He wasn’t fast enough. “What about me?” Daniel cried. His mother tried to soothe him, but he was adamant that he be heard.
“I haven’t forgotten you,” Gina reassured him, “but don’t you think someone should stay behind and guard the house in case the dragons take the opportunity to attack here while we’re gone? Nanna and grandfather would be here all alone if we let you came along.”
Daniel scrunched up his face, and for a moment it looked like he was going to protest again, but he muttered something that sounded like an agreement. He wasn’t an idiot and he knew what Gina was up to, but the pride of place of defending his home was not something that he would readily pass up. Gina was satisfied with what she saw. A little guilt, when properly applied, could work magic, and Daniel was not the sort to put anyone in danger if he could help it. He might not like it, but he’d do his duty.
“Maybe another time, all right?”
“All right,” Daniel agreed. He glanced up at his older brother and the two of them backed up to let their father through.
“I’ll need to know all the details before I commit to anything,” her uncle cautioned.
“Then I’ll need blueprints, building permits for the renovations, anything you can come up with,” Gina told him and her uncle nodded. He disappeared into the storeroom to find the papers she needed while she sipped at her tea and tried to work out all the eventualities. Most of her success would depend on doing the unexpected, annoying the dragons until they did something foolish that would leave them open to a proper attack. Thinking outside the box made her head hurt.
“I don’t suppose anyone can tell me more about this ‘Mother’ that all the dragons keep talking about,” she suggested aloud.
“The dragons operate as a series of clans and each clan is headed by a matriarch,” her aunt explained. “Dragon politics isn’t something that we know much about, but I can tell you that the dragon they refer to as Mother currently goes by the name Rosalyn Chase.”
Nanna nodded agreement and added, “The dragons that attacked us are part of one of the largest of these clans, encompassing most of the UK. Supposedly there are other clans on the continent, but we know even less about them. I suspect they keep to themselves and run their own affairs. Any authority Rosalyn has probably ends at the English channel.”
“We have no way of knowing if that’s her real name, of course, not that it matters,” her aunt said. “It’s probably only the last in a long line of names. Since dragons live so long, they frequently try to pass themselves off as descendants of themselves from time to time. They have enough clout these days that it’s easier to do that then to remember to change their appearances every so often. Easy enough to forge a birth certificate, anyway.”
“How easy would it be to get to Rosalyn?”
The two women exchanged glances and shrugged.
“I don’t think that’s ever been suggested before,” her uncle said. He walked in, carrying a large box full of papers for them to sort through. “She’s going to be under very close watch. She’ll be too valuable for them to lose.” He dropped it on the table with a thump and leaned back against the wall where he could face her.
“Then we’ll just have to find a way to lure her out into the open. My idea is that we’ll create a scenario too tempting for her to resist, something so innocuous that she’d feel safe leaving her home in order to crush me. Of course, the problem is that I’d have to be the bait. She’s already got one hostage. She’s unlikely to want to collect many more when one will do just as well.”
“An operation on that scale could take forever,” her uncle protested. “Not to mention it would be nearly impossible. You can’t project that level of incompetence and still succeed in your goals.”
“True, but I suspect she already thinks all my successes come from pure dumb luck. It wouldn’t be hard to convince her that all the fault lies in her own choice of henchmen. After all, the dragon that came after me the other night was the same one that came after my mother and me in New York, and I don’t think he was following orders when he tried to kill me either time. I think he was supposed to run in and get me out again in one piece. The second group of dragons was meant to be the backup plan, but it succeeded where the first kidnapping attempt fell apart. You must have noticed that they weren’t seriously trying to harm anyone, just distract us all long enough for them to get a man inside, to kidnap my mother and hold her hostage. Both failures can be attributed to one dragon, and he’s dead. In her mind, those failures couldn’t possibly be due to the limited amount of experience I do have. Rosalyn has every reason to expect her next ploy will succeed, and that I’ll try to come after her to rescue my mother. I’m just not a threat.”
“Do you realize what you’re saying? That she sent all those dragons to die just to get at you?” The look her grandfather was giving her now said it all. He thought she was nuts, and judging by the expression on the others’ faces, he wasn’t alone in that belief.
Gina rolled her eyes. “If Rosalyn really wanted you dead, she would have done something about it by now. Instead, she lets you run around killing off clan members and only puts up the barest of defenses against you. Why?”
“How should we know?” her grandfather barked. “Maybe our defenses are better than you give us credit for. We’ve been doing this for quite some time you know. I’ve been doing it since long before you were born.”
“And what defenses would those be? Oh, that’s right, you don’t have any. If you did, you could have stopped them from coming in and slaughtering everyone in sight all those years ago.”
She regretted her choice of words immediately, but there was nothing to do but freeze and hope that no one took a lunge at her. Every able body in the room was armed, she realized, and there was a tense moment as a few of them pushed their chairs back from the table, but the room lapsed back into silence and she let out her breath. It seemed she was going to survive that one. They were apparently willing to make allowances for their idiot cousin from the States.
“I hope you realize that you sound like a cold-hearted bitch right now,” Tristan muttered. “And I’m not just talking about that particularly tactless remark.”
“Watch your language, young man,” his mother snapped. Just about everyone turned to glare at him, but Gina held up a hand for silence.
“Explain,” she said.
Tristan only shrugged. “Well, you do. How long do you think Rosalyn will keep your mother alive if she thinks your mother’s no good as bait anymore?”
“You have a point,” Gina admitted. “And it’s killing me that I simply can’t go running after her to save her. Dead if I do, dead if I don’t.” Well, that could apply to either of them. “Look, if anyone here has the answers, don’t hold back,” she exclaimed. No one seemed to want to meet her eyes. Typical. Well, if no one had anything better in mind, she might as well keep on with her original plan. She looked down at the box of papers in front of her and paged through the contents. “Let’s move on to something easier then, shall we? Earth magic. That means alarm spells, traps on the grounds, and strong defensive magic with a lot of power behind it. That’s the bad news. But since you seem to feel that they’re not ranked especially high, we know their magic won’t be on par with what the higher ups might deal in. That means that any shields they put up will probably be easy enough to break. We’ll just need to find the weak spots and apply a little pressure.” She found the blueprints she wanted and laid them out where everyone could see them. A few quick pencil marks were enough to show where the power centers were probably rooted. “I suggest we do a little reconnaissance and see if we can find the holes in their perimeter. I think we can all agree that a full frontal assault would be suicide for us right now, unless we can get one of the other clans to help.”
She looked up to see how everyone was taking it, but all she got were blank stares. Her aunt was sheet white, a neat trick considering how pale she happened to be on a good day. She hoped they weren’t still angry with her. “What is it? If you think this won’t work, go ahead and tell me now.”
“You’d actually ask one of the other dragon clans for help?” Daniel asked, wide eyed in shock. “Why?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, if the other clans aren’t attacking us and since they don’t seem to particularly like Terra clan, it shouldn’t be that hard to convince them to help us out a little.” Gina looked around the room, trying to find a little support, but all she got were blank stares. In a quieter voice, she mumbled, “Well excuse me for not knowing any better.”
“That’s not precisely the problem,” her uncle tried to explain. “Look, you’re certainly more knowledgeable about dragons than I would have believed possible, considering that just a few days ago you claimed not to know a thing. So no, I wouldn’t say that it was because you ‘didn’t know any better.’”
“What? What’d I say?” Gina blurted out. “If this isn’t about asking the other dragons for help, then what is it? Just tell me. I don’t think I can take any more faux pas tonight.”
“Tell me a little more about earth magic,” her aunt suggested kindly. “Terra clan, did you say? Perhaps you can share some insight into the Aeris and Ignis clans as well.”
“Earth, air, and fire,” Gina murmured. “Of course.” She launched out of her seat and started pacing back and forth in the narrow space between the table and the kitchen.
Her aunt and uncle exchanged worried looks and leaned in to speak some quiet words with her grandparents. When they’d finished, her uncle said, “Georgina, who told you about earth magic? About any kind of magic? Because I was under the impression that you hadn’t heard about any of this before you came here. Is there something else you aren’t telling me? About life in New York?”
“Well, Nanna must have brought it up,” Gina said. “Or Aunt Claudia.” What did it matter who told it to her? She didn’t remember, herself, but she didn’t see the big deal about it.
Aunt Claudia and Nanna shook their heads. If anything, they seemed even more worried. “Why does it even matter?” Gina complained. “You know I’m right. Isn’t that the point?”
“Actually, we don’t.” Gina spun to find the source of the voice. It was her grandfather. She stared him down straight in the face, daring him to explain himself. To her great surprise, he actually flinched.
“When we said we didn’t know anything about dragon magic, that wasn’t to mislead you or to stop you from asking questions about it. We really don’t know. Now you’re telling us that the fairy tales about the three clans are actually true? That they’re divided by the type of magic they use? That this earth magic has specific strengths and weaknesses?”
“Yes, as I said, earth, air, and fire. You’re telling me that none of you knew this?” Silence. “Then who told me about it? It’s not like I could just pull this stuff from thin air.”
Everyone in the room turned as one to look at her aunt. The woman glanced around and shrugged. “She’s not lying,” her aunt said. Gina glared at the room. Of course she wasn’t lying. Some tiny corner of her mind was starting to worry that something had gone horribly wrong.
“Miles, iure iurando teneris, nomen quid?” her aunt asked.
“Mea nomen ‘Georgina Mallory’ est. Hoc scitis.” The words rolled off her tongue without hesitation, but she almost choked as she realized that her aunt hadn’t been speaking in English. Neither had she, but she’d understand it perfectly. What was it she’d said? Knight, you bound by oath, what is your name? Great, just great. We can add speaking in tongues to my resume of weird, she thought. “Was that Latin?”
“Yes, but you apparently accent yours differently. Interesting.” Her aunt seemed to have proven her point, seeing as how she flashed her husband a smug smile. He hardly could have noticed, seeing as how his eyes were glued to Gina’s face. Whatever he saw in her eyes seemed to scare him. It gave her a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. This was a man she was beginning to really look up to and trust, a man that her father had probably turned to for advice in times of hardship. And he was looking at her as if he’d found a monster in their midst.
“Maybe what that dragon had to say wasn’t gibberish after all,” Jason said softly. Terry nodded agreement, but it was very slight and he colored when Gina’s eyes turned to meet his. His weak smile did little to cheer her sour mood. They’d been so quiet, she’d forgotten they were even in the room. Perhaps they hadn’t, and she’d somehow overlooked their entrance.
“To answer your original question, about whether or not we could ally with one of the other dragon clans, the answer is that we don’t know. Dragon politics aren’t broadcast in the mundane world for us mere mortals to follow, but I’ve come to suspect that what you call Terra clan is at war with some unknown force. Your uncle has come to share in this belief with me, and our continued survival seems to support our theory. As you said yourself, it’s strange that we’ve been alone so long. Surely they would have come back by now to clean up the mess. We’ve never met anyone from the Aeris or Ignis clans. We’ve only heard of them second hand, from stories so old that we thought they were the dragon world’s version of fairy tales and children’s stories.” Her grandfather’s steady voice was a calming one. He wasn’t going to let any of these little oddities distract him from the matter at hand. There was a lesson to be learned there.
Gina was glad of the distraction, but the news hit her hard. “From five clans to just one?” she commented. She hadn’t realized how times had changed. How times have changed? What am I even thinking? Her brain screeched to a halt. She’d caught a glimpse of something intangible, some half-forgotten memory. Was this part of what it meant to be the Knight?
“There are more than three?” her aunt asked. Her brows were furrowed, her lips taut. “How many clans are there?”
“There used to be five clans, earth, fire, air, water, and spirit,” Gina managed. She’d lost them again, she realized, as she looked out at a sea of blank faces. It was hard to remember what she was supposed to know and what she shouldn’t. It all felt as real and solid as anything she’d ever known her entire life. Perhaps that blow to her head had dislodged more than it should. Or maybe the trauma really was causing her to imagine these things. But she’d healed it, right? She wished she could be sure that her earlier headache had nothing to do with this. She wished her mother was there to reassure her. Her mother would know the right words to say.
“Then what happened to water and spirit?” Nanna asked. “Or fire and air, for that matter? The only clan we ever see, apparently, is Terra clan.”
“Well, I think we all know what happened to the water clan, but spirit’s been missing for ages. Animus, that was what they were called. I remember now. Animus might be in hiding.” Gina said absentmindedly. “If Aeris and Ignis are in that much trouble, it shouldn’t be hard to bring them to see reason. It’s long past time to remind them of promises broken and blood spilt. But Terra, that’s a different problem entirely. I don’t see how they’ll get out of it this time.” She was hardly paying attention to what she was saying at this point. She was too wrapped up in trying to solve her inner dilemmas.
More looks were exchanged and Gina was starting to lose her patience. All of this was painfully obvious. Why couldn’t they see it?
“Why? What happened to water?” Terry asked.
“Aqua, you mean,” Gina corrected him. They were stuck on that?
“Fine. What happened to the Aqua clan?”
“You’re looking at it,” Gina said.
It was a crisp autumn day and the sky was that odd blue gray haze, the sort that was not quite cloudy and not quite clear, but some subtle blend of both. Fortunately, the sun took away the worst of the chill. She didn’t even really need a jacket, though her aunt had somehow managed to magic one onto her before pushing her out the door. She surveyed the yard from the doorway, looking straight out across the yard and into the fields and woods beyond. She was careful not to look down into the garden, lest she be faced with the evidence of the attack so soon. The leaves were changing colors rapidly now, past reds and yellows and into brown, and there wasn’t a green leaf left in sight. She took a slow deep breath, letting that cool dry air into her lungs. This was the kind of air that made you feel alive, nothing like the air back home, full of car exhaust and God knows what else. It braced her against the sight in front of her, the one she was trying so hard to avoid.
Now that it was daylight, even three days after the fact, the evidence of the attack was everywhere she looked. It was there in every crushed plant, in every every bent or shattered post of the once tidy fence, and in the bare patches of dirt that had once been covered with lush grass. The thought that if she looked too closely she might see the remains of the dragons they killed brought her head back up with a jerk. She didn’t regret that she hadn’t been there to help dispose of the bodies. She wasn’t normally squeamish about blood, but it was different, somehow, when she knew she was to blame. It wasn’t as if she’d made a habit of it. Bruises and scrapes were a far cry from a sword thrust to the heart.
She pushed off the doorstep, letting the door slam behind her, and stepped across the yard in just a few strides. She had it in mind to head for the forest on the other side of the lane, to let her feet guide her path. Distance was the important thing now. Just thinking about the attack had set her mind on fire, and it was becoming hard to think. Something about the shade up ahead told her that she’d find peace there. She was halfway there when a crack in the grass behind her stopped her in her tracks. She spun around just in time to see Tristan coming up behind her. He wasn’t looking at the sights, but scouring the horizon, one hand on his sword hilt. He looked a little nervous, but when he caught her looking at him, he put on what he probably thought was his most serious face. It looked ridiculous on him, more of a pout than a manly scowl.
She waited until he’d caught up and pried his hand loose from the hilt with an effort. He’d been gripping that sword for dear life. “I liked you better when you were a little more carefree,” she told him. “This new side of you is coming across as a little forced.”
He glared at her, but when she let go of his hand, he let it drop to his side. “I could have gotten us killed messing around. I nearly got you killed, didn’t I?”
“You were hardly ‘messing around,’” Gina protested. “And besides, it wasn’t your fault that the yard was too small. So what if the dragon toppled into my path? He was easy enough to dispatch and he worked well as a way to buy me some space.”
“I meant after that,” Tristan mumbled.
Gina had to think hard. The pain surprised her, and she had to stop from putting a hand up to feel if the gash had reappeared. Things were still a little jumbled in her head, and she was only just starting to put the pieces back in order. “Wait, you mean when I pulled you out of the way?” she asked at last.
“But that’s why I was able to hit him!” Gina exclaimed. “He overreached trying to get you. You were the perfect distraction.”
“Really?” Tristan asked. He blinked once in surprise, perhaps expecting it to be a joke, but when he saw that she really meant it, he noticeably brightened and stood a little straighter. Under other circumstances, he might not have been that happy about being relegated to decoy, but Gina realized that he needed this reassurance in whatever form it took. If it was a small one, at least it was more believable to his ears.
When she started for the forest again, he ran up to join her and they walked side by side, him with new confidence, her with a new found hesitation to her step. Far from being a nuisance, she had reason to be grateful for his company. A tiny corner in the back of her brain wasn’t so sure that this had been the best idea. There really wasn’t anything to stop the dragons from coming back to finish the job, and if she and Tristan were out here all by their lonesome, they’d be easy to pick off with no one the wiser. Little by little, the trees sprung up around them until they were in the forest proper, and she found herself pulled by some dim memory to a forgotten path buried beneath the leaves. There were parts of the forest around here that never got any real sunlight, and she had a feeling that it would be nearly impossible to navigate safely in the dark. It was cooler, too, and she hugged her jacket closer around her chest. A set of hat and gloves would not go amiss right now. She was about to call a halt and retrace their steps when their path took them into a familiar clearing. There, high up in the branches of an ancient oak tree, were the remains of an old tree house.
“I remember this,” Gina murmured. She ran to the base of the tree and clambered up the side, careful not to put her weight on the rope ladder still swinging enticingly from the branches. There was no telling what damage the years had done to it. She reached the sturdy branch that the tree house rested on in no time at all and perched next to it so that she could peer into the tree house’s windows in relative safety. The wood seemed sound, but she had reason to fear that the extra weight she carried around with her these days might do irreparable harm to its dainty construction. She smiled down at Tristan, still standing there on the ground and waved at him happily. It really wasn’t that high up after all, and she was fairly certain she could leap down from here without a problem. It had seemed so much higher when she was a girl. It was funny how a little change like gaining a few inches could rearrange her perceptions.
“Do you remember when our dads made this?” she yelled down happily.
“Of course I do,” Tristan shouted back. “They argued over the plans for days.”
“And then my mum made us picnic baskets full of snacks for us to pull up with a rope. We’d sit up here for hours and play.” Gina reached through the window and pulled out a small wooden box. Inside were all her old treasures, carefully wrapped just the way she’d left them. Little pieces of cloth, pebbles that she’d thought looked pretty, tin soldiers and a handful of feathers. She looked at Tristan in surprise. “I can’t believe this is still here.”
“After you left, no one wanted to play in the tree fort anymore. Jason and Terry were getting too old for it anyway, at that point, and I didn’t feel like playing by myself. Daniel was only a baby then.”
The sunlight streamed down to warm her face, and the dappled light played about the fallen leaves on the ground below. The peace she felt here was nearly overwhelming in its power. Already, most of the stress was ebbing away, as well as most of the pain.
“Are you going to stay up there?” Tristan asked. “I can’t climb trees, or I’d join you.”
Gina eyed the ground and made her leap. She was feeling rather bold today, and there was no time like the present to test her theories. The shock of her landing as she hit the ground stung a little, but she shook it off and grinned at Tristan’s startled face. “You live on a manor in the English countryside, surrounded by thousands of trees and you can’t climb any of them? Tristan, this is terrible news. How did this happen?”
“Do you have a lot of trees in the city?” he shot back. “I seem to recall that you weren’t always so comfortable with heights.”
Gina winced. It was true. Getting her up in the tree house at all the first time had been a real team effort, and she’d only been able to tolerate it by carefully avoiding the windows. Over time, she’d gotten bolder about it, but the fear had never completely subsided. Until now. She looked up at the tree house in disbelief. She’d jumped down from that height? What had she been thinking? And where had she learned to climb trees? There weren’t that many to be found in the middle of a city, after all, unless she counted Central Park, and her mother had never taken her there.
“I think I’d better keep on the ground from here on out,” she said, a little shaky now. Her head was aching something fierce again, this time threatening to turn into a full blown migraine. She hoped she hadn’t managed to reopen the gash on her head with all her leaping about. She concentrated on the source of the pain and willed it away. For the most part, it seemed to work, until she was left with a dull throb.
“Yes, perhaps you had. Mother will kill me if I let anything happen to you.”
“So you are babysitting me,” Gina said. She waited to see if he’d deny it, but when he didn’t, she let it slide. She’d expected as much, anyway, and he didn’t show any signs of resenting the task. She was glad of a little company now and again, and he made a pleasant companion.
She picked up a branch and swung it experimentally. It broke apart in a shower of splinters when it hit the oak tree and she found herself rummaging through the undergrowth for something a little sturdier. She found a good stout lump of wood that she thought would do the trick, but halfway through the thought, her mind froze and she dropped it again as though it burned her hands. She’d been looking for a weapon, she realized. She pushed the thought out of her mind, but she was already planning alternative strategies. It’s seven paces to the rope ladder, she thought, and there’s a rock behind my foot with a good heft to it. When she realized what she was doing, she stopped and jammed her hands in her pockets. It was eerie the way things were going today. She kept finding herself doing things before she even had a chance to properly think about it, but maybe it was a normal reaction under the circumstances. She’d been attacked twice, both in places that she’d thought were safe. Was she over thinking the problem? Maybe she just needed to let her mind wander and do what it wanted for a while. She kicked at a pile of leaves and watched them float in the breeze before they settled again at her feet. At least the scenery was peaceful enough.
“What do you do for fun around here?” she asked, hoping for an easy distraction to the buzzing in her brain. Stop plotting ways to take him out, she scolded herself. That’s your cousin you’re thinking about.
Tristan shrugged. “Not much. We don’t have a telly or anything like that, and mum and dad never really encouraged us to have any friends from the outside. We play board games sometimes after dinner, or do picture puzzles. I read a lot and help Daniel with his projects or his homework. Nanna saved quite a few books from the fire, so I study those when I get the chance.”
Gina made a face. She wasn’t the quiet sit at home type, and she read too fast to find books very entertaining. She couldn’t even remember doing a jigsaw puzzle before, and she and her mother weren’t really the board game type. “No offense, but that all sounds incredibly boring.”
“So what did you do back in New York?” Tristan asked.
Gina tried to think back. There wasn’t really much that she’d considered “fun.” She and her mother had played a fair amount of cribbage, and a little poker on the side with some of the others in the apartment complex, but that was mostly to pass the time. Did chess count as a board game? She’d played a little in the after school program in middle school. She’d been decent enough at it, but she doubted that her fellow students had made the most challenging opponents, and she hadn’t kept it up. “I rode my bike, went for runs around the local park, caught a movie or two when it hit the theaters. Sometimes I watched TV. You know, that sort of thing.” She shuffled her feet through the leaves and listened to the pleasant rustling sound it made. She was not envisioning how easy it would be to use them to trip an opponent. She wasn’t. Honest. She had to keep him talking, to keep herself distracted if nothing else.
“Did you leave behind a lot of friends?”
“That depends on your definition of friends. There were a lot of kids I looked after, but most of them were younger than me. I don’t make friends easily with kids my own age. I found most of them very foolish, and I think they knew how I felt.”
“That sounds lonely,” Tristan said. “That just leaves you and your mum.”
“Is it any lonelier than being cooped up here?” Gina asked. “At least I had my mother, and not all my teachers were horrible, just very demanding. Apparently they thought I was a bit of a problem child, too smart for my own good and too lazy to apply myself. There was always at least one teacher every year that thought he or she would be the one to make me see the light. I had a lot of fun breaking them in.”
“You? Lazy? I don’t believe it. You’ve thrown yourself into everything my parents sent your way with hardly a second thought.”
Gina shook her head. “You can’t count simple self preservation. I can pull my act together if it’s life or death, but back home, just getting by was hard enough. Your mum’s right, you know, about me and school. I got it into my head that good grades would get me singled out and bullied. Stupid, right? Like anyone was going to look past my thorny exterior long enough to notice anything else. I mean, c’mon, I was the one that went stalking around the school and trouncing all those bullies in the first place. On the other hand, my teachers had this crazy idea that just because I was smart, I should put my brains to something useful. Makes you wonder what they’d think of me now. I doubt this is what they had in mind.”
“I guess so.” Tristan didn’t appear to be convinced. He had that familiar look to him, the one she saw every time she rescued some kid back home. Hero worship. Great.
Gina decided to switch gears. She had a sudden urge to throw him off balance and try and put a backbone into him, and she knew just the way to do it. “I couldn’t help but notice that your archery got much better once your uncle and your brothers went back to the house after our practice. So good, in fact, that I have to wonder if you aren’t the best of the bunch after all, no matter how good Jason might be with a bow. What’s that about? Don’t want to be singled out?”
“That’s completely different,” Tristan protested. He looked away, but not before she saw his face turn bright red. She didn’t need that to tell that she was on the right track.
“Is it, now. Sounds pretty lazy to me.”
Tristan’s eyes flashed, but she cut him off before he could say a word. “Let’s see. I think I know how this one goes. I don’t know if I could stand being second best at something I loved and know I’d never get better no matter how hard I tried. Does that sound at all familiar?” Tristan stared at her open mouthed and she knew she was on the right track. “Well, that’s not going to be you, at least not for long. Look, your brother’s an amazing archer. I’d almost believe he could do that blind folded, but when I saw him fight last night, I realized that he can’t adapt. Twice, he almost got himself killed because the dragon facing him fought in a way that Jason wasn’t expecting. He was defending against blows that never came or stepping into attacks he never saw coming. I bet he has the same problem when bow shooting.”
Tristan didn’t seem pleased at the slights she made against Jason, but he didn’t actually try to cut her off. Maybe he was actually listening to what she had to say. Or maybe he was too mad or too stunned to come up with a proper come back. She had a feeling she knew what the most likely scenario was. At least mad was better than that pathetic puddle he’d tried to turn into just a short time ago. Gina rolled her eyes and started walking back the way they’d come, forcing Tristan to hurry after her. “Promise me you’ll actually try next time we practice, and I promise you that I’ll try paying attention in class for once if I ever get back to Mrs. Mercer’s twelfth grade science class, but that’s my best offer. The rest of my teachers can go to hell.”
Tristan licked his lips and stuck his own hands in his pockets. “Mum says that you saved my brother’s life. You saved mine anyway.”
Gina glanced at him in surprise. Why was he bringing this up now? “You don’t have to worry that I might think you leaked my secret,” Gina assured him. “Your father is a very suspicious man. Fortunately for your brother, he was right.” She must have guessed correctly, because the rest of the tension he’d been carrying with him seemed to fade away.
They came to the edge of the forest more quickly than she’d thought possible, and she picked up speed again, heading directly for the cottage. She hoped that she’d dealt with whatever was eating Tristan. She had business to attend to, after all, and some fresh ideas to discuss. If the dragons thought she’d lie down at their feet and die, they had another thing coming.
“She’s awake,” Daniel yelled.
“Ow, ow, owwww,” Gina muttered. Her head hurt something fierce and her body felt like a giant bruise. She rolled over, half asleep and pulled a pillow over her head. “Go away,” she mumbled, then again in a louder voice when she sensed he hadn’t moved.
A second set of footsteps told her that someone else had entered the room. She tried to block it all out, but the pillow was pulled away from her and a pair of strong hands rolled her onto her back again. She tried to see who it was, but the sunlight coming through the window temporarily blinded her.
“You’re doing better,” her aunt said happily. “I wasn’t sure if you’d ever wake up, not after hitting the counter like that.” She gestured at her head. “You lost a lot of blood.”
Gina reached around to feel the back of her head, prodding with care to find where it was the most tender. Apparently her headache had a physical cause. There was a bandage there, but even brushing it with her fingertips sent lancing streaks of pain into her head. The bandage felt clean and dry, but she could tell her hair was a mess of matted blood. “What happened?”
“You passed out and fell backwards into the kitchen counter. The corner juts out a bit there and it’s pretty sharp.”
Gina pushed herself up a little further and slumped against the headboard. She wasn’t in the bed she’d been in last night. Another glance out the window made her question that. It certainly wasn’t nighttime anymore. Had it been two nights ago? “What time is it? How long have I been out?” Daniel was sitting on his hands in a chair in the corner, eying her every move with eyes like saucers. Whatever she’d done, it had certainly impressed him.
“Well, it’s just after noon,” her aunt said, “but I think you meant to ask what day it is.”
Gina stared at her aunt. “Why?” she asked slowly. “Tell me, how long have I been in bed?”
“You’ve been out cold for three days since the attack, making it nearly a week since you came to us.”
Gina was about to ask what attack the woman meant, but her mind was starting to work again and it all came back to her in a jumbled mess. The only thing she didn’t remember was hitting her head. “What did I do to my head?”
“I told you that already,” her aunt explained. “You hit it after you passed out. Are you sure you’re feeling alright? Maybe I should let you go back to bed.”
“I’m feeling fine,” Gina insisted. “When did I pass out?”
“After you, um, caught on fire. You did something I couldn’t make out, standing over Daniel, and then you toppled over. My husband claims you healed my son.”
Gina yelped and sat up so fast she nearly fell out of bed. “I caught on fire?” she yelled. Abruptly, she could remember healing Daniel, and succeeding apparently, from the looks of him, but she thought she would have noticed if she had actually caught on fire. She looked down at her arms, the only part of her not buried in the mountain of blankets and comforters strewn across the bed, and sighed in relief. She’d been ready to find them covered in burns or worse, but there wasn’t a mark on them, not even a scratch. There wasn’t any blood, either. Someone had cleaned her before putting her to bed.
“Careful, you’ll open your wound,” her aunt cautioned her. She tried to make Gina lay back down, but Gina fought her way out of the covers and launched to her feet. She’d already lost three days, and she didn’t want to make it a fourth. Her mother had been kidnapped, and she needed to find a way to get her back.
“I think I want to take a shower now and get the rest of the blood out of my hair,” she announced. Her stomach grumbled loudly and she made a face at it. The last real meal she’d eaten had been breakfast the day of the attack.
“Are you sure you’re up to it?” Her aunt sounded skeptical, but Gina was getting better at reading what her body was telling her, and what her body was telling her was that she was on the mend. She peeled the bandage off and handed it to her aunt. She didn’t have to feel her head to know the wound was gone. Just like the bruises that had been on her arms and legs. It really was possible to get used to anything, she decided.
“You can check if you like, but there’s nothing there.”
Her aunt made her sit on the bed while her fingers pored over Gina’s scalp. “I suppose you’re right,” she said doubtfully. “Is there anything you actually need me to do?”
“Well, I am kind of hungry,” Gina admitted.
Her aunt laughed, probably remembering how loudly Gina’s stomach had complained just now. “Then I’ll go make you something to eat. If you need anything, anything at all, you let me know.” She tugged at Daniel’s hand and pulled him with her, closing the door behind them.
Gina looked around more carefully. By the looks of it, this was probably her aunt and uncle’s bedroom. There was a shower stall waiting in the adjacent bathroom, along with a pile of clean towels and a change of clothes. The sight cheered her greatly. Such ordinary things were a treat in these hectic times.
She turned the faucet as far as it would go and waited for the water to heat up. When it was good and hot, she stepped into it and stood there, just letting it wash over her. Her last aches and pains were fading, and the heat from the shower did wonders to help ease sore muscles. She gently eased her fingers through her tangled hair, loosening up knots between her fingers and massaging the shampoo into her scalp until the mats of blood dissolved. She had new reasons to be grateful that she’d cut her hair so short that summer. When dry, it hung loose just below her ears. Attempts to grow it long had ended in disaster since it had a nasty habit of steadily transforming itself into a bird’s nest once it passed below her shoulders.
Her shower done, she combed out the worst of the tangles and left it alone to dry. Then she slipped on the clothes her aunt had left her and followed her nose into the kitchen where her aunt was serving a late breakfast. Everyone was there waiting for her, and she felt strangely shy as she slipped through the door. They’d left an empty spot at the head of the table for her mother, she realized, but she was swiftly directed to take a seat in the middle, surrounded by friendly faces. It was a welcome surprise, as she’d expected everyone to be about their business elsewhere around the grounds. The noise and the clamor was quite a change from the grim seriousness that had pervaded the room
“I’m so glad you’re up and about,” her uncle said kindly. “We were so worried about you.”
“Thanks for saving my life,” Daniel said. He’d arranged it so that he was sitting next to her, and he leaned over as he spoke to give her a fierce hug. She returned the gesture and smiled down at him, and for a moment at least, they remained glued to each other’s side.
“Of course, it was nothing, no trouble at all,” she told him. She gave him an extra squeeze before disentangling herself.
“That’s not the first time something like that happened,” her uncle said. “You knew what you were doing.”
“They slit my mother’s throat when they attacked us in New York,” she admitted.
“I suspected something like that must have happened. Not that she had her throat slit, obviously, but you were too quiet about the whole thing, and it seemed unlikely that both of you would have escaped completely unscathed.” He touched his head to gesture at where her bandage had been. “You’re all right now? You gave us quite a scare, especially when your heart and lungs apparently decided to up and quit on you.”
“He kept pounding away on your chest like a madman until you started breathing again.” The sudden small voice in her ear startled her, but it was just her aunt, bending over her to set a place at the table. Funny how her aunt had left out that part. She touched her chest by instinct, feeling for the bruise that should be there. It was gone of course, along with any evidence of its passing.
“Yes. Once I woke up, everything sorted itself out rather quick.” She shuddered at the memory. The tingling sensation that she was starting to associate with healing wasn’t a pleasant one. If she were pressed, the best she could do would be to describe it as a sensation of bugs crawling across her skin. “I’m still getting used to the idea. I’ve gotten hurt plenty of times over the years. I even broke my arm in the sixth grade. But I’ve never had anything like this ever happen to me. It’s almost as if it was tucked away out of reach and then suddenly got blasted wide open.” She shrugged and slouched a little further down in her seat. She’d said more than she’d intended to about the subject, but judging from what little they’d said about the gift of Heart over the past week, they didn’t understand it much better than she did now.
Her aunt was putting out food now, plates stacked high with sausages, bacon, eggs, and toast. There was a pot of marmalade already making the rounds and two large teapots on the way. Definitely a step up from the cereal her aunt had served last time.
“What’s the occasion?” Gina asked.
“It’s our usual Sunday feast,” her aunt explained. “I tried to make you pancakes, since I know you used to like them, but I’m afraid they didn’t come out too well.”
“This is more than enough,” Gina reassured her. She took a cautious sniff. Hidden beneath the delicious smells wafting up in front of her, she thought she could detect the slightest hint of burnt…something. Her mother had told her once that the pancake god was a cruel master, and the memory of it made her smile. No doubt her mother had meant it to reassure her daughter, but it hadn’t seemed very funny at the time, not when most of Gina’s cooking experiments throughout the years had ended up in smoke or worse. No one she’d met had ever made the mistake of eating her cooking twice.
Her aunt, it seemed, was far more competent in the kitchen. Pancake disaster aside, there was plenty of food to choose from, so Gina piled her plate high and dug in with relish. The first bite was heaven, the second was even better, and the conversation trailed off while everyone ate their fill in near silence. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who’d brought their appetite. The food went fast, but just when she thought she might burst at the seams, her aunt produced a tray of scones and danishes that she’d been hiding under a tea towel. Everyone groaned aloud and complained that they were stuffed, but there wasn’t a person at the table who didn’t grab at least one.
“Dad, what’s the sworn soul of the covenant?” Daniel asked. Gina gave him a sharp look, but he was busy pushing around what was left of his eggs with a piece of toast.
“Where did you hear that?” his father replied. His voice was casual, but his shoulders had tensed.
Daniel rolled his eyes. “I asked you about it three times now, but you keep putting me off. You said I had to wait until Georgina was awake. Well, she’s awake now and I really want to know. It was all the dragon that attacked me would talk about. He took Georgina’s mum hostage right away, but he kept mumbling about it or something like it under his breath. I didn’t really understand all of it, because most of it was in Latin, but that’s not the point. What is it?”
Gina had a feeling that nothing bothered Daniel so much as an unanswered question or an unexplained mystery. He’d been the one spending all his free time trying to decipher the artifacts the dragons had left behind, after all. Poor kid. She hoped he’d have a chance to continue his education further than his brothers had. A glance at her uncle confirmed her suspicions that he was going to try and deflect the question again. Well, she wasn’t about to let him get away with that, but maybe he needed a little coaxing first. Something a little easier, perhaps.
“I have a question too,” Georgina announced. “If the dragons can cast all this horrible magic, why weren’t they using any of it last night? I’m not counting the spell the survivor used to escape. He could have left at any time, but he obviously wanted to give me a message first.”
“I’ll answer Georgina’s question first,” her uncle told Daniel. “Unless you want to do the honors.”
“That’s easy. Dragons can only cast spells with a lot of preparation or by making direct physical contact,” Daniel explained.
“And?” her uncle prompted.
Daniel stared blankly at his dad. “And what?”
“You’re missing the other part.”
“Umm, oh yeah! Most of their spells are illusion based, so the gift of Sight makes us immune to them. It’s possible they had already cast some spells on themselves before they came, but we didn’t notice.”
“Good,” her uncle said. “That’s the gist of it.”
“What about my question?” Daniel complained. If Uncle Charles thought he’d distract his son that easily, he didn’t know him very well.
“It sounds familiar, like I’ve read it or heard it somewhere, but I can’t place it exactly,” her uncle admitted. “Did he say anything else about it? Was there any context?”
“Well, he did mention something about the knight reborn,” her aunt chimed in. “I overheard him too.”
Gina looked up at her in surprise. “He told me that I was the knight reborn. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.”
“When was that?” her uncle asked.
“That’s what he was babbling about when he came out of the house. That was right about when he walked up to me, dragging my mother with him, and fed me some more nonsense about remembering my name for all of time. Honestly, I’m not sure that I would take anything he said very seriously. He didn’t seem quite right in the head.” She had to fight to keep her voice steady.
“Unfortunately, most of them are like that all the time,” her uncle said, “So we can’t assume that the level of his enthusiasm will determine whether he said anything useful.” He glanced over at his son and smiled apologetically. “Daniel, I want you to know that I didn’t just sit on this. I brushed you off because I wasn’t ready to give you an answer, and I was hoping Georgina could give us some more clues. I checked what’s left of the family records. No mention of any ‘sworn souls’ and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t anything in there about the ‘Knight Reborn’ either. Harold, Diane, do you know anything about it?”
Gina looked over at her grandparents. They hadn’t said much at all to her since she’d come down, just sat there quietly and passed her the butter when she asked for it. Now they looked worried. Her grandfather shook his head firmly, but Nanna looked thoughtful. She put a finger to her lips andrested it there
“It’s got a familiar ring, but I can’t place it,” the woman admitted. She looked at Charles and smiled sadly. “It was something your brother told me when I asked him why the dragons were suddenly trying to make peace. Apparently there was some dragon prophesy that insisted they make peace with the Knight or perish. They were a little light on the details, but they apparently thought Gregory was the Knight. I guess they weren’t in agreement on it, or they wouldn’t have made that attack.”
“Or maybe they thought it would be easier to make peace with a dead man,” a voice muttered. Gina barely glanced at the source. Her grandfather was apparently back to his usual dour mood. She doubted the man remembered how to smile.
“I have a few books on draconic traditions and history, most very old and rather cryptic,” Nanna told Gina. “I’ll try to see what I can find out for you, but I make no promises.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Gina said. “I mean, if this knight reborn business is really meant to be me, then I guess I need to find out everything I can and fast. I understand the part about three times blessed, assuming the three blessings are the three gifts you keep trying to convince me I have, but what does it mean to be a slave to the hand of fate?”
“He said that too?” her uncle asked.
“Yeah. Sorry if I left that out, but like I said, it came out sounding like a bunch of nonsense.” She would have said more, but the sight of her mother’s face, filled with dread, flashed before her eyes and her voice caught in her throat. What if her mother was already dead?
“Are you ready to talk about the rest of what happened?” her aunt asked gently.
Gina’s face fell. She’d talked around it every which way, trying to avoid the most important piece of all. Her mother was gone, kidnapped by some inhuman creature, and she’d let the bastard get away. “He was six inches from my face, half a foot, and I let him get away. I just stood there and let it happen. I should have stopped him.”
“And risk your mother’s life? You know how fast they can move. Even with this healing gift of yours, he could have found a way to make sure she wouldn’t come back, and I doubt that even you could heal death.” Her uncle was frustratingly matter of fact, as always. His level headed advice and reassurances would have been welcome under most circumstances, but this was too raw for her to deal with just now.
“He was mocking me! He could have vanished without a trace at any time, but he waited until he could nearly whisper in my ear before he did so.”
“Apparently, it’s not as much fun if they can’t get a rise out of you,” someone said. Maybe it was her. She was too distracted to tell.
“It’s a little stuffy in here,” Gina announced. “I think I’d like to take a walk.” It was a lame attempt to change the subject, and the sympathetic looks and the pity were a little overwhelming, but if she didn’t get out of here soon, she’d be an emotional puddle. She hadn’t made up her mind whether to feel angry, guilty, or depressed yet. Maybe all three.
“We can talk about it later, then,” her aunt reassured her. “But take Tristan with you. He can give you a tour of the grounds and take your mind off things for a bit. You could use the fresh air.”
Tristan had been sitting quietly with the twins, probably hoping to fade into the background lest his parents shoo him out of the room like they had the first day Gina had arrived. He perked up when he heard his name called and flashed Gina a smile. “Sure, I’d be happy to help.” His face said it all. He’d been waiting for such an excuse to prove himself. She couldn’t really turn down the offer, not when he looked so eager. If she turned him down, he might even take it personally.
“Well, all right then,” Gina muttered. “Tristan can come.”
“Then it’s settled. I’ll expect the two of you for dinner and not a moment sooner.”
The effect was immediate. An answering shout erupted from behind her and she could hear the sounds of pounding feet. Her reinforcements, she hoped. Let them be armed, she prayed. The dragons had stopped their advance mid stride, watching her every breath with wary eyes. The dragons were afraid of her, she realized. Why? Her uncle’s muffled curse from behind her back let her know that he’d sized up the situation pretty accurately, but she didn’t dare turn to look. They were still fanned out in front of her. Six sets of eyes. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Claudia, hold the kitchen. Take Daniel and Maria with you,” he bellowed.
From the sounds behind her, Gina had to assume that her aunt was doing as she was told. The silence was deafening. The slightest creak sounded like a gunshot. Then came a whisper at her ear. “Can you fight?” the voice asked, “Or are you going to just sit there and wait for your turn to die?”
Gina whirled to face the source, ready to tongue lash him, but she stopped short, poised on the balls of her feet. She’d gotten to her feet somehow, but that wasn’t important. It was the source of the voice that surprised her. She’d expected her uncle. It was her cousin Jason, and there was something he was keeping hidden in his hands. She looked down to see what it was. He was holding out a short sword, hilt facing her. She stared at it, unwilling to accept what it was that he was offering her. “You’ll be unarmed,” she protested just as quietly.
He patted his waist. Under his coat, she thought she could catch the gleam of another blade. Of course. Her uncle must keep spare weapons in the house for just this occasion. She took it reluctantly, holding it well away from her. If this went the way she thought it might, well, let’s just say that she had new reasons to hope that her father’s family had the right of it after all. Nothing short of a miracle was going to get her out of this alive.
“Why so serious? So grim? So dark in purpose with swords outstretched?” the man in center— no, the dragon— called out. She’d fought accepting any and all parts of the so called family gifts, but she was not about to stare down those sickly yellow eyes in that moment and claim that the men in front of them were ordinary human beings. He wasn’t human, none of them were. The truth of that hit her like a blow to the chest. It wasn’t just the eyes, either, but they way they stood, the way they held themselves so still, even the way their words passed their lips, as if they’d traveled a very long way to reach her ears. She was sure they weren’t breathing quite right. Her eyesight could tell her that much, at least. “Do you greet all your dinner guests with weapons drawn?” he called out again.
“Your kind aren’t welcome here,” her uncle spat. He’d moved to block the path, keeping Gina and his sons behind him.
The dragon looked past him to rest his eyes squarely on Gina’s face. “You have something of ours, something that we want.” No mistake about it, then, not at this distance. This was the dragon that had attacked her in New York. The others had his eyes, but their faces differed. She’d been afraid that they all looked the same. It was easier, somehow, realizing that they were individuals.
“The girl doesn’t belong to you. Walk away, dragon. I’m not afraid of your kind.” Her uncle drew his sword to punctuate his words and held it at the ready.
Beside her, Gina could sense her cousins doing the same. Without even thinking about it, she copied their movements. Five of them versus six dragons, six that she could see. Maybe more. Six more? “There’s twelve of them,” she blurted out without thinking. “I can feel the others.” The certainty of it filled her, driving away the pain of her skinned knees and the blinding headache that had threatened to consume her. Her knees were mending, the headache almost gone. She’d broken through their spell, or whatever it had been.
The dragon’s eyes bored into hers. “Cute. I’d heard a little of these gifts of yours, Drachbene brat. You tried to gut my brother with his own sword. You got lucky then, you won’t get lucky twice.” His face was hard, but there was the tiniest of creases in his forehead to show his fear. Fear of her, she realized. They outnumbered her and her family two to one and he was scared. She could almost smell it on him. “Give me the girl. I’ll even let you keep the mother if you want. She was only bait, after all, and I can be a forgiving man. We can let the little matter of what you’ve been up to slide. Murdering dragons of the blood like common criminals.” He shuddered delicately at the thought. “An amnesty for all those ready to turn from this bloody path. Mother is most generous. You shouldn’t disappoint her.”
“And if we refuse?” her uncle demanded.
“We kill you all and take the girl anyway. Mother wants to meet her.”
Gina was positive that the last person on Earth that she wanted to meet was this “Mother” of theirs.
“That’s unacceptable,” her uncle was saying now.
Gina shook a few loose strands of hair out of her eyes. She had to be ready. They were going to pounce. Their leader had freed his hand to rest lightly atop his own sword. She watched it closely, for the signal she knew would come. There. The slightest flutter of his fingertips. The night exploded with the noise of metal hitting against metal.
The dragons moved as one, charging over the fence, not bothering with the gate after all. In eerie silence, without speaking a word, they chose their targets amongst her family and fanned out to meet them. Her uncle drew off two of them, holding them back through the sheer force of his desperation, the perfect model of quiet, deadly efficiency. Jason and Terry were much the same, conserving their energy, choosing to block and deflect, only striking out when success was certain. They were holding their own and would for some time yet. She craned her head as much as she dared, trying to spot Tristan. He, too, was matched. No one had come after her yet, and there was only one dragon left, their leader. It made a horrible kind of sense. For all practical purposes, he’d sworn revenge upon her. She wondered if his brother had pulled through after all, or if the indignity of the blow was enough to rile these dragons up this much.
He stepped towards her, and she could see the hate in his eyes. He had been aiming for her all along, she realized, waiting for his men to keep the others away and occupied. She tightened her grip and swung her sword around to meet his. She hadn’t even consciously registered that he’d moved, but his sword was there and she deflected the blow just the same. His face darkened and he swung again, just as fast. Again, she met the blow and turned it away. After that, it all became a blur. He moved inhumanly fast, faster than anything her uncle had thrown her way. She knew what to do, she didn’t question that, not now, but getting there in time was a strain and the strength of his blows nearly disarmed her. How had she managed to get the sword away from his brother?
The fighting was louder than she’d expected, and she had to fight to keep her eyes from blinking with every blow that rang out nearby. The others around her were facing worse difficulties. The yard was not very large and eleven people were just too many to fit. At first, everyone managed to keep a little distance apart, but as everyone began to move around, it began to feel unbearably tight. Tristan, who stood the closest to her, had gotten backed into the front wall of the house. She’d get no help from that quarter. Twice, she backed up herself, only to bump into someone else moving in the same direction. She was tiring fast, and he knew it as well as she. Why weren’t they using their magic on them? It didn’t make sense, not if they were nearly as powerful as her uncle had claimed them to be.
Her uncle was driving ‘his’ two dragons forward with effortless grace when one of them tripped and fell back across Gina’s path. She didn’t even hesitate. She pulled the man up in front of her as a momentary shield, surprising him into dropping his sword at her feet. She kicked it away, stabbed him through the side, and threw him at her opponent, forcing him back and freeing her weapon in one smooth motion. It opened a space in front of her, but for the first time that evening, the dragon facing her seemed in no hurry to close the gap. There was a body to block his path, but that shouldn’t have been enough to stop him. Was he tiring? Or was it a trap?
She cursed as someone else banged into her side. Another dragon. She dispatched him the same way and backed up further yet. Two bodies piled between them, and he still hadn’t moved. She’d freed Tristan, she realized, as he moved to stand by her side. She looked back just in time to see the first flash of movement. This was what her opponent had been waiting for. She saw the blade coming for Tristan’s head just in time to wrench him out of harm’s way with an outstretched arm. He tried to resist her, but she was too stubborn to fail now, and she pulled him behind her. Here was her own opening. The dragon had overreached after all, and for a moment, an instant suspended in time, sensed more than seen, she knew that he was fighting to reclaim his balance. She brought her sword up with both hands and sliced across the air, nearly beheading him with the force of her blow. He didn’t even have time to move his arms.
She stood there stunned as he slid to the ground, falling forward to topple over the bodies at her feet. It had all been too sudden for her to process it, and for a moment, she forgot where she was standing. Her arms burned with the effort, but she forced herself to lift her sword again and step over the mound. The sudden stench of iron made her gag. She wouldn’t look down, she wouldn’t, she promised herself. Three dead or near enough. Behind her, Tristan had recovered enough to make sure of the three dragons she’d taken out. She shuddered as she realized she was listening for the slick squelch of sword parting flesh, but any such sound was thankfully drowned out by the commotion around them. Go for the head or the heart, she remembered. It wasn’t enough to put a hole in them, not so long as there were others nearby to help them escape. Three down, nine to go. Where were the other six hiding? She knew they were there, she could feel them lurking outside her range of vision, but she didn’t dare go hunting them yet.
She looked around and saw that her uncle had moved to help Terry. Her uncle must have overpowered his second assailant. Four dead. Jason had things well in hand. No surprise there. She watched as the dragon facing him backed up just a little too far and tripped over the low fence behind his legs. The sword thrust that followed him down put an end to any hope of recovery. Five down. A moment later, and the crash came as the last one fell into the bushes alongside the house. Terry had managed to get in a lucky blow. Six dead, but no one was ready to relax just yet. They clustered together in a tight line, their swords facing out past the yard, their backs to their home.
“Where are the others?” her uncle gasped from somewhere beside her. He’d remembered her words, trusted her judgment without a second thought. No time to think about that now.
Gina was staring out into the darkness, searching for the sign she needed. There were shapes moving out there, and they were moving fast. “They’re coming now,” Gina cried.
“Be ready,” her uncle barked. “Hold steady until I give the word. Don’t break the line!” He warned them.
The dragons rushed at them out of the darkness, leaping the fence and easily dodging the bodies the five of them had left at their feet. Her uncle gave a wordless shout and they readied themselves for the second strike. They should have been outmatched, up against those fresh, inhuman, bodies, but Gina knew in an instant that the dragons didn’t stand a chance. In that moment, clustered as they were, her family could beat back anything. Gina could hear herself laughing aloud in delight as she struck the first one down. Her voice sounded alien to her ears, like she’d stepped outside herself. She was beyond the pain now and on her second wind. She skewered a second between her and Tristan. There was an intense struggle all around her, but one by one in quick succession, they mowed the invaders down, working together to take each one out. None of them had had to move even a foot from where they’d started.
In the stillness that followed, Tristan’s laugh joined her own in nervous relief. They’d done it. Against all odds, they’d really done it. Gina felt like hugging him and everyone else in sight, but she was rapidly losing whatever it was that had carried her this far. If she tried it, she thought she’d end up on the ground. She resisted the urge to lean on her sword and settled for awkwardly cleaning it on what was left of her shirt. She was caked in blood, she realized, and there were streaks of it down her face and in her hair. She grasped that none of it was hers, though she glanced about in sudden anxiety at her cousins. Everyone looked intact, though they all bore light scratches where they hadn’t ducked away fast enough from an incoming blade.
Tristan and Terry had stopped to clean their blades as well, leaving her uncle to the disagreeable task of checking each body for life signs. Wherever he gestured, Jason was close behind to drive a knife through the dragon’s chest. She forced herself to watch. She’d killed four of them, after all. Five, if she counted the kill she’d shared with Tristan. Murderer. The word ricocheted through her mind, making it hard to think. She had to fight to remind herself why it had been so important to cut them down quick, especially now, when they were lying there lifeless on the ground, the light in their eyes extinguished for good. She watched as her uncle got to the last one and straightened to his feet with care. He was looking around in an absentminded fashion, as if searching for something, but the look on his face when he turned to look her way her made her blood freeze. Something was horribly wrong. “There’s only eleven here,” he said.
The concern on his face told her loud and clear that he’d never doubted her. In a moment, he’d be asking her if one had one run away or if there was another lurking nearby, waiting for them to let down their guard. Gina just stared at him in horror. She flung whatever sense it was that she possessed outwards and cringed at what she found. No wonder it had been so easy. The dragons had sacrificed themselves to get one through. She twisted around to face the house and time itself seemed to grind to a halt at what she saw.
There, framed in the entrance, was the last dragon, and he was holding her mother captive, his hand gripped tight around her upper arm. Gina wanted to run after him, but there was nothing left. It took an effort of will just to remain upright. Her shoulders were slumped, her sword blade inches off the ground, and her eyes were starting to lose their focus. The only good thing was that she was too tired to worry about missing dinner.
“I guess I don’t have to tell you what I’ll do to her if you don’t let me pass,” the man announced. He took a step forward, pulling Maria even closer so that she stood in front of him like a shield. He smelled her hair and sighed in obvious delight. “Almost good enough to eat,” he murmured. He’d meant the words for Maria’s ears alone, but Gina could make them out, clear as day.
The man took another step. He was at the top of the stairs now, away from the building. The very fact that he didn’t bother to guard his back did not speak well for those inside the house, but she pushed that dark thought aside. She couldn’t afford to dwell on what if’s. She strained her ears further still until she was sure that she could hear his heart beat. For all the calm that shone on his face, his heart was racing at top speed. If her uncle was always so capable in dispatching his enemies, she thought she could understand the emotion, but this man was directing everything her way. It slowly dawned on her that she’d killed almost half the dragons who had accompanied him here. Maybe it hadn’t been such a fluke that she’d nearly killed that other dragon back in New York. They’d certainly expected some of her performance that evening, even if she hadn’t. Maybe she could use that to her advantage.
“Leave her alone!” she yelled up at the house. She tried to adopt a commanding tone, but she had no real reason to suspect she’d succeeded. She just wished she could get a better look at his face. All the light was coming from behind him, casting him in shadow, but his eyes shone bright and clear, catching the light like a cat’s eyes might. If the fear was still there, it was well masked. He had the upper hand, after all, and everyone else in the yard could have been props for all the attention he gave them. His careful scrutiny was reserved for her and her alone. If she could just keep it that way, maybe her uncle or one of her cousins could catch him off guard, but she didn’t see how. Her mother wouldn’t be much help, not in her condition. There was a gash on her forehead and she looked ready to collapse in pain or in fear.
“My orders were quite clear,” the dragon told her. “Take the girl or take the mother as bait, whatever you can do to stop her from coming into her own.” The dragon smirked at the wreckage before him and looked out dispassionately at the bodies of his fallen comrades. “How amusing. Now I see that the girl’s become the Knight after all, and all we accomplished was to speed you along that much faster. Mother won’t like it, but she wanted you dealt with. That’s the price you pay for meddling with fate.” He glanced back at Gina with a sudden sharpness and she sensed that he hadn’t intended to leak so much this soon. “It’s too late to reel you in the way we wanted, so I’ll settle for second best. Mother will be expecting your visit. Come alone, come unarmed.” He took the first step down the stairs and Terry moved quickly to give the man room to pass.
Even at this distance, she could see the glint of something metal in the dragon’s hand. For the second time in as many days, a dragon was holding a knife blade to her mother’s throat. No wonder Terry had been so quick to comply. Step by step, the dragon came down the stairs and through the yard and no one dared move a muscle to stop him. It was an impossible nightmare. She was helpless to stop the disaster unfolding before her, but she knew that she should have prevented it somehow, if only she’d paid more attention. How could she have been so stupid? To lose count and assume the worst was over?
The dragon came to a stop in front of her. She sensed that her clenched fists amused him, but he was too well disciplined to relax his stance or loosen his grip on her mother’s arm or the knife in his hand. “It’s been a long time since the Knight walked among us and longer yet since the Knight was a woman. A very long while, indeed. Georgina Mallory, sworn soul of the covenant, three times blessed and slave to the hand of fate. Even should you die in this moment, I will remember your name for the rest of my days.”
Having said what he had to say, he gave a short bow, took two steps back from her, and vanished, taking Gina’s mother with him. He could have done that at any time, she realized. He’d been toying with them, just so he could talk to her face to face.
Gina didn’t waste any time. She ran up the stairs, stumbling and dragging her feet as she went, and crashed into the house full speed. She was afraid of what she might find. Behind her, she could hear the sound of other footsteps pounding up after her. She skidded to a stop in the kitchen and heaved a sigh of relief. Her grandparents were very much alive, furious, and sitting bound and gagged at the kitchen table and her aunt, who’d apparently been knocked to the floor, was sitting up already and rubbing her head. Things were getting fuzzy. There was one missing. Wasn’t there supposed to be four? She stepped into the kitchen and stopped dead. There was Daniel, lying in a heap in the corner like a broken doll. Her uncle pushed past her and got there before her. He scooped his son into his arms, supporting his head against his chest and stroking his hair with surprisingly gentleness. The boy was breathing, but it was faint and it looked like he was fading fast. He was injured, that much was obvious, but she couldn’t see how until a chance light revealed the blood matted in his dark hair. It gave it an eerie sheen that made his pale little face stand out even more than usual.
“I tried to stop him,” Daniel mumbled. His voice was thin and muffled by his father’s coat. He’d already lost so much blood. “I almost did!” he cried. “But he was too fast for me. I couldn’t keep up.” He squirmed suddenly, trying to see over his father’s arms. “Where’s mum?”
“Mum’s fine. You did your best, son.”
It broke Gina’s heart to watch her uncle comforting his son. She knew she had to do something, but she was so tired, so very very tired. The first time had been an accident, would it work a second time? She flexed her fingers to get the life back into them and tried to summon up those last dregs of energy she knew must be there. She’d thought she’d run out so many times already this night, but every time she reached for it, there was always a little more. It was getting harder, though. When had it started to hurt?
A little closer now. She tried to reach out her hand, but there was something wrong with it. It looked funny and it wasn’t working right.
With every passing second, she was learning afresh what it meant to be profoundly exhausted. She was an empty shell, a husk, a piece of straw. She could do this. She had to do this.
Her feet weren’t moving as far as they used to. She remembered how awful it had been the last time she’d done this, how tired she’d been when she woke up. Could this actually kill her if she tried it now? One objection after another filtered through her brain, but she discarded them all. The dragon had called her a knight and knights protected the weak. She couldn’t save her mother, so she’d help this boy instead. She stumbled a little closer before grinding to a halt. Her legs had finally turned to lead. She was close enough. It would have to do.
Her uncle jerked his head up and stared straight at her. “Can you fix this?” he whispered. He knew all about her, she realized, he’d read it in her eyes days ago when they’d first met. She’d suspected as much all along. There were tears in his eyes and she reached to brush them away. They didn’t belong there. He shuddered at her touch, wincing away as if burned, but she was already ignoring him, reaching out for the boy. She gripped Daniel’s head between her hands and sent everything she had at him. She just hoped it was enough.
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