Author, Freelance Writer and Editor

Reign of the Dragons - Chapter 1

An empathic whisper of rage and violence brushed past Annalasa as she galloped her horse across the meadow—a glimpse into a tainted soul, and then the Impression was gone.  Annalasa pulled on the reins and whirled around, surveying the grassy expanse.  The edge of the Tallis Forest stretched out along the far side.  She could sense something watching her from the shadows of the tree line.  She unstrapped her bow from the saddle and urged her mare toward the woods.   Whatever this creature was, it didn’t belong here.  Especially this close to her father’s estates.

Nearing the trees, she found a large patch of grass that was flat and matted down.  A half-eaten deer carcass lay nearby where claws had scratched deep grooves into the soil.  She reined in her horse and dismounted, jumping lithely to the ground.  Bending down, she touched her palm to the flattened grass.  Still warm.

A pair of large paw prints led into the forest.

Annalasa glanced across the meadow to where the Shadowsong Manor stood in the distance, its silver spires glinting in the sun.  She was in no hurry to return home.  Seeking out the identity of this interloper should prove to be an exciting distraction.  She pulled her hair back into a loose knot and slung a quiver full of red-fletched arrows over her shoulder.  “Stay here, Vashni,” she said, reaching up to scratch her horse’s ears.  “It might be dangerous.”

The white mare shook her mane and nudged Annalasa’s shoulder.

“Wait here until I whistle for you."  She gave her horse a final pat before turning away and stepping into the forest. 

The fresh tracks wended through the woods in a southeasterly direction.  The recent rain made the prints distinct and easy to follow.  A second set of paw prints approached from the west to join with the first—side by side.  Annalasa carefully picked her way across the forest floor, maneuvering around tree trunks, stepping over shrubs and gnarled tree roots, and ducking under low hanging branches.  She moved with stealth, her knee-high leather boots scarcely making a sound.

She was happiest when she was outdoors and surrounded by nature.  The cold, sterile walls of the Shadowsong Manor suffocated her.  Though she loved her father, she found the aristocratic atmosphere that surrounded him to be tedious and stifling.  As the Lord Governor of the Tir’Lothrian province, he spent most of his time in the Meeting Hall with the Assembly of Elders, discussing taxes or trade or some other boring matter.  She couldn’t remember the last time she saw her father step outside the manor to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine.

About a half-mile into the hunt, Annalasa lost the trail.  The trees were thicker in this part of the forest and the ground dryer, making the tracks more difficult to discern.  After several minutes of fruitless searching, the accustomed chatter and buzz of the forest grew quiet.  A yellow-bellied squirrel chirped from the branch of a tree, as if warning her of danger.  A jaybird squawked in alarm as it flew overhead.  Annalasa slid an arrow from her quiver, nocked it, and pulled back the bowstring.  She knew she was being watched.  She turned in a slow circle, carefully scanning her surroundings.  A chill slid down her spine.  A twig snapped and she spun around, pointing her weapon toward the nearby shrubbery.

She crouched low to the ground, every sense focused and alert, but she could hear nothing except her quickening heartbeat.  She took in slow breaths, keeping herself calm and poised, pushing all fear out of her mind.  She was confident in her skill with a bow.  Roquenn was the best weapons instructor in the entire kingdom and he had taught her well.

A deep growl rumbled from the bushes in front of her.  She peered into the shadows between the leafy sprigs, and a creature with dark fur and yellow eyes met her gaze.  Annalasa aimed her bow with precision and stepped backwards, putting as much distance as possible between herself and her foe.

The creature shook itself free of the dense vegetation, revealing its oversized paws and then its large wolfish body.  Annalasa drew in a breath of surprise.  A saberwolf!  She knew of the great wolves but had never encountered one.  They made their home in the Kothundr Mountains, far to the south.  What was it doing here?

The saberwolf crept forward, cautious step by cautious step.  Its head was low to the ground, ears pinned back and pupils dilated.  The hair stood up along its shoulder blades and down its back.

Annalasa kept her arrow pointed at the beast’s skull.  “Do not move any closer!”

The wolf halted in mid-stride, understanding flashing in its eyes.  Its lips curled back in a snarl revealing sharp, deadly fangs.  Saliva dampened its broad muzzle.  The hatred emanating from the beast’s mind was so intense she didn’t need her empathic abilities to feel it wash over her.

"I don't want to kill you," she continued, taking another step back.  "Leave this forest and return to your caves in Kothundr.  You don’t—”

The saberwolf sprang forward, jaws open and eyes fixed on her throat.  Annalasa released her arrow and immediately nocked and loosed another as the lifeless creature slammed into her.  Its momentum pushed her backwards and knocked her to the ground.  Her bow landed in the dirt an arm-span away.

Before she could shove the dead beast off of her, black fur rushed at her and clamped onto her leg, shaking it violently.  Dragon’s oath!  She forgot about the second wolf!

The soft material of her riding skirt offered little protection against the saberwolf’s jagged teeth and she cried out as pain seared up her thigh.  Her vision darkened and her stomach roiled, and for a moment, she feared she might faint.  Think!  Focus!  Gasping for breath, she pulled an arrow from her quiver and gripped it tightly near the top of the shaft.  With as much force as she could muster, she thrust the metal tip into the creature's soft flanks.  The wolf yelped, released her leg, and retreated backward a few steps, baring its teeth.

Encumbered by the carcass crushing her torso, she twisted around and reached across the ground for her bow.  Pain incinerated her leg, catching her breath in her throat.  Gritting her teeth, she strained until the weapon was firmly in her hand.  But the sabrewolf fled into the woods before she could nock another arrow.

Exhaustion gripped her as she struggled to roll the dead wolf off her hip.  Blood seeped from the gaping wound on her leg, staining her clothing and robbing her of strength.  She sat up and whistled for her horse, wondering if she’d even be able to climb into the saddle.  She pulled her injured leg closer to her body, the pain disorienting.  She closed her eyes until the forest stopped spinning.

Footsteps pounded up the trail behind her, much too soon to be Vashni.  Annalasa snapped her head around as a man on a black horse came into view.  He wore a dark cloak with a hood partially obscuring his face so it was the horse she recognized first.  “Roquenn!”  She breathed a sigh of relief.

Concern crossed his face when he saw the bloody scene before him.  He slid off the saddle and ran to Annalasa, pulling open his cloak and tearing a strip of material off the bottom of his tunic.  He wrapped the strip around her mid-thigh and tied it snug.  "That should stop the blood flow," he said, pushing back his hood.  He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a handful of dried herbs, a small metal dish and a canteen of water.

Annalasa watched him as he mixed the herbs with the water and poured the green mixture into her leg wound.  It stung, and she bit her lip to keep quiet.

Roquenn stretched out both palms above the herbal poultice, closed his eyes, and whispered an incantation.  A bright blue orb of light formed beneath his hands and descended onto Annalasa's thigh.  Her leg tingled as a warm sensation spread out from the center of the wound, gradually enveloping her entire body.  The pain and throbbing subsided.  The torn flesh began to knit together, replacing the bloody gash with a pink, swollen scar.

The orb disappeared and Roquenn opened his eyes.  "How does it feel?"

“Much better.”  She tentatively stretched her legs out in front of her.  The injured muscles were still tight, but she felt no pain.  "Thank you, Roquenn.  I know that required a lot of energy."

He removed the tourniquet and plopped down on the hard ground.  "I have several hours of travel ahead of me.  I didn’t want to use up my stamina on a complete healing, but what I did should suffice."  He motioned toward the dead saberwolf lying nearby.  "Are you going to tell me what happened here?  I saw the sabrewolf tracks but I didn’t expect to find you entangled in this.

"I saw strange paw prints leading into the forest so I followed them to see what they belonged to."  Annalasa pulled her legs into her chest and grimaced at the soreness in her knee joint.  "They must have caught my scent and circled around behind me."

"How many were there?"

"Two.  The other one ran off after I wounded it."

Roquenn glanced around.  "And where is your horse?"

"I whistled for her.  She should be here soon.  I left her in the meadow so she wouldn’t be in danger—don’t give me that look.  I was fine!"  Annalasa scowled at her weapons instructor.  "You have praised my bow skill on numerous occasions."

"You were not fine,” he retorted.  “You were about to swoon from loss of blood.  What would you have done had I not arrived?"

Annalasa huffed and stared miserably at the ground.

"Yes, you are skilled with a bow," he continued, “but saberwolves are intelligent animals, Annalasa.  You were foolish to track them by yourself."

"I didn't know they were saberwolf tracks.  They shouldn't be roaming around this part of the kingdom."

Roquenn looked thoughtful.

Annalasa rested her chin on her knees and watched Roquenn’s black gelding swat his tail at a persistent fly.  She shifted her gaze back to Roquenn.  “You mentioned travel.  Where are you going?”

"I have some business to attend to in Faewynne."

"You’re going to Azurevale?"  She looked at him sideways.  Azurevale was the smallest province in the kingdom, consisting mostly of small towns and farmland.  "What business could you possibly have there?

“The time has come for me to honor a promise I made to an old friend.”

“A promise?”

“You will understand soon enough.  Everything is about to change, Annalasa.”  His face was an unreadable mask.  “There is unrest in the air.  The presence of saberwolves only confirms it.”

Annalasa rolled her eyes.  "I think you enjoy speaking in riddles."

Vashni's shrill whinny let the small group know she was approaching.  The gelding lifted his head and returned the friendly greeting.  The mare bounded through the brush, stopped short of Annalasa and snorted in disgust at the dead saberwolf.

Roquenn stood and gathered up his healing supplies.  "Are you able to ride?"  He held out his hand to pull Annalasa to her feet.

"I think so,” she said, collecting her quiver and bow.  Her skirt was badly torn and the exposed skin covered with dried blood, but her injured leg was strong enough for her to take a few careful steps.

Roquenn helped her into the saddle before climbing into his own.  “Be safe, Annalasa.”  He pulled his hood up, wheeled his gelding around and galloped away, leaving her alone in the quiet forest.

* * *

Evening was fast approaching.  Brydon was preparing to close up the shop when a man wearing a dark brown cloak pushed open the door and slipped inside.  Though his hood partially obscured his face, the man’s narrow features exposed his Lothrian ancestry.  Brydon watched him as his eyes darted around, scanning the shelves of merchandise.  The Lothrians kept to themselves and were rarely seen outside of their own province.  What was this man doing in a small town like Faewynne?

The man caught Brydon’s curious stare and started toward him, green eyes boring into him as he approached.

“Brydon,” the stranger spoke in a low voice.  “Your father wanted me to give this to you today.”  He shoved a small leather-bound package into the pocket on Brydon’s tunic.  “Open it in private and tell no one.”

Brydon furrowed his brow.  “Are you talking about Sidd?  He’s not my father—”

“No,” the man hissed.  “I said your father.”  He turned abruptly and hastened to the front of the shop.

Brydon's jaw dropped.  He had always believed his parents were dead—killed in the Great War when he was a child.  His heartbeat quickened.  Could they really be alive?

"Wait a minute!"  Brydon called out, but the Lothrian stepped through the shop door and closed it behind him without looking back.

Brydon raced outside and caught up to the hooded stranger on the cobblestone street out front.  "How do you know my father?" he demanded.  A hundred questions pummeled his mind.  "Who is he?  Is he still alive?"

“I have to leave now.”

Brydon kept pace with him.  “But you said—”

The man stopped and turned to face Brydon, grabbing him roughly by the collar of his tunic.  "It is not safe to talk about this here," he growled.  He released Brydon and shoved him hard in the chest, knocking him off balance.  Brydon toppled backwards and landed on his rear as the mysterious man turned a corner and disappeared.

A maelstrom raged inside Brydon as he tried to process everything the Lothrian had said.  And how did the stranger know who he was?  He couldn’t recall ever seeing him before.  Brydon reached into his tunic pocket.  What could possibly be in the package that required it to be opened in private?

"Watcha doing sitting on the ground there, sonny?”  A friendly voice interrupted his thoughts.

Brydon glanced up into the concerned face of Tarnell Riley, a wealthy wool trader who frequented Sidd’s shop to purchase supplies.

Tarnell thrust out a hand.  “You’re gonna get yourself stepped on, sprawled out on the cobblestones like you are.” 

Brydon hesitated a moment before accepting Tarnell’s help.  Though he was always talkative and friendly, Brydon thought there was something about him that seemed incongruent—a seriousness in his eyes that belied his jovial personality.

As soon as Brydon was on his feet, Tarnell’s eyes grew wide.  “Oh, you're that nameless boy!  The one ol’ Sidd’s been raising.”

Brydon clenched his teeth.

“Never did figure out who you were, did they?"  Tarnell shook his head, his eyes filled with sympathy.  “It’s such a shame.”  He patted Brydon’s shoulder and turned to walk way.  “Poor boy,” he muttered to himself before ambling down the street.

Brydon returned to the shop, a cramp forming in his clenched jaw.  He grew tired of the stares and expressions of pity by the townspeople.  He grew tired of their discrimination and judgments.  There were other orphans, other victims of the Great War who lost their families, but there always seemed to be someone—a neighbor, a friend of the family, even a distant relative—who could certify their identity with the Registrar.  He couldn’t speak of other places, but in the small town of Faewynne it was only Brydon who was unknown.  And without a family lineage he was nothing.  Worthless.  He had less repute than the poorest of servants.

He quickly locked up the shop, anxious to know what was in the package.  If the Lothrian man knew who is father was then he needed to find him.

The sun was dipping below the horizon as Brydon hurried through the streets toward his home.  The Turquoise and Cobalt moons shone brightly overhead, illuminating the cobblestones at his feet.  He turned down a narrow road toward the northern edge of town and Sidd's property came into view.  The plot of land was just large enough to hold a single-level brick house, a barn for the two ponies, a field for the ponies to graze in, and a vegetable garden.  Sidd wasn't a wealthy man, but selling merchandise and trade supplies at his shop afforded him a comfortable income nonetheless.

The house was dark and quiet when Brydon arrived.  Sidd had left that morning to pick up supplies from the traders in nearby Warrandale and hadn’t yet returned.  Brydon crossed the room and sat down on the edge of his bed.  He lit the lamp on top of his dresser and the bright flamed filled the room.

With a mixture of nervousness and excitement, he reached into his tunic pocket and pulled out the small package.  Whatever the item was inside, it was wrapped in old, faded leather and tied securely with red twine.  Brydon slid a small knife out of his boot and used it to cut the cords.  When he pulled apart the leather wrappings it revealed a silver statuette and a narrow strip of inscribed parchment.

The figurine was carved into the shape of a beautiful, winged dragon.  A dragon!  Brydon froze.  He knew the stories about the dragons.  The legends.  How dragons had roamed the land for hundreds of years, as far back as time began.  They were the guardians of the human clans and societies.  But then they fled during the Great War, abandoned the people in their hour of greatest need, and nobody has seen one since.  They were now hated and despised, and the queen strictly prohibited any talk of them.  Not that such a law could ever completely extinguish the whispers

So why would the Lothrian man give him such an abominable figurine?  What did it mean?  Hoping the parchment offered an explanation, Brydon snatched it up.  But the words were written in a strange language.  Even the letters were unfamiliar.  He flipped it over and his eyes widened when he saw the imprint on the back.  Sliding off his bed to the floor, Brydon pulled a sword out from under the mattress.  It was old and discolored, with a curved blade and a hilt made of black onyx.  He had found the weapon years ago while exploring the woods behind Sidd's property.

He laid the sword across his bed.  Carved into the side of the blade, near the cross guard, was an eagle facing forward with outstretched wings clasping the top of a shield in its talons.  A diamond-shaped wreath of leaves encircled the eagle.  Although the imprint on the back of the vellum was worn and faded, it was identical to the engraving on the sword—except for one tiny detail.  The parchment had a majestic dragon on the front of the shield.  On the sword, that dragon had been etched clean off.

Brydon reached under his bed and pulled out a thick leather-bound tome.  Flipping through the pages, his finger paused on a passage describing the various cultures and societies of Rinaya.  Though the Lothrians had their own aristocracy, he found nothing written about them having a provincial symbol or insignia.

He picked the dragon statuette back up.  The oil lamp's flickering light leaped and danced along the dragon's scale-plated body.  Its eyes were closed as if it were sleeping, its head resting on thick forearms.  Large, powerful hind legs curled underneath.  The creature's broad wings were tucked down close to its body, and a long, narrow tail wrapped around and stopped short of its square jaw.  There was something beautiful and majestic about the small carving that made Brydon feel wistful.  He was much too young to have remembered seeing any of the dragons before the Great War.

Brydon had set the statuette on his dresser and was placing his sword back under the mattress when Sidd Mackley walked through the front door.  Their eyes met and they nodded to each other, and then Sidd sat down on a nearby stool to unlace his boots.

“What do you have there?” Sidd asked, motioning toward the discarded leather wrappings and twine on the floor.

Brydon grabbed the old leather tome and slid it carefully back under his bed.  “A man came into the shop today just before closing.  He said he knew my father and then he handed me that package.”

Sidd snorted and set his boots down next to the door.  "Maybe he thought you were someone else."

"He knew my name."  Brydon held up the parchment.  "This was wrapped in the package, but I can’t read the words.”

Sidd stood up and shuffled across the room toward Brydon.  He inspected the vellum strip and shrugged his shoulders.  “Was that all he gave you?”

“No, but…”  Brydon sighed.  He grabbed the statuette off his dresser and handed it to Sidd.  “Just—please don’t get upset—”

"It's a dragon!" Sidd gasped and threw the figurine to the floor as though it had bit his hand.  "You need to get rid of that, boy.  I don't want that in my house." 

Brydon stared at Sidd in surprise.

“I remember the dragons.”  Sidd began pacing the room, casting angry glances at the tiny statue.  “There was one that patrolled Faewynne, and we all felt safe knowing it was there.  When the royal city was attacked, we thought the dragon had left to defend the people.”  His hands clenched into fists.  “Not desert us...”  Sidd stopped pacing and faced Brydon.  “If the Queen’s Guard knew you had that, I shudder to think what they would do.  Whoever that man was that gave that to you, he is clearly trying to destroy us.”

“But why would—”

“Maybe he’s a trader that sells similar supplies as us.  Maybe he wants to expand into Faewynne.  There could be many reasons for a stranger’s betrayal.”

But Sidd’s words rang false in Brydon’s head.  The Lothrian’s behavior was much too circumspect, showing up at dusk, right before closing when the shop was empty.  He had even told Brydon to open the package in private.  And surely it wasn’t a coincidence that the insignia on the parchment matched the one on his old sword.  Besides, there were much easier and simpler ways of bringing a person to ruin—just accuse them of using magic.  By the time the investigation was complete, the rumors would have spread halfway across the province and it wouldn’t matter what the truth was.

Sidd gestured toward the figurine.  "At first light tomorrow I want you to take that thing away from here and destroy it."

Brydon picked up the dragon from off the floor and placed it back on his dresser. 

"You hear me, boy?"

* * *

The sun was already setting when Annalasa rode her horse through the wrought-iron gates of the Shadowsong Manor and into the courtyard.  She was eager to strip out of her torn and dirty riding clothes and wash the blood off her skin.  She had spent the afternoon searching for the injured sabrewolf, and though she had found its blood trail and twice heard it struggling through the dense underbrush, it had still managed to evade her.  She had left the woods feeling hungry, tired and defeated.

Keeping to the shadows, she looped around the gardens and entered the lamp-lit stables from the rear.  She slid from the saddle and handed Vashni’s reins to a startled stablehand, who took in her bruised and battered appearance with wide eyes.  Waving away his concern, she grabbed her bow and quiver and left the stables.

Annalasa slipped into the manor through the back door to the kitchens and hurried toward the servants’ staircase.  She reached the second floor unseen and was halfway down the hall to her room before her maid, Nema, found her.

“Oh!” Nema gasped.  “You’re hurt!”  She rushed toward Annalasa, gray hair dancing about her face.  “What in the heavens happened to you?”

“It’s nothing serious, I promise.  I look worse than I feel.”

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” the maid fretted.  “Lord Voronn wanted to speak with you.  He said it was urgent.  But I—I didn’t know where you were.”  Her hands fluttered about.  “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine, Nema.”  Annalasa gently grabbed the older woman’s shoulders to help calm her fussing.  “I will see my father as soon as I’ve had a bath.”

“Of course, my dear.”  Worry creased the maid’s face.  “I’ll have some hot water brought up to your room.”

An hour later, Annalasa was clean and dry and dressed in a dark blue gown.  She was brushing out her damp hair when Nema knocked and entered the room.

“Lord Voronn is waiting for you in his study,” the maid informed her.

Annalasa set down the brush.  “Thank you, Nema.”  She donned a pair of slippers and left her bedchamber to seek out her father.

Voronn’s study was on the third floor of the manor, at the end of a long hallway lined with plush rugs and hanging tapestries.  Annalasa paused on the threshold of the room.  Her father was standing with his back to her, staring out the window.  He was a tall man, broad-shouldered for a Lothrian, with long white hair and fierce blue eyes.  Though he had always been kind and patient toward his daughter, he was not a man to be trifled with.

“Father,” she spoke quietly.

Vorron turned and met his daughter’s eyes.  “Annalasa, I’m glad to see you home.  Nema didn’t know where you had run off to, so we had no idea when to expect your return.”

“Yes, about that...”  Annalasa entered the study and plopped down on a cushioned sofa.  “I spent the afternoon tracking a saberwolf in the forest—well, two of them actually, if you can believe it.  The Kothundr Mountains must be a thousand miles from here!”

Voronn narrowed his eyes.  “So the rumors were correct.”  He stepped away from the window and sat down in a high-backed chair at his desk.  “I hope you were wise enough to not engage them.”

Annalasa’s cheeks flushed.  “I—of course, father,” she lied.  “Though I wish you would trust me.  I’m actually quite skilled.”

“It has nothing to do with trust.”  Concern creased Voronn’s brow.  “You are my heir, Anna, and it’s time you start behaving as such.  These forays into the forest must stop.”

“You cannot be serious.  You were the one that hired Roquenn to teach me to use a bow.”

“Only so you would know how to protect yourself.  My intention was never for you to spend your afternoons engaging in folly.  I’ve been much too lenient with you these past few years.”

Annalasa glowered at her father.  “You have never complained about me riding in the forest before.  Why now?”

Voronn took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “I didn’t plan on speaking of this tonight, but maybe it’s for the best.”  He steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair.  “I met with the Assembly of Elders today.  We spent several hours discussing the governorship and succession, and the future of the province.  We believe it is time to begin your transition.”

Annalasa’s arms flew out to brace herself against the sofa.  “Now?”

“It would be a co-regency, of course, as I’m still alive,” Voronn continued.  “But you are twenty years of age.  It’s time that we begin preparing you for this role.  The Elders are returning the day after next and I wish to present you to them at that time.  They would like to arrange for your inauguration before the end of summer.

“The end of summer!” she echoed.  “That’s barely two months away!”  Her mind churned and foamed like waves of the sea.  She was finding it difficult to process her father’s words.  Her chest tightened and breathing grew difficult.  “This is so sudden…”

“I’m growing old, Anna.  It is better that I pass the governorship to you now while I’m still alive.”

“I know, but—please father,” she begged.  “I’m not ready.”

An expression of consternation crossed his face.  He set his hands on the desk and leaned forward.  “You have known since you were a child that you would govern the province.  I never hid that from you.  Why are you taken aback by this?

“It’s just—I didn’t expect this so soon.”  Of course she’d known she would eventually become the Lady Governess of Tir’Lothria, but that day had seemed distant and far into the future.  There were so many things she wanted to do before settling into that role.  As she thought how much her life would have to change over the coming weeks and months, the walls of the room seemed to close in on her.  She lowered her head into her hands and closed her eyes.

“There is no reason to feel overwhelmed, Anna.  You won’t be governing Tir’Lothria alone—at least not for many years.  The Elders and I will be helping you, giving you guidance and direction.”

His words did nothing to console her.  “You don’t understand, father.”  She lifted her head.  “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Shadowsong Manor.”  Trapped, she thought bitterly.  “I want to travel and see the world.  I want to—” her throat constricted, cutting off her words.

“But you are my only child.  I have no other heirs.”

“It’s not my fault you never remarried and had more children!”

Voronn stared at his daughter for a long moment before responding.  “What is it you wish me to say?”  He spread his hands.  “The circumstances are what they are.”

“But I don’t want it, father!”  She couldn’t stand the thought of having the rest of her life decided for her.  As soon as the inauguration ceremony was complete, she would govern her people until she was old and gray.  No exceptions.  Her life would become a monotonous drudge of meetings with the Elders, appointments with various figureheads from across the province and a never ending slog of political discussions.  She would rather die than be forced to endure such a life.  Hot tears welled in her eyes and tumbled down her cheeks.

Voronn sighed.  “Anna, you—”

“I never asked to be born the daughter of the Lord Governor of Tir’Lothria.”

“Children never get to choose their parents.”

“What if I refuse?”  She crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her chin in defiance.  “A leader who doesn’t wish to lead would make a horrible leader anyway.”

Voronn stood and pushed in his chair.  “There is nothing more to discuss.  This is how the leadership of our province has been advancing for hundreds of years.  As my only heir, you will be the Lady Governess.  Yes, it is a great responsibility, but it is also a great privilege and an honor.  It would do you well to be a little more grateful.”  He turned back toward the window.

Annalasa knew the conversation was over.  The matter had been decided—with or without her approval.  She jumped up and stormed out of the study, slamming the door behind her.  With a tear-streaked face, she ran to her bedchamber and threw herself on her bed, sobbing uncontrollably.  She hated herself for crying.  It made her feel weak and fragile, two traits she absolutely loathed. 

Everything in her room seemed to mock her.  Her riding boots lay on the floor near her wardrobe, reminding her of how she would no longer have use of them.  Her bow was hung on a hook near her window, laughing at her years of practice, a waste of time and skill.  How foolish she had been to have spent her days wandering the forest, learning to track and hunt as though she were a forester’s daughter.  Maybe if she had been the obedient child her father had always wanted—if she had been diligent in her studies of government and economics, had shadowed her father at his meetings—maybe then she would feel ready for this new chapter in her life. 

But she wasn’t an obedient child.  She hated everything that had to do with the aristocracy—the politics and diplomacy and endless placating.  Dark, angry clouds enveloped her mind.  She loved her father, but she didn’t want his life.  She never had.  Her emotions raged, causing her head to ache.  Roquenn was right when he had called her a hoyden.  How could someone like her possibly lead the province?  She wasn’t built for that role.  But what choice did she have?  She rolled over and closed her eyes, letting the storm take her away.

She hadn’t realized she’d fallen asleep until someone knocked on her door.

Nema poked her head inside the room.  "Supper is ready," she said softly.  She stepped inside carrying a tray of steaming food and set it on the table near her bed.  “Lord Voronn requested that I bring this up to you.  He said you are not feeling well.”  The maid hesitated, watching Annalasa with concern in her large brown eyes.

“Thank you, Nema.  Is there anything else?”

Nema wrung her hands nervously.  “Your father wishes to speak with you again after you finish your meal.”

Nervous tension twisted Annalasa’s stomach.  “Of course.  Thank you.”

Annalasa waited until she heard the door click shut before grabbing the food tray.  She ate slowly, taking as long as she could before she returned to her father.  She knew he was displeased with her.  But what could he possibly want to discuss now?  When she could delay no longer, she dragged herself from her bedroom and started toward the stairway that led to the third floor.

As Annalasa approached her father’s study, she could see him bent over his desk, penning what appeared to be a letter.  He glanced up as she entered.  She stopped just past the threshold, clasping her hands before her.  “Yes, father?”

Voronn pushed the papers aside and folded his hands on top of the desk.  “I have a proposition for you.”

Her eyebrows drew together.  “A proposition?”

He stared at her for a long while, his shrewd face softening with each passing second.

Annalasa fought the urge to squirm.

“You have so much of your mother in you,” he finally said, his voice wistful.  “She hated spending all of her time at the Manor.  She would beg me to leave the province in the hands of the Elders and take her on an excursion, but I never did.  My duties kept me too busy.  I’ve never voiced this aloud, but I believe it was the reason for her failing health and why she…”  Voronn cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair.  “You were born with that same wanderlust.  It’s why I’ve allowed you the freedoms I did, but it hasn’t been enough.  I realize that now.  All of this time you’ve still been tethered to Shadowsong Manor.”

Annalasa held her breath as a tentative ray of hope pierced her heart.

“I’d like to give you one year,” Voronn continued.  “One year to live your life however you see fit.  You may leave the Manor, travel the kingdom, sail the seas—whatever your heart desires.  I’ll even give you a stipend from the Treasury to cover your basic expenses, though any extravagances will be your responsibility.  Next summer, before the trees change color, I except you to be ready for your inauguration and you will then become the Lady Governess.”

Her father went on to discuss the particulars of her departure and some of his expectations of her expedition, but Annalasa was barely listening.  Her body thrummed with excitement.  A year was a long time and she could go anywhere she pleased.  And maybe after seeing the world she would be ready to settle into a life at the manor, governing Tir’Lothria.  But she didn’t have to worry about that today.  She had an adventure to plan!

Annalasa practically floated back to her room.  She grabbed her three largest saddle bags and began stuffing them with clothing, supplies and her most cherished possessions.  She sifted through her jewelry box and removed all of the valuable pieces, placing them in a pocket on one of the bags.  Her fingers paused over a delicate silver-chain necklace with a sapphire pendant—the necklace her mother wore when she was alive.  Annalasa snatched it up and fastened it around her neck.  She exchanged her blue gown for a dark green riding dress and sat on the edge of her bed to lace up her boots.  Her father was allowing her to leave at sunrise, and she wanted to waste no time getting ready in the morning.  Besides, there would be no sleep for her this night.  Her nerves would make sure of that.  She stretched out on the top of her bed and folded her hands behind her head.   All she had to do now was wait.

 * * *

Brydon spent the morning helping Sidd unload the supplies off the horse cart and onto shelves and hooks in the mercantile.  Once the chore was complete, he took a walk toward the center of town.  It was the weekly holiday and all of the shops were closed.  The cobblestone street was vacant, as most of the townspeople spent the holiday with family and friends, eating large dinners and catching up on much needed rest.

Brydon was never invited to any of these fancy holiday meals.  "It's not that the townspeople are rude," Sidd had explained to him many years ago.  "The proper introduction of guests is important at these dinners, and it’s easier for everyone to exclude you than risk the embarrassment of not knowing how to introduce someone without Family or Name."

The words echoed in Brydon's head.  He sat down on a bench in the empty market square and pulled the dragon figurine out of his pocket.  He had lied to Sidd.  He couldn't bring himself to dispose of it as Sidd had demanded.  It had become too important to him.  It was a link to his past, and if he could find the truth of his past he could find his identity.  That possibility inspired a glimmer of hope within him.

He stared into the dragon's peaceful face.  Seeing it in the sunlight, the finely detailed features astonished him.  It would take an exceedingly talented blacksmith to sculpt silver with such precision. 

"Hello there!" came a loud voice over his shoulder.

Startled, Brydon quickly hid the dragon in his lap.  When he turned around, he looked up into the cold, hard face of a town guard.