Short Story: Protecting Something
SPOILER WARNING: this free short story *may* contain spoilers if you haven’t read The Dragonmaster Trilogy yet, particularly FLAME and FLIGHT.
This scene was deleted—but some elements of it were later saved for use in FREEDOM, the final book in the Dragonmaster Trilogy.
Ultimately, I wanted this to occur away from the forest to give you a greater vision of the world, particularly in the Northern Network. But without giving any spoilers, I loved the idea of the trolls not being selfishly motivated, or inherently destructive just because of their size.
This was the root scene for what eventually made it into the final FREEDOM manuscript.
High Dragonmaster, we have come with news.
Sanna glanced up to find Metok and three other mountain dragons barring her path to the stream, which Junis had reported as looking strange. She hesitated, recognizing Metok only by his voice. Their shapes were familiar blurs, but she couldn’t make out their individual facial features.
“What is it?
A troll was sighted coming your way by our morning patrol. Darfur has been tracking it for several hours. It moves closer.
Luteis perked up next to her.
This, he said, is no good.
Metok’s head moved to the right, a gesture of affirmation. Her mouth went dry. A troll? Legends abounded about the creatures, of course. But none of the Dragonmasters alive had ever actually seen one.
“Where?” she finally asked, recovering from her shock.
North of here, but not by far.
“Is it a mountain troll?”
Her eyes widened. “They?”
There is more than one, apparently. Darfur spotted one, but as it moved, it found others and continues to close in.
Others. Trolls were understood to be solitary creatures, rarely congregating outside of breeding. Then again, they also weren’t known to leave the mountains. Trolls in Letum Wood had only been an occasional thing, when one fled a greater predator to hide in the gargantuan trees of Letum Wood, soon to be driven out by the dragons that cared for the forest.
Or used to.
“How far away?”
An hour, likely, at their rate of walking.
Sanna scrambled up Luteis’s back, instantly barking commands into the space in her mind where the dragons simmered in the background.
“Mam!” she called over her shoulder. “Find Jesse! Tell him I’ll meet him in the air.”
Metok and the other mountain dragons disappeared as Sanna and Luteis took off. Every available dragon in the air. Luteis’s voice rang with authority. Be prepared for a fight.
Is this serious, High Dragonmaster? came Elis’s voice. Sanna sucked in a grim breath. She had no real idea what they faced against a troll. She also didn’t know what she’d be able to see.
Could she really lead them this way?
It is serious, Elis. We don’t know exactly what we face in a troll, except that it will be big. Very big. And today, there’s more than one.
What is your plan? Luteis asked. The way his voice remained close meant he had asked only to her, not to everyone.
I . . . I’m not sure. I think we can’t plan too much until we see them, right?
May I suggest forming groups of dragons assigned to each one?
Sanna glanced to the right. Metok and the other mountain dragons flew to the right and left, flanking them.
Metok, she said, and her mind quieted away from the forest dragons. How many trolls were there?
By last count, four.
Sanna glanced back. She could see six lumps following them. The size of the forest dragons would be most advantageous against the trolls, along with their fire. If needed, more mountain dragons could be called for sheer number.
Have at least twenty mountain dragons ready to come if we need them.
They are here already, High Dragonmaster.
Well done, Metok.
He said nothing, and his flight didn’t waver, but she sensed a stirring in their connection. Sanna turned her thoughts back to the forest dragons, relieved to find that it had been happening more easily lately. She could communicate between the two species with the ease of turning from one thought to another.
Forest dragons, she called, four trolls await us. Group yourselves into pairs. When I see the trolls, I’ll assign them to you. Attack together with fire. The mountain dragons will take one with their acid. Assist each other only if I assign you to it. Otherwise, stay on your troll.
What is the goal? asked Elis.
Send them back home to the North. If they won’t go? Kill them.
The words felt like sand in her mouth. Ordering the death of any living creature left darkness inside her, but the idea of losing dragons was far uglier. She steeled herself, focus on the horizon. Metok had pulled slightly ahead now, leading them northwest. Luteis followed in silence.
Luteis. She rested a hand on his neck. I don’t know if I’ll be able to command well. My sight isn’t good far away.
I can help.
I know. I’m sorry if this puts a greater strain on you.
It doesn’t. Do you feel the magic? Are you ready?
It stirred inside her like a hot, feral, living thing. She nodded. Yes. It’s ready.
But are you? Do you know how you’ll wield it?
Only as much as we’ve known before.
Luteis turned to the west sharply, following the occasionally harrowing flight of the mountain dragons. Sanna’s stomach dropped. She swallowed hard, forcing herself to concentrate. As long as they didn’t go deep into the forest, where the tall canopy shut out all light, she’d be able to see something.
That would have to be enough, for now.
A sprawling troll let out a giant yell that shook the air.
It reverberated in Sanna’s chest, quaking her bones. A giant cudgel, gripped in its enormous fist, swung through the air, casting aside trees as easily as if they were twigs.
Sanna grimaced, hearing a distant, keening pitch. The trees cried out.
It sees us, I believe, Luteis said. Its eyes are upon me.
Their seemingly too-short flight had ended moments before, when they first spotted the troll. She didn’t know trolls well, but this one seemed angry. The others that Darfur had reported were vague forms in the distance, inching in another direction. At least they could deal with this one first, then learn from it before taking care of the rest.
Draw its gaze, she said. Forest dragons, drop into the forest and surround it before it sees you. Metok, stay airborne with your dragons. Span out in a circle and keep moving, if you have to. Let it see how many we have. There’s a chance it could turn around when it sees us.
Before he could fly higher into the atmosphere, the troll spotted Metok. A slow, but meaty, arm spun toward Metok. At the last second, Metok disappeared before the fist could bludgeon him. He reappeared only a breath away from Luteis.
Spray acid, she commanded.
One of the nearby mountain dragons instantly obeyed. Sanna allowed the magic to well within her, then spoke to Luteis.
She pushed the magic with him. A startling length of flame issued from his mouth, instantly catching the acid that hung in the air. It burst into flame, startling the troll, who shied away. Metok darted to the trolls other side and did the same.
Luteis and Sanna followed.
The troll bellowed, its gaping jaw revealing yellowed teeth and angry, swollen gums. It lumbered forward a few steps. The cudgel in its hand swung from side to side like a pendulum. Forest and mountain dragons scattered as it side-stepped around, having no matter or trajectory.
Flank it! she cried when another massive tree toppled, groaning as it plummeted to the earth.
As dragons closed around it, the troll flailed in a panic. Acid thickened the air. Sanna’s throat ached. Her eyes pulsed.
It appears upset, Luteis said.
You think? she cried.
The troll’s erratic movements likely meant it was more than upset. Any troll would be upset if dragons were to surround and attack it. But this one was almost wild. Cagey. It stood in one spot, circling, and wouldn’t move. Sanna’s heart thudded in her chest.
It’s a mam, she said to Luteis only.
His head sharply turned to look at her, seeming startled.
It’s protecting something, isn’t it? I bet it’s a mam. Look, see its legs? There’s dried blood on her. I bet she just gave birth and she’s starving. See her breasts? They’re full.
The magic swelled within her again as the troll looked their way and bellowed. For half a second, Sanna thought the troll must understand her. Luteis soared around, cutting away from the troll. Something cut in front of them—she thought it was Metok—taking his position. Luteis dropped. Sanna at first saw only changing shadows, felt the change of open air change for the cool, thick forest scent. Luteis sniffed, alternative snorting, the metallic smell of his smoke wafting in her face as he flew around the massive forest, searching.
Then a sound rang in Sanna’s hears. A tinny, high-pitched sort of cry. She whirled to the right just as Luteis did the same, then pointed.
Luteis soared over, not far from the edge of the circle the troll had pounded out, to find something sniveling on the ground. Despite the dim light, Sanna could easily make out the smaller troll, sleeping on the ground with an occasional snore-like breath. It was a bulbous, hideous thing, at least as large as Luteis.
Mori, but it is a troll child, she said, broadcasting it to the other dragons. It’s a mam.
Luteis flew up, bursting out of the trees. The mam caught sight of him. A few seconds later, Luteis’s proximity to her child seemed to register and she bellowed, heading for them. Luteis hovered, drawing her closer. She trample several trees. Sanna winced at the ringing that continued through her ears.
“Don’t kill her!”
An instant chorus of disapproval came from the mountain dragons. She scowled at them.
She’s a mam, Sanna reasoned, likely desperate for something to eat. We can send her away from us, and toward some other food. Maybe she’s lost.
There is no food in the North for her, came the dragon’s reply.
Sanna wracked her mind, then brightened. “Luteis, the belua knot we found, only a week ago, when flying North. She would eat them, surely.“
Indeed. She would feast well on them. It is located more east of here, so the chance is strong she’d eventually return into the eastern mountains at first nightfall. This is a good plan.
“Mountain dragons,” Sanna called, climbing to her feet on Luteis’s back. “Nudge her that way. She has her babe in arms. Just annoy her until she moves east. Metok, lead them. You were with us when we found the knot of beluas, near the empty patches of forest affected by strickenine moss.”
The slightest beat passed before Metok said, As you wish, High Dragonmaster.
Metok hesitated, then said, You claim to give us permission to speak openly, so let us do so now. Such compassion and mercy will not be shown by Prana in the final battle. Is it wise of you to allow my dragons to see it now?
His use of you and my dragons sent a prickle through her heart. She was still an outsider, then. Perhaps always would be. Sanna drew in a deep breath.
We don’t own the forest, Metok. We’re simply here to protect the dragons in it. That doesn’t give me unlimited license to kill a vulnerable creature. That troll will likely return to the North as soon as she eats those beluas and provides for her baby.
Unless . . .
Well, unless this was Prana’s doing.
You think she somehow has the trolls on her side?
It is a thought, High Dragonmaster.
I’ll think on it. Were any mountain dragons injured?
Do they want forest dragon blood?
Luteis lifted his head, then lowered it, taking a thoughtful moment to himself.
Metok’s eyes darted from Sanna and back.
They do not, he said after a time.
Sanna felt keen disappointment flood her chest. After all this, they still couldn’t seem to unite. How would they fight Prana if they couldn’t at least fight together?
“Thank you, Metok,” she said aloud, for the benefit of the other dragons winging restlessly around above them. “And thank all who came. Please assign two dragons to check on the mam and baby until they’ve returned to the North. I only want to be notified if they start back toward our camp or are harming the forest.”
He said nothing for a long time, finally resolving it with, As you say, High Dragonmaster.
Luteis maintained his position in the air, hovering with expert grace and use of his wings, while Sanna watched the mountain dragons retreat. The troll lumbered along, occasionally growling and swatting, but seemed to understand what they were doing. Whether she understood that they were sparing her life or not, Sanna wasn’t sure.
“How many injured?”
One gash for forest dragons. I believe it was Elis.
“Thank you,” she whispered to Luteis. “Without you . . .”
It is not necessary to even contemplate, for there is always us. Come. You need rest and to apply your tincture. Let us find some food and sleep.
I hope you enjoyed this free short story outtake from FREEDOM.
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