Chapter 2 of Freedom from Sanna's Perspective
Something is in the trees.
The hair on the back of Sanna Spence’s neck stood up as a serpentine voice whispered through her mind. She stopped moving and opened her mouth to breathe more softly. Below her, Luteis burned like a blackened star. His long, graceful neck slowly swung to the right. Just ahead, Junis, a hatchling, had frozen midstep. He stood still as a tree, not a muscle twitching except his nostrils.
Do you know what it is? Sanna asked.
Is it on the ground?
Bruised shadows filled the forest floor with alternating shades of emerald and umber. Nothing she hadn’t seen before. None of the dried branches, now devoid of leaves, quivered with movement. Everything felt uncannily still. She took another silent step on the mossy branch where she stood. Nothing changed.
Yes, I believe it’s on the ground, Luteis said. His voice sounded larger in her head—that meant Junis could hear them now.
Not a belua then, she said, thinking of the massive, hulking creatures that lived only in the trees.
His nostrils flared in silent appraisal as he sniffed.
Nor a lion.
Silence thickened the air. Letum Wood was without noise only when something lurked in the deep shadows. Sanna’s shoulders tightened. Last time this had happened, Daid had died. She shirked the thought. Fatigue from hunting unsuccessfully for so long made her paranoid. As if on cue, her belly grumbled. Luteis sent her a blithe look.
She scowled at him.
Only blunted light filled the air here, leaking through the skyless canopy. Not too far away, the distant call of another witch rang through the trees.
Whatever it is, she said to Luteis, we deal with it now before anyone at the circle knows it’s here. The last thing we need is to frighten everyone into thinking we’re not safe.
Is it safe here? Luteis asked, voice musing.
Now is not the time to wax philsophical, she muttered. Just figure out what it is. Junis, what do you smell?
A belua, High Dragonmaster.
Luteis paused. Sanna glanced at him in amusement. A belua? she repeated.
It can’t be, Luteis said.
Confidence rang in Junis’s young voice. I smell a belua, High Dragonmaster.
Annoyance fairly rolled off him. I am not wrong, he muttered. Whatever it is is on the ground.
Belua’s don’t touch the ground, Sanna pointed out.
I’m forming a plan, he snapped.
Since belua’s couldn’t leave the trees, she reached for her knife. Something was wrong here. A familiar burn built in her fingertips, hot as a coal. The Dragonian magic. It slipped through her wrist, into her arms like a wild, living thing. The usually dormant magic awakened only when danger approached any dragon or Dragonmaster. After six months of living in Letum Wood, she’d had plenty of opportunities to learn how to use it. She welcomed the heat, as familiar as an old friend now.
Thankfully, Dragonian magic had proven very straightforward. It protected the Dragonmasters and the dragons. Figuring out how to use it all summer had been fairly easy, and Sanna felt it second nature now.
We need to figure out what it is, she said to both of them. Before we play a game of magical fire. The trees won’t like it.
Perhaps we can eat it, Junis said, whatever it is.
Let’s just hope it’s not a troll, she said.
Junis’s gaze snapped to hers, seeming startled, then away. An unspoken question lingered in his eyes. Would a troll really come here from the North? She hoped not. The prickling sensation grew when a twig snapped not far away. Trolls aside, Sanna doubted anything lurked as large as the forest dragons.
I know that smell, Junis said. There’s certainly a belua nearby.
Luteis would have undoubtedly snorted his disapproval of such a thought if another sound hadn’t come from the left. An odd snuffle, like a distressed grunt. The ground shook just slightly. Sanna slipped onto another branch using a vine.
It is on the forest floor, Luteis said, but has moved.
She scowled and glanced up. An hour left of light at most. The retreating summer sun grew colder with every passing day, sending them firmly into the clutches of chilly nights. But it was far too early for such weather.
Weeks worth of repair work still awaited them back at the circle of the Ancients, where they had moved during early summer. Not to mention hungry bellies that wouldn’t be pleased with her empty hands. Despite the silence around them, a constant, steady chatter of dragon voices moved through the back of her mind in a quiet ebb and flow. Loud when a dragon called to her through their mind, quiet when she wasn’t needed. But always there.
A piercing scream rent the air. Dragon voices tripled through her head, filled with fear.
It has taken Sellis.
A belua has entered the camp, came a calmer voice amidst the chaos. Cara, Junis’s mam. It is moving toward the houses with a hatchling. I believe it is heading for the witches.
On the ground? Sanna asked, incredulous.
It is so.
Without another thought, Sanna leapt off the tree branch seconds before Luteis flew underneath it, landing with a thud on the juncture between his broad shoulders. They dropped into a dive, heading for the ground. Luteis negotiated the complicated canopy with ease, Junis close behind. Seconds later, a glimpse of mottled, filmy, gray skin, moving across the ground with long arms and heavy knuckles, caught Sanna’s gaze.
“Mori,” she muttered. “It is a belua on the ground.”
Luteis slammed into the dirt a few paces away from the belua, his wings spread wide in a wall. Open-mouthed, he roared a plume of fire that forced the sightless belua to skid to a stop, nostrils flaring.
A dragon hatchling, recently hatched, dangled upside down from one of the belua’s thick hands. Sellis. He released a pathetic mewling sound, tender wings flailing as the belua shook him. Too much of that and every bone in the hatchling’s body would be shattered.
Sanna clenched her teeth together, hot with fury. Ancient magic flooded her whole body now, releasing in a practiced surge a heartbeat before Luteis roared again. The magic fed Luteis’s fire. Flame raced out of his mouth in billows, reaching for the belua as if with hungry hands.
Sanna ran and leapt off Luteis’s back and landed on the belua’s shoulder before it could scramble away. It screamed as she drove her knife into the lean muscles of its neck. The hand holding the hatchling slackened, but didn’t let go.
Sellis screeched, wings flailing.
“Let him go!” Sanna yelled, yanking the knife free. “You stinky, mottled beast!“
Another wave of flame cascaded from Luteis, thick as a tree and hot as the fires of Hatha. He just managed to divert it down as Sanna dropped from the belua’s back. Luteis had never hurt her before, but she’d been singed plenty this summer as they figured out the Dragonian magic together.
Steaming, purple blood coated her feet. Sweat popped up across Sanna’s body.
Junis! Sanna called, sliding off the belua’s back. Be ready. I’ll catch Sellis, you bite the belua. Luteis, fire.
Yes, High Dragonmaster, Junis said.
Luteis threw another wave of fire, triggering a round of screams inside Sanna’s head from nearby trees. Mori, but she hated fighting. Everything panicked, even the trees, and she had to hear it all.
Behind their turbulent cries rang the chatter of the forest dragons, half-panicked.
Junis’s black shadow slipped through Luteis’s flame as the belua flailed, face wrenched with pain. One massive arm, almost as long as it’s entire body, flew out, slamming into Luteis’s chest. He grunted, but absorbed the blow. His fire stuttered.
Sanna darted away as Junis bit the belua on a blindly grasping hand. The belua threw back his head and roared, purple spittle flying in acidic flecks. Sellis dropped. Sanna, arms held out, saw only a blur of dark movement. With one last shove, she leaped across the space and caught Sellis. His hot little body landed with a thud on her chest.
Sanna stumbled over a root, righted herself, and slipped away seconds before the belua’s flailing arms nearly slammed into her back.
Be careful, Luteis said.
She gave him more of the heat as the belua roared. I’m always careful when it comes to dragons.
A vine dropped from the trees. She snatched it, wrapped it around her forearm, and ran, swinging away from the fight. Luteis slammed the belua into the ground with his tail. It screamed, writhing in pain. The mottled bluish-gray skin sizzled on the dirt.
Finish it, Sanna commanded Luteis. Don’t let it suffer.
The belua screamed again when Luteis swiped out with a claw, cracking it’s thick neck. The meaty shoulders went limp. Silence immediately followed, leaving the air hanging in a strange way.
Sellis cried out in a tinny, pathetic squawk of smoke. Not far away lurked the shadows of other dragons. Sanna released the vine and slowed, inspecting the dragon baby.
Hints of ivory—perhaps eventually a warm yellow—lingered in the tiny scales. He was the length of her arm, so recently hatched that his eyes were still glazed and unfocused most of the time. He burned hot, though not as hot as some, and stopped his cries as soon as his mams smell replaced the belua.
He’d be a mild dragon, no doubt.
His mam, Gellis, stepped out of the tress, emerging like smoke. She took Sellis gently with one wing, cushioning him. Streaks of burgundy ran through her scales in waterfalls of blunted color. The design on her chest resembled dappled sunlight at the top of the canopy, filtering through the leaves.
Sanna stepped back as Sellis nuzzled his mam with a little sigh, seeming no worse for wear.
Safe, Sanna said to Gellis, feeling as much relief herself. She’d almost missed him—he could have fallen and broken a wing. Or been crushed under the belua’s massive feet.
My gratitude, High Dragonmaster, Gellis said. Her calm, even cadence had always eased Sanna, though she rarely spoke. Sanna felt a swell of something. Hope. Warmth. A glimpse of the life she could lead with all the forest dragons.
It is my pleasure to help.
Gellis studied her for a second with a careful, uncertain perusal, then turned her attention back to her saved hatchling.
Sanna, watching the two, slowly backed away. Her relationship with the brood had been tenuous. Fighting the mountain dragons and saving the entire forest dragon race certainly had helped, but claiming the mountain dragons race and becoming their leader hadn’t. Being High Dragonmaster over both had proven . . . difficult.
With a sigh, she turned, heading back to the meadow.
Witches had congregated in a circle near the old houses that had once housed their ancestors before the Great Massacre. They wached from a safe distance. Jesse and his dragon Elis dropped onto the scene from overhead.
“Mori,” Jesse muttered, one eyebrow raised as he studied the belua. His stocky body but broad shoulders were an oddly perfect fit for Elis, a thick dragon in his own right. The two of them had become fast friends. Elis wasn’t as quick or nimble as Luteis, but he flew well, and led the others even better.
“This isn’t a good sign,” Sanna murmured, crouching next to the belua.
“Luteis,” Jesse muttered, shaking his head. “Your flame is so hot and you throw it so far.”
He pleases me with his words, Luteis said, preening.
Sanna rolled her eyes. “Don’t give him a big head,” she muttered to Jesse.
“You have at least three times the power I do,” Jesse said, without a hint of jealousy. He stared at his fingertips as he spoke. “Elis throws very hot fire, but nothing like Luteis. I wish I could give him more when we’re fighting together and merged.”
Elliot ran out of the trees, panting. He stopped a few paces away, eyes wide. Several pairs of dragon eyes appeared behind him from the trees.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Belua attack,” Sanna said.
His brow creased. “On the ground?”
This one was desperately hungry to be hunting on the ground, Luteis said.
“Very desperate,” Sanna murmured.
She strode around it, grabbed her knife out of its neck, and pulled it free. When she threw it onto the forest floor next to Luteis, he gently charred it with his fire, burning the sticky blood free. Sanna left it there to cool, unable to take her eyes off hideous beast.
Instead of terrifyingly stout and thick like all the other belua’s she’d seen, this one was gaunt, at best. Bones jutted out of its ribs.
“Solo,” Jesse said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside a family before.”
“Or this thin,” Elliot said.
“They’ve never bothered dragons before,” Sanna said, “which means he wasn’t just hungry. He was starving.”
This is evidence of our much greater problem, Elis said. His voice rumbled through the back of Sanna’s mind. One we’ve been battling for years now.
Elis closed his eyes and lowered his head in agreement. Elliot peered at her with a quizzical expression.
“Sorry,” she said, rubbing a hand over her face. Speaking directly with the dragons through her mind made it so easy to forget context when others were around. As High Dragonmaster, only she could talk to all fo them. Jesse could speak only to Elis.
“Elis and I agree that there’s not enough food,” she said, “even for the beluas. Likely, that motivated this attack. To make matters worse, Luteis, Junis, and I had no luck hunting today.”
Thanks to Talis, the belua’s have had one hundred and fifty years to populate to these numbers without restriction, Luteis said. They are running out of prey. Food is not a problem isolated to witches and dragons.
Sanna’s troubled thoughts grew heavy. Moving back to the Ancients had been her only plan for more safety and more food. Neither were coming about as much as she’d hoped. Feeding the hoarde of mountain dragons hadn’t proven much easier. They’d been rapidly diminishing Letum Wood’s reserves as well.
“Well,” she said, “witches can’t eat belua meat, but dragons can. That’s something. And at least it wasn’t a troll. No one was injured and Sellis is with his mam. Everything came out all right.”
Elis snorted. Belua is stringy and tastes like slugs.
Better than starving, Sanna said.
He didn’t disagree.
“Let’s get it moved.” Her nose wrinkled. “Before the smell draws more of them to camp. In the meantime, search for leto nuts and bitter greens. I doubt there’s any left this late in the year, but we can try. Luteis and I have to go North. We’ll return after checking on the mountain dragons. Expect us back in the morning.”
“Will you stay for dinner?” Elliot asked.
“I’m not that hungry.” Her stomach rumbled again, but Luteis wisely acted like he hadn’t heard. “Junis, keep an eye on my mam and her house, please?”
Yes, High Dragonmaster.
Sanna slipped up Luteis’s back and settled on his shoulders. Jesse waved farewell, already backing away. Sanna could feel the earth shifting beneath them as Luteis crouched, sprang, and rose into the forest, wings unfurled.
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