IT JUST WASN’T fair. Talia scuffed at the soft ground with her foot. A hawk’s cry echoed in the air, resonating with her own inner turmoil.
She sighed. It was just too early. She wasn’t ready to be apprenticed yet.
With a frown, she looked up from where she sat on the front steps of her home and scanned the tilled fields and small buildings comprising the only world she knew. She scuffed angrily at the ground again then punched the bag at her side for good measure. She was only fifteen—she wasn’t ready!
Only three days ago her parents calmly informed her they’d apprenticed her to the Dragon Knight’s Guild. She’d ranted and raged at them, and they’d listened to her arguments, but they all knew it would change nothing. It was just the way things were done.
Was it so grievous a thing that she didn’t want to leave her home? She would have a better life, more opportunities, by being apprenticed, they told her. But what if she didn’t want those things? She was perfectly happy here!
Though their town was small, there were several people she could apprentice with here rather than go so far away. None of their crafts were all that interesting, but she would get to stay here. Yet her parents told her it was too late for that—money had changed hands.
A soft breeze caressed her cheek as if trying to comfort her troubled face. Talia breathed deeply, calmed a little by the scent of turned earth and evergreens—all pieces of what she thought of as home.
She knew her parents gave up a lot to get her apprenticed, and with the Dragon’s Knight Guild no less. She would do her duty because it would make them happy, but she couldn’t pretend to like it.
Not when they were coming for her today.
Her few possessions didn’t take long to pack. Three sets of clothes and undergarments. The brush and mirror set Uncle Shay brought as a gift from his last visit to the capital two years ago. A dress, a present from her mother, made from fabric bought with the last of their savings. Last, the strange rock she and Lir found in the river when they were little and which she’d kept all these years.
Talia took out the mirror and studied her reflection and that of the whitewashed porch behind her on its surface. She stared at her short, brown, curly hair, her triangular face, and dark brown eyes. How would she look once her apprenticeship was over? Would her parents even recognize her? Would her years away change her until her home meant little to nothing to her anymore?
She put the mirror back in her bag, shying away from such thoughts. All her worldly possessions were in this small bag. She was sure others owned more to show for their lives than she did, but material things weren’t so important to her. Other things she couldn’t take she would miss more—her room in the loft, her mom’s special winter porridge, the smell of freshly tilled fields. Watching the sunsets and the rising stars from the roof. Lir’s teasing and playing tag after school. Helping her father with his wood projects and working the fields. All the things she could only take with her as memories. A pang of coming loss poured through her. It was all she could do not to cry. She didn’t want to go.
A large shadow crossed the yard. Talia glanced up and used her hand to shade her eyes. She didn’t recognize the strange silhouette. Blinking rapidly, she saw a shape zoom past the morning sun. Its wings weren’t in the familiar figure of a falcon’s or a hawk’s; they were more angular, wider. The tail, it was all wrong. It was long and thin. She doubted it was made of feathers. Then the strange shape twisted in the air and dropped, spiraling down.
“Mom! Dad!” Talia raced out from beneath the porch, trying to keep the odd, falling figure in sight. She heard the door of the house open behind her but didn’t look back as her parents hurried outside. “Look up there!”
She pointed upwards and watched the shape grow larger and larger as it fell. It twisted and spiraled at reckless speeds. Her breath caught as she made out the creature’s long neck and big head, its colossal body colored dark green with purple flowing from the scaled ridges on its back.
Goosebumps flowed up her arms—she was seeing an actual dragon!
Talia’s eyes grew even wider as she spotted something glinting on the dragon’s back and realized it was an armored figure. Someone was on the thing.
The dragon and rider continued to plummet. Talia took a step back, her chest tight as they came closer. Something was wrong. They were coming down too fast. Just when she thought they would crash to their deaths, the dragon pulled up his body and instead plowed sideways into the ground. Dirt and plants were thrown everywhere. Its large body came to a stop in the middle of the cornfield.
“No!” Talia rushed forward in a half-panic, as she saw the rider go under the dragon’s massive bulk. Her hurried breaths filled with the smell of earth and something more profound, foreign. She gave the beast a wide berth as she ran around it looking for signs of the rider. She hesitated as the dragon rocked once against the plowed ground then righted itself.
She stared in dumbfounded amazement as a moment later the rider who’d been pinned beneath the monstrous mass slowly sat up and staggered to his feet. Seemingly unhurt, he reached up and removed a dirt-covered helmet whose large red plume had seen better days.
“Are you all right?” Talia stared, not sure how he could possibly be standing after what she just saw.
The young man shook out his sweat-matted, sandy-blond hair and glanced over at her. His intense blue gaze locked with her own. A small smile tugged at his lips, brightening his flushed face. “I’m quite all right. Thank you for asking.” He took off one of his gauntlets and ran a hand through his wet hair.
Talia frowned, for though her mind insisted it should be different, other than looking as if he’d been at work in the fields for hours without rest, the armored man seemed to be just as he claimed.
“Do you have any water?” he asked her softly.
It took her a moment to realize he was speaking to her.
“Oh. Yes, we have a well on the other side of the house. I’ll, I’ll get some for you.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll get it.” The young man waved her off and staggered toward the residence.
Talia followed him with her gaze, still not sure whether or not she believed him. It was then she noticed her parents standing on the porch staring at her, their faces filled with fear and shock. She felt a cold shiver travel down her back as she remembered she wasn’t alone. Even as her eyes moved of their own volition to glance to her right, the dragon’s head swiveled on its long neck to take a look at her with one, large, purple eye.
Talia heard her mother gasp, even as she felt her own knees lock, the rest of her going terribly still.
The strange smell she noticed as she approached them earlier was definitely coming from him.
Small, dark green scales with just a touch of purple covered the dragon’s long face. Its eye was a deeper purple, almost black, and it stared at her with keen intelligence. It was only when it tilted its head to the side to look at her with both eyes that she realized they were crossed.
She heard her own in-drawn breath of surprise echoed by her parents as the soft voice rang in their heads. Was there a touch of amusement in the greeting? Talia didn’t know and at the moment was too terrified to care. “H—hello?”
The massive, scaled body moved and shook the ground as the dragon twisted to take an even better look at her. A long, snake-like tongue darted out of the dragon’s large mouth; she could see sharp, wicked teeth glinting at her. She gulped as it occurred to her the dragon might be hungry.
Before the thought could go much further, the dragon’s rider came back from around the house carrying a filled bucket with water. “Here you go, Clarence.” As if the large creature before him were nothing to fear, he set the water before it.
Talia stared at the bucket. It looked like a thimble compared to the size of the giant snout. The dragon’s tongue reached down, dipped into the water and rapidly flicked it up into the gaping mouth.
“Do you have any other buckets?” the young man asked. “It would really help me out. He’s likely to want to go through at least ten of those.” He gave her a friendly look.
Talia tore her gaze away from the drinking dragon so she could find a voice to answer him with. “Su—sure. I’ll go get them.” Feeling abruptly free, she took off and headed to the shed at the back of the house. She glanced back behind her once, not totally able to discard the fear the dragon might come after her.
Breathing hard, she quickly searched the shed for the buckets and found three. She grabbed them and rushed to the well where she found the young rider waiting for her.
“Thanks!” He took the buckets and dropped the line to bring up more water. “By the way, my name is Kel, and my friend over there is Clarence.”
She could only nod, trying hard not to look in the dragon’s direction.
“Your name is Talia, right?” She could only nod again.
As Kel worked to pull up the water, she studied him carefully for the first time. It wasn’t often she got a chance to meet strangers, and this pair was stranger than most. In these parts, blue eyes were rare, especially bright ones like his. Kel’s features were rounded, not as sharp as those of the people around her village. His hair was also lighter than tended to be the norm. She rather favored it.
She’d also noticed in his voice a slight accent she’d not heard before. She was sure he must be from somewhere far away.
“He’ll need to rest for a few minutes before we can start back,” Kel explained. “I hope it’s all right.”
Talia quickly nodded, then looked away as she realized he’d caught her staring. “No, no, that’s fine.”
After the buckets were filled, she volunteered to help him carry them over to where the dragon still lounged in the field, though she made sure not to get too close. Only after three more sets of buckets were brought over did Kel finally sit down and take a long drink for himself. Once he was done, he leaned back on the ground, his armor creaking, and sighed with relief. Talia jumped as Clarence slowly stretched out and laid himself out in the sun as well, his eyes closed.
She stared at them as they lay there and rested, as it slowly dawned on her that this man was a Dragon Knight— that these were the people she was apprenticed to. It also made her think of her parents. Glancing behind her, she saw they’d come off the porch but were sticking quite close to one another. Her mother spotted her looking at them and, after making sure Kel and the dragon weren’t paying them any attention, waved for her to come over.
Talia did and noticed her father staring sadly at his ruined fields then with disbelief at the cause of the destruction of some of this year’s crop. She turned to look that way herself.
Almost as if he sensed he was the object of scrutiny, Clarence opened his eyes and swiveled his massive head to stare at them. Talia suddenly found herself hugged hard from behind by her mother, who pulled her a few more steps back.
With a long, rippling movement, the dragon rose to his feet. He shook the dirt off himself as would a dog throwing off water after a swim, then lumbered in a drunken walk to the edge of the fields and squatted. Before long, a large pile of dark excrement accumulated on the ground. Talia and her parents all curled their noses at the pungent smell.
You can take this and sell it to your local alchemist. The three of them stared at the dragon as his words whispered themselves into their minds. Dragon refuse always brings in a good price. This will hopefully make up for the unfortunate mess I’ve made of your fields.
None of them said anything; they just stared at the dragon in amazement.
After a few minutes, Kel stretched and yawned before he sat up and quickly rubbed his face. Standing up, he brushed off some of the dirt Clarence inadvertently rained on him earlier and approached Talia and her stunned parents. “I almost forgot,” he said, “I’m supposed to give you this.” He took a small pouch from his belt and handed it to her father.
Her father opened the pouch then looked up, confused. Talia was released from her mother’s hold as she, too, turned to see what was inside. As her father poured the contents out onto his hand, Talia was able to see what Kel had given them. Her eyes grew wide. In her father’s palm, glinting in the sun, were three beautiful rubies. Her father stared at them, his mouth moving but no sound coming out. She’d never seen her father speechless before. “We, we don’t understand…”
Kel’s answering shrug was mostly dispelled in his armor. “It’s just payment for the trouble and the fact your daughter is being taken so far from home.”
Talia frowned, sure the damage and the inconvenience weren’t worth a small fortune. Why would the knights pay them so much more than her parents paid to get her into the guild? It didn’t make any sense to her. Was this really a standard practice of the dragon knights?
“If you’ll get your things, I think Clarence is about ready to go.” Talia found herself once more the recipient of Kel’s shy smile.
“Ah, sure.” She turned away as a bolt of excited fear shot through her. It was true—she was really going. It was happening. Sudden mixed feelings rose inside her, but not all of them were made of the unhappiness she felt over the last few days.
Picking up her bag from where she’d left it on the porch steps, she suddenly found herself surrounded by her parents. The tears she saw gathering in her mother’s eyes told her more than anything that this was real.
“Talia.” Her mother took her in her arms and hugged her hard. She felt tears rising to her own eyes. Her mother eventually let go.
“Be good, won’t you? I know you’ll make us proud.” Her father hugged her fiercely. Tears shone in his eyes as well.
She almost sobbed then. How was she going to go on without them?
“Be strong, my daughter.” He slipped one of the rubies into her hand. “Write us if you can.”
Her mother wiped away at her eyes. “Don’t forget us. Always remember that we love you.” The sorrow in her mother’s eyes brought home to her that it was as difficult for them to let her go as it was for her to leave. Yet they still wanted her to do this.
She felt her throat grow tight. “I will. And I’ll try really hard. I love you.” She hugged them both at once. She was going; she was really going.
When she finally let them go, all their eyes were filled with tears. Talia turned away and wiped at her wet face, then searched for where she had dropped her bag. It was gone. Glancing around her, she spotted Kel with it, as he secured it to the battered two-person saddle strapped to the dragon’s back. She hesitated a moment, then walked over to join them.
Almost there, she turned around to take a last look at her parents and her home. As hard as she could, she tried to engrave into her memory the view of the whitewashed house with its sloping porch, the plowed fields with their earthy smell and swaying stalks of wheat and corn, the barn with all the sheep, cows, and horses. It would be years before she saw any of it again. But she would be back. Of this she was sure. She would make her parents proud even if she possessed no idea of what it was she would be doing.
Her eyes stinging, Talia turned away and forced herself to approach the dragon. She hurriedly rubbed her eyes again as she caught Kel studying her.
“I’ll need to show you a couple of things before we get started,” he said.
She noticed his light, amused smile as she still hesitated to get too near to Clarence. She made herself step closer.
“See these?” Kel pointed to some long, leather straps hanging from the saddle. “I’ll help you tie them on once we get you up. They’ll make sure you stay on your seat in case anything happens. The Administrator frowns on us losing any new students.” His expression was serious, but his eyes were full of mirth. Clarence snorted behind them.
Talia wasn’t sure she wanted to know just how exactly they went about losing a student.
“There’s a place here you can use to hold on to.” He pointed to a grip on the front of the second seat of the leather saddle. “If you feel you’re slipping at all though, you might want to hold onto one of Clarence’s scales instead.” Gently he lifted one of the dragon’s green, oval-shaped scales from where it lay flat against its brothers. “It’s attached to his skin here, and it takes a lot to make one of them come off. It won’t hurt him, so don’t worry about it. He’s also worm-free, so you don’t have to be concerned on that account, either.”
Her brows drew together, not knowing about half of the things he just mentioned or what they meant. Why would a dragon have worms?
“Here, I’ll help you up.” Kel cupped his gauntleted hands together to give her a boost up Clarence’s broad side.
Still tense and apprehensive, she put her foot in his cupped hands and, with a tentative hold on one of Clarence’s scales, pulled herself up onto the back seat of the large saddle. Now that she was on board, the scent of oil and possibly jasmine mixed with the strange, animal scent she smelled before.
The leather saddle felt comfortable and warm and looked to have seen heavy use. Its surface was smooth, though not as smooth as Clarence’s scale.
Once she settled herself in, Kel climbed up with the ease of long practice, using the scales as foot and handholds to climb up. He sat down in the saddle backward so he would be facing her.
Going slowly and explaining as he went, Kel showed her how to take each of the saddle’s straps and where to loop them to safely secure herself in her seat. Once he tested their handiwork to make sure it was tight, he turned around and strapped himself in as well. When he was done, he took his helmet off the pommel before him and put it on.
Talia grabbed hold of the groove before her with a yelp as Clarence rose to his feet. She could feel his muscles moving beneath her, bringing her higher into the air than a horse ever could.
“The trip is going to be long and a little bumpy, I’m afraid.” Kel turned his head in her direction. “You might not have noticed it, but Clarence is cross-eyed, and he has an inner ear problem, too. It tends to make our trips a little interesting.”
“But—” The word had barely left her lips when Clarence swept open his long wings with a snap. Realizing what it meant, she grabbed hold of the saddle even tighter. Clarence’s legs churned the ground, and he went into a snaking run, then leaped into the air.
Talia was jerked back as the dragon moved. She held on for dear life. The wind whipped past her, smacking her as if it were angry. She turned to look down and watched in horrid fascination as all she knew shrunk below her. As Clarence pumped with his vast wings and spiraled upwards, roads became thin lines and fields took on the look of squares on a quilt. A thick dark blue line below them she was sure must be the Morrass River. Beside it, the small town of Queegam was turned into dozens of miniature dollhouses with ants crawling all about.
The wonder of the view was just beginning to imprint itself in her mind when Clarence stopped his climb and leveled out.
One of his wings dipped too far to the right and suddenly tilted them sideways.
The saddle shifted, and with a scream clamoring in her throat, Talia released the saddle’s groove and grabbed hold of two of Clarence’s scales. The scales were almost cool to the touch, but this was pretty much lost to her as Clarence overcompensated for his original error and threw them all sailing in the opposite direction.
The ride at no time grew steady. Without fail, every few seconds Clarence would invariably dip too far one way or the other. It was all she could do just to hold on. She kept wishing the saddle held more straps, that it was nailed to Clarence’s back, or better still that she’d never left the ground to begin with. A strong gust of wind caught Clarence’s wings like sails and pushed them all back. Talia’s scream was lost in the wind as Clarence tilted backward and over.
When the dragon twisted back to the right direction things got worse as he somehow got them turned upside down. Clarence dropped like a rock and took them with him. Talia tried to scream again but shut her mouth as her stomach rose to her throat. Any sound she might have made was stolen by the wind as if it were rejoicing in her misery. She clung on, her heart hammering in her chest, as Clarence was finally able to right himself.
Sorry. Clarence’s tone seemed shy yet at the same time amused.
She felt a metal-shod hand on her shoulder but wasn’t willing to open her eyes. Was this what it was to be a Dragon Knight? She wanted nothing to do with it. She wanted to go home.
The dizzying ride continued for what seemed like forever. They dipped, they dropped, they rolled. Hardly was there a moment it could be said they went in a straight line. She just held on knowing she had no choice but to endure it. But how did Kel do it? He had willingly got back on after the horrid landing at her house and with the dragon falling on top of him, too. Was he mad, then?
We’re almost there. Clarence’s voice came clearly into her mind. If you look, you can see the school.
Despite her stomach’s vigorous protests, Talia opened her eyes to see where she would soon be living.
A large mesa rose before them snuggled amidst tall mountains. Nestled in the middle of this mesa was the largest building she’d ever seen. Instinctively, she knew what it was. It could be nothing else—and it was grander and more massive than she ever imagined from the stories told by the bards who occasionally traveled through town. It was a castle.
Clarence circled the mesa, almost as if he were giving her a chance to get a good look. His circling pattern brought them closer and closer. The structure grew before them the nearer they came. On top of the castle, at a steep angle, was a flat white dish with numbers. After a moment, Talia realized it was a clock—and it was huge! The one which was such a source of pride and joy to Queegam was nothing in comparison.
Balconies protruded from the castle on every side. Gigantic flying buttresses held the whole structure together, making it look even more extensive and grander than it already was.
Close to the stone castle was another building. It was almost as large as the former but made of wood rather than stone. The exterior was virtually identical in design but held long slit windows instead of balconies. A wooden castle? It was something she’d not heard of before.
Surrounding the castles were cultivated fields and a small forest. On one side of the grounds was a large strip of land which ran from one end of the mesa to the other, lined by bushes and trees. Once they came close enough, Clarence dived for it.
Talia lost all feeling in her hands, her knuckles turning white, as the ground seemed to rush up toward them. The castle and mesa expanded rapidly around them as they headed straight down. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from the approaching doom. Her mind screamed at her that she was about to die!
Clarence shifted up as the ground blurred before them like a wall and plowed into the strip of land, claws first. Talia’s teeth clacked together from the impact, which made her already tight jaw hurt. The dragon slipped, his legs going out from under him, and he slid across the ground on his stomach. His body tilted sideways, throwing dirt up everywhere even as he continued to slide.
Talia ducked down onto the saddle, trying to avoid the flying clumps of earth. She held on with everything she possessed and watched the rolling dirt as Clarence dipped slightly more to one side, shifting her even closer to the moving ground. With cold terror, she recalled his landing on her father’s fields. While Kel might somehow miraculously survive being landed on by a dragon, she doubted she would be as lucky. As fast as she could, she sent out quick prayers to as many of the twenty gods who watched over her land as she could recall.
Clarence’s body plowed into a thick line of bushes which appeared as if they received this kind of treatment regularly. Talia felt her heart rise into her throat as she saw the lip of a cliff not ten arm lengths beyond them.
Both of Clarence’s claws reached out, grabbed like anchors onto the dirt, and brought them to a rough stop before they could go over the side.
Talia made her lungs breathe again, until that moment absolutely sure they wouldn’t make it. Her gaze was locked to the cliff’s edge not five paces from them; she was sure they were still about to fall.
“Talia, are you all right?”
She heard Kel turn around before her, his concern evident in his voice. Not trusting herself to do anything but scream if she opened her mouth, she forced herself to nod instead. He quickly undid his straps then turned fully in the saddle to work on hers.
Once they were all loosened, she found she still couldn’t move. Her numbed fingers were wrapped tightly about Clarence’s scales and didn’t seem in any mood to let go.
Kel didn’t say anything, but slipped out of the saddle to the ground and removed his helmet, shaking his damp hair. Clarence lay quietly, craning his neck to look at them, and waited for them both to get off.
Talia tried again to make her fingers move, but they were having nothing to do with it. She felt stupid and self-conscious half-hanging as she was from the saddle, but couldn’t bring herself to attract attention to her present predicament. Even as she tried fervently to think of what she could do, she noticed Clarence’s eyes focus in her direction. Kel suddenly turned from where he was retrieving her bag as if someone were speaking to him.
“Oh, you’re right.” Kel let go of the straps and pulled the gauntlets off his hands, letting them drop to the ground. He half-climbed back on the dragon, an apologetic look on his face. “Here, let me help you.”
Talia glanced away as his hands touched her fingers and carefully worked to pry them off Clarence’s scales one by one. She flinched as the blood flowed back into them again and they tingled with pain.
“Don’t worry, they’ll be as good as new in a minute.” Gently, he put her right hand between his and rubbed the feeling back into it.
She tried not to cringe as the pain in her hand got worse before it got better. After about a minute or so, he let go of her right hand and took up the other. As she experimentally flexed her fingers, he reached up to help her down. “Thanks.”
Once on the ground, Talia found her knees feeling weak, but they held. She was very grateful. She was sure she’d already made enough of a fool of herself for one day.
After studying her for a moment to make sure she was all right, Kel turned back to Clarence and retrieved her bag. He gave it to her then picked up his gauntlets and helmet. “I’ll meet you at your place once I’ve taken her inside. All right?” He glanced over at the dragon. The boy nodded as if he received an answer though Talia didn’t hear anything.
The dragon waited patiently until they stepped away then rolled up to his feet. He shook himself, sending dirt and pieces of bush flying everywhere.
Talia used her arms to cover her face against the assault. When it seemed to be over, she peeked out only to find Clarence looking in her direction.
It was a pleasure to meet you, Talia.
“Y—yes, the same here.” Though she definitely hoped she’d never have the pleasure of ever having to ride on him again. If all dragons flew the same as he did, she wasn’t sure why anyone would ever want to become a Dragon Knight in the first place.
Clarence inclined his head, almost as if he guessed her thoughts. He then lumbered along the long dirt track they’d used for the landing over to a spacious, cobbled path between the cultivated fields. Kel turned to follow in the same direction and waved for her to come along. Taking a deep breath, hoping her legs were steadier than before, she started after him.
Once her confidence grew and she became positive the ground would stay beneath her feet, Talia looked ahead at what lay down the road. The stone castle she’d seen from the air towered over her, imperious and foreboding. Three rows of balconies crowded the upper floors of the four-storied structure. Her mind boggled as she tried to count them and guessed they numbered around a hundred per level.
Between each balcony and descending all the way to the ground flying buttresses supported the massive walls. As she studied them, it felt as if she were gazing at a many-legged spider, lazily waiting for its next meal. She shuddered, feeling more and more insignificant in comparison to the mighty building. She glanced at Kel, who just kept walking as if the oppressive, towering structure before them were nothing at all. It was difficult to fathom how she might ever think of such a place as home.
The cobbled road split off to the right, and Clarence wove off in that direction. Kel kept on the main course and headed toward a set of dark double-doors. The doors were a full story tall and at least as wide as the length of two horses. The door on the right was slightly ajar, and he stepped through it to the inside. Talia reached out to touch the dark wood and found it amazingly smooth. The doors were as thick as her forearm was long.
Kel’s footsteps echoed in the still air as he walked on the polished green marble floor within. The light was muted inside though still bright enough to see by. The entryway was large with cushioned benches on the far side facing the doors. Colorful paintings of knights astride ferocious-looking dragons decorated the walls. A carved column rose to the tall ceiling every ten feet or so, shaped to represent knights in armor. The air smelled clean and the floor shined, yet all of it still seemed imbued with a deep sense of antiquity.
“Nice, don’t you think?” Kel was smiling at her openmouthed amazement. She was only able to nod, not having seen anything so splendid in her life.
“This way.” He led her down a broad hallway on the right.
They’d not gone far before he stopped in front of a closed door. He knocked on it twice then opened it, but didn’t go in. “This is where I leave you. Tammer is inside. He’ll get you your room assignment.” He gave her a shy smile and set her bad on the floor. “Maybe I’ll see you again later.”
“Thank you.” It was all she could think of to say. She was here. This was all really happening. The fact the only person she’d met was about to leave her only made her heart beat faster.
“Take care.” Kel took his leave.
Talia watched him go as she stood not quite in the new room’s open doorway until he disappeared from sight.
“Come on in, would you please? I haven’t got all day.”
She turned around, grabbed her bag, and stepped into the room at the impatient voice. “Sorry, sir.”
The office she found herself in was small but comfortable. Several deep chairs sat before a long oak desk, which was bare except for an inkwell and quill as well as a lone folder.
She did as she was told and tried not to look directly at the desk’s occupant. The man there seemed to be about thirty. His hair was even lighter than Kel’s, but his eyes were a deep brown. His squared features were bland and unexcited. Without ado, he opened the folder before him. “You’re Talia from the village of Queegam, is that correct?”
“Yes, sir.” She felt butterflies swash madly in her stomach.
Tammer made a notation on the papers before him. “You’ve been assigned to the Rimorn room,” he said without much emotion. “You’ll find it up the right corner stairs on the next level, the one with the red marble floor. Just follow the hallway. Your room will be the twenty-fifth on the right.” He made another notation on the papers.
“Your appointment with the Administrator is tomorrow morning at nine,” he continued. “You’ll find her office behind the gold door on the fourth level.” He glanced up, for the first time making eye contact. His brow arched high as he looked at her. “You do know how to read a clock face, don’t you?”
“Y—yes.” Pendrora, Queegam’s schoolteacher, made sure they all learned how. The village owned a leaky water clock in the center of town, but it didn’t keep good time. On many occasions, she’d wondered why her teacher bothered. The sun was more than good enough to tell time by. Plus, they didn’t own a clock at home. Now she mentally thanked Pendrora for having made them learn it anyway.
“Good.” Tammer scribbled something else on the papers. “I guess that’s it then.” He set the quill down. “Go ahead and find your room. Don’t forget about your appointment in the morning.” He closed the folder and dropped it into a drawer.
Talia stood up, clear on the dismissal, yet feeling there surely needed to be more. “But—”
Tammer stood up and led her outside into the hall, closing the office door behind them. “The stairs are over there. I suggest you get moving.” He pointed off to the right to a stairwell in the far corner.
Without another word, he turned away from her and headed off in the opposite direction. She stared after him, totally uncomprehending. This was all he felt she needed to know?
For hours the night before Kel came for her, she’d wondered what it’d be like to be here. Yet, though the building itself seemed more than anything she might have expected, her introduction to the guild was less than she’d thought possible. Was this how they did things in the outside world? How could they just bring in total strangers and tell them nothing at all then leave them on their own? How was she supposed to know what she could and couldn’t do?
Abruptly uncertain and lost, Talia felt conspicuous standing there in the vast hallway alone. Realizing there was nothing else she could do, she headed for the stairs Tammer had pointed out to her.
The staircase leading up to her room at home was barely wide enough for a grown adult. The stairs before her now could have easily handled at least ten people standing side by side. The hard stone was worn down from use. Her mind boggled at the number of feet which would have needed to walk on it to make it that way. Even the dark, wood banister was large, the same as everything else she’d seen of this place. She felt dwarfed and alone. Was such a vast place really necessary? She remembered her guess at the number of balconies she’d spotted on the outside of the castle and she was stunned by how many apprentices it would take to fill them all. Most large guilds held ten to thirty apprentices at a time, and those were only located in major cities. This place held many, many more, and they were all to be Dragon Knights? Were there that many dragons in the world?
The stairs reached a landing then continued up. The second floor, as she’d been told, was covered in red marble. Doors were set only on the wall closest to the outside, while on the opposite side were chest-high banisters facing the middle of the building, making the hallway a sort of indoor balcony. Other than for her, the hall was totally empty.
Talia started down the passage, counting doors, and tried to ignore her rising uneasiness. As she went along, she thought she heard low voices coming from the other side of the banister. Curious, and at the same time eager to prove this place held other living beings, she stepped over to take a look.
Beyond the railing, a vast expanse spread out before her all the way to the other side of the building. Looking up, she could see two more stories like this one. All three made a full rectangle and were open in the middle.
Beyond the top floor, she could see the angled ceiling for the roof, which in the center displayed huge round holes covered in what appeared to be glass, which allowed the sunshine to filter inside.
Looking down, she found all those she’d not seen so far. The area below her was split into roofless rooms by flimsy, movable wooden walls. Children who appeared to be grouped by age sat in desks in clusters of twelve or so, listening raptly to a teacher. Their voices rose and mingled together so she couldn’t make out what was being said. Soon she, too, would be there with them.
Talia watched them for a few minutes, her previous unease settling a bit at the normal looking activity. The children and young people she spotted below looked to be of all races and colors. She’d not realized so many existed. Back home, Pendrora used some simple maps to show them other places but they’d never really meant much to her. Now she saw the world might just be a lot bigger than she’d ever thought.
Finally pulling herself away from the balustrade, she resumed her count and searched for her room. Beside each door was a small plaque bearing a name. The twenty-fifth door, the one which was supposed to be hers, stood slightly ajar. The plaque beside it was inscribed with the name Rimorn, just as she’d been told it would. Taking a deep breath, she ventured inside.
To say the room was large was an understatement. It was at least the size of the main floor of her house, if not bigger. To the left, nestled in its own nook in the wall, was a massive set of bunk beds made of mahogany. Its thick supports were carved yet were almost worn smooth by the thousands of students who’d slept on them over the years. On the far wall were two full doors with glass, an extravagant expense, which opened out onto a large balcony. With each door came a set of shutters and a thick bar that would fit in the hooks behind them. Offsetting this were thick curtains, which at the moment were pulled back.
To her right, Talia spotted a majestic stone tub filled almost to the brim with steaming water. She frowned, wondering if someone finished filling it right before she arrived, for she could see no signs of a fire.
Two dressers sat against the wall by the door and perpendicular to them was a generous desk with a stack of unmarked books, several quills, and an inkwell. In a niche close to the balcony doors stood a gorgeous arrangement of flowers. The slot on the opposite side held a miniature water clock and pendulum. Talia stared at the latter in total fascination, not ever having dreamed one could be made so small. If she stood close and listened hard, she could even hear the water as it flowed inside it.
A small, utilitarian vanity sat not far from the beds and held a water-filled basin. Beside it were two buckets stacked inside each other. Next to them was a regular sized door. Opening it, she found a small closet filled with linens, two more buckets, and cleaning implements.
As she looked around, Talia noticed not all the light in the room was coming from outside. High in the walls, she spotted several globes, which seemed to be glowing. She raised her hand toward one but felt no heat emanating from it. Her brow furrowed not knowing such a thing was possible.
Shaking her head, she turned and decided to put her things away. Her meager possessions barely took up two of the available drawers on the first dresser. With the two beds and the extra dresser, she wondered if she’d be sharing the room with someone. As far as she could tell, however, there was no indication this would be the case.
After she finished, she noticed a bronze plaque set into the back of the room’s door as well as a place for another wooden bar. Embossed on the sign were the times for the serving of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which were at seven, noon, and six. It seemed cold and impersonal.
A pang of longing for her parents and home cut through her. Everything seemed to be so different from what she was used to. Nothing felt familiar anymore. She sighed, suddenly tired. Moving toward the balcony to glance at the sun outside, she made herself stop and look at the clock beside her instead. It was only three o’clock. That was three hours before dinner, three hours on her own. Her stomach took this as its cue to remind her she’d not eaten lunch. With another sigh, she lay down on the lower bed and was almost swallowed by the soft, thick mattress.
She glanced up and didn’t see the familiar sight of her room’s low rafters or the gentle inside slope of the roof. Instead, she found the carved and scarred surface of the bottom of the bed above her.
Someone had scratched in rough sketches of the school’s floor plan in the wood. Each floor was there, even the location of the Administrator’s office. It also showed her other essential things like the location of the kitchens and the dining hall. Other students looked to have added other bits of information—class names and times, information she wasn’t sure applied to her. Others seemed to have been content just to add their own names or initials almost as if to make sure those who came after would know they’d been there. As her eyes closed on their own, she wondered where they all were now.