The forest was quiet and tranquil as Willow leaned into the groove of a rock. Though the riverbed was dry at this time of year, the remnants of the yearly floods could still be seen. She’d found this hollow several years ago on one of her trips out to the woods.
Normally, she wouldn’t risk leaving the city gates, just doing what she needed and then returning as quickly as she could. However, the local dragon clan, the Cendas, had been raiding the other side of the mountain as of late, and she needed a moment to herself.
She leaned her head back against the rock, her book sitting unread in her lap as tears rolled down her face. The ache in her chest was too tight for her to breathe properly. Just one week ago, she had buried her dog, Jax. Her mother had left the gate open and he’d ended up on the road just as a car was tearing down it . . . And nobody in her family understood why she had cried. Her mother, her father and her siblings – everyone just expected her to brush it off, get another dog and get back to herding sheep.
Jax was more than a pet. He was a colleague and her best friend. Now that she had lost him, she had nobody left in the world. The village supported itself with the sheep that it herded as a communal flock. Willow and Jax had been their best team. How many times had they chased off wolves? How many times had they brought in the sheep at the first sign of dragons? How many times had Jax climbed into the bed next to her as she cried, feeling like nobody loved her and nobody ever would?
A sob ripped from her as she hurled her book away. Maybe she would just take her dad’s old bike and ride down the mountain. Go into the city that was ruled by the Quilong dragons. Get far away from this place and never look back. They probably wouldn’t even notice she was gone . . . Her parents wouldn’t, at least.
Yes, yes. That was what she was going to do. Living under the dragons would be better than waiting for them to come and steal everything, wouldn’t it be? Willow wiped her eyes and stood. She left the book where she had thrown it. It was an ill-thought-out gift from her older sister – one she could hardly get into.
Willow headed for the village, already imagining everything she would do in the city. She’d have to join a guild. She could weave, spin, and dye – pretty much anything that was done with wool. And she could train dogs. Maybe she could be the new Dog Whisperer, get her own TV show and a couple of collies that she took on the road, train them to do tricks . . .
A dark shadow washed over her. Willow’s blood froze as her head turned upwards. The long, lean form of a dragon passed silently over her. Its wings were open wide as it glided over the trees, long tail whipping through the air behind it like a rudder. Her heart seized as sunlight hit her face again. It was headed towards the village. And where there was one dragon . . .
She broke into a run, jumping over fallen branches and through patches of brambles. Her clothes tore and thorns ripped open her skin but she ignored the pain. She already knew that she’d be too late, that the dragon would make it to the village before her. But she still ran as hard as she could. Soon, she heard the warning bells, which were quickly drowned out by a thunderous roar. She pushed herself harder.
More dragons passed overhead. By the time she got to the village, they were already flying away. All held some plunder in their wicked claws. One had a pig, another a cart of watermelons. One even had a small car in its clutches.
Willow’s breath caught in her throat as she watched them. Even with the fear beating against her chest, she couldn’t help but feel awed. They were magnificent: every color under the sun with their glittering scales and powerful bodies. If only they weren’t complete savages . . .
The revving of motorbike engines and the baaing of sheep made her twist. A gang of men on bikes was driving through the fields, herding the flock while their dogs frantically rushed around, trying to keep them in one group. Half the sheep broke away from the shepherds. A biker drove right at them and they took off, abandoning the flock. They hollered and their dogs raced after them, stopped to look back, and continued to follow their masters.
Willow’s hands clenched. There were rumors that some of the dragons had taken to raiding on their motorbikes, but she hadn’t believed it until now. They hooted and hollered as they chased the sheep towards the main road, clearly intending to drive them back to their city up in the mountains.
The village relied on those sheep. This was their full herd, and if they were taken, nobody would be able to feed their families come winter. She darted from her hiding place before she could stop to think. She grabbed a stick from off the ground and ran straight for the sheep. With one hand in her mouth, she whistled sharp and clear for the dogs to come to her. She had trained half of them, so they wheeled away from their masters and raced for her, tongues hanging from their mouths.
Willow planted her feet, whistling commands. The dogs crowded around in front of the sheep and turned their path so that they raced towards the village. The dragon-bikers shouted and tried to move in and cut out their path, but with another few whistles, the dogs had the sheep turned right around. The herd fractioned as they broke through the biker’s ranks and raced back towards the open pasture. The other shepherds stood where they were while two of them started to run back towards the flock.
There was a roar somewhere behind her and the bikers broke off their attack. They moved like a flock of birds and raced towards her. The front biker made some hand gestures. Willow braced herself, knowing there was no point in running. She gripped her stick tighter.
The bikes skidded to a stop not far from her. One of the dragons jumped off his bike and reached for her. She swung her stick. The shock reverberated up her arms as it struck his helmeted face, cracking in half. The dragon dropped to a knee, then pulled off his helmet. Long blonde hair fell about his shoulders and a cocky grin crossed his face.
Willow couldn’t move. She’d never seen a dragon before and was shocked by how . . . normal he looked. If a movie-star complexion and piercing blue eyes were normal. Her breath locked in her chest as she held her stick out before her. Her thoughts were muddled – whether with fear or wonder, she wasn’t entirely certain. The dragon stepped forward, hands in the air.
“If we can’t have the sheep, perhaps we can have the shepherdess,” he murmured. “I’ve seen you before. Always alert, always in control. Your command over the dogs is impressive. I never thought that they’d listen to you instead of their own masters.”
“Don’t you come any closer,” Willow gasped out. “Just leave us alone!”
The dragon continued to inch towards her. “Your eyes are all red. Crying? Why is such a beautiful maid of tears?”
Willow gaped at him long enough for him to make his move. He lunged forward, batting her broken stick aside. His hands locked over her wrists as she squealed, instantly fighting back. But it was too late. His arms were as thick as barrels, and he turned her swiftly, wrapping those huge, muscly arms around her waist. Faster than she could process it, she was on the bike, wedged between his meaty thighs as they barreled down the road.
“No,” she whispered. Her throat was so dry that she couldn’t raise her voice. “Let me go. Let me go.”
The helmet pressed into her stomach. “Put this on,” the dragon shouted into her ear.
Willow somehow managed to get the helmet over her head. She wondered if she could headbutt her captor. Break his nose. Make him crash. But that would more likely kill her than him. Dragons could heal from practically anything. Humans, not so much. She was numb with shock – or what she thought must be shock. Even now, nestled in his arms with his heat seeping into her back, her fear continued to drip away like tears that had run dry.
She had wanted to leave the village. This wasn’t what she had been expecting. But it was still her getting away from the village. It was far behind her already and getting further away with every mile they passed. Well. Things could be worse.