The dragonet prophecy, p.10
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.10

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Poor, poor Scarlet,” she said bitingly. “Everyone betrays you. Well, you’ve got me now. Let these worthless others go.” She didn’t even look down at the dragonets.

  Clay twisted his head and met Tsunami’s eyes. He would never, never have guessed that Kestrel would give herself up to save them. Maybe she really meant it about keeping them alive. Maybe that was the only thing she cared about, no matter how much she hated them.

  “Kestrel,” the queen tsked. “That sounded like an order. Have you switched from disobeying orders to giving them now?”

  “I won’t fight,” Kestrel said, her voice cold and hard. “I’ll come with you. Just leave them. These dragonets have nothing to do with the SkyWings.”

  “You will come with me,” said Queen Scarlet. “Funny that you thought you had a choice about that. We’ve got a thrilling trial planned, followed by an even more thrilling execution. But as for these little dragons . . .” She swept her tail toward Clay and his friends. “You can’t really expect me to give up prizes like this.”

  “They’re no prizes,” Kestrel snorted. “They’re useless, every one of them.”

  “Plus I’m weird-looking,” Sunny chimed in from the top of her rock.

  The queen’s tongue flicked out of her mouth, and more smoke coiled around her horns. “Oh, they’re just the new blood my arena needs. It would be terribly sad to let them go. I would be too, too devastated.”

  Clay tried to heave the SkyWing off him, but the soldier who had him pinned was too big. He barely glanced down at Clay’s pathetic struggles. This would be a good time to call up that inner monster, Clay thought, but no surge of strength or violence or rage answered him.

  “Take them all,” Queen Scarlet announced. “Except this one, of course.” She shook Dune lightly, as if she were shaking the fluff off a dead pigeon. He clawed at her talons, his eyes bulging. “I mean, what use is a crippled dragon who can’t fly? I’m surprised you haven’t killed yourself already, SandWing. But I can take care of that for you.”

  “No!” Sunny screamed, leaping at them.

  But it was too late. With a chilling crack, Queen Scarlet snapped Dune’s neck and dropped his body on the stone floor.

  “Dune!” Sunny howled. She squirmed past Scarlet and crouched beside him, shaking him with her front talons. His mangled wing flopped, and his scales scraped against the rocks. His black eyes were empty. “Dune, wake up!”

  Clay was too horrified to move, even if he could have escaped the SkyWing soldier. Dune is dead, and it’s all my fault. I came up with the smoke-signal plan. I brought the SkyWings here to kill him.

  Who else is going to die because of me?

  Kestrel suddenly lunged at the SkyWing soldiers. She grabbed the one who was clutching Webs and ripped him free. “Tell the Talons,” she snarled, shoving Webs toward the river.

  Before anyone could stop him, Webs pelted down the slope and dove into the water. A huge wave doused the rocks and splashed all the dragons. He vanished below the surface while Clay was still blinking.

  Clay remembered the tight gap and the long tunnel he’d swum through. Would Webs fit? Would he make it outside?

  “Oooo,” Queen Scarlet said, wiping her crest dry with one claw. “The Talons of Peace. I hope they try storming my sky palace to save you. That would be thrilling fun. Especially the part where we slaughter them all.”

  The SkyWing soldiers brought chains forward and started wrapping each of the dragonets in heavy iron. Clay caught Glory’s eye. “Hide,” he mouthed. She shook her head.

  “No way. I’m going with you,” she whispered.

  The weight of the chains made Clay’s wings and head droop as they were all marched through the tunnel and out into the dawn. The sun was slithering up the sky, casting golden light across the mountains.

  Clay glanced up and thought he saw a dark figure circle overhead, spot them, and fly away. He guessed it might be Morrowseer, but he wasn’t surprised that the NightWing made no effort to rescue them. NightWings never got their claws dirty. They delivered prophecies and told other dragons what to do, but they stayed out of the war and avoided fighting.

  Clay’s heart ached. They’d come so close to freedom, but now they were far worse off than before. Life under the mountain had felt like prison … but he knew it was nothing compared to being trapped in the claws of the SkyWing queen.

  The queen’s prisoners were kept in the sky.

  For the whole first day, Clay kept his eyes shut. His talons gripped the rock below him so tightly he started to lose feeling in his legs. One glance over the edge — one glimpse of the dizzying drop below him — and he feared he would lose consciousness and fall.

  With his wings folded over and clamped in SkyWing metal clips, falling meant death. Horrible, painful, bone-shattering death.

  But then, he wasn’t entirely sure if that would be worse than Queen Scarlet’s plans for them, whatever they were.

  His prison cell was at the top of a towering spire of rock. A narrow stone platform gave him just enough room to walk in a circle and lie down. There were no walls. There was no roof. There was only open blue sky and the fierce wind whistling around his ears day and night.

  On the second day, a hunk of meat hit him in the face.

  Hunger forced his eyes open. An unusual SkyWing dragon was flying in loops around his perch. He guessed she was only a year or two older than him; her horns were full size, but her teeth were still sharp and white, not yet blunted or stained. Veins of gold ran through her glimmering copper wings, and smoke seemed to be coming from her scales as well as her mouth. She stopped and hovered in front of him.

  Her eyes were startling, like two small blue flames blazing through the smoke. Clay was pretty sure SkyWings normally had orange or yellow eyes. He wondered if there was something wrong with this one, like Sunny.

  Something dead and bloody and charred lay on the stone in front of him. Clay took one look at the blood, remembered the shape of Dune’s broken neck, and threw up over the side of the platform.

  To his surprise, the other dragon started laughing. “Oh, gross,” she said. “Too bad the barracks aren’t down there. The guards seriously deserve that.”

  Unwillingly Clay looked over the edge.

  His rock-tower prison was one of about a hundred spires, spread out in a huge circle. Nearly every one had a dragon trapped at the top, like him. Like him, they each had thin metal clamps on the outer edge of their wings. In the center of the circle was a bowl of rock, like an empty lake, with sand at the bottom and sheer walls. Above the walls were rows of benches, balconies, and caves for spectators to look down into the arena.

  At the bottom of his tower, there was only bare rock. But from up here he could see the heart of the SkyWing kingdom stretched across the mountaintop. Queen Scarlet’s vast palace was carved into the gray-and-black rocks of the peak. Half of it was inside tunnels and caves while the other half was open to the sky and bristling with defenses. Fire-colored dragons crawled across the mountain face, digging and blasting out new palace extensions until they were covered in stone dust and dirt and looked no brighter than MudWings.

  The war had slashed this kingdom with sharp talons. Clay spotted collapsed towers, scorch marks along several walls, and a ravine half full of dragon bones. Even as he watched, he saw two SkyWings carry in the corpse of a crimson dragon and dump it in the ravine. They set fire to the body and hovered for a moment over the smoke, their wings brushing against each other. Then they wheeled and flew away, leaving the body to blaze down into ashes and singed bones.

  Far off to the east, Clay could see the blue, glittering line of the sea.

  He also noticed the thin wires that twisted around his legs and neck. He’d been too terrified and confused to pay attention to what the SkyWings did with him when they first arrived.

  The w
ires stretched from him out to the necks and legs of other prisoners, who all had them as well. One went to his left, to one leg of a moon-silver IceWing on the next column, who was asleep with her tail over her nose. One wire was attached to the dragon on his right, a fuming SandWing whose pacing made the wire shake. The last three wires snaked out across the circle. He couldn’t tell where those wires went; they disappeared into a tangled web above the bowl, connecting all the trapped dragons.

  So even if Queen Scarlet’s captives could fly away, they’d have to all lift off at once … and then all one hundred prisoners would be stuck with each other. They wouldn’t get very far that way. He wondered what would happen if one dragon fell off his spire. Would the wires drag down all the others as well?

  “Aren’t you going to eat?” asked the SkyWing who was flapping around him.

  “I’m not hungry,” Clay said, tucking his head under his wing. He could hear her wingbeats as she circled him a few more times.

  “Is it the wrong thing?” she asked. “I don’t know what MudWings eat. We’ve never had one before. You know, because we’re on the same side in the war. So that would be rude. Taking them prisoner, I mean. But you’re in the Talons of Peace, so the MudWings won’t care what we do to you. Come on, you have to eat something.”

  “Why?” Clay asked, keeping his head buried.

  “Because I don’t want you to die before I kill you,” she said, her tone so matter-of-fact that it took Clay a few moments to register what she’d said. He poked out his snout and stared at her.

  “I’ve never fought a MudWing,” she said, deftly avoiding the wires as she looped around him again. “Since we’re allies and all. So I’m really curious. I bet it’s totally different from fighting SeaWings and IceWings. But Her Majesty will make you fight some of the regular prisoners first, and if you die, then I don’t get to fight you.”

  “And that would be sad,” Clay said.

  “Right. Not blazing at all. The most blazing will be fighting the NightWing, though. Nobody’s ever seen anything like that. What if he can read my mind and knows what I’m going to do before I do it?” She tilted her wings and swooped underneath Clay. “At least he’s eating. Hey, I wonder if she’ll make you fight each other. But then I’d only get to fight one of you. Do you think you could beat a NightWing? Probably not, huh?”

  “Starflight?” Clay said. “Is he all right? Where is he?” He stood up and peered out at the circle of prisoners. It wasn’t so bad as long as he didn’t look down.

  He could see several blue and green dragons who must be SeaWings, but none of the ones close enough to identify were Tsunami. Most of the trapped dragons were SeaWings, IceWings, or SandWings — they must be prisoners of war. A few were red or orange SkyWings. He guessed those were subjects who had somehow displeased the queen.

  Only one prisoner was midnight black, and he was nearly on the opposite side of the circle from Clay. So far away. Clay couldn’t see his face, but he could tell that Starflight was sitting still, in his helpful “terrified stalagmite” pose, his head drooping.

  If only he could read minds! Clay wished desperately that he could get a message across the arena. Although he didn’t know what he would say … maybe just that he was sorry for all the times he’d teased Starflight or hidden his favorite scroll or whined about studying.

  “See him?” asked the SkyWing. “He doesn’t talk much.”

  Clay snorted. “Ask him to teach you something — like how the dragons took Pyrrhia from the scavengers during the Scorching. Then you won’t be able to shut him up.”

  “I’ll do that,” she said, apparently missing that Clay was joking. He squinted at her. The light up here was too bright, and it was even brighter when it reflected off her smoking copper-colored scales.

  “Who are you?” he asked. “Are you a guard?”

  “Ick, no. I’m Peril,” she said proudly. “The Queen’s Champion. What’s your name?”

  “Clay,” he said. “What did you mean about fighting me? Why do we have to fight?”

  “Wow,” she said. “Are you serious? Have you been living under a rock or something?”

  “Pretty much,” Clay said with a grimace.

  “Really?” She tilted her head curiously and thought for a moment. “All right. That’s the queen’s arena down there.” She flicked her long pointed tail at the bowl below them. “There’s a battle almost every day for Her Majesty’s amusement. If you win enough battles, you go free.”

  “How many is that?” Clay asked.

  “I don’t know,” she said. “Nobody’s ever done it. Her Majesty always sends me in after any dragon has a few wins, and I always kill them.” She shifted her wings in a shrug. “I’m really dangerous.”

  And possibly crazy, Clay thought. How many lives has she taken? Does she keep count? Does she care?

  “What are you looking for?” Peril asked. Clay had been scanning the prisoners around the circle since spotting Starflight, but he couldn’t see any tiny gold dragons or unusual colors. Where were Sunny and Glory?

  “The other dragons who were brought in with me . . .” he said. “Do you know where they are?”

  “The SeaWing is over there,” Peril said, spiraling up above him and pointing to a deep blue dragon halfway between him and Starflight. Clay immediately recognized Tsunami’s angry tail lashing.

  “Boring,” Peril added. “I’ve fought plenty of SeaWings. Easy, once you know their tricks.”

  I bet Tsunami has some tricks you’ve never seen before, Clay thought. “What about the RainWing?”

  She tilted her head at him. “There’s a RainWing here?”

  “You can’t fight her,” he said quickly. “They have no defenses — it wouldn’t be fair.”

  “I do whatever Her Majesty tells me to,” said Peril. “But I haven’t seen a RainWing. They didn’t bring her to the arena.”

  “There’s a SandWing, too,” Clay said desperately. “She’s really small and golden, and kind of odd-looking —”

  “Haven’t seen any dragons like that,” Peril said. “But I’ll keep an eye out, if you want.” She did a slow backward somersault in the air and tipped her wings at him. “I’d better go warm up. Cheer for me!” Peril dove toward the arena.

  He watched her glowing copper shape spiral down onto the sand below. A few other dragons were in the arena, sweeping or checking the walls or guarding the seats. Clay noticed that they all hurried to move away from Peril. Wherever she went, dragons fled, as if she had an invisible cloud of poison around her. None of them would even look at her.

  Peril didn’t seem to care. She strode around the arena as if she knew everyone would clear out of her way. Her head kept turning toward the largest rock balcony, which jutted out of a cave overlooking the arena. Finally she flicked her tail and vanished into a dark opening in the side of the arena wall.

  Clay crouched to peer over the edge. He hung on tightly with his talons and fought back the dizzying nausea caused by the view. The smell of the dead rabbit wasn’t helping. He wondered if he could hit one of the SkyWing soldiers if he threw the carcass from up here. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten — was it before Morrowseer appeared under the mountain? Wasn’t that a lifetime ago? — but his normally huge appetite seemed to have deserted him.

  As he watched, dragons started filing into the seats below. Nearly all of them were SkyWings, but he spotted the pale yellow and white of SandWings here and there as well. There were even one or two MudWings. His heart jumped. His own kind! Did they know he was up here? Would they demand his release if they found out, even though he was supposedly in the Talons of Peace?

  So MudWings and SkyWings were allies on one side of the war. Clay had never been able to remember that before, but he was pretty sure he would now. If only Starflight had thought of chaining me to a tower above gla
diator fights. I might have been an excellent history student then.

  He didn’t know how long it took for the stands to fill, but the sun was blazing directly overhead when two of the guards let out a trumpeting roar. All the other dragons snapped to attention. Across the stadium, heads bent, wings tipped, talons were crossed, and silence fell as everyone waited.

  Queen Scarlet stepped out onto the large balcony and spread her wings, catching the sunlight in the reflection of her orange scales. The fire-breathing hiss of all the gathered dragons greeted her. Clay knew this sound only as a warning that Kestrel was about to spout flames at him. It took him a moment to realize that the SkyWing dragons were hissing with respect.

  He squinted at the dragons around the queen. Several large SkyWing guards took up positions along the balcony, and two of them moved to roll something forward into the sunlight. It looked like a tree with no leaves, a sinuous curving shape with four branches, carved from a single spear of pale gray marble. Looped over the branches, with her tail wound around the trunk, was a dragon the color of deep red rose petals. But as the sunlight hit her, new colors exploded through her scales — constellations of gold sparks, galaxies of swirling violet, shifting pale blue nebulas.

  Clay inhaled sharply, and at the same moment he heard gasps and murmurs flutter through the crowd below.

  It was Glory, and she was even more dazzling in the sunshine than he’d expected.

  A delicate silver chain leashed her to the tree sculpture. It looked flimsy and easy to break, but Glory didn’t seem interested in escaping. She stretched her long neck up toward the sun, ignoring the audience, and then coiled herself over the branches again and closed her eyes.

  The guards positioned Glory’s tree in one corner of the balcony, and the queen stepped forward.

  “Well?” she said in a sly, smiling voice that carried across the arena and up to the prisoners. “What do you think of my new art?”

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