The air was warm at the edge of Nuzyn, the realm of magic, unreachable over the jagged mountain peaks which formed the border between kingdoms. The scent of sulfur was carried by a stiff breeze off the towering cliffs, ruffling and drying my damp hair. The astonishing height of the mountains was intimidating, curls of smoke rising from the peaks shimmering in the sunlight. I waited near the sheer rock faces, feeling my horse’s broad chest move heavily between my thighs, the woman at my side taking her helmet off to shake loose a mane of sweat dampened curls. My own helmet rested on the horn of my saddle, the black metal engraved with swirling patterns inlaid with gold which seemed dull in the shadows cast by the mountain.
A small group of armored men dressed in similar armor milled in the shadow of the mountain, gathering in low murmurs of weary aggravation as they dismounted their horses and began to care for the panting animals. Every so often they cast glances at us, watching as they waited for me to direct our next move. I paid little attention to them, my heart racing as I saw a shadow of large wings pass over the cliff nearest to us.
Dragons, the thought was one of breathless awe as I caught the shimmer of sunlight against vibrant scales before the tail of the beast disappeared around the mountain peak. We stood at the edge of Ardeya, the dragons’ nest- the only method of entry for humans such as us. Stepping into even this small, sacred part of Nuzyn was only allowed for my family… and those we chose to sponsor in our name.
One of the chosen knights split away from the rings of guards, urging his armored horse toward where I waited in the shadow of the cliffs. Removing a helmet engraved with patterns of smoke, the guard’s short black hair was stirred by the wind as he dismounted. The crest of my family, twin dragons curled over a broadsword, was embroidered in gold threads on the deep red tunic which covered his black plate armor. Clearing his throat, the knight's amber eyes shifted past me to focus on the young woman at my side. “Are you ready, my lady?”
The sunlight caught in her flaming red hair as she descended from her own plated mount, passing the reins off to her personal guard. Unlike the guards, she wasn’t burdened by the full suit of armor; delicate chainmail draped over her form under her thick riding jacket, bracers and greaves protecting her slender arms and legs. “Of course- we’ve only been waiting for you to catch up, Sir Demar,” she said, a faint smirk curving her lips as her jade green eyes sparkled with humor.
The knight pressed his lips into a thin line, glancing back at his gathered men; their horses had been worked to a lather, the knights dusty and windswept from chasing after us. “Lady Katrina…” Her name was released on an exasperated sigh, and I looked down to hide my grin. It seemed to attract the knight’s attention, a slight scowl on his face as he looked at me. “You at least should know better, my lord.”
I sucked in a breath to try to maintain a straight face as I slowly raised my gaze from the reins clenched tightly in my hands. “Indeed- but somebody has to keep up with my sister,” I responded with forced calm.
Katrina snickered, unabashed in her amusement as she beckoned for me to dismount. “Liar,” she accused, her grin fey and charming. “It was your idea to race here, Markus- we wagered on the privilege to take the first step into Ardeya.”
“And I won, didn’t I, Kat?” I couldn’t help teasing as I descended from my mount, patting the horse’s thick, muscular neck before I stepped away from him; another knight rushed to take the reins and lead the horse away from the shadows of the mountain. I wore the same lighter protective armor as my sister, hearing the metallic sound of my chainmail shifting as I walked forward to stand in front of the sheer rock face- my sister and the knight close behind me. My heart raced as I stood in the dim, hardly able to tear my gaze from the peaks and the hints of vibrant, leathery scales occasionally visible between the expanses of rock.
She huffed, her arms crossed under her chest as she glared at me. Kat’s riding gear was dusty, her soft leather pants and a thin white shirt clinging to her form under the polished rings of her chainmail as her riding jacket was unbuttoned and left open to cool her flushed skin. With her hair tied back from her delicate face in a cascade of ringlets, Kat looked nothing like the noble lady our parents wanted her to be. And we both preferred it that way, as my mocking grin had her punching my arm hard enough to send a shock of numbness down to my fingertips.
I gave her a look of mock offense, rubbing at my arm. My sharp retort was on the tip of my tongue when Sir Demar cleared his throat. “It would be wise to enter the nest now, if you would like to return home before the end of the week,” he suggested, his tone frosty and formal.
Kat sighed, rolling her eyes as she nudged the stern night with her elbow. “Oh come now, Clifton, do loosen up a tad. Would it kill us to be a day or two late?”
“No- but your father would no doubt be displeased.”
The knight’s words had both me and my sister wincing, falling into silence as we considered disappointing our father. Swallowing, I reached up to the thin silver chain around my neck; dragging a heavy golden medallion from under my shirt, my skin slightly chilled in the loss of its constant warmth. The jewelry was heavy against my palm, the glimmering metal engraved with delicate carvings of dragons in flight circling a large, flawless ruby set into the middle of the disc.
My other hand grasped the sword at my hip, my thumb pushing the hilt up from the pommel to reveal a sliver of naked blade. Nicking my finger against the sharp edge had my mouth twitching against the sting. Kat watched with wide, eager eyes as I paced forward to the sheer cliff face in front of us. Wiping my bloodied finger over the ruby, I felt the tingle of magic as the gem began to shed a gentle glow.
The racing beat of my heart rushed in my ears as I held the medallion up to the jagged rocks, a shimmer of golden sparks in the air drifting to frame a doorway against the solid stone. “As the next lord of Adeyl, the eighth of my line fated to reign from Oraeil, I request entrance to Nuzyn.” The stone brightened as I spoke the name of the dragons’ land, its glow flickering like live flames in my palm.
With the grind of stone and a waft of smoke, the seamless door slowly opened outward. I stepped forward as a colossal scaly nose slowly pushed out from the shelter of the mountains. The medallion was scalding in my palm as I eagerly approached the massive beast which prowled out of the tunnel. Massive feet with sharp talons spread over the sand as the dragon bowed its head to me, its leathery wings spread wide and proud despite the respectful gesture.
Young lord, its growling voice resonated in my mind, a whisper of embers and smoke. Is it that time already? Humans grow so quickly.
I nodded, my voice calm and confident as I answered, “I greet my twentieth year at dawn- and as heir to my family’s privilege and duty, I am here to find my partner.” I raised my free hand slowly until it met the dragon’s nose; its fine black scales were as hard and smooth as diamonds beneath my fingers, warm to the touch. As its nostrils flared, blowing hot air and wisps of smoke which ruffled my hair, I couldn’t help my grin. “I’ve come with my sister, and several of the knights accompanying us hope to find a match as well today.”
The dragon raised its head, its crimson gaze sweeping over the knights. To their credit, the dragon knights trained by my father and his captain didn’t quail; but I noticed several of them swallow thickly, hands tight in their reins. I gladly grant you access to Ardeya, my lord. Enter… and good luck.
My tight shoulders eased as the dragon drew back, a powerful pump of their wings lifting them off the ground; the strong wind pulled at my clothing, the horses pacing backward as the dragon took flight. Taking a perch on a cliff overlooking the mouth of the tunnel, I knew its keen gaze would watch the knights who remained behind to watch the horses.
The ruby still glowed in my hand, our only light against the darkness of the tunnel, as I turned to meet my sister’s expectant gaze. “We’ve been granted permission. Come with me,” I offered her my arm, and she took it with a beaming smile.
Sir Demar muttered instructions to his men before following us, two other knights who had passed my father’s tests pacing at his heels. It was my family’s duty to protect the dragons- and to offer our finest warriors as their partners. Nervous anticipation curled in my stomach as we walked down the tunnel bored through the mountains; knowing the nest waited on the other side, and it was not just the fate of the knights that would be decided when we stepped onto the sand.