Do you believe one heart calls to another?
Gregory rolled over in bed and rubbed weariness from his eyes. It had been another long night, or rather, a short night for sleep, and an interminable agony of tossing and turning for the remainder. He blinked as the first rays of light crept into his room from the open balcony. There had been some detail as he came to consciousness, something significant. What was it? Some thought he wanted to remember. A longing, even.
Once again, it eluded him. How many days had he awakened with a sense of having just missed something vitally important? Close to three moons now, surely. What he did recall wasn’t anything he wanted in his memory, the maimed, dead figures of fallen elves and creatures from Elohan’s other realms. What did it mean? The nightmares had commenced shortly after the battle in Lochmorvian, but they bore little resemblance to actual events. The war in Lochmorvian had been won with more faith than brute force.
Gregory shoved off the bed and dressed in his usual white shirt and buckskin trousers. Perhaps a day spent sparring with the dragon riders would bring a deeper sleep come evening.
It didn’t take long to leave behind the signs of elven habitation for the deep forest. When he emerged from the cover of trees and strode into the open field, he found Reychek and Aldrian going at one another with long rattan poles. The crack of each blow sounded deafening as it reverberated through the fresh, clear air.
Gregory moved closer. Watching the cousins train was like enjoying a fine dance. Their economy of movement and precise strikes appeared to be something they’d memorized. Neither gained ground as they moved through flow spar, cross block, and sweep block moves, each designed to perfect technique. What made it more impressive was their balance. Not once did Aldrian or Reychek take note of their suspended position on the fallen log. How did they maintain awareness of their feet as well as their upper body movements? Balance was something Gregory desperately needed to perfect if he expected to ride with the dragons, even in a perfunctory state.
He waited until Aldrian declared the match a draw then sauntered forward. Reychek flicked a glance his way, barely breathing hard as he shouldered his stick.
“What brings you away from your herbs, healer?”
“I was not aware one needed a reason to observe the two finest warriors in the dragon clan.”
“Certainly, one is the finest,” Aldrian said with a wide smile.
“I could have knocked you from the log at any point, cousin,” Reychek said with a slight grimace. “My respect for your advanced age demanded my forbearance.”
“Advanced age? Clearly, your new wife has filled your head with delusions of prowess, Reychek. What say you, Gregory?”
Gregory hid a smile. Both of the cousins were new to wedded bliss, but it hadn’t slowed their competitive nature. “A wife is bound to exert undue influence on one’s sense of self-importance.”
Aldrian’s jaw dropped, and he shook his head. “Says the man who just got dumped by his woman.”
“Indeed.” Reychek nodded. “The healer is obviously here because he fails to measure up and desperately seeks our approval. Should we oblige him?”
Aldrian laughed. “Bring it.”
Gregory raised his stick to a defensive position. “Lord Aldrian, it appears that your Earth wife has influenced your speech as well as your inflated opinion of self.”
Reychek shook his head. “You really want to die, Gregory.”
Both cousins advanced on Gregory’s position, keeping their sticks moving. To remain still allowed inertia to overwhelm you during combat. That much Gregory had learned from previous bouts when he landed on the ground.
Their words may have sounded inflammatory, but Gregory recognized restraint as Aldrian and Reychek put him through the paces. Still, an hour later, he could barely lift his stick. He held up a hand as he leaned on the practice rattan. “Enough. I concede.”
“As if that were ever in question.” Reychek bent to gather the sticks.
“You have improved greatly,” Aldrian added. “Your balance is superb and your endurance will improve over time. Tell me again, Gregory, why you refuse to join the riders.”
“I’m a healer, not a warrior.”
“And yet here you are…again.” Reychek regarded him, with his arms crossed over his chest.
He always had such a succinct way of reducing life to its basic forms. Gregory had been accused of the same. Perhaps that was why Maerwynne had left him for a human. She had accused him of being narrow-minded and unyielding. Lately, he questioned his commitment to follow his clan as a healer. Hence, his forays with the dragon clan onto the practice field. But that wasn’t something he was ready to discuss. Yet another of the shortcomings Maerwynne had accused him of…he didn’t share his thoughts and feelings. If that’s what she wanted, she was better off with the human. Truthfully, Gregory believed she had chosen well. King Tristian showed great leadership for the people of Gennargentu and concern for all the kingdoms of Elohan.
“Well?” Reychek asked.
“Your comment has merit.”
Aldrian laughed. “When it comes to men of few words, Reychek, I think Gregory has you beaten.”
Suddenly both cousins jerked their gaze to the sky. “The dragons are coming.”
Gregory heard not a thing, but he searched the sky along with them, knowing their thoughts were unalterably linked to that of their own personal dragons. In seconds, the mammoth beasts appeared, and Gregory stepped back. Dragons barely tolerated any elf not a member of the riders’ clan. He found their colossal arrogance amusing, though expressing such a thought would be like taking his life in his own hands.
As they grew closer, the wind around him stirred branches on the trees, a direct result from dozens of wings buffeting the air. How powerful and sleek they looked as they sailed ever closer to the ground. Massive musculature and dagger-sharp scales made them a force to be reckoned with. Gregory had observed them in battle only once and marveled at their ferocity. They used every weapon at their disposal, from sheer mass, razor-sharp teeth and talons, to their whip-like tails, strong enough to snap a tree in half. And one should never forget the flames, so hot a man turned to dust in a matter of minutes. Yes, Gregory maintained a healthy respect for dragons and their riders.
The colorful band of creatures, black, red, yellow, and blue, filled the clearing, and Gregory stood completely still. Stepping back indicated weakness, something they disdained. Though he didn’t fear them, he never displayed any attitude or action that might be misinterpreted as offensive. Waiting to discern their purpose was always prudent.
Within seconds, the air around Gregory became very thin. He could scarcely breathe as heat radiated over his body. Had the dragons super-heated the air? He inclined his head to study Aldrian and Reychek, but they remained seemingly unaffected. Gregory clutched at his throat as the world went dark.
You. Are you ready?
Who was speaking to Gregory? He tried to open his eyes but couldn’t. The voice sounded so rough and foreign…like a dragon. A dragon in his head.
Gregory Gelkhayil, are you ready to join with me? I have waited long enough. Your ambivalence grows tiring.
I don’t know you. How can I join you?
You are here with the dragon riders. Do you deny the longing to bond with a dragon?
I am here to learn…to be useful and supportive.
A noble idea, but useless unless one joins with a dragon. Are you ready?
I will consider it.
Instantly, the heaviness evaporated and Gregory breathed easy. He opened his eyes to find Aldrian and Reychek staring at him. His forearm felt as if he’d landed it in a fire.
Aldrian’s eyes went wide, and he pointed at Gregory’s arm. “You’ve been branded.”
“By a dragon.” Reychek looked over his shoulder at the nearby dragons then back at Gregory. “Which one?”
“What?” Gregory lifted his arm and stared at the red mark that began at his shoulder and ended about four inches down. “Is that permanent?”
Reychek shook his head. “Not unless you choose to bond, but apparently, you’ve been selected by a dragon. Which one?”
Gregory was accustomed to stuffing away any and every emotion, but the sheer magnitude of the invasion against his personal self overwhelmed him. Branded? What gave dragons the right to make such a decision? He threw the practice stick to the ground.
“How would I know that, Reychek?”
“Has the dragon been conversing with you?”
“Just this moment…in my head. Which I never invited.”
Aldrian held up a placating hand. “There is an explanation, Gregory, but first…why are you annoyed?”
“How can you ask? My arm is on fire, and a strange being is speaking in my head…against my will.”
“Why are you here? You’re a healer, and yet you arrive most days before the other members of the dragon clan.”
“All the elves should prepare for battle. There is much unrest in the lands of Elohan. I train to be ready.”
Reychek shook his head. “You’re telling us you have absolutely no desire to ride a dragon…none whatsoever.”
Gregory opened his mouth but closed it when Reychek shook his head.
“Do not say it. We can sense it, you know.”
Gregory glanced over at the dragons, who appeared to be ignoring the conversation as they stomped about, pawing at the ground or sniffing the air like wild animals. “How? How can you sense my interest, or lack thereof, in riding a dragon?”
“We are hyper-sensitive to anything the dragons sense. Do you not remember when Emira was entranced and could not speak? I could hear her thoughts through Xantherra.” Aldrian pointed at his dragon. “This is much the same. We can sense you’re more interested in the dragons than is usual for your clan.”
Reychek nodded. “You should be honored. Many of the dragons are interested in you or you wouldn’t now have a brand. It signifies to the others that you have been chosen.”
“I thought there was a connection between only one elf and one dragon. A destiny. Are you saying elves can have multiple dragons?” Gregory asked.
“Not at all. A dragon can only link to one elf, but you are not of the dragon rider clan. Your ambivalence makes it difficult for the dragons to know for certain. Still…” Reychek flicked his head toward the dragons. “One of them has made the choice. Do you not wish to know which one?”
Did he? How did the dragon recognize a desire he hadn’t acknowledged himself? Could they truly be linked by Elohan? Was it possible to walk away from such a thing? The thought of bonding to another being for all of eternity weighed on his chest. Was this how Maerwynne had felt when told she had to remain in Elshamir with the elves as a healer when her heart longed for something else? He was beginning to understand more and more her desire to travel the lands of Elohan and experience all that life held.
Before Gregory could decide if he wanted to meet the dragon responsible for his new brand, they all leaped into the air with guttural barks or roars and more than a little snapping of teeth. No matter how sentient a dragon, they still acted and reacted on occasion with wild abandon like a flock of skittish birds.
“What was that about?” Gregory asked.
A moment later, Reychek’s mate emerged through the trees, plucking flower petals from a stalk. She raised a hand in greeting then yanked at the long hem of her dress as she passed a nettle. “Confounded dress.”
Reychek smiled. “I told you the jeans are adequate clothing.”
Gwyneth reached up to put her arms around his neck and kiss his mouth. “As much as I like my Earth clothes, I love your reaction to an elven dress.”
“If we were not here, I could react properly.”
“Reychek!” She chuckled. “Men are the same the world over, either on Earth or Elshamir.”
Gregory frowned. “Hardly.”
“Hello, Gregory.” Gwyneth slid out of Reychek’s embrace to face him. “I’m well aware all you cocky elves think humans are pitiful in comparison, but…men are still men when it comes to how they look at their women.”
“Having no experience to that effect, I will take your word.”
“What a good little elf, you are.”
She patted his hand, and it was all Gregory could do not to laugh at her. As a half-elf, her stature would never be that of the other elves, and he towered over her. But he didn’t wish to offend. “Thank you, Gwyneth. I leave you to your husband now.”
He turned to walk away, but Aldrian called out. “This isn’t finished, Gregory. You will have to face it eventually.”
He kept walking even as he held up a hand in salute. How would he be able to think of anything else? Perhaps some time spent alone in the archives would elucidate the matter.
Gregory had been seated at the long table in the center of the room for over two hours without coming any closer to a conclusion. Numerous volumes littered the surface of the once pristine oak table but not one offered him the assurance he sought. Was he supposed to be a healer or a dragon rider? Could he be both? Elohan, I truly need your guidance. What is your purpose for my life? I would like to fulfill it in the way that honors you most. Please, show me the way.
When the door slowly creaked open, Gregory glanced up. Princess Emira peeked around the edge. Her hair stood out from either side of her head in two braids she had often referred to as pigtails. In her jeans and t-shirt, she resembled no elf he’d ever seen. Still, she was his sovereign.
“Is anyone else in here?” she asked.
Gregory stood. “No, milady. Do you wish me to leave?”
She shook her head and waved at him to sit as she advanced toward the table. “Please don’t do that every time I walk in a room.”
“As you wish, milady.”
He pulled out a chair for her, and she turned to face him.
“And that’s another thing…you don’t have to constantly milady this and Princess that. Just call me Emira. That’s who I am.”
Gregory nodded and regained his chair. He studied her face. She seemed troubled by something, but his interactions with her had been few. Since her marriage to Aldrian, she spent most of her days learning the ways of the dragon riders or perfecting her skill as a wizard.
She sighed. “Alright. Out with it. I know you’re thinking something behind those inscrutable eyes of yours. You have the best game face of all the elves.”
“Might I offer something for you to ponder?”
“I realize your years spent on Earth make you ill-prepared to hear the terms of homage you’ve been given, but they are not empty accolades. In our society, a name or title is not bestowed or received lightly. It has great significance.” She nodded, so he continued. “The fact that many, myself included, address you by your title does not mean we don’t wish to know you personally. Rather, we are indicating our utter acceptance of you as our princess, our honor for the throne you will one day occupy, and our love for you regardless of your time spent away from us…Emira.”
While he spoke, her eyes had filled with tears. She rubbed them with the back of her hand and offered him a slight smile. “That really is one of the sweetest things an elf has ever said to me. Just forget what I said. As usual, my mouth ran away with itself before I had all the facts. I’m working on that.” She sniffed and reached for a handkerchief. “You know, if you talk like that all the time, the girls would fall at your feet. I’d listen to you all day.”
“Apparently, Maerwynne did not feel that way…at all.”
“Gregory, are you making a personal comment?” She laughed. “You are full of surprises today. I’ve never heard you say anything about yourself or demonstrate emotion.”
He stared at her. He had emotions. What was the point of letting everyone else see them? That rarely benefitted anyone, least of all himself. “Should I have cried when Maerwynne chose Tristian over me? What would it accomplish?”
“About that…” She gazed down at the table and rubbed her finger across an imperfection in the wood before looking back up at him. “Could I also offer you something to ponder?”
“Anything you might discern would be greatly appreciated.”
“It’s not so much what I discern as what I experienced. When I traveled through the portal to get here, I expected to help a friend in trouble. Instead, everyone told me I had to marry Prince Riordan…though I hadn’t seen him for years.”
“Well, I can understand Maerwynne wanting to strike out on her own…to know her own mind instead of following blindly after the expectations of her clan just because that’s the way it’s always been done.” She shook her head. “I’m not saying tradition is wrong, but…Sometimes the expectations of others prevent us from hearing what’s in our heart…what Elohan has placed there. Be the man he says you are, not the one others expect you to be. If you listen to Elohan, he’ll guide you to the ideal mate for you…the perfect purpose.” She shrugged. “Anyway…worked for me…and Maerwynne, I might add. And now I’ve got to study. Grandmother says I must learn the ways of the elves if I’m to lead them.”
“You will make a great ruler someday.”
She chuckled and reached for a book from the table. “I don’t know about that, but I will try.”
“I will leave you then. I have a sudden desire to speak with a dragon.” Gregory pushed back his chair.
“One in particular?”
“Very particular. Enjoy your day, Princess.”
She smiled up at him. “You, too, Gregory. You’ll make a great dragon rider.”
“I don’t know about that, but I will try.”
Gregory hurried out of the library and traced his steps down the stairs, marveling at the shadows. The sun had reached its peak and begun to wane. When was the last time he ate something? Had he eaten today at all?
Do you believe one heart calls to another?
Gregory heard the voice in his head as clearly as if he’d heard Emira speak, but she was far behind him, searching the archives.
He paused on the steps and looked out the open window at his side. Many families enjoyed the bright sky and balmy breezes of this fall day by walking amidst the tree houses. Some played games, others trailed hand-made crafts in the stream, still others sat in groups, laughing and talking. In other areas of Elshamir, he knew he’d find elves hard at work. He hadn’t visited the clan of the healers for several days. Since the last conflict with the dark beasts of Orcus, they’d been working on more potent medicines and elixirs. For some reason, Gregory hadn’t felt obliged to join them. Had the voice that called to him brought about his unrest?
He closed his eyes and directed his thoughts. Yes, I believe one heart calls to another.
Come to me, beloved. I am waiting.
That was absolutely not the voice of the dragon. And now Gregory had two problems.
Who are you?
Though he waited several minutes, nothing more elicited from the voice. He descended the stairs then chose the quickest path to the training ground of the dragon riders.
He hadn’t taken five steps into the woods when someone hailed him. “Gregory! Where are you headed?”
Gregory paused, closing his eyes as he groaned inwardly. He knew that voice as well as that of his own mother. He’d been avoiding a confrontation with Baylen, the clan leader of the healers, whilst he decided on a course of action. Now that he had, he didn’t desire to discuss it until he spoke first with the dragon. But one didn’t ignore a summons from Baylen. Gregory rotated on his heel and lifted a hand in greeting.
Baylen drew closer and halted a good three feet away, a considerable distance from one usually so personal in his dealings with others. Gregory had never felt comfortable in his presence, and even now discerned waves of curiosity radiating from Baylen.
“Gregory? We’ve missed you lately. How…are you?”
“Very well. Thank you. And you?”
“Very excited about a new blend of essential oils. Thus far, it has worked wonders in reducing pain levels. We hope to share it with our allies soon. Would you care to accompany me?”
“I have already committed myself but thank you for the invitation.”
Baylen held out a hand. “If ever you need someone to talk…”
“I appreciate the offer, but I am quite well.” Gregory took the proffered hand and shook it. He anticipated an end to the discussion, but Baylen leaned in.
“Have you then decided on another mate?”
The words of the mysterious voice flashed through his thoughts, but that was merely a notion. “I have not considered it.”
“There are numerous eligible-”
“Nor am I amenable to the idea.” Gregory rarely interrupted the speech of another elf, but the thought of continuing the conversation was abominable. It seemed even he had a breaking point. He tried to smile, but his lips refused to cooperate. Sudden inspiration soared. “I thank you for your interest. Just this morning I met with Princess Emira to discuss…the future.”
That would put an end to any further probing. No one naysaid their wizard.
“How fortuitous. Well, then… Vanya sulie, Gregory.”
“Fair winds, Baylen.”
Gregory swiveled back to the well-trodden, leaf-covered path without any hesitation, anxious to put his plan to action. Would the dragon in question still be interested? How would he locate the beast?
He rubbed the burn brand on his arm. Perhaps if he concentrated hard enough, the dragon would hear him. It was said amongst the riders that their dragons heard their thoughts long before they officially joined. He increased his stride.
Once Gregory gained the green expanse of the open meadow, he was struck by the sheer number of elves who had joined the dragon clan to train. Males and females from his own clan and that of the metal smiths, the carpenters, the botanists, and many others. What had turned the peace-loving elves of Elshamir into warriors? It had to be the result of Lord Droll’s attack against all the kingdoms of the realm. Perhaps the strongest motivator had been the return of a wizard in their midst. Hundreds of years had passed since the people of Elshamir had seen an elven wizard. If Princess Emira was willing to risk her life in a war against the dark creatures unleashed from Orcus, how could her people do less?
Gregory studied the cloudless azure sky. Not a dragon in sight. They weren’t fond of crowds…unless they were engaged in battle. In that, they thrived.
With a deep sigh, Gregory skirted the tree line. Where were the dragons? With their ability to fly in and out of the barrier as easily as any elf, they might not even be in Elshamir. But where would they go? A trip to their homeland past the Craven Mountains was a lengthy endeavor, and something they hadn’t attempted since the battle in Lochmorvian. Still, dragons were restless when not engaged. They wouldn’t sit idly by in Elshamir.
When Gregory saw his mother’s brother, he ducked behind the trees. His mother wished him to take a mate…from their clan. Familial discussions were to be avoided at all costs.
After fifteen minutes of wandering, Gregory found himself at the Lake of Serenus, reputedly of unlimited depths. Much like the depths of his uncertainty. Was he a healer or a dragon rider? Was he both? There was a time when Baylen’s excitement over a new cure would have translated itself to Gregory immediately. Where was the euphoric elation he’d once felt at transforming the most basic elements into objects of powerful healing? Had his recent dreams so unsettled him?
He shook his head. What an inane thought. Such was the logic of humans, not elves. What of the woman’s voice in his head? Such a vague alliance was certainly more attuned to the emotions of humans.
The still grey waters of Serenus beckoned, and he picked up a smooth round stone to toss it toward the water. It bounced three times, sending ripples in an ever-widening circle. At one time, a gigantic beast had made its home in the depths of Serenus, long before the age of elves. Who or what had brought about its destruction was unknown.
Many such things were unknown. Gregory had never wondered why…until now. Serenus was the ideal place for such contemplation, far from the bustle of elven lodgings and activities. The musical, or sometimes, plaintive cry of birds and forest creatures added to the sense of Elohan’s presence. Gregory had discovered some of the most potent agents for healing by observing the animals here, plants they avoided, plants they imbibed. Elohan had been his constant guide and companion.
Elohan, what would you have me do now? It’s not that I don’t trust you, nor do I want to know things better left to you…I just want…
What did he want? To be exactly what he was meant to be.
Tell me or don’t tell me. I will do that which you bring me.
As the peace rolled in, Gregory leaned against a wide oak tree. Sparrows dipped in the breeze, calling a bright melody that settled his wandering thoughts. A doe trailed out of the trees and bent to take a drink of water. In less than thirty seconds, a dark form swooped out of the sky and snatched the doe off the side of the bank.
Gregory’s mouth dropped as he stared at the massive beast, swallowing the deer in great shivering gulps. It was awe-inspiring to watch the throat ripple as the deer went down, but it ended all too soon. The dragon’s black head lowered until luminous green eyes stared straight at Gregory. He didn’t move, didn’t even breathe. Either the dragon would eat him, or it wouldn’t. Regardless, an elf could never escape a dragon intent on pursuit. The dragon puffed out rounded cheeks then blew a cloud of sulfuric smoke at Gregory.
Gregory coughed. “Was that entirely necessary?”
The green eyes, so like a snake’s, blinked twice before the dragon collapsed its back end and tail on the ground. Even from ten feet away, Gregory felt the earth shudder.
“One must eat, you know.”
At the sound of the gravelly voice, Gregory knew instantly this was his dragon. “I grant you that. It’s the bellow of smoke in my face I find less than appealing.”
“Hmph. If you can’t handle that, you aren’t much of a dragon rider.”
“You speak the truth. I am not. My clan is the healers.”
The giant pointed head jerked backward. “You refuse me?”
Gregory stood, but he came only to the dragon’s shoulder. “I was not aware you’d made a request. We aren’t exactly acquainted.”
Are we not? You wear my brand and hear my voice. Others have attempted to speak with you.
The dragon’s voice in Gregory’s mind was much louder this time, as if his ability to hear the creature had magnified.
“Are you saying yours is the only dragon voice I can hear…in my thoughts?”
Yes. You have only to say the word, and we’ll be bonded.
“I accept. Though I don’t understand why you seek out a healer, I am pleased. My name is Gregory Gelkhayil.”
“I am Erosthenes, but I did not seek you. Elohan brought us together.”
“You seem different from the others.”
The green eyes blinked again, lazily, as if the dragon had not a care for the conversation. It took a step forward and nudged Gregory with its head. “I’m not much for following.”
“If you aren’t much for the company of others, why join with an elf?”
“One cannot escape the compulsions of Elohan. Do you not find this so?”
Gregory nodded. It was the one notion that made sense, answering the call of Elohan.
“Are you male or female?”
“Female. I suppose that’s why you’ve had trouble hearing me. Another female calls to you.”
Obviously, she didn’t mean other dragons. “How did you know?”
“I also heard the voice. What are your thoughts on the invitation?”
“The woman is asking for help…or mating.”
Gregory rubbed his nose after a pouf of sulfur filled his nostrils. “I don’t see it. I scarcely remember the voice, certainly not a bid for aid.”
“We shall see. We should begin your training.”
“You mean flying.”
“I’ve never had a rider. It should be…interesting.”
“As long as I live through it.”
The dragon snorted in rough laughter, and short bursts of fire erupted from her mouth. “I won’t drop you, elf.”
“Yes, well, I’ll have to explain to my clan why I’ve taken up dragon riding.”
“Ridiculous. One should never explain a superior plan to those who won’t understand anyway.”
There it was, the great dragon ego. How did he clarify that elves made it a habit to consider the feelings of all, even those too inferior to appreciate such efforts? He understood the dragon’s mind-set. He’d never gotten used to Maerwynne’s constant desire to make things plain to Tristian and his human subjects. Perhaps Gregory and his dragon had something to learn in humility. Maerwynne thought so. He scowled. He must stop thinking of her now that she was married to a human.
Gregory stared up at Erosthenes. “It is expected of my clan. Very important to have the support of one’s clan.”
“I concede that would be so. I will leave you to your…explanations.”
With a grunt, Erosthenes flew into the sky and circled several times before disappearing beyond the treetops. You will be able to hear my thoughts and speak to me at any time now.
Thank you. Gregory shook his head. He still didn’t understand why he’d been chosen for a dragon or why the dragon could hear the mysterious voice in his dreams, but he was ready to discover the truth. That voice…it was exceedingly enticing.
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