2. Forsaken

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The feast was all I could have wanted and more. My mother was my escort, since my father was absent, and Valalya was the one to claim my hand first in a gesture she referred to as 'unrepentant indulgence.' Only after she left me did brave young men step in to take her place. Grevin and Tharin each honored me with a dance, but we all knew it was at their mother's urging. While we all knew Thalon would like our families to be joined, it was my own personal knowledge that said my mother would prefer a Forest Dweller for my husband. Which was why she was gentle but firm in turning away any young man that approached her that day.

Save one.

Barrin had come to rescue me from the dance floor so that I might enjoy the rest of the feast and games. It was on my way to the tables that I noticed a man in riding gear whispering urgently to my mother. Her back was straight and her features expressionless as he delivered his missive. Yet, even at a distance, I could see the fear glittering in her dark eyes. A sensation that clamped my heart as she waved the Rider away and signaled to Thalon.

I didn't have to give an excuse. Barrin had seen the exchange as I had, and his gaze followed his wife as she slipped from the celebration. Yet, when he looked at me, I could see the warning in his eyes.

"They will tell us when the timing is more appropriate. Right now, it would cause a stir if you and I chased them down." Which meant he wanted very much to do the same as me, and he was using me as an excuse not to. As I must also use him.

"We have grown too accustomed to this," I sighed as we reached the tables laden with food.

At that, he chuckled. "You were born to it. Imagine, if you can, what it meant to adapt to this."

"Only if you imagine what it means to me that a Gryphon Rider appears on the very day of my womanhood to speak with my mother. He did not approach the Queen first."

My foster father glanced askance at me and seemed to bow his head in acknowledgment of my words. Now we were both wondering the same thing. Did my father know of me, after all? Had he sent a Rider to demand his rights? If he had, would my mother grant them? And why did the Rider's words cause her to appear so stricken?

"They will tell us tonight. If we have to corner them together," he added for my benefit.

I smiled at him and did my best to enjoy the rest of my feast. Before long, my mothers returned and assumed their previous positions. They looked as if nothing in the world could mar this evening. If only that were true.

Unlike Valalya's womanhood feast, mine did not last until the dawn light. Instead, near the middling hours, the royal family excused themselves from the great square and retreated toward the palace. My mother and I went with them, leaving the revelers to their own amusement for the rest of the pre-dawn hours.

Once we were well within the confines of the palace, however, Barrin, Valalya, and I all turned on the two women at once. It was almost amusing as they exchanged an entire conversation without a single word being said. At last, Thalon motioned for us to follow her.

When we were enclosed in her study, she turned to us all before her gaze shot to my mother. Our attention was obediently redirected and I watched as my mother straightened her spine. Her voice was almost rough when she announced, "We've had word from Shade. The Blood Dragon has been sighted."

For the tiniest second, I was disappointed that the Rider's missive was not about me. Then the words sank in.

At the same time that Barrin's features grew grave with understanding, Valalya and I exchanged a confused look. "A blood dragon?" she asked no one in particular.

"Not 'a' ... 'the,'" her mother said in a grim voice. Then she sighed and asked each of us, "What do you know of dragons?"

We exchanged another look, searching each other's eyes for memories of ages past. "They used to rule all Maeror," I answered in a hesitant voice.

"But they were betrayed by humans and so the Dragon War occurred. By the end of it, the dragons had retreated from the continent and thousands of humans were dead."

"I wish that were the end," Barrin said. Turning to look at both of us, his voice grew deeper as his expression became more somber. "The Dragon War has not ended. Not until the Blood Dragon is put to rest will we know the end of this war."

"What is it?"

"It is the product of vengeance. When one dragon dies, another always rises to take its place. When a dragon is murdered, two will rise. One to take up the calling, and another to bleed the betrayer. This one is called a Blood Dragon and it will not—cannot—rest until the betrayer is dead."

"So what does it mean that it's been spotted in Shade?" I asked my mother.

"It may mean nothing. Shapeshifters are renowned for their gifts and so one may have found a way to replicate the form."

"But..."

"But as far as I am aware, no shapeshifter has ever been able to replicate the form of a full-grown dragon. And I would say there are few foolish enough to attempt the appearance of the Blood Dragon."

"So if it is truly the Blood Dragon..."

"It would mean its quarry is near the Forest."

"And the Forest Dwellers sent a Rider to you? Why?"

If it were possible, I would have said her expression grew stiffer. Clearing her throat, she forced her voice to be clear as she announced, "They need a Bridge Walker of their own. I am the only Rider they know to have ties outside the great trees."

"But ... I thought you could not enter the Forest?"

"I cannot, and I have told the Rider as much."

"So we will do nothing?" None of this was making sense to me.

"I did not say that," she sighed.

"Then what are you saying?" Valalya grumbled.

A smile pulled at my lips in a weary, relenting expression. Because I knew what it was that my mother desired. What she needed of me.

I was born a Bridge Walker, and the Forest had not forsaken me.

"When do I leave?"

"Cardan, Rider of Kiethe, leaves at first light. He will take you to the Forest."

"Hold a moment," Valalya snapped. "There is a dragon circling the skies of Shade and you would send Tallie into those jaws? For what? To what purpose?"

I placed a hand on my friend's arm. "To build a bridge, sister. Forest Dwellers do not seek outside their own for companions, but one was sent to Sarrie, Rider of Xzaryth. An outcast. Things must be dire for them to seek out one whom the Forest denies."

"Tallie speaks truth. For them to seek my counsel shows their worry. Yet, the dragons have never harmed the Forest Realm throughout the past half century that this war has raged. So it is not a direct threat of dragon fire that has them worried."

My eyes sharpened on my mother's and my lips parted in the same expression of worry that she now held. "You think the dragon's prey may be hidden within the Forest?"

"I think the Blood Dragon may think it is. If that is the case, not even the great trees can guard against an enraged dragon. However, if it is not, there needs to be a way to prove it. For that, they need a Bridge Walker. Someone able to pass between the trees and report to the people of Shade that no outsiders are hidden within."

"Could the Forest Dwellers not make this report themselves?"

My mother shook her head. "We do not trust the shapeshifters. We tell them nothing."

"But you think I will? Why?"

Her smile was grim. "You were Forest bred, but you were Valhoal raised. This is something only a child of two worlds can do. Now I ask if it is what you will do."

There was never a doubt.

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