Chapter 3

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The whispers reach me before the rolling, crunching gravel of a cart and horse on the road. I roll until my legs are tucked under my body and my wings are out of the way, then I push my head through the thick, low brush close to the road. I'm careful of my tail as I move. I'm fairly sure it's broken. There is a nasty kink at the end of it where the spikes stick out and my back hurts as if I've been standing too long.

The incoming villagers shouldn't be able to see me, I've hidden behind a clustered, overgrown clump of trees far enough from the road that my black and red scales appear as though the trees are casting shadows, but close enough that I can hear passersby. Their words are scrambled at first. It isn't until I concentrate that I can make out what they're saying.

"Did you hear?" A young woman. "The Prince and his father vowed to find the princess and defeat the wizard in her honour. It's so beautiful. They haven't even met and he's willing to die for her." A wistful tone makes it into her voice, shivering along with the thump of her heart.

Die for me? He barely knows me. I haven't even given him my first kiss yet.

It's early morning, and the faint outline of their veins is clearly visible through the trees.

"Pfft," the other one, a young man this time. He smells good. Like cedar and fresh cooked meat. "Good luck to them. No one has stepped in or out of the Darklands since they were created. If the wizard has Princess Isadolla, she's as good as dead."

"Shh, Helvar. If someone hears you speak of her like that."

"They'll what?"

Their chatter continues down the road, but I've tuned out. Prince Dax is coming for me. The thought makes me light headed, until I realise I'm not with the wizard. How is he supposed to rescue me when I look like a monster and I'm nowhere near the Darklands? A deep rumble surges through my chest. I'm growling. Like a blasted animal. I have to find Rodan before the Prince does.

Another rumble. A different kind this time.

First I need food.

In all the excitement my maid's forgot to feed me, and now I'm starving. Without thought, I lift my head, my tongue flicking out like a snake, tasting the air. A swirl of cinnamon and fresh crust curls down my throat. Someone is baking bread. Then I smell the heaving surge of cheddar aging. My wings twitch as if wanting to fly me to the nearest cottage. My stomach grumbles again, but I can't just walk up to someone's house and ask for bread and cheese. So instead, I turn my nose toward the west, away from the surrounding village and search my senses for something else. Just the thought of a small furry creature makes my stomach turn. I'm not cut out to be a dragon.

But it's either this, or starve, and I'm not stupid.

***

As big as my body is now, I still manage to fit between the close knit trees, even if I am noisy and snapping twigs, scaring my prey. The fluffy white and gray of the hare's tail disappears through a tangle of blueberries and rhubarb, out of reach. My claws curl, digging into the soft earth in frustration. I'm not entirely sure I want to catch it anyway. A princess does not eat uncooked meat, and she certainly doesn't catch it herself.

I drop to the ground with a heavy thump, the trees swaying in answer. If I could cry...

The soft scent of yeast and rising wheat tickles my nose. Before I know it I'm at the edge of a clearing. Light trickles through the overhanging branches, catching on dust motes and bugs.

A baker's hut squats in the center of a small flat of green grass, surrounded on three sides by forestry with a thin, gravel road leading off to the sandstone and wood houses of the village. I push myself to the very edge of the tree line, but it's still not close enough. My gaze scans the clearing, searching for the faint outline of veins that signals a person, but I find no one. Surely the baker didn't just leave his bread out to cool and leave his home?

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