The embers in the forge burned with a faint orange glow, the heat from the charcoal lingering like fog after a summer rain. Though it had been hours since the forge had been used, it bathed the room in a familiar warmth. Cora basked in the feeling as memory surrounded her. Considering her father was to be married today, the forge would likely grow cold until the festivities were over and the people of Barcroft had drunk their weight in ale; she savored the quiet moment, wandering through the remnants of her past life.
The forge, sun-kissed by the light streaming through the windows, was a marvel of simplicity. So, too, were the practical and sturdy tools Cora used to wield at her father’s side. They’d created so many familiar metalworks together. Sharp blades. Burly armor. Horseshoes. Cooking pots. Much like the assortment of old projects and new that hung from the rafters, each one crafted under the skillful eye of her father. She picked up a hammer, the weight of it nothing now compared to her longsword. It felt like a lifetime ago that she’d stood here, worried about paying debts and fulfilling orders. That girl, the Cora who had called this forge home, had been an entirely different person. Back then, she’d certainly known nothing of war or cursed kings and their desire for power.
Or of dragons, Alaric reminded her.
Cora imagined the toothy grin her dragon wore. As a bonded dragon-rider pair, she and Alaric shared a telepathic connection, allowing him to know her thoughts despite the fact he was flying somewhere above Barcroft, taking in the preparations for today’s event.
I did know a little about dragons at the time, Cora said, which was mostly thanks to her grandmother’s old stories about dragon riders. Didn’t stop you from trying to eat me, she teased.
I did no such thing!
Cora laughed, thinking back to their first encounter, when she’d been learning to scavenge dragon scales from an abandoned nest, only to find herself face to face with an angry Alaric. If I remember correctly, there was an awful lot of growling and teeth flashing.
Can I help it if I have a great smile?
That day had changed everything for Cora. Now she had Alaric, and he would be her dragon for as long as the stars allowed.
And you will be my rider.
Cora swallowed the heap of emotion that suddenly caught in her throat.
Do weddings make all humans so emotional? Alaric teased.
Then I shall endeavor to find you a cloth to dry your weepy eyes.
A laugh bubbled up beneath all Cora’s emotions. Despite his teasing, Alaric sent a burst of warmth down the bond to her, comforting her in a way that no one and nothing else ever could. Such was the dragon and dragon rider connection.
“Now here is a sight I missed,” her father said fondly.
“Papa!” Cora carefully set the hammer down on the anvil, exactly the way she’d found it. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I just wanted to watch you for a moment. I feel as though you’ve suddenly gone off and grown up on me.” Viren Hart was a strong man, hardened by life in the Therma Mountains, and steeled like the hammer he so often wielded at his forge. He was as stubborn as the hard metals he manipulated, refusing to slow down or rest, even when he’d been sick. But he was also a kind man, devoted to those he cared about, and Cora was glad that he’d found happiness.
“It was bound to happen,” Cora said. She couldn’t stop herself from growing up any more than she could stop a dragon from flying.
“Now you’re leading dragon armies and winning wars.” He picked up a blunt, half-finished blade, jabbing the empty space before him for emphasis. He seemed thoughtful as he inspected the blade with the critical eye of a blacksmith. “And running a school.”
“It’s not just me running the school,” Cora mumbled. She flushed at the pride in his voice. “And what about you?” She changed the subject. “You’ve gone off, fallen in love, and decided to get married.”
“I suppose we’ve both done some growing.”
Cora smiled. “That’s not a bad thing.”
“Of course not. Though it doesn’t mean I miss you any less.”
“But now you have Elaine to keep you company, which means I can stop worrying over you.” Cora thought about that for a moment, her smile twisting in amusement. “Well, I suppose I’ll still worry, though now I can worry less.”
Viren pulled her into a tight hug, and Cora reveled in the feeling of his strong arms. There was a time when he’d been so sickly and weak that she could feel the ribs beneath his skin and hear the way every cough made his lungs seize. Back then, Cora had been terrified that she’d come home to find him slumped over his anvil after some horrendous coughing fit. Then her partner Faron’s aunt Elaine, a healer, had come to the aid of the rebel army—and to her father. Elaine had cleared his lungs for good, changing the way Cora had thought of the malhos—those whose family lines were not native to Tenegard but to the neighboring nation of Athelia.
Viren let out a mighty sigh.
“Papa?” She leaned back in his arms to get a good look at his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing. Pay me no mind.” He pulled away to fuss with a silver button on his ruffled shirt—the formal wedding attire worn for Barcroft ceremonies. It had slipped its hole, and though Viren tried to set it right, he couldn’t quite seem to get it.
Cora realized it was because his hands were shaking. “Here. Let me do that.”
Viren relented, dropping his hands by his sides.
She plucked at the silver button, as shimmery as starlight, and fitted it through the right hole, straightening his collar and smoothing wrinkles as she went. “There. Now you’re as good as new.”
“Thank you, little lark.”
Cora grinned at the nickname. “You know, it wasn’t that long ago that I stood here in the forge with you, fretting over … everything. And do you remember what you told me?”
Viren shook his head.
“That I could talk to you.” Cora clasped both of his trembling hands in her own. “You can talk to me too, Papa. It’s okay to be nervous.”
For a second, it looked as if Viren would deny it, but then he said, “I didn’t want to burden you with my troubles.”
“You’re never a burden. Besides, I’m eighteen now. After everything else that’s happened, this I think I can handle.”
“You’re right.” He squeezed her hands. “They’re foolish troubles anyhow. I’m worried about everything and nothing all at once. What if we haven’t stocked enough wine? What if the food grows cold before we’re finished with the ceremony? What if Aedan Penderson behaves poorly? The last wedding he was at he fell into one of the chicken coops and the guests spent the afternoon having to wrangle chickens from beneath their feet.”
Cora burst out laughing. “Papa, is that really what you’re worried about? There will be more than enough wine, and by the time your guests are done with that, they won’t care whether the food is hot or cold. And if Aedan Penderson acts up, even a little bit, I’ll simply have Alaric eat him.”
Alaric agreed enthusiastically through the bond.
“Would your mother have approved?” Her father’s eyes were glassy, like he’d walked into a memory.
Cora’s heart ached the way it always did when she thought of her mother, but she knew without a doubt that her mother would have been thrilled Papa had finally found someone that made him happy after all these years. “I think she would have asked why it took you so long to propose.”
“Do you have any true doubts, Papa?” Cora knew the answer, she just needed to hear him say it.
The contemplative look on his face softened into a sweet smile. “No, lark. I’m certain about Elaine.”
“Good, I’m glad. Because I really like her.”
A chorus of voices sounded in the distance, singing of love that would outlast the stars. The traditional wedding song. It was time to go.
Cora held her arm out to her father. “Are you ready?”
He looped his arm through hers. “Lead the way.”
Cora escorted Viren to a nearby glade, surrounded on both sides by shady trees, and watched the last of the guests scramble into their seats. There were bundles of wildflowers tied to the seats, casting a sweet lilac scent upon everything. A carpet of petals had been left for the bride to walk upon. Cora left Viren at the end of the aisle with the minister and took her seat beside Faron in the front row.
The sunset ceremony was simple but sweet, words and promises exchanged between her father and Elaine as hues of soft pink sunlight filled the glade. Watching him now, healthy and happy, it was hard to believe he’d had any doubts at all. The contentment on his face as he took Elaine’s hand in his own was obvious. Despite Faron sitting beside her, an errant thought entered Cora’s mind, and she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d ever find the same kind of happily ever after. She leaned into Faron’s side, searching for his hand. He squeezed it once, bringing it up to his lips to press a quick kiss to her knuckles. His eyes shone, a tear leaking down his cheek. Clearly, Faron was as thrilled about the match as Cora was. After all the death and destruction they’d seen facing off against Onyx, the tyrannical king who had once ruled Tenegard, it was nice to see some good come from it. For if it wasn’t for the rebel army needing a healer with Athelian magic, Elaine might never have come into their lives.
Alaric and the other dragons circled above, too large to set down in the glade without impeding either the view or the dance floor. They were, perhaps, even a little intimidating for the average wedding guest. For most of the people in attendance, dragons and dragon riders were still a relatively new concept, and they certainly didn’t possess the ability of Dragon Tongue to be able to communicate. Still, Cora’s heart warmed as she watched some of the younger residents of Barcroft point up to the clouds with wide grins, mesmerized by the circling dragons. It was impossible to change the past, and only so much could be done to replace what had been lost between dragons and humans at the hands of Onyx, but Cora had hope for a brighter future. Together they were building something new.
As the sun dipped behind the mountains, the dragons sent celebratory bursts of Dragon Fire toward the coming night. The ceremony drew to a close with Viren’s and Elaine’s hands entwined. The minister spoke of a long marriage and wished them well with a union blessed by the stars. The closing words had changed since Cora last heard them, years ago, when the final blessing was for the couple to live in peace under the King’s benevolent rule. With Onyx’s defeat, the words had been altered.
As they should be, Alaric snorted. He was of the opinion that they should wipe Onyx’s memory from the land the same way he’d tried to do with the dragons.
Cora leaned forward, looking down the row to catch Octavia’s eye. As former heir to the throne and adopted daughter of Onyx, Octavia’s rejection of the king had put her on a direct path to becoming one of Cora’s very best friends. She was seated with Strida, both an accomplished dragon rider and Octavia’s girlfriend. Cora and Octavia shared a grin at the new wording of the wedding blessing, knowing it was a hard-won fight, culminating in a battle between Tenegard and Athelia, which they’d barely managed to stop. As Cora settled back in her seat, her mind turned to the council. In Onyx’s absence, Octavia had organized a council to lead Tenegard, and though Cora had tried to keep her distance from the politics of the capital city, Kaerlin, one particular councilor, Northwood, a man she had never met, had turned his sights on her, looking for support.
Her thoughts turned sour.
Cora, Alaric pressed. Is everything okay?
I’m fine, she said, trying to put it out of her mind.
She didn’t want to be weighed down with the concerns of the council on her father’s wedding day, but the letters had been piling up lately. Northwood sought her opinion on deploying forces back to the Athelian border. Cora could tell he meant to rally her involvement, and by association, that of the dragon riders, but she had no desire to get tangled up in the web of politics. Both possibilities were complicated. On one hand, if they did nothing, they were potentially leaving themselves vulnerable to Athelia, and after everything with Onyx, Cora had learned that it was better to be prepared than late to a fight. Then again, if Tenegard moved forces back to the border, Athelia might consider it a sign of aggression and any diplomatic ties that had been established between the two nations would be severed. Cora knew that leveraging the opinion of the dragon riders would have a strong effect on any decision made by the council. She couldn’t be the one to tip the scales. What did she know about the running of countries? She was just a girl from a small mountain village who’d gotten caught up in a centuries-old war.
When the crowd started to clap, Cora was startled from her thoughts. She put her hands together, smiling as Papa and Elaine made their way down the aisle, officially Mr. and Mrs. Hart.
For a while, Cora managed to put her worries aside, getting caught up in the celebration, with its congratulations, ale, and food. But the thoughts were never far, and it must have shown on her face because Viren picked her out of the crowd, taking her in his arms. “You look troubled, lark. Is something wrong?”
Faron stood nearby, chatting with Strida, and from the corner of Cora’s eye, she caught him looking over with interest.
This was exactly what Cora had been hoping to avoid. “What?” she said, forcing a laugh. “Of course not! Everything is fine, Papa. No. Everything is absolutely perfect.”
“Yes, how could it not be?” She covered the worry roiling in her gut by pulling him into a tight hug. If he couldn’t see her face, then he couldn’t read the lie upon it. When Cora let him go, she wore a brilliant smile. It was so wide it almost hurt.
Whatever he thought he saw, her assurances must have worked because Viren let himself be sucked back into the celebration.
Faron appeared at her side then. “Dance with me?”
Cora went willingly, hoping that if she made a couple of turns around the dance floor, it would put her at ease.
They joined a dozen other couples as traditional music drifted across the glade. Though there were specific dances to each song, Cora was happy to simply sway back and forth, her arms wrapped around Faron’s neck.
“You don’t fool me, Cora Hart,” he said after a few perfect minutes. His cheek rested against her temple, and she could feel the words whispered next to her ear. “I know something is wrong.”
He took her hand and spun her. Cora twirled out and back in again, her gaze landing on his. Only this close could she see the hazel flecks next to his irises. He was still as handsome as the first time they’d met, back in the fortress in Llys, when she thought he was nothing more than a malhos guard, and he thought she was up to no good.
How far they’d both come.
“Nothing is wrong,” she tried to assure him, but he wasn’t as easily fooled.
“Cora,” Faron said, her name a plea on his lips. “You were distracted for half the ceremony.”
She might have persuaded her father that everything was fine, but Faron knew better. He spent his days with her at the school, never far from the politics and drama himself, so it was harder to hide her worry when he knew very well that the council had been hounding her.
“I know you don’t want to burden your father on today of all days, but you don’t have to worry about that with me.”
“I know,” she said. “I just didn’t want it to ruin anything.”
“Nothing is ruined. We can talk about serious things and still enjoy a dance.” To prove his point, he twirled her again.
When Cora returned to his arms, she sighed. “I know I’ve been distracted. I didn’t mean for it to happen today, but I can’t shut it off. That councilor has sent more requests for my opinion on whether Tenegard should be sending troops to the Athelian border. It seems another letter shows up every week, each with the same question, and I don’t know how to answer them. It’s like he expects me to be some sort of leader after everything that happened with Onyx.”
“Well, you are,” Faron said. “Without you and Alaric to lead and train the other dragon riders, the battle against Onyx would have gone very differently.”
“But I wasn’t acting alone,” Cora said. “It took all of us to turn the tide of the war. And it takes all of us to now run the school.” Both Strida and Faron worked with her, training the new dragon riders and teaching classes, while Octavia spent most of her time in Kaerlin, dealing with the council. Cora had no idea how she put up with the constant politics and drama. “This isn’t a one-person show. I just don’t want to make a decision that puts anyone in danger.”
“I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit,” Faron said, trying to reassure her. “But either way, I don’t think anyone is expecting anything of you tonight. Their questions will keep until tomorrow or even the next day.”
“You’re right,” she said quietly, leaning her head against his shoulder. She appreciated the vote of confidence, but privately, she wasn’t convinced. The council had expectations, and Cora couldn’t help but feel that she wasn’t meeting them.
Perhaps she never would.
Cora felt a burst of warmth through the dragon bond, and her eyes trained upward, searching for Alaric against the swirling navy sky. He also meant to comfort her, but it didn’t work. The longer she left the letters unanswered, the guiltier she felt.
She turned her head, glad to see Strida and Octavia having fun at least. As the music changed, she watched them giggle as Strida attempted to teach Octavia the steps to a traditional dance. Octavia was failing spectacularly, but it mattered little to either of them as Strida twirled them in circles, both of them laughing so hard they were almost in tears. It was clear to Cora that both girls were pleased that Octavia was free of official business for once, simply present at the wedding as Strida’s guest. Like her and Faron’s relationship, their romance had taken shape on the cusp of war, but the aftermath was even more of a struggle for them as Octavia’s work kept her shackled to Kaerlin, and Strida was tied up with teaching. It was a rare sight to find them both together, unburdened by their respective jobs.
Cora, Alaric called, breaking through her thoughts. On the horizon!
She stopped dancing suddenly, breaking free of Faron’s arms as she turned to focus on a small black shape hovering above the horizon. She had to squint to make it out against the inky twilight.
“What is it?” Faron asked. Octavia and Strida joined them, watching as the dark shape took the form of a dragon against the mountains.
“I think it’s a messenger.” Cora watched the dragon approach. It circled twice above the celebration before it dipped toward the glade, eliciting gasps of startled surprise from some of the guests. They scattered like ants from a kicked nest as the dragon touched down.
“Cora, Octavia!” the messenger called, sliding down from the dragon. He dashed over to them, dodging wedding guests and gasping for air as he finally slid to a stop between Strida and Faron. He made an awkward bow in Octavia’s direction.
“Bodi, what is it?” Cora asked, recognizing the young dragon-rider-in-training from the school. He was only twelve, his cheeks still carrying the roundness of youth, his windswept hair flopping into his eyes. His dragon, Mina, stood nearby, her nostrils flaring as she stared at the curious guests. Their rider relationship was still shaky, but Bodi was determined, spending all his free time with Mina in the hopes their bond would snap into place someday soon.
“Your presence is demanded at the school immediately,” he forced out between heaving breaths. He and his dragon had flown hard.
Cora was stunned. “By whom?”
“Councilor Northwood,” Bodi heaved. “He has sent a party of delegates from the capital city. They’ve stormed into the school like they own the place!”