"Ease up there, will you?” Tui grumbled with uncharacteristic frustration around the bit in his mouth. The stallion tossed his head, sending blue-pink-fuchsia flames right up into Meriel’s face.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, jerking back as the flames brushed harmlessly across the tip of her nose. But she dropped the reins, earning a sigh of relief from Tui. “What was that for?” she demanded, clutching both hands to a chest that heaved up and down.
The stallion slowed and stopped, turning his head around. “You had a death grip on the reins.”
Meriel blinked. “I … I did?”
“Yes. Are you sure that you’re up for this task?”
Meriel glanced down at her glove-covered hands. A slow flush of embarrassment crept up the collar of her overcoat. After all she had been through on Khotha, she thought she was over most of her hang-ups, but just setting foot into these dragon-infested woods had her rethinking her earlier assessment. “No,” she admitted, soft as a whisper.
Tui’s ears flicked back to catch her words. “We can go back,” he said gently. As he spoke, the flames in his mane died down, returning to their normal, warcut appearance. “There’s no shame in giving up …”
Meriel’s head snapped up, the flush along her cheeks growing warmer. Fingers curling over the rounded saddle horn, she shook her head. “No, I can’t. I promised I’d help with the Festival.”
Tui rolled a multi-colored eye, brow ridge slanting downward. “The Queen won’t mind one less basket of mushrooms …”
“No,” Meriel ground out. This was why she preferred working with Sitree—the Padro stallion didn’t talk back.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Ever since returning from Khotha, he was just like every other horse and canine at Eagle Creek—talkative and sentient. Magic worked in strange ways.
Tui sighed and stamped one steel-shod hoof. Branches snapped under the weight of his large foot; the sound was sharp—like a toothpick. “Fine. I understand that you have something to prove to yourself. But remember, I have the last say.”
Meriel nodded and tugged at her gloves to cover up her frustration. That was one of the concessions the Hansens and lead dragonhunter Haldus had placed on her when she had volunteered for the mushroom hunt. As neither of them had dealt with dragons before, Haldus had instructed Tui to use his best judgment. The elder elk-horned bay stallion didn’t like the idea of sending a barely-trained Nordanner off into the wilderness—with an equally-raw rider to boot. Meriel didn’t know what was more intimidating at the time—seeing Tui’s flames or being stared down by a very intelligent, very shrewd stallion with a huge rack of antlers.
But she wanted to complete the task, so she conceded.
“All right.” Blowing softly through his nostrils, Tui lifted his head, scanning their surroundings. His mane and tail reignited, blue-pink-fuchsia flames rising into the air. “Let me think for a moment …” The buckskin stallion shifted, turning slightly. “The signs …”
Meriel sat like a lump in the saddle as Tui muttered to himself, going over Haldus’ instructions. “Ah!” he exclaimed, causing Meriel to rock back in the saddle. “Look!”
Leaning over, Meriel saw a massive mushroom lying by the side of an oak tree. It was plump and white, with little golden speckles across the top and a pale grey interior. “Is that one of them?”
Tui reached down and picked the mushroom up between his lips. “Yup,” he mumbled. Meriel reached out with her right hand and grabbed the mushroom by the stem. It rolled into her palm, large and heavy. Meriel stared at the fungus, amazed. There was no doubt that these things grew from dragons—they were huge! Bigger than her hand, with a stem as thick as two of her fingers put together.
“There’s more down this way,” Tui said. He started to move forward, jostling Meriel. Muttering a curse under her breath, the blue-haired elf regained her seat and stuffed the mushroom into one of the pouches at her belt.
They jogged through the forest, stopping now and then to pick up a fallen mushroom. Meriel began to giggle—this was too easy! No need to find a wood dragon and pluck them from its fur!
The trail of mushrooms led them to a large clearing—and stopped. Tui circled around that area of the woods for a few minutes, but between the two of them, they couldn’t find any more.
“We’ll have to search the clearing, then,” Tui said, drawing in a huge breath, then loosening it slowly.
Meriel blinked. “Excuse me?” She’d been looking in the other direction, lost in thought.
“You’ve got one of the sleeping potions, right?”
Automatically, Meriel touched one of the pouches on her belt. “Yes …”
“Good. Because you’re going to need it.”
Belatedly, Meriel realized that Tui was looking towards the clearing. There, stalking across the green grass, was a large wood dragon. Her jaw dropped open as the beast moved with a slow, steady gait, careful not to upset the huge heartwood tree that grew between its shoulder blades. Even at this distance, her elven eyes could pick out the large gems that emerged from its green fur and brown, scaled skin. Interspersed between gemstones and tree roots, were clusters of large white mushrooms.
Meriel’s hand curled around the pouch; fiddled with the flap, pulled out the vial of extra-strength dragon sleeping potion. Her heart raced, thudding against her ribcage. A sweat broke out across her brow and between her shoulder blades.
“Ready?” Tui asked, flicking back an ear.
Swallowing against the rising nausea in her belly, Meriel nodded. “Yes.” Her fingers, slick with sweat, tightened around the vial’s slim neck. Her other hand wrapped around the stallion’s mane and reins. She leaned forward slightly, getting ready.
The large buckskin stallion snorted, the only warning he was going to give. Tui took off at a gallop, hooves thundering across the forest floor. Meriel rocked back slightly, but kept her seat.
They flew across the meadow, straight at the wood dragon. The huge beast turned around, moving far more swiftly than expected. It reared up on its hindlegs, mouth agape, flashing row upon row of serrated fangs. The tree on its back swayed as it moved, raining red-edged green-grey leaves down upon the meadow.
Tui swerved, just out of reach of the huge clawed paws. Meriel lifted herself slightly out of the saddle. Her hands trembled, but she threw the vial at the dragon’s feet and dropped back down, clinging to Tui’s back with everything that she possessed. A quick glance under her arm confirmed that she’d aimed true—the vial exploded, sending up a cloud of sparkly blue vapor. The dragon roared, sending hundreds of birds shooting into the sky. Tui sped away, a streak of buckskin and blue-pink-fuchsia flames.
They thundered across the meadow as the dragon screamed and howled, sending chills down Meriel’s spine. Then, suddenly, silence—Tui stumbled, nearly going down to his knees as the ground inexplicably bucked and shuddered. Meriel screamed, hands clutching at his flame-covered mane. They bounced up and down as the earth reacted violently to the dragon’s disablement.
Snorting and shaking his head, Tui regained his footing and spun around. Lifting a trembling hand, Meriel brushed blue hair out of her face. There, across the meadow, was the wood dragon—lying flat on its belly, fast asleep. A cloud of blue mist danced across its eyes like tiny faeries.
“Gods,” she breathed, passing her hands over her face.
Tui glanced back at her, his multi-colored eye wide and wild. “Ready to go back?”
No, but she had to. She had promised. Swallowing her fear, Meriel forced herself to sit upright in the saddle. “Yes."