Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Daw Books, here's an extract from Todd Lockwood's The Summer Dragon! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the author's blurb:
Maia and her family raise dragons for the political war machine. As she comes of age, she anticipates a dragon of her own to add to the stable of breeding parents. But the war goes badly, and the needs of the Dragonry dash her hopes. Her peaceful life is shattered when the Summer Dragon—one of the rare and mythical High Dragons— makes an appearance in her quiet valley. The Summer Dragon is an omen of change, but no one knows for certain what kind of change he augurs. Political factions vie to control the implied message, each to further their own agendas. Maia heads into the wilderness in search of the dragon qit that she believes will solve her problems. She doesn't expect to encounter the enemy of her people, the Harodhi, or an angry wilding father...
The valley floor at the base of the cliffs was stony and difficult, and short on cover, but the moon was still low in the sky, and the nearby trees were tall. I allowed my eyes to adjust to the deeper darkness in their shadows. I needed to get close enough to the poacher’s cave to assess things and devise a plan. But I knew that once I reached its mouth, there would be guards and precious little cover for me. I was operating on instinct alone—instinct and blind desperation. I struggled to control my racing thoughts. Darian’s barb drifted into my mother’s last words, then into the arguments of Bellua and Mabir.
Curse. It was distracting, maddening. Curse. Over and over again the litany turned, illustrated with images of the ravening Horrors eating the Harodhi dead. Doubt crept into my resolve, but the chorus of damning words always forced me back to the same place: a qit.
I located the trail the Harodhi had used and quickly realized that I’d come upon the scene of their battle with the father dragon. Spatters and puddles of blood showed as ebony in patches of moonlight.
My heart skipped a beat. He was out here still, somewhere. I listened, studied the blackness between the trees, but caught no sight of him. Cautiously I crept into the denser shadows and started up the trail. I stumbled across an abandoned crossbow and examined it. The stock was broken. I set it down again quietly. But here was a perfectly good arrow and another nearby. The arrowheads weren’t like the ones we used to hunt deer, with flat triangular blades. They were of military design, square and dart-like, meant to pierce armor. Common to every army that fought against dragons. Even so, dragon-skin is thick and covered with hard plates on the neck, chest, and shoulders—many of their shots had simply glanced off. Would one bow in the hands of a girl be enough to offer a defense? I stuck the arrows in my quiver anyway. They would still kill a man.
Night made the going slow, but I inched my way up the hill, stopping frequently to listen and look all around, in every direction—uphill, downhill, clifftop, forest, sky.
Grunts and moans ahead stopped me in my tracks. Low keening and quiet, sorrowful chuffing indicated a dragon in deep despair. I crouched and shielded my face from the moonlit cliff face and sky, so that my eyes could adapt to the murky shadow. I scanned the forest for a visual cue, finally detecting a bright glimmer ahead and to the right, like moonlight on scales.
Father dragon was in bad shape. He tried to pluck crossbow bolts from his chest with his teeth, but growled in pain and frustration with each failed attempt. His posture was slumped—head down, right wing dragging, left wing held up and back at an odd angle. Several feathered shafts protruded from the alar pectoral, caked with drying blood. It was no wonder he couldn’t fly.
He had to be in great pain, yet he’d fought to free his baby from its captors. He’d somehow avoided their snares and traps, and sent a number of Harodhi to their deaths. It reminded me of the tale of one of my ancestors, Malik, who fought off an invading tribe alone, just him and his dragon mount, to rescue his kidnapped daughter. It was nothing less than heroic. My heart went out to him. It would be hard not to think of him now as Malik. But he was also a wounded predator, and I was a girl with a single crossbow, wearing a knapsack full of meat. It was a thin arsenal, a thinner defense. And he was blocking my path.
I knelt behind a rock to watch, and wait. Shortly, he moved up the hill again, slowly and painfully, stepping gingerly on his right forefoot. When he had advanced twenty yards or so, I crept to another hiding place. Little by little I followed him up the slope. He paused often to worry at the arrows in his chest. They didn’t look deeply imbedded, but several were oozing black runnels of blood. Walking had to be excruciating.
From up the hill came the bleating of his baby, distant and plaintive. My heart sank at first, but I recognized the call—loneliness and fear, not outright terror. Safe, for the moment.
Malik’s head came up and he froze, listening until the cries dwindled. Then he tipped his head back and called twice with a dragon-word, a phrase of his wilding tongue that I could not know. It sounded for all the world like the call of a gigantic hawk.
Baby responded from the cave with another unhappy wail, but it was growing faint, and I realized that the Harodhi were taking it deeper into the cave. When it ended, silence enveloped the forest.
Malik started up the slope again, grunting each time he planted his right forefoot. Suddenly he paused, raised his head, and looked back in my direction.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I was sure I hadn’t made a sound, but I glanced around for a defensible position, just in case.
He made a sharp whuffing noise—a warning threat, prelude to attack. My head snapped in his direction, and he charged.
Fear shot through my limbs. I turned and dashed for the trees.
Crashes and heavy footfalls behind me drew nearer. He roared, now fully engaged in the chase.
I screamed, leapt a log, landed badly. I bounced to my feet and darted around a tree. Ahead of me, a dense stand of fir trees surrounded a jumble of boulders. I would have to cross thirty feet of open space to reach it. I glanced back over my shoulder.
Malik rounded some large trees into the open space, closing fast. He roared again, trampled a sapling, then tucked his wings close, ready to pounce.
I sprinted across the gap, leapt between two trees and onto the nearest boulder. A crash resounded at my heels and splinters of wood flew past me. I vaulted a branch, stumbled, felt something swipe at my hair, fell past another trunk into the deep crack between two boulders. I landed on my back, looking up, the wind knocked out of me.
Malik tried to crawl between the trees surrounding the boulders, but the arrows in his side snagged against the trunks. He bellowed angrily and withdrew, stalked around to my left and swiped into my enclosure with a giant forepaw. I scrabbled backward as far as I could, gasping for breath, as he tested the strength of the tree with teeth and claws. It shook but did not give. He growled again in frustration and prowled around behind me, where a single slender tree protected my small redoubt. He pushed against it once, twice, three times. Needles and twigs and cones showered down. Roots groaned and snapped, and the tree fell inward.
I covered my face with my arm, but the boulders and the surrounding trees caught the falling timber by its branches. It settled at an angle like a roof across my crevice, still held by its toes to the earth. Malik bit and scratched at broken roots. He could do no more than shake it, but now he could step onto the boulders that shielded me. A set of talons quested between tree and rock. I scrambled back. He tried the other side, but arrows in his chest and legs snagged on the stout branches. Finally he backed off the rock, to circle and study my defenses.
I fell back, gasping deeply, tears streaming down my face. “Go away,” I whispered hoarsely. “Sweet Avar. Avar Avar Avar . . .”
Suddenly he roared in fury and leapt up onto the rocks again. He clawed frantically at the boughs of the fallen tree. Branches cracked and splintered. The trunk groaned as he stood on it and bounced. Shards of wood pattered all around me.
“Go away go away go away…”
Again he backed off, then raised his head and roared in utter frustration, shaking the trees and rocks with the thunder of his outrage. I heard his footfalls circling my enclosure, accompanied by low snarling. The undergrowth and trees diffused sound, and I couldn’t tell exactly where he was. I pushed myself to a sitting position, brushed hair out of my eyes, removing twigs and leaves with shaking hands. Thankfully, the meat in my knapsack had cushioned my backward fall, but knees, elbows, and palms were scraped and bleeding.
The footsteps moved away and the snarling ceased, but I heard him panting and whuffing aggressively. Twice more he tried to breech the upright trees around my fortress but fell back with painful cries. Long minutes passed in which only his labored breathing disturbed the deep night stillness. Still trembling, I stood up, my head between branches of the fallen tree.
Malik stood in the clearing, head down, panting. He saw me and growled, a deep menacing rumble that I’d never heard in the aeries, not even when Audax was testing Shuja’s seniority. This was feral and certain in its intent; he wanted to kill me.
I was trapped there, for as long as I concerned him.
I dropped out of sight again, heart pounding. I needed to convince him that I was not a threat. But how could I do that? He was a wilding—intelligent, but a creature of instinct and emotion nonetheless. He was unfamiliar with any of the commands or dialect that our aerie-born dragons spoke. All I had to work with was my knowledge of dragons, my crossbow, and a backpack full of food.
“Oh, High Ones,” I muttered.
I studied my narrow haven quickly. Two large boulders defined it, capped by a third on one end. There was a skinny gap like a short, constricted hallway between that third boulder and the one to my right. A natural entrance. Malik’s tail was visible beyond it.
I breathed deeply in hopes of calming myself. I shook so violently that it took several tries to cock my bow and load an arrow. I set it down and removed the knapsack. There were some choice cuts of meat remaining, plus the entire haunch and a few large potatoes.
This was no time for half-measures. I pulled out the haunch and laid the knapsack behind me. Then I picked up the crossbow and crept to the threshold of the crack. Malik was tugging at one of the arrows in his chest with his teeth. He groaned as it drew the flesh around it outward, the barbs on the arrowhead clutching at the plate it had pierced. When it ripped free, he snarled, bit it in three, spat out the remnants as he roared in pain, then licked at the freely bleeding wound.
I took a deep breath and tiptoed slowly out into the clearing. As I was laying the haunch of venison down, Malik spotted me and charged.
But I was prepared. I darted back into the crack between the boulders. He swiped into it with his long arm, but I was out of range, and the arrows still in his chest and legs shortened his reach. He growled furiously, pacing back and forth across the entrance but then stopped to glare in at me balefully.
As much as I wanted—needed—to make a connection with him, Father had warned us many times that a wild dragon will see eye contact as a threat or challenge. I averted my gaze and showed him the crossbow, then laid it down and raised my empty hands. Whether that would mean anything to him or not I didn’t know.
He returned to licking his wound until the bleeding had slowed, though he looked up to check on me several times. Many long, excruciating minutes later he sniffed at the air, turned, and found the haunch of venison.
He stepped on it and removed half with a single bite. The remainder disappeared with scarcely more caution, though he worried the bone a little bit before crunching it into shards and swallowing it all.
“Damn.” I’d hoped it would last a bit longer. I dug into the knapsack and pulled out two large potatoes. I showed them to him, then lobbed them gently out through the opening.
He sniffed at them, then swallowed them whole.
“High ones . . . you must be starving!” I tried to keep my voice low and calm.
He snarled at me, rumbling low in his chest. But the timbre had changed slightly, and it wasn’t all threat now. It made me think of our dragons when they came across something new and foreign. I retreated into the crevice a little further before I caught myself. I’m certain he could smell my terror, but I didn’t want to show fear, even though I was trembling and pouring sweat.
“Please leave me alone. I don’t want to be your food.” Trying to calm him. Trying to calm myself. I recalled Father two days ago telling Darian it doesn’t matter what you say. Tell him a story. Describe the weather. Babble like a lunatic. Tone was far more important than content. I took a deep breath.
“Avar, but you are terrifying. I mean gorgeous. What a handsome sire you are.” He stood panting, studying me. “Normally, a dragon sire is keeping the perimeter, ensuring a food supply for momma and her babies. But here you are, alone, stalking the men who stole your baby. Was that your mate I found? Or is she,” I swallowed, “in the cave?”
He stared at me inscrutably.
Despite myself, I snatched glimpses of his eyes: silver, like the stripes in his markings. He was beautiful, and it pained me to see the arrows in his flesh, the black rivulets of blood beneath them. Despite my fear and sadness and hurt, I found a well of empathy for this noble, wilding sire. I purred for him as best I could with dry lips and parched tongue. He tilted his head briefly. Encouraged, I tried to imitate the guttural rumble of contentment that our dragons made as they tucked into a meal. He tilted his head again.
“I want to save your baby too. Will you let me help? Look . . .” I fished a piece of meat out of the pack and showed it to him. Then I looked pointedly up the hill and mimicked the mewling bark that qits make when they’re hungry, what we called mowping. “This is for your baby.” Then I put the meat away.
He studied me, not moving.
“Oh, sweet Avar, but you are a mess! I wish I could help you, too.” His liquid eyes met mine, and his pupils dilated. Before I could avert my traitorous gaze he growled in rage and leapt atop the fallen tree again.
He ripped it in a frenzy, snapping limbs, pulling upward on the trunk, biting at the smaller boughs. The main beam of the tree groaned and shivered. Bark rained down on me.
I screamed, but then, almost without thought and using all the power in my lungs, tapping all the sadness I felt for this courageous wilding and the full depths of my terror, I did my best to mimic Grus’s sad keening. I sustained it at full volume for as long as I could, and finished each wail with a dragon’s mournful chuffing.
Malik paused, stared at me, panting heavily. His head tilted sideways.
Baby called back from the Harodhi camp—a long and desolate cry, barely audible.
Malik snarled at me again, then paced back and forth from boulder to boulder above. When he stopped, he threw his head back and called keirr! keirr!
Baby answered again.
He stuck his big head as far as he could between tree trunk and boulder, and roared at the top of his lungs. His warm, stinking breath washed over me, and I cowered in it.