Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author SCI FI
The   local   warlock   claims   Paul   can   reach   the   ethereal,   but   the ruling   council   wants   no   ogre   or   commoner   from   the   Range wielding   majic.   Paul   and   Morgan   join   a   wizard   who   has   his own    issues    with    the    council    and    are    drawn    into    Northern intrigue    when    the    ancient    queen    dragon    tells    them    they’re fated   to   put   down   a   plot   that   threatens   war.   The   trio   defies   a death   sentence,   rogue   wizards,   and   fickle   dragons   tempted   to snack   on   them.   Paul’s   majic   must   mature   quickly   if   he’s   to survive.     Amid     the     drama,     Paul     learns     about     character, integrity,   and   family,   that   all   creatures   are   individuals   despite the generalizations he’s been raised to believe.
Urban Fantasy
CHAPTER ONE ~ N ot   natural,   humans   living   with   a   pair   of   ogres,   much   less   the   mess   of   ’em   living below a lair where three dragons slumber. Stinkin’ dragons. Cranky ogres. Can’t fathom why it took me so long to muster the gumption to— Panic   exploded   as   he   slid   over   the   outcropping,   scraping   madly   at   the   rock   to find   a   grip.   His   shins   connected   with   a   jutting   ledge   and   that   froze   him   in   agony. He   closed   his   eyes   against   it,   but   had   to   continue   kicking,   searching   for   a   niche   to wedge   his   toes.   His   center   of   gravity   loomed   outward   and   head   swam   with   vertigo. He   imagined   his   carcass   tumbling   for   thirty   minutes   before   it   hit   the   plain   below.   A gust sweeping up the cliff face plunged grit into his neck and cheek. Hands    slick    with    sweat,    he    lost    his    grip    and    dropped    another    foot.    Knees whacked   the   ledge   that   bloodied   his   shins.   But   one   boot   met   an   agreeable   crag.   He scrambled   to   get   his   other   on   it   before   he   twisted   head-over-arse   and   plummeted   to his death. He   clutched   at   new   handholds   and   laid   his   face   against   sunbaked   rock   to   rest, blew   out   a   deep   breath   in   relief,   and   thanked   God   he   survived   that   one.   He   needed to   slow   down   or   he   was   going   to   kill   himself.   No   ogre,   witch,   or   dragon   would   have to do the honors. Paul   opened   his   eyes   and   looked   about.   A   crease   in   the   granite   angled   from   the right   toward   him.   One   more,   sheer   outcropping   to   beat   and   the   climbing   would   be easier.   On   the   clear   mountain   face   the   dragon   might   find   room   to   land   though.   Not that   the   beast   had   to   land.   He   could   probably   swoop   down   and   wrench   Paul   cleanly away   if   the   wind   calmed.   Paul   imagined   what   the   dragon’s   talons   would   feel   like penetrating   his   body.   The   pain   wouldn’t   last   long.   Couldn’t   survive   but   a   second, surely, being cleaved in two by those jaws. Hope the wind doesn’t calm. Paul   swallowed,   took   a   deep   breath,   and   extended   a   leg   for   the   next   step.   A hawk   screeched.   Some   varmint   hiding   in   the   rocks   nearby   squeaked   defiantly   in answer.   Brave   cuss.   Not   unlike   him,   running   from   a   hundred-foot-long   dragon snarling-snout   to   slashing-tail.   Twelve-inch   fangs.   Breath   foul   enough   to   scald   the hair off a mule’s butt. Don’t think about the dragon. He   lowered   himself   to   the   next   ledge,   which   was   wide   enough   to   turn   around. He   searched   the   sky   for   the   first   time   in   ten   minutes.   Where   was   the   beast?   Ah.   To the   right.   He   rode   the   thermals,   wings   extended   like   sails.   He   enjoyed   himself, teased,   baiting   Paul   with   freedom.   But   where   could   he   go   when   he   reached   the plain below? There’d be no place to hide. Paul pressed his back against the rock. Useless. Nowhere to go. Don’t give up. Three sisters to provide for, a father to find. Can’t give up. Paul   leapt   into   the   crevasse,   eroded   angles   poking   through   the   worn   leather soles   of   what   remained   of   his   boots.   Once   his   father’s   boots,   handed   down,   Paul wore   them   for   three   years   with   rags   jammed   into   them   so   his   feet   wouldn’t   slide around so much. He   gasped   hot   air.   At   least   it   wasn’t   as   thin   as   he   was   used   to   in   the   alpine heights,   his   home   since   the   birth   of   his   youngest   sister.   How   long   ago   was   that?   He counted   the   number   of   first-of-the-season   blizzards.   Three.   This   was   his   fourth summer.   Seemed   like   twenty.   He   was   only   sixteen   years   old   though.   He   felt   much older. Focus. His   lungs   hurt.   Every   muscle   ached   from   the   four-hour-long   race   off   the   peak. The   plain   below   promised   freedom.   What   tipped   off   the   dang   dragon?   He   should have been sleeping, curled inside his lair in his six-foot-deep pile of straw. Paul   adjusted   the   strap   over   his   shoulder   and   pushed   back   the   attached   bag containing   the   entirety   of   his   life   possessions—loaf   of   bread,   wedge   of   cheese,   extra shirt,   two   pairs   of   socks,   the   handkerchief   Aedwin   gave   him,   pocketknife   from Lucas, harmonica from Ike. And the bag of gold I stole. Heat   rushed   across   his   face.   The   ogre   should   have   hidden   it,   not   left   it   sitting on   his   dresser   top.   More   coins   than   his   pa   ever   earned   his   entire   life.   If   Paul   never found the man, at least he wouldn’t starve. A   twitch   in   his   chest   made   him   look   up.   The   dragon   arced   north   to   west.   Gold wouldn’t   do   Paul   any   good   when   the   dragon   caught   up   with   him.   Most   folk   hanged thieves. A dragon wouldn’t bother hunting down a rope. Paul   took   another   deep   breath   and   continued   down   the   steep,   but   much   easier path   within   the   wedge   of   the   two   angled   mountain   faces,   the   descent   ten   times faster since he didn’t have to clamber hand over toehold. Sweat   gushed   down   his   face.   That   twinge,   which   often   tingled   his   gullet   lately, clenched his spine. His neck cramped from keeping track of the dragon. The   terrain   leveled.   Boulders   and   loose   stones   covered   the   broad   plates   of bedrock,   making   his   steps   treacherous.   Boots   slid   across   the   debris,   scraping   and bruising   his   ankles.   A   broken   leg   would   end   his   escape.   Either   sweat   or   blood soaked his threadbare socks. A   whooshing   sound   ripped   his   mind   from   his   pain.   He   flinched   as   a   wide shadow   crossed   his   path.   The   dragon   careened   in   a   tight   bank.   Paul   lurched   for stones. “No! No! Go away!” He   launched   his   pathetic   missiles   into   the   air   as   though   they   would   ward   off the enormous predator. The slate-colored, scarred beast veered north, and away. Showed him. But    thrown    stones    wouldn’t    put    off    the    dragon    for    long,    nor    would    the straggling   boulders   hide   him.   Paul   shook   his   head.   No   place   but   forward.   He   fell into   a   jog,   struggling   to   avoid   head-sized   stones   that   littered   the   narrow   foothills fronting the plain. Sand   replaced   gravel.   Instead   of   knifing   spikes   making   through   the   thin   soles of his boots, the sand snuck in through the holes and ground at his feet. He    pressed    into    a    run.    But    for    what    purpose?    How    far    could    he    run? Outdistance a dragon? Not in this lifetime. A life too short. A   sound   like   spattering   applause,   the   dragon   winging   to   land,   forced   Paul   to take   his   eyes   off   his   path.   He   stomped   to   a   halt,   palms   dropping   to   his   knees   to catch   his   breath.   Three   gasps   and   Paul   reached   for   more   stones   to   throw.   He   picked up   two   fist-sized   ones   and   hurled   them   one   after   another   at   the   beast   with   all   his strength.   They   bounced   off   the   dragon’s   shoulder.   His   hide   twitched,   like   a   milk cow   thwarting   flies.   He   fluttered   his   enormous   wings   kicking   up   a   swell   of   dust, double eyelids closing, as though surprised. A taloned claw extended. Chapter Two ~ T he   dragon   slapped   away   the   next   hurled   stone,   clasped   the   next,   and   dropped   it   as though it were a nasty thing. “Stop it!” he roared. “I’m not going back.” “Prefer to die down here?” Paul’s chest tightened. “You going to kill me?” The   dragon   lowered   his   inner   eyelids   a   moment.   “When   the   air   cools   with   the setting sun, the lions will come out. You will not last an hour.” Paul swallowed. “Uh uh. You’re lying. I’ve never seen any lions around here.” “You ever been on this plain at night?” Paul slumped forward, hands resting on his knees again. He sucked in air. At least it doesn’t look like he’s going to kill me. “Does that mean—you aren’t going to kill me?” “Kill   you?”   The   dragon’s   inner   eyelids   closed   shut   slowly,   and   peeled   back.   It left   the   impression   of   a   human   arching   their   brow.   “I   should.   Make   a   dandy   snack. Might irritate Lucas, but Ike would probably be happy to be done with you.” “Snack?” “You are right. They have not fattened you up as much as they intend.” “I got plenty of meat on me.” “Two   weeks   ago,”   the   dragon   rasped,   “the   lions   would   not   have   even   taken   two glances your way. A newborn antelope carries more sustenance.” A   bit   of   Paul’s   despair   twisted   into   anger.   “My   pa   and   ma   weren’t   starving   us. There were no leftovers, but we had ’nough to eat.” “Why did a farmer ever move to the highlands anyway? Was he insane?” Paul grabbed a rock and pulled it back. “You throw that and I will slice you in two.” His talons clenched in the sand. If he was going to kill me, he already would’a. Wasn’t   much   point   in   antagonizing   the   thing   further   though,   or   debating   with him. “You sure are an opinionated beast.” “Beast?   Who   is   the   beast?   You   are   a   crass,   heathen,   lesser-being.   Throws   rocks. Never even bothered to learn my name. Demonstrates you have no social skills.” Paul   leaned   backward   a   tad   and   dropped   the   stone   he   held.   He   looked   down   to avoid meeting the dragon’s glare. “I will give you a hint,” the dragon said. “I am not  one of the brothers.” That   didn’t   help   collecting   the   thing’s   name.   Paul   already   knew   he   was   the young   queen’s   mate,   not   one   of   her   brothers.   All   the   hint   meant   was   his   name wouldn’t be pasted in front of ‘loch, the local clutch’s family name. A   thought   from   the   clouds   struck   him,   considering   the   little   he   knew   about dragons,   the   local   clutch   should   have   used   their   dam’s   clan   name.   Paul   searched   for the name. Was a short one. Yes. ‘et. The elder queen’s name was Ash’et. “Not    coming    to    you?”    The    dragon’s    enormous    head    swung    back    and    forth displaying his pity. Paul   asked,   “Why   don’t   the   younger   queen   and   her   brothers   use   their   mama’s clan name?” The   hide   below   the   dragon’s   eyes   wrinkled.   “Changing   the   subject   is   a   poor strategy for avoiding the truth of your ignorance.” “Don’t be rude. Don’t you know?” A   rumble   emanated   from   the   dragon’s   chest.   “I   should   quarter   you   and   leave you for the lions.” But   the   dragon   didn’t   make   any   kind   of   physical   challenge.   In   fact   he   squatted, folded   his   wings   behind   him,   and   twisted,   pressing   a   shallow   in   the   loose   gravel. Dust   billowed   around   them   for   a   five-count.   Paul   waved   it   away   from   his   face. Evidently   the   dragon   was   willing   to   get   comfortable   and   converse.   What   better   did he have to do? “Ash’et   is   the   last   of   her   clan.   The   most   noble   of   the   draconic   families.   Perhaps she considered it arrogant to keep the name alive. I’m not sure.” The   dragon’s   eyes   seemed   to   whirl,   which   reminded   Paul   of   a   human   staring   at nothing, mind a million miles away. “Blessed    with    a    queen    in    her    last    clutch,”    he    continued,    “perhaps    she considered   Iza   a   new   promise.   Ash’et   is   very   proud   of   these   nestlings.   Proud   of   the home she created here. Perhaps that is why she named them for the lake.” ‘loch. How could I forget that? The   dragon   raised   his   head,   eyes   whirling   again,   but   his   jaw   dropped   revealing those   threatening   fangs.   Paul   almost   wet   himself   the   first   time   he’d   seen   a   dragon do   that.   Still   disconcerting,   even   knowing   the   dragon   attempted   a   human-style smile. He   lifted   his   haunches   in   the   air,   shoulders   lowered.   “See   those   larger   scars running down my back?” Vomit   rose   in   the   back   of   Paul’s   throat.   Twelve-foot-long   channels   a   foot   wide wove   down   the   dragon’s   back.   How   could   he   have   survived   such   wounds?   Nearly ripped him in two. A different, gravelly rumble came from the dragon’s chest, a draconic chuckle. “Those   are   from   Ash’et,   perhaps   seven   human   generations   ago.   She   could   have shredded my wings. She let me off easy.” Easy? “You   see,   I   tried   to   fly   with   her,   to   court   her,   in   your   words.”   He   displayed more   fang.   “I   considered   myself   a   totally   suitable   bull.   Was   not   good   enough   for her, though. I paid for my arrogance. Have you ever met her mate?” Paul   searched   the   past   weeks   for   that   dragon’s   name.   He   didn’t   expect   an   exam on   all   things   draconic—hadn’t   studied.   Didn’t   wish   to   admit   he   couldn’t   identify   yet another dragon. That wouldn’t help the situation. “Do   not   try   to   cover   up   your   ignorance,”   the   dragon   continued.   “I   must   agree Ash’et   found   a   unique   and   beautiful   mate   with   Mo’sale.   A   towering   bull.   He   is   a brindle.   Gorgeous.   I   hate   him.   Not   really.   He   is   centuries   younger   than   me.   No surprise he impressed the finicky queen.” A    smile    creased    Paul’s    cheek,    despite    his    personal    conundrum,    fleeing    an ogre’s   lair,   almost   killing   himself   hurling   down   a   mountain,   tracked   down   by   a dragon   who   now   cocked   his   head,   eyes   widening.   A   dragon   who   appeared   to   enjoy   a chat, even with a human on the open plain. “Ahh.   Is   it   clicking?   I   was   not   good   enough   for   Ash’et,   but   I   snatched   up   her proudest clutchling, her last queen.” A    rumble,    like    a    cascade    of    thunder    across    the    valley,    vibrated    from    the dragon’s   chest.   The   ground   shook.   Paul   imagined   it   was   similar   to   a   cat’s   purr   in emotion. Not a reaction he expected from a giant beast. “I   doubt   Ash’et   recognized   me   after   all   those   years,”   the   dragon   continued.   “I certainly   remembered   her.   She   paid   little   enough   attention   to   me   except   to   run   me off.   I   worried   she   might   kill   me   when   she   found   me   cavorting   with   her   Iza’loch.   I am one lucky dragon, on two accounts.” A   wolf   howled   to   the   west.   The   sun   had   sunk   below   the   peaks   and   the   day’s heat was fading. A shiver crossed Paul’s shoulders. “This is all nice to know—” “Taiz’lin. Repeat it. Might help to remember my name.” “Fine,” Paul muttered. “Taiz’lin. I knew your name was Taiz’lin.” “Liar.   All   humans   are   liars.   Should   pay   more   attention   to   ogres.   They   would plunge a dagger into their own eye rather than lie.” “Not what I’ve heard.” “You   have   heard   wrong,”   Taiz’lin   said.   “My   Ike   is   the   most   noble   beast,   second to dragons, of course.” “Ike stranded me on top of that mountain with nothing to do.” “You    were    half-dead.    We    have    given    you    time    to    rest    and    build    up    your strength.   Besides,   we   all   have   been   a   little   busy   if   you   have   not   noticed.   Lucky   the plague did not take you like—” “Like it took my mother?” Taiz’lin’s mouth clomped shut. At least that lessened the odor. “Now   that   I’ve   got   your   life   story,   you   mind   telling   me   what   you’re   going   to   do with me?” “Take you home,” Taiz’lin said. “I have no home.” “Ike’s lair.” “I have to find my pa.” “He will return when he is capable of caring for you and your sisters.” “You don’t believe that. All of you think he ran away like a coward.” Taiz’lin’s   head   soared   nearer.   He   blinked   those   enormous   eyes.   “Just   gone   to get   a   new   start.   He   will   be   back   to   collect   the   four   of   you   when   he   has   a   stake   that will feed the lot of you.” The   dragon   spoke   softly,   but   didn’t   believe   his   words   any   more   than   Paul   did, considering the way he stressed the emotion behind them. “I   can   help   him   break   new   fields.   I   have   a   strong   back.   I   got   to   find   him   and help him.” “You have no clue where to look.” Paul   fought   the   tightening   sensation   in   his   throat.   Some   of   the   exhaustion   of weeks ago returned, aggravating the aches from his rush down the mountain. “He’ll be in one of the near, human villages north of here.” “You   do   not   even   know   he   traveled   north.   He   could   have   headed   south   for   the Wildes for all you know.” “Why   would   he   go   to   the   Wildes?   There   are   none   of   our   kind   down   there.   We don’t know anyone there. He doesn’t know anything about the Wildes.” “He   obviously   did   not   know   anything   about   the   high   mountains   of   the   Range either,   if   he   believed   he   could   farm   in   rock,   near   the   tree   line,   far   from   help,   two- day march from the nearest settlement.” “What do you know of farming, dragon?” “Probably as much as your pa.” Anger   swelled   in   Paul’s   chest   and   he   swung   a   fist   up   into   the   dragon’s   chin   with all    the    speed    and    strength    he    could    muster.    His    shoulder    crooked    hard,    fist wrenched,   as   though   he’d   slammed   into   a   rock   wall.   A   wail   of   pain   escaped—not from the dragon. Tears blurred his vision for a ten-count. “You feel better?” Taiz’lin asked. Paul    cleared    his    throat    and    tried    to    hide    the    pain    that    vibrated    from    his shoulder   to   the   tips   of   his   fingers.   He   blinked   away   the   tears   and   flexed   his   hand, afraid he may have broken it. “Hope I didn’t hurt you too much, dragon. But stop insulting my pa.” “I think I will survive, lad. You ready to go home?” “I’m going north.” “Thought we worked through that?” “You   wasted   your   breath.”   The   embarrassment   of   stealing   from   Ike   revisited Paul’s   conscience.   How   could   he   go   back?   The   gold   slung   over   his   shoulder   tugged heavily, by more than its physical weight. Taiz’lin mumbled, “You are barely old enough to wipe your own snot.” Paul tensed, and clenched his fists. His right hand throbbed. “Oh please, human, do not beat me again.” Both    anger    and    an    outrageous    need    to    laugh    struck    Paul.    A    withering strangulation   followed   that,   squeezed   the   air   out   of   his   lungs.   His   aches   spread through   his   body.   He   closed   his   eyes   and   took   a   slow   breath   to   keep   from   crying. Heat   flowed   across   his   face   a   second   later,   with   recognition   that   Taiz’lin   didn’t know his name either. “What is so funny?” Taiz’lin asked. “You’re so superior, figure it out.” Taiz’lin   lowered   his   left   shoulder   and   extended   a   forelimb.   “Up.   The   lions   will be circling.” “Give you a snack, I would think.” “Prefer   elk.   Enough   talk.   Already   tread   upon   my   afternoon   nap.   Get   on   my back.” “I said I’m heading north.” Taiz’lin   trumpeted   his   anger.   The   belch   of   hot   air   took   Paul   off   his   feet.   He   hit the   ground   hard.   Head   double-thumped.   Rocks   scraped   his   back   as   he   slid   over them another two feet. He groaned. Ears rang. After a full minute Taiz’lin said something. “What? I can’t hear you. My ears are ringing.” The dragon’s jowls moved again. “What?” The   dragon   shook   his   head.   After   a   twenty-count   the   sound   of   the   wind   in   the crags above returned. “You don’t have to tell them you found me,” Paul said. “Even   if   my   Ike   lets   you   be,   that   friend   of   his,   Lucas,   would   mount   a   tiring search.   Tiring   for   me.   I   am   too   old   to   be   soaring   at   the   tree   tops   smelling   for   a stinking human.” “Why do you have to be so insulting?” Taiz’lin’s   jaw   dropped   in   that   draconic   smile.   “I   would   say   it   is   a   dragon’s prerogative, but in truth, the ways of my Ike have rubbed off on me.” “Ike and Lucas snipe as though they hate each other.” “Never believe it,” Taiz’lin said. He   hadn’t   after   the   first   few   minutes   in   their   company.   Paul   had   been   in   awe over   the   tight   friendship   between   the   ogre   and   human   since   the   day   he   met   them. Their   fellowship   had   nothing   to   do   with   the   fact   their   dragons   were   mates.   Their friendship preceded their dragons even meeting. Taiz’lin   jerked   his   massive   head,   a   reminder   he   waited   for   Paul   to   climb   onto his shoulders. “What if you helped me find my father?” Paul asked. Taiz’lin’s chest rattled like gravel in a coffee tin. “Why would I do that?” Paul’s   chest   tightened.   His   face   turned   hot,   as   though   the   dragon   had   pressed   a torch into it. The wrinkles formed under Taiz’lin’s eyes again. “You   going   to   live,   human?   Your   face   just   turned   into   an   over-ripe   red-fruit. What do you call those things?” “Tomatoes?” “Aye.” The seconds passed painfully. “Take a breath, human.” Paul tried, but he seemed incapable of drawing in enough air. “You cannot think of a good reason why I should help you, eh, human?” “My name is Paul.” “Of course it is. Not that I care.” “You were insulted I couldn’t recall your  name.” “But   you   are   only   a   human.   Your   life   is   short,   almost   not   worth   me   learning your name.” “It true Ash’et is as old as they say?” Paul asked. “I do not know how old they say she is, and it is none of my concern.” “How old are you?” Taiz’lin’s inner lids closed halfway for a three count. “You don’t remember?” Paul asked. “Shut   up.   Guess   it   would   not   hurt   to   shuttle   you   north   for   a   day.   Not   like anyone cares where you are.” “Now who’s changing the subject?” “Did you wish to fly north with me or not?” Paul allowed the smile that bubbled inside to fold his face into a smirk.   © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Warlock Apprentice CHAPTER ONE ~ N ot   natural,   humans   living   with   a   pair   of ogres,   much   less   the   mess   of   ’em   living below      a      lair      where      three      dragons slumber. Stinkin’ dragons. Cranky ogres. Can’t   fathom   why   it   took   me   so   long to muster the gumption to— Panic    exploded    as    he    slid    over    the outcropping,   scraping   madly   at   the   rock to   find   a   grip.   His   shins   connected   with   a jutting   ledge   and   that   froze   him   in   agony. He   closed   his   eyes   against   it,   but   had   to continue   kicking,   searching   for   a   niche   to wedge    his    toes.    His    center    of    gravity loomed    outward    and    head    swam    with vertigo.       He       imagined       his       carcass tumbling   for   thirty   minutes   before   it   hit the   plain   below.   A   gust   sweeping   up   the cliff   face   plunged   grit   into   his   neck   and cheek. Hands    slick    with    sweat,    he    lost    his grip    and    dropped    another    foot.    Knees whacked     the     ledge     that     bloodied     his shins.    But    one    boot    met    an    agreeable crag.   He   scrambled   to   get   his   other   on   it before     he     twisted     head-over-arse     and plummeted to his death. He    clutched    at    new    handholds    and laid    his    face    against    sunbaked    rock    to rest,   blew   out   a   deep   breath   in   relief,   and thanked    God    he    survived    that    one.    He needed   to   slow   down   or   he   was   going   to kill    himself.    No    ogre,    witch,    or    dragon would have to do the honors. Paul     opened     his     eyes     and     looked about.   A   crease   in   the   granite   angled   from the    right    toward    him.    One    more,    sheer outcropping    to    beat    and    the    climbing would   be   easier.   On   the   clear   mountain face   the   dragon   might   find   room   to   land though.   Not   that   the   beast   had   to   land. He     could     probably     swoop     down     and wrench    Paul    cleanly    away    if    the    wind calmed.   Paul   imagined   what   the   dragon’s talons    would    feel    like    penetrating    his body.     The     pain     wouldn’t     last     long. Couldn’t    survive    but    a    second,    surely, being cleaved in two by those jaws. Hope the wind doesn’t calm. Paul   swallowed,   took   a   deep   breath, and   extended   a   leg   for   the   next   step.   A hawk   screeched.   Some   varmint   hiding   in the    rocks    nearby    squeaked    defiantly    in answer.     Brave     cuss.     Not     unlike     him, running       from       a       hundred-foot-long dragon     snarling-snout     to     slashing-tail. Twelve-inch   fangs.   Breath   foul   enough   to scald the hair off a mule’s butt. Don’t think about the dragon. He   lowered   himself   to   the   next   ledge, which   was   wide   enough   to   turn   around. He   searched   the   sky   for   the   first   time   in ten   minutes.   Where   was   the   beast?   Ah. To   the   right.   He   rode   the   thermals,   wings extended   like   sails.   He   enjoyed   himself, teased,    baiting    Paul    with    freedom.    But where   could   he   go   when   he   reached   the plain below? There’d be no place to hide. Paul    pressed    his    back    against    the rock. Useless. Nowhere to go. Don’t give up. Three   sisters   to   provide   for,   a   father to find. Can’t give up. Paul    leapt    into    the    crevasse,    eroded angles   poking   through   the   worn   leather soles   of   what   remained   of   his   boots.   Once his    father’s    boots,    handed    down,    Paul wore    them    for    three    years    with    rags jammed    into    them    so    his    feet    wouldn’t slide around so much. He   gasped   hot   air.   At   least   it   wasn’t   as thin    as    he    was    used    to    in    the    alpine heights,   his   home   since   the   birth   of   his youngest   sister.   How   long   ago   was   that? He    counted    the    number    of    first-of-the- season    blizzards.    Three.    This    was    his fourth   summer.   Seemed   like   twenty.   He was   only   sixteen   years   old   though.   He   felt much older. Focus. His    lungs    hurt.    Every    muscle    ached from   the   four-hour-long   race   off   the   peak. The   plain   below   promised   freedom.   What tipped    off    the    dang    dragon?    He    should have   been   sleeping,   curled   inside   his   lair in his six-foot-deep pile of straw. Paul     adjusted     the     strap     over     his shoulder    and    pushed    back    the    attached bag    containing    the    entirety    of    his    life possessions—loaf     of     bread,     wedge     of cheese,   extra   shirt,   two   pairs   of   socks,   the handkerchief         Aedwin         gave         him, pocketknife   from   Lucas,   harmonica   from Ike. And the bag of gold I stole. Heat   rushed   across   his   face.   The   ogre should   have   hidden   it,   not   left   it   sitting on   his   dresser   top.   More   coins   than   his   pa ever   earned   his   entire   life.   If   Paul   never found     the     man,     at     least     he     wouldn’t starve. A   twitch   in   his   chest   made   him   look up.   The   dragon   arced   north   to   west.   Gold wouldn’t    do    Paul    any    good    when    the dragon    caught    up    with    him.    Most    folk hanged   thieves.   A   dragon   wouldn’t   bother hunting down a rope. Paul    took    another    deep    breath    and continued    down    the    steep,    but    much easier   path   within   the   wedge   of   the   two angled    mountain    faces,    the    descent    ten times     faster     since     he     didn’t     have     to clamber hand over toehold. Sweat    gushed    down    his    face.    That twinge,    which    often    tingled    his    gullet lately,     clenched     his     spine.     His     neck cramped     from     keeping     track     of     the dragon. The     terrain     leveled.     Boulders     and loose   stones   covered   the   broad   plates   of bedrock,    making    his    steps    treacherous. Boots   slid   across   the   debris,   scraping   and bruising   his   ankles.   A   broken   leg   would end    his    escape.    Either    sweat    or    blood soaked his threadbare socks. A   whooshing   sound   ripped   his   mind from    his    pain.    He    flinched    as    a    wide shadow    crossed    his    path.    The    dragon careened   in   a   tight   bank.   Paul   lurched   for stones. “No! No! Go away!” He   launched   his   pathetic   missiles   into the   air   as   though   they   would   ward   off   the enormous     predator.     The     slate-colored, scarred beast veered north, and away. Showed him. But    thrown    stones    wouldn’t    put    off the     dragon     for     long,     nor     would     the straggling   boulders   hide   him.   Paul   shook his   head.   No   place   but   forward.   He   fell into   a   jog,   struggling   to   avoid   head-sized stones    that    littered    the    narrow    foothills fronting the plain. Sand     replaced     gravel.     Instead     of knifing    spikes    making    through    the    thin soles    of    his    boots,    the    sand    snuck    in through the holes and ground at his feet. He   pressed   into   a   run.   But   for   what purpose?      How      far      could      he      run? Outdistance      a      dragon?      Not      in      this lifetime. A life too short. A   sound   like   spattering   applause,   the dragon    winging    to    land,    forced    Paul    to take   his   eyes   off   his   path.   He   stomped   to a    halt,    palms    dropping    to    his    knees    to catch    his    breath.    Three    gasps    and    Paul reached    for    more    stones    to    throw.    He picked   up   two   fist-sized   ones   and   hurled them   one   after   another   at   the   beast   with all    his    strength.    They    bounced    off    the dragon’s   shoulder.   His   hide   twitched,   like a   milk   cow   thwarting   flies.   He   fluttered his   enormous   wings   kicking   up   a   swell   of dust,    double    eyelids    closing,    as    though surprised. A taloned claw extended. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017