Chapter no 15

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

Terror clogs my throat and stutters my heart. Air rushes past me as I plummet toward the mountainous terrain beneath, and the sun catches the scales of the golden one far beneath me.

I’m going to die. That’s the only possible outcome.

Vises clamp around my ribs and over my shoulders, stopping my descent, and my body jerks with whiplash as I’m yanked upward again.

“You’re making us look bad. Stop it.”

I’m clasped in Tairn’s claws. He’s actually…caught me instead of finding me unworthy and letting me fall to my death. “It’s not like it’s easy to stay on your back when you’re doing acrobatics!” I shout up.

He glances down at me, and I swear the ridge above his eye arches. “Simple flight is hardly acrobatics.”

“There is absolutely nothing simple about you!” I wrap my arms around the knuckles of his claws, noting that his sharp talons are draped harmlessly around the sides of my body. He’s huge, but he’s also careful as he flies us along the mountain.

He’s one of the deadliest dragons in Navarre. Professor Kaori’s lesson. What else had he said? The only unbonded black dragon hadn’t agreed to bond this year. He hadn’t even been seen in the last five years. His rider died in the Tyrrish rebellion.

Tairn swings me upward and then releases me, sending me flying high above him, and I flail. My stomach drops at the height of his toss, and then I fall for two heartbeats before Tairn rushes up, catching me on his back between his wings.

“Now get in the seat and actually hold on this time, or no one is going to believe that I’ve actually chosen you,” he growls.

“I still can’t believe you’ve chosen me!” I have half a mind to tell him that getting back to the seat isn’t as easy as he’s implying, but he levels out and his wings catch the air in a gentle glide, cutting the wind resistance. Inch by inch, I crawl up his back until I reach the seat and settle in again. I hold on to his ridges so hard, my hands cramp.

“You’re going to have to strengthen your legs. Didn’t you practice?”

Indignation ripples up my spine. “Of course I practiced!”

“There’s no need to shout. I can hear you just fine. The entire mountain can probably hear you.”

Was everyone’s dragon a curmudgeon? Or just mine?

My eyes widen. I have…a dragon. And not just any dragon. I have Tairneanach.

“Grip harder with your knees. I can barely feel you back there.”

“I’m trying.” I push my knees in and the muscles of my thighs tremble as he banks left, softer this time than last, his angle not quite as steep as he changes course in a wide arc, taking us back toward Basgiath. “I’m just… not as strong as other riders.”

“I know exactly who and what you are, Violet Sorrengail.”

My legs shake until they lock, the muscles freezing in place as though bands have been wrapped around them, but there’s no pain. I glance over my shoulder and see his morningstar tail, what feels like miles behind us.

He’s doing this. He’s holding me in place.

Guilt settles in my stomach. I should have focused more on strength training for my legs. I should have spent more time preparing myself for this. He shouldn’t have to spend his energy on keeping his rider seated. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t think I’d make it this far.”

A loud sigh resonates through my mind. “I didn’t think I would, either, so we have that in common.”

I sit higher in the seat and look out over the landscape, wind ripping tears from the corners of my eyes. No wonder most riders choose to wear goggles. There are at least a dozen dragons in the air, each putting their rider through a trial of dips and turns. Reds, oranges, greens, browns, the sky is speckled with color.

My heart lurches as I see a rider fall from the back of a Red Swordtail and, unlike Tairn, the dragon doesn’t dip to catch the first-year. I look away before the body hits the ground.

It’s not anyone you know. That’s what I tell myself. Rhiannon, Ridoc, Trina, Sawyer… They’re all probably safely bonded and already waiting at the field.

“We’re going to have to put on a show.” “Awesome.” The idea is anything but.

“You will not fall. I will not allow it.” The bands around my legs extend to my hands, and I feel the pulse of invisible energy. “You will trust me.” Not a question. An order.

“Let’s get it over with.” I can’t move my legs, my fingers, my hands, so there’s nothing I can do but sit back and hope I enjoy whatever hell he’s about to put me through.

His wings give a mighty beat, and we lurch upward in what feels like a ninety-degree climb, leaving my stomach back at the lower altitude. He crests the top of the snow-dusted peaks, and we hang there for a breath of a second before he twists, diving back down at the same terrifying angle.

It’s the most horrifying and yet exhilarating moment of my life.

Until he twists again, sending us into a spiral.

My body is wrenched this way and that as he completes turn after turn, pulling us out of the dive only to bank so hard, I swear the land becomes the sky, then repeats it all until my face splits into a grin.

There is nothing like this.

“I think we made our point.” He pulls us level, then banks right, starting up the valley that leads to the box canyon of the training fields. The sun is close to setting behind the peaks, but there’s plenty of light to see the golden dragon up ahead, hovering as though it’s waiting. Maybe it didn’t choose a rider, but it will live to decide again next year, and that’s all that matters.

Or maybe it will see that we humans aren’t so great after all.

“Why did you choose me?” I have to know, because as soon as we land, there are going to be questions.

“Because you saved her.” Tairn’s head inclines toward the golden as we approach, and she follows after us. Our speed slows.

“But…” I shake my head. “Dragons value strength and cunning and… ferocity in their riders.” None of which defines me.

“Please, do tell me more about what I should value.” Sarcasm drips from his tone as we pass over the Gauntlet and crest the narrow entrance to the training fields.

I suck in a sharp breath at the sight of so many dragons. There are hundreds gathered along the rocky edges of the mountain slopes behind the bleachers that were erected overnight. Spectators. And at the bottom of the valley, in the same field I’d walked only a couple of days before, are two lines of dragons facing each other.

“They are divided between those still in the quadrant who chose in years past and those who chose today,” Tairn tells me. “We are the seventy-first bond to enter the fields.”

Mom will be here, on the dais in front of the bleachers, and maybe I’ll get more than a cursory glance, but her attention will mostly be on the seventy or so newly bonded pairs.

A ferocious roar of celebration goes up among the dragons as we fly in, every head swinging our way, and I know it’s in deference to Tairn. So is the parting of the dragons at the very center of the field, making room for Tairn to land. He releases the bands holding me in my seat, then hovers over the grass for a few wing beats, and I see the golden dragon flying furiously to catch up.

How ironic. Tairn is the most celebrated dragon in the Vale, and I’m the most unlikely rider in the quadrant.

“You are the smartest of your year. The most cunning.”

I gulp at the compliment, brushing it off. I was trained as a scribe, not a rider.

“You defended the smallest with ferocity. And strength of courage is more important than physical strength. Since you apparently need to know before we land.”

My throat tightens from his words, emotion forming a knot I have to swallow past.

Oh. Shit. I hadn’t spoken those words. I’d thought them.

He can read my thoughts. “See? Smartest of your year.” So much for privacy.

“You’ll never be alone again.”

“That sounds more like a threat than a comfort,” I think. Of course I knew that dragons maintain a mental bond with their riders, but the extent of it is more than a little daunting.

Tairn scoffs in reply.

The golden dragon reaches us, her wings beating twice as fast as Tairn’s, and we land in the dead center of the field. The impact jars me slightly, but I sit up tall in the seat and even let go of the pommel ridges.

“See, I can hang on just fine when you’re not moving.”

Tairn tucks his wings up and looks over his shoulder at me with an expression that’s the closest thing to a dragon rolling his eyes that I’ve ever seen. “You need to dismount before I rethink my selection, then tell the rollkeeper-”

“I know what to do.” I pull in a shaky breath. “I just didn’t think I’d be alive to do it.” Surveying both options for dismount, I move right to shelter my ankle as long as possible. There are no healers allowed in the flight field, only riders, but hopefully someone thought to pack a medical kit, because I’m going to need stitches and a splint.

I scoot over the scales of Tairn’s shoulder and, before I can lament the distance I’m about to have to jump on the wreckage of my ankle, Tairn shifts slightly, angling his front leg.

There’s a sound from the slopes that reminds me of muttering…if dragons mutter.

“They do and they are. Ignore it.” Again, there’s no room for argument in his tone.

“Thanks,” I whisper, then slide down on my butt like he’s a bumpy piece of lethal playground equipment, taking the brunt of the impact with my left leg when I hit the ground.

“That’s one way to do it.”

I can’t stop the smile on my face or the joy that stings my eyes at the sight of other first-years standing in front of their dragons. I’m alive, and I’m no longer a cadet. I’m a rider.

The first step hurts like hell, but I pivot toward the golden one, who is tucked in tight next to Tairn, surveying me with bright eyes as she flicks her feathertail.

“I’m glad you made it.” “Glad” isn’t even the right word. Thrilled, relieved, grateful. “But maybe you should fly off the next time someone suggests you save yourself, eh?”

She blinks. “Maybe I was saving you.” Her voice is higher, sweeter in my mind.

My lips part, and the muscles in my face go slack with shock. “Didn’t anyone tell you that you’re not supposed to speak to humans who aren’t your rider? Don’t go getting yourself in trouble, Goldie,” I whisper. “From what I hear, dragons are pretty strict about breaking that rule.”

She simply sits, tucking her wings in, and tilts her head at me in that should-be-impossible angle that almost makes me laugh.

“Holy hell!” the rider of the red dragon to my right exclaims, and I turn toward him. He’s a first-year from Claw Section, Fourth Wing, but I don’t remember his name. “Is that…” He openly stares with fear-wide eyes at Tairn.

“Yeah,” I say, smiling wider. “He is.”

My ankle throbs, aches, and generally feels like it’s going to come apart at any second as I limp across the wide field, heading for the small formation directly ahead of me. Behind me, wind sporadically gusts as more dragons land and their riders dismount to have their names recorded, but it’s softer and softer as the line spreads farther down the field.

Dusk falls, and a series of mage lights illuminates the crowd in the bleachers and on the dais. In the very center, right above where the redhead from Parapet is recording roll, sits my mother, dressed in all her military finery, medals and all, lest anyone forget exactly who she is. Though there is an assortment of generals on the dais, each representing their wing, there’s only one more highly decorated than Lilith Sorrengail.

And Melgren, the commanding general of all Navarrian forces, has his beady eyes on Tairn in open assessment. His focus flicks toward me, and I suppress a shudder. There’s nothing but cold calculation in those eyes.

Mom rises as I approach the roll-keeper at the base of the dais, who’s recording bonded pairs before motioning the next rider forward to maintain secrecy of a dragon’s full name.

Professor Kaori jumps off the six-foot platform to my left and stares open-mouthed at Tairn, his gaze sweeping over the massive black dragon, memorizing every single detail.

“Is that really-” Commandant Panchek starts, hovering at the edge of the dais with more than a dozen other uniformed, high-ranking officers, all gaping.

“Don’t say it,” Mom hisses, her eyes on Tairn, not me. “Not until she does.”

Because only a rider and the roll-keeper know a dragon’s full name and she’s not certain I’m really his. That’s exactly what she’s implying. Like I’d be able to hijack Tairn. Anger simmers in my veins, overtaking the pain coursing through my body as I move forward in the line so there’s only one other rider ahead of me.

Mom forced me into the Riders Quadrant. She didn’t care if I lived or died as I crossed the parapet. The only thing she cares about now is how my flaws might mar her sterling reputation or how my bonding might further her own agenda.

And now she’s staring at my dragon without even bothering to look down and see if I’m all right.

Fuck. Her.

It’s everything I expected and yet still so disappointing.

The rider ahead finishes, moving out of the way, and the roll-keeper looks up, glancing wide-eyed at Tairn before lowering her shocked gaze to mine and beckoning me forward.

“Violet Sorrengail,” she says as she writes in the Book of Riders. “Nice to see that you made it.” She offers me a quick, shaky smile. “For the

record, please tell me the name of the dragon who chose you.”

I lift my chin. “Tairneanach.”

“Pronunciation could use some work.” Tairn’s voice rumbles through my head.

“Hey, at least I remembered,” I think back in his general direction, wondering if he’ll hear me across the field.

“At least I didn’t let you fall to your death.” He sounds utterly bored, but he definitely heard me.

The woman grins, shaking her head as she writes down his name. “I can’t believe he bonded. Violet, he’s a legend.”

I open my mouth to agree-

“Andarnaurram.” The sweet, high voice of the golden fills my mind. “Andarna for short.”

I feel the blood rush from my face, and the edges of my vision sway as I pivot on my good ankle, staring back across the field at where the golden dragon-Andarna-now stands between Tairn’s front legs. “Excuse me?”

“Violet, are you all right?” the redhead asks, and everyone around me, above me, leans in.

“Tell her,” the golden insists.

“Tairn. What am I supposed to-” I think at him.

“Tell the roll-keeper her name,” Tairn echoes.

“Violet?” the roll-keeper repeats. “Do you need a mender?”

I turn back to the woman and clear my throat. “And Andarnaurram,” I whisper.

Her eyes fly wide. “Both dragons?” she squawks.

I nod.

And all hell breaks loose.

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