A prequel novella in the Crown of Fae universe ...
When hope is just a flicker, trust a dragon to light the flame.
Fliss is the youngest princess of Bright Wing, a tribe of dragon shifters defending Faery against the enemy Shades. She yearns to fight, but now she’s stuck at school far away. The situation is ridiculous. Intolerable. How can she save the world when she’s forbidden to fly after curfew?
The school at Penriva House is far outside the battle lines. The students are safe, or so everyone believes. But Shades attack Fliss before she arrives at the school, and now there are signs the enemy is hiding just beyond its walls. When the headmistress ignores the evidence, Fliss has to wonder whose side she’s on.
Terrified, Fliss is unsure where to turn with the secret she uncovers. There’s no clear way to save her newfound friends, much less herself. Does Fliss run, or risk all and fly into battle, one small dragon against a host of perilous foe?
This story takes place years before the events of SHIMMER.
The tale begins in the Faery Realm.
Fliss had never flown so far, nor for a reason she hated more.
Wind buffeted her wings, but her temper gave her strength. She was the youngest princess of the Bright Wing dragon shifters, the air fae that had ruled the skies for as long as stories were told. At fourteen years, she was still a birthday or two away from joining her brothers and sisters in the defense of Highclaw Castle and its beleaguered mountain kingdom.
“You’re too small,” her father, King Vass, had pointed out last month, just after the first autumn frost.
“But I’m very fast.”
King Vass had wrinkled his brow, the lines deepened by fatigue. “Fast is good. So is agility. Sadly, we need dragons, not dragonflies. You’ve been sheltered from the war.”READ MORE
Annoyance—and a touch of foreboding—had tightened her chest. “Give me a chance.”
“I am—more than you understand. Pack your bags, sweetling.”
“You’re going to school. Penriva House is far from any battles and the headmistress is one of the best water mages ever to cast a spell. You’ll be perfectly safe and get a first-class education besides.”
School. She huffed a plume of smoke. What king’s daughter went to a common boarding academy? Proper princesses had tutors and drawing masters. But that was the very reason her father had chosen Penriva House, where the students were from good but ordinary families.
She’d found the place on a map and promptly stormed from the room in horror. It was going to be like exile. Penriva was on the southeast coast, well into the domain of the water fae. There would be no other dragons there, far less family. She wouldn’t know a soul. Worse, she wouldn’t be Princess Flissatania when she arrived—just plain, unimportant Fliss.
“That’s the point,” her father had said. “Living as an ordinary student will be an adventure.”
“How?” she’d replied darkly.
“Imagine acting in a play for months on end. It’ll be fun.”
Fliss knew a sales job when she heard one. This was her father’s way of putting her in hiding, and she hated it. Dragons were meant to defend and protect, not cower in the shadows.
She banked through the scattered clouds, following her older brother, Telkoram, who led their flight through the sky. The air was sharp with the promise of frost, as the autumn shadows grew long across the green land below. She thought she could smell the salt of ocean air, but so far no flocks of sea birds confirmed it.
Her luggage had gone ahead to the school so they could travel light. Besides the two royal dragons, there were four seasoned guards covering their flanks and tails. They had left at daybreak and followed the Ildaran River, only stopping to rest when they’d left the mountains. Then they’d used the Fleetfoot River as their guide toward the coast.
As Fliss scanned the forest below, she saw fewer pine and fir trees and more splashes of yellow and orange among the leaves. Small farms nestled in clearings and low-lying marshlands flashed silver as they passed overhead. The land was changing with every wingbeat, and already she felt hideously far from where she belonged.
Leaving her family behind was like abandoning part of her own flesh. As the youngest of nine, there had always been a sibling nearby. Had been. With the war, her world was changing too fast. Fliss turned her face into the wind, letting the breeze dry her tears before they could fall.
The brush of her brother’s wing against hers jerked her attention back to the present. Telkoram turned to regard her, concern in his golden eyes. He was huge and black where Fliss was a pale cream spotted with caramel. Embarrassment twisted in her chest. She’d drifted from her position in the flight, risking a mid-air collision. It was a sign of fatigue—Fliss was proud of her agility in the air, but her smaller wings had to flap twice as often to keep up with the others.
To her relief, Telkoram dipped toward a hilltop. It was high and bare, with only a few scrubby bushes clinging to its edges. One by one, they angled their wings and dropped, stretching out claws to break their momentum once they touched grass. Fliss forced herself to land lightly and stand straight, though her wings ached as she folded them. Nerves tingled, fading in and out of numbness as her flight muscles cramped. All the same, she refused to show her fatigue as she settled next to her brother. Instead, she pretended to take a bright interest in the lands below. After all, this what where she’d be living.
As in all of Faery, humans and fae lived and worked here side by side. Below, a swineherd shaded his eyes to see the dragons looming on the hilltop. The human’s interest was no wonder, since Telkoram was the size of a large farmhouse. They were lined four abreast, with two of the guards still circling above to patrol the skies for danger. The man’s obvious awe made Fliss preen a little, making sure the fading sun caught the shimmer of her scales.
Her respite was short-lived. Telkoram gave a faint rumble, pointing his nose toward the south. His long neck and horned head were like a thick, dark exclamation point. Fliss felt her stomach plummet. Far in the distance was Penriva House, familiar from the sketch her father had shown her. There was no mistaking the distinctive roofline, with its pointy stone towers. Her exile was drawing near.
So was a bank of dark cloud that rolled toward them with uncanny speed. Fliss drooped. She hated flying in driving rain. It was like being pelted with needles while trying to navigate through a mass of heavy, dark wool.
Suddenly Telkoram launched into the air, his huge wings spreading with the sound of thunder. The two guards who had landed with them followed suit, one sleek and gray, the other the dark blue of mountain shadows. Fliss sprang after them, alarm conquering her fatigue. For the first time in their long journey, the skin along Fliss’s spine tingled with warning.
A moment later, she understood her brother’s haste. As she climbed the sky, she tasted something new in the wind. A putrid tang made her gag, as if the air itself was decayed. Only magic—foul, hateful magic—made her recoil that way. It was the signature of their enemy, the Shades. The war was following them.
Terror made her cling to the space right behind her brother, matching his every move as if she held his tail between her teeth. It wasn’t easy. Telkoram was dipping and weaving, disguising their path with a series of evasions. Nervously, Fliss craned her neck, wondering where the enemy might be hiding. Their part of the sky was still blue and bright. That should have given her comfort, but it made her feel exposed.
Despite their erratic path, the dragons kept the inky clouds to their right as they raced to Penriva. The mass of darkness seemed to be shrinking as it grew more intense, like a hand closing into a fist. Stranger still, the clouds were moving contrary to the wind.
Fliss struggled to keep panic from freezing her wings. Her muscles were leaden, every action punctuated by a tiny, exhausted pause. No doubt sensing trouble, the guards drew nearer, ready to close in. Fliss desperately wished she was stronger. It was plain she was slowing them down.
The sun slanted low, blinding her as they circled closer to the river. Something swooped out of the bright halo of light. Fliss had a glimpse of bronze feathers and talons as huge as any dragon’s, then chaos.
The guard to her right spun suddenly, the sweep of his dark blue tail striking her flank as he fell. He tumbled in a flurry of wings and teeth, tangled with the huge eagle that had him in its grip and was bearing him to the earth. The attack was so swift and silent, Fliss wasn’t sure the others even knew it had happened. She roared a warning. Hers wasn’t the bellow of a war drake, but it was enough.
Telkoram wheeled, seeming to hover for a moment like a dancer in the air. Scudding storm clouds veiled the sun, turning the light the color of pewter. The black dragon inhaled, seeming to swell, and then let out a stream of flame. Ragged orange fire blazed, striking the eagle square on its back. The stink of Sulphur filled the air. The bird shrieked, a bone-jarring cry that sawed through Fliss—but nothing else happened. The bird should have been ash but, if anything, its lustrous bronze plumage just grew brighter.
Disbelief made Fliss falter. A firebird! It was a creature from the far south—one she’d always believed a myth. The Shades had finally found a weapon to use against dragons.
The other guards dove after the enemy, the sleek gray dragon in the lead. The eagle dropped its mangled prey. Fliss looked away, suddenly sick.
Telkoram flew beside her, nudging her toward the school with his huge, horned head. He wanted her to fly as fast as she could, making her escape while the others fought. No, Fliss thought bitterly, I’m not a coward. I refuse to run.
And yet before that day, she wouldn’t have believed anything could hold its own against Bright Wing warriors. The bird was only half their size, but it was utterly savage. Worse, it was immune to fire—their best weapon. Shrieks and roars spiraled up from the battle, vibrating on the wind.
Telkoram snarled in fury. The eagle had broken free of the guards and was arrowing toward them, murder in its amber glare. It was coming for them, the royal siblings. Telkoram put his body in its path, blocking Fliss from the firebird’s sight. Her brother bellowed, needing no words to convey his order. Go. Fly.
Fliss exhaled smoke, signaling her distress. The storm’s unnatural gale tossed her like a leaf, and yet Fliss was pinned in place by sheer horror.
Her brother angled closer, nipping her ear. Go now. Flee. Be safe.
She was out of choices, exhausted, and afraid. Back and shoulders screaming, she swooped toward the school and fled, one wingbeat straining after the next. Lighting forked overhead, sending a waved of prickles over her skin. Panic lodged in her throat, making it hard to breathe. Even if her brother saved her from the enemy, the storm loomed over them, dark and deadly. Worse, the Shades were somewhere nearby.
Thunder boomed. She wanted Telkoram’s big, comforting presence at her side—but he was somewhere behind her. The bird was on a path to intercept her, feathers shedding light as if it were sculpted from flame. This time, though, Fliss saw the fine webwork of shadows encrusting it like ash. That was the poison of the Shades, the mark of magical corruption controlling the eagle’s will.
The gray dragon streaked in, landing a mighty slash of its spiked tail before diving away. The eagle dropped, rolling in the sky to deliver the guard a stab of its beak. Fliss roared in anger, unleashing her own flame. To her dismay, it came out as a mere child’s flicker. She might be in adult danger, but she wasn’t a war dragon yet.
The bird’s head jerked her way, eyes intent, but Telkoram had caught up. Her brother snapped long fangs on its wingtip, pulling it up short. The eagle kicked out with its huge talons, and the fight was on.
Fliss bolted. The knowledge that she was striking out alone welled up like a cold tide, threatening to choke her from the inside. The failing light made it harder to see where she was going—and it made her own pale form visible against an increasingly dark backdrop. The odds were mounting against her.
The eagle screamed, but this time there was no answering roar from the dragons. A second passed, and then another as she waited for their defiant call. When she could stand it no longer, she risked a backward glance. The bird was briefly silhouetted against the rising moon—and coming her way.
None of her dragons were in sight. What had happened?
Fliss had to think fast. She’d made it across the river but she still had a long way to go. There was no way she would make it to the school before the firebird caught her. The only option was to hide.
Fliss dipped toward the treetops, using her small size and agility to dodge between them. It was cover, but not enough. A triumphant cry sounded straight above her. She played the final card she could, and dropped to the ground. Branches whipped her hide, tearing at her wings as she struggled to fold them tight. The noise of her descent was a deafening cacophony of cracking wood that startled the ordinary birds from their sleep and sent them fluttering into the air. Finally, Fliss thudded to the loam-scented earth.
The forest floor was dark, rustling trees blocking out the last of the fading light. Fliss was limp with fatigue, finding just enough strength to shift out of dragon form. Pain swept up her limbs in rippling waves, the sudden feeling of lightness making her dizzy as her body mass melted away in seconds. Her skin itched and burned, then a sudden prickle in her sinuses made her sneeze. At last, she flexed her fingers and toes, adjusting her sense of where she began and ended.
Wings flapped like a whistling tornado, bending the branches above. Fliss rolled to her hands and knees, trembling with hunger and an acute need for sleep. And warmth—she realized with dismay she had no clothes.
None of that mattered if she didn’t find safety. Quickly, she crawled into the shelter of the undergrowth, small enough now to hide from sight. She bowed her head, letting her long, dark hair hide her pale face.
The wingbeats went on and on as the eagle tore at the treetops in frustration, letting out a shrill chirp. Fliss huddled in the bed of ferns until she was sure not a single inch of skin showed. After what felt like a month, the eagle abandoned the hunt, leaving only a single red-tipped feather in its wake. The sudden silence rumbled with retreated thunder. Thankfully, the promised rain never came.
Still, Fliss waited a long time before she stirred—and then she straightened gingerly. The pain in her back remained, reminding her that she’d flown far more than usual. Slowly, she crept from her hiding spot, the soles of her feet tender where they touched the stones and pine needles littering the ground. She half-expected the eagle to return the instant she rose, but it was looking for a dragon, not a girl. Stealth would be her weapon until she could find Telkoram and the school.
Fliss wavered a moment, suddenly unsteady. Now that she wasn’t about to die, there was room for more worries. What had happened to her escort? Her brother? Visions of Telkoram’s grin—the impish one he saved for Fliss—hovered in her imagination. In that picture, his dark eyes met hers, measuring her courage. Was she dragon enough to look after herself?
Tears threatened, pinching the back of her throat, before she swallowed hard and began looking for a path out of the trees. She hadn’t gone a hundred yards before she froze.
A large, shaggy wolf stood in her path, studying her as if she was a leg of lamb.
It licked its chops.
Love Ms. Ashwood's books, she writes such amazing worlds.
Ms. Ashwood is a rare find; her works grab the reader on the first page and hurtles them from the mundane into the fantastical world of her creation.
Fantastic clean read! This went well beyond my expectations.