Dragon Sister by Annie Oldham by Annie Oldham - Read Online

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Summary

Neram has been raised alone by her mother, an outcast and unwanted. Then Neram finds the last dragon in Vallorn, and she knows her life can change. But when she learns she is half-sister to the dragon, she must choose: embrace the dragon inside her or lose what matters most forever.

Published: Annie Oldham on
ISBN: 9781466114609
List price: $0.99
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Dragon Sister - Annie Oldham

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Chapter One

Neram picked onions from the weedy field—wishing the two girls watching her would go away—the day she found the dragon egg.

Neram’s mother made a point of telling her they needed flour and to see if old Carpenter would trade flour for onions. Neram made a face. Carpenter did nothing but insult her mother, Reagan, and show his mossy teeth.

But at least he’ll talk, Reagan said as she leaned on the door frame and gazed at the sea. The hazy morning framed her slender figure, leaving a dark shadow on the dirt floor.

Yeah, but a lot of good it does if he doesn’t have anything nice to say, Neram said, slinging the empty onion sack over her shoulder.

It’s easier for him to talk about us than to talk about not being able to catch enough fish. The fish market has been meager for years. We make his problems seem smaller.

Sure, Neram said. The house sagged against its back wall and seemed to nod along with Reagan.

He does the best he can, and we do the best we can, Reagan said. Even if he does seem self-righteous on occasion, she added, her lips turned up into a smile.

Neram half-heartedly returned the smile. She didn’t mind the life with her mother, without a man to take care of them. Neram was big enough. Too big, if she thought about it long enough. She was fifteen and already taller than most of the men of Carynon—and as broad. Bigger than a man and ugly as one, she thought. But that was fine, she told herself. She could take care of Reagan better. She was happy to fish in their leaking dinghy and pick onions and mushrooms in the woods. But the villagers just weren’t content to mind their own livelihood. They peered over roof walls, from behind fishing nets, or bags bartered for goods they didn’t have.

Must be the daughter of a foreigner judging by how dark and rough she is.

That woman’s never had a husband, I tell you. I wonder how many other children there’ve been?

Always staring at the two of them. The older one fading and frail, the younger one tall and strong. But both seemed volatile somehow, which was more cause for alarm than an illegitimate child. But an illegitimate child was more comfortable gossip.

So Neram crossed the dusty path parallel to the beach to where Carpenter’s house stood. The houses were built into the hill that rose up to the mostly deserted upper city of Carynon. Large buttresses to support the weight of the city ran out every so often toward the water. The spaces between these were filled with houses that stood stack upon stack, some with roofed balconies, some with only a door and several steps leading to the next layer of houses. These small villages between the buttresses were called the Cracks. Several small women with their long dresses hitched up around their knees picked at the beans growing in straggling vines in the small communal garden. They glanced up as she passed, staring through their yellow hair, somehow imagining that Neram couldn’t feel their gazes. Clouds rolled in from the north, and the wind whipped froth on the waves. She banged on Carpenter’s door.

Eh, who’s that? came a rasping voice.

Neram Westle. Sir, she added.

Hmph. What do you want?

To trade onions for flour. My mother and I need more.

I’m surprised a woman like that would even think to feed her child. The door cracked a sliver.

Will you trade or not? Neram asked, raising her voice and stepping closer to the door. He looked at her foot wedged between the door and its frame. He tipped his head up to look her in the eye, and he faltered a moment.

Yes, girl. An arm covered with white grizzled hair thrust a sack of flour to her and dropped it on the ground. The door slammed.

Drop the onions on the porch when you come back.

Neram waited for the next line. It always followed.

And you’d better come back.

Neram scooped up the flour and looked around. The women picking beans had stopped and gone home or up the hill to the city to sell them. All the boats bobbed against the docks, and the villagers were secure in their huts. Good. She wouldn’t be seen and she wouldn’t be glared at. She dropped the sack of flour inside her house and set off through the village gate and to the wood’s edge.

She stooped down under a copse of trees. The villagers ignored it, saying there were too many weeds and mosquitos, but Neram wondered if it really just lay too close to her house. She was the first to discover the wild onions and mushrooms that grew there, and by that time, everyone in the Crack was wary enough of her and Reagan to just let her have it. Two little girls sat on a log and watched her, one sucking on her fat fingers, the other clutching a doll.

Neram pulled onions from the ground. She bit at one and made a face. An unfair trade for Carpenter’s flour, she knew, but he should be expecting this. The whole Crack had born the taste of unripe onions. Though he would most likely blame Neram for it. But half a sack of unripe onions fared better for her than a ripe one.

The wet ground squished at Neram’s toes. She stepped in a puddle and it was warm.

Strange, she thought, with the day cooling as the sun dipped behind the city on the hill. She looked down at the water, and a faint light blushed. She hung the onion sack on a branch and prodded the water. Warm. She felt heady with the hum and rustle of the woods. She tilted her head, peering deeper to where the light tried to break through the bracken.

Neram glanced around. The little girls watched her with terrified curiosity. Neram wished she could reach out to them and let them in on this discovery. But they would be like their parents and would rail on her. She sighed, shook her head, and then deepened her voice.

You, little demon spawn! Get out of here before I eat you!

Their eyes filled with horror and they shrieked, bumping into each other as they fled.

She must hurry in case someone chanced by.

She plunged her hands to the light. Her fingers slicked through the water, then hit mud. The mud was almost hot. The sludge oozed between her fingers and her hands grasped something. She pulled and the mud sucked at it, refusing to let go. Neram grunted, flexing her arms. She heaved and with a last squelch, the object came free. A round, opalescent stone. She cradled the stone in her arms and hurried home.

That, dear heart, is a dragon’s egg, Reagan said.

A dragon’s egg?

Neram looked again at the stone, smooth as blown glass, cradled in her arms. She touched the amber shell with trembling fingers. Such a pretty color, she thought, stroking its surface. She peered up at her mother’s pale face.

A real dragon’s egg? Here in Carynon?

Yes, and you need to take the onions to Carpenter.

Neram groaned.

Reagan laughed, the corners of her mouth barely turning. Neram huffed and ran the bag to Carpenter’s door step. When she returned, Reagan had moved the egg closer to the fire. She sat in her rocker, gazing at the flames.

A real egg? Are you sure?

Yes. There hasn’t been one for a long while. Not since the dragons flew from here almost sixteen years ago. Somehow, this little one was left behind.

Reagan looked down, and sadness cloaked her. But she shook her head and looked up.

I wonder. She drew a long breath. Neram was furious with expectation, but she remained silent, knowing that speaking now would silence her mother. How could there be a dragon’s egg in their village that was so small that merchants often forgot to stop?

I wonder, Reagan said again, leaning into her rocker so the wood embraced her slender form. An egg would be a great burden for a dragon flying from Vallorn, I suppose. Dragons are gentle with their young, but carrying an egg in sharp claws would be difficult. Nothing soft to hold onto.

Neram watched the fire for several seconds, then turned back to her mother. She could see Reagan’s memory wandering behind gray eyes.

But what can we do with it? Neram finally squeaked, done with waiting and being patient. Reagan laughed from deep in her throat. Then she resolved to coughing. Neram brought her a dipper of water.

I want it to hatch, Neram said. How could Reagan be so calm?

Of course you do, Reagan said, rocking faster. That’s what a dragon egg is supposed to do. If you want it to hatch, put it in the fire. She pointed to the hearth.

But burn it? Neram asked. She grasped the egg and stepped back.

Reagan grinned. Born from the womb of fire, wasn’t it?

Then Neram smiled. Of course. I should have thought. She took the fire stick from the hearthside. She eased the egg into the ashes several inches from the fire and then rolled the egg in, pushing it with the stick until it rested in the glowing embers.

How long should it stay there? Neram asked, sitting on her haunches too close to the fire. It flushed her face and made her arms tingle, but she wanted to be close to the egg. Reagan shook her head.

That, dear heart, I don’t know. But until it hatches, of course, so sit back a little until it does so you don’t catch fire.

Neram crawled to her mother’s side and leaned against her rocker. She pulled her legs to her chest and rested her head on her knees. She studied the egg. It had lost its paleness and turned shimmering red in the fire. Neram listened to the fire’s lullaby. She shook away the sleep.

How do you know about dragons? Neram asked.

Reagan put down a scrap of embroidery and combed her fingers through Neram’s hair. Neram felt the hesitation in her mother’s voice. I met a dragon once.

Neram looked up at her, wincing as her hair pulled in Reagan’s fingers. Her thick, deep brown-red hair so different from the fair villagers’. But that must wait. The dragon’s egg mattered most.

Tell me.

Reagan shook her head, the same hesitation weighing her shoulders so they sagged. There’s not much to tell, really. It was almost a year before you were born. The far wall, that one there that’s next to the Crack’s wall, needed repairs after a storm, so I gathered rock and mud to repair it.

Neram peered past the tanned skins, the bed laden with patched blankets and moth-eaten pillows, the strings of onions hanging in pungent garlands. She had never wondered why part of that wall was a different color than the rest of it.

Yes, Neram. That’s the mud the villagers helped me carry from the woods.

Neram raised an eyebrow.

That was before I was pregnant, of course—Neram, don’t look that way at me; they are decent people—but there was plenty of fishing to be done, and so they couldn’t help the day I met the Eldest. She leaned forward in her rocker, plucked a tinder from the fire, and seared a fraying end of thread.

Theryn the Eldest? Neram asked. She had heard of the Eldest before, the first dragon to fly to Vallorn and the last to leave its shores. She looked in the fire. Almost the last.

Yes, Reagan said, bowing her head slightly. Theryn the Eldest.

Respect clung to her voice. Neram leaned back on her elbows.

What did he look like? Neram drew the fire stick from the hearthside and prodded the egg until it rested on its other side. The shell that had rested against the embers glistened like a ruby.

Theryn the Eldest was the biggest dragon ever seen. And dragons don’t keep growing and growing like everyone thinks. They reach a certain size, just like with us. He had grown to his full size. His scales were deep red, redder than those coals, redder than any fire. Two horns sprouted from his crest, long as a full-grown man, and sharper than daggers. In the evening sun they were gold. And his wings, oh his wings! As wide as the beach and delicate as silk. You could see the sun shining through them and they were so red.

Neram laughed. You’re exaggerating!

Reagan’s face sobered. Not about this, Neram. Never about this. Reagan touched Neram’s hair again. Like your hair when the sun shines on it.

Neram’s heart sagged. Not my hair again, she thought.

Red like blood, Reagan said.

Neram turned her face back to the fire. She pulled her hair away from Reagan’s fingers and twisted it hard over her shoulder. Her hair reminded her that she wasn’t like the others. Even if she was outcast, Reagan’s flaxen hair at least blended into the rest of the villagers’. But Neram’s hair—red. She couldn’t help wondering if they were both outcast because of her differences. But then she thought about her hair, the color of Theryn. He must have been magnificent.

But even if the villagers didn’t help you that day, how didn’t they see him—him being so big?

Reagan breathed deeply. I’ve never been sure. Perhaps it was dragon magic.

But why would he appear to you alone?

Reagan’s chest heaved several times, but then she waved a hand. But you don’t care about all that, you care about the dragon!

Neram smiled.

Reagan’s voice grew soft. It was about the time I met your father.

My father? The most Reagan had ever said of him was that she met him once and then his stay was just as brief.

Tell me about him, Neram said. She was so different from her mother. Where her mother was small and slender, Neram was tall and strong. Her mother’s grey eyes and hair the color of wheat were soft and graceful next to Neram’s unruly red hair and eyes black as coal. Could she be more like him?

Reagan sighed. When you’re older.

Fifteen wasn’t old enough? Surely she could understand where she came from and why she fit so awkwardly into their little space. She longed to know—if for nothing else but the chance of belonging. Maybe if she knew, she would understand why the villagers shunned them. The villagers turned their faces, and Neram felt a pang every time she had tried to play with another child, just to have the child whisked away by parents who whispered behind their hands.

Reagan stared out the door at the starry sky. Her shoulders stooped and she coughed twice.

I know you want to fit in. But it’s not us—don’t blame yourself for this, Neram—it’s the dragonless days. The Crack is poor and it puts everyone on edge. That’s why they’re so closed minded, that’s why they—

Neram stood. I need to find wood to build a house for the dragon. Before Reagan could stop her, Neram walked out the door and into the moonlight.

She walked away from the crash of waves, the lap of water against wood, and across the rocky field toward the woods, clenching at twigs and blades of grass that sprung up in the field, holding them with tight fists. She stubbed her toe on a rock and threw down her armful.

Why? she asked. Why won’t she tell me?

She put her sleeve to her face, smearing dirt and tears across her cheek, leaving splotches on her rough linen tunic. Her tunic that covered muscular arms. The other women in the Crack couldn’t understand. The younger women laughed at her—her broad shoulders and manly hands. She fell to her knees, put her head deep in the grass, and tried to breathe.

The hollow place in her chest that she imagined her heart used to take up suddenly filled with heat. She clutched at her chest and gasped as the fire spread to her arms. The old fire-anger returning. She hadn’t felt it for a while.

Who was her father that made her so different from everyone else? Was her father tall like her? A worker at some faraway city? A traveler from the land that lay west of Vallorn? With muscles and an easy smile? Or perhaps her father was a bad man and so Reagan hadn’t dared tell. Or maybe the man was married and had a family of his own. Or her mother was ashamed of Neram because she was a reminder of a past mistake. Neram shook her head, flinging the thoughts away. She was so tired, and the home fire with the dragon egg called so invitingly.

Neram rolled stiffly in the grass. She stood, rubbing her tear-roughened face. Cool morning air filled her lungs, and she breathed deeper, smelling the sea salt. The sea revived her, comforted her. Ever since her father abandoned their little family (Had he abandoned them? Had he died or been spirited away? She put the questions aside—they only made her head hurt), the sound of the waves rushing in and then tumbling under themselves back to sea assured her that some things were constant.

She gathered up the twigs and grass, placing each stick one on top another, concentrating on stacking them. That way, she wouldn’t have to think about things. She looked back toward the village, stacked up like clay bricks against the hill topped in the dingy walls of the city. Away up on the highest spire, three flags whipped in the wind. They had been red, green, and black once—the colors of the first three dragons—before long hours in