Jost studied the empty camp with an expressionless face. The advance team had arrived during the night. Seeing no movement in the campsite nestled between two hills, Jost had ordered his men in to take a closer look.
Dawn was just starting to touch the night sky. The stars and two moons were still out, illuminating the abandoned camp with enough light to make out the details.
“Could it be a trap?” Rick asked.
“Odd trap, what with no one being here and all,” Lock responded.
“They took their time and packed up their gear only leaving the non-essentials,” Danny said, crouching next to an empty crate.
It looked like they had the beginnings of a fort here. He could see where they’d laid the foundation for a temporary structure. Danny was right; all of the important stuff had been packed up and taken with them.
“You think they knew we were coming?” Danny asked.
Eric shook his head. “I doubt it. This looks like they packed up and left right after Roger’s meeting with them. They had too much to do it all in one day. Maybe they got called away.”
“We’ll withdraw and wipe our tracks. If they did just abandoned it temporarily, they may come back,” Jost said, coming to a decision. “Our purpose was to see what the enemy was up to. We’ve verified that they’re looking to create a staging post. I can pass this to the higher ups, and they can send a team to keep an eye on things.”
For now, this mission was over. It was unlikely his enemy would come back here anytime soon. Despite what he said about the higher ups sending a team to keep an eye on this outpost, he doubted it would come to anything. His enemy was slippery. If he’d been spooked, this entire site would have been declared dead. He probably wouldn’t return here or anywhere within a hundred miles.
Jost’s vengeance would have to wait. One silver lining in all this was he’d managed to capture one of the men responsible for his family’s deaths. That would have to satisfy for now. The man could be a valuable resource in learning more about his enemy’s habits and weaknesses.
“Let’s head back. Eric and Danny, make sure we don’t leave any trace of ourselves behind.”
“Do you hear that?” Eric asked.
The rest of the men stilled, straining to listen for what Eric had heard. The faint sound of an angry voice shouting in an unfamiliar language reached Jost.
Jost held up two fingers and pointed in one direction then the next. The men nodded and split, several following Eric as he circled around to the left. The rest followed Jost as he crept to the right.
Danny ghosted along silently at Jost’s side as they used stealth to move towards the voice.
The speaker wasn’t trying to be quiet. Something rattled. The speaker broke into a string of curses. Jost recognized the sentiment behind the words even if he couldn’t understand the language being used. There was a scream of frustration and then silence.
Jost peeked over the hill. Seeing what waited for them below, he straightened from his crouch and ventured near.
“I’ll be damned,” Danny said in surprise.
The girl’s leg was caught in a loop and she was suspended upside down several feet above the ground. By some miracle she’d managed to avoid breaking her neck, which was the end result this trap had been designed to create.
“Is that one of our traps?” Rick asked.
Hearing their voices, the girl whipped her head around. Her green eyes spit fire at them from her upside down position.
“It is.” Jost didn’t think he’d been this surprised in a long time.
“This is the girl?” Eric asked, tilting his head and studying her. “She doesn’t look like much.”
The girl craned her neck to study Eric, her eyes narrowing. She’d quieted at their arrival and was watching them with suspicion.
Eric stepped up to her and grabbed for one arm. She dodged his hands, curling up and grabbing the back of her knees to stay out of reach.
“Should we let her down?” Lock asked.
Danny started for the release rope.
“No, not yet,” Jost said.
Danny shot him a look, saying without words what he thought of that order.
“We can’t let her go,” Jost told him. “We need to find out if she’s one of the dragon-ridden first.”
“And if she is?” Danny asked. His eyes held a warning. He had the kind of look that made Jost think that if he didn’t give him the answer he wanted, Jost might be going home with one less crew member.
“We’ll see if it comes to that.”
Jost didn’t have a better answer for Danny. If this girl was what they suspected, she could upset the power structure of Aurelia. Not to mention, there was a good chance that bonding with the dragon unsupervised and without guidance might have driven her mad. A mad dragon wasn’t something anybody wanted running loose in the world. If that was the case, they would have no choice but to put her down.
They might do that anyway.
Jost didn’t like it, but sometimes it was better to take care of a potential threat before it became a major problem. This girl had trouble written all over her. Might be easier on everyone if they took care of this before anybody else got involved.
Jost studied the girl, noting the way she cataloged everything around her. She seemed slightly feral but that could be attributed to too much time up here alone.
“If she’s a dragon, why doesn’t she just change into one of them and escape?” Eric asked, poking at the girl.
She lashed out with her bone knife, the blade slicing empty air as Eric dodged, tripped and landed on his ass.
“Creators’ curse it.”
“Looks like she’s not a fan, Eric,” Lock laughed.
“Feral thing, isn’t she?” he said, standing and wiping dirt from his pants.
“She’s scared, wouldn’t you be if you were dangling in the air with a bunch of pirates closing in on you?” Danny rumbled. His face had darkened with anger, and he looked ready to curse this entire situation to the abyss and back again.
“The dragon-ridden can’t always assume the form of a dragon after first accepting the bond. It can sometimes take a few years,” Jost said, looking up at her.
The girl looked from man to man as they spoke, almost as if she was trying to follow the conversation, though it was clear she had no better understanding than she had in the cave.
“You think she’s a new one?” Eric asked.
Jost didn’t know what he thought. She should have been impossible. In all of Aurelia’s history, there had never been a woman who had successfully completed the bonding. They always died.
“How is that even possible?” Danny asked. “I thought the emperor and his dragon-ridden monitored any bonding attempts.”
Jost didn’t have an answer for him.
“How did she even get up here?” Eric asked. “This region isn’t readily accessible except by ship. Think she might have been with that camp that cleared out?”
Jost frowned in thought. It was possible and would explain a lot. He just couldn’t see it though. First, they never would have left her behind if that had been the case. An unaffiliated dragon? Even if the entire emperor’s navy was breathing down their neck, they would have hunted this woman until they were dead or she was captured.
“Grab her arms. We need to see if she’s dragon-ridden.”
Eric exhaled and eyed the woman askance, paying particular attention to the blade she still clutched. She eyed him back and snarled. It would have been more threatening if she hadn’t been upside down and had had the proper dental promise to go with that sound. As it was she seemed more like a pissed off kitten than a deadly dragon.
“You never ask for anything easy, do you?” Eric told Jost without expecting an answer.
Eric nodded at one of the other men who jumped at the woman, drawing her attention. She swiped at him, the rope causing her to sway. Eric leapt before she could recover, grabbing the arm with the blade and twisting it hard.
She struggled but it was useless. She was unable to break his grip. He twisted harder.
“Stubborn,” Eric grunted. He looked as unhappy as Danny had a few minutes ago.
A high pitched sound of pain escaped her throat.
“Come on. Don’t make me break the arm, aviela.”
The bone knife clattered to the ground. Eric relaxed his hold enough that he wasn’t in danger of breaking her arm. He grabbed her sleeve and pushed it up. Nothing.
“She’s not dragon-ridden,” Danny said. He seemed relieved.
“The tattoos can move. Check the other arm,” Jost ordered.
She flailed that arm when Eric tried to grab it. He caught it after several tries and yanked that sleeve up.
A string of curses escaped her and she tried to jack knife up to escape his grip with no success.
A small dragon tattoo snuggled into the crook of her arm, its head buried under its wing and its tail wrapped tight around its body.
Jost stepped forward, touching the body of the dragon with a light stroke, almost imagining he could feel the faint movement of its sides as it breathed. This was proof. She was dragon-ridden.
He looked up into eyes of brilliant green, a fierce intelligence a perfect counterpoint to the force of personality behind them.
“You’re not crazy, are you, sweetheart?” he crooned.
She cocked her head, those intelligent eyes narrowing as she studied him. She said something that he didn’t understand, then repeated it. She tugged on the arm he held. One he just now realized was still in his grip as he ran his thumb back and forth over the tattoo.
He released her arm and stepped back, clasping his hands behind his back.
She said something in her strange language and pointed to herself. This time she said one word. “Tate.”
She repeated it.
Then she pointed at Jost and lifted one eyebrow in an unmistakable question.
“Captain, I think she’s asking for your name.”
No, not crazy at all.
Jost bent his head and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath then released it with a sigh before looking back at the girl and her questioning expression.
She patted her chest. “Tate.”
She pointed at him again.
“Jost. I’m Jost.”