Breath of Dragons (A Pandoran Novel) (6 page)

I paused before a beautiful winterberry tree. Or at least, it looked like a winterberry. In Gaia, one could never be quite sure. The tree had long since shed its leaves for winter, and it stood there like a branching icicle with grapelike clusters of vivid red berries clinging to its web of frozen branches. Even in this frozen world, winter could not steal its brilliance; in fact, it was the winter that enabled such splendor. The tree was a defiant splash of color in this world of shades.

"I didn't realize we were taking a break for arboriculture." Vera appeared from behind a large tree trunk, arms akimbo.

I smiled at her. "We aren't. I just think winterberry trees are beautiful in winter."

She arched a brow. "Winterberry?"

"That's what they're called on Earth," I said. "What are they called here?"

She looked at me like I was an idiot, which was fairly typical for us. "On
Gaia
, it is called Dragon's Blood. They grow mostly in the north, but there are a few of them here in the alpine regions of Valdon. Their berries are used to make fire and ice…
highness
."

Vera was master of turning titles into insults. "Thank you,
Aegis
Vera. Always so willing to help correct my ignorance. Maybe some day I, too, will know everything, and will have earned the right to despise the rest of humanity because they don't."

She frowned and her cheeks colored a little.

"Anyway," I continued, "I followed you because I thought I should probably go, too."

She looked relieved. As though she'd been worried I'd come out here to chat and was grateful I'd had another purpose. One that didn't require conversation. "I'll wait for you." She turned around right where she stood.

Okay.

I moved a little behind a pine, and when I was done, her eyes slid over me with a pitying look that seemed to say, "Alex pushed me aside for
that
?"

I pulled my hood back over my head. "Thanks for waiting."

She nodded curtly, and I started following her back but stopped before the Dragon's Blood. I didn't know what propelled me, but I reached out and plucked the end of a smaller berry-covered branch.

"Careful, princess," Vera said. "The berries are extremely flammable."

I dusted the snow from the berries and wedged it inside of my boot. "Well, then, I guess it's a good thing I can't start a fire."

I'd expected some kind of retort from Vera about my magical inability, but instead she said, "You seem to have a penchant for small, red things."

I didn't miss the look in her eyes when they settled on the base of my neck—the very place my red stone lay beneath my woolen layers. Of course. If she'd dressed me in her corset last night, she had to have seen the necklace Alex had given me. Had he told her he'd given it to me? Or did it represent something more than Alex had explained?

Maybe you should ask him.

Well, now, conscience, that's perhaps the most uncontroversial suggestion you've had yet.

I'm never controversial. You just don't like what I have to say.

True.

We found Alex impatiently waiting beside Parsec. He moved forward to help me mount Calyx, but I held out a placating hand. "I'm not a paraplegic." I hooked my boot in the stirrup, grabbed the reins, and with a grit of my teeth, I swept my leg over and climbed into the saddle.

Satisfied, Alex climbed on Parsec, and the three of us were on our way again. Alex kept Cicero's compass in his hand, checking it from time to time and adjusting our course accordingly. Every so often, the treetops would sway and bend from the winter breeze up above. I didn't feel it down here much, though sometimes a stray tendril would slip through the tree barrier, touch my face and rustle my hair like it was letting me know it was still there. Even here the breeze stirred with purpose, as if it were some cold and invisible presence that followed without ceasing.

Sometimes a whirlwind would stir snowflakes from the ground and condense them into a shimmering shape. The shape was completely transparent and slippery as a shadow, and I might not have noticed them if one hadn't appeared right beside me. Alex told me they were the winter spirits of the mountains. Curious, but relatively harmless. After living in this world for approximately six months, I'd come to realize that "relatively harmless" really meant "keep your distance."

We spotted a few crows, a jackrabbit, and some tracks I'd never seen in my life, but other than that, the forest was serenely quiet. About an hour passed before Alex halted Parsec. A cloud of warm breath rose from his full, pink lips. "I believe you know the way from here…?"

The question was meant for Vera. Her gloved hands flexed over Nimarra's reins as her gaze settled somewhere past Alex. She nodded once, and then led Nimarra past Alex and Parsec, taking the lead. Alex waited till I caught up with him before he urged Parsec forward.

We rode beside each other in silence, accompanied only by the occasional grunt or snort of our steeds. Parsec was irritated for some reason. And then I noticed Calyx kept veering closer to Parsec and would sometimes push his white-streaked nose into Parsec's personal space. Parsec would invariably curl his lips back in a threatening grimace, showing Calyx each and every one of his large, square teeth. But this thinly veiled threat only seemed to amuse Calyx and egg him on further.

"These horses do begin to emulate their riders after a while," Alex said as he rode beside me with an imperceptible grin.

"Well, that explains a lot," I said. "No wonder Parsec is so irritatingly sanctimonious."

"Touché." He laughed. His cheeks were rosy red from the cold. "I suppose I deserved that." He paused, struck by a sudden thought. "By the way, I meant to ask you—that is, of course, if you're feeling up to discussing it. About last night…"

A little swirling sensation filled my stomach, and I found myself daydreaming about his lips again.

Alex glanced sideways at me. "You said you'd had some vivid dreams…?"

Oh, right.
That
.

"I did," I said carefully, focusing on the trail ahead. I hoped he hadn't caught my momentary bout of reminiscent swooning.

"Of course, if you'd rather not talk about it…" he continued.

"No, no, it's fine. I want your opinion, anyway." I divulged into a rather detailed monologue about my dreams—what I'd seen and heard and felt. He was an attentive listener. He asked a question here and there for clarification, but otherwise he kept quiet.

"Your mom said dreams can be more here," I continued, watching my own breath rise before my eyes. "And these were so…I can't explain, really, other than it all felt so
real
. Too real. Do you think they could be…visions? Warnings about the future?"

"I wouldn't think too much of them, Daria," Alex replied slowly. "Dreams can be a lot of things, but you must not forget that they are dreams, first and foremost."

Nearby, a small clump of snow fell from a tree branch and landed silently on the snow-covered ground. A glittering winter spirit materialized for a split second before a new breeze carried it away. "All right," I conceded. "But, what if… what if these
dreams
are actually Gaia trying to communicate with me?"

Alex gave me an interesting look. I hadn't spoken of Gaia much, and definitely not as a sentient being, not as a divine creature with metaphysical properties, like all the people of Gaia had done. I'd never been much of a religious person on Earth. Alex had always held on to some greater power, but he'd never really shared what that greater power was. I knew why now, and coming to Gaia had challenged all of that for me. I'd seen and experienced things of a kind that forced me to believe in something more. To deny that was to deny my sight and rationale as a human being. And after my father had passed, thoughts of
after
had haunted me.

I hadn't had much time to sift through all of these new thoughts and feelings, but they were down there, simmering in some tangled mess waiting for me to sort through them. If it were even possible to sort through them.

"I can't claim to understand Gaia's actions—" Alex stared straight ahead "—But suppose these visions, as you've referred to them, were given to you as a means of communication; you mustn't automatically assume Gaia is the source."

He was right, of course. If some external power had sent those dreams, I couldn't just assume that very same power had my best interest in mind. "I believe the woman in my dream was my mother, Alex," I said. "Whoever, or whatever, caused those dreams, I can't believe it used her to cause me harm."

He did not have a response for this.

I was almost afraid to ask my next question, but it had been my main source of discomfort. "The desert," I continued, "I've dreamt about it before. Do you think it could be a glimpse of the future?"

His body swayed in rhythm with Parsec's, but he kept his expression tightly controlled. "
A
future, possibly."

I couldn’t imagine a future in which I would willingly help Eris. "What I saw couldn't have been an effect of the poison, could it?"

Alex shook his head and a rogue strand of dark hair fell against his forehead. Wrapped in his dark, woolen cloak, with his sword resting against his side, he looked like a winter prince. "I put you in a much deeper sleep last night," his tone was low and cautious, "which is perhaps why you remember them so vividly today. I'm sure they weren't the first; you've slept fitfully every night since we've left the castle."

I had? He hadn't mentioned that before. "I'm sorry…if I've kept you up."

"Don't be," he replied. "I get enough sleep. I don't need quite as much as you."

He tilted his head sideways and gave me a knowing smile. I grinned back at him. I had always been the one falling asleep watching movies at his house when we were young. We'd tried so many times to have a
Star Wars
marathon, but I never made it past episode five and we'd only been watching the originals.

That was so long ago. Another lifetime ago. Before another world and magic and evil.

And loss. So much loss.

Snow crunched beneath our horses' hooves. "I didn't know it was possible for so much to change," I whispered.

Alex reached his gloved hand across the narrow space between us and rested it on my thigh. "This will not," he said, holding my gaze with an intensity that did not fade, not even as he squeezed my thigh and pulled his hand away.

"It is here." Vera's voice cut through the quiet.

She and Nimarra had stopped before two stone pillars, or what remained of them. One had crumbled to half the height of the other, and both were buried in snow. A piece of worn, rust-colored cloth fluttered like a small flag from the top of the smaller pillar, held in place by a miniature cairn. Beyond the crumbling gate were more piles of stone that had at one time been part of watchtowers and a main walkway, but something—whether time or abandonment or a purposeful, destructive force—had reduced it to snow-covered rubble.

"Follow my lead and stay close." Vera tugged her hood more tightly about her. "Keep your faces concealed, and whatever happens, let
me
do the talking." She fixed me with a very pointed glare, tugged at Nimarra's reins, and led her forward.

Alex pulled his hood up and so far over his head that all I could see was his square and slightly dimpled chin. I secured my hood then followed Vera, while Alex rode right behind me.

Calyx's hooves clopped and scraped against the stone path, interrupted here and there with a series of broad steps. The path quickly steepened and veered right behind a large cluster of trees, and beyond them was a grand sight.

It had at one time been a small village situated on the narrow spine of a mountain pass. Ruins sprawled upon the rocks, fearless and daring, as though it were a natural part of the mountain. What had at one time been a turret had been broken, looking like a candle that had burnt close to its end. Fragments of walls surrounded it, symmetrical as a grid, as though architects had ceased construction shortly after building the village's framework. Once grand rooms now opened to the gray sky above, and toward the back of it all, at the apex of the mountain ridge, was a series of magnificent stone support beams. A few had broken off, but many had stayed intact, reminding me of a giant ribcage protecting organs of rubble beneath.

Snow had buried everything in a thick blanket of white, and up here, without the protection of the trees, wind ripped savagely about. It howled and whistled, dusting snow across our path while flinging bits of ice in my face.

Despite the emptiness of such a place, I felt eyes. There were others in the shadows, just out of sight. Not shadowguard, but
people
. I might not have known they were there but for the little points of consciousness all around us—spots of warmth in the biting cold.

Parsec snorted beside me, and a cloud of condensation rose from his flared nostrils. From beneath my hood I looked over at Alex. He sat with Aegis-like rigidity, his face hidden in the shadows of his hood. One hand clutched the reins while the other rested at his waist. Vigilant and wary. He might not have felt the presence of others as I did, but as an Aegis, he'd made a habit of mistrusting the quiet.

Still, Vera led us forward.

Shadows slipped around us, and the wind continued howling. I gripped Calyx's reins tighter, always watching Vera but also letting my focus drift to my periphery. There was a strange power up here: not quite evil but not necessarily good, either.

We passed another pile of rubble when Vera led us into a broken courtyard filled with small drifts of snow, like waves in an ocean. Wind reigned supreme over these remains, and with every wail, it reminded all trespassers of its might. It was a wild force, formidable with the strength of ages.

The eyes pressed closer. They were all around us now. The back of my neck tingled, but Vera kept leading us forward with her head held high. She was not afraid, so certain she was of her right to be here. But I wasn't so sure. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if coming up here had been a very big mistake.

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