As soon as he spotted the dragon groomer Tyron knew he’d found his match. Never before had he felt such an instantaneous attraction.
Derlin has secrets he can’t share, secrets that aren’t only his. When Tyron’s life depends on Derlin’s abilities does he dare to take a chance or does he let Tyron die to protect his family?
Derlin Bails stood in the middle of the stables, trying to calm his nerves. His hands shook despite the comforting smells of hay, feed, and the odd sulfuric scent of dragons.
A stooped, gray-haired man approached. He had the timeless air of someone who might’ve been around when they carved the building into the mountain and would still be there when it crumbled around him. “Don’t just stand there, boy. Are you the new groomer?”
Derlin straightened from a slouch before answering. “Yes, sir.”
He could do this. Before he’d stood taller than a pitchfork, he’d been cleaning out the stables at his uncle’s dragon farm. Now he had the chance for official paid work doing what he loved. If he couldn’t take care of himself, he’d have to move back home, ruining his only chance at independence. He loved his family, but he longed to see more than the small town he’d grown up in.
Luckily, the man missed Derlin’s internal panic attack.
“I’m Yelt, the stable master. You’ll be in charge of this section and grooming the dragons here.” Yelt pointed to a series of stalls on the right. “Any questions?”
Derlin shook his head. With a quick glance around, he counted fifteen stalls. Not too many, but a good amount to keep him busy. “No, sir.”
“You have your license, right?” Yelt pinned Derlin with a glare from beneath his bushy brows.
“Yes, sir.” Derlin hastily pulled a paper from his pocket. His hands shook as he unfolded his license and handed it over. He kept it on him at all times in case the authorities questioned him. There were strict laws governing dragon handling. No license meant no job, and possible fines.
Yelt scanned the paper with a careful eye before returning it to Derlin. “Looks official. Hopefully you’re smarter than the last guy I hired. Stay out of the way of the knights. Clean the stalls, polish the dragons, and make sure they’re in good health. Don’t pester their owners with a bunch of questions, and keep out of the knights’ beds. The last groomer who slept his way through the stable doesn’t work here anymore, understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Derlin tried to put some confidence into his response. His grandfather had always said to look a man in the eye and use a clear, even tone when answering questions. Grandfather Pieto specialized in advice. The man spread it around like seeds, probably hoping something would take root in Derlin’s mind.
“You can work for a week. If you do a good job, I’ll keep you on.”
“Thank you, sir.” At least he had a chance. If Yelt didn’t keep him, Derlin would try finding other work around the training grounds. With his skills, he couldn’t imagine working anywhere without dragons.
“Since you’re here, you might as well get started. Supplies are on the wall over there.” Yelt pointed to the north corner of the barn. “After cleaning the dragons, release them to the center field so they can get some exercise. Be careful of Sir Grael’s green dragon—he’s a biter with a mean streak. He takes after his rider.”
Derlin smiled at the comment, but didn’t speak. He had a feeling Yelt’s stern demeanor didn’t hide a softer man inside. Better to listen and ask questions later than bother him now.
Apparently satisfied he’d delivered his instructions, Yelt excused himself, promising to come back and check Derlin’s work in the afternoon.
“Better get started,” Derlin mumbled as he headed to the supply wall. After gathering a bucket and a selection of brushes, he filled up his pail with warm water. He tossed a cleaning charm into the water before approaching the first stall.
A small red dragon popped its head through the narrow opening to check Derlin out.
“Hey there, little fellow.” The dragon might be small compared to his brethren, but he was still ten times larger than Derlin. Sliding into the stall with the beast, Derlin made sure to keep his movements slow and nonthreatening. He added some scale cleaner to the bucket, then swished it around with a hard brush before approaching the beast. “What’s your name?”
“Neor,” The dragon’s voice whispered across Derlin’s mind.
Derlin smiled at the noise in his head. Dragons liked chatting. Few people could hear them, so they enjoyed speaking to humans like Derlin, whom they called listeners. Derlin’s dream of being a professional knight had ended when he never grew to meet the minimum six-foot height requirement. He simply didn’t have the arm span needed to control a dragon during a battle.
Although grooming dragons wasn’t a glamorous job, it paid well enough to meet Derlin’s basic needs and allowed him to be near the animals he loved.
After a quick check to verify only dragons were in the stable, Derlin started to sing a low, soft ballad. His voice had always soothed the dragons when he’d worked on them in grooming school. Most people didn’t know how much dragons loved music.
The little dragon closed his eyes; a low crooning vibrated his throat along with Derlin’s singing. Pleased with the effect of his song, Derlin went to work. Dip and scrub, dip and scrub, Derlin fell into a pattern of shining each scale, then rinsing his brush, until the dragon gleamed brighter than a puddle of sunshine.
“What are you doing in there with my dragon?”
A deep voice broke Derlin’s pattern. Focused on his polishing, he’d missed the newcomer’s approach.
“I-I’m the new groomer.” He held up the pail and brush as proof. He didn’t want to be mistaken as an intruder and get tossed out.
A large man glowered down at him from the other side of the stable door. Derlin held his breath as he waited for the knight’s judgment on his skill.
“Hmm. I’m Sir Lyrit. Let me see your work.”
The knight scowled down at him, increasing Derlin’s nervousness. He grabbed dumped his brush in the bucket then slid out of the stall, careful not to make contact with the massive man. He didn’t wish to have anyone accuse him of trying to touch where he wasn’t wanted.
“Come out, Deathbringer.” The knight bade his dragon forward with an imperious wave.
Derlin couldn’t stop a snort at the stupid name. Knights always gave their dragons killer names, while dragons would rather sun on a warm rock than go into battle any day.
“Did you say something?” Lyrit narrowed his eyes at Derlin.
Sir Lyrit turned back to his dragon, inspecting every scale and horn as if seeking a reason to criticize the least little smudge. Derlin began to second-guess himself.
Had he missed something?
“Hmm.” Sir Lyrit looked disconcerted for a moment.
Nerves snapped, and Derlin blurted out, “Is something wrong, sir?”
He thought he’d groomed the large beast properly, but maybe he’d erred. The knight might have different standards than the people who’d trained him. Some knights could be very particular about their beast’s care.
“No.” Sir Lyrit knelt down to examine Neor’s belly. “You even scrubbed his stomach?”
“Of course, sir. Scale leeches itch horribly and tend to wriggle between the scales, especially on the underbelly.” Why wouldn’t he take proper care of the entire beast?
He was given the full force of the man’s scary dark eyes. “How did you get to them?”
“He rolled over.” Derlin frowned over Lyrit’s questions. He couldn’t exactly crawl under a dragon. If the beast moved, he would’ve been crushed. How incompetent had the last groomer been?
“You got my dragon to roll over?” Surprise spread across the knight’s face.
“Yes, sir.” Derlin scratched his head. This entire conversation had turned weird.
“Let me see.” Lyrit stepped back, then folded his arms over his chest.
Derlin’s brow knit with confusion. Had he missed part of their conversation? “See what?”
“I want you to make him roll over.”
The knight had no clue if he thought Derlin could make a dragon do anything. All he could do was request. He focused his mind on the dragon. In response, Neor turned his rainbow eyes in Derlin’s direction. Grabbing a scale brush off the wall, Derlin waved it in a circular motion while beaming a thought into Neor’s head. Roll over please.
Obediently the red dragon rolled over onto his back. To reward Neor, Derlin climbed on top of the creature, using the ridges at the top of each scale as a foothold to reach the top. Once there, he scratched the dragon’s itchy parts.
Neor’s loud sigh signified his content.
“Shit, I forgot the cream.” No wonder Neor enjoyed the scratching.
Reaching into his pocket, Derlin pulled out a vial of cream he’d made a few days ago when he’d got the job. His mother had given him the recipe several months ago when he declared his wish to become a groomer. Derlin had added a few extra herbs of his own to calm inflammation. After squeezing a dollop onto his fingertips, he slid them beneath the scales to cover the reddened parts where the leeches had already left painful tracks. Whoever had groomed the dragon before had neglected its tender underbelly. Neor let out another happy dragon sigh followed by a rolling purr.
Derlin looked up at the sound of laughter. Three others had joined Lyrit, all of them big, brawny, and “handsome enough to seduce the moon” as his mother used to say. Blushing, Derlin returned to his task and finished coating Neor’s sore patches with cream before jumping to the ground.
As soon as his feet touched the earth, Neor flipped over and shook out his wings, careful not to hit Derlin.
“Dragon’s blessings, I’ve never seen anything like that. Didn’t he snack on the last groomer?” A bright-blond-haired man with piercing blue eyes stared at Derlin like he’d never seen a groomer before.
“Took a bite out of his leg,” Lyrit countered.
“Are you our new groomer?” the blond asked.
“Yes, sir. Or at least I hope to be. I have a week’s trial.” Derlin stood tall, giving a respectful nod to the knight. Best stay on a professional basis, especially if the last groomer spent all his time trying to seduce them. Derlin didn’t need romantic entanglements while trying to keep this job.
“I’m Sir Grael, this is Sir Brewn and Sir Tasch.” He indicated the two brown-haired knights who looked enough alike to be related. “They’re cousins,” he said as if reading Derlin’s mind.
“Gentlemen.” Derlin bowed, uncertain of the proper response. He’d never run into knights at his uncle’s stable. His uncle had conducted most of his business in town. Since his cousins would inherit his uncle’s farm, Derlin hadn’t accompanied him.
Sir Grael flashed a wide smile. The knight appeared to be the most even-tempered of them all. “Ooh, I like this one. He’s polite, nice to look at, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a groomer get a dragon to roll over. Hell, I don’t think I’ve seen a knight do it.”
The knights walked around Neor, examining Derlin’s work. For a moment, he felt like he was back at grooming school waiting for his grade.
A low whistle came out of Grael. “Nice work. You even got the edges of his horns trimmed. I didn’t know it could be done without getting gored. Our last groomer certainly never touched them.”
“I only can if the dragon is cooperative.” Derlin wouldn’t go near the horns of a dragon that didn’t like him. There were a few bad-tempered beasts that would stab a groomer just for fun. He hoped the dragons in this stable were better mannered.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen your dragon look better,” Grael told Lyrit.
Lyrit nodded. “I have to agree. Excellent job, boy.”
A coin flew through the air. Derlin instinctively caught it so it wouldn’t hit him in the face. He opened his hand and stared at the gold disc, uncomprehending. “What’s this for?”
“For polishing the horn tips and doing such a fine job. I appreciate the extra work.” Lyrit nodded his approval.
“Um, thank you.” He didn’t need to be rewarded for doing his job, but he wouldn’t turn down the extra pay. If this didn’t work out, he’d need all the gold he could accumulate during his trial run. Who knew how long it would be before he could find another job, and the thought of returning home sent his stomach into a sick churning. His family didn’t mistreat him, but as the youngest, all the drudgework fell on him.
Derlin returned to the stall to collect his stuff. Once he had everything gathered, he turned to address the dragon. “Neor, center field.”
Neor lumbered out of the stables and toward the edge of the cliff. Without fuss, he leapt off the edge. The red dragon’s scales gleamed beneath the hot sun as he glided to the fields below. Once he landed, Neor calmly munched on a bright green patch of grass. Dragons were omnivores—equal opportunity chompers.
After checking to make sure Neor had gone where requested, Derlin closed the stall latch. He stepped over to the next stall and had started to go in, when a large hand clamped on his shoulder.
Derlin looked back. “Is there a problem?” Hadn’t Lyrit just said he was pleased with Derlin’s work?
Lyrit stared at him in confusion. “What did you call my dragon?”
“Um. Neor. Sorry, I tend to give them pet names.” No way in hell was he going to let the knight know that Neor was the dragon’s chosen name.
“Doesn’t it confuse them?” Lyrit asked.
Derlin shrugged. “No. He’ll still come to the name you’ve given him.” No matter how idiotic.
He tried to move on, but Lyrit’s hold kept him still. “Excuse me, sir, but I’ve got fifteen dragons to do in three days.” It took him two to three hours per dragon to do a complete polishing, so he had a tight schedule. Once he had them at the level he liked, it would be easy to upkeep their grooming, but the initial polishing always took the most time.
A smile curved Lyrit’s mouth. “Two more things and I’ll let you get on with your tasks. What is your name?”
Derlin blushed. “Derlin Bails.”
Lyrit removed his hand. “The second question is, what did you put on my dragon?”
“Mostly dragon scale polish and some horn deflaking oil, so that when his horns molt, it will be more comfortable. Oh, and a little gold horn paint to keep the tips sealed from damage.”
“I meant on his stomach.”
“Oh,” Derlin’s cheeks burned over his misunderstanding. “My mother is an herbalist and she developed a lotion to reduce itching and redness from leech bites. I put some on all the spots I saw red patches. They should be gone by tomorrow.”
“Thank you. You did a fine job.”
Derlin beamed. He was pleased the knight appreciated his work. He would do his best anyway because he loved dragons, but it was nice to receive praise.
“Thank you. Can I move on now?” Derlin tilted his head toward the next stall.
“Yeah, let him go, Lyrit, he’s doing my dragon next.” Grael’s words were followed by a good-natured laugh. “I want to see how our little groomer does with him.”
Derlin peeked into the next stall. An enormous green dragon with cold golden eyes peered back at him.
“Greetings, dragon. I’m Derlin. Would you like your scales polished?”
He could see the intelligence lurking in the dragon’s eyes, and he didn’t want to offend it by rushing in and touching it all over without permission. This beast had the feeling of ancient wisdom, unlike the bright, puppyish temperament of Neor.
Curiosity lit the dragon’s eyes. The large beast stood up, then walked over to Derlin in slow, measured steps.
“You are not like the others,” it whispered into Derlin’s mind. “You can understand.”
Derlin nodded. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Frisson.”
“Greetings, Frisson. Would you like to be groomed?”
The words whispered through Derlin’s head, heavy with anticipation.
Derlin set down his supplies, then opened the stall door.
“Be careful,” Grael whispered. “I was only kidding. He ate the last groomer.”
“No, that was the one before,” Lyrit corrected.
“Are you going to eat me?”
The dragon gave a hissing laugh. “No, you are far too interesting to eat. It’s been a long time since I conversed with a human. You may talk to me while you work.”
“How about a song?”
The dragon tilted his head. “You may sing.”
Derlin held back a laugh. “Thank you.”
Pouring more scale cleaner into the bucket, Derlin swished his brush around, pleased to see the bucket’s clean-water charm was still working. The spell would clear the bucket’s water every fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, it would also remove the detergents, which was why he had to keep adding scale cleaner.
Sometimes things designed to help groomers added more time to the grooming process. Derlin shrugged, then launched into a song.