DragonRider by S. Rodman
official. If I ever gain super powers, I’m blasting it to oblivion. The roads are tiny and winding. There are far too many mountains and zero phone signal, so my map app isn’t working and now I’m hopelessly lost, very late, and my piece of shit car is about to overheat and die on me and there isn’t even anywhere to pull over and cry.
I can’t call for directions or to apologise for running late. Everything has turned into an absolute nightmare.
All I wanted to do was drive to Caernyddyn Castle, set some wards and sigils, get paid and leave. But no, this damn country is determined to destroy me. I mean, it shouldn’t be this blasted hard to find a castle. It’s a frigging castle!
Even if I admit defeat, I’m not sure I can find my way back to the main road. I’m cursed to drive around the backwaters of Wales for the rest of eternity, never to find my way out. Never to return home to England.
Suddenly, up ahead I see a tractor on the side of the road. The farmer is fiddling with a gate. Either shutting it or opening it, I can’t tell and I don’t care.
I stop in the middle of the road, but it’s not like I have seen another vehicle for twenty minutes. If something does come along, they will just have to bloody well wait.
The farmer is already looking at me, so I wind down my window and put on my brightest smile.
“Hi! I’m looking for …” Shit I have no idea how to pronounce Caernyddyn. “Care-nid-din Castle,” I attempt.
The farmer looks at me like I’m crazy. His weather-worn face is scrunched up in bewilderment. Did I really mangle it that badly?
I try again,“Care-nye-din?”
“Car-nith-in,” says the farmer, slowly and carefully. As if I am a small child.
I blink. Is he talking about the right place? I don’t know how he got those sounds from the spelling I’ve seen. It would just be my luck to get directions to entirely the wrong place.
“Yeah?” I say uselessly. I just have to hope for the best.
“Keep going for about a mile and then take the next left.”
Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad. Even I can follow directions that simple.
“Thank you so much!” I beam.
The farmer smiles back at me, “No problem.”
I give him a little wave and then set off. Oh, my god. I just waved at him. What the hell is wrong with me? Do I think I’m the queen or something? Okay, deep breath. It is a little cringe, but look on the bright side. He can tell his friends about the crazy English person who asked for directions and acted like a complete nutcase. I might have just made his day.
The road ambles around a corner and opens up to a stunning vista. It’s all green fields and trees as far as the eye can see. A sparkling river snakes its way through the bottom of the valley. Wow. Okay, I’ll admit that when you aren’t panicking and lost, Wales is beautiful. Maybe I’ll come back for a holiday.
If I can ever afford one. My stomach twists in all-too familiar knots. Money is a constant stress. But things are looking up. These people reached out to hire me. If I do a good job, they might recommend me to others. My freelance mage business might actually start going somewhere. Who knows, maybe my luck might be about to turn. Stranger things have happened.
My derisive snort echoes around the empty car. Yeah right. Who I’m I kidding. My luck has been shit for the first twenty-three years of my life. It has no reason to change now.
I see a left turn and take it cautiously. The farmer did say the first left turn, didn’t he? Or did he mean the first left turn after driving a mile? For fuck’s sake. I have no idea. I think I have driven about a mile anyway, so let’s hope for the best.
Suddenly, an enormous castle comes into view, and I shriek in delight. Thank heavens. Now just to hope that it’s the right castle, this is Wales after all. It’s not known for its shortage of castles.
I turn into a short driveway that opens into a wide expanse of beige coloured gravel. Around twenty cars are strewn around in no particular order that I can see, so I tuck mine into a corner that seems out of the way and like it won’t block anyone in. It’s the best I can do.
I scramble out because I’m super late. The castle looks imposing. From here, I can mostly just see a tall windowless wall of grey stone. There is a huge archway in the middle, so I guess the door is through there. Do castles have doorbells? I guess I’m about to find out.
Why do the people who live here want magical wards and sigils protecting them? The question still rattles around my head even though I decided to ignore it ages ago, because, hello, I’m getting paid, so who cares?
But the Venn diagram of people who know about the paranormal, need protection, but can’t do it themselves, is tiny. Probably non-existent. When I set up my freelance mage services on the dark web, I had expected to be hired for boring, monotonous work no one else wanted to do.
I let out a little snort laugh. My business model is clearly deeply flawed. Starting with the expected to be hired bit.
My thoughts come to a shuddering halt. Someone is striding out of the archway, looking like they are heading straight for me. My body is going crazy. I freeze as if my feet have taken root in the crunchy gravel. Tingling goosebumps have erupted over every inch of my skin. My stomach is role playing as a washing machine and my lungs have forgotten to breathe.
Who is this guy?
I’ve never had such a visceral reaction to another person. What is going on?
He is tall and slender. Pale hair the colour of starlight falls to his shoulders. Black leather trousers fit his legs like a second skin. He is wearing boots and my brain can’t interpret the top he is wearing but it’s black leather too. I can’t place his style. It’s not quite ‘hot goth boy’. Nor is it ‘biker’. Even though something about all that leather screams practical rather than style.
He is right next to me now and I have to tilt my head to look up at him. My gaze lingers on his gorgeous cheekbones before reaching his eyes. The moment our eyes meet. I physically jolt, as if I have been electrocuted. There is so much to see in his eyes. Power, pain, magic and a multitude of other things I cannot begin to name.
“Kirby Taylor?” he asks.
I nod. For some reason, I’m entirely too tongue-tied to say a single word. He carries authority with him, the type I’ve only ever felt before from much older men. He has to be mid to late twenties at the most, yet something about him makes it perfectly clear that he is used to giving orders and being obeyed.
“You’re late,” he says and I watch in horror as a sneer crosses his face.
I don’t want him to sneer at me. I want him to like me. No, I need him to like me. The feeling is as intense as it is unsettling. I just met the guy, what on earth has come over me? I’m not normally like this.
“Sorry, I had trouble finding it,” I babble helplessly.
One perfect eyebrow raises. “It’s a castle.”
There is so much scorn and derision in his voice that I could probably bottle it and use it in a hex. The force of it makes me wither.
“Come!” he says imperiously, as he turns on his heels and starts striding back towards the castle.
I trot after him like a well-trained dog. As if his command bypassed the conscious part of my mind and went straight to my nervous system. What the hell?
“Who are you?”
His shoulders stiffen but he doesn’t slow his stride. Oh my god, I can’t believe I asked my question out loud and in such a tone of bewildered exasperation.
My eyebrows rise. “That’s quite a name.”
His pace quickens, but he gives no other sign that he has heard me. Which is probably a good thing. My tone was quite mocking. Jesus, this guy has a strange effect on me, including bringing out my worst side.
We walk out into a wide courtyard paved with flagstones and surrounded by impressive castle walls. This place is stunning. He stops suddenly and whirls to face me and I nearly walk into him.
“You are good at portals?” he asks.
I blink at him in confusion. None of the emails I received when being hired mentioned anything about portals. Though I do boast about my ability on my website.
“Yes?” I say, somehow managing to make it sound like a question.
“Show me,” he orders.
I stare at him in confusion. Portals take a huge amount of magic, they are incredibly draining. If I create one, I’ll be too depleted to do the work they hired me for. Nevermind that one does not simply go around creating portals willy-nilly. They are not frivolous things. They are for emergencies and very serious matters. Otherwise I would have just portaled here from my shitty flat and not lost hours of my life driving around Wales.
He seriously wants me to create one? And just to show him? Show him what? That I can do magic? There are easier and better ways to test that. Besides, can he not sense my magic? I can sure as hell sense his. Rolling off of him in potent waves.
“Do it!” he snaps as he crosses his arms.
There is a slight Welsh lilt to his voice, and it’s extremely enticing. He is the most distracting man I have ever had the misfortune to meet. But I need to concentrate. I need to prove to him that I’m not some helpless, gormless worm. I am a very competent mage, thank you very much. And he wants me to open a portal.
“To anywhere in particular?” I ask.
Well, fuck him then. I close my eyes, concentrate on the spell and with only three hand gestures open up a portal to the north pole, aiming it so the arctic wind blasts right at him.
He doesn’t so much as flinch. He merely shuts my portal down with a lazy hand gesture, as if he is casually swatting a fly.
“Can you do it with your eyes open?”
Glaring right into his condescending face I open a portal to the Sahara desert. This time a blast of scorching air blows orange sand into his perfect hair.
He frowns, and closes my portal with a click of his fingers.
Then he opens one up, right by my toes. A large one. Humid Amazonian air hits me right in my face. A mosquito buzzes out and a deadly looking snake looks far too interested in slithering over.
I can’t do it with a snap of my fingers or as if I’m swatting a fly. But I manage it with four rapid hand gestures.
Eddies of arctic, desert and jungle air swirl for a moment in the courtyard, before dissipating and returning the atmosphere around us to normal Welsh summer air.
We glare at each but I think I see a flash of respect in his eyes and I hate how much I crave more of it.
“You’ll do. I suppose.”
I honestly don’t know if I am offended or flattered by that. He makes me so confused.
“Do for what?” I hear myself ask.
Something flashes in his eyes and he sighs heavily, as if the weight of the entire world is on his shoulders. Completely over reacting to being asked a simple question.
“This is a Dragonrider fortress. An unbonded dragon has decided to take a rider. The ceremony requires thirteen young unbonded mages to present to the dragon. Between all the rider families we could only rustle up twelve. So you are here to make up the numbers.”
I feel my jaw drop open. What the hell? I don’t get the joke. What is going on? I’m so confused. Dragons? There is no such thing as dragons. They are one of the few mythical creatures that don’t actually exist.
Mordecai stares at me as I gulp like a fish out of water. Then he huffs.
“Don’t worry about it. You just need to stand on the battlement and look pretty. Ri is not going to choose you. After the ceremony, I’ll have to go into your vile little mind and wipe your memories. By Monday, you’ll be back home thinking you spent a wet weekend camping in Wales.”
I stare at him. I’m incredulous. Outraged. Insulted. Vile little mind? How dare he? But none of my emotions are translating into words.
He glares at me impatiently, waiting for me to speak. But I really can’t. After a moment, he makes a noise of pure derision.
“I haven’t got time for this. Stay there. I’ll send Harlen to look after you.”
He turns on his heels and strides away. Damn that bastard is fast. I stare at his rapidly disappearing back and still can’t say anything. Dragons? Is he insane as well as ludicrously and infuriatingly hot? With a temperament like that, he deserves to be hideously ugly. There is no justice in the world.
I’m standing alone in a courtyard in a castle in Wales. The one inhabitant I have met is a rude, obnoxious weirdo. I should definitely flee. Run back to my car and never look back. But I know myself well enough to know that I won’t. I’m curious now. And yes, curiosity killed the cat but oh well, I’m pretty sure unresolved curiosity would drive me completely insane. So I’m just going to stand here like a pleb and wait for this Harlen. Because what if Mordecai is not nuts? What if dragons are real?
A shiver dances along my spine. Excitement. Trepidation. And the feeling that my entire life might be about to change.