Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post.
I had never seen my father before my twelfth birthday. Not even once. Up until then, my mother had raised me all by herself in the royal city of Halfax. We lived like all the other gray elves in Maldobar—separated from the rest of society in the heavily guarded wartime ghettos. We had to follow a strict set of rules about where we could go, what we could do, when we got food, and what we could own. If you broke any of the rules, it was an immediate sentence to the prison camps, which I always heard was a fate worse than death. We were supposed to be grateful. After all, we were war refugees. Maldobar didn’t have to take us in, much less provide us somewhere to live. This was their act of charity towards us.
Our house was not much more than a tiny shack made of old recycled wood, and it only had one room. You’d expect a place like that to smell terrible, but my mother was a genius when it came to making anywhere feel like home. She could grow absolutely anything, and that was how she made our living. She grew vegetables, flowers, tiny fruit trees, and strange vines that climbed all over the walls and windows. It made the inside of our house feel like a jungle, and it smelled earthy like fresh soil and the fragrance of flowers. We couldn’t legally sell anything she grew since gray elves weren’t allowed to have any money, but we could still trade. So early in the mornings, my mother packed a sack full of peppers, fruit, vegetables, and anything else ready for harvest, and sent me out to the shops to trade for things we needed.
It was a lot harder than it sounds. Not the trading itself, that part was easy, but I had to be very sneaky about it. I was always on the watch for guards, or humans. Gray elf children were rare, even in the ghettos. Any elf living in the kingdom of Maldobar as a refugee was absolutely not allowed to have children. It was forbidden. Having children was a great way to get thrown into a prison camp, or worse. But I didn’t just have to worry about that. It was bad enough to be a gray elf kid, hiding until you were old enough to be overlooked. But I was a halfbreed. My father was a human from Maldobar. So instead of looking at me with anger, everyone looked at me like I was a cockroach. The humans didn’t like me touching their stuff because I was mixed with the filthy, wild blood of a gray elf. If they hadn’t liked my mother’s produce so much, they probably would have turned me in to the guards. The gray elves didn’t like me, either. But there was a very strict code amongst them: you didn’t betray your own kind no matter what. So they ignored me rather than ratting me out to the city guards.
I really didn’t fit anywhere, except with my mother. She loved me unconditionally. She was the most beautiful person in the world. Her hair was long and silvery white, and her eyes were like stars. All gray elves had eyes like that. When she smiled at me, her eyes would shine like gemstones in the light, as white and pale as diamonds with faint flecks of blue, yellow, and green in them.
When she died, I had just turned twelve. I got the feeling right away that no one really knew what to do with me. I didn’t fit into anyone’s plans. If I were a pure blooded elf, they would have taken me straight to a prison camp. If I were a human, someone would have adopted me. I wasn’t either, and yet I was both at the same time. I think the guards were just baffled that my mother had done such a good job of hiding me for so long, or that she’d somehow managed to have an affair with a human man.
Ulric Broadfeather was the only one who would take me in, and I’m pretty sure he only did it because my mother had left a letter behind naming him as my biological father. If it weren’t for the public shame of disowning a child, he probably would have just let me go to a prison camp anyway.
From the very beginning, my father was the most frightening man I had ever known. He was hugely tall, like a knight, and stronger than anyone else I had ever seen. Once, I saw him pick up and pull family wagon while it was loaded with bags of grain all by himself. He could have crushed my neck with one hand if he wanted to. His hair was jet-black like mine, except it was cut short. My mom always insisted I wear my hair long, like gray elves traditionally did. I also had his cold blue eyes that were the same color as glacier water. There definitely wasn’t any doubt he was my father. I looked too much like him for anyone to deny it.
I wish I could say that he welcomed me with open arms into his home; eager to make up for lost time he hadn’t gotten to spend with me. But he already had a family, living on the outskirts of a small city called Mithangol, and he wasn’t interested in adding me to it. I was an unwanted guest right away.
He had a human wife named Serah who made it perfectly clear she didn’t want me in her house at all. Serah absolutely hated me. She glared whenever she looked at me, accused me of being responsible for anything that went wrong, and refused to let me sleep in her house because I gave her a “bad feeling.” So I slept on a cot in the loftroom of Ulric’s workshop, instead. As bad as it sounds, I actually preferred it. It was quiet there, and even though it was cold in the winter, I liked the smell of the old hay and the leather that was stored up there.
Ulric also had another son, Roland, who was four years older than me. Roland chose to ignore my existence completely. I got the feeling that he was in survival mode, trying to be as aloof and uninvolved with the family as he possibly could until he was old enough to move out. I couldn’t really blame him for that. Like me, he favored our father. He was really tall, muscular, and had the same ice-blue eyes that looked like they belonged to a powerful bird of prey. I was a little afraid of him, even though he never said more than two words to me at a time. I could sense a lot of anger coming from him, and I was always paranoid I’d be standing too close when he finally snapped.
Ulric had two more children, a pair of twin daughters named Emry and Lin. They were six years younger than me, but they were meaner than a pair of hungry jackals. Every day, they tried to get me in as much trouble as possible. Of course, Serah believed every word they said. They would break things, let the chickens and goats out, or steal jewelry from their mother’s room, and blame it all on me. Once, Emry got ahold of the sewing scissors and chopped up Lin’s hair. When Serah found out, Emry blamed it all on me and told her I had done it. Serah believed it, and I got a beating from Ulric as soon as he came in the house. Inventing new ways to get me into trouble was their favorite pastime, and there was nothing I could do about it. They were sneaky and smart, a lot smarter than me I guess, because they never got caught.
The only good thing about living with my father was watching him work. Ulric was a tackmaster—he made saddles for the dragonriders from Blybrig Academy. But he didn’t just make saddles; he made the very best saddles in Maldobar. I watched him through the slats and gaps in the floor of the loftroom, shaping leather and stitching intricate pieces together. He did it all by hand, and it took him several weeks to craft one saddle. But when it was finished, each one was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It made me envy him, even if he probably wished I had never been born.
That’s why I almost keeled over when Ulric growled my name, calling me down from my room into his shop. He’d been working for two weeks solid on a new saddle, one more beautiful than ever, and it was finally finished.
“Wrap it up,” he barked at me in his gruff, gravely tone, and threw a few old quilts at me.
I was stunned. Ulric had never asked me to do anything before, especially nothing to do with his work. This was my chance, I thought. If I could be useful, maybe he wouldn’t hate me so much. He might even teach me to make saddles someday.
Ulric left me alone in his shop, and I walked over to the saddle that was set up on one of the big sawhorses. I ran my fingers over the freshly oiled leather. It was as red as blood, engraved with intricate designs and images of mountains and vines. All the buckles were made of silver-plated iron. I couldn’t even imagine what it would look like when the dragon it had been made for would finally put it on. A powerful beast, bound for the skies with a snarl and a flash of fire. It made my skin prickle, and every hair stand on end.
I was small for my age. I’d always been small, unfortunately. Ulric’s stature apparently hadn’t been passed on to me. To make matters worse, I was so skinny that I pretty much looked like a scarecrow. Emry and Lin like to call me “stick boy” because they knew it bothered me. If I were as big as Roland, no one would have tried to push me around.
It took all my strength to wrap the saddle up in the quilts so it wouldn’t get scratched or damaged, and then lug it outside. The weight of it made my arms and lungs ache. I could feel myself wobble dangerously if I leaned too far in any direction. I didn’t want to imagine what Ulric would do to me if I dropped this saddle.
The knights who rode on dragons just about never came to pick up their saddles personally. Most of them came from rich, powerful noble families, and had plenty of servants to do those kinds of errands for them. So when I saw Ulric standing outside talking to a man in formal battle armor with a sweeping cape of royal blue brushing at his heels, I stopped dead in my tracks. The saddle weighed more than I did, and I almost dropped it in surprise.
It was a muggy, overcast day. The clouds were so low and thick you couldn’t see the mountains that hunched over our small city. Even so, the knight’s armor still managed to gleam like liquid silver. He had his helmet under one arm, the white-feathered crest on it tipped in black, and the king’s eagle engraved upon his breastplate.
They both turned to look at me as I stood there, my arms shaking under the weight of the saddle, staring at the dragonrider. Ulric scowled darkly, and stomped over to take it from me. He slung it over his shoulder like it weighed nothing at all, growling curses under his breath at me as he went to tie it down to the knight’s horse.
The knight, however, was still staring right at me. He gave me a strange look, narrowing his eyes some and tilting his head to the side slightly like he was sizing me up. It made me blush from head to toe, the tips of my pointed ears burning like torches under my long hair. This was a warrior who had probably fought against gray elves for years, and I knew what I looked like.
He curled a finger at me, calling me toward him. It made me cringe as I obeyed. I hedged toward him, my shoulders hunched up because I half-expected him to hit me just out of pure resentment for what I was. But he didn’t.
When I got close enough, he grabbed my chin in one of his gloved hands, cranking my head around so I had to look up at him. I was shaking all over, wondering if this was it for me. Maybe he’d crush my head like a grape in his hand. Or maybe he’d throttle me to death. Either way, I was pretty sure Ulric wouldn’t go out of his way to save me. He might have even thanked the knight afterwards for saving him the trouble.
“What’s your name, boy?” The knight asked me. His voice was deep, but not angry or resentful. He was turning my head this way and that, pulling back my hair to see my pointed ears, and looking me over like he was inspecting livestock.
“J-Jaevid.” I told him through clattering teeth.
He frowned, looking back into my eyes before he finally let me go. His own eyes seemed dead to me. Dead—like someone who had seen many years in battle and knew what it meant to kill without mercy. “How old are you?” he asked again.
“Fifteen, sir.” I took a few steps back away from him. If he came after me suddenly, at least I had some hope of outrunning him. I was small, but I was fast.
Ulric was finished tying the saddle down, and came over with a growl meant to shoo me away. I took the hint and retreated back into the workshop, up to my loftroom where I had a wooden cot piled with old, holey quilts. I went to the small window along the far wall. It was a good place peek at them through the cracks in the boards that had been nailed over it. I could hear them talking, and it made my heart jump into my throat.
“You didn’t tell me you had a halfbreed son,” the knight chuckled, like it was a bad joke. “Looks just like a half-starved, miniature version of you, except for the ears.”
Ulric just shook his head and kept growling rumbling words, glaring at the ground. “Serah wants him gone.” I heard him say.
“Can’t blame her for that.” The knight seemed to sympathize. “You thinking of taking him on as an apprentice?”
Ulric just snorted like it was a ridiculous idea.
“Ah, my mistake then. I figured since your older boy had chosen to join the infantry you’d pass your skill set onto someone else in your family. I doubt your girls would be interested.” The knight rambled on, beginning to stroll back to where his horse was waiting. The new saddle was bundled up and ready for transport. “A shame he’s such a small, sickly-looking thing.”
That stung me. Yes, I was small for my age. But I hadn’t thought I looked sickly. It made me angry at myself, and at my inability to grow even a few inches taller. What a difference even two inches and a few pounds of muscle would have made.
“Where’s his dragon?” A whispering voice suddenly asked from right beside me.
It scared me out of my wits, making me scramble away in surprise. I hadn’t heard anyone approach, and was half afraid it was one of my sisters. But it wasn’t.
Katalina Crookin was probably the only friend I had in the world. Her father was a very good blacksmith who worked with Ulric sometimes, helping him craft unique pieces that required a more skilled metalworker. They only lived about a mile away, so Katty and I had found each other inevitably. She was small and skinny, like I was, with a head full of wild gold curls. She had big dark blue eyes, and just about every inch of her face was covered in freckles. The other kids in town teased her and called her ugly. I knew it must have hurt her feelings, but she never let it show. And when the other kids would come after me, trying to cut my hair or throw rocks at me, she was always there to defend me . . . and no one could throw a rock harder or more accurately than Katty. She had blacksmith’s hands.
I shook my head at her, moving back to the window to peek outside again. The knight was getting on his horse already, dropping a purse of coins into Ulric’s hand before he rode out of sight.
“I don’t know. I don’t think he brought it,” I whispered back. Neither of us had ever seen a dragon before.
Katty puffed a sigh of disappointment while shaking her head. It made her gold curls swish back and forth. “I saw him coming up the road. I knew he had to be a dragonrider. Normal soldiers don’t wear armor like that,” she told me. “Can you come over today?”
I didn’t know. Normally, I could’ve easily slipped away to visit the Crookins without Ulric or Serah even noticing I was gone because usually, they didn’t care where I was. But Ulric had actually asked me to do something for him today. Not to mention, he and the knight had been discussing my future—or lack thereof. I wasn’t so sure I could get away with leaving without getting caught.
Katty was watching me waffle between my desire to go to her house, and the inevitable beating I would get if Ulric ever caught me over there. She smiled. “Momma’s making sweetbread,” she baited me. “With wild honey.”
That decided it for me. I grinned back at her, nodding because we both knew what goodies were sure to go along with sweetbread. Thoughts of whipped butter with cinnamon and sugar, and warm milk with a hint of honey, were already swimming happily through my brain as we climbed down from my loftroom. We darted out the back of Ulric’s shop before anyone noticed, and took the narrow footpath we’d made ourselves through the prickly briars. It was our secret path, so no one would see us.
The Crookin’s house was not as big as ours, but it felt more like a home instead of the prison I lived in. Smoke came out of the chimney in the house, and out of the stack for the bellows in Mr. Crookin’s forge. Mr. Crookin didn’t really like me. That’s not to say he hated me as much as Serah did, but he didn’t like me coming around his house too often. He hadn’t minded it so much when I was younger, but now that I was fifteen, I could tell he was on the verge of telling me not to come back anymore. He didn’t talk much, and he had a face that was mostly hidden behind a thick, wiry beard. He wore his long black smithing apron every day, and his face and arms were almost always smeared with soot.
Mrs. Crookin, on the other hand, was one of the few people who didn’t make me feel unwanted. She smiled at me when we came inside, wiping her hands on her apron before she pulled me in immediately to kiss my forehead and ruffle my hair. She always hugged me until I couldn’t breathe, and asked me if I was getting enough to eat.
“What a good boy,” she said, patting my cheeks until it stung a little. “But still so skinny. Doesn’t Serah feed you at all? Sit down, Jae. I’m making your favorite.”
Katty plopped down in a chair across from me at their kitchen table, grinning as she slid a plate and spoon in my direction. “There was a dragonrider at his house today, momma.” Her eyes were still sparkling with excitement about it.
“Yeah, but he didn’t bring his dragon.” I added, sighing and twirling the spoon through my fingers. Mrs. Crookin brought over a platter of steaming hot sweetbread, fresh out of the oven. The smell made me dizzy with hunger, and it was hard to sit and wait while she put out jams, that delicious cinnamon butter, and mugs of warm milk for us on the table. “Not surprising, is it dear? It’s nearly springtime.” I knew what she meant. Every spring, Ulric packed up his tools and materials onto a wagon, and left for Blybrig Academy. The new riders started their training just as the weather was getting hot, and Ulric had to take molds and build brand new saddles for them. It was when he made most of his money, but it also meant that he’d be gone for a while. He was always completely exhausted when he came back. In a month, the snows would melt in the Stonegap Pass, and Ulric would start packing his tools again. If any other knights wanted a saddle from him, they’d have to get it before he left or wait until after spring. “I wish papa would let me go with him,” Katty whined while she was smearing a spoonful of jam onto a large piece of bread. “It’s not fair. Other apprentices get to go.”
“Soon, dear.” Mrs. Crookin smiled fondly at her daughter. They had the same gold colored hair, but Mrs. Crookin’s was flecked with silver. She was a much older woman than my stepmother.
Katty was eager to go to Blybrig, not that I could blame her. She wanted to see dragons just like I did. Her father had been teaching her his craft for a long time, and she was already strong enough to do most of the little tedious jobs for him, even if she was small and fragile looking. Mr. Crookin went to Blybrig for spring training, just like Ulric. But he went to make armor, not saddles.
“You’ll have to tell me what they look like,” I told her. I wasn’t able to keep myself from sounding sad about it. When she starting working with her father full time, I wasn’t sure where that would leave me. I’d be on the brink of adulthood with no idea where I should go, or what I should do. I wouldn’t have a skill to sell, or even a place to live.
Katty smiled at me hopefully from across the table, leaning forward and grabbing my hand at the wrist. “You’ll see them, too, Jae. Maybe papa would let you be his apprentice with me.”
Mrs. Crookin smiled at us, but I could still see it in her eyes; she didn’t think her husband would ever allow that. They were all right with me coming to visit, and with me being friends with their daughter, but they had to draw the line somewhere. I was still a halfbreed.
I didn’t let Katty see how that hurt me. It wasn’t their fault, really. And it wasn’t my place to try to weasel my way into their family business like that. “Nah.” I shrugged and gave her as confident a grin as I could muster. “I’m going to the coast. I want to work on one of the ships going out of the harbor. I’ll get to see the ocean, and eat fish every night.”
Katty looked deflated. I guess she’d wanted us to work together. Or, she’d at least hoped I would want the same thing as her. “You’ll smell like a fish, after all that,” she grumbled, wrinkling her nose.
We ate until there were only a few scraps of the bread left, and Mrs. Crookin wrapped those up for me to take with me. It was dark outside when I started for home. Katty always walked with me as far as the property line, and she had a blanket wrapped around her so that only her face and some of her curls peeked out.
“Jae,” she started. I could tell by the tone of her voice she was about to ask me something serious. “Do you really want to go to the coast?”
I’ve never been a very good liar. When it came to Katty, well, she could smell deception on me like a hound. I couldn’t lie to her if I wanted to. I quirked my mouth while I thought about the ocean, about ships, and about eating fish.
“Not really,” I confessed.
“We’d never see each other if you left,” she reached a hand out from under her blanket to grasp mine, squeezing my fingers. “After papa retires and I take over the business, I’ll make you an apprentice myself. Then we can work together and no one will be able to say anything about it.”
I tried to smile for her. I tried to show her some optimism. But we’d be in our twenties before her father let her take on any authority in his smithing business, and even then, I wasn’t sure blacksmithing was my calling. It required physical strength, which I clearly didn’t have.
“Thanks, Katty.” I squeezed her hand back.
We talked about dragons and knights all the way to the property line. Then I gave her a hug, and she kissed my cheek like her mom did, and we parted ways. I walked a few feet into the dark before I stopped and looked back, watching her disappear into the gloom and thorny shrubs. She was the best friend I had—my only friend really, and sooner or later, she’d have to leave me behind. She’d outgrow me. She’d get tired of having to stick up for me all the time.
With the bundle of leftover bread still under my arm, I walked back to my room in the loft. Ulric’s shop was quiet and dark, like it always was once he’d finished for the day. He was probably already inside, having dinner with his real family, and talking about how soon he could get rid of me. Roland was probably just sitting there at the table, glaring down into his plate without a word. The twins were probably throwing food at each other like savages. I didn’t expect any of them to even notice I was gone.
But I was wrong.