Tomorrow Dragon Heir launches. This is the second book in my series about dragons and shifters. It tells the story of Birgith, a girl who is trying to work out where she belongs, and Haydn, a boy who wants to be with her, but isn’t sure how. Read on for the first chapter!
Though, beware – contains SPOILERS for book one. Read on at your own risk!
Chapter One – The funeral
As dawn approached, Birgith waited outside the Clan Meeting Hall for the start of the funeral of the only person she’d ever killed. Uncertain what would happen, she shivered from foot to foot. Other clan members loitered in doorways round the green, forming darker shadows still indistinct.
The sun barely lit the sky as Uncle Otto’s body, covered in red linen cloths, arrived on a floatship. The musicians, standing at the front of the vessel, propelled it forward with their sombre melody. Their tune drifted over the procession. Thanca, his widow, and the three Bear Clan Councillors led the other clan members through the streets of the Citadel. Their red tunics and white armbands commemorated his life.
Birgith found a place at the tail end of the procession. Her stomach churned, and she shivered in the winter dawn as they set off to parade round the Citadel. She’d never planned to kill anyone, especially not her uncle.
For the three days since they’d arrived back from the Fox Lands, rumours had floated round town. Even Birgith had heard discussions about how the Fox Clan was in league with the dragons. How the Bear Leader was a casualty of a failed coup at the Clan Congress. How Thanca was bereft and determined to honour the memory of her late partner. Most of the stories were far more colourful than the truth of what had happened. But no one could find out the truth or she and her dragon family would be at risk.
A conglomeration of wooden cabins, the Citadel hugged the river like a cub cradled up to its mother. Considerably larger than Littledenn, where Birgith had grown up, the Citadel was less densely packed than either the wolf or fox towns she had visited. Bears were private people, so they built their houses set back from the paths, allowing more space for the bushes and trees that they depended on.
It took them drams to process from their meeting point outside the Clan Meeting Hall, south along the river to the edge of the town and then round the outskirts of the Citadel til they met the river in the north side of the town. This procession round the city was Otto’s final farewell to the place he’d ruled over.
From there, they made their way inland to the old dragon temple, beyond the trees. Arches towered above the top branches, unlike any building within the Citadel.
Moulded stone with flaking paintwork, fallen blocks, and no roof made it an eerie place. Stepping through the entrance, Birgith felt her joint history with it and the possibility of learning more about her dragon family from its carvings. She wanted to explore, but now wasn’t the time. She forced her feet to follow the group along the corridor into the main area of the temple.
In the centre stood a pyre as tall as Birgith. She was unsure if the roof had always been missing or not, but there was no sign of one now. Given the size the fire would be, the absence meant they wouldn’t set the building aflame.
With reverence, four clan members laid the body on top. Thanca, Otto’s widow, took the flaming torch given to her. With a sniff, she thrust it into the dry wood. It took easily and soon flames flickered round the whole pyre.
A set of players serenaded them with music, which also controlled the fire, ensuring an even and safe burn for the surrounding crowd.
The fire’s warmth took some of the chill off the air. Birgith stared into the flames, remembering Otto’s demise. The look on his face as she killed him. It had been self-defence. He’d stood over her with a sword in his hand. But as far as anyone else knew, she had fought the dragon beside her uncle. In truth, she’d fought her uncle to free the dragon – her brother. That had been the only way she could keep their secret. Still, unable to tell anyone, the guilt ate away at her inside.
Thanca moved through the mostly silent crowd. As a grieving widow, she wore white from head to toe. The fine fabric gleamed in the flickering fire light. Birgith kept an eye on her as she moved through the crowd, worried Thanca was working the situation to ensure the right people saw her.
The woman stopped by Dorset, the Third Councillor for the Bear Clan. Short and fat, next to her tall, stick-thin frame, he had to stretch up to hear what she said. Not that Birgith could hear neither of them over the crackle and sizzle of the flames, and the swooping melody controlling them.
Birgith had met the Council the day before to discuss the events leading to Otto’s death. She’d told them the same story she’d told the Fox Leader at Castilion three weeks before. Fortunately, they hadn’t pressed for more. And to honour her uncle’s last request of them, they’d given her a second chance to demonstrate her ability to shift. Her ability to shift into a bear meant she’d been confirmed as a member of the Bear Clan. At least one benefit had come out of the awful situation.
The music reached a crescendo as the fire blazed. After a sustained note, the players stilled. The flames dissipated, leaving only ash and swirls of smoke behind.
Silence fell. Thanca stepped forward and dipped one finger in the ash, streaking it across her forehead. Then she turned to the assembled people and spoke.
“My Otto dedicated his life to the good of the Bear Clan – his people. In memory of him, I will do the same. Together we can be greater. I would be honoured to serve you during this interim stage til a new leader is chosen. Otto and I worked as a team. It would tarnish his reputation if I dissolved selfishly into the grief I feel losing him. I am determined to be strong and put our beloved clan first. You were his reason, his pride, and his joy. I can do no less in his memory than to continue his work. That shall be his legacy.”
Birgith frowned. Was Thanca really using her husband’s funeral to make a power grab? Did she think the clan members would allow her, a human, to take the reins of their shifter clan? Did she know some loophole that would allow a human widow to be declared the Bear Leader? And what would that mean for the clan if she did?
Birgith needed to investigate how the succession worked. She couldn’t leave the clan in Thanca’s control. Not after she’d threatened to cut out her brother’s heart to become a shifter herself. They’d never be safe if Thanca controlled the clan. Her influence over the Conservatoire was worrying enough, but with the Bear Clan behind her? Birgith shivered to consider what Thanca might use her power for then.
She glanced round. A few sceptical faces, but many applauded and nodded their support. Birgith caught the eye of the First Councillor. He frowned hard. Obviously, Thanca hadn’t discussed it with him beforehand. Or if she had, she hadn’t followed his advice. Wulfric would never have sanctioned a human taking control of the clan.
Thanca stepped back to allow the other clan members to mourn the Bear Leader’s passing. They each stepped forward, dipped one finger in the ash left behind, and streaked it on their cheeks to show their sorrow.
Thanca stood there to hear their condolences and support. A cold wind whistled through the ruins. Specks of soot marred her cream fur-lined boots, as well as the beige cloak she held fast round her. A gust teased strands of her white-blond hair loose from her intricate braid.
Birgith joined the line and slowly made her way towards the front. She didn’t hurry. Many of the others stared, not recognising her. This was her first visit to the Citadel, and she’d kept herself to herself. She found she quite liked the anonymity.
Soon she reached the front of the line. She dipped her finger in the warm, gritty ash. As she swiped them against her cheek, she remembered the good things about her uncle Otto. His desire to look after his clan. His ability to stand up for those weaker than him. And the redeeming fact – that he had made it possible for her to redo her manifestation test a second time.
She approached Thanca to give her condolences.
Her aunt spat on the floor between them. “How dare you show your face here. You are not welcome in this clan.”
“I am here to honour my uncle’s life.” Birgith said calmly. “I am sorry for your loss.” She tried to move on, as the crowd turned to watch the confrontation.
“You have no right to be here. Be gone. Now. Before I have the guards throw you out.” Thanca’s face twisted in rage as she pointed towards the river beyond the Citadel.
A voice spoke from behind Birgith. “As a clan member, Birgith Rupertda is within her right to be here. In fact, it is expected of her. Especially with her familial links to the late Bear Clan Leader.”
Birgith turned and saw Wulfric, the First Councillor, approaching. An older man with tawny skin, he hobbled with his walking stick, determined to have his say. She nodded at him in appreciation.
As far as any of them knew, Otto’s brother had adopted her and brought her up in Littledenn, a village deeper in the forest. Only she knew he truly was her father, and that her mother was the last remaining dragon. They’d had to keep her parentage secret. Otherwise it would’ve triggered a dragon hunt. Though since her brother had been captured, the existence of dragons on Kaitstud was no longer a secret.
“She is no member of my clan.” Thanca drew herself up tall.
Wulfric sighed. He lowered his voice, so he was only audible to those near him. “It is not your clan, Thanca. We are very sorry for your loss, and for the loss the entire clan must bear without him. But now the council will work to appoint the new leader. You can return to your family, or stay here in the cabin you shared with Otto. But the business of ruling the Bear Clan is no longer your responsibility.” His black cloak billowed round him. He leant on his walking stick as he stared Thanca down.
She scowled at him. “Be warned, that upstart and her father are working to overthrow you and your precious council. Just you wait and see.”
Birgith squashed the indignant retort that rose inside her.
Wulfric lifted his chin. “I know you and Otto were concerned about Rupert. But there has been no evidence he has in any way subverted anything. As far as the council can tell, he is living a quiet life as the Lord Warden in Littledenn. He hasn’t set foot in the Citadel since Otto claimed the leadership.”
“Humph. You don’t see what’s right in front of your nose.”
“If you have any other reports, then bring them to the council. But we have never seen him as a threat.”
Relief washed through Birgith.
Thanca pointed at her. “What about her actions, then? She killed him. I know it. She will never be a clan member while I have anything to say about it.”
“The council confirmed her as a member of the Bear Clan at our meeting yesterday. We entered her into the registry, with all the council as witnesses.”
Thanca stopped moving.
“While her second testing was unusual.” Wulfric admitted. “There is no way to deny her, as she can shift into a bear. Whoever her parents really are, at least one of them is part of this clan, and so is she.”
Thanca glared at her. “You are holding up the line. These people are here to see me. Move along now.”
Birgith had no option but to continue away from the pyre and the scheming widow standing next to it. Wulfric stayed behind to speak to Dorset. She didn’t wait for him. No, that might appear to Thanca like collusion. Birgith felt the stares and whispers. Whereas before she had been standing in the crowd as an unknown, now she was a person of interest. Someone involved in the centre of the struggles. And she didn’t want to be there.
Holding herself together, she ignored the whispers and prying eyes as she strode back to the inn where she was staying.