Battle Born – Amie Kaufman

COMING TO CLOUDHAVEN HAD BEEN A GOOD IDEA. Anders and his friends were sitting together just inside the entrance hall of the dragons’ ancient stronghold, wolves and dragons all in human form. Somehow, impossibly, they were safe—at least for now. None of them had spoken much since the Battle of Holbard. They’d just trekked out of town, rested for as short a time as possible, and then flown here to hide, dragons exhausted and wolves shaken. Most of Holbard had been destroyed today, the city left in ruins by the clash of the Snowstone and the Sun Scepter. There had been injuries on all sides. Everyone was hurt, and everyone was afraid, and Anders knew the only way out was to convince all his friends to work together—to stop the fighting once and for all. He also knew that the longer he let the silence draw out, the harder it would be to break it. “So . ” When his voice interrupted the quiet, the others blinked and looked up. Anders had hoped he would know what to say once he had their attention, but now they were all staring at him, and the words came no more easily. “We need to figure out what to do next,” he said awkwardly.

“We need to get all the way inside Cloudhaven,” Ellukka said immediately, leaning forward. “We’re not safe out here in the entrance hall, we’re too exposed. I don’t know how they’d get up here, but the wolves will be hunting us. They think we attacked the city.” “You did attack the city,” Viktoria pointed out stiffly. “We all saw you fly in with that . that thing. It put huge cracks in the ground—there was lava!” “That was the Sun Scepter,” Rayna shot back immediately. “And we needed it because the wolves were using the Snowstone to cool all of Vallen and attack the dragons. Your Snowstone caused at least as much damage with its ice.” “Speaking of dragons,” said Theo, “the Dragonmeet might think the same as the wolves—that we were trying to attack the city. But when we don’t come back to Drekhelm, they’re going to come looking for us.

They’re not going to be happy once they realize we’re not on their side.” “Then whose side are you on?” Sakarias asked quickly. “Are you with the wolves?” “We’re not on anyone’s side,” Anders said, raising his voice a little to be heard over the wave of muttering going around the circle. “Or I mean, we’re on everyone’s side. We don’t want to help the wolves or the dragons attack each other. And we have to stick together. We only have each other now.” Seven wolves sat on one side of the circle, four dragons on the other. Plus Kess the black cat, of course, who was currently in Rayna’s lap, batting at the ends of her hair with one playful paw. Of all of them, only Kess seemed to have no worries.

It was night, and their faces were dimly lit by the row of runes that circled the big room just below the domed stone ceiling. The runes were carved into the rock itself, and they glowed a gentle turquoise. Anders ran his gaze around the group, letting it rest on each of them for a moment in turn. Rayna was leaning against her friend Ellukka, her head resting on the bigger blond girl’s broad shoulder. Ellukka had months of experience flying, but Rayna had only transformed for the first time a few weeks before, and she was exhausted by the distance she’d covered today, and all the days before as they’d hunted for the pieces of the Sun Scepter. Anders saw Ellukka swallow hard. The last they had seen of her father, Valerius, he had been badly injured. The Drekleid, Leif, had been helping him struggle back toward Drekhelm. There was no way of knowing if they’d made it. Along the wall from the two girls sat Theo and Mikkel.

Mikkel was running one hand through his copper hair, studying the wolves thoughtfully. Restless as ever, Theo was pulling open their bags as the silence drew out. He began to unpack them, taking stock of what supplies they had. The dragons had managed to grab a few things before they’d left Drekhelm. The wolves hadn’t even been expecting the battle, let alone that they would have to flee from it, and they had nothing. Next, Anders’s attention shifted around to the wolves. Anders’s old roommates, Viktoria and Sakarias, sat together. Det, Mateo, and Jai sat farther along, quiet and a little wary. For once, none of them had an easy joke to offer. Only Lisabet sat by Anders’s side.

Just as there were fractures and mistrust between the wolves and the dragons, there were cracks separating the two of them from the rest of the wolf pack as well. Anders and Lisabet had sided with the dragons weeks earlier at Drekhelm, driving away their Ulfar classmates. They had done it to save the lives of their friends and the lives of the dragons, but Sakarias’s arm had been in a sling until just recently, and Anders wasn’t sure they were forgiven. It felt like all he’d done since discovering he was an ice wolf was run and hide and fight. “If you really want to know what we need to do next,” Sakarias said suddenly, “we need to eat.” A couple of the wolves snickered, breaking the tension for a moment, and Sakarias’s own mouth twitched in a small, tired smile. “I know I talk about food a lot,” he said, sheepish, “but this is going to be a problem really soon. It already is for us, if the dragons don’t want to share what they have.” Mikkel sat up indignantly, fixing Sakarias with a scowl. “Of course we’ll share,” he snapped.

And just like that, the small smiles were gone. “What do you think, we’re just going to watch you starve while we keep it all to ourselves?” Viktoria immediately came to her roomie’s defense. “How are we supposed to know what you’ll do?” she asked sharply. Her parents came from the wealthy west side of Holbard, and she’d always been posher than most of the other students at Ulfar Academy. Now she wielded her icy tone like a blade. “You just attacked our city. Why should we expect you to feed us?” “I think,” said Lisabet quietly, “we’d better talk about who did what at the battle just now. And why.” Together, she, Anders, and Rayna recounted what had happened over the last few weeks, while Mikkel and Theo started a fire in the big hearth. The entrance hall was a cold and miserable place to sit—it didn’t even have a proper door to the outside, just an open archway that led to the dragons’ big landing pad.

The real shelter lay beyond a great wooden door that only Anders and Rayna could pass through. When their friends had tried earlier that day, the floor had crumbled clean out from beneath their feet. Mikkel and Theo did their best with the fire, though, and it shed a little warmth. Someone had left wood laid out there, and flint to spark it hanging from a piece of string, as if they expected guests to come along who would need to warm themselves—though the dust everywhere told them that the guests had never shown up. It was a complicated story that Anders, Rayna, and Lisabet had to tell, from Rayna’s transformation, to Anders’s and Lisabet’s journey to Drekhelm, to the wolves joining the Finskól. Then they recounted their discovery that Hayn—the famous artifact designer and one of Ulfar’s teachers—was Anders’s and Rayna’s uncle. That his dead twin brother, Felix, was their father, and Drifa the dragonsmith, accused of murdering him, was their mother. They told the wolves how Hayn had doubted Drifa’s guilt and given them her map, which had led them to the Sun Scepter. “We needed it to counteract the Snowstone,” Anders explained. Jai and Mateo exchanged a guilty glance.

They were the ones who had stolen the Snowstone during the skirmish at Drekhelm, though they hadn’t known what it was at the time. “Sigrid was using the Snowstone to cool all of Vallen,” Anders continued. “She would have killed the dragons. And everyone was suffering—the wolves might like the cold, but the farmers’ crops were dying, and families without enough fuel were freezing.” “So that’s why we hunted down the Sun Scepter,” his sister said. “It was supposed to warm the weather. We brought it to Holbard, so the two could balance each other, and everyone would be safe.” All the wolves and dragons around the fire were quiet for a moment, thinking back to the ruins of the city, where nobody had been safe. “I guess we brought them too close together,” Anders said. “The lava from under the city and the ice above collided, and both the artifacts exploded.

It wasn’t some plan of the dragons’ to blow up Holbard, though. If Sigrid hadn’t been trying to kill them, none of it would have happened. We were just trying to solve the problem she created.” “Remind me not to bring you any of my problems,” Sakarias murmured. But he had another small, tired smile for Anders. They had a long, long way to go, but Anders could see the wolves absorbing the story he had told, and he thought perhaps it helped them a few steps along the road to trusting the dragons. Rayna brought them to the topic at hand, as she so often did. “Basically,” she said, “Ellukka and —what’s your name? Sakarias?—are both right. We all need to eat, or we won’t be able to do much else. And we need to figure out how to get properly inside this place.

We can’t camp out in the entrance forever. It’s freezing, we don’t have anything to sleep on, and if the wind really picks up, it’ll be miserable. It’s not safe, either.” “Agreed,” said Lisabet. “The dragons are forbidden from coming here—they have been as long as anyone can remember—and it’s too high for the wolves. But if we can’t go inside then it won’t be much of a hiding place if the dragons decide to break the rules.” “Rayna and I will go look for a way for everyone to come inside,” Anders volunteered. “And we’ll organize something to eat,” Theo agreed. “Sakarias, you can help.” Anders and Rayna took one of the artifact lamps hanging on the wall near the hearth, and left the others behind in the entrance hall as they approached the huge door that led into Cloudhaven proper.

It was set on the very far side of the hall, and the room was so large that the conversation of their friends faded behind them into silence, until Anders felt himself no bigger than the specks of dust dancing in the lamplight around them. The door was made of dark wood and had no handle. There were rows of metal letters fixed into its surface, reflecting the light of the lamp back at the twins.

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