"For almost two hundred years, we've kept our people closed away from those who live on the land. That's about to change."
Sean stood in front of his father's throne and tried to stand tall. He did not feel like an ambassador. He felt like a very small pup, not a grown-up about to embark on a quest. He wanted to feel his mother's arms around him one last time before he stepped onto the boat that would take him to the mainland.
He wanted to make the last two years go away. The horror. The deaths. The war.
No one but the direct royal family--Sean, his father, his mother, and his Uncle Eron-knew the real reason for this quick reversal of two hundred years of solitude.
His father did not expect to win this war. Sean was being sent away--to a school, no less, filled with ... humans--and others--to save his life. As the heir to the Selkie throne, Sean was the number one target for the assassins employed by the other side.
But since his father's enemies were Finfolk, and unable to walk on the land, sending Sean to Darkbrook had been seen as a good idea.
A smart move.
Sean wrenched his mind away from the past and concentrated on his father's words. Did anyone else hear the quiver of fear in his father's voice? Did anyone else realize how badly the last skirmish had scourged his father's army?
"You will be our ambassador, my son."
Did anyone else see the tears in his father's eyes?
"May the water always flow beneath your feet."
Sean bowed his head as his father approached. The courtiers murmured behind them, a much-reduced gaggle of nobles. The hall had once resounded with song. It had been silent now for months.
A chain slipped around Sean's head, and a familiar pendant swung to rest against his chest. Sean raised his head as the length of chain began to shrink, its magical properties too ancient to reproduce in these modern days. The pendant was twin to one that had been lost many years ago; lost, in fact, along with one of Sean's kin who had abandoned the undersea life to live with a human woman far away from the ocean.
The large sapphire glittered against Sean's chest. The ornate silver setting, a circle of stylized waves, perhaps, had been fashioned by an ancient king. Sean's father had worn the pendant up until now.
"Father..." Sean clutched the symbol of his father's kingship. "What is this?"
"Keep it safe, Sean." The king covered Sean's hand with one of his own. Slightly webbed, even in human form. Calloused, yet soft. A strong hand. "That pendant holds the key to our kingdom and much more. Keep it safe." He turned away.
Sean's Uncle Eron appeared, his hawkish face grave. "It's time."
All at once, Sean did not want to go. He tried to pull the pendant from around his neck, but the chain would not lengthen or break. "Father!"
Uncle Eron took Sean's arm. "This is the only way," he said. "We've discussed this many times before."
Sean's father vanished behind a set of beaded pearl curtains that stretched up to the roof of the coral palace. The courtiers drifted away. The pall of silence crept in to block Sean's ears and mouth and nose, until he gasped for air.
Uncle Eron gently tugged him towards the side door. "Sean, it's time. Your bags are packed. You've said your goodbyes."
My final goodbyes? Sean wanted to shout, but the terrible silence would not let the words escape. He closed his eyes and imagined what would happen if he shifted shape and fled into the wildlands, perhaps, or somewhere other than the mainland.
"Sean." His uncle's voice shattered the silence. "It's time."
With one last look at the palace, Sean allowed his uncle to pull him out the door to where the carriage bobbed up and down against the tide. His bags were packed and stored behind the carriage, covered in waterproof skins. Even the narwhal hitched to the carriage failed to impress. After watching that last battle, and the sharks the Finfolk had brought with them...
Sean shuddered and closed his eyes as the carriage lurched forward.
"Perhaps it's better if you sleep," Uncle Eron said, and covered him with a blanket made of sea-silk, that rare and costly fabric that had once been so plentiful. Like the Selkies themselves, the sea-spinners had fallen under the onslaught of the Finfolk, dwindling away until they, too, became legend.
Sean awoke when the carriage drifted to a stop. He opened his eyes to find the narwhal could go no further--forcing it into the shallows courted death for such a noble steed.
This would be the trickiest part of their journey. A lot could happen in the shallows, without the protection of the narwhal's long horn.
Uncle Eron climbed out of the carriage, his whole body tense and wary. "We have to be careful now," he said. "There should be people waiting for us on shore, but we have to get to shore first."
He hefted one of Sean's bags. "Be ready to run, if necessary. All that matters is that you get to shore, Sean. Remember that."
Sean stepped out of the carriage and picked up his other bag. Sea-silk again, worth more than the contents of Sean's father's kingdom. He slung the other one over his shoulder. And then, thus burdened, they made their way from outcropping to outcropping, through waving sea fans and debris littered desolation, until they reached the shore. Without a single attack, or scout spotted, even. Without one sign of Finfolk.
He should have been suspicious, just of that.
Sean had never been so happy to breathe air in his entire life. He slogged through the sand, relishing the feel of it between his toes, waiting for his uncle to indicate which way to go.
He turned, just in time to see his uncle fall, trapped in the shallows by two Finfolk whose rusty blades of iron ran black with blood in the moonlight.
Of course, iron was anathema to Selkie-folk. Selkie blood was too magical to withstand the deadly metal for long.
Sean drew his sword anyway. It wasn't iron, of course. But it would do.
"Go back!" His uncle's voice was a rattling croak. "Go back! Run!"
Sean ignored him. He could not leave Uncle Eron to die. He could not. No matter what his father had said. No matter what might happen to him.
Finfolk had no human form. If Sean could get his uncle away from them, they would not be able to follow.
He ran into the water and slashed at the nearest Fin. The beast drew back, snarling, its cold eyes reflecting moonlight. Uncle Eron managed to unsheath his sword to hack at the other Fin, but it buried its blade in his side before Sean could drive it away.
Buried its blade in his side, up to the hilt. Uncle Eron sagged in the Fin's arms, his face gray.
Sean screamed. With a strength borne of desperation and fury, he rushed at the two Fin, parrying their blows and struggling to remember what he had been taught. One of the Fin got in a lucky blow and sliced through Sean's pants, but the blade only nicked his skin.
The other Fin had to release Uncle Eron to parry Sean's wild thrusts. Without pausing to consider the consequences, Sean drove them back, then bent to grab his Uncle's arm and pull him to safety.
The Fin fell back. Sean did not wonder why until something barked behind him in the forest, and a small spurt of water erupted inches from Uncle Eron's flaccid hand.
Another bark from the forest. An explosion, almost. Loud enough to echo. Sean turned and something caught him in the shoulder, a searing pain that spun him around and left him dizzy and sick as his sword fell from nerveless fingers. He stumbled over Uncle Eron's body as the thing in the forest barked again. Another little spurt of water, inches away. He fell to his knees, across Uncle Eron's body.
A streak of pain coursed across his back. Sean scrabbled in the shallow water for his sword, but he knew even as he searched that his sword was no match against this weapon.
He could not move his left arm at all. His fingers would not curl around Uncle Eron's arm to pull him ... where? Obviously, neither the land nor the sea held sanctuary for them. Sean knelt over his uncle's body and closed his eyes. This was the end, then. His father's grand plan to keep him safe had failed.
His good hand closed over the pendant. He had to keep it safe. But how?
This time, something roared in the forest. A streak of flame lit the night sky. A monstrous shape rose over the trees, blotting out the moon.
For a moment, Sean forgot everything but the awesome figure of the dragon above him. A clawed foot sank into sand, leaving a footprint behind the size of a small pond. The creature ducked its head and emerged from the trees with a wriggling figure in its mouth. The moon glinted off the dragon's teeth for a long moment before it crunched its jaws together and gulped the tasty morsel down.
Sean ducked as the dragon's tail swished over his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two Fin vanish beneath the ocean's surface, escaping before the dragon plucked them out of the water and had them for an after-dinner snack.
Should he flee, too? He started to struggle to his feet and realized that his shirtsleeve and arm were wet with blood. His blood. The searing pain in his shoulder had sharpened now, but he still could not move his fingers. He hugged his wounded arm against his body, tucking it safely against his chest.
How would it feel to be eaten by a dragon?
The dragon roared again, breathing fire across the ocean waters. Something yelped behind Sean, but he didn't turn his head to see what the dragon had burned.
Black spots danced in front of his eyes. The pain turned to ice in his veins, draining away what strength he had remaining and leaving him with nothing. Blood crept down his arm and dripped into the sea.
Would his father taste the faint tang of his blood across the ocean currents?
The dragon reared up. Sean braced himself for death. He closed his eyes, hand falling away from the pendant, muscles limp now as he imagined the dragon's teeth splitting both skin and muscle and crushing his bones.
His ears popped. The immense awareness of the dragon vanished. In its place, human-seeming hands lifting him up and dragging him across the sand. A worried face appeared in his line of vision. A human face, with dragon eyes. White hair, cut short. An old face that reminded Sean of his grandfather.
A voice spoke. "Niklas, did you have to eat him?"
"He was about to finish him off, Lucas." The dragon's voice rumbled in Sean's ears. "I think Eron is dead. Will you check?"
The ice crept into Sean's lungs. He drew a breath and his teeth chattered together like castanets. He knew about castanets, because he had studied human music once upon a time. And he'd made some, under the sea. Out of shells, of course. Scallop shells worked best.
"He's dead," the other voice reported. "Damn it. What went wrong? How did they find out where we were to meet?"
"Since when did the Finfolk have Selkie allies?" Niklas asked. His hands tore the fabric of Sean's shirt away from the wound in his shoulder. "The one I ate had Selkie blood, at least. He might have been a halfbreed, but..."
Sean sucked in a breath. "Iron..." He could not force another word past frozen lips.
A shape loomed out of the darkness. This time, it was an old man. Human, perhaps, with shocking blue eyes.
But how could his eyes be blue in darkness?
"Sean?" The old man knelt on the bloody sand. His warm hands leeched some of the ice away as he gently touched the gaping wound. "Don't close your eyes. Stay awake for me. Can you do that?" To the dragon, he asked, "Did the bullet pass through?"
Sean licked his lips and tried to focus on the old man's face. "Uncle Eron?"
"I'm sorry." The dragon's rough voice echoed inside Sean's head. "We didn't get here in time."
A tear--scalding hot--crept down Sean's cheek. He tried to shake his head, to deny the knowledge, but deep down inside he had already known his uncle was dead.
"And so your people grow closer to extinction," the old man murmured, smoothing Sean's hair against his forehead. "My name is Lucas, Sean. Lucas Lane. I was supposed to meet you and your Uncle here at midnight and take you both to Darkbrook. I am so sorry that we didn't make it in time to save your Uncle's life."
The tears would not stop. Sean tried to push past crushing grief and the paralyzing ice, but he did not have enough strength to win free. He closed his eyes, only wanting to retreat from the knowledge that his Uncle was dead. Only wanting to rest for a bit before he tried to comprehend what had happened.
"Sean." Lucas' hand closed over his good shoulder. "Don't slip away. Not yet. Listen to me." His voice held some sort of power that drew Sean out of darkness and into awareness again.
He opened his eyes. Blinked up at the two faces above him.
"Niklas, take him to Darkbrook." Lucas stood and turned towards the sea. "He'll die from shock if that wound isn't treated. Or the iron will kill him."
"And where will you go?" Niklas asked, his voice only mildly curious.
"Into the sea, of course," Lucas replied. "Someone has to tell his father."
"If he has a father left," Niklas whispered, almost too low for Sean to hear.
Sean clutched at the dragon's arm. "M..." He struggled to force the words past numb lips. "My ... my father ... was alive..."
Would he be able to bear it if Lucas found his father dead? His entire family slaughtered? The palace ransacked?
His eyes drifted closed again. No amount of struggling would force them to open.
Something whooshed overhead. The great weight of the dragon bore down upon him again, an immense creature he could sense without opening his eyes.
A clawed hand gently curled around his chest. A strong arm supported his back, nestling his body against smooth scales and a heat that stung his icy skin.
"Fly," he heard Lucas say. "Don't stop for anything. Get him to the infirmary as soon as you land."
"There will be sightings," Niklas said. His voice was an avalanche now, an earthquake; the roar of a hurricane.
Sightings, Sean thought. Of dragons?
"We'll deal with them later," Lucas said. "And I'll meet you at Darkbrook. Now, go."
Wind whipped Sean's hair away from his face. He felt the dragon's muscles tense to spring, and then ... and then they were flying.
They had to be flying. Nothing else could make him feel so secure and so precarious at the same time. Nestled deep within the dragon's arms, Sean tried to honor Lucas'
request that he stay awake, but he could not fight the pull of darkness.
He could not fight. So he let sleep carry him away, into blessed, dream-free night.