Natli VanDerWerken loves Dragons. She has 30 that she collected while serving in the Navy as a meteorologist and anti-submarine warfare specialist. She is the multiple award-winning author of the fantasy series – The Dragon’s Children. The series grew out of a fairytale Natli told her grandchildren one Christmas Eve. The main character in each novel is based on one of those grandchildren. Natli lives in Aurora, Colorado and is a native of the state. She has a Masters in Computer Information Systems, develops websites, and likes to show Shetland Sheepdogs and quilt in her mostly non-existent spare time.
The following is an excerpt from “WindRunner.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Authors League awards finalist for Science Fiction.
Demons from another world are attacking the kingdom of Ard Ri. Neulach, the shape-shifting king of the Dragons and his daughter, Aeden, longtime warrior woman and friend to Red Dragon’s Keep, are advising Thomas about treachery, treason and the return of magic.
Owen Arach, the second son, and his Sword of Light, are leaving on a quest to find his parents, the soldiers who disappeared searching for them, and the Aos Si Amulet.
The WindRunner Navar, created by magic and ruler of the wind, arrives.
Last-meal was finished. Family and guests sat at the head table, quietly discussing ideas for Owen’s departure in the morning.
Shouts of alarm echoed from the forecourt into the great hall. Thomas and Aeden rose from their chairs. Gregory twisted around to face the end of the great hall.
The doors slammed open and hit the walls on either side with a resounding crack, rebounding half way closed. A huge animal, black as night, shouldered the heavy wood out of its way.
Owen descended the stairs from the family corridor, returning with a book he wanted to share with Cameron. He stumbled to a halt as he stared at the creature in the doorway. Men drew swords and grabbed for any weapon they could lay their hands on.
“Hold!” The command froze everyone in place. Aeden stood by her chair, looking at the creature.
She took three steps toward it and bowed deeply. “Gaothsiuloir – WindRunner – you honor us. How may we help you?” She waved her hand, releasing her spell of immobility. Those assembled in the hall slowly lowered weapons and sat.
The WindRunner resembled a warhorse, but twice again its size. He gazed imperiously over the assembly. A toss of his head sent an impossibly long forelock and mane floating about his head and neck. The WindRunner fastened his glistening black eyes on Owen.
Owen sucked in a breath. The book he was carrying slipped from his fingers and thudded on the stairs.
I have come for you. The WindRunner’s voice echoed in the minds of everyone.
Murmurs rippled around the great hall. The WindRunner paced into the room and up the aisle between tables and benches. Owen turned as if to run back up the stairs but hesitated.
What if it follows me up? He stood rooted on the fourth stair from the bottom.
Owen felt he was shrinking as the giant creature approached. He began to tremble with a combination of fear and anticipation. His throat turned dry and his breathing increased, making him light-headed.
I choose you. Gather your things and come with me.
Owen darted his eyes toward the high table. Everyone there sat or stood in absolute silence, eyes wide and some mouths hanging open.
“Lady Aeden, would you please introduce us, since you seem to know … him?” Thomas asked. He looked wary, thoughtful and concerned, his lips compressed into a thin line.
“Of course, Lord Thomas.” She turned to face him.” This is a WindRunner from the great plains of the Windward Range.”
My name is Navar. I have come for the second son.
Lady Aeden gave a shallow bow to the WindRunner. “As you say, Navar.” She kept her eyes on the living legend. “WindRunners choose a rider only in the most dire need. Master Owen has been chosen by Navar for the Windward Range.”
“Well then, it’s a good thing Owen is already going to Aos Si,” Thomas said with iron self-control. “Welcome WindRunner. Would you rest here for one day while Owen prepares?”
The creature from myth swung his head toward the high table and regarded Thomas. Silence stretched.
He finally spoke to the minds of everyone in the hall. I will wait.
“What can we do to make your stay more pleasant?” Aeden asked.
I need a warm room and water. The WindRunner looked at the others gathered at the high table.
Greetings, Arach Ri. It has been long since we last spoke.
Neulach gave a small nod of his head. “Greetings, Navar. Need calls us once again.”
So it does. Darkness and slaughter march across the land. It is well you have come from your citadels in the wilderness. The waking of the Swords of Light has roused more danger than anyone realizes. He lashed his tail in agitation. I greet all of you Claiomh Solas. Well met.
The Swords of Light, never far from their chosen, murmured greetings, causing a shudder to pass through those still lingering in the great hall. Most had slipped away as the highborn spoke.
“What if I don’t want to go with him?” Owen spoke loudly into the quiet.
Silence greeted his words.
HeartStriker rebuked him, speaking in the minds of everyone. Do you want the Dark to swallow your home and this land? You are needed where fate takes you. Be silent and learn.
Owen clamped his mouth shut and flared his nostrils, crossing his arms over his chest in a display of mulish stubbornness. He looked at his brother, who gave a tiny shake of his head. Thomas’s eyes looked up the stairway and then back at Owen.
Owen took the hint. He bowed to the high table and to Navar. “I need to finish packing. Good night.” He turned and marched back up the stairs.
“I’m not sure of the protocol, Navar. Do you want a room here in the Dragon Tower or would you prefer a place in the stable?” Thomas asked the WindRunner.
An open box stall will suffice, Navar responded.
“Lady Aeden, would you show Navar to the stables please?” Thomas asked. “He is our honored guest and will have whatever he needs.”
“Of course, my lord. If you’d come with me, Navar?” Aeden ushered the WindRunner from the hall.
“Lord Thomas, I shall seek my bed as well,” Neulach said. “Thank you for your hospitality. I look forward to seeing you in the morning.” He pushed his chair back from the table and left for Aeden’s rooms behind the salle.
“I’m off to bed too,” Thomas said. He climbed the stairs to the family hall.
Thomas went to Owen’s room and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Owen said.
“What was that about?” Thomas asked his brother as he entered the room. “You were willing to go this morning. What changed?”
A grimace twisted Owen’s face. “Why should I go with him? Do we even know if this thing is good? What if it just wants to get me away and kill me?” With each question, Owen’s voice rose higher and higher. Fury reddened his face.
Thomas reached out to put a hand on Owen’s shoulder. Owen flinched and ducked away from him. Thomas clenched his hand into a fist. He was sorely tempted to punch his brother. Slowly he lowered his arm to his side.
“Look,” he said. “Fighting won’t solve anything. You’re mad because you’re — concerned — about the future. We all are. We just have to do the best we can and hope everything turns out. I need you to get to Aos Si and get more horses and wardogs. I need you to look for Father and Mother. Remember the legends? Remember what we read in the records? WindRunners are valuable allies and fighting partners. Don’t anger this one.”
Owen hung his head. He looked up at his brother with fear in his eyes. “I’m afraid,” he whispered.
Thomas took two steps forward and dragged him into a hug. He held tight. “So am I,” he muttered back.
Navar waited impatiently, pacing back and forth in front of the doors of the Dragon Tower. The rising sun slowly lit the forecourt, highlighting the red Dragon laid in stone up the Tower’s east wall. He had been away from the Windward Range too long.
This one comes unwillingly. I do not understand. Every rider I have ever called felt honored by the choosing. He tossed his head and laid his ears flat. He stamped his hoof on the stone of the court.
Angry. I am angry! He paused in his pacing, astonished. His ears flicked forward. It has been too long since I have answered the call to choose.
From within the hall, HeartStriker spoke to the WindRunner. Slowly, Navar. Go slowly with him. He is very young.
Young or not, he should be honored and show his gratitude for the choosing. Have these humans lost all knowledge of us? Navar snapped.
They have, the Sword of Light responded. We are but legends and myths to them and not thought of often. I am not certain even yet they believe. We must train them and help them remember the truth about us.
The WindRunner shook his head. This will be difficult. I am not patient. He paused and dropped his nose to the ground, searching for stray bits of hay or grain. Well. A lesson to re-learn.
The troop of soldiers and pack animals chosen to accompany Navar and Owen on their journey stood quietly near the gates to the forecourt, as far from Navar as possible. The horses shifted uneasily, their riders quieting them with voice and touch.
Owen stood at the doorway of his room, looking at all the things he had collected. Rocks, an empty wasp nest, wooden toys, a bunch of knives. His saddlebags slumped at his feet. Doubt tightened his throat. He struggled to breathe around it. I don’t want to go. Tears threatened to fall and he blinked them back.
HeartStriker spoke to him in the quiet. All is well, Owen. I would say ‘be careful what you wish for’, but I think you already know that.
The gentle mocking of the Sword’s voice slid through Owen’s mind. The tightness in his throat eased. I’ve never been away from home. I don’t know if I can do this.
He wiped the water from his eyes with his sleeve. Reaching down, he hefted the saddlebags onto his shoulder and pulled the door to his room closed. The thump of his riding boots on the stone of the corridor echoed the beat of his heart as he made his way to the stairwell and down to the great hall.
All of his siblings and cousins had gathered behind the main table to see him off. Lady Aeden and guests of the family stood in front of the table holding mugs of cider. Owen stopped at the bottom stair and just watched them. Another lump closed his throat.
HeartStriker, I might never see them again!
Truth, Owen. But that must not keep us from going forward. None of us are assured of tomorrow. Live each day in itself.
With that thought rolling over in his mind, Owen stepped off the stair and made his way to the table. Thomas turned from talking with Marta and faced him. His movement alerted the others and they looked at him as well. Lady Aeden nodded to him, her face unsmiling.
Breanna ran to him and hugged him tight. He patted her on the shoulder. “It’s all right, Breanna.” He swallowed the distress in his throat and blinked away the tears that threatened. “I need to do this.”
She released him, her lips pressed into a thin line, holding back her own worry. They joined the others, his arm still across her shoulders. Owen picked up a mug and drank it down. “Will we have first-meal as we ride?” he asked his brother as he set the mug back on the table.
“That’s the plan,” Thomas answered, looking at his own mug as he turned it around and around in his hands. “Navar wants to start as soon as possible.” He set the mug on the table next to Owen’s and looked at him. “Owen, listen to HeartStriker and Navar. I …”
“I will. I know they know more than I do. I’ll send a scout to report to you when we get to Aos Si,” Owen interrupted. He was numb. His life was moving forward as if he had no choice. He started walking toward the forecourt.
“Wait, Owen.” Thomas said. Owen stopped and looked back toward his brother.
“I’ve asked Lady Aeden to scout ahead of your column, at least as far as the Darkened Forest. I’d really like to send her with you, but I need her here. Reports have come in of Demons gathering to the west. I’m not sure the scouts I sent to Aos Si before the Demon battle made it. She’ll look for signs of their passage. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Thanks, Thomas. I’ll be fine,” Owen said. The family followed him down the aisle between the tables and benches. He reached the doors, pulling open the one on his right. Cold air flowed into the room.
Owen stepped onto the landing at the top of the stairs going down to the forecourt. Lady Aeden followed him as the rest crowded out of the door.
The huge black WindRunner reared and pivoted to face the doors. His eyes locked on Owen as his front hooves found the flagstone of the forecourt. Owen wanted to step back and away as the WindRunner’s thoughts pressed on his mind. He shook his head sharply, as if shaking water from his hair, and raised the mind shields Aeden had taught him.
With steps of infinite slowness, the WindRunner moved closer and closer. The pressure of mind against mind increased. A startled cry erupted from Owen as Navar’s thoughts began to cascade through a tiny crack in Owen’s shield. He reeled back against Thomas. His shields fell. So did Owen, to his knees. His hands reached up and grabbed his temples as if to keep his head from exploding.
A completely new world roared into his mind. He smelled the cold air and the sweet scent of hay and grain in the stables. The scent of men and warm horses distracted him. He caught the Dragon musk clinging to Lady Aeden and Lord Neulach, making him instantly wary. Sounds normally muted rang loudly in his ears. Shouts of dismay echoed around the forecourt.
HeartStriker hastily raised a barrier between Owen and Navar. Owen knelt there, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Slowly he raised his head. The glittering black depths of the WindRunner’s stare captured his eyes.
You sense so little. I’m sorry I let you feel so much all at once. It has been a very long time since I have partnered with a human. We must join our minds and learn together. Navar sounded apologetic.
Owen glared at the black creature. He tried hard to bring his anger under control. “It’s all right, Navar,” Owen spoke aloud through teeth clenched tight. His breath was a harsh panting. “We’ll learn from each other.”
His mind ached fiercely. As he slowly rose to his feet, HeartStriker took the pain from him. Owen sighed in relief.
Navar raised his head and looked at everyone on the stairway. We should leave now. Bring another saddle and headstall. As we travel, I will teach you what you need to know to ride a WindRunner. For now, your warhorse will do.
He sent a picture of what he needed to Owen. Owen called the stableman to his side and relayed Navar’s request.
Lady Aeden walked down the stairs. “I’ll leave now to scout ahead.” She strode to the right side of the forecourt, raised her arms and called her magic.
The air began to swirl around her, growing into a roaring, tearing whirlwind. As it lifted away, the Red Dragon sat in Aeden’s place, gold edging each scale and the ridges of her spine, wings folded to her back. Blue eyes glimmered. Deepest black oblong pupils regarded each person. For a breathless moment, all was still.
Aeden opened her wings as she raised her head to the sky and trumpeted a challenge. The horses went mad. Shrilling in fear, they spun around their riders, pulling and rearing, trying to escape from the danger.
The Dragon slammed down her wings, rising into the air. An inhale of breath sounded from those gathered on the stairs as their eyes followed her flight. With another stroke of her wings, she gained the top of the wall and leapt to the roof of the Dragon Tower. Owen gave a nervous laugh, running his fingers through his hair. Neulach watched with a wry twist of his lips and a sparkle in his eyes. The soldiers slowly brought their panicked horses under control.
Lord Neulach turned to Thomas and Owen. “You must leave now, Owen. She can be very impatient.”