Jewel ran away to the mountains to escape a sticky romance and learn to become a dragon wrangler. But now she’s back, and the heat is on.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel seeing Opal again.

Last time I saw him I was headed for the mountains to learn the skills of a wrangler and join the dragon rangers. He was the deputy sheriff. I was a farm girl, good with critters, not so much with people. Not right for the partner of a future Sheriff of the plains kingdom, as the chief wizard liked to point out. Opal and I meant to call it quits.

But then there was the goodbye kiss.

I’d intended to be away a year or more and fly back, with my full-grown dragon and golden lasso, to show the wizard I was worth more than two-bits. But here I was back six months later, for the Sheriff’s funeral.

I thought I was over Opal. But a single glance at his crinkly dark head in the crowd and my blood was runnin’ hotter than dragon’s breath.

“Now hold on, Jewel.” My dragon partner, Blueflame turned his aquamarine gaze upon me. “A dragon’s breath ain’t that hot! You’re in a bonfire league o’ your own, girl!”

“And what about the little emerald dragon at Shieldvale?” I said. “As I recall, your blue wings turned green when you saw her, the blood was pumpin’ so hot through your veins.”

“I believe, I had a touch of dragon flu,” he said.

All critters of the kingdom turned out to farewell Sheriff Silverfox. Family and friends carried a feather-bed on which the man lay, looking as if he’d dozed off in the sun. Then came wizards and wizettes, the air crackling with magic around them. Then humans, elves marching in symmetry, trolls in lock-step. Even sirens swam in Silver River singing songs of grief.

Overhead, four dragon wranglers guarded the people – me and Blue among them – scanning the countryside for threats.

And speakin’ of … below was the familiar blonde head of Nettle, stickin’ so close to Opal you couldn’t fit a fairy breath betwixt ’em. Pretty enough, if you like sunshine-wrapped prickly pears.

“You really don’t like this girl?” said Blue.

“She’s not right for Opal.”

“And when did you become the county matchmaker? How often have you thought to yourself it’d be better if Opal forgets you?”

It was annoying enough that Blue read my thoughts. But did he have to have opinions too?

Nettle caught my eye, smiling like she had the last canteen o’ water for a hundred miles. She whispered to Opal and he looked up. They both sniggered.

“She’s laughing about your lasso,” Blue said. “Because it’s made of hair, not gold and magic like the other wranglers’.”

It’d be three months till Blue and I earned our golden lasso.

Nettle jeering wasn’t surprising. She was as sour as a grove of lemon trees. But Opal joining in? That hurt.

“C’mon Blue, let’s take a spin. Back soon, need to clear my head!” I called to the lead dragon wrangler.

Blue and I flew over the countryside which looked like a patchwork quilt in green and browns. The houses below seemed tiny, even the sheriff’s sprawling homestead.

“Tell me what brought down the sheriff,” Blue said. “Age? Snake-bite?”

“He was hale and hearty when I left.”

“Your Opal’s eyes were …”

Unkind?

“… strange.” Blue said. “His pupils were dilated unnaturally. He’s either in love, or…”

“Under a spell.” A love potion. “I can’t believe Nettle would do that? Much as I don’t like her, she’s not stupid. She knows potions only work for a while. You can’t make someone love you.”

“Perhaps long-term love ain’t the aim.”

“You could be right.” I didn’t often admit that. Blue became unbearable to ride upon. “Perhaps the wizard cast the spell, so Opal will get hitched to Nettle. Then the wizard’s spy will be close to power.”

“Something else was up with that procession,” Blue said.

I remembered lines of creatures moving along. The elves – graceful, the trolls – co-ordinated…

“Since when do trolls move orderly?” I said. They were more like a rock-slide.

And then I recalled … the sheriff who looked like he’d dozed off in the sun. Because his cheeks were still pink.

“Does blood pump through dead cheeks?” I asked.

“No.” Blue sniffed. “They’ve lit the funeral pyre.”

Blue headed into the wind. I clung on with every muscle and claw.

“If we do this, and we’re wrong, there’ll be no coming back,” he said. “There’ll be a bounty on our head which every scorpion and cave-troll will be lookin’ to claim.”

“Noted.” We zoomed low, aiming for the sheriff’s deathbed. The flames licked high as the feathers caught fire.

“He’s not dead!” I screamed, wind rattling my cheeks. “Just sleeping!”

Blue inhaled deeply, sucking up the flame, till only smoke remained.

The chief wizard gave me a look so stinky it could have killed a wagonload of skunks.

Please wake up! My plea was to the sheriff, but seein’ the looks on folks’ faces, I realised they were all enchanted.

“What a bunch o’ scarecrows live on these plains.” Blue shook his head.

And then I heard the zizzing of a magical golden lasso arcing our way. Blue ducked just in time. “Oh no!”

Our dragon wranglers were under the wizard’s spell too.

“Hold on.”

Blue zig-zagged and looped-the-loop to dodge the magic coming at us.

“Look at the wizard’s fingers!” he said. “He’s doing this.”

Snatching my lasso from the saddle, I twirled it three times and unleashed the rope. It landed on the wizard’s shoulders, breaking his concentration. The crowd jerked. I yanked the rope down, tightening it round his hands, so tight a finger snapped.

He yowled.

Below us, everyone looked as if woken from a dream.

The sheriff sat up. “What in a troll’s toenails am I doing here?”

Now Opal looked up and gave me his slow burn smile.

“Hold onto your hats, here comes that bonfire,” said Bluefire. “Yee-Haa!”

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