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It was her heartsong that did it. Her heartsong was what made people love her and hate that they did. Her heartsong that tore emotions from them they didn’t want to feel. Her heartsong that made them weep and laugh and groan with raw feeling. It was her heartsong that saved the dragons.
Annabeth was seventeen the first time she saw a dragon up close. She stood several meters back from the edge of a cliff, unable to breathe. It was beautiful, the dragon. At first she thought it was the green of grass, but metallic. Then the dragon moved, her scales catching the sunlight as she curled her body closer to the rocky ledge. Her colours danced like an ocean, first blue, and then yellow. She lowered her eyes to Annabeth, turning her head to peer at her through an eye as large as Annabeth’s head and shifted colours as her scales did. Annabeth stood paralyzed as the dragon exhaled with the force of the wind, heat riding her breath. It was almost like a sigh and with that sigh came the beginning of a single note. It shuddered at first as if the dragon had not used her voice in years. Annabeth’s heart squeezed once tightly, hard inside her chest then loosened, loosening all her muscles with it. From deep within her a note was pulled, tugged by the single, wavering one of the dragon. It touched her tongue, brushed her lips as it began to poor out. Then the hooks came.
The hooks were attached to the wall that surrounded the Complex, thick chains connecting the metal claws to the stone.
They weren’t strong enough to pierce a dragon’s scales but they could rip at them, catching the edge and digging into the flesh beneath, nearly ripping the large scale off. The dragon’s note turned into a shriek that shuddered the earth, grated at Annabeth’s ears as if the claws were digging into her own skin. The girl screamed, collapsing onto the ground, her voice like shattering glass. Suddenly large arms closed around her, pulling her off the ground, yanking her back toward the complex. Annabeth kicked out, still screaming, struggling to get away. It didn’t stop her from getting hauled through the gate and the gate from slamming shut, quaking with the roars of the dragon. Annabeth was thrown to the soft, wet ground of the edge of the marshes. In a moment she was up again, screaming, wild.
“What are you doing?” Annabeth cried, throwing herself at her brother. “Kyle! She wasn’t hurting anyone!”
“Annabeth!” Her brother snapped, rage in his voice, shivering in his clenched fists. “It is a dragon and it deserves to be destroyed. What you were doing with it out there I have no idea, but news is going to get around!”
“I’m sorry,” Annabeth raged, her voice turned from beauty to sorrow to anger in the span of minutes. “That your precious reputation is at stake! How it must pain you to have a sister like me!”
She turned on her heel, the hem of her dress snapping against her boot, and stormed toward the stairs. The dragon’s crying was still in her ears, echoing off the buildings of the Complex. It sounded as if she were fighting, though. It sounded like she was strong, like she was going to get away and going to live and maybe not be crippled. A dragon’s wings were strong but thin. The skin that stretched over the unique bones could easily be cut by the sharp claws. Tears full of rage and empathy stung Annabeth’s eyes, blinding her, and she was glad that everyone else was hiding, that nobody could see. Maybe they should. Maybe when one of their kind was finally crying with the pain they’d stop and think. She doubted that if it was her and her alone it would make much of a difference. Annabeth was known for her emotions, for her raw empathy, for her heartsong.
Grabbing the rope railings on either side of the stairs, she pulled herself up the mesh of rope that was plated with wooden planks. The sort of bridge stairs angled upward, off the soggy ground and into the air where the Complex was built. Thousands of thick wooden poles held the buildings of the complex up where they would not be flooded, would not sink into the soft ground, where nothing but dragons would hunt them. The buildings themselves were made out of wooden floors and walls, straw mesh roofs and a multitude of bridges like the one Annabeth was on now connecting them all. In the middle of all of it was a large stone tower, built from the ground and tilted oddly to one side because of it. That was where they watched for dragons. That was where they sent out the call to attack.
Another shriek hit Annabeth’s ears harshly and she gasped as her heart wrenched, but it sounded like the dragon was flying away, headed across the ocean toward Dragon Isle.
Annabeth’s boots thudded angrily against the floorboards of the deck as she headed for another bridge that would take her out of the workshop district that ringed the Complex and into the community ring where games and socializing and meals took place. The center ring was the housing district for the roughly two thousand occupants of the Complex. There Annabeth could lock herself in her room and refuse to speak to anyone. Possibly she could get there before the bout of rumors and questions hit her ears. Annabeth, the Heartsinger, had been within inches of a dragon. She’d been outside of the Complex walls and her brother had been forced to haul her into the Complex.
Halfway across the a long bridge between the workshop and community ring, suspended a good fifty feet in the air, the horn sounded and Annabeth’s heart sank even lower. Suddenly the Complex was full of life, children scurrying across the decks and bridges, climbing the netting to second stories, mothers shopping, the bridges flooding, rocking like a boat on an angry ocean. Everywhere gossip had turned to the first dragon attack of the month, but it sounded like the Heartsinger had been left out of it so far. Annabeth picked up her pace. Stepping off the bridge onto the wooden walk that ran around the entire circle, she lowered her face, trying not to be noticed.
“That won’t work, Annabeth.”
Annabeth cringed and looked up. Leaning against the railing, out of the way of the bustle, stood a tall boy with brown hair. He was dressed in the red and white of a Keeper. They were supposed to keep the peace, break up fights, solve problems, and protect the Complex. Annabeth’s brother, Kyle, had wanted all his life to be a Keeper and on his fifteenth birthday he’d been accepted into it. Now, twenty and strong, he had his own gaggle of fifteen year old boys and one or two girls to instruct.
“What do you want, Jae?” Annabeth asked with a sigh, moving out of the way to talk to him.
“I want a thank you.” Jae grinned, still leaning easily against the railing.
“And what do I have to thank you for?” She scoffed.
“Saving your life, naturally,” Seeing Annabeth’s cynical face he elaborated. “The other Keepers were going to leave you out there, I think. They were a little unsure about it because you are the Heartsinger, but if I hadn’t helped your brother convince them you would have been locked out there with a raging dragon.”
He said all this rather mildly, with a supreme air of calm and superiority. Annabeth ground her teeth until he finished.
“If you hadn’t thrown the hooks out she wouldn’t have been angry.”
Jae laughed, pushing himself off the railing.
“Annabeth, I know you like to see the best in all things but that was a dragon. It doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t care about you or me or anyone. It would have eaten you, roasting you alive on its breath.”
Annabeth’s face flushed with anger, standing out startlingly against her pale skin. Tossing her black hair over her shoulder, she readied herself to say something unforgivably insulting, but-
“So, as a thank you, I’d like you to accompany me to the dance tonight.”
Annabeth readied her tongue, readied her voice, to make this boy feel about as small as a dung beetle. She’d told him no too many times and now he thoughts that ‘saving’ her was going to make her say yes. Then she saw her brother. He was pushing his way through the crowd rather easily because of his Keeper uniform, or maybe it was the expression of pure rage on his face. Annabeth’s stomach churned, thinking about how many fights she’d had with her brother since their parents had drowned on a fishing trip two years ago and how this one was going to be so much worse. How many times had he pressed her to do something that wasn’t abnormal? How many times had he begged her not to leave the Complex? How many times had he pleaded with her to do something that involved people besides singing for them? With a deep sigh Annabeth turned back to Jae.
“Okay, Jae. I’ll meet you outside the bakery later.”
“See you there, Anna.” Jae sauntered off, leaving just in time to miss Kyle’s tirade.
Annabeth turned to him.
“Before you say anything,” She said quickly. “I’m sorry and I’m going to the dance with Jae.”
“I’m sorry and-”
“Yes,” Annabeth said rather unhappily. “Pigs can officially fly.”
“…Oh…but, Annabeth. You can’t go running up to dragons like that.”
“She landed in front of me. I was there first.”
Kyle ignored her.
“You were almost left out there. Heartsinger or no Heartsinger, Annabeth, when it comes to dragons you’re just like everybody else.”
“Kyle, I’ve told you that Heartsinger is a title that people gave me because of my voice and, as everyone seems to pretend, it is not an honorary title. They call me Heartsinger because I can sing to their hearts and they hate it. The name is a warning to everyone that I can make them feel things they don’t want to feel and that was what I was trying to do with that dragon out there. If you’d all just see-”
“Annabeth, that’s enough.” Kyle said warningly, glancing out the side of his eye to see if anyone was listening.
“Dragons aren’t dangerous until we attack them! They’ve never made the first move!”
“Enough, Annabeth!” Kyle snapped and now people were watching, glancing at them as they moved past. Kyle lowered his voice. “I don’t know what gets into your head, but the dance tonight with Jae is at least a start to something good.”
“Kyle, I heard her. Not with my ears. With my heart.”
“I’ve got work to do.” Kyle muttered and moved away.
“I heard her.” Annabeth whispered softly, talking only to herself now. Leaning over the railings and looking down at the ground she whispered again. “If heartsongs come from anywhere they come from dragons.”
Annabeth’s fingers moved through her hair, braiding two small ropes on either side of her face. The coarse red dress she was in hugged her curves, falling to her ankles and accenting the little blush in her cheeks. She caught her blue eyes in the mirror, staring at herself for a long while. Her mind wouldn’t leave the dragon and her heart wouldn’t leave that single not she’d heard for those few seconds. Cautiously, she tried singing it to herself, tried to get the melody that had risen within her to pass her lips, but it sounded hollow in her ears, only half of a song.
“Beautiful, as always.” Kyle’s voice said.
Annabeth turned to see him leaning in the doorway, his uniform replaced with a blue shirt and black pants. She just looked at him.
“Look, sister, I’m sorry about what I said earlier. What you were saying about being the Heartsinger…I can’t imagine it’s easy.” An expression of pain crossed his face and he walked across the small room to kneel beside her chair. “I know since mum and dad died my own heartsong has become rough and full of holes and rarely sung while you sing yours over and over again for crowds, for celebrations. If anything, being the Heartsinger must mean you know your song better than the rest of us.”
Annabeth smiled, feeling sadder that she would let herself look.
“I don’t think I know it as well as you think I do.” She said, thinking of the dragon.
“Either way, neither of us has to sing tonight.”
Annabeth let out a derisive laugh.
“Speak for yourself; you know they’re going to pull me up there.”
Annabeth walked with her brother out of the house, pausing for a moment outside. There was a steady stream of people heading toward the middle ring where festive lights were strung up and people still climbed on the netting, moving swiftly across walls and roofs, lighting lanterns. The sun sank behind the cliff, burning the ocean on the horizon. They followed the walk around to a bridge and crossed to the middle ring, joining the throng of people.
“I’ll see you later. I’m going to find Jae,” Annabeth said loudly over the sounds of laughter and music.
“You don’t want me to come with you?”
“No,” She replied hastily. “I’ll see you later.”
She hurried off before he could come after her. The last thing she wanted was for Kyle to be there in the likely event that she would yell or kick, maybe both, at Jae. Pushing her way through the crowd, Annabeth forced herself to go to the baker’s. Jae was already there, lounging lazily against the wall, light from a lantern behind him turning him into a silhouette. He straightened when he saw her and Annabeth’s heart sank with weariness of what she’d have to endure tonight. It was worth it, she told herself, if it made her brother happier. If it put to rest the fights they had every day.
“You’re beautiful,” Jae complimented once she’d joined him beside the lantern.
“Thank you,” Annabeth forced herself to smile.”
“Shall we?” Jae motioned in the general direction of the partygoers, toward where the lights were brightest and music could be heard. The founding anniversary of the Complex was not something to be missed.
Annabeth took Jae’s arm and allowed herself to be led toward the center of the celebrations.
“Kyle’s not giving you a hard time about the dragon, is he?”
Annabeth looked at Jae out of the corner of her eye.
“No, and neither are you.”
Jae just smiled.
Soon they were in the midst of laughter and moving bodies and talking. They greeted friends, and at one point one of Jae’s friends clapped him on the back, congratulating him on having the Heartsinger on his arm. Annabeth’s face heated as she tried to control her temper. She was not a jewel to be worn, not a prize to be won, and not just the Heartsinger. Catching her look, Jae led them away from the friend quickly, apologizing. A brother and sister were on the stage that had been assembled for tonight. They sang their heartsongs, each melody at such odds with the other but in a harmony. Such was the beauty of heartsongs to express everything about a person. Violins and cellos and flutes and drums accompanied the singers. Jae offered his hand, asking Annabeth to dance. She swallowed her pride and took it. Jae, it turned out, could dance, and well. Annabeth felt light on her feet, almost dizzy being spun by him.
Then they were calling for the Heartsinger. The stage was lit with red lanterns, casting a strange tint to the musicians.
“Heartsinger!” The crowd called and those closest to her pushed her forward, pulling her away from Jae and onto the stage. Mounting the platform, Annabeth caught sight of her brother standing with a group of his friends, smiling up at her. The crowd fell silent, eager to hear the notes that wrenched their souls and at the same time wanting to run. Annabeth gathered her voice. She knew her heartsong as everyone should, knowing it deep within her spirit and soul. She’d sung it so many times and each time it had seemed new, but now the note that spilled from her mouth was not that one she knew.
The note was on the thin border between high and low, balancing precariously in the cold night air. As she held it Annabeth heard the musicians behind her begin a slow and careful counter part. Her voice suddenly dipped in quick notes, dipping low and back to the balancing note then high. She was weaving a melody as beautifully and carefully as women weaved tapestries. The orchestra sounded behind her, all low notes, a perfect counterpart, but it sounded hollow. Though it tugged and pulled and bit into the hearts of everyone around it, the song meant nothing. Annabeth was feeling deflated, her heart empty, little emotion stirring within it. Then the ocean, far off at the bottom of the cliff boomed and she thought how strange it was that over her voice, over the orchestra and the crowd of talking, laughing people, she could hear the ocean.
The horns sounded. Sharp and loud, echoing into the night and going on and on as everything fell silent. Annabeth’s voice cut off, the orchestra stopped in discordant notes behind her and the crowd paused. For a moment everything was frozen, quiet except for the continuing note of the horn blasting from the center tower. A dragon was here. Now everyone was moving, gathering their children, calling to friends and relatives, dashing into the nearest building, dousing the lights. Annabeth stood very still on the stage, hardly daring to breathe.
“Move!” Someone shouted. “Annabeth, get down!”
Kyle was pulling her off the stage. As soon as she slipped from the platform they were caught in the tide of moving people.
“Annabeth! Get inside! I’ve got to go to the gate!”
“No, Kyle!” He was already gone, moving swiftly toward the bridges. “Kyle!”
Annabeth ran after him, knowing it was important that she catch him, that she tell him why the dragon was here. She had so stop the Keepers from barring the gates, from shooting the hooks. He’d disappeared, swallowed by darkness. Somebody collided with her.
“Jae!” She gasped.
“Annabeth, get inside!”
She shook her head once, violently and ran after her brother. She bolted across the bridge and around the outer ring toward the ramp that lead to the gate. Jae was right behind her, shoving through people to try and get to her. Nearly falling off the Complex, Annabeth slid down the ramp. Her boots hit the soft earth and she bolted toward the gate. It was closing, the stars and moon and shine of the far off ocean on the other side being blotted out.
She was through now and the gates closed behind her, shutting off the noise off the complex on the other side. She’d made it and against the stairs, moving like a shadow, a dragon was approaching, so close.
Annabeth swung around.
“We’ve got to get inside.”
“The gates are closed, Jae. Hide in the shadows of it if you like but I need to see the dragon.”
“Anna.” A flicker of pain rushed his face. “We’ve got to run, now, into the trees, away from the Complex. The dragon will see us and nobody was watching when we darted through the gates.”
“So run, Jae.” She cried and turned back toward the dragon.
It was getting ready to land, dipping lower and lower. Jae made a noise of protest then sank against the gates as the dragon landed, curling its powerful form around the edge of the cliff. It was the same one, though her scales glanced more muted colours under the moon. She bent her head, looking at Annabeth with one large eye. Nobody moved, nothing sounded. Annabeth heard the snatch of a voice, a wondering tone in it. The Keepers wanted to shoot the claws but they didn’t know why the dragon was simply perched on the cliff. The Keepers hadn’t spotted the Heartsinger.
Annabeth looked deep into the eye in front of her, seeing how intelligent the beast was, seeing how many emotions it could feel…seeing a heartsong. The dragon exhaled, almost like a sigh and on her hot breath came a single note, not quivering as it had last time, but pure and strong and beautiful. The sound dug into Annabeth, pulling up her own note, the same note she’d been singing minutes ago on the stage, the same note that had brought the dragon here. Annabeth sang it strongly, with all the heart she had, putting her soul into it. The dragon wove a melody around the note and soon they were both singing in a perfect harmony. Perched on the cliff, the dragon and the girl sang a melody that showed dancing dragons, spreading their wings in flight and rising to the stars before plummeting down and down and down before the music caught their wings and lifted them again. Annabeth was lost in the eye of the dragon, in the melody that they were making, but behind her Jae gasped. In the sky the stars appeared to be snuffed out. Even the moon had disappeared and in their place were hundreds of moving shadows. Their wings brought gusts of wind down on the cliff. Jae looked back up at the tower, yelling at the Keepers to open the gates, but if they could hear them they wouldn’t. There was shouting going on up there. Never had there been a mass sighting of dragons and never in all of history had someone sung with them. Suddenly the gates opened and Kyle burst out, running toward his sister. Jae yelped and caught him.
“Jae! Let me go! I need to get Annabeth!”
“You fool!” Jae shook him and Kyle was stunned to see that his comrade was smiling. “Aren’t you listening to her?! Can’t you feel your soul being torn out of your body?! Happening now, right in front of you, is a Heartsinger bonding with a dragon and you want to pull her away!”
“Look, Jae! Look at the sky!” They turned together and saw the sky full of shadows blacker than before, clumped together above the cliff.
Jae’s heart was in his throat but he didn’t want to stop Annabeth, he didn’t want to silence the beautiful sound. He looked at her, at her gazing into the eye of a dragon and she turned to him and Kyle, holding out her hands, a pleading expression on her face. Jae went immediately, dragging Kyle behind him. He saw her face light up when he did and could only feel happy that he was beside her. Looking up at the sky, he felt his heartsong within him. With a deep breath he began. His heartsong started low, as low as the ground beneath their feet and it escalated quickly, moving like a tremor through the earth. He sang only a minute by himself, surprised at how perfectly his song fit with Annabeth’s and the dragons, when a shadow swooped down from the sky and landed beside him. The dragon dipped his great head, peering at him with a brilliant green eye, the scales around it a blue-black. The dragon’s chest rumbled, making the cliff shake and then he was singing, looping his song with Jae’s. Looking savagely back at Kyle, he threatened more harm than the dragon would do if Annabeth’s brother didn’t join his own song with a dragon, but Kyle ducked his head, trying to move back toward the gate. On the cliff’s edge the two intertwining songs continued, moving souls and hearts on both sides of the Complex wall. Kyle turned to run. A shadow swooped down and landed in front of Kyle, a soft growl in his belly. He dipped his head, staring savagely at the man as if to say ‘sing’. With one final look at his sister Kyle opened his mouth and tried to sing the song he hadn’t sung in years, the song he’d forgotten the night his parents never came back. He tried different notes, each one sounding wrong and out of tune. Finally the dragon in front of him gave a growl and started first. It was a dangerous song, a strong song, a song that was meant to hold another, weaker song on top of it, and it did just that. As Kyle tried to match it, tried to move with the dragon’s notes he found the notes pouring out of him as they’d never done, as he’d always imagined they did for his sister.
The gates of the complex were opening wider now and Keepers moved forward, the rest of the population behind them, pressing forward, afraid of the dragons but needing to hear the singing. A small girl broke away from her mother, ignoring the fearful screech that followed her. The child ran to the cliffs edge and immediately started singing with a voice high enough to reach the stars. It took only a moment for a dragon to respond. She was smaller than the others, like a child dragon and she met the upbeat tune of the human with her own. Wonder was echoing through the Complex and one by one people came out, mixing their heartsongs with a dragon’s. Nearly two hours later the night was alive. Heartsongs were churning the ocean below, moving the cliff, shaking the Complex wall. They sang until their voices would sing no more and it was daybreak when at last the Heartsinger and her dragon, the last ones standing, lay down to rest.
It was her heartsong that did it. Her heartsong was what made people love her and hate that they did. Her heartsong that tore emotions from them they didn’t want to feel. Her heartsong that finally broke the shell humans had been living behind, that had torn down the wall they had built around their homes and their hearts. It was her heartsong that saved the dragons.