Exclusive Excerpt: Bright Star by Erin Swan

We have an exclusive look at the first two chapters of young adult dragon fantasy novel Bright Star by Erin Swan.

Bright Star by Erin Swan Book Cover and Author Headshot

We love a good dragon story. Bright Star, out next month from Tor Teen, tells the story of Andra, a half-human, half-elf indentured servant who is swept up in a secret rebellion and meets Tiri, a young dragon whose mind speaks directly to hers in the process.

This fantasy debut from author Erin Swan, Bright Star is the story of a girl who goes from servant to rebel leader and finds her own magic along the way, and is perfect for anyone who has ever wanted to have a dragon best friend (which is all of us, right?).

Check out this exclusive excerpt, courtesy of Tor Teen…

1

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The Choosing

Andra shrank deeper into the alcove, biting her lip as the young, sandy-haired man beside her peered out from their hiding place, his blue eyes alight, cheeks flushed. Her heart hammered in her ears, but not with the same excitement so clear on his face. She swallowed hard, trying to keep the anxiety from her voice as she spoke.

            “Talias,” she whispered as quietly as she could, “we shouldn’t be here. I could get in serious trouble for this. We both could.” She added the last part in the hopes that it might frighten him into changing his mind about the scheme, but they both knew that Andra’s punishment would be much greater than the kitchen boy’s if they were caught.

            Still, Talias seemed unfazed. He looked at her with a mischievous quirk at the corner of his lips that made her stomach lurch. “Have I ever led you astray, Andra?” he asked. “Besides, I know you’re just as curious as I am. There must be a reason they keep everyone out of the arena during the Choosing.”

            “Exactly,” Andra hissed. “There must be a reason, so why are we breaking the law and hiding behind this statue to watch?”

            The young man was spared from a reply as a rumbling sound echoed through the great space before them. Andra forgot her nerves, curiosity overtaking her, and peered out from around the marble statue at the large indoor arena. The open, dirt-floored space was large enough to put some town squares to shame, and steep benches lined the walls, though they were empty for now.

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            At the center of the arena stood a tall man in the blue-striped robes of a judge, his long brown hair tied with a cord at the nape of his neck. Those cold eyes that made Andra cringe were now looking down on a dozen twelve-year-old boys, all of whom were shifting and bouncing in their well-polished boots.

            Andra saw why. Directly across from where she hid, a pair of enormous wooden doors were being hauled open by a half dozen thick-armed men. As the gap widened, a reptilian head appeared, blue scales glittering with the sunlight that streamed in from outside. Andra’s breath caught, but not with fear. Awe filled her as the dragon slowly stepped through the open doorway, sharp azure eyes measuring the twelve boys before her.

            “She’s beautiful,” Andra whispered.

            Talias exhaled slowly. “‘Terrifying’ is more accurate.”

            The young girl looked at him, brow furrowing. “We’ve seen dozens of dragons, Talias,” she said. “Surely you’re not scared of this one.”

            “This is different,” her companion answered. “That’s no Paired dragon, Andra. She doesn’t have a Rider. That’s a wild dragon.”

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            Andra knew this, of course. Paired dragons didn’t breed; nesting would take them from their Riders for weeks on end, and that was something no Paired dragon would stand for. All the eggs for the annual Pairing came from wild females, who willingly gave their children to be partnered with human and elven Riders. It was something that the dragons had done for the better part of a thousand years—excluding the few hundred years of war that had briefly wiped Riders from the land—honoring the pact that had been forged among dragons, elves, and humans so long ago.

            Each year, the humans and elves selected a few of their own to meet with the wild female who would give her eggs to the Pairing. Exactly what happened in that meeting, Andra wasn’t sure, and neither was Talias. And that was how he’d persuaded her to crouch in this corner, behind the statue of the Guardians, and spy on the proceedings. She knew the moment he’d suggested the idea that it was a bad one, but she’d had a hard time saying no to the handsome kitchen boy from the day she arrived at the Hall of Riders as a child. And her own curiosity had pressed her into finally agreeing to follow him into the arena.

            The two hidden figures watched as the great sapphire dragon stepped up to the collection of boys and Judge Dusan, the master of the Hall. Even from this distance, Andra could see some of the boys cringe backwards nervously, and she suppressed a small laugh. These twelve were supposed to be some of the most promising young men that the land of Paerolia had to offer. Though she knew most of them were the sons of high-ranking officials, or even judges, they were thoroughly trained and tested before being selected for the Pairings. They included boys of both human and elven blood, as well as some of mixed races, and they all would have been exposed to dragons many times before this moment. And yet, she could still see a few shaking in their shiny boots.

            Judge Dusan’s voice reached her ears, speaking aloud to the dragon, as propriety demanded. “Welcome, once again, to the Hall of Riders, Ena. It is a great pleasure to see you once more.” He gave a deep bow, and the dragon inclined her head politely.

            Andra knew that Ena must be replying to the greeting, but the dragon spoke only into the judge’s mind, and the girl felt a pang of envy. What must it be like to have a dragon speak to your mind? Most people in the Hall had experienced it at least once. Even Talias had spoken to dragons during his service. But not Andra. It was forbidden.

            She watched silently, her green eyes riveted on the sleek, scaled shape before her as Ena turned her attention to the boys chosen for the Pairing. Andra saw some of the boys flinch and recoil, and she heard Talias snort with amusement.

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            “What’s so funny?” she whispered.

            “She probably just touched their minds to speak to them,” he said. “I think that one on the end there may have soiled his britches.”

            Andra gave a small smile and shook her head, turning her attention back to the dragon. The wild creature was closing her shining eyes, and the girl thought she heard a deep, thrumming sound coming from the scaled throat. Suddenly, a warm presence pressed itself against Andra’s mind, and she gasped. Instinctively, she began to pull away, putting up the walls to protect her thoughts as she had been taught since childhood.

            But there was something so gentle, so reassuring about the presence that she stopped. After a pause, Andra lowered the walls around her mind and let the presence in. It was like sinking into warm water after a hard day of work. The dragon’s mind enveloped Andra’s like an invisible embrace, and she felt joy swell inside her at the touch, her eyes closing as she savored this strange and wonderful contact.

            Then, as abruptly as it had come, the touch was gone. Andra opened her eyes and looked at Talias, a smile on her lips. But the look on the servant boy’s face was far different. His eyes were wide, his face pale, making the freckles stand out on his skin.

            “Are you all right?” Andra asked quietly.

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            Talias looked at her. “Did you not feel that?” he whispered tensely.

            She nodded, smiling again at the thought of the mental embrace. “Yes. It felt . . . beautiful.”

            Her friend gave her an incredulous look, but any reply he might have given was interrupted by a shout from Judge Dusan.

            “Three?” he asked loudly. “When I was a boy, there were at least six Riders chosen every year! And yet, each year, we see fewer and fewer Pairings!”

            Andra heard Ena give a low growl in her throat as she made some silent reply to the judge. The lanky man let out a huff, but gave a small bow. “Of course. My apologies, Ena. So you will bring the three eggs, then?” A pause as he listened to the dragon’s silent reply; then he nodded. “Yes, one month’s time. We will ensure the Hall is prepared for the Pairing.”

            With that, the dragon turned, narrowly missing the line of boys with her long tail, and lumbered back out the open doors. Andra leaned around the large statue, straining to watch through the doorway as Ena spread her brilliant blue wings and, after several laborious beats, took to the sky.

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            Talias’s hand abruptly seized her arm, yanking her back behind the statue. She suddenly found herself pulled close to him, her chest pressed against his, one of his arms tight around her waist. Her heart stuttered at his closeness, the warmth of his arm around her obvious through the thin brown wool of her dress. But he wasn’t looking at her. He was peering carefully around the statue, watching as Dusan and the twelve boys filed past. He had pulled her back behind the statue just in time to keep her from being seen.

            When the candidates and the judge had exited the arena, Talias let out a heavy sigh, and he finally looked down at her. His blue eyes caught her pale green ones, and he seemed to realize just how close he held her. There was a brief pause, and Andra thought she heard his breath catch for a moment. Then he smiled, relaxed and easygoing once again, as he always was. He gave her short brown hair a playful tug, and the arm around her back fell away.

            “Come on,” he said with a smirk. “We need to hurry before anyone notices we’re missing. They’ll be starting the Riders’ banquet soon.”

            Andra swallowed hard and stepped back, nodding in agreement, and Talias turned away, for all appearances unaffected by the moment that had passed between them. She fought back the disappointment, the lingering hope that he would have kissed her in that moment, and followed him as he hurried to the doors that connected the arena to the rest of the Hall of Riders. The kitchen boy cracked the doors, checking the hall for any passersby, and Andra glanced back at the statue that had hidden them.

            It was beautiful, carved of sparkling white marble. At the center was the great dragon, Oriens, his wings outstretched over the two figures beside him. The stories said that his scales had been as golden as the sunrise, and his children had been the first dragons Paired with Riders in three centuries. To one side was the shape of an elven man with a slim build and pointed ears, his smooth face carved into a serious expression. Caelum, prince of the elves and general of the elven armies at the end of the War of Races. To the other side of the dragon stood the marble shape of a woman.

            Andra knew the stories about her—Eliana of the Two-Bloods, the first halfblood to be born in three hundred years, in a time when humans and elves were still at war, Oriens’s Rider. The girl stared for a moment at the graceful, shining face of the long-dead woman, a strange feeling of longing in her chest. To be a Rider . . .

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            “Let’s go.”

            Andra jerked her attention away from the statue and back to the doors, where Talias was hurrying through into the empty hall. She followed quickly behind him, and they made their way briskly to the kitchens. As they stepped into the Hall’s enormous kitchen, the cacophony washed over Andra, breaking the spell that seemed to have been lingering over her mind from Ena’s touch.

2

The Riders’ Feast

“There you are!” a shrill voice called.

            Talias and Andra jumped guiltily and turned toward the sound to find Talias’s mother, the head cook of the Hall, moving toward them.

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            “Where have you two been?” the gray-haired woman asked in a harried voice. “You should be putting the trays together for the banquet. The Riders will be in the dining hall any moment.”

            “Yes, Mother,” Talias said briskly. He grabbed Andra by the hand and pulled her toward the tables where servants and contracted workers alike were piling food and goblets of wine onto serving trays. They joined the commotion, falling into their duties with natural ease. This was routine, something they did every year.

            The Banquet of the Choosing was a tradition that dated back to the time of the Guardians, when the first candidates were selected to become the first generation of new Riders. Eliana herself had chosen them, the finest soldiers from both the human and the elven armies, and they’d held a celebration to honor the coming together of three races who had been at war for three hundred years. And the tradition had continued each year, with the Riders from all over Paerolia returning to the Hall to honor the ones who could join their ranks.

            Of course, unlike that first generation, not all the selected candidates would join the ranks of the Riders. Only three this year, Andra thought, remembering Dusan’s agitated words. But still, it was a night for all twelve boys to be celebrated for their hard work and training. A night for them to dream of what it might be like to become a Rider like the other men around them. For now, they all held on to that dream, but when the Pairing came, only three of them would be chosen by the hatchlings.

            “Something on your mind?” Talias asked suddenly, as they carried their trays down the corridor to the banquet hall.

            “Oh, it’s nothing,” Andra said with a shake of her head.

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            “Come on,” the kitchen boy urged, nudging her elbow and almost upsetting the tray of goblets in her hands. “You can tell me.”

            She looked at that disarming smile and, as she so often had in the past, surrendered to its persuasion. “I was just wondering . . . why are all the Riders men now?” She asked the question quietly, afraid that she pushed the boundaries by questioning the tradition.

            Talias made a thoughtful face for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t really know, I guess. It’s just the way it’s been done for so long.”

            “But Eliana was the one who restored the Riders to Paerolia after the War of Races,” Andra pointed out. “She was a woman. There were women in the first several generations of Riders after her, weren’t there? Why did it stop?”

            Talias shrugged again. “I guess the judges just decided it was better that way,” he replied. “The humans and elves each only get six candidates a year. There had to be some way to limit the selection pool. Making it only twelve-year-old boys just simplifies it, I suppose.”

            Andra suppressed a sigh and nodded in agreement. The judges had been established by the Guardians as well, after the emperor was overthrown. They knew what was best for Paerolia. She pushed her questions aside as they arrived at the banquet hall, joining a long line of servants and slaves waiting to enter.

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            They all stood silently, waiting for the signal to begin serving. After several minutes, the large doors at the end of the hallway opened, and the line of servers streamed into the noisy dining hall. There were three long tables that filled the length of the room, and all were filled with chattering men and boys who ranged in age from the new, twelve-year-old candidates to gray-haired Riders with heavily creased faces.

            Clustered at one table were the younger Riders, the current residents of the Hall. They stayed at the Hall until they were seventeen, receiving formal training from the elder Riders on magic, swordplay, and, of course, dragon-mounted combat. Andra knew most of their faces, as she had served many of their meals to them during her five years of service at the Hall. There were only eighteen of them, filling a small fraction of the rooms that the Hall contained.

            The remainder of the dining hall was filled with the fully fledged Riders, who came from all around the land to attend this banquet and the Pairing that would be held in one month’s time. Andra knew, of course, that these were not all the Riders. There were several hundred of them across the land, and many of them would have to remain at their assigned posts, regardless of the current celebrations.

            As Andra carried drinks to the noisy Riders, slipping almost imperceptibly among them, she listened to their conversations. “Finally off the Range, eh?” one asked his neighbor with a knowing grin.

            The other Rider let out a sharp laugh. “Mercifully, yes. I did my year of service, and now I can move on to an easier assignment.”

            “It can’t be that bad,” a younger man chimed in. Andra recognized him as a recent graduate from the Hall. “Most creatures from the Mordis Range don’t venture out of the mountains anymore, right?”

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            “Ah,” the first man laughed, holding out his goblet. Andra refilled it deftly, never drawing the Rider’s attention. “Still haven’t been called up for Range Duty, eh?”

            The young Rider shook his head, and the others around him laughed.

            “Just wait, lad,” another said, slapping the young man on the shoulder. “Whether you end up having to drive back some of them Mordis wolves or not, you’ll learn right quick why all Riders dread going on Range Duty.”

            “Those mountains . . .” The Rider who spoke gave a shiver. “Well, they’ll drive you half mad just having to be in ’em for a day. Spending a year there . . .”

            “Your dragon keeps you sane,” another agreed with an affectionate smile. “I’d swear on the Stone Table that’s why only Riders monitor those cursed mountains. Less to do with our magic and our dragons’ strength, and more to do with us having our dragons as our mind mates.”

            Andra smiled softly to herself as she listened. Riders always talked like this about their dragons, with this note of affection that sounded as if they were talking about a sweetheart back home. She envied the closeness they clearly felt to the beautiful creatures she’d glimpsed so often at the Hall, and her mind drifted back briefly to the sensation of Ena’s mind pressing against her own.

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            In her distraction, Andra didn’t notice the Rider who began to stand from the bench, swinging his leg out in front of her. She collided with him, the tray of goblets she held careening to the stone floor with a cacophonous clatter. Andra landed heavily on her backside while the burly, broad-shouldered Rider gave a shout of outrage. Red wine stained his fine yellow tunic.

            Andra leapt quickly to her feet and bowed low, avoiding his gaze and muttering apologies under her breath. With her eyes on the floor, she didn’t see the strike coming. The man’s large hand collided with her jaw and sent her back to the floor in the puddle of spilled wine.

            “You stupid, clumsy idiot!” he shouted. “Look what you’ve done!”

            The Rider stepped toward her, and Andra instinctively tensed, her hand curling into a fist before she caught herself. Your willfulness will get you killed, just like your father. She bit her tongue and unballed her fist. But the blow she expected didn’t come. Another Rider stood from the bench, stepping between Andra and the wine-covered Rider.

            “Now, now, brother,” he said in a soft, calm voice, placing a hand on his fellow Rider’s shoulder. “It was an honest accident. No harm done, see?”

            With a wave of his slim hand, the wine seemed to draw itself off the large man’s silk tunic, leaving it as spotless as it had been before. He huffed and, without a word, stormed out of the Hall. The Rider who had interfered turned now toward the girl on the floor. She looked up at him, taking in his moonlight blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and pointed ears—one of the elven Riders. He bent and held out a hand to her.

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            “Are you hurt?” he asked.

            Andra shook her head slowly, then took the hand, feeling the soft, supple leather of his black Rider’s gloves in her grasp. He pulled her easily to her feet, then handed her the tray. There was a flurry of wind around them, and the spilled goblets gathered themselves off the floor, settling back onto the tray Andra bore.

            Before the girl could mumble her thanks, a familiar figure hurried to her side, taking her by the arms and beginning to turn her away from the fair-haired elf. “Thank you, Master Rider,” Talias said with a brisk nod. “Thank you for your help. Please, enjoy the rest of your meal, and allow us to attend to the mess. Thank you.”

            As he ushered Andra quickly down the aisle toward the doors, she heard one of the other Riders chiding the elf. “You know you’re not supposed to do magic in front of them.”

            Talias hurried Andra out into the hallway and shut the doors behind them before taking the tray from her arms and setting it on a table beside the doorway. His hands suddenly cupped her face, tilting it to look up at him. His expression was concerned, and his eyes seemed to be searching her for some sign of injury.

            “Did he hurt you?” he asked softly.

            Andra didn’t dare shake her head, for fear the movement would cause his hands to fall away from her skin. “No,” she whispered softly.

            His hands tilted her head to one side, and she felt his fingertips graze the right side of her jaw, where the Rider had struck her. “You’re a terrible liar, Andra,” he replied.

            “It’s—it’s not so bad,” she stammered. “I’m sure I just . . . look a fright from all the wine.”

            Talias sighed, and his hand slid down to her shoulder, leaving a trail of tingling skin down her neck. “Right,” he said with a forced smile. “Go get cleaned up, then. I’ll get some new goblets and wine. Hurry up, now.”

            As badly as she wished to linger in that moment, to bask in the look of tender concern in his eyes, she knew that punishment would be waiting for her if she shirked her duties for too long. So Andra nodded and regretfully stepped away from his touch, then turned quickly on her heel and hurried toward the servants’ quarters. She bounded up the steps two at a time, threw open the door, and rushed to her cot.

            Dropping to her knees, she opened the small chest that contained her spare uniforms and pulled out an identical brown wool dress. She stripped from the wine-soaked clothes she wore and tugged on the clean outfit, then hurried from the room, combing her hair into place with her fingers as she did so. Before she reached the dining hall, she paused before a mirror that hung on the corridor wall, inspecting her reflection.

            Part of her hair looked damp from the wine still, but aside from that, she looked as she ought—an unassuming, pale-faced girl who was meant to be seen and not heard. She sighed and touched the leather collar on her neck, wondering what she would look like without it there, silver lock shining in the torchlight. What would it be like to be just another servant, like Talias, instead of having a labor contract hanging over her?

            She drew a breath. Ten more years, she thought. Ten more years, and she would have repaid her father’s debt to the judges. The collar would be gone, the contract ended, and she would be free to choose for the first time in her life. She shook her head sharply, forcing the thoughts aside, and began to run again, arriving at the dining hall doors just as Talias arrived bearing a new tray of goblets and a port of fresh wine.

            “Quick as always, I see,” he said with a crooked smile.

            She smiled back and took the tray from his hands. “Thank you, Talias,” she replied quietly.

            “You know I’d do anything for you, Andra.” The words were spoken lightly, playfully, with that same teasing quirk on his mouth, but they made Andra’s heart stutter. Then he turned and pulled open the dining hall doors. “After you,” he said with a small bow.

            Andra smiled at him and stepped inside, back into the noise of the banquet, blending back into her place among the silent servants who continued to serve the Riders. 

Used with Permission from Tor Teen, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates. Copyright (c) 2019 Erin Swan.  

Read more about Bright Star by Erin Swan here.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.