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St. George’s Day, 619
“If you could piss away stupid, I daresay the majority of the candidates today might actually stand a chance against you.”
Edilyn ferch Iago bit back a squeak of laughter at Virag’s unexpected words. “Shh … you get me into enough trouble as it is.”
Barely the size of her index finger, he looked up at her with a cocked, innocent brow. “Can’t help it if the rest of those wankers are too dim-witted to see your ebullience right before them.” Walking along the edge of the shoddy, worn sill, he mocked the village voices they could overhear passing by her open window, making faces and rude gestures to go along with their innocuous conversations. It was all she could do to not burst into laughter.
“Stop it, or I shall force you back into your bottle.”
He snorted dismissively. “As if that’s a threat. I like my bottle. Much better than being out here with all these—” He glanced out the window to the street and wrinkled his nose. “—people.” With a fierce shudder, he sat down on the edge to eye her with an expression of even greater distaste. A light breeze fluttered his golden, gossamer wings. “Why are you dressed like that again?”
“St. George’s Day.”
“Ah.” Virag released a long, tired sigh. “This year went fast. So what are your plans for being unacceptable to the dragons this time?”
Biting her lip, she stepped forward and revealed the small vial she’d purchased from the old witch woman who lived on the edge of the forest. She held it out toward him. “’Tis the scent of rotted bear guts.”
He let out a fierce sound of protest before he fell back and kerplunked on the sill. “That would do it,” he choked between gasps for air. “Yeah. Please … bathe that off your skin before tonight. My eyes are watering. Burning, too.” Crossing his eyes, he stuck his tongue out and feigned a dying pose that left one arm and leg dangling off the edge as he continued to sputter and gasp.
Edilyn laughed at her half brother and his antics. It was hard to take him seriously in his natural state of a gold-skinned, golden-haired and -eyed, winged sprite. Like this, he was ethereally beautiful and a far cry from the terrifying dark-shadow beast she knew he could transform into. “What kind of pixie are you?”
“Not a pixie,” he snarled indignantly as he kicked his fur-covered legs at her. “Kikimora! Sheez! Inhaling those fumes has already addled your noggin. Any more and you’ll be as daft as those lackwits outside.”
She snorted at him. “Like you don’t smell worse than that on a regular basis.”
He laughed. “Only when I’m drunk on elderberries or mulberries … or…” He paused to consider the truth of her accusation. “Well, you might have a point.” Sitting up, he bent his knee and propped his whiskered chin on it to watch her while she finished belting on her mismatched costume. He was devilishly handsome with his short, spiked hair and angular features. But it was his personality and the way he always looked after her that made her love him best.
Since the day he’d magically appeared in her room three days after the death of her father, she’d been hopelessly devoted to her older brother. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for him.
Not that he needed her help, given the depths of his godlike powers. Honestly, she had no idea why he’d come to her or why he stayed. She liked to think that he loved her, but the tales said that his kind were incapable of feeling such things. Immortal nightmare spirits were supposed to be devoid of any tender emotions whatsoever.
Rather, they were self-serving, vain creatures who used human weaknesses to prey on others. To manipulate humans for the gods and higher powers they were enslaved to or had bartered with.
Yet in spite of his random, surly threats, he remained by her side. Ever loyal. Ever caring, and even kind to her.
He was just like their mother, who’d been as full-blooded a kikimora as he was. Only her mother had made a pact and given up her immortal life to become human so that she could marry Edilyn’s father.
It was something they never spoke of, as it angered Virag to an unholy level.
“How do I look?” Edilyn turned around and held her arms out to show him her outfit for the day.
He burst into raucous laughter that would have offended her had it not been the reaction she wanted. “Ridiculous.”
She grinned as she reached for her horned helm. “Good. That’s what I was going for.”
He made a sound of utter pain-filled disgust. “What in the name of all Samhain is that on your head?”
“My battle helm.”
He screwed his face into a mask of horror. “What are you? A bull?”
“What?” She feigned innocence. “Dragons have horns. I’m trying to blend.”
“You’re not a dragon.” His tone was flat and dry.
He let out another pain-filled groan. “Thank the gods your parents are dead. I shudder at what they’d say if they could see you looking like this.”
She stuck her tongue out. “Don’t you have an old lady to frighten or torment?”
Virag scratched at his chin and lowered his legs to swing them over the sill’s edge. “Not really. Rather harass you. It’s far more entertaining.”
“Great.” She sighed wearily.
As she started to smear the gut scent on her skin, Virag stopped her. “Really, precious … overkill. Given the heinousness of your ridiculous outfit, you don’t need to smell on top of it. No dragon is going to choose anyone wearing that scytel. You’ll be lucky if they don’t all flee at your approach. Probably vacate the hall like it’s afire. They might even leave the whole of the Ynys Prydein.”
She capped the vial and smiled again. “Good.” Last thing she wanted was a forced mating with some hybrid creature who’d eaten her father. And probably his own as well. “I don’t understand why we need them for our army, anyway. What’s wrong with riding horses?”
“For one? They can’t fly.” He fluttered his wings at her. “Something I’m rather fond of doing myself, and I highly recommend. Poor you, to be so deprived.”
“So? There’s much to be said for having two feet planted firmly on the ground. I can’t break a wing and fall three hundred feet, where I shatter all my bones and land as a big bloody stain to be spooned up later.”
“The second reason?” he continued, ignoring her interruption. “Horses tend to burst into flames when dragons attack them and spew their fire all over them. Other dragons don’t do that. They fight back.”
He had a point. Still, she wasn’t willing to give it to him. “Horses take up a lot less room and they don’t eat you out of house and home.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Horses eat quite a lot, including your shoes.”
“Humph.” She wrinkled her nose as she belted on her sword. “This is a stupid tradition to hold on the day that celebrates a saint known for slaying dragons, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps. But it’s more a taming celebration. Man over beast, and all that rot.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“You’re asking a nightmare demon if I think a dragon can be tamed by a mere mortal? Sure. Why not? I’ll go with it. I’ve seen much stranger things in my day—like a kikimora who gives up her immortality to be a dirt farmer in some backwoods village kingdom no one’s ever heard of. Penllyn … really?”
She rolled her eyes at his sarcasm over their mother’s decision that he still held against her. Meanwhile, the dreamer in Edilyn thought it was the most romantic thing she’d ever heard of.
If not the most practical, given what it had ultimately cost her mother.
And father, too.
Sadly, she’d never met a man as honorable as her father. Nor as loving or fierce. If one existed, he definitely didn’t live in Penllyn. It was little wonder that her mother had been so reluctant to let go of so rare an individual as her father. Such a unicorn needed to be cherished and kept.
Edilyn cast a wistful smile at Virag. “I just want to be a warrior on my own. Like my father was.”
“Then I wish it for you.”
“You’re very welcome. May you never live to regret the decisions you make.” And with that, he pushed himself to his feet and flew from the sill to the small, dark green bottle that made up his home. In a flash of white light, he vanished inside it.
Edilyn carefully picked the bottle up and secured it to her neck by the thick black leather cord, then settled it in the pocket of her tunic.
“Can’t see. Let me out!”
“Absolutely. I want to witness this coming travesty firsthand.”
Laughing at his dry tone, she obliged him and placed the bottle to hang outside her orange tunic so that he’d be able to see as it swung loose about her neck. Then, she grabbed the handcrafted bow her father had made for her so that she could leave for the Great Hall, where the day’s celebration should be in full swing.
But as always, her heart wasn’t in the coming festivities, and it definitely wasn’t light. “Why is it ever the curse of humanity that the most cherished dreams of our lives are oft the hardest to achieve?” Edilyn sighed at the rhetorical question that had haunted her for years. A sane woman would give it up and let go this useless pursuit of her heart.
If only she were sane.…
With a deep breath, she glanced about the sparse, unwelcoming room that had served as her dormer since the day her father had died in battle. How she prayed that after today she’d look at it no more. Nor would she be forced to work in the dreadful fields with the other impoverished orphans the church had taken in.
That this year, she’d finally succeed in making Brenin Cynfryn realize that she could stand as a warrior without a dragon lord to partner with.
Determined to be steadfast in her goal, she took her weathered war bow into her gloved hand. Yet as she did so, an unbidden memory of the previous eight years of failure and heartache brought a most bitter lump to her throat. Don’t think about it. The past didn’t matter.
Only today did.
Today would be different. She could feel it deep in her bones. Destiny would finally take note of her and reward her diligent persistence.
Hoping desperately that she wasn’t lying to herself—again—Edilyn lifted her chin. She slung her brown leather quiver over her shoulder before making her way from the small hut toward the Great Hall where everyone in her village had gone for the day’s celebration and test of arms.
For the last eight years on this very day, she’d won every game she’d participated in. Everyone knew that, like her father before her, she was the best archer among them. Her sword skills were at the top of their clan—while she could be overpowered, she could never be out-skilled. She’d even won the obstacle footrace.
Eight years straight.
And still Brenin Cynfryn refused to grant her freedom.
Stop it! Life’s not fair, you know that. It’s not supposed to be.
If it were, her parents would still be with her.
She categorically refused to let her negative thoughts impugn her courage or undermine her confidence as she neared the massive building that dominated their small town.
Nothing and no one would get in her way. Not this time. One way or another, she was going to prove to them all that she was worthy of being one of the brenin’s marchawgion.
“Get out! You’re not welcome here!”
Concerned that angry shout might be directed at her, Edilyn slowed as she neared the oversized oak doors that were marked with ornate iron hinges. Then she realized the two guards shoved at an old man who was dressed in dirty rags and matted furs.
“How many years do we have to throw you out, slagge?”
With an admirable obstinacy, the old man refused to budge. “I was given an invitation, same as the others. Is this not open to all?” The ancient voice was barely a raspy whisper that came from the depths of his filthy hood. Oversized and in the shape of a wolf’s head, the cowl revealed no trace of his features.
“Beggars aren’t welcome. Now begone with you before I set the dogs on you! Bother us no more!”
This time, they shoved him so forcefully that the one would have fallen had Edilyn not caught him. But that charity cost her, as it was quite painful when his back slammed into her front, proving that he was much heavier and more hale than his shabby, hunched-over appearance gave him credit for.
Stifling her cry of pain, Edilyn helped him regain his balance before she stepped away to address the guards. “He’s right. ’Tis St. George’s Day. Should we not all be on our best behavior? After all, that blessed saint gave away everything he had before he died to those who were less fortunate. Surely we can find a modicum of charity for those in need?”
The guard sneered at her. “You would break bread with something that reeks like the back end of a horse’s arse?”
Rather that than feasting with a dragon.
Wisely, she kept that thought to herself.
Instead, Edilyn cast a kind smile to the old man, who was strangely quiet now. “Better to break bread with someone who smells like an arse than to be one. Stenches can be washed off. But an ass today is an ass tomorrow.”
The guard curled his lip as Edilyn boldly took the old man’s arm, and in direct defiance of their cruelty, led him inside. However, her victory was short-lived as the guard’s parting words struck her like a blow.
“Speaking of asses, you can tell by the ample girth of hers that she’s never skimped a meal or been picky over when or where she finds sustenance. Never mind with whom.”
The other guard laughed at his snide tone while she ground her teeth, refusing to give them the satisfaction of knowing that those cruel words had struck their mark, and left another bloody wound on her heart.
“Ignore them, my lady. You are by far the most beautiful one here.”
She smiled at the old man’s kindness and patted his arm. Poor thing must be blind as well as indigent. “Thank you, gentle sir. But I’m no lady. Merely a simple archer’s daughter.”
“I take it your father is very proud of you.”
Those words brought a lump to her throat. “I should like to think he would have been.”
“He’s passed on?”
“Aye. When I was a girl.”
“I’m sorry to hear it.”
She offered him a kind smile. “As was I. He was everything to me—a good man with a cheerful disposition, and a wonderful father. He is sorely missed.” Her bottle necklace warmed, as it always did whenever Virag wanted to let her know that he was with her and sending her his love and affection.
Edilyn released the old man’s arm to show him her most prized possession in all the world—her beloved bow. “But he did give me this, though, before war took him from me.” With a bittersweet smile, she ran her hand over the runic engraving her father had placed above the grip while she’d watched him work on it with eager eyes.
“My precious Edilyn?”
Nodding, she blinked back a sudden round of tears. How she missed her father. Instead of becoming easier, his loss and absence seemed to sting more with every passing year.
Same for her mother.
She cleared her throat. “He made the bow himself from the strongest yew he could find, and then gave it to me on my birthday. Since it was just the two of us, we would spend hours in practice. Every day. The women of the village used to say that I drew my bow so much I had the arms of a man.” A frown creased her brow as she recalled the old wives’ tale about how it was bad luck to cut down a yew tree. Supposedly, anyone who dared such would die within the year.
Was it mere coincidence that her father had perished on the thirteenth day of the eleventh month after he’d dared cut the wood for her bow? She’d always wondered about that.
Not wanting to consider something that was forever near her mind whenever she held her bow, she led the old man to a seat. “You rest and I shall get you some nourishment.”
Still completely shielded by his filthy, worn cloak, he complied.
And as she made her way across the room, she overheard numerous familiar conversations.…
While the seasons and years changed, the people here and their concerns never did. She’d heard their whining gossip so much, she could recite it from memory. And with that sudden thought, she had to bite back a laugh as an image of Virag’s earlier play in her room went through her head.
Her brother was ever rotten.
“Think you he’ll come this year?”
“The Ancient Drakos? Nay, not likely. He never does. I’m told he cares nothing for pomp and noise.”
“I heard the brenin offered the Ancient Drakos the hand of his only daughter in marriage to join our ranks.”
Another nobleman scoffed. “I heard he’d give up one of his sons to him in marriage to procure him as our guardian. His skills are that great. ’Tis said none can defeat him.”
“Son, nothing. I heard he’d give up both testicles for it.”
They laughed at something that rang with truth, knowing their brenin. And it explained why Morla was dressed in such fine and expensive armor. No doubt she was hoping to do her father’s bidding and catch the attention of one of the oldest, most lethal of the dragon clan. The mysterious Illarion Kattalakis who no one had ever seen.
Not even the dragons themselves. They merely whispered tales of him—as if afraid to say his name too loudly lest they somehow offend him with it.
He was more myth than reality. A shadowy sorcerer of unparalleled power and skills who hated humanity with legendary fervor. Older than time itself, he only left his cavernous den to prey on those who angered him. And those fools, he consumed with his incendiary breath.
The circulating tales said that he guarded ancient treasures and weapons forged by the old pagan gods. Some even believed he might be the keeper of the Holy Grail itself. Others speculated he’d been the snake who’d tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Never had she known any creature to hold more outlandish speculations. Many claimed he was the inspiration for the new tale the Geats, Jutes, and Wulfings had been passing around that had recently come to their shores—the tale of the noble Beowulf, who’d been slain after a slave had stolen a golden cup from a mysterious dragon’s lair. Furious over the theft, the dragon had razed their settlements, demanding the return of his enchanted cup and the head of its thief.
After all his noble battles and victories that included slaying the infamous Grendel and his mother, Beowulf had finally succumbed to the dragon’s fierce prowess.
Some tales claimed Beowulf had slain the dragon before the Geat had died of his wounds, but others said that was a total fabrication made by Beowulf’s clan in order to save face. That the dragon had reclaimed his cup and feasted mightily on the hearts and heads of all those who’d taken part in its theft.
It made her wonder what such a beast might really look like. Not that she cared. She hated all dragons for what they’d done to her father and people. The only good one was a dead one. She was merely curious about the creature that inspired such fanciful legends.
Daydreaming about the coming day and how she wanted it to end—in her favor, of course—Edilyn prepared a platter for the stranger.
As she reached for a cup of mead, she felt a pair of angry eyes glaring at her. She glanced up to find Morla curling her lip in distaste at Edilyn’s mismatched clothes.
Tall, slender, and with hair so golden, it appeared to have been spun by the fey, the noble maid dropped her gaze to the platter. “Don’t you have food at home?”
Her dark-haired best friend, Lady Nesta, snorted. “No wonder she’s the size of a man. She eats like three of them.”
Annoyed by the spoiled women who’d never known a day of starvation or hardship of any kind, never mind the grief that had plagued Edilyn all her life, she didn’t bother to correct their misconception. They weren’t worth her time. Instead, she took the platter to her guest, who seemed to be watching Morla and Nesta intently. Not that she blamed him. They were two of the richest, most beautiful women in their village, and every man, young and old, would sell his soul for a night with them.
If only they weren’t quite so aware of it. And if they hadn’t allowed that knowledge to go to their oversized heads. Heads that if they grew any larger, would overfill the hall and cause the two women to be unable to stand upright.
But that was their problem. Not hers.
Grateful she didn’t have to live with those massive egos and petulant moods, Edilyn set the platter down next to her new friend. No sooner had she stepped back than the doors opened to admit their long-awaited guests of honor.
The dragon clan.
Her lips involuntarily curled as they entered the hall in all their expensive finery. Their dark leather armor was trimmed in gold and silver that glimmered in the bright sunlight as it spilled in through the windows. More beautiful than any human, they were here for the Winnowing—to choose the best, noblest warriors of her clan to be their partners in war.
Supposedly, it was the greatest honor to be chosen by them. The men and women of her clan clubbed each other for the chance and spoke of little else the rest of the year. All the eligible youth practiced for this day, hoping to be among the ones taken to live with them.
It was the last thing she wanted.
“Why do you tremble so?”
Rage. But she didn’t answer the old man. She couldn’t.
“Are you afraid?”
“Nay,” she scoffed.
“Not even a little?”
She shook her head. “Not even a little,” she repeated his words. “Merely concerned that I might make muster.”
“What do you mean?”
Pain lacerated her soul at his innocent question that forced her to remember things she wanted to keep buried. But what was the use? And before she could stop it, the truth tumbled out of her lips. “Every year I audition for the brenin with my skills, and I best all my clansmen.”
“Then what’s the problem? Why aren’t you mated to a dragon?”
“Don’t want to be. Rather, I want the brenin to choose me as a marchoges.”
“But not for the dragons? Why?”
“Because she knows she’d break their backs and cripple them,” Gryffyth said as he walked past them.
His friends burst out laughing.
Stifling the urge to toss something at the arrogant prick, Edilyn narrowed her glare at Gryffyth’s worthless hide while he and his cronies vanished into the crowd.
But she wasn’t so callous.
She turned back toward the old man. “I’ve no interest in being chosen by the dragons. In fact, I never appear for the Winnowing. Rather, I withdraw before it begins. I want to stand on my own. But the brenin refuses me. Every year. He only wants draigogion for his army.”
And speaking of, the call rang out for the contestants to gather.
She glanced down at her guest. “Do you need anything else before I join them?”
“Nay, my lady. Good luck to you.”
“And to you, my lord…” Heat crept over her face as she realized how rude she’d been to him. “I’m so sorry that I forgot to ask your name. How thoughtless of me.”
“You’ve been anything but thoughtless, dear Edilyn. Call me Emanon.”
“Lord Emanon. It’s been my pleasure to assist you.” She gave him a slight bow, then ran to join the others.
Emanon sat in silence as he watched Edilyn push her way through the crowd. Taller even than most of the men, she held an exotic kind of beauty that made her stand out from the others. Or maybe it was her zest for life. Her innocent exuberance in the face of their negativity.
She was a beacon through their dull storm.
He’d never seen anyone so determined in the face of adversity. Rising to his feet, he kept to the outer edge of the crowd so that he could watch her compete. Like a free-flowing ebony banner, her long black hair blew behind her as she raced to her place beside the others. Her cheeks were mottled bright red from her exertion while her ample breasts rose and fell with her excitement.
Aye, she had a lush, full body that said her appetite wasn’t just for life, but was robust in all things.
Several of the women curled their lips or rolled their eyes at her approach.
She smiled in response and boldly wished them luck. She was such a cheeky, jovial lass, dressed in a garishly orange tunic that fell to her feet. It was interlaced with green and blue that seemed faded or smeared. She’d placed sprigs in her hair and horned helm. Emanon wasn’t sure if she wanted to appear as a drunken sprite, a tousled flower …
Or a drunken bull that had rolled around a field for a bit.
And that forced a rare grin from him. If he could appreciate anything in life, it was that degree of defiance in the face of those who wished you ill.
“Did he come with you?”
Emanon narrowed his gaze at the man nearest him as he heard the brenin’s gruff voice questioning Tarius Kattalakis. A rare Katagari Drakos, Tarius was the current leader of this group who’d come here to pick mates from the humans. It was a spring ritual they’d been practicing for decades now, and it left Emanon sickened.
Every year, the Drakos came, watched the humans, and opposed the Greek gods’ decree for their people by selecting a mate when they all knew that only the Fates themselves were supposed to assign them their life partners. It was this kind of hubris that had caused their race to be first cursed.
Yet the Katagaria Drakos, because their progenitor Illarion was a son of Ares and had been biologically bonded against his will to the Arcadian prince who was a grandson of the goddess Nyx, thought themselves above it.
Illarion would never intervene on their behalf to save them from the wrath of the gods. Honestly, he had no greater love for their hybrid species than he did for humanity. If the truth were known, he’d tried his best to get his brother to leave them all to die after their creation. The only reason any Were-Hunter had ever survived was the benevolence of Maxis Drago. He was the one they should be currying favor to.
He was the one dragon who would gladly hand-feed them to their enemies, and laugh while they bled out at his feet. The son of Ares cared nothing for these creatures. Nothing for their races or their wars. He felt no obligation to them whatsoever.
And he never would.
Burn in Tartarus, you bastards.…
Their treatment of Edilyn was exactly why Illarion had no love of humanity. The whole problem with human beings was that they were so seldom humane. And those whose genetics had been combined with animals were even worse. Instead of being made better, they’d sunk to an all-new level of viciousness.
Emanon ground his teeth as he started to leave so that he wouldn’t have to stomach another moment of their vile presence, and yet his gaze went back to Edilyn.
She rubbed at the bottle on a string she wore around her neck, and smiled a smile that enchanted him in a way nothing ever had. Damn. It left him breathless.
Worse? It quickened his blood and fired a need inside him to taste those lips. For the first time in his exceptionally long life, he actually desired a taste of human flesh for something other than a quick, bloody meal.
He hungered for her.
What the Hades?
And still the men in front of him continued to speak. “Nay, he’s not here. But fear not. We are more than able to protect your village and people.”
“Did he not receive the offer to marry my daughter?”
Tarius sighed. “It’s not that. They claim he’s sterile.”
“I heard he’s insane,” Bracis added. “As the first of our kind, he couldn’t handle the transition from beast to man. While he physically survived, he broke mentally.”
“It’s a shame.” The brenin let out a tired sigh. “Our enemies grow bolder and stronger. We lost half our best warriors in the last battle.”
“Well, we’re here now and we’ll take care of you.” Tarius turned his head back toward the contestants. “Who is that tacky brunette who keeps winning?”
“Aye. She’s here every year.” Scoffing, Tarius passed a smirk to Bracis. “She’s a stout one, isn’t she?”
The brenin shook his head. “I think she’s hoping one of you will take her since no man among mine will have her.”
“She’s an orphan with no property. No dowry. No family. All she has in this world is that old war bow she carries. Pathetic, really.”
And yet she who had so little held more kindness than any of the rest. The last thing that made her in Emanon’s eyes was pathetic.
As he watched her racing against the others, his respect for her grew. They did everything they could to trip her, knock her from the path, or cause her to veer from the goal.
Edilyn didn’t falter or stumble. Steadfast and determined, she ran with her head held high and kept her gaze on the goal, without regard to any of the others or the tricks they used to foil her journey. Nothing and no one could stop her.
In the end, she crossed that finish line first. Way ahead of the others.
It’d been a long, long time since he’d seen such intrepid courage. Instead of congratulating her for the achievement in spite of their ill behavior, they glared. Their hatred increased to such levels, he could feel it as a living creature slithering in the air around them all. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck to see such tangible evil.
Still, she continued on with resolute grace. She even glanced at him, smiled, and waved.
Stunned by that unexpected act, he gaped and felt the most peculiar fluttering inside his stomach. One that only fueled his hunger. He had no idea what it was. Never had he experienced anything like it.
Brushing at the perspiration on her brow, she went to retrieve her bow for the last round of games. He didn’t miss the way her exotic features softened ever so slightly the moment her hand touched the wood.
Aye, it was exceptionally dear to her.
With an adorable bite to her lips that betrayed her uncertainty, she brushed her gloved fingers against her father’s engraving as if taking comfort from it. Then she moved into place before her target and carefully nocked her arrow. She held the bow and arrow low to her thigh while she waited patiently for her turn.
One by one, the archers released their shots.
When it was her turn, Edilyn lifted her arms with the mastered precision that came from years of practice. “You’ve got this,” she whispered in a tone so low, he was sure that he was the only one who heard it.
But as she pulled back the string for her release, the unthinkable happened.
Her bow snapped in half. The top part, along with the arrow, fell to the ground, while the bottom remained in her firm grip, tethered by the string.
“No!” Tears filled her eyes as she lost the last link with her father.
The immaculately dressed Morla tsked at her. “Shame, that. But it’s not like anyone was ever going to choose you anyway. No one was even looking.” Then she made her shot.
Emanon took an involuntary step toward Edilyn before he even realized it. Yet he knew there was no comfort anyone could give her for what had just happened.
For what the rich bitch had just rudely and needlessly taken, without regard of consequence or compassion.
Morla had cracked Edilyn’s precious bow to remove her from the competition because she knew she lacked the skills to compete. Because she’d been unwilling to spend the years it took to learn the skill. Nor did she care what she robbed from another. All that mattered was that she got what she wanted. To hell with the rest.
How could she?
Suddenly, a loud cry rang out. No sooner had it settled than the crowd around them erupted into a vicious attack party. Cloaks were thrown off soldiers who’d come in under the guise of celebrants.
Morla and the rest of the humans who’d been competing to be mates for the dragons scattered to hide.
So much for being warriors, or for showing any skill. That said it all about their loyal bravery.
The only one who stood her ground was Edilyn.
Seizing Morla’s dropped bow, she slung her quiver over her back and began aiming for their enemies. Enemies who were quickly cutting a swathe through the Kattalakis dragons and the brenin’s people.
Awed and impressed, Emanon watched Edilyn fearlessly protect the very assholes who’d been so cruel to her. Why? He couldn’t imagine. Personally, he’d let them all burn. The only ones he’d ever protected were his brothers and sister.
No one else was worth a single drop of his blood.
That had always been his firm stance and his oath.
Until he saw the killing blow aimed at Edilyn’s back. A blow she couldn’t see at all, as she was focused on others. In that one quick, vital heartbeat he made a decision he’d sworn would never be his.
Lunging to save a human’s life, he transformed into his true dragon form.
Edilyn froze as a huge, massive dragon circled her. With a giant, spiny head, he formed a wall of yellow-orange scales that rippled and shimmered in the daylight. Terrified, she thought he was attacking her at first.
Yet rather than attack, he let loose a stream of fire at those who’d snuck into her village. With a ferocious hiss, he whipped his tail and lowered his black-tinged wing toward her. Climb aboard, my lady Edilyn.
Her jaw fell as she recognized the deep voice that no longer held the cadence of an ancient man. “Emanon?”
His yellow serpentine eyes gentled as he gave her a bashful grin. Illarion, my lady. And it would be my honor to serve you.
The moment his true name was spoken through telepathy, their enemies ran for the gates in full retreat.
But Illarion wasn’t having it. As soon as Edilyn was secured on his back, he ran them down and made sure they never threatened her people again.
Edilyn held tightly to his scales as she felt his muscles rippling beneath her legs and thighs. A saddle and reins appeared magically for her, along with a harness that secured her in a way that guaranteed nothing would separate her from her mount. It felt as if she were fused into place.
Fear and respect for the dragon’s immense power mingled inside her as she watched him effortlessly reduce their enemies to ashes. She held her breath in awe, trembling and praying that he never turned that anger loose on her.
You have no need to fear me, Edilyn.
She wasn’t so sure about that. And while she’d always scoffed at the stories of the Ancient Drakos’s powers and dismissed them as fantasy, she now wondered how many of those tales were actually factual.
Dear heaven, he was exactly as they’d said. His powers greater than any dragon she’d seen or heard of.
Once he’d dispensed of their enemies with virtually no effort on his part, he returned to the archery field and allowed her to dismount from his back. The bodies of the wounded and killed surrounded them. The entire area was still in chaos as people sought to find their loved ones or to render aid.
Though she had often resented how they’d treated her over the years, Edilyn felt no joy at seeing her people like this. How could anyone take pleasure in another’s pain? Seek harm when they didn’t have to? She’d never understand cruelty for the sake of it.
What was wrong with people?
There in front of her, Illarion shifted from his dragon form into that of a man. Only this time, he wasn’t old or hunched over.
He was glorious.
With a gasp, she looked up into a pair of silvery blue eyes that radiated intelligence and heat. Never had she seen eyes that color. And they were set in a face of utter male perfection. Firm, sculpted jaw, high cheeks, and an aquiline nose. Best of all were lips that neither mocked nor sneered at her. His long, dark auburn hair fell free and held a number of small braids laced with feathers.
“Were you injured in the fighting?” she asked.
Never by a human.
A shiver ran up her spine at the realization that his voice didn’t come from his lips. Rather, he spoke to her through her thoughts. No wonder he’d kept himself completely covered before. He must have been disguising the fact that the old man wasn’t really speaking, rather telegraphing his thoughts to them.
With a tenderness that belied the size and strength of him, he brushed the moisture from her cheeks where she’d cried over her broken bow. His gaze darkened with curiosity as he lingered his thumb over her lips.
“Wait!” The brenin rushed forward. “You’ve grabbed the wrong woman. She’s not my daughter. Morla is beautiful and rich. She’s the one you seek.”
Illarion cast an irritated glare toward the much smaller man as he dropped his hand from her face. I didn’t come here for a false princess with a withered heart and callous soul who knows the value of nothing, except her own overestimated self-worth.
Edilyn frowned at the disdain in his voice. “Then what did you seek?”
In a very dragonlike manner, he cocked his head to glance at his drakos brethren, then to the brenin. Nothing. Truly. Every year I come for shits and giggles, expecting the same, and every year I’ve been turned away by fools who never fail to reaffirm my lowly opinion of humanity. It’s always been a game to me to see how far I’d get.
He curled his lip at Morla. The promise of a princess definitely didn’t lure me here, for they are vain, worthless creatures who are only concerned with their own petty needs. I have no need of such a nuisance.
Then, Illarion turned back to Edilyn and the corners of his lips lifted ever so slightly. Instead, I’ve found the rarest vision of all. He met her gaze and the sincerity in that cool blue depth sent a chill over her. I found a most beautiful queen who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to protect those surrounding her. One who sees what’s around her and isn’t blind to the feelings of others, or their value. For more than ten thousand years I have walked this earth, my lady. Never have I seen your equal, in heart or form. And if you will have me, repugnant and disgusting as I am to you, I swear that I shall ever be your faithful servant.
With those words spoken, he handed her the bow her father had lovingly made that Morla had tarnished and tried so cruelly to destroy in her vicious vainglory.
Copyright © 2016 by Sherrilyn Kenyon