The next day, breakfast was awkward to say the least. Dristan’s strange behavior the night before still weighed heavily in my thoughts, but after awhile I decided to push it to the back of my mind. There were more important things to think about today. It was time to get some answers.
It was difficult to ask questions between the delicious mouthfuls of buttermilk waffles, fried eggs and smoked, hickory bacon, but I managed. Dristan had even brewed some coffee! I’d never had it before.
He served it to me with a spoonful of sugar and a splash of cream. It was the strangest, most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. I was already on my third cup.
“So, what is an elemental?” I asked.
“Don’t drink anymore coffee after that cup, Brenya.” Dristan scolded, stuffing a forkful of syrup coated waffle into his mouth.
“You are so bossy!” I complained, sipping the fragrant beverage. “Stop ordering me around.”
He pursed his lips at me. “Fine. Overdose on caffeine if you wish, but don’t come crying to me when your heart explodes.” He shrugged.
I nearly choked and some of the hot liquid ran down my chin. I cleared my throat and set the mug down, subtly switching to orange juice. He smirked and crunched into his bacon as I wiped my chin.
“Will you please stop distracting me and answer my question?” I muttered. I cut my second helping of waffle into small portions as we spoke. I was still full from last night, but I just couldn’t stop eating!
He sighed. “Elementals are a rare type of Fae. They have control over the elements. Earth, fire, water and air. It’s been said that an elemental’s power extends even further beyond that, but it isn’t known for sure.”
“Hmm..” I murmured. “And you’re sure that’s what I am?”
“I’m sure.” He said with a nod.
“I don’t understand how. I don’t have any powers. I don’t even look Fae. It doesn’t make any sense.” I said while stabbing at my food.
“There are two reasons why I am so sure. The first reason is because of the ring.” He said, gesturing to my hand. I glanced down at the ring, still tucked snugly on the middle finger of my right hand. It still refused to come off. My brows furrowed as I met his gaze again.
“When I joined the king’s army, I stole the original ring and swapped it with the one you’re wearing. The original ring would light up on the finger of any Fae it was placed upon. But this ring is a part of your family’s heritage. It will only respond to an Elemental. It was the only clue your parents left behind as a way to find you. So I used the ring to my advantage. One, to find you, and two, so that if the ring was placed upon a Fae who was in hiding, it would not light up and that Fae would be spared. Two birds, one stone, as they say.”
I blinked at him. I hadn’t expected such detail, and I had to admit I was impressed. He was clever. “Wow... Well, do you know why it won’t come off?” I asked, pulling on it in emphasis.
“I’m afraid not. It didn’t exactly come with an instruction manual...” He grumbled.
I sighed. “What’s the second reason you’re sure?”
He gazed at me silently for a moment. I waited, my eyes wide, prepared for the next load of information.
“Your eyes.” He said softly. We continued to stare at each other. I didn’t think I was breathing.
“I told you once that I’d only ever seen eyes like yours once before. Do you remember?” He asked. I swallowed and nodded.
“You have your mother’s eyes.” He said gently.
My lips parted in disbelief. “You know my mother?”
He stilled. The hand he’d been using to stir his coffee froze, and his eyes grew weary as he studied me.
Bad. This was bad... But I couldn’t give up hope just yet. I just couldn’t...
“Do you know my father too? Where-where are they? Where are my real parents?” My voice edged on panic as his expression grew more and more solemn.
His throat bobbed. “Your parents are... They passed away.”
I dropped my gaze to my lap. My eyes burned as I struggled to hold back the tears behind them. My hands balled into fists in my lap. It was strange, feeling grief for people I had never known. But I felt it, all the same.
“I’m sorry.” I heard him say. “Their passing was mourned across the land.”
Using the only defense mechanism I knew, I pulled on my usual mask of calm indifference when I lifted my gaze back to his. I wouldn’t let him see me cry.
“But, you did know them...?” I asked evenly.
His eyes hardened. “Not personally.” There was an edge in his tone. I got the feeling that there was something he wasn’t telling me.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Whatever it is that you’re not elaborating on, don’t think that I’m fooled. There’s something you’re holding back.”
His jaw flexed. “I was hoping to wait to tell you this, but seeing as you’re too perceptive for your own good, I guess I’ll tell you now.”
I waited eagerly, sipping my orange juice.
“Your mother...” He began, “was Queen Eudora Alemaund of the Rune bloodline.” My heart stopped.
“And your father... was King Knox Alemaund of the Elemental bloodline.” He spoke slowly, as if speaking to a small child.
We stared at each other from across the table. My eyes were as wide as saucers.
“And you...” His eyes sparkled. “are High Lady Brenya Avery Alemaund of the Elemental and Rune bloodlines. You are the lost Princess, the last of the Elemental bloodline, and the rightful heir to the throne.”
I swallowed once.
But the lump that had formed in my throat would not disappear. My palms began to sweat and the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood on end from the shock and panic that was settling in. The mask of calm on my face was slipping and I couldn’t do anything about it.
Princess. Heir to the throne.
Suddenly, I shot to my feet. My chair fell over, slamming noisily to the floor behind me. Hysteria bubbled up from my stomach and tightened my throat even further.
Dristan jumped to his feet and held out his hands, palms forward. He eyed me with concern. I pushed myself away from the table and began to pace around the house. I held my hands over my mouth, afraid I might scream if I let go.
Oh, gods. Oh, gods... How can this be?! I don’t want this kind of responsibility! I can’t possibly be suited for something like this! I’m nothing, I’m no one! I’m Brenya Blackwell! Not this... Brenya Avery Alemaund, person!
The tears that I’d been holding in sprang free and began to run down my cheeks in streams. I could taste the salt on my lips.
I ran into something hard and warm. When I looked up, I realized Dristan had stepped into my path. He stared down at me with an expression mixed between pity and fear.
“Brenya-” he began, but I turned away from him.
“I, I can’t... I can’t...” I stuttered, at a loss for words.
I felt his large hands come down on my shoulders, their warmth bleeding through my shirt and onto my skin. He turned me around slowly, gently, to face him again. I stared at his chest, my mind racing, yet somehow blank at the same time.
His tucked a finger under my chin and lifted it, bringing my gaze up to meet his eyes.
“Brenya, listen to me.” He said softly. “I know this is a lot to digest, which is exactly why I didn’t want to tell you yet. I’m sorry that I had to tell you something so heavy... But listen to me... Remember what I told you last night. You are not alone.”
I felt fresh tears roll down my cheeks as he spoke. He lifted his hands and cupped my cheeks gently. My lower lip trembled. He used the pads of his thumbs to wipe my tears away.
“I will not let you go through this alone. I will stay by your side as long as you need me. And, believe it or not, there are a lot of people who cannot wait to meet you. People who will stand by you, who will help guide you, just as I will.”
I shifted my gaze back and fourth between his ocean blue eyes, intently studying them one at a time. Inside of them, I found only sincerity and truth. I let out a small sob, relieved and terrified all at once by his comforting words.
He pulled me into his chest and hugged me tightly. In turn, I wrapped my arms around his back and buried my face in his chest. He let me cry for a few minutes, just holding me.
He smelled of nature. Pine needles, earth and burning wood. I inhaled his scent as my breathing slowly calmed down and savored the security I felt in his embrace.
“Come, now... Sit down and let me explain everything. I promise, you’ll feel better once you understand.” He whispered. I nodded against his chest before pulling away.
Once we were seated again, I pushed my plate away. I wasn’t hungry anymore. I slowly sipped my orange juice, letting my body and mind calm down a bit, before I spoke again. Dristan waited patiently.
“How did they die?” I asked, my voice trembling.
Dristan studied me warily. “They were killed by the king’s men, seventeen years ago. Only a year after they hid you away. They led their army of Fae warriors to one of the king’s army camps in the eastern mountains. They were well prepared, and planned to take out a good chunk of the king’s men. It should’ve been an easy victory... But the king was also well prepared. They didn’t realize that the king had supplied his armies with new weapons. The king’s men used nightbane gas grenades on them. It wasn’t well known back then, but nightbane is crippling to magical beings. It robs us of our powers and makes us much easier to kill. They also had hollow, iron tipped arrows filled with liquid silver. Iron weakens the bodies of magical beings when it pierces our skin. And silver, if introduced into our blood steam, kills us. It is the only way to kill us. As unprepared as they were, they were no match. They died, along with most of the Fae army.”
I stared at my lap. “I see...” I racked my racing mind for another question. “And, your people... The dragons... They weren’t involved in this battle?”
His mouth tightened. “No... Your kind and mine have been at odds with each other for many generations.”
My brows pulled inward. “Why?”
He traced an idle finger over the deep swirls engraved in the tabletop. “Dragons are treasure hoarders. Many years ago, my kind used to invade the Fae territories. They killed when necessary, and stole their jewels, riches, and anything else of value that they could get their paws on. The Fae retaliated by killing any dragon they saw on sight.”
He stirred his coffee absentmindedly while I gaped at him.
“Our leader back then was a selfish, bloodthirsty brute. His rein of terror ended nearly fifty years ago. My people were tired of their Dragon Lord’s thirst for treasure and blood as our numbers dwindled. Our kind were already rare, and with the Fae as our enemies, we became more and more sparse. His habits were threatening to wipe us into extinction. A new leader was crowned as the Dragon Lord those fifty years ago when he challenged and killed him. After that, we stopped plundering the Fae lands, hoping for peace. But it was too little, too late.”
My mind struggled to keep up as he spoke, my hands trembling in my lap beneath the table. There was so much division in this cruel world. The humans, the Fae, the dragon’s, and who knew what else. I sat still as he continued, entranced by the story.
“Around thirty years after that, the human realm’s king began slaying any and every magical being he came across. He had discovered how to kill our kind, with silver in the bloodstream. This was not something we’d had to fear before. Panic began to spread among us. Our new leader attempted to form an alliance with the Fae. We needed to join forces, put our differences behind us, and fight against the human king together. We had to end this king’s reign of terror on our lands, our people, before it got out of control. But the Fae would not listen. They claimed that they didn’t need us to defeat the king. They wanted nothing to do with us. Their hatred ran too deep. We had slain so many of their kind. But times were changing... Our new Dragon Lord wanted to make amends and prove that we could be allies.”
He took a long sip of his mug as he leaned back in his chair. His hazy eyes were focused on the table.
“That Dragon Lord was my father.” He said in a detached tone of voice. My jaw fell open.
“And when he traveled to the Fae lands, alone, to speak of peace... He was murdered in cold blood.”
I sucked in a small gasp of air, clutching my cloth napkin tightly in my fist. Dristan flicked his gaze up to meet mine, pain and fury distantly swirling in his eyes. I felt my sorrow for him shining in my own eyes as I stared at him.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” I whispered, lowering my gaze. I knew what it felt like to lose a parent. My own, adopted mother came to mind, her face smiling at me behind my closed eye lids. The heavy burden of grief threatened to break through the damn I’d built around my heart since her passing. “Why didn’t he bring people with him, to protect himself?” I asked.
“The Fae would’ve seen it as a threat.” He said sadly.
“That’s horrible. He only wanted peace. Who would do such a thing?”
I met his eyes and found deeper sorrow in them than I’d ever seen before. “Your father.” He said, his face like stone.
My heart thundered in my chest. Agony, shame, disbelief, sorrow, anger. A monsoon of emotions crashed over me in a tidal wave, burning my eyes. I held firmly to the mask of calm on my face and tried my best to breathe evenly through my nose.
He stared at me, his eyes piercing and intense. It felt like an eternity passed before he spoke again.
“When my father died, I was crowned Dragon Lord. Some time after that, your parents hid you away, and then they were killed. With the Queen and King dead, and their only heir hidden, the Fae lands fell into chaos. Their cities fell apart. The people were panicked. They had no true leadership, and with the majority of the Fae army slain, they had little to no protection. The human king continued hunting and killing until there were hardly any Fae, dragon, or any other manner of magical beings left... The few who remain are in hiding now. They are very afraid and very pissed off. They are desperate to take back what has been stolen from them.”
I managed to calm my heart and continued to breathe evenly. My stomach was a painful mess of knots, my mind, an angry snarl of tangled thoughts. Somehow, I was able to keep my expression neutral and form a coherent question.
“Why did they hide me away?” I asked.
“We don’t really know... We suspect that they knew this war was going to get ugly. They needed a backup plan in case something happened to them. They needed to keep you safe.”
I considered that. I supposed it made sense, but something was missing. It had to be deeper than that...
“If you are the Dragon Lord... why is it you who has sought me out? Why not a Fae? You have a kingdom to run, right? Don’t you have more important things to deal with?” I asked, shifting my eyes from him, to the table, and back again.
I couldn’t bring myself to hold his gaze for long. He was a king. I didn’t think it was possible to be more intimidated by him than I already was. I was wrong.
His head snapped up and his eyes bored into mine with an almost palpable force. “Nothing is more important than you.” It was nearly a growl.
I stared at him, my mouth agape. My mouth suddenly felt very dry. I took another sip of juice as he watched me intently.
“Bringing you back to our people is our best chance at winning this war.” He added a bit hastily, clearing his throat. He leaned forward, crossing his arms on the table as he inspected his fingernails.
“When my father was killed...” He began. “I knew I had to follow in his footsteps. Peace between our people is our only chance of surviving this war. So the first step I took was seeking out the Fae. My people and I searched everywhere. We looked for small groups of survivors, lone stragglers, anyone that was left. Those I did find didn’t react well at first. They thought I was going to kill them. I was desperate to gain their trust, desperate to help them, to save them.”
His hands balled into fists on the table. The muscles beneath the tanned skin of his forearms flexed and relaxed, over and over again.
“It took nearly sixteen years, but my people and I managed to find most of the Fae people. We’ve taken them into hiding with our own people. We’ve provided them with housing, food, and protection. After all this time, we’ve finally formed an alliance. Our numbers are not as great as they once were, but when we stand together, we are stronger. We are more. Some of the Fae are still sour about the alliance, still clinging to the old ways. We have to constantly keep patrols going because of the fights that sometimes break out. But most of them are accepting and grateful for the alliance. We’ve been training and preparing for sixteen years now, waiting for the right time to strike against the human king. Waiting and searching...”
His gaze intensified on mine and I felt the color drain from my face. “For me...” I finished for him.
“Yes.” He said, his jaw flexing. “I had almost given up hope. I was afraid I’d never find you. Your parents were very wise in choosing their hiding place for you. That rutting eyesore of a village was hardly a pinpoint on a map. Quite inconspicuous.”
For a moment, I wanted to defend my home. I had a certain pride for my village that was deeply rooted in my soul. But it was quickly extinguished when I realized he was right. It was a rutting eyesore.
I’d spent many nights angry with the gods for granting me such a hard life, in that festering hole of a village. I had nearly nothing to live off of for so long... but now I knew why.
In reality, that piss poor village had been what was keeping me safe all these years. And I didn’t even know it. I silently sent an apology up to the gods for all the times I cursed them. I thanked them for keeping me safe.
“It still seems unwise to me that you risked your life to find me. You could’ve sent someone else. It seems kind of personal to you...” I said softly. I couldn’t meet his eyes.
“I suppose it was.” He said, surprising me. “I felt that I owed it to my father to find you. Yes, I’ll admit, as a leader it probably wasn’t the smartest move. But this mission was of the highest importance. I didn’t trust anyone else to shoulder this responsibility. So, I left my strongest and most trusted men in charge and I left. I am the strongest dragon among my kind. No one was better suited for this mission than I. It may come off as arrogant to hear my say that, but it’s true. I am serving my people best this way.”
We were both quiet for a few moments. Me, soaking in the information, and him, patiently waiting while I did.
“Arrogant is a good word to describe you.” I said finally, teasing him and trying to lighten the mood. He grinned. “You still haven’t told me where exactly we are going.” I added.
“My home. Your new home. The Aviary.” He said.
“The what?” I cocked my head.
“The Aviary. It’s where all of our kind are in hiding. It is the home of the dragons and has been hidden from the human world for thousands of years. It’s the only safe place left for us.”
“Oh... Okay.” I breathed, nodding to myself. “Why is it so important to bring me back? I’m just one person. I don’t see what I could possibly do to help.”
He gave me a small smile. “You aren’t looking at the bigger picture, Brenya. Your return will lift the spirits of every single magical being who lays eyes on you. You will breed hope.”
I stared at him open mouthed as his smile grew wider.
“Its one thing for the people to form an alliance because they have to. It’s another thing entirely for them to form an alliance because they want to. You will strengthen our people. And, with the proper training and knowledge, you can help lead them into the dawning of a brand new era. A unified era. A better era.”
I considered that a moment. He was right... But it still terrified me. I had no idea how to be a princess. All I knew was hunting, fighting, and surviving. I pictured myself in a puffy, pink gown with a crown atop my head and I cringed.
“Hey.” He said, bringing my attention back to him.
“You will not be alone. Remember that.” He said.
I tried to smile, but failed. I gave him a small nod instead.
“Is that all that’s to be expected of me?”
His mouth pressed into a thin line. I narrowed my eyes at him. There was more he wasn’t telling me.
“The specifics have yet to be determined.” He said vaguely.
“What the hell does that mean?” I spat.
“It means that we don’t know what you’re capable of yet. Your powers are obviously dormant. Until we can figure out why, then I can’t give you an answer.”
I crossed my arms. “Well, do you have any theories on that yet? There must be a reason my powers haven’t made an appearance. Or my pointed ears...” I reached up and ran a finger over my rounded, utterly human ears.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out since the day we left your village.” He scowled. “It’s been a speed bump in my plans, to say the least.”
“So, if I end up having some kind of amazingly strong Fae powers, I’ll be a part of your plan to go to war with the king?” I guessed.
“I told you, I don’t know yet.” He said between his teeth.
Aggravation spread throughout my mind and body.
“If you want me to willingly go with you, to war... With a race of people that I didn’t even know I belonged to until very recently... Then I suggest you figure something the hell out. Fast.”
He blinked at me, a bit stunned.
His eyes hardened and I braced myself for his reaction, but I was surprised when he simply chuckled. I rose my brows.
“Such a dirty mouth.” He grinned, leaning back in his chair, the perfect picture of relaxed. “You should know, as a Princess, you’ll be expected to act with at least a shred of decency and a proper display of manners, right?”
I glared at him with enough cold force to freeze lava. I straightened in my chair and cleared my throat.
“Well...” I said sweetly, dabbing my mouth with my napkin. “Perhaps when I find myself in the presence of someone worthy of such decency, instead of a stubborn, annoying jackass, then I will feel more inclined to act properly.”
His expression darkened, his smile fading. Suddenly, his pupils shrank to slits, like his dragon’s, before dilating back to normal. I gasped, jumping slightly in my chair.
“You don’t scare me!” I lied.
He bared his white teeth at me in a feral smile, his elongated canines gleaming in the light. Even in his human form, his teeth were noticeably sharper than a normal person’s would be.
I swallowed the lump in my throat while a trail of spine chilling fear crept up my back.
“Along with manners, we’ll also need to work on controlling your emotions.” He said smoothly. “I can smell your fear from across the table. It renders your lies utterly transparent.”
My eyes snapped open wide, my jaw falling open.
“You lie a lot, by the way. About your emotions, anyway. Your fear always smells the strongest.”
He could smell my emotions?! All this time, I thought I’d been wearing an impenetrable mask of calm indifference, and yet he had been able to see past it this entire time?!
He had known my true emotional reactions to everything we had been through, and everything he had told me, since the day I’d met him.
My sudden, red hot fury had me imagining myself throwing my butter knife at his head.
“Anger has a strong scent, too.” He chuckled.
This time, I did throw my knife at his head. He caught it between his index and middle finger with no effort involved. I wasn’t surprised.