“How does he know where to go?” I asked Ronan breathlessly as we struggled to keep up with Dristan. He was practically sprinting down the corridors, turning left, then right, then down, down, down...
The lower parts of the castle were like an intricate maze, where one might get lost forever if they didn’t know their way.
Warrick ran behind Dristan, his deep purple wings tucked in tightly to avoid scraping against the narrow hallways. Ronan jogged behind me, his breathing deep and even, as though the physical exertion did not hinder him in the slightest. I however, was gasping for breath, my lungs burning, my legs aching in their high heels.
A few dragon guards, whom I did not know, were trailing behind Ronan. Dristan had grabbed them and told them to follow us as soon as we’d left the balcony. He needed witnesses...
Warrick has come as soon as Dristan called for him. He’d asked what was happening and Dristan had told him there wasn’t time to explain. He asked no further questions as he followed his Dragon Lord.
“When someone gives another person the locator rune, that persons whereabouts are implanted in the instinctual area of the giver’s mind. He doesn’t know, exactly, where she is. He only knows he’s going the right direction.”
“Oh...” I huffed, turning a corner.
After an excruciatingly long ten minutes, Dristan finally slowed down up ahead. The rest of us followed suit. He paused in front of a small, wooden door, which was tucked snugly against the corner of the long, ancient corridor.
The hallways and ceilings were covered in cobwebs, a sure sign that no one ever came down here. I wondered what this area was even used for... Storage perhaps?
Soft moaning could be heard from behind the door and I held a hand over my mouth to keep from making any noise. Dristan turned toward Warrick and the other dragon guards and nodded once, his mouth a thin line. His eyes were stormy.
Warrick pushed him aside and waved the other guards toward him. They stood behind him as he leaned back, raised his foot, and kicked the door down with impressive force.
The door fell to the ground with a loud thump.
Warrick, Dristan, the guards, Ronan and I, all darted into the room. I stood behind Dristan and Ronan’s towering forms as the scene before us unfolded.
Torryn had Andromeda bent over a stone table, her skirts bunched up around her waist. His own pants were in a heap at his feet.
“Gods above...” Warrick whispered.
As light from the hallway poured into the room, I saw expressions of shock and fear flash across both of their faces as their heads whipped toward us.
“Oh my gods.” I heard Andromeda whisper as her eyes fell on Dristan. His face was blank, though his flaming eyes were two pits of night.
Torryn moved to the side, shielding Andi’s half naked body from the men as he snarled in furious anger. I blushed and had to look away as he faced us, as his stiff, quite sizable erection stood tall.
“What the fuck?!” Torryn bellowed, reaching for his pants and pulling them up. Andi lifted off of the table and brushed desperately as her skirts, trying to cover herself back up. Her hair was a mess, her make up smudged, and her eyes wide with terror.
“I should be the one saying that.” Dristan said calmly from in front of me.
Torryn stared at him, his slitted eyes still shining with surprise. He took a step forward, his hands raised in defense. “Dristan, listen to me, it’s not what it seems-”
“The hell its not! Do you take me for a god’s damned fool, Torryn?! Do you think that I do not have eyes in my head?!” Dristan shouted, stepping forward in a threatening display.
Andromeda shrank, backing away toward the far wall. Her wide eyes shifted from face to face, her cheeks bright red with humiliation.
Her eyes fell upon me and she stilled. I stared right back at her, between the two High Lords bodies, as her expression grew even more horrified. I allowed every single feeling of hatred that I held for her shine through my expression as I glared at her.
I shook my head slowly, a gesture of how ashamed of her I felt. A choked sob escaped her lips as she looked away.
“And you...” Dristan said, his voice quiet and deadly. She lifted her eyes to his, her expression pleading. “You traitorous... deceitful... lying, bitch.”
“Please, let me explain!” She begged, her brows furrowed and pulled upward at the inner corners.
Dristan spat on the ground, his abhorrence painfully obvious. “I won’t hear another word of your lies. You disgust me.”
She covered her face with her hands and began to cry. Her wedding ring sparkled in the light.
A small, distant part of me felt sorry for her. But it was overruled by my hatred of her. The intense revulsion for what she’d done was all I could focus on as I watched her sink the the ground in tears.
“The marriage is off. Bind them.” Dristan said, turning away.
The guard approached them, chains in hand. They pulled Torryn’s hands behind his back as he called out again.
“You don’t understand, Dristan!”
“I understand that you are a back stabbing subverter! That is all I need to understand!” He bellowed. He glared daggers at Torryn as he was chained by the guards.
When they had secured him, they moved on to Andi. They lifted her to her feet and gently pulled her hands behind her back, binding her the same way they’d done with her lover.
“Dristan...” She sobbed, her eyes red, her cheeks blotchy and swollen.
“Silence.” He hissed. “Take them to the dungeons.”
“No!” Torryn growled, struggling against his chains.
“Utter another word and I’ll have you repeatedly sliced with iron for the next month.” Dristan said with lethal calm.
My throat bobbed as I stepped aside, moving closer to Ronan, as the guards brought the couple forward. What Torryn said next was the last thing I was expecting.
“Dristan, she’s my mate...”
No one moved a muscle. I didn’t think any of us were even breathing.
My entire body felt heavy, as though it were made of lead. The guards halted, still holding onto each of them, their eyes fixed on their Dragon Lord.
I clutched Ronan’s arm, feeling as though I might faint. He wrapped his arm around my side, supporting my weight effortlessly. He hadn’t uttered a single word the entire time, and I couldn’t read his face. He simply stared at Torryn with hushed intensity.
My eyes slid to Dristan, who was also staring at Torryn in complete silence, his face as blank as death. The only sound I could hear for several, never ending moments, was Andi’s quiet sobbing.
Gods... They were mates? I knew little of mates, aside from what Sylvie has told me. I didn’t know if it made a difference in what they’d done behind Dristan’s back. I knew mates were rare and treasured among magical beings...
But if it was such a sacred thing, then why did they hide it? Why had they snuck around instead of just telling Dristan from the start? It made no sense...
“Sir?” One of the guards finally asked, unsure of what to do.
Dristan’s jaw flexed.
Another few moments of silence passed. I glanced up at Ronan again and found his eyes on Dristan, his brows raised in curiosity.
Finally, Dristan spoke. “I’m calling for an immediate trail. Keep them chained, but take them to the council room instead of the dungeons. Stay with them until we arrive. Once we get there, go and gather a dozen more guards. I need witnesses for their full confession. I want to know exactly what the fuck is going on, and I want it on record. Bring the stenographer as well.”
The guards nodded firmly and then ushered Torryn and Andi from the room. She gave me a small, sad smile as she passed and it felt like a physical blow to my gut. All I could do was stare at her blankly, numb from shock.
Just before she was pulled from the room, as she passed Dristan, she looked up at him.
“I’m sorry.” She whispered.
And then they were gone
And then they were gone.
An hour later, we were all sitting at the High Council table, the far wall occupied by several guards. A Fae woman sat near the door with a long scroll in her lap. She held a feathered pen, which moved quickly on the paper every time anyone spoke. She must have been the stenographer...
Andi and Torryn sat on either end of the table, both chained to their chairs. I sat beside Ronan, while Dristan sat across from me, beside Warrick.
“Now that we are all here, I want you to tell us everything. If you leave out a single facet of the truth, you’ll be jailed for perjury.” Dristan said with calm authority, his eyes switching from Andromeda, to Torryn, and back again.
There was a long moment of silence. I waited, not breathing, as the stillness stretched on.
“When we were young... I always fancied Andromeda.” Torryn began. “I didn’t know why, but I yearned to be near her, every moment of the day. She shared my liking to her, and we became close. But you already know that... We grew up together, all of us, after all... It wasn’t until we turned eighteen that the mate bond snapped into place.”
Eighteen.... But they were all well over one hundred years old... They’d been suffering, hiding their mate bond, all this time? I felt tears stinging behind my eyes as I listened.
Andromeda spoke next. “I told my mother immediately. I was so happy... You know how rare it is, to find your mate... I thought she’d be thrilled. But... She and my father were furious.” She let out a long sigh as a tear slid down her cheek. Her smudged mascara created long lines of black down her face.
Dristan narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“Because,” Torryn interjected. “They, along with my parents, your parents, and the rest do the elders, had already decided that Andromeda was to become your wife. She was to marry the future Dragon Lord, as she was the strongest, most beautiful, and from the most well respected family of our kind.”
Dristan shook his head slowly, his eyes lowering toward the table. “But... You were mates... That bond has always been put above all else, it should’ve been a deal breaker.”
“It should’ve.” Andi said solemnly. “But with the friction going on in the world, they did not want to risk the leadership of our future generation. They said the sacrifice was too great. They tried to make us reject the bond, but we couldn’t... So they forced us to hide it. They forced me to accept my duty as your betrothed and serve our people before anything else. They said that if they found out Torryn and I were sneaking around they’d abjure us.”
I felt a tear slip down my cheek. All this time, I’d judged her so harshly. I’d detested her... Without knowing her side of the story. I was so swift to deject her in my mind... It never occurred to me that she might have a real reason to betray the union.
I’d assumed she was just a whore, after Dristan’s crown... When all along, she was simply a heartbroken woman, just like me, who only wanted to be with the one she loved.
Guilt cascaded over me in waterfalls as more tears sprang to my eyes. She slid her eyes to mine and smiled softly, tilting her head to the side. I smiled back weakly, remorse and sorrow shining through my eyes. I wanted to hug her, comfort her, tell her I was sorry for judging her so harshly.
“Why didn’t you tell me, after my father died?“Dristan whispered.
“We were sworn, under the oath of the dragon gods, to never tell you or anyone else. We swore to put our responsibilities to the kingdom above everything else. And if we did tell you, our parents both would’ve thrown us off the council.” Torryn explained.
Dristan sighed. “But your parents are both dead. You should’ve told me...”
“I wanted to...” Andi whimpered. “But my shame was too great. Torryn encouraged me to tell you everything, but it felt like an insult to my family’s memory to abandon my role. And you needed me... With so few of us left... I didn’t know what else to do.”
“I needed you to be honest. I needed you to be my friend, as you’ve always claimed to be! If you wanted to play your part as my betrothed then you shouldn’t have kept seeing him behind my back like a traitor!” He said, his voice rising.
“You couldn’t possibly understand! The mate bond is unbreakable, it’s rooted into my very soul! I couldn’t fulfill my duty to you and stay away from my mate!” Her voice grew hysterical as she sobbed.
Torryn continued for her. “We tried to keep the bond manageable by seeing each other in secret. We thought we could still serve our people and you, as long as we had some way to be together. Can you truly blame us for that? She’s sacrificed her heart and her soul to do what’s been deemed her duty. And so have I. If anything, it proves our dedication to this kingdom. Suppressing the mate bond is torture...”
Andi nodded as tears slipped down her cheeks
Andi nodded as tears slipped down her cheeks. She and Torryn gazed at each other across the table, both of their eyes shimmering with desolation.
No one spoke for a long time. I glanced sidelong at Ronan to find him gazing down at me. He gave me a small, reassuring smile as my wet eyes slid to his. I couldn’t smile back.
I turned my head toward Dristan. “We can’t punish them.” I said softly.
Dristan lifted his gaze to mine, his brows furrowed, as everyone else turned to look at me. They waited for me to continue.
“An hour ago, I truly believed that this crime was unforgivable... But I was wrong. It would be unjustified in any other situation... But they are mates. Anyone in their position would’ve done the same, and I do not think they should be punished for it. The mate bond is sacred. It should be put above all else.” I explained emotionally.
Ronan placed his hand on top of mine. “Very just of you, Princess. I agree.”
I smiled weakly at him, fighting the urge to pull my hand away. “Thank you.”
“I agree as well.” Warrick said, his eyes uncharacteristically intense and serious.
“Thank you.” Andromeda said, smiling at all of us through her tears.
All eyes turned to Dristan.
He tapped his fingers on the table, his face blank. He studied Andi and Torryn in turn, his eyes flaming.
“If either of you... ever lie to me again... You will be banished from the council as well as the Aviary. I do not want liars in my court.”
“Dristan, I will amend my ways-” Torryn began, but Dristan held up a hand.
“As punishment for your lies... You will both receive ten lashes with an iron tipped whip... Publicly.”
Andromeda choked out a long, fearful sob. Torryn growled in outrage. Ronan raised his brows and Warrick remained silent.
I gasped. “Dristan! That is too harsh!”
He rose to his feet. “Silence! Liars must be reprimanded and made examples of. If I let them off without a single punishment, do you know how weak that will that make me look? Ten lashes is lenient. I am Dragon Lord and I will not be made a fool of in front of my people!”
I glared at him, rising to my own feet. “How can you be so cold?! They are mates!”
He growled, his eyes pinning me to the spot.
I swallowed, lowering back into my chair, as his wings flared behind his back. Still, I let my anger shine brightly through my eyes as we glowered at each other.
The thick tension in the air could be cut with a knife. There was a long moment of hushed stillness before Dristan spoke again.
“Your crime will be announced... As well as your matehood. When the punishment is over with... You will be allowed to remain on the council. You will be given a shared room.... You will be given a mating ceremony... And you may marry if you wish.” He grumbled, lowering into his chair.
My mouth fell open.
Andromeda gasped while everyone else remained still. “Truly? You’d allow that?” She whispered, leaning forward.
“Yes... But do not ever keep anything from me again... Either of you.”
Androma began to sob again and Torryn’s face broke out into a smile as he stared at the side of Dristan’s face. “Dristan... I cannot thank you enough.”
Dristan gave him a brief, returning smile. “Tell me you’re forever indebted to me and we’ll call it even.”
“Done.” He said, still smiling.
I didn’t think I’d ever seen Torryn smile before. Perhaps briefly... But never like this.
Even though they were going to be publicly whipped, they were happy. I stared at the side of Dristan’s face, in awe of him. I felt foolish for my outburst. I should’ve trusted that he’d be just.
As Dragon Lord, he had to dish out punishment, even if he didn’t want to. He had to make difficult decisions to remain strong in the eyes of his people. But beneath that... He was caring.... He was gentle, and loving, and forgiving.
My heart swelled as he turned his face toward me and gave me a warm, slow smile. I wanted to jump across the table and tangle myself into his arms. Instead, I smiled back, my eyes welling with emotion.
Dristan rose to his feet, followed by Warrick and Ronan.
Dristan was still staring into my watery eyes when he softly said, “Meeting adjourned.”
The public whipping took place the next morning, in a large, dark room I’d never been in before. There was a wooden stage in the center of the vast room, but aside from that, the space was empty. Ronan explained to me that this was also the room where he would preform my public rune removal ritual, later tonight.
It was hard to believe that by the end of the day, I would finally be Fae... We would finally be able to start planning for the war.
It was exciting, and terrifying, all at once. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. I was worried enough already. I needed to focus on one thing at a time.
Everyone in the Aviary was here, all dressed in black clothing. I stood at the front of the crowd, Ronan at my left side, Dristan at my right.
I gazed up at Dristan’s blank face, wishing I could have a moment alone with him. I hadn’t see him after the council meeting yesterday and he hadn’t come to my rooms. He must have been extremely upset... I longed to talk to him, to figure out what he was feeling, to comfort him...
Warrick stood on the raised, wooden stage before us, beside a heavily armed guard. There was a whip at the guards hip. The iron tip of the long coil gleamed in the dim lighting.
I gazed up at Andromeda and Torryn’s kneeling forms. Their backs were bare and facing the crowd. They had been forced to shift into their human forms, so that their wings would not be in the way of their lashings, and also so that the pain would be more severe.
Their arms were chained to a bar above their heads and their legs were chained to the ground. I could hear hushed whispering from the crowd behind me.
“Can’t believe this...”
“What have they done?”
I fought to hold my tongue as I listened to their judgement. I took deep, steadying breaths as Warrick stepped forward onstage. Silence fell across the crowd, everyone eager to hear what he had to say.
“My fellow dragons... My fellow Fae... You’ve been gathered here today to bear witness as Lady Andromeda Price and Lord Torryn Griggs receive punishment. Their crimes include infidelity, betrayal to the royal engagement, and dishonesty to their fellow council members. It is my displeasure to announce that they have been having a secret love affair.... They shall each receive ten iron lashes.”
Gasps and murmurs erupted from the crowd and several people shouted out their discontentment.
“Give them twenty!”
I gritted my teeth, my fists balling at my sides. Warrick raised his hands, silencing the crowd.
“There is something else you should all know.... Lady Andromeda and Lord Torryn have good reason for what they’ve done... Unbeknownst to anyone besides themselves, until now... They are mates.”
Another wave of gasps broke out. People began to murmur in disbelief.
Warrick folded his hands behind his back and began to pace slowly. “Because of this... After a trial and a Council meeting... Lord Dristan has decided that their punishment will be ten lashes, and ten lashes only.... They will be grated the leniency of remaining on the High Council. Lord Dristan has also granted them permission to marry, despite the disappointing cancellation of his and Lady Andromeda’s union.... Matehood has always been, and will always be, a sacred thing among our kind...”
He paused his pacing and faced the crowd, eyeing some of them directly. “Does anyone object to this decision?”
I waited for the hateful shouts, for the judgement, for the damnation of the mated pair...
But the crowd was silent.
I sighed deeply and closed my eyes in hushed gratitude. After a short moment of stunned silence, a few people did shout out... but they were not words of animosity.
“Blessed be the mate bond!”
“Mercy be upon them!”
“Hail the hallowed mate bond!”
I smiled as the words rang out. It was true, then... The people really did put the mate bond above everything else.
Thank the gods...
“Very well... Begin.” Warrick said, stepping off of the stage.
Torryn was whipped first. I winced as each lash snapped across his flesh, tearing his skin open, flaying him alive.
He did not make a sound the entire time. I knew it must be unbearably painful. His prideful silence gave me a newfound respect for him as I counted the lashes in my head.
Seven... Eight... Nine... Ten...
When it was done, Torryn’s back was a slab of bloody meat. No surface of his skin was left unscathed.
He was unchained, and as he slumped forward, catching himself on his hands, the movement caused blood to gush from the wounds. It trickled down his arms and pooled beneath his knees in a crimson puddle.
He turned his head toward Andromeda, who was sobbing as she gazed at him. I wondered if she could feel his pain... He smiled weakly at her before he was dragged off of the stage.
The guard moved on, standing behind Andi now. I held my breath as he reared back, and then hurled the whip at her exposed flesh.
One... Two... Three...
By the fourth lash, Andromeda could remain silent no longer. She cried out as the sickening snap of the whip echoed through the room. I winced, holding my hand over my mouth. I looked up at Dristan and found his eyes swimming with despair.
How guilty, he must feel... I knew he did not want to do this to her... But he had to. I yearned to lean into his side, to inhale his comforting scent... To hold his hand and support him through this. But I was powerless.
Five... Six... Seven...
She was screaming now. No one made a sound as she took her punishment, her back split open and bleeding profusely. Her cries quieted as the last three lashes rang out.
Eight... Nine... Ten.
She was swiftly unchained, and as she slumped to the ground, a heap of ruined skin and blood, I realized she was unconscious.
A moment passed as people in the crowd began to murmur in pity, some even crying for her...
And then Dristan stepped forward.
I watched as he climbed the stage and stalked toward her, his wings powerful and strong at his back. He leaned down and gently picked her up, bridal style, and then turned toward the crowd.
She lay limp and unmoving in his arms, her blood dripping onto the floor and soaking into his clothes. He stared out across the crowd, his eyes serious and dark...
And when he left the stage, still carrying her, people began to applaud.
For though he was severe...
He was also merciful...
Their Dragon Lord.