My hands balled into tight fists beneath the table as Brenya read the riddle aloud.
“I hide among the living wood. Who always, yet have never stood. Those who seek them surly could, though death will follow if they should.”
The answer came to me immediately. I remained silent, for I could not speak. The hair on my arms rose as I envisioned the beasts that the riddle spoke of.
Brenya waited for someone to speak.
No one did.
“Well?” She whispered.
I stared at the table in front of me, my teeth aching from being clamped together so fiercely. How were we going to face them? No one had ever come out of the black forest alive.
“Someone say something.” She whispered again. I could hear the anxiety in her tone.
“You’re not going to like it.” Marrok said, breaking the silence.
“Tell me.” She said boldly.
“The riddle is obvious...” He said.
Yes, it was. We all knew what it meant. All of us, except Brenya.
“But it is going to be the most difficult rune to obtain. That riddle can only mean one thing...” He said, his tone low and dangerous.
“Tell me.” She repeated louder.
“The rune is with the Kodoma.” He said quietly.
I bared my teeth at the thought of Brenya standing against the mighty, powerful and vastly feared Kodoma. Images of the giant creatures filled my mind and I could already feel my instincts screaming at me to keep her from them.
The Kodoma were ancient tree spirits, guardians of the sacred black forest. The black forest was a forbidden place, one that no one dared venture too closely to. One step into those dark woods was a death sentence.
The Kodoma were technically spirits, but they hid inside of colossal trees, animating them into living beings. They sat motionless in the forest, guarding, waiting... Waiting for someone foolish enough to enter. And then they would spring to life, pounding their victims into the dirt with their gargantuan limbs.
It was rumored that they could uproot themselves and walk around, though no one knew for certain. So few had ever seen the Kodoma and lived to tell about it. I, myself, had flown above the black forest once. I’d dared not soar too low, for fear of what they might do...
But as I’d flown above, I had watched the treetops move beneath me. They did not move in a natural way, as some trees did in the presence of a strong wind... They moved in sync with my flight patterns, as if they were watching me...
We couldn’t go there. Not unless we wanted to end up as puddles of blood and flesh and bone.
“Oh dear.” Aella said softly, shaking her head as her strange eyes drifted to meet mine.
I tore my eyes away from her onyx depths, knowing that she could taste my unease.
“What are we going to do?” Andromeda said, her voice high pitched and panicked.
“We can’t just barge into the dark forest, its suicide.” Torryn said darkly.
“There’s no way... No one has ever come out alive.” Marrok answered.
“We must. It’s the only way to get the rune, we have no choice.” Ronan interrupted.
“We will find a way, we have to.” Brenya said calmly.
All of their voices filled my head as they began to murmur over each other, crowding the room with their worry. I felt my heart rate picking up as they grew more and more panicked. My skin crawled with anxiety and agitation. I wanted to tear if off. Each second that passed sent me closer and closer to losing my head.
“Brenya, you don’t understand the dangers of the Kodoma! This is insane!” Andi cried.
“I don’t care! This is the only way!” She argued.
“No one has ever come back from that place, Princess, you must understand.” Torryn added.
“It’s impossible.” Marrok mumbled.
“You lot have no faith in the princess. She can do this. She must!” Ronan growled.
Visions of Brenya standing before an army of angry, 400 foot tall trees flashed before my eyes. Images of them trying to crush her beneath their giant roots and thick branches sent a growl up my throat. My dragon’s irritation and defensiveness pulsed through me, making my own instincts even more unbearable.
My body was on fire. I could feel the tension radiating throughout my being, stretching like a rubber band, ready to snap at any moment.
I lifted my eyes to Aella again and found her staring at me as the others carried on and on and on... She cocked her head to the side as she calmly observed me. As if she was waiting...
Waiting for me to break.
I squeezed my eyes shut, fighting the anger.
“You do not speak for her, Ronan. She does not know what she’s up against!” Andi’s voice called.
“I’m tired of you all treating her like a weakling!” Ronan snarled.
“Stop arguing, that will get us nowhere.” Brenya pleaded.
“We’re all going to die...” Marrok’s ghostly voice echoed.
I stood so swiftly, so violently, that the chair I’d been sitting on flew backward and slammed against the wall. CRASH.
Everyone in the room, aside from Aella, jumped in surprise and turned to stare at me with wide eyes. I couldn’t look at any of them, couldn’t stand to see the alarm and judgement in their eyes as I immediately turned and stormed out of the room.
My hands tangled into my hair as I tore down the corridor, the anger inside of me desperate to escape. Fighting with Brenya and going so long without her near me had made my temper even more fragile than usual these past couple of days.
My dragon did not understand it.
He whined and growled inside of my head as I turned down another hallway and stalked past a startled looking pair of Fae. They were wise to move out of my way and remain silent as I passed them.
I turned again, with no destination in mind, as I barreled through the Aviary.
I could hear footsteps approaching behind me, growing closer even as I picked up the pace. I did not want to be perused. Still, the footsteps grew louder and closer. Whoever was following me was fast.
“Dristan, wait!” Brenya called.
I didn’t want to be near her.
I did... I did with everything inside of me.
But I knew that with my short fuse, I would only lose my head and hurt her again. I did not want to yell at her. I did not want to lash out. I just wanted to be alone...
“Leave me BE!" I snarled, turning another corner.
She continued to follow me, frustrating me even further.
“Please, stop-” She begged from behind me. Her footsteps echoed against the stone walls around us.
“I said no!” I hissed, keeping my eyes forward. I surged ahead.
“You’re a coward!” She screamed.
The echoing footsteps ceased and the dimly lit corridor fell silent.
The large hallways was abandoned aside from my mate and myself.
I struggled to control my heaving breaths as I stared forward, my body highly aware of her nearness to me. I could not see her, but I knew she was only a few feet away.
“You can run from your anger and you can run from what scares you, but you cannot run from me, Dristan. I will follow you to the edge of the world if that’s what it takes.”
I sucked in a lungful of air and exhaled slowly, trying to keep myself in control of my rage. I couldn’t risk my temper getting the better of me. I couldn’t hurt her more than I already had. I was not in control at the moment.
“Brenya... I need you to go... Now.”
“LEAVE!” I bellowed.
She was silent for a long moment.
“Why are you doing this to me? Haven’t you punished me enough already?” She whispered. Her voice was broken, cutting into me painfully like a thousand shards of glass.
I closed my eyes as sorrow filled my heart. This was exactly what I was trying to avoid.
“Brenya, I am not trying to punish you. I just don’t want to hurt you anymore than I already have. I cannot control myself right now. You have to go away.” I explained slowly, as calmly as I was able.
“But you are hurting me... Every moment that I spend away from you is more painful than the last.”
I could sense her moving closer, though her footsteps were soft and quiet.
“All I can think about is the fact that you’re angry with me... All I can see when I close my eyes is yours...” She breathed as she moved around me, coming into view before me.
I closed my eyes, too ashamed to look at her. Too guilty and tortured by what I’d made her feel.
“And the coldness inside of them back in the forest... Like... Like you didn’t love me anymore...”
I turned my head as I opened my eyes, staring at the floor beside her feet.
“You won’t even look at me.” She whispered, her voice breaking. “It feels like a knife to my heart.”
Slowly, my eyes lifted from the cobblestone. They slid up her legs, her waist, her chest, her neck...
But I could not lift them to meet her eyes.
I watched her throat bob subtly as she swallowed. My jaw flexed over and over as I struggled with myself, so eager to meet her eyes, but somehow unable to do so.
Brenya, Brenya, Brenya...
My dragon struggled from within me to see her face.
She tentatively lifted her hand and layed it gently against my chest, directly over my hammering heart. Her warmth seeped though my shirt, bleeding into my skin, warming me from the outside in as I felt my icy heart thaw a fraction.
I closed my eyes and my brows drew together at the comforting sensation. Nothing else effected me this way. Nothing in the world, in the universe, could calm me the way that she could.
I hadn’t realized how badly I needed her until that moment. I’d been so angry, so filled with guilt and self loathing and rage, all the while running from the one source of soothing comfort that would put out the flames inside of me.
“Look at me.” She said, her voice feather light.
Slowly, so slowly, my eyes opened.
And when I looked into her multi colored eyes, so filled with love and patience and worry, I felt the raging fire in my chest diminish, leaving cool, soothing waters in their wake.
Every muscle in my body relaxed and I let out a breath of air that I wasn’t aware I’d been holding in. I hadn’t realized just how tense I was until I looked into those eyes, until I felt every ounce of anger lift off of me effortlessly.
Her eyes alternated slowly between my own as I stared into her depths. I couldn’t speak. I was too amazed, stunned into silence at her unfathomable ability to completely disarm me with a single look.
How could she look at me that way? How could she look at me with so much love, so much admiration and kindness, after the way I’d treated her? Why wasn’t she screaming at me, giving me exactly what I deserved? How could she love me so?
“Do you still love me?” She whispered, her voice almost inaudible.
My lips parted as my lungs expanded fully inside of my chest. I studied her blue eye, switched to her mossy green eye, and back again. I’d been cold enough to make her question my love for her...
Guilt and anguish pulsed through my veins as I slowly lifted my hands to gently cup her beautiful face. I brushed the pad of my thumb across her cheek as I slowly shook my head.
“How can you ask such a question?” I said gently.
Her skin was warm and soft beneath my hands.
“That’s not an answer.” She said breathlessly.
My thumb drifted lower, brushing across her lower lip. It felt like silk, so smooth and velvety.
“There is nothing... nothing you could ever do to change the fact that I am hopelessly in love with you.” I whispered, subtly moving closer to her body. Her lips parted as she stared up at me. “My heart belongs to you, now and always. You could rip it out with your bare hands, throw it on the ground and crush it beneath your boots... And I would still fall to my knees to pick it up and give it back to you.”
She smiled briefly, her lips moving against my fingertips, as a tear fell over the apple of her cheek. I quickly brushed it away.
The sight of her so raw and emotional in front of me sent signals all over my body. The pressing need to be closer to her grew stronger and stronger as she leaned her face into my hand and closed her eyes... As if I was just as much an oasis to her and she was to me.
“I thought... I was so scared... I thought that you...” She shook her head against my hands as more tears escaped from her closed eyes. “I thought you didn’t want me anymore...”
I pulled her tightly against my body, burying my face into her hair. Her vanilla and cactus bloom scent filled my senses, sending my longing for her into overdrive. Her arms wrapped around my waist and she clung to me as a soft sob left her lips.
“How could you think that?”
“You were so cold...”
Gently, I pushed her away from me. I tangled my hands into her hair, carefully tilting her face upward to look into my eyes. Her lashes were damp, her brows drawn together, raising up toward her hairline.
I brought my lips an inch from hers. “Do you not understand my love for you at all?”
Something stirred within the bond. Her immediate need for me shot down the cord like a bolt of lighting, momentarily stunning me. I could feel her desire. My hands tightened in her hair as I realized what she wanted.
And when the scent of her arousal became apparent, I lost control.
My lips were suddenly on hers, desperate and greedy, starved of her love for far too long. She gasped in surprise against my kiss, instantly tangling her hands into my hair as she kissed me back with unyielding urgency.
“You rutting idiot...” I whispered against her lips, flicking my tongue against hers. She tasted like my salvation. “I want you every second of every day. I want you so much it kills me.”
She moaned softly as one of her hands detached from my hair and slid down my neck, down my chest, and began exploring the planes of my abdomen.
I growled, sucking her lower lip between my teeth as I walked her backward and then pushed her against the stone wall. My hand slid down her slim shoulder as our tongues trashed against one another, tasting and giving and taking.
My hand slid lower, closing over her plush breast. I kneaded her though her dress, feeling the softness of the mound of flesh despite the barrier of her clothing.
She craned her neck back, exposing her neck to me as I trailed heated kisses down the column of her throat. “Dristan...”
The scent of her arousal, rain and honey, grew even more palpable. I needed to taste it. I needed to devour her, right now. I felt that I might die if I didn’t.
I picked her up roughly, wrapping her legs around my waist, and carried her to the room closest to us. I threw the door open, praying to the gods that the room was vacant. And I prayed for the life of anyone who might be inside if they didn’t get the fuck out.
My eyes swept the room over my mate’s shoulder.
Empty... Aside from a large rug near the stone fireplace.
I slammed the door behind me and hauled her into the room as she sucked and nibbled the skin on my shoulder. Her nails bit into my back, sending the sweetest pain through my body.
My cock was painfully swollen, pressing against my zipper as she ground her hips against me.
I growled as I dropped to my knees and laid her on the rug with extreme gentleness. She rolled her head toward the fireplace and surprised me when she waved her hand, springing flames to life within it.
She turned her head back to face me, smiling. The brilliant reflection of the fire danced inside of her irises, mirroring the heat of my desire for her.
I smiled back at her briefly before reaching for the hem of her white dress and shoving it upward, bunching it up around her waist. She yelped in surprise at my hasty advance.
I stared down at her in admiration as I held her dress in place, keeping it out of my way. Her panties matched her dress, white and made of lace. My mouth watered as I gazed at her.
I lifted my gaze to meet hers, my eyes hooded and wanton, as I slowly lowered my hand and cupped her sex firmly. Her heat scalded my palm as I firmly pressed it against her.
“Mine.” I growled.
She rolled her hips against my hand. “Yes...”
She closed her eyes and moaned softly as I nimbly moved the material of her damp panties to the side and sank two fingers into her slickness. She was just as wet for me as ever, if not more so. I couldn’t help but bare my teeth and snarl, deep and animalistic, as her soaking heat cradled my fingers tightly.
She whimpered in response and bucked her hips against me, desperate for friction.
“Always so ready and eager for me, mate.” I whispered, lowering onto my hands and knees above her.
She reached down, her hands fumbling to loosen my belt, but I caught her wrists in my hand and pinned them above her head.
She whined, struggling against my grip. “Please...”
I stared down at her hungrily. “Stay still and do as I say. I want to taste you.”
She stilled, staring up at me with anticipation and need. I kissed her softly and let go of her wrists, waiting to make sure she did not move.
“Good girl.” I said, sweeping my tongue against her lower lip. “Now take off your dress.”
I pushed off of the floor, hovering over her on my knees. With shaking hands, she gripped the material of her dress, still bunched up around her waist. Her back arched as she pulled it up and over her head.
As the pale material slipped over her chest, revealing her bare breasts to me, I nearly came in my pants. Her pink, perfect nipples were stiff, and her skin glowed with golden hues in the light of the fire.
She threw the dress to the side, her eyes glued to mine. As she laid her head back down, her hair fanned across her shoulders and chest.
“Remove your panties.” I said gruffly.
I watched with growing desire as she obeyed, lifting her hips and shimmying out of the lacy material. She lifted her leg as the panties hung from the black heel still secured to her foot. Gently, I slid my hand up her calf and pulled her shoe off. I repeated the same motion with her other leg, never taking my eyes off of hers.
Finally, her body lay completely naked before me.
′Yours’. Her voice echoed through my mind.
I groaned with satisfaction before dropping low and burying my face between her tanned legs. She gasped, tangling her hands into my hair as I slid my tongue in between the highest point of her folds. The swelling bud of her clit rolled against my tongue as I lapped against it. She mewled and her thighs flexed, holding my head in place as I flicked my tongue against her most sensitive area.
I was experienced. I knew how to pleasure a woman... But the added bonus of feeling her pleasure through the bond made it much easier to know exactly how to please her. I could feel the echo of every sensation that I was giving her. It felt as if I were experiencing it myself.
I continued to move my tongue, softening it as I neared her entrance, and tensing the flexible muscle as I neared her clit.
Up, down, up, down, left, right, left, right, left, left, left, up.... Around, around, left, right, right, right, down, around...
Every flick of my tongue sent her closer to the edge, and me right along with her. I worked her body exactly the way she needed me to. Her cries grew louder and longer as I did.
I slipped two fingers into her heat, moaning against her sweet flesh as her walls squeezed around them. I could feel her quickening. Her tightness quivered against my flesh.
I did not want her to come yet.
I pulled away.
She cried out in frustration. ”Dristan! No, please...”
I licked my lips and sucked my fingers into my mouth, enjoying every drop of her unique flavor as I rose above her. She panted beneath me, grasping her own breasts in her hands.
I lowered over her, supporting myself with a hand on the floor next to her head. The other hand slid up her neck and cupped her jaw as I stared into her wide eyes.
“Promise me that you will never again question my love for you.” I whispered.
Her eyes alternated between mine. “I promise.”
“I will always love you. I will always want you. I will never stop. Even if the gods themselves tore us apart, I would fight until my last breath to find my way back to you. Do you understand?"
Her hands tangled into my hair as she pulled my lips toward hers, hovering an inch away. “Yes. I do. Because I would do the same... I love you, Dristan.”
She kissed me with such passion that my heart stumbled in my chest. I tore down the walls in my mind and let every ounce of my love for her pour through the bond, showering her with everything that I had to give.
She cried out against my lips as she felt it, and I could hold myself back no longer.
I reached down and ripped my belt off, ignoring the snapping sound it made as it sprang free. I fumbled for the zipper, biting down on her lower lip as I struggled to free my painfully engorged member.
Her hands came down on mine, pushing them out of the way, as she desperately yanked the zipper down and then slid her hand under the band of my under shorts.
I hissed as her hand curled around my throbbing cock. She used her other hand to push my clothes down my hips, freeing my manhood. She gasped and began to pant as she wrapped both hands around my thick shaft and began slowly pumping her hands up and down it’s length.
I growled against her lips as she moved the head of my cock toward her sex. She drug the sensitive crest directly over her clit, then through her slick folds, before aiming it directly at her soaking entrance. Her hands moved to my hips, and as she moved her face back to meet my eyes, she pulled my hips toward hers slowly.
My eyes blazed into hers as the intense tightness of her pussy resisted the mass of me. She stared into my depths, biting her lower lip seductively as she pulled my hips toward her a second time, this time flexing her own hips forward firmly.
I bared my teeth, hissing at the delectable sensation, as the first few inches of my length slipped into her. She moaned, tilting her head back, and I took the opportunity to trail kisses up the column of her throat.
She pulled my hips forward a third time, flexing her hips toward mine more forcefully than before. Another few inches sank into her heat.
It felt like velvet fire.
I gripped her slim hip, my other hand tangled in her dark hair, and pushed the last few inches on my thickness into her sheath.
She whimpered against my shoulder as I slowly filled her to the hilt, our hips finally fully joined.
“That’s it, baby...” I whispered against her neck.
Slowly, still allowing her body to stretch and adjust to my manhood, I pulled back out of her. Her walls squeezed me as I withdrew, as if they did not want me to leave. I pushed back into her, joining our hips again. Her soft moaning urged me on as I pulled back again, a bit faster this time. I filled her once more, growling at the delicious sensation of being inside of her.
“Yes...” She whispered against my ear.
And I let go.
I slammed into her full force, reveling in the feeling of both of our pleasures filling the bond between us. How it got stronger each time we made love, I did not know...
But it was the most incredible feeling I’d ever known.
Each thrust filled me with more love. Each stroke that brought my hips flush against hers felt like a lifeline, an oasis that would never stop giving as I basked in it’s warmth.
She pulled my face away from hers and stared into my eyes with parted lips as we felt our souls merging. I grunted softly with each pump of my hips, listening to her soft cries, as we lost ourselves in each other’s love.
On and on, I worshiped her body with mine. I held her tightly, whispering soft endearments into her ear as I brought her higher, and higher...
I moved my hand between our bodies as I fucked her, pressing my index and middle fingertips firmly against her throbbing bud. She gasped and moaned as I moved my fingers in slow, firm circles, continuing to trust myself in and out, in and out...
She was so close. I couldn’t hold off for long. I knew that as soon as I felt her release, both physically and through the bond, I would come, too.
“Come with me.” I breathed against her lips.
“I love you.” She answered.
And as I sank into her one last time, pressing my thumb firmly against her clit, I felt her walls spasm around me. She screamed in ecstasy as her orgasm overwhelmed her and I covered her mouth with mine, softening her cries as she came.
Her body pulsed around my cock, squeezing me again and again. I gritted my teeth as I felt my impending orgasm following right behind her.
Unable to contain the intensity of my pleasure, I threw my head back and roared as my orgasm summited. She pulled my mouth to hers, gently moving her tongue against mine as my release shot deeply within her belly.
My entire body felt like gelatin as I collapsed to the side, rolling onto my back and pulling her on top of me. She lay sprawled against my chest, her ear directly over my hammering heart, as we struggled to catch our breath.
I listened to her heart beat slow as she rested atop me.
Eventually, she lifted her head and met my eyes.
“I didn’t realize how much I needed that...” She whispered, smiling up at me.
I smiled back, winking slowly.
She bit down on her lower lip. “Let’s do it again.”
My eyes widened as she giggled and sat up, straddling me from above.
I laughed as she ran her hands down my chest seductively.
“You maddening, impossible, insatiable woman... What am I going to do with you?”
She squealed as I flipped her over and nuzzled my face into the crook of her neck. But her squealing and laughter quickly turned into other sounds as I began to make love to her again.
I never wanted to stop.
And I never would.
No matter how she defied me, drove me mad, angered me...
I would never stop loving her.