A week had passed since Warrick had been healed. Seven long, torturous days. I was getting impatient. I wanted nothing more than to leave for the Black Forest. I’d wanted to from the moment I’d read the riddle out loud.
But Dristan insisted that we needed Warrick to go with us. And in order for that to happen, Warrick needed to regain his strength. He said that we needed all of the backup we could get. I couldn’t say I blamed his caution. He was right to be cautious.
The Kadoma would not be so easy to overcome as the lava and the Sylphs had been. They were lethal. Truly lethal. After a long council meeting, in which the Kadoma were fully explained to me, I wasn’t sure how we were going to move forward.
What if we failed, and the gargantuan, animated trees crushed us into a bloody pulp? Even an immortal couldn’t come back from something as perilous as that, could they? And even if I... Or someone I loved... was able to survive something like that, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what permanent consequence it would have on the body.
But I could guess.
The first thing that came to mind was permanent paralysis. Then, I thought of the coma I’d been in. It would probably put someone in a vegetative state. Still technically alive... But not truly living. No one would want to exist in such a way.
Warrick’s words echoed on repeat in my mind... ‘Some things are worse than death...’
Thoughts like those had haunted my mind all week. I couldn’t end the worrisome moods, the nightmares, the buzzing anxiety in my stomach.
I didn’t feel confident like I had when we’d gone after the last two runes. It wasn’t just the fact that we were up against these unimaginable creatures. Though, it did make my nervousness more intense... But it wasn’t just that.
Something simply felt... Wrong. I could not shake the feeling, no matter what I did. It was something in my gut, something that screamed at me with silent urgency, something that woke me in the night and sent chills across my flesh. Something dark, a shadow, that crept up on me from behind during the most random moments. Moments when I was alone, moments when my mind would wander... While I showered, or when I tried to read a book, or when I made tea...
It was anxiety. Dread. Paranoia... I couldn’t write it off as anything else. All I knew was that it felt like something terrible was going to happen.
Training helped. It was almost all I’d done this week. Ten hours per day.
We all trained. Dristan and I agreed that it was necessary. Especially for Warrick. If he was going to regain his strength, he needed to practice. And so, we did. It was all we could do, for now...
Mostly, I worked on my magic. The more I practiced, the longer I could sustain it. Each day, I could hold it a bit longer. I could fly almost effortlessly, now. I’d leaned how to use the air around me, using it to move me through the sky, without even having to concentrate at all. I was getting very good at it.
I could spar quite easily as well. The strength of my magic always outlasted Dristan’s. He always tired before I did. He couldn’t keep up. None of them could. Not even Ronan.
Ronan... Things had been anything but comfortable with him since he’d been back. I only saw him while we trained. I avoided him, mostly. He seemed to do the same.
It was for the best.
Training left me completely exhausted every night, not physically really, but mentally. Dristan made sure to drain me physically every night, which I didn’t mind one bit.
Tonight was the first time in a week that I’d do something other than train, eat, and sleep. Tonight was the mate-hood party. A gathering of all the people to celebrate the mate bond between Dristan and I.
He was going to adore this dress. I could already imagine the way his hungry eyes would rake down my body when he saw me in it tonight. I could imagine all of the ways he would think of peeling it from my body as they flashed through his mind.
Not because it was a particularly seductive dress. It wasn’t. The matching cloak covered much of my body.
He would love it because this dress was regal.
The brownies had left a while ago, but I could not stop admiring their work.
Dark brown leather trim, black detailing down the front, a golden belted waistline with a heavy, matching, golden necklace. It hid my rune necklace, which I never took off. Dristan was the only one who I would allow to sense my emotions. The cloak was black, made of the finest material, and hooked to my shoulders on either side with golden clasps shaped like leaves.
But what truly made me look like royalty was the golden crown atop my head. It was simple, circling my head with intricate vines, tiny thorns and roses. On the front, a small dragon’s head rested in the center. To the left of the dragon was a carving of a flame, and beside that, one of a tree. To the right, the wave of an ocean and the outline of a cloud.
It had been made specially for me by the head blacksmith, William, who also made fine jewelry as a hobby. He had delivered it as a welcoming gift.
‘I am sorry that it is such a late gift, your grace. It took many weeks to craft. I made it for you,the elemental heir, mate to the Dragon Lord, princess of the Fae and heir to the throne.’ He had said, with a deep bow.
I'd tried to pay him for it, but he refused my efforts. He’d insisted that it was a gift, and a pleasurable one to bestow, at that.
It was stunning. How he’d managed to add such detail, such minuscule ones, I could not comprehend. He was good at what he did.
The other gift he’d made for me rested on my bed.
By order of the Dragon Lord, he had made me my very own set of weaponry. A sword that resembled Dristan’s, though it was thinner and much lighter. A dagger, curved like a talon. A beautiful bow, carved from dark walnut. And a satchel filled with small arrows.
Each of my weapons was made of iron, with silver and nightbane columned centers, just like Dristan’s. The perfect tools for killing magical beings, if I ever needed to.
I hoped I wouldn’t ever need to use them. But I did feel better, knowing that I would have them if I ever needed to defend myself. They made facing the Kadoma seem less daunting. Though, I prayed I would not have to harm them.
I smiled at myself in the mirror as I turned this way and that, examining every angle. My hair had been left down, falling over my back and shoulders in dark, wavy locks. Some pieces were braided, others left loose.
I didn’t look like a princess.
I looked like a queen.
Of course, I wasn’t one. Not yet... Dristan and I would have to marry first. It was something that had been floating in the back of my mind, but I hadn’t brought it up to Dristan yet. With the war, and our plans to end it, he probably wanted to wait to propose to me until it was over.
I didn’t disagree, if that was his wish.
A soft knock on the bedroom door snapped me out of my thoughts.
“Are you ready?” Dristan’s voice murmured from the other side.
I smiled, turning from the mirror, and walked toward the door to pull it open. As i did, I craned my neck back to look up into his face, and my eyes widened at the same time as his.
Just as I’d imagined, his eyes flashed with immediate hunger. He smiled lazily as his gaze traveled lower, raking over every inch of my body at an unhurried pace.
I found myself mirroring his action. It was obvious that the brownies had seen to him, as well. My mouth practically watered as my eyes trailed over him. He looked positively divine, so clean and sharp and tall.
His fine suit matched my dress, mostly black, with rich brown trim around the edge of his jacket’s collar. His clothes had been pressed, giving him an immaculate glow. His cloak was exactly like my own, even the golden leaf clasps.
It seemed that he had been given a crown as well. Like mine, his was golden. But as mine was elegant and subtle, his was much more masculine. His was also made of carved vines and thorns, but where I had roses, he had skulls with sharp teeth. And, like mine, the center held an intricate dragon’s head.
He was all male. A powerful, intimating, attractive as hell male. And he was mine. The sheer force of dominance that he exuded gave me the immediate urge to turn, lift my skirts, and bend over before him. To bare myself to him, to have him take me, fast and hard, here and now.
Now wasn’t the time for that.
But I couldn’t help my natural reaction to him. He was my mate, and I wanted him. I always wanted him. I couldn’t help it. Especially now, with his is towering form and muscular build, dressed so deliciously. Combined with the decadent pine needle and smoky scent of him, it sent a wave of warmth straight toward my center.
His sapphire eyes snapped back to mine. “You have no idea how insane it makes me when you do that.” He whispered.
“When I do what, exactly?” I breathed, pressing my thighs together.
He grinned dangerously. “When your body begs me to take you at the most inopportune time.”
It was bad enough that he was so gods damned sexy. His shocking mouth made it even worse. If he didn’t stop looking at me that way, speaking to me that way, we wouldn’t make it to the party, let alone out of the bedroom.
I ran my top teeth over my lower lip as I stared up at him. “Well, you have no idea how insane it makes me when you fuel the fire.”
He pursed his lips, still smirking, as his eyes trailed lower once more. “Apologies...” His eyes came back up to meet mine. His smirk faded, his expression growing more serious. “You look breathtakingly beautiful tonight, my queen.”
A slow smile spread across my lips. “I’m not a queen, yet... You’re a fine sight yourself, Dragon Lord.”
He grinned briefly. “No, not yet... But soon.”
He turned and strode toward the front door, exuding male power as we went. I blinked after him, smiling like a fool, my cheeks growing warm with blush.
He opened the door and glanced over his shoulder at me. “Come, now... Our party awaits.”
The entire council sat at a long, wide table near the front of the massive dining hall. Dristan and I sat in the center, both appointed to beautifully carved oak chairs which had golden accents on the arms and backrests. The chairs were taller than the others, making us stand out among our company.
Near the entryway, a small group of musicians played a soft, acoustic melody for the guests to enjoy as we ate. The energy in the room was warm, and friendly. It felt nice, despite the faint anxiety in my gut that never seemed to go away completely.
I sat to Dristan’s left, with Andromeda and Torryn beside me. To Dristan’s right, Warrick, Ronan and Marrok all sat. On the farther ends of the large table were some other high Fae, whom I did not know. They all chatted happily among themselves.
I gazed across the spacious dining hall as I sipped my wine, amazed at the architecture. The room was grand enough to fit thousands of participants. Low hanging chandeliers, carved from bone and lit with white candles, hung in five rows of ten all the way across the ceiling. The white flooring was obviously made of fine marble, the tables of dark, cherry wood.
The wall to the far right was made completely of glass. It overlooked the forest canopy far below. With the night sky completely cloudless, the stars sparkled brilliantly and there was a perfect view of the mountains in the distance.
I grinned to myself as I spotted the Sylphs at their own table. The Dragons, Fae and wolves seemed to avoid them at all costs. Not because they feared them. Sylphs were peaceful creatures. They were just extremely odd. And somehow, they always ended up insulting someone, even though they didn’t mean to do so.
And so, they were avoided.
They sat with ridged backs, so straight and perfectly postured in their chairs. None of them seemed to be speaking, not even to each other. They sat with their hands folded in their laps, just staring forward, their enormous, obsidian colored eyes unblinking.
This was the first time they were all inside of the Aviary together. Most days, they preferred to stay in the skies above it, invisible to us unless they chose otherwise.
The wolves seemed to keep to themselves, too. Most of them kept to their own tables, but I did notice that some of them ventured out, chatting with different Fae and dragons. It seemed they were warming up to everyone here. And Dristan had mentioned earlier that no fights had broken out in weeks.
We were making good progress. Not only in numbers, but it friendships.
“You can see it, can’t you.” Dristan suddenly whispered into my ear. It wasn't a question.
I turned to him, smiling. “See what?”
“The future. The people, all coming together. Living in peace.” He said, moving his left hand to cover my right on the tabletop. “You can see the possibilities. The hope.”
My fingers laced into his. “I can... I can see all of it. We are going to build an empire, you and I.”
“Yes. Yes, we are, love.” He said softly.
“Please be excusing us, Princess Brenya and Dragon Lord Dristan.” A small voice suddenly peeped from in front of us.
I turned my face from the beautiful male beside me and smiled warmly at the small group of brownies that had gathered before our table. “Not at all, dear ones.” I said kindly.
Simultaneously, they all squealed with sudden excitement before hushing each other and smacking each others arms. I held back a laugh as the female brownie in front sent the group a stern glare.
“We brownies have a gift to be offering you tonight, your graces.” She said, turning toward us again.
“How kind and thoughtful you are. Thank you.” I said, giving her a small nod.
Her face grew pink as she turned and pulled two gift bags from one of the other brownie’s hands. “We did a making these for you, with our own hands, we did. We brownies do not be knowing how to do much, besides doing a cooking and cleanings. But we were wanting to do you something special. We are hoping you will do a like.”
She set the bags on the table before each of us before stepping away and nervously wringing her tiny, bony hands in front of her.
“I’m certain that we will love your gifts. I wonder what it is...” I said, touching the loose, white tissue paper that stuck out of the bag in tufts.
The small group of brownies squealed once again as I began to pull the paper from the bag. I glanced at Dristan and found him grinning at me like a loon.
“Open yours, too. Let’s do it at the same time.” I said, flashing him a smile.
“Alright.” He nodded, pulling his bag closer.
Together, we pulled the paper out and reached into the bags. Whatever was inside, it was slightly heavy. It felt lumpy and cold.
With my brows knit closely together, I pulled the item from the bag. Dristan did as well. The brownies waited silently as I stared at the gift in my hand.
It was a coffee mug. It seemed to be made of hardened clay. It was brown and green. The colors had mixed together as the mug had been shaped. On the side of the mug, there was a misshaped handle. The front of the mug had a scraggly carving of the letter “B”.
I glanced at Dristan’s hands, and noticed that his was identical to mine, only his carving was of the letter “D”.
“B”, for Brenya, and “D”, for Dristan...
‘This is the most hideous mug I have ever seen.’ Dristan whispered into my head through the bond.
I struggled to keep myself from laughing. He was right, they were quite ugly. But they were also very sweet, and special, and I adored them.
I lifted my eyes to the group of brownies and smiled brightly at them. “My goodness, you made these yourselves?”
They all nodded quickly, their heads bobbing excitedly, as they flashed me sharp toothed smiles.
I gently placed the mug back into the bag and set it beside my chair. “Well, you’ve all done such a fine job. I absolutely love it! I shall drink from it every morning and remember how kind you all are and how lucky I am to have such thoughtful friends.”
The brownies, once again, erupted into a fit of squeals and excited laughter as they clung to each other. But just as quickly as they’d started, the female in front shushed them loudly, silencing them with a harsh stare.
She turned back to us and smiled. “We be so happy that you are doing it a like. Does Dragon Lord Dristan also be liking it?”
I looked to the right and found him holding the mug as if it might explode, his expression one of confusion and bewilderment. I kicked him beneath the table.
He jumped in surprise, glanced between the brownies and I, and quickly placed the mug back into the bag. “Oh, erm... Yes, very nice. Thank you.”
I turned and smiled widely at the female brownie, who’s face was alight with pride. “Oh, this is a very much good thing! We be going now. We be serving dinner in thirty minutes, your graces.”
“Wonderful. Thank you again.” I said, waving as they scurried away.
When they exited the room, Andi leaned over. “You can throw those away, they’ll never know.”
I laughed lightly and shook my head. “No, I actually really do like them. They’re unique and they’ll always remind me of this night.”
She rose a brow. “Suit yourself.”
As we awaited dinner, more people came to our table offering gifts and kind words. Apparently, it was customary to give gifts to a newly mated couple. It signified the approval of the community and was considered good luck.
As each person visited our table, offering kind gifts, they shared their well wishes for our happy union. I’d never felt so warm with love and happiness before.
“It’s truly astounding that the gods have brought you both together.”
“We couldn’t have hoped for such fine leaders after all that’s happened.”
“Congratulations on your mate bond, may you be happy all the days of your lives.”
“You’ll bring all of the races together, the future has never looked so bright.”
“What a handsome pair you make.”
Dristan received things like a fine new weapons belt, several pairs of leather gloves, thick wool socks, a set of fine cigars, fine liquor, incense, and trinkets.
Among other things, I received several lovely blankets, some very fine soaps and scented balms, jewelry, freshly baked breads, hair conditioners, colorful candles, and many, many books.
I lost count of how many times I'd said "Thank you," tonight.
The most extravagant gifts were from our closest friends.
Andromeda gave us a set of rare, silk bed sheets. They must have cost a fortune. Torryn gave us both a fine set of throwing knives, with jewel encrusted handles. Marrok gave us three, lovely floating lanterns to decorate our patio with. One had a painting of a wolf, one a dragon, and one a Fae. Sylvie gave us a brass music box which played the softest, most beautiful melody I’d ever heard. Ronan gave us a fine set of herbal tea and coffee.
But Warrick’s gift was my favorite of them all. He’d given us a large, handmade painting. It was of all of us, smiling and glowing with happiness a we stood side by side. We were all dressed in our matching fighting leathers. Behind us, there was a beautiful night sky and dark trees. My eyes had grown wet with joyful tears when he’d given it to us.
I’d hang it in our living room.
As the gift giving ceremony finally came to it’s end, everyone found their way back to their tables. I was overwhelmed and beside myself with all of the gifts and kind words we had received. The only gifts I’d ever been given were from my father. He always gave me things like a new toothbrush, or new boots, or a sweet roll he’d managed to save up for from the bakery.
Nothing like this. Never like this...
I couldn’t help but think of all of the people across the land who were still living the way I had been, before. How many other young girls were out there, hunting for their families, struggling every day just to survive until the next? Those people would never have such fine things. They would never know such luxury.
They only knew how to survive.
A familiar popping sound made me jump as the food arrived on the table.
My eyes scanned the assortment of colorful bowls and plates, all filled with mouthwatering dishes.
Steaming, buttery bowls of smashed potatoes. Fresh, hot rolls and crusty breads with maple spread. Platters of pink, juicy cuts of mutton, seasoned with rosemary and thyme. Several browned, plump turkeys, filled with savory bread stuffing and spices. Piles of steamed vegetables of all colors and varieties. Seared fish fillets with lemon and pepper. Sugared yams, raspberry tarts, candied pecans, baked pears...
I stared blankly at the table as everyone filled their plates.
“Aren’t you hungry, love?” Dristan said, filling my goblet with more wine.
I turned to study him. He watched me with a soft expression as he sipped from his own cup.
“Not as hungry as most people in the world are right now.” I said sadly.
Not taking his eyes off of mine, he gently set his wine back down. “We can change that... In time.”
“How? The humans fear us. Even if we did try to help them, they’d run away screaming. It’s what I would’ve done, if I didn’t know what I know now.” I said evenly.
“But you do know, now. Just as they will know. They only fear us because of the lies their king has fed to them. When he and his armies are gone, we will show them that he was wrong.”
I furrowed my brows slightly. “You truly want to help the humans?”
“Of course I do. I told you, I want to bring all of the races together. I want us all to live in peace.” He said, smiling softly.
“I know, I just didn’t realize you cared for the humans so much.”
“They know not. I cannot hate them for what they’ve been lead to believe. When the war is won.... They’ll be our last challenge. The hardest race to form an alliance with. But it is the most important of them all, Brenya. And with you at my side, I know we can accomplish it. We can make this world a better place. We must. and we will.”
I felt the heavy weight lift off my chest as we smiled at each other. One day, maybe it truly would happen... Maybe we would all coexist in peace. Maybe we could help feed the poor, rebuild villages and aid the sick. It seemed an impossible task... But when I looked into the face of my mate, this loving, caring, strong male who’s heart was so much larger than he’d let anyone see... I knew it was possible. With him, with us, anything was possible.
“Now, please stop frowning and eat something, won’t you?” He said, scooting a bowl of fluffy potatoes toward me.
I pursed my lips. “So bossy...”
He smirked before taking another sip of his wine. “I’ll show you bossy...” He murmured.
After an hour of eating, drinking, and chatting away with my friends, I felt as if I might pop. I couldn’t take one more bite. I leaned back in my chair, wishing I didn’t have this horrid corset on underneath my dress.
Dristan leaned toward me as Warrick rose from the table and stalked toward a pair of well dressed dragon guards that were lingering near the door.
“Shall we join the others in the ballroom for cocktails and dancing, or shall we return to our rooms for wine and a hot bath?” He whispered into my ear. His breath tickled.
“Hmm...” I giggled. “I was thinking-”
“Dristan, Brenya, sorry to interrupt. There is urgent news.” Warrick said suddenly from in front of us.
Both our heads snapped toward the first in command. My eyes widened at the stern look in his eyes. “What is it?” I asked warily.
Warrick turned and glanced at the other tables, just an earshot away. “Not here... Come with me.” He said, turning and marching toward the doors.
Swiftly, we stood and followed behind him.
“Is everything okay?” Andi asked, brushing her hand against my arm as I passed her.
“I’m sure its fine, just stay here.” I said reassuringly.
When we were in the hall, alone aside from two two guards I’d seen Warrick talking to only moments ago, Dristan shut the dining hall doors.
“What’s going on?” He said, turning to Warrick.
Warrick’s spine was straight, his hands folded behind his back. He held his chin high. He was in soldier mode and it was putting me on edge. I leaned into Dristan’s side and wove my fingers with his.
“The three scouts you sent east have returned.” He said darkly.
“What news did they have?”
I glanced at the dragon guards, both of whom were looking in any direction but at us.
“A large troop of the human king’s men were spotted in Brenya’s village. They were questioning the locals and threatening anyone who was withholding any information on the whereabouts of the missing Captain, Lieutenant and the group of soldiers accompanying them. They know that there was a Fae prisoner with them, and they seem to have finally realized that they are more than late for their scheduled return.” Warrick explained evenly.
Dristan was silent for a moment. “Well, I knew they’d realize there was foul play involved at some point.”
“They can’t find us here, can they?” I said, my bowls turning over.
“No. The Aviary is warded. They cannot get past our shields, even if they knew where to look.” Dristan answered calmly.
“The scouts followed the group. They’ve been traveling from village to village, searching for answers. They were also seen examining a part of the forest where the earth had been burned badly. It seems they have been alerting villagers and the rest of the king’s men to keep their eyes on the skies for any dragon sightings.”
The place where Dristan's dragon had burned the soldiers to ash...
“Fuck.” Dristan swore.
“There is more.” Warrick said, lowering his head.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, preparing myself for whatever it was he might say next.
“What is it...” Dristan growled.
“It seems that the soldiers tracked an old trail of horse prints through the forest, leading away from the burned area."
I held my breath.
"They... They found the Bakru village. They caught them off guard, when their wards were not raised. They burned it to the ground. The Bakru living there were all murdered with silver filled arrows.”
“No!” I cried, covering my mouth with my hands.
“All of them? Are you certain?” Dristan hissed.
“According to the scouts, there was nothing left. They found no survivors.”
“Why didn’t they do something?! Why didn’t they intervene?!” I gasped, removing my trembling hand from my gaping mouth.
“They were trailing them from a safe distance. They didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late and the soldiers had already moved on. And even if they had been there, they would’ve been slaughtered, too. They were outnumbered and those weapons are lethal to our kind.” Warrick said glumly.
Tears fell down my cheeks as Ferrin’s face flashed across my mind. He’d been so kind to us... And the women with the bakery cart... The one who’d given me a tart. She was dead.
They were all dead...
“Where are they now?” Dristan asked angrily.
“They were last seen headed west. These two returned with the news." He gestured toward the two dragon guards. "The other is still tracking them from a safe distance.”
Soft sobs began to bubble past my lips.
No, no, no... All those poor Bakru... Gone...
Dristan turned, his hands suddenly cupping my face, as he forced me to look up into his eyes.
“They will pay for this... We will make them pay.” He said firmly, his ocean depths aflame with fury.
I nodded furiously, my eyes raining down sorrow.
Dristan pulled me to his chest as he turned toward Warrick again.
“Warrick. How is your strength? Are you able to fly yet?” He asked.
“I am ready.” Warrick answered boldly.
“Good. We leave in the morning for the Black Forest.”