Copyright © 2018 by Sherry Leclerc
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission. Brief quotations may be embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.
I wish my heart were like a stone,
(Cold and hard)
Oblivious to the pain that it has known.
Talwyn and her mother ran through the woods, her mamai holding her tightly to her chest. Tree branches and leaves took turns flashing by in a blur or hitting them as her mother ran as fast as she could. They had been following her sister, but then they veered off. Her mother placed her on the ground and started digging underneath an outcropping of rock.
Her mamai took her by the hand and pulled her toward the hollow she’d just cleared. “Here Talwyn, I want you to hide in here. No matter what you hear, don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Do you understand?”
Talwyn was scared. She didn’t understand what was happening. She didn’t want to leave her mamai. Why were those people chasing them? They hadn’t done anything wrong! Tears streaked down Talwyn’s cheeks and dripped from her chin.
“Do you understand?” Her mamai’s voice was urgent, panicked.
Talwyn nodded, and her mother placed her underneath the outcropping. Stones and twigs were soon added in front of her hiding place, shielding her from view. It got darker and darker as she was given more cover. Talwyn’s breathing rate increased and her heart pounded. When there was nothing left but a little sliver of light, her mother peeked in through the crack. “I love you, Tali. Never forget.” Then everything went dark.
The sound of her mother’s footfalls faded as she got further away, and more footfalls sounded in pursuit. Her mamai managed to lead them some distance away from her hiding place, but Talwyn’s people had excellent senses. So even though her hands were clamped tightly down over her ears and her eyes were squeezed shut, Talwyn still heard the clash of metal-on-metal and metal-on-bone. She still heard the screams of pain. Would they find her in her hiding spot when they were done? Her heart pounded fast and hard, and her silent tears continued to fall.
“Stop, please! Don’t hurt her. Please, I will do whatever you want, just don’t hurt her!” Her mother pleaded for her sister’s life.
Why were those people hurting them? Why wouldn’t they stop?
Talwyn wanted so desperately to go to her family. She didn’t dare move, however, because her mother had hidden her here; her sister had sacrificed herself to draw the humans away from her. She needed to honor those sacrifices.
It seemed like such a long time before the screams, cries, and moans of agony stopped. Even then, she waited, afraid to come out too soon from her hiding place. The humans might still be there, ready to grab her and hurt her too.
Once, she dared to open her eyes and peek out around the rocks and greenery that hid her to see if it was safe to come out. What she saw across the clearing, however, was blood splattered on the ground and the lifeless forms of the people she loved. So she squeezed her eyes tight again and stayed like that, shivering, as night fell.
Eventually, she heard footsteps, and she huddled closer to the back of her hiding place. Then a familiar voice called out to her.
“Talwyn Sevi, come here, child.” The man’s voice was kind and gentle. Soothing. There was some noise as the man moved the items that had kept her hidden and reached in for her. “You are safe now. Come, I will take you home.”
Home. Her home was her family, and they were gone. She had no home.
Talwyn bolted upright as she woke abruptly from her dream. Actually, it wasn’t a dream. Not really.
“Universe save me!” Over three hundred years later, and she was still haunted by these memories.
She should have forgotten by now, since she only had eight years behind her when it happened. Her people could live for seven or eight hundred years or more and didn’t begin their adolescence until they had twenty-five or thirty years. This meant she had been barely more than a baby when those traumatic events happened. Unfortunately, her memory was even better than her senses, and this dark moment in her life remained clear and detailed in her mind.
Talwyn brought her knees up toward her chest, resting her arms over them and hanging her head, taking deep breaths and trying to calm down.
Why, oh why, did she have to have such a good, clear memory? Every time she had this dream-memory, she heard the screams rend the night, saw the gore covering the ground, smelled the iron tang of blood on the air, felt the all-consuming panic squeezing her chest and stealing her breath. It was as fresh as it had been more than three centuries ago. It was as though she was living it all over again.
She shook her head to try and clear it, then began folding up the light cloak she had been using as a blanket, even though the night had been warm. It was always warm and welcoming, summerlike, inside the Foraoise Naofa. Outside of the Sacred Forest, summer was threatening to turn to autumn. The evenings and early mornings would be crisp and cool to the north of the forest and warm the rest of the day. Here, to the south of the forest, the days were still hot enough to make physical activity uncomfortable.
Once she finished folding her cloak, she placed it in her pack before reaching into a second pocket and taking out some dried meat to chew on as she walked. She had a job to do. She may as well get to it.
She was about a day south-southwest of Southgate, one of the four fortresses and resulting castle-towns that were constructed to protect the keystones. She had checked in quickly with the King of Southgate, her fellow guardian of the south keystone, and so far, there seemed to be no suspicious activity. She knew trouble was headed that way, but she hoped it would not be for another week or two, giving her time to find some much-needed allies. Or rather, to convince them it would be in their best interest to help, since she already knew where to find them. Now she just needed a way to get them to let her inside their fortress.
Having just rested, she would not need to rest again for some time. So she began to run at a steady pace. If she walked at a human pace the whole way, it could take her a couple of days to get to her destination. That was more time than she could spare, so she would run until she got close enough to the mountain to potentially be spotted.
As she ran, the trees got fewer and farther between. She was so accustomed to having the trees overhead, blanketing her and all within the Foraoise Naofa, or the Sacred Forest as it was known in modern terms, that she felt naked and exposed wandering out from under its protection. Of course, given her role with her people, she had been outside of the forest many times, but she never really liked to leave. She did it because it was one of her responsibilities.
She ran until the green grasses became sparse, turning into low vegetation in uneven terrain. She slowed a little now to adjust for the pits, tufts and jutting rocks.
Even though Talwyn disliked leaving her forest home, she had to admit that she had always marveled at this area she was now passing through. Some people would look at this stretch of land and see it as harsh and barren. It was nothing but short, rough vegetation, stunted trees bent by the wind, and boulders of varying sizes.
But this last was what she found so interesting. The land was peppered with numerous boulders of many different shapes and sizes that looked as if they didn’t belong. How did they get here in such a random formation? It was if they had been rained down from the sky, and there was a particular kind of beauty in this wonder the universe had created.
She shook her head. She didn’t have time to think about this mystery right now. There were real problems that needed solving.
As she traveled, she had been thinking of a plan for how to get inside the fortress. Now, as there became less and less vegetation and more and more rock, she began looking for a good place to store her pack. Looking around and under the boulders, she found a large one with a hollow underneath. She checked for any signs of animals or reptiles that may have been denning there. Finding none, she stuffed the pack in the hollow along with her weapons and placed a pile of other, smaller rocks around the base to hide it from sight.
Well, didn’t this seem familiar? Only at one time, she was the pack.
Shaking off this morbid thought, she moved on. The climate had been getting warmer as she traveled farther south. Changes in climate didn’t affect her people as it did most others—they were skilled at regulating their body temperature, as they were with many of their bodies’ functions.
That thought gave Talwyn an idea for the quickest way into the mountain fortress. Unfortunately, though she hated to do it, it would involve the use of deception. She went back and forth numerous times in her mind about whether she should use this idea, and she tried to think of another option—any other option.
In the end, she decided to do it because, while it was not the best way to start a relationship with a people you wish to be allies with, any other option would take too much time and convincing. And the realm did not have time to spare.
So Talwyn changed her gait and her behavior to match those of a human who had been walking alone, exposed to the elements for too long. She stumbled along the harsh landscape that was so much different than her beloved Foraoise Naofa. She continued zig-zagging, pretending to be weak and out of sorts, for some time.
She took a break against one of the many boulders that dotted the landscape. She looked up to scan the area, wiping her brow as she did so.
She carried no water, no food, no weapons—nothing but her wits and her determination. And maybe a couple of tools hidden in her boots. She had nothing with which to slake her thirst. This actually wasn’t so bad for a seer. But for the human she was pretending to be, it would be torturous. So she lay back against the rock and closed her eyes for a moment. After resting briefly, she set off again.
The scrubby plants and mossy ground cover under her feet often hid pits and holes. Dips and crevices between low rocks were made invisible by the short green, yellow, and brown blanket of flora. As she walked, she moved as though her weary feet were slipping often, but she kept staggering forward.
The wind suddenly picked up. It whipped her long, red hair across her face and stole her breath. It sent particles of dust into her eyes and mouth. She raised her arm to protect her face against it. She did not allow herself to easily deal with the climate, as her kind could do. Rather, she tried to think and react as a human would under these circumstances, and this short trip from the forest to the mountain would be treacherous for unskilled humans.
Talwyn knew that stories spoken about the dragon shifters, by those who had lived when they had wandered the realm freely, said the dragonkin were strongly on the side of good, almost to a fault. So, she hated having to start out with an untruth. However, the safety of the realm could be at stake if she didn’t succeed in getting inside quickly.
Her friend Anwyl, the greatest metallurgist the seers had ever known, was the only being she had heard of who was allowed admittance into the mountain. He did so to mine the rare metal that could only be found there. In return, he created whatever the dragonkin needed. He had even spent some time training dragon shifter apprentices when he was there. These allowances for an outsider were unheard-of during these last few centuries. Talwyn was a bit in awe that he was able to do this, even though he admitted that gaining their trust had taken some time.
Anwyl had confirmed that the dragon shifters were still staunchly on the side of good. So she wanted to use as little deceit as possible.
As it was, she was modulating her body and skin temperature, and thirst and hunger responses, to mimic those of a human. The dragon shifters would never believe one of the magical races of the realm would have such a difficult time crossing this expanse. But she needed a way into the mountain fortress quickly, so she was trying to evoke sympathy in them.
“Please, Universe, let the Stone Dragons be as noble as they were once known to be,” Talwyn prayed. “Let them be loath to turn away a human in need because of something their ancestors did four hundred years ago.”
She prayed often and hard for that as she traveled nearer to her destination.
When Talwyn was about a hundred meters or so from the base of the tallest peak of the mountain range, she collapsed to the ground. She lay facedown and motionless near the foot of the mountain for some time. As she waited, she concentrated on giving herself the appearance of being dehydrated and having heat stroke: she increased the temperature of the surface of her skin; she increased the red pigment of her skin, making it look flushed, yet dry; and she slowed and shallowed her breathing.
When the sun was going down and the air was beginning to chill a little, she finally heard the whoosh of great wings descend upon her. She had lain there for a couple of hours but, still, this was faster than she had expected. She hadn’t been sure they would come at all. Her dream-visions had shown it could go either way.
Soon, she felt the extra current in the air from the wing beats. It was gentle at first, then pressed down upon her more firmly as the dragon got closer. Finally, without landing completely, the great beast wrapped a clawed foot around her torso. Then she felt almost weightless as they ascended into the air, her body hanging down, limp and lifeless.
It was only a few short moments later that she felt herself being laid down, slowly and gently, on a smooth, cold surface.
Dreyken was extra-careful as he placed the female upon the ground. Once she was secure, he quickly shifted back to human form. He could not fit inside this area of the caves in dragon form.
He looked down upon the female, and the first thing he saw was the mass of fiery-red hair. Of course, he had noticed it when he went to collect her, but he hadn’t really had time to get a good look. Now, as it covered her features and flowed down over her back to her waist, he could see it was the redder side of auburn. He was quite fond of the color.
Kneeling beside her, he cupped the back of her head, grabbed her at the hip, and rolled her toward him onto her back. Her thick hair partially covered her face, so he brushed it away with a light touch, and when he did, his breath caught.
Though her features were not those typically considered beautiful by the males of his kind, he was immediately taken with her. Her nose was delicately proportioned and slightly upturned. Her lips were full and a deep-pink color. Right now, they were slightly parted, and he couldn’t help but think that they would be perfect for kissing. Her cheekbones and chin were finely sculpted and flawless, her skin fair and spattered with freckles. As he let his gaze travel a little farther down, he noticed that her shoulders were also freckled, at least the little of them that were not covered by her vest or hair.
He would never have guessed it about himself, but he found this to be very appealing, to the point where he could not help but have thoughts that were completely inappropriate. Especially considering that he did not know who she was or what her purpose was in coming here. Not to mention that she was lying here, unconscious, and he had just rescued her from possible death from exposure.
He let his eyes travel down her torso. She was clad in a leather vest that laced up the front, and supple leather pants that laced up both sides. There were gaps in these garments where the sides did not quite come together, leaving a small amount of her pale skin visible to him through the leather laces. She also wore leather boots that came to just below her knees.
He had never before had such a strong physical reaction to a female at first sight, and it was ironic that it was happening now, with an unknown female with an unknown agenda who lay unconscious before him.
When he finished allowing his gaze to travel down her body and back up again, he noted that she was tall, lean, and well-muscled, with the perfect proportion of curves. She was so tall, however, that this stood out to him. She had to be six-one or six-two, which was extremely rare for human females.
Maybe she wasn’t human at all.
Just then, a gust of wind blew through, sending the female’s hair across her face again and raising goose bumps on her exposed flesh. This brought him back to his task, and bending to scoop her up, he carried her inside.
He cradled her close as he wandered through the corridors, carrying her to the section where they kept unwelcome visitors and those who broke their laws. It was far from the main area where his people lived and socialized, and this section went mostly unused since they rarely had visitors or lawbreakers. He laid her down on a stone ledge carved into the wall. It was covered in animal fur, and he hoped it would be comfortable enough for her.
He did not immediately cover her so she would cool down in the chill air of the cave. He left her there for a few minutes and, when he returned, he placed a basin of water and a cloth on a ledge next to her, as well as a cup of drinking water and a hunk of bread in case she was hungry or thirsty when she awoke.
Dreyken looked down at the female’s features and brushed a thumb along her cheek, then along her bottom lip. “Beautiful,” he whispered.
He dunked the cloth into the water, then took it out again and squeezed out the excess. He placed the cool cloth on her forehead for a few moments, then he swept it gently down over her face. He continued his ministrations over her arms and to her hands, across her neck, and then over the exposed area of her chest, returning the cloth to the water from time to time to freshen it.
Dreyken warred with himself for a moment before he gave in to his urge and bent down to touch his lips gently to her soft, full ones. “I am sorry about this, but until I find out more about you, I cannot leave you free to wander through the tunnels. Good night and pleasant dreams.”
Talwyn tried to fight the urge to peek at the male as he turned to leave, but she lost her internal battle. She lifted her lids slightly, just enough to glimpse him as he walked away. He was still nude after shifting, and she figured he probably thought there was no point in dressing quickly since she was “unconscious.” He had thick, wavy, golden-blond hair that just touched his shoulders. It almost seemed to shimmer in the light of numerous candles. His shoulders and back were broad and well-muscled, and he had a firm, well-sculpted behind, and thick, muscular legs.
“Get ahold of yourself!” she whispered to herself. “If he wasn’t so attractive, you would find his behavior unnerving.”
The male’s coloring, build and gait were familiar to her. It only took a moment for recognition to strike. She knew him from her dream-visions. This was the Dragon Lord.
It would have been easier for her if he had been heartless and disgusting since she could never again allow herself to get close to someone in that way. As she had learned from experience, it left you vulnerable to having your heart and soul ripped apart. And she could not allow that to happen again.
Talwyn listened to the sound of the male’s feet as he moved farther and farther away. When she could no longer hear him, she continued to lie still, taking in the muffled sounds, foreign smells, and the cool feel of the air around her. A seer’s senses were second only to those of the shifters. The air felt slightly moist against her skin, and it smelled a little dank, but still clean and earthy. Listening carefully, she could hear sounds of life off in the distance. She could tell from the way the noise echoed that it was traveling down a tunnel from some distance away.
She continued to wait until the sounds of life died down, then she cracked her eyes open to look around her. As she took in the stone room, she noticed that the only furniture was carved out of large rocks. There was a bench in the middle of the room, and on the wall straight in from the door, which was made of thick metal bars, there was another bed-sized alcove such as her own carved into the stone wall. There was a thick, tall candle burning in an alcove carved into the rock on the other side of the room, and several smaller ones on various ledges jutting out here and there along the cave walls.
Well, no need to worry about a prisoner lighting the place on fire, so why not have a candle or two?
She also noticed that both her bunk and the other one had smaller alcoves carved into the wall next to them. In her alcove, her host had left a cup of water and piece of bread. She left these alone for the time being, however, not wanting to let her captor know she was awake just yet.
Talwyn sat up and threw her legs over the side of her bed, then she stood and moved silently across the room and blew out the candles. Seers were not considered true shifters since they could only change their coloring and skin condition and temperature. However, they had exceptional night vision, as most shifter species did. She would have no problem finding her way in the dark.
Moving over to the barred door, Talwyn crouched down and pulled a long, flat, narrow metal object from the inside of her left boot. She first tested the door by pushing firmly but slowly to minimize any noise. It was locked. Reaching through the bars, she inserted the narrow metal instrument into the key hole and turned it a little. The lock clicked open almost immediately.
Moving slowly and silently, Talwyn opened the bars and closed them behind her. She moved to the stone walls to her left. As she walked down the wide tunnel to explore, she ran her hand along the walls in an up and down sweeping motion. Inconsistencies in the stone might indicate a hidden door or some other kind of hiding place.
After some time, she came upon a division in the tunnel. Since she already had her hand on the left wall, Talwyn decided to take the left fork. After around the same distance again as from her chamber to the split, the passageway curved sharply to the right. Light spilled in from the opening at the end but, thanks to the sharp curve, she managed to stay hidden in the darkness.
Talwyn moved as close as she could to the tunnel exit, then she leaned out slightly, just enough to take a look. On the other side, she could see a large open space. It had several long, stone tables spaced out across the area, as well as a number of benches.
She could not see all the way to the right from her position, but she could see the end of the cavern to her left. There, she saw four other openings, which she figured likely led to other tunnels such as the one she was currently hiding in. Thanks to her dream-visions, she knew where at least one of them led.
Suddenly, Talwyn heard voices approaching from the tunnel immediately to her left. Two females appeared and made their way to a stone bench perhaps twenty feet in front of her. They were speaking quietly, but Talwyn could hear them clearly.
“The deadline is almost upon us,” a dark-haired dragon shifter female said. “He will have no choice but to decide soon.”
“We should go to the council and suggest they put more pressure on him,” the female with the lighter-brown hair responded. “We should stress that our species needs bolstering. That we need an heir.”
“There are several attractive and willing females among us who would make a fitting queen and mother to the heir. I don’t understand why the decision seems to be so difficult for him.”
“Maybe he has taken a liking to more than one female,” Brownie replied. This is how Talwyn was beginning to refer to the brown-haired dragonkin in her mind.
“He is our leader, and an amazing specimen of a male,” Blackie responded. “That’s a lot of male for one female to handle. Maybe the females would be willing to share,” she said, with a chuckle.
The other female giggled and said, “Maybe we’ll get lucky and he will choose us.”
“Maybe we can think of a way to make that happen.”
Talwyn rolled her eyes. She had listened to enough of this insipid conversation. Maybe the Dragon Lord wanted to marry for love and not just for duty. Then again, he’d probably be better off this way. It wouldn’t be so hard on one if anything were to happen to the other.
She shook her head. Stupid, morbid thoughts.
Talwyn turned until her left hand was on the opposite wall. Then, making the same sweeping motions as before, she made her back the way she came to her cell. She remembered the Dragon Lord as he walked out of here earlier. Those females were right about one thing—he was quite a specimen of a male.
Why, oh why did he have to be so attractive? She had already found out when she peeked at him last night that he was in extremely good physical form. Now she had seen his beautiful face. It was not what she had expected for the Lord of the Stone Dragons. She had expected him to be rough and wizened. Instead, he was youthful and beautiful, with his wavy blond hair that touched his shoulders, strong jawline, and beautiful blue eyes that reminded her of a clear sky on a bright, sunny day.
She had seen the Dragon Lord in previous dream-visions, but his face had always been hazy. She had also seen what his own personal agenda was, but she thought she could come here and resist his charms by focusing on the very real dangers lurking in the shadows. Now, he would be that much harder to resist.
She shook her head. The entire realm was in danger, and she had a very short time to convince the Stone Dragons to help their cause. Once she left here, she would head to Southgate to help protect their keystone from the demonkin. Then, even if she was successful, she would head to the Great Gate.
She hoped against hope that if the keystones remained untouched, there would be no need to bring an army to protect the Great Gate. However, she and her fellow champions had foreseen that the possibility of a great battle at the Gate was very high.
So she needed to win the dragonkin’s trust. She needed them to come together with the others in the realm to protect their world. And she suspected convincing them that this would be in their best interest as well would prove very difficult.
Her time was limited. There was no time to consider romance, even if she wanted it. Which she didn’t. What she wanted was to refocus her mind. So once she arrived back at her cell to await the Dragon Lord’s return, she did what she usually did when she needed to calm and center herself—she practiced her martial arts skills.