G. A. AIKEN
Dragon On Top
Ghleanna the Decimator took another gulp from her battered ale cup and wallowed, quite magnificently, if she did say so herself, in her misery. It was ridiculous, she knew, to still be as devastated by all this as she had been. It would be going on six months and yet she could not move past it. Instead, she sat and she drank and she wallowed and she tried to forget. And this had been the way of things for a long time now. Too long, her kin would say.
This was all her own fault, though. She’d trusted where she shouldn’t have, believed lies when she damn well knew better, and most importantly, forgot the one thing that no one else ever forgot — that her father was Ailean the Wicked. Also known as Ailean the Slag, well-known whore of the dragon and human world.
And, with a single stroke of idiocy, Ghleanna the Decimator had become Ghleanna the Idiot.
Ghleanna the Fool.
Ghleanna the Failure.
Yet perhaps “failure” was too harsh a word. She’d never thought of herself as a failure before. After years on the battlefield, she’d proved herself again and again. But a failure was how she felt now. Like a failure and a fool with no one to blame, but herself. So, in morbid shame and self-pity and with no wars or battles interesting enough to occupy her mind or sword arm, Ghleanna had returned to the safety of her cave home’s ancient walls to be miserable and — if she were to be honest — hide. Venturing out only for food and ale.
Although these last few days she’d mostly just gone out for more ale.
She had no idea what her long-term plans were, but then again, should failures have long-term plans? Since Ghleanna wasn’t sure, she drank more ale until sweet blackness took her and she didn’t have to think about her inherent stupidity and the misery it had caused her anymore.
Ghleanna had no idea how long she’d been passed out, but as much as she might want to, she couldn’t ignore the beating her head was currently taking. She forced her eyes open and watched the blunt end of a steel spear come down to crack her forehead again. She rolled away but the end of another spear hit her on the side of the jaw.
“Wake up, ya lazy sow. Wake up!”
“Leave me be, you mad bitches!”
“Is that any way to talk to your dear, sweet aunts?” “You’re not my aunts,” she lashed back.
“Close enough. It’s better than Great Cousins, isn’t it? Makes us sound old, don’t it, Kennis?” “That it does, Kyna. Now get up before we strip the scales from ya bones.” Pissed that her kin didn’t have the decency to leave her alone to wallow in her ale and drool, Ghleanna sat up and snarled, “What is it, you old hags? What is it you want from me?” “Well, first, you can stop feeling sorry for yourself. Isn’t that right, Kyna?” “That’s right, Kennis. Nothing worse than a mighty dragoness sittin’ around in a dark, dank cave, boo-hooing over some bloody mistake of a dragon.” “I am doing no such thing,” she lied.
“Look at her lying to us, Kennis!”
“I see it, Kyna. Lying to us and thinking we won’t know. It’s a shame.” Kennis shrugged. “I say we hit her again. On principle.” “I agree.”
Ghleanna quickly raised her claws to protect her head. “Go away! Leave me be!” “So you can sit here and continue to feel sorry for yourself? Over him? I’d rather put you down here and now, ain’t that right, Kyna?” “Aye. Like a poor, wounded horse.”
“I hate all of you.” Ghleanna let out a big sigh, dragging her claws through her too-long black hair. She hadn’t cut it in months and it showed. She knew she must look like cold shit, but she’d not give her kin the satisfaction of acknowledging it.
“Hate us? Even though we’re all worried about your worthless hide?” Kyna asked.
“All them brothers and sisters of yours whinin’ about you. Och! The sound of it makes us mad. We had to do something, didn’t we, Kyna?” “Aye, Kennis. That we did. Or kill them all just to make them stop. But that didn’t seem right, did it, Kennis?” “No. Not at all.”
“So you come here to do. . what? Exactly?” Ghleanna demanded. “Besides annoy the bloody fuck out of me?” “You’re lucky it was us come to fetch you, brat. Not sure your wake up would have been so kind if it had been your mother who’d come here instead. Isn’t that right, Kyna?” “Och! Beaten your scales to a different color, she would have. She’s been sick to death with worry over you, only to find out you’re sitting in this cave, drinking your sorrows away on some cheap ale.” “Well, if I’d really wanted to end it all, I would have just used your ale,” Ghleanna sniped.
The spear butt came at her again but this time Ghleanna caught and held it. “Stop hitting me with that bloody thing.” “At least her reflexes are still good. Now we just need to sober her up—” “And bathe her. She reeks!”
“—and we can get her to our queen’s court while it’s still morning.” “Queen’s court? Why do I need to go to Rhiannon’s court?” “Ohhh. Hear that, Kennis?”
“Aye, Kyna. Rhiannon she calls her. Like they’re old friends.” “Best of chums!”
The twin She-dragons cackled and Ghleanna felt the need to start destroying things.
“She’s gettin’ pissy, Kyna.”
“That she is, Kennis.”
“So we better get her up and ready so we can get a move on.” Fed up, Ghleanna nearly roared, “I don’t want to see Rhiannon! So get the fuck out of my cave!” Kyna crouched down low so she could look Ghleanna in the eyes, one side of her snout pulling back to show row after row of deadly fangs, many having shown up as she’d aged.
“Now listen up, little girl. You can talk to your father and brothers like that if you want — but you’ll not talk to us that way. And when the queen gives you an order—” “—you get off your ass and you follow it. Or by the gods—” “—we’ll make you wish you had.”
Ghleanna understood now why the Cadwaladr Twins had been sent to fetch her. Although many of her siblings would put up a good fight, only her brothers Bercelak and Addolgar really had a chance at taking her, but neither would because she was their sister. The same with her father. And her mother was a peacekeeper, not a fighter. So her kin had sent the most feared Dragonwarriors in the land, the Cadwaladr Twins. Old She-dragons they might be, but that only made them more dangerous — and unstable.
“You coming, girl?”
“Yes,” Ghleanna hissed, using her front claws to push herself all the way up. It took a moment for the cavern to stop spinning and another moment for the nausea to pass. But once they did, she was ready to at least get into the lake outside and bathe.
“What does Rhiannon want with me anyway?” she asked, heading outside with the twins right behind her, debating on whether to make a run for it.
“Unlike you, brat, we don’t ask a bunch of questions.” “Our queen asks us to do something, we do it. That’s our job.” “That’s your job,” Kennis insisted.
“Did we not train her well enough?”
“I hope that’s not the case, Kyna. Hate to put her back through training.” Ghleanna winced, hearing the threat in those words loud and clear. “Won’t be necessary,” she muttered.
“Good. You were always one of our favorites, Ghleanna. We’d hate to have to beat you within an inch of your life because you’ve forgotten where you come from.” Kyna caught Ghleanna’s forearm, made her look at her. “And there’s no shame, girl. No shame in who you are, who your kin are, or who you want to be.” “And don’t let anybody convince you different,” Kennis finished. “You are special, Ghleanna. And some blokes — they can never handle that. While others. .” “While others what?”
“While others were born to be the sheathe to your sword — you just need to find that one, lass. Like we did.” “Like your Da did. But she can’t do that if she stinks of ale and misery, Kennis.” “Not unless she wants a miserable bastard like herself, Kyna. And gods! Who’d want that?” And Ghleanna, realizing the truth of that, headed toward the lake and prepared to meet with her queen.
Please don’t hug me. Please don’t hug me.
But she did. She did hug him. Right there in front of her entire court and, more importantly, in front of her consort. The most unpleasant of dragons, Bercelak the Great himself.
And Bram the Merciful, royal emissary for Queen Rhiannon of the House of Gwalchmai fab Gwyar, knew his queen did it on purpose. He knew she did it because she enjoyed torturing her mate, but she often failed to realize that she also, in the process, tortured poor Bram. Or perhaps she realized it but simply didn’t care.
“Oh, Bram! You look so wonderful. Doesn’t he look wonderful, Bercelak?” Bram heard that growl of disapproval across the queen’s chamber.
“Bercelak thinks you look wonderful, too,” the queen lied. She patted Bram’s shoulder and stepped away. “So my dearest Bram, are you ready for your most important of trips?” “I am, my queen. I think nothing but good can come from this and I look forward to—” “Yes, yes.” She sat down on her throne, a bit of rock jutting from the cave wall. It never looked very comfortable to Bram, but the queen didn’t seem to mind. “But I’ve been worrying about your safety.” “My safety? I’ll be fine, Your Majesty.”
“I’ve been hearing rumors. There are those who do not want this alliance to go through. They will try to stop you.” “Why? It’s not Lightnings I go to see. The dragons of the Desert Lands have never been our enemies.” He was simply ensuring that they would not side with those who were.
“Always so logical, my old friend. Logical and thoughtful and smart. But still. . nothing is ever easy in the world of dragon politics, and you of all dragons should know that.” “Understood, my queen. And I promise you that I’ll be quite care—” “So I’ve arranged for your protection.”
“Your Majesty, my contact in the Desert Lands is only expecting me. Not an entourage.” “An entourage sounds so large and daunting, and it’s nothing of the sort. Just a few of my most trusted Dragonwarriors to ensure you make it safely to and from your destination.” “Dragonwarriors?” Gods, kill him now.
Which nightmare Dragonwarriors had this female dug up from the pits of hell to send him out with? Probably Bercelak’s brothers. Or, even worse, Bercelak himself. The black dragon had never liked Bram due to Bram’s apparent affliction to “thinking too much and lusting after my sister.” And Bercelak was right, of course. About the thinking — and the lusting.
Ghleanna the Black, now the Decimator, had been Bram’s unobtainable dream since he was a young dragon, barely even sixty winters. She’d stolen his heart from first glare when she’d slammed Bercelak’s head into the wall and ordered him to, “Leave off the royal!”, meaning Bram. Ghleanna had been in a recent battle, one of her first, and she’d gotten her first scar. A six-inch thing that cut across her collarbone. Bram had seen that scar and his mouth had dried up, his knees had gone weak, and he’d forgotten words. Not specific words, but all words. She’d rendered him temporarily mute.
But unlike Bercelak, Ghleanna barely noticed Bram after that, barely paid attention to him, barely remembered his name. He was the royal who sometimes visited her mother or her sister Maelona. The “thinkers” in the Cadwaladr Clan.
“And which warriors would that be, my queen? Anyone I know?” The queen smiled — something that did not give Bram ease — and he heard a voice he knew so well say from behind him, “I can’t believe you sent those mad bitches to fetch me, Bercelak. Do you not care for me at all?” Bram briefly closed his eyes before looking at the female who now stood beside him. They eyed each other for a long moment until Ghleanna the Decimator sneered and demanded of her brother, “Babysitting? You dragged me all this way to be a babysitter to a weak-willed royal?” “Thank you, Ghleanna,” Bram murmured. “That was very nice.” “Nothing personal,” she muttered back, her claw patting his shoulder. “Long night.” Long night? Looked more like a long century. Although he knew what it was that had one of the most decorated and feared captains of the last few centuries appearing as if she hadn’t slept in years. Her hair, always short and well groomed, now reached her shoulders, the ends uneven. Her armor, always spit-shined and battle-ready, was now covered in dirt and dents and, if Bram wasn’t mistaken, bits of some poor sod’s brains. Even her battle axes, her favorite weapons as far back as Bram could recall, looked as if they had not been cleaned in months, the blade edges still encrusted in blood and bits of bone. No, this was not the Ghleanna he had known all these years. The Ghleanna he’d adored. More fool him.
“Oh?” Rhiannon asked Ghleanna. “Are you frightfully busy at the moment?” “I know I’m too busy for this centaur sh—” “Honestly, my queen,” Bram cut in, “there’s no call to involve Captain Ghleanna. I’m quite fine traveling on my own.” In fact, he preferred it. This trip was too important for him to be distracted by the one female who still kept him up some nights. Sweating.
“Nonsense, Bram. I won’t hear of it.”
“Well, find someone else,” Ghleanna told them all. “I didn’t go through half-a-century of training and more than that of battles to end up the babysitter of Bram the Merciful.” Insulted, Bram snapped, “Would you like an actual blade to twist in my gut, Ghleanna?” “It’s nothing personal,” she said again.
“Right. Nothing personal.”
“What I find amusing,” Rhiannon observed, ignoring them both, “is that you think I’m asking you to do this task, Ghleanna of the Cadwaladr Clan. After all this time being Captain of the Tenth Battalion, one would think you could tell an order from a request.” Ghleanna made a noise through her snout that sounded like an angry bull about to charge. “And one would think that a queen wouldn’t waste the skill of her Dragonwarriors with centaur-shit tasks like babysitting!” “Don’t raise your voice to me, Cadwaladr! I am not one of your troops!” “I can tell that because they don’t waste my bloody time!” “That is it!” Bercelak the Great roared, silencing both females. Black eyes, so much like his sister’s, locked on the angry Captain. “Apologize, Ghleanna.” “Like hells I—”
“Apologize!” the consort’s voice boomed across the cavern, every royal beside Bram making a hasty move for the exits. Ghleanna immediately lowered her gaze.
“I’m sorry if I offended you, my queen.”
Rhiannon grinned. “Now, now, sister. We’re all friends here.” We are? “And I know you’ll do this favor for me.” The queen rose, walked down to Bram and, to his horror, patted his shoulder. “Bram means so much to me and to this court. We grew up together — and his safety is of the utmost importance. Do you think I would trust that with just anyone?” She laid her head on Bram’s shoulder and Bram curled his claws into fists, desperate to move away from this crazed female. “Isn’t Bram simply marvelous? The way he negotiates such important alliances and truces for me? Don’t you simply adore him as much as I do?” The queen’s consort stood in front of Bram now, towering over him as most males of the Cadwaladr Clan did, and he glared at Bram with such loathing that all Bram wanted to do was scream out, “It’s not me! I swear, it’s not me!” But before the terrifying bastard could remove parts of Bram that would definitely be missed, Ghleanna caught hold of her sibling’s forearm and tugged, sighing loudly.
“Come, brother. Tell me what this all-important task is and why I, of all Dragonwarriors, must do it.” She dragged Bercelak from the cavern and Bram gazed at his old friend and now ruler of all Southland Dragons. And, with all honesty, he asked, “Why, Rhiannon? Why do you hate me so?”
“What is going on?” Ghleanna demanded of her brother once she’d found them a quiet alcove.
“How should I know? I mean what could Rhiannon see in that overthinking bastard? All he does is read all day and write papers. It’s like his mind is a thousand miles away at all times. He’s a talker that one, not a doer.” “I’m not talking about that, you git. I’m talking about what’s going on that you think it’s necessary for me to accompany the peacemaker anywhere. And it better be a good reason, brother. Or I’m likely to get cranky.” Bercelak took in a deep breath, trying to calm his desire to tear poor Bram wing from wing. Gods, the two of them would never be friends. “The royal is going into the Desert Lands to get us an alliance with the Sand Eaters.” Their kind’s nickname for the Sand Dragons of the Desert Lands.
“Why? We’ve had no problems with them before.” “And that royal”—and Bercelak sneered a bit—“wants to keep it that way. But I don’t see why you’d have a problem babysitting — I thought you liked this one.” “I do. Bram’s sweet.” Sweeter than any other dragon she knew, which also made him the oddest dragon Ghleanna knew. “So is that it then? Rhiannon just needs me to make sure Bram gets there and back?” “Actually your taking him was my idea.”
Incredulous, Ghleanna asked, “Whatever the bloody hells for?” If anyone knew how ill-equipped Ghleanna was for babysitting duty, it was her brother. Even their own mother stopped allowing Ghleanna to babysit Bercelak after she’d dangled him over an active volcano, threatening to toss him in. And then there was that other time when she’d left Bercelak alone on a mountaintop when he still couldn’t fly, but not before she told him, “It’s not that Mum and Da don’t love you — they just don’t want you anymore. But I’m sure someone will come along who does.” Cruel perhaps, but he was such an arrogant little shit, even then, that she’d been unable to help herself. And her parents had eventually tracked down his sobbing, wailing ass and brought him home.
“Because,” her brother replied, “I need someone I can count on. Until recently, you were the most reliable of us all. I sincerely hope that hasn’t changed for good.” “Don’t go there, brother.”
“Over some male not worthy of you.”
He went there!
“I will not speak of that,” she growled and started to walk away. But her brother’s tail wrapped around her throat and yanked her back. “Ack!” “My sister,” he said, his tail tightening around her neck so she had trouble breathing, “would not be so foolish as to let any male cause her to lose all that she has worked so hard for. My sister,” he went on, ignoring Ghleanna’s talons tearing at him, “would never let some idiot dragon convince her that her exemplary skills on the battlefield make her less than any other female.” Bercelak began to slam her repeatedly into the cave floor like he used to when he’d gotten bigger and realized his sister had purposely tortured him for years. “And my sister would never, ever let some male who was never worthy of her in the first place, stop her from taking direct orders from her queen.” He slammed her to the ground one last time, the cave walls shaking, before he removed his tail. “That,” he said softly, “is not what a sister of mine would do, correct?” “You are a mean-hearted bastard!”
“But you already knew that about me, Ghleanna. You didn’t think that would change simply because I found a mate, did you?” Ghleanna stood, her claws kneading her bruised throat. “No. I really didn’t.” Her brother placed his claw on her shoulder, ignoring the way she flinched. “I know he hurt you, Ghleanna—” “No.” She had to stop him. She couldn’t hear anymore. “He didn’t hurt me, Bercelak. He made a fool of me. In front of my kin — in front of my troops.” “And he did that because he’s jealous.”
She had to laugh. “Of what?”
“Of the fact that he could never take you in a fair fight. It eats at him that you’re stronger than him, faster, definitely smarter, and worshipped by your troops. And instead of standing your ground, you let his centaur shit push you into hiding in your cave like some worthless human. Drinking yourself into a blind stupor and ignoring those who care for you. Like Mum and that bastard.” “You mean Da?”
“Call him what you like.” Bercelak’s perpetually scowling face softened a bit. “And, yes, sister, he’s well aware that this is partially his doing.” “It’s not really.” And Ghleanna swiped at the tears sliding down her snout. “My own stupidity got me here.” “Then fix it, sister.” He had both claws on her shoulders now. “Do this task for your queen with no questions. Bring a few of our kin with you. I hear things are winding down at Bolver Fields in the Southern Hills near the peacemaker’s home. Addolgar is there. He’ll be up for this trip, I think.” Ghleanna shook the rest of her pitiful tears off, pulled herself together. “Addolgar as well? You need both of us on this? Why?” “Because, if that weak kitten of a dragon gets the Sand Dragon King to sign this alliance. . it’ll make Rhiannon one of the strongest monarchs in this region in the last millennium.” “Oh. . that’s why.”
“There has to be someone else, Rhiannon. Anyone else.” “No one you’ll be as safe with as Ghleanna.” Bram sighed and tried to think of how to carefully explain this to his dangerously unstable queen without insulting her or her recently acquired kin. At least now, though, they were in her privy chamber and away from the prying eyes and ears of her court.
“These are delicate negotiations, Rhiannon. The Sand Dragon King has to be handled with care. Infinite care.” “Och! These moody foreign royals. How do you tolerate such moodiness, my friend?” Did she even listen to herself? Probably not.
“With patience,” he answered. “And none of the Cadwaladrs are known for their patience.” Rhiannon’s head tipped to the side, her blue eyes watching him. “But we are not speaking of the Cadwaladrs, are we, old friend? I sense that if we were speaking of any of Bercelak’s other kin this wouldn’t be such an issue. But we’re not. We’re speaking of Ghleanna.” Bram swallowed. “So?”
The queen began to circle Bram, the tip of her tail drawing little signs in the dirt floor as she moved. “Pretty, strong, defiant, difficult, and scarred Ghleanna.” “I know who she is, Rhiannon. I just don’t see—” “All those scars from all those battles, littering her body. Her long, strong body. Even her tail has scars — and an extra long. . tip.” “Stop.”
“And when she gets angry, Bram. . when she gets right up close and is threatening and vicious and cold; and you know in that second that you’ll never meet someone as deadly as—” “Please stop.” Bram realized he was panting.
“We’ve been friends a long time, Bram. Do you really think I’ve forgotten?” “I didn’t think you’d noticed.” No one else ever had — especially Ghleanna.
“Ghleanna is like the rest of her kin. Wonderful, but dense as thick marble.” “That’s lovely, Rhiannon.”
“I adore them all but you need to be more direct with them when you want something.” “She doesn’t know I exist. She never has.” “Because you aren’t direct with her. You’re direct with everyone else, but once Ghleanna comes around you’re suddenly a shy schoolboy.” “So? I should be like Feoras the Fighter instead?” Rhiannon winced. “Heard about that, did you?” “Everyone’s heard about it because the bastard’s told everyone.” “That annoying little rodent. I should have his veins removed.” When Bram didn’t say anything, Rhiannon noted, “No calls for mercy, peacemaker?” “Not this time, no. And stop looking at me like that. I never like cruelty from anyone. So it’s not as if I’m being particularly vicious here.” “It’s endearing that you think not calling for mercy is vicious.” Rhiannon waved all that away with her claw. “Look, when it comes to males, Ghleanna the Black doesn’t know what she wants. So you’ll have to show her.” “Show her?”
“It’s the perfect time. She’s absolutely ripe for the plucking.” Bram blinked. “What?”
“Vulnerable. That’s the word. So it’s the perfect time for a good, worthy dragon to swoop in and get her.” “Rhiannon!”
“What? I’m only trying to help.”
“That’s not helpful. That’s sneaky and deceitful.” She gave a soft snort. “Two words you’re well acquainted with.” “Only when we’re discussing politics. Ghleanna is not politics. She’s. . she’s. .” “Scarred? Perfectly, perfectly scarred?”
“So many scars,” the viper whispered in Bram’s ear. “All from the different weapons of those trying to kill her. She has a scar here”—her tail drew a long diagonal line across Bram’s back—“from hip to shoulder where an ogre from the Dark Hills tried to cut her in half. He didn’t succeed, though. And Ghleanna slaughtered their entire army. And when the healers sewed her up”—Rhiannon went on—“she insisted on being awake so that she’d fully understand that even a moment of being unaware had drastic consequences.” She pulled back slightly. “Why, Bram, you’re shaking.” Because he was desperately trying to control his cock. It wouldn’t do to get hard in front of his queen. No matter what the vision of Ghleanna getting her battle wounds tended did to him.
“You’re cruel, Rhiannon. You were cruel when we were young — and you’re cruel now.” “My mother was cruel, Lord Bram. I’m merely honest.” She kissed his snout. “And don’t ever say I’m not a good friend. I’m the best friend a dragon like you could hope for.” He turned slightly, both of them very close to each other, and smiled. “Best friend, my ass.” She laughed until that black snout pushed between them, forcing them apart, pitch black smoke streaming from the nostrils.
“Oh, hello, my love,” Rhiannon said to her consort. “I was just giving Bram here a pep talk before he goes to face those difficult Sand Dragons. Wasn’t I, Bram?” “Uh. . yes. She was.”
“Now go with my blessing. And good luck to you.” Please don’t hug me. Please don’t hug me.
But she did.
Ghleanna waited outside the Queen’s Privy Chamber, not surprised when she heard her brother’s roar and the silver-haired royal slid-stumbled into the alcove, shoved there, no doubt by her intolerant kin.
“What were you thinking?” Ghleanna asked Bram without rancor. “Hugging her like that?” “I didn’t hug her. She hugged me!” “Uh-huh.”
A squeal came from the chamber and Rhiannon called out, “Bercelak! Put me down, you low-born bastard!” Although she didn’t sound nearly as angry as she wanted to.
“We better go,” Ghleanna offered, heading down the alcove.
“No, Bercelak!” the queen cried out. “Not the collar! Not the chain! You bastard!” “Stand there any longer, royal, and you’ll get a visual you’ll not forget for a very long while.” Bram rushed up behind her, his eyes focused on the ground, his silver scales nearly glowing from embarrassment.
“That was. . awkward.”
“Get used to it. Them two like to play their games.” Ghleanna shrugged. “And who are we to stop them? If it makes them happy.” “I don’t mind what they do together. I just hate it when they involve the rest of us.” “Then you shouldn’t be hugging the queen.” “I didn’t hug the bloody queen!” “If you want to believe that.”
Once out of the court, they headed to one of the exits that would lead them from Devenallt Mountain, the long-time Southland Dragon power stronghold and home to their reigning monarch.
“Look,” Ghleanna continued, “all I’m saying is that you’re my responsibility until this gets done. So perhaps you could not get me and yourself killed in the process. But especially me. I’m the most important.” “I’ll do my best and yes, you heard sarcasm.” Ghleanna stopped and faced the royal she was tasked with protecting. He was taller than she, but so were her brothers, and she could take most of them in a fight. And she had, too.
“Listen well to me, Bram the Silver. You may be of royal blood, but I’m a Cadwaladr who’s been given the task of keeping your peacemaking ass alive for the next few weeks, which means that until we return, you belong to me. So do us both a favor and don’t piss me off. I’d hate to return to your beloved queen with only your head in tow, your body and that precious alliance you’re so eager to have the Sand Eaters sign left back in the Desert Lands — both torn to shreds by me.” He glared at her for what felt like several minutes until the royal snapped, “Damn that female, but she was right!”
And when Bram the Merciful stormed off, muttering to himself, Ghleanna could only shake her head and follow, readying herself for a deadly long trip she was not looking forward to at all.
Ghleanna stood outside Bram’s home. She was allowing him time to pick up a few things before they got underway, and she was quite surprised.
“It’s a castle.”
“It is,” he said, digging through his travel bag for who knew what while walking across the small courtyard. They’d shifted to human and put on clothes a few miles back and Ghleanna realized she’d forgotten how attractive Bram was as human. Actually. . very attractive. Long silver hair framed his handsome face and brought out the deep blue of his eyes. His nose was flat and a little wide, making her want to poke at it with her finger; his lips full; his jaw square; and his hands and fingers long and elegant. He was as tall as Addolgar but not nearly as wide. It was clear he spent no long hours working with any weapon except the one he had attached to his shoulders, but he wasn’t so thin that he looked emaciated or weak. There was some muscle there — very nice muscle.
“Why?” she asked, gazing up at the tower attached to the castle. It wasn’t a large building and it was a bit rundown, but it could last through a battle or two as the spears embedded in the castle wall and the bit of damage done to the gate could attest.
“Why what?” Honestly, was the dragon listening to her at all?
“Why do you live in a castle?” She thought only her father did that, Ailean the Wicked even going so far as to raise his offspring in one.
“I work with as many humans as dragons.” He tripped on his way through the doorway, but seemed to barely notice and she briefly wondered if he did it every time he walked through there. “And humans simply don’t feel comfortable coming to a cave to discuss business of any kind.” They walked into the hall and Bram finally looked up from his bag.
“Charles?” he called out. “Are you here?” A human ran in from the back somewhere.
“I’m here, my Lord. I’m here!” “It’s Bram, Charles. You can call me Bram.” “Of course, my Lord. Uh. . my Lord Bram.” Bram sighed and she knew he’d immediately given up.
“I need my papers for the Alsandair trip.” “Yes, my Lord. . uh. . Lord Bram. . uh. .” “And that book on etiquette of the Desert Lands. I should refresh my memory.” “Oy,” Ghleanna finally cut in. “Don’t bring a whole bloody library. I’ll not be carrying all that bloody crap there and back.” “I think I can manage a few books and papers by myself, Captain.” “You better,” she muttered.
Bram faced her. “Are you going to be this difficult the entire trip?” “Probably.”
He motioned to a large table covered in papers and books; then she noticed that nearly every wall in the hall had floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books and scrolls, but especially books. More books than she’d ever seen before in her life. She thought her mum had a lot — she didn’t. And Ghleanna had a feeling there were even more books within the castle and the attached tower.
Gods, had he read all these books? Was it possible? He hadn’t been alive for that long.
“You can sit there. I won’t be long,” he said while still searching through that blasted bag.
“Good. I want to meet with my brothers before the suns go down.” The dragon stopped, peered at her. “Whatever for?” She frowned. Didn’t they just have this conversation on the way here? “Because they’re coming with us. . to protect you? Remember?” “Dammit, I’d put it out of my mind.” More like he’d hoped she’d changed hers. “It’s better to be protected by five Cadwaladrs than just one.” “Perhaps, but your brothers hate me.” “Only Bercelak.”
“No. I’m certain they all hate me.” “Don’t be so full of yourself — my brothers barely know you exist.” Now he looked insulted. “So I’m meaningless?” “To a Cadwaladr. . yes.” “Then I’m so glad it’s the Cadwaladrs protecting me.” And that sarcasm lashed across the room.
“You don’t have to take it so personally. Most royals don’t matter to us. So you don’t especially not exist to us. You’re just one of many royals that don’t exist to us.” “Is any of that supposed to make me feel better?” “Thought it might help.” “It didn’t.”
“I hope you don’t always take things so personally. It’ll be a long trip for us both if you do.” “Thanks so much for the warning.” He dug through his travel bag again. “Blast and damnation! I can’t find—” “The terms of your proposed alliance agreement?” Charles asked, holding out a scroll to the royal.
“Oh,” Bram said, taking the scroll. “There it is.” With a weary sigh, Ghleanna dropped into a chair and put her feet up on the table.
“Oh, my Lady!” Charles cried, horrified. “Please.” He rushed to the table and carefully lifted Ghleanna’s boot-shod feet so he could remove the books and papers from under them.
“Sorry, Charlie,” Ghleanna said with a smile. “And you can call me Ghleanna. I’m not a royal like Bram over there.” “Of course, my Lady. . uh. . Lady Gh — I mean… uh. .” “Or just Captain. You can call me Captain.” Appearing heartily relieved at being able to use a title, Charles smiled and said, “Yes, Captain.” Once he’d cleaned off the area, he returned her feet to their proper place.
“There you go, Captain.” He turned back to Bram. “I’ll gather all you require, my Lord.” “Excellent.”
Ghleanna waited until Charles had rushed off before she asked, “Does he know then? What we are?” “He knows what I am — and I’m sure he’s guessed about you. I simply don’t have time to run around hiding that particular fact from my assistant.” Bram leaned against the table and asked Ghleanna, “Now, what about your battalion?” “What about them?”
“Can’t a few of them accompany us?” “Are we here again? My brothers do not hate you,” she insisted.
“They don’t exactly respect me either.” “They don’t respect anyone but our mother.” “Well, I understand that. Your mother’s amazing.” “I know.” Amazing and smart enough not to be taken as a fool by any male. She’d made Ailean work for her love, and work he did. “And I’m nothing like her.” “You have her freckles.” “You mean these bloody dots on my face?” She swiped at her face with her hands.
“You can’t rub them off, Ghleanna,” Bram told her with a laugh.
“I know. I know. I just hate having them.” “I like them.” And he smiled a little. Was he laughing at her?
“Yeah. . well. .” She lowered her hands, forcing herself not to act so self-conscious. “You don’t have to live with them.” He continued to stare at her, making her nervous, when he finally observed, “You’re letting your hair grow out.” “What? Oh.” She refused to run her hands through her hair. “Haven’t had much call lately to keep it short.” She shrugged and pulled out one of the blades she kept in her boot. “Guess I can do that now.” He caught hold of her hand. “What are you planning to do with that?” “Cut my hair. You were the one complaining about it.” “I didn’t complain.”
“Then you dislike my hair when it’s short?” “That isn’t what I meant either.” She threw up her hands. “Then what the bloody hells did you mean?” The royal’s blue eyes briefly flared before he closed them and let out a breath. “You do wear the scales off my hide.” She knew that — enjoyed doing it, too. And that was wrong, wasn’t it?
“Charles!” he suddenly bellowed, and the human charged back into the hall a few moments later.
“Yes, my Lord. . Bram. . my Lord Bram. . Lord—” “Please take the Captain to one of the rooms so that she can freshen up.” He wrestled the blade from her hand, making Ghleanna laugh. She hadn’t laughed so in ages. It felt nice. “Perhaps you can also cut her hair. She prefers it short.” He handed the blade to poor, confused Charles.
“Of course, my Lord. . uh. .” “Do we have time for all that?” Ghleanna demanded.
“We do now.” The royal turned his back on her, tossing over his shoulder, “I’ll be in my study. Get me when she’s done.” Ghleanna waited until the dragon was out of earshot. “Is he always so short of temper and patience?” she asked the servant.
“No, Captain. In fact, Lord Bram is considered the most patient and caring of beings in all the Southlands.” “Huh. . must be me then.” Instead of trying to convince her that that was inaccurate, Charles pointed to an alcove that would lead to the tower. “This way, Captain.”
Bram had nearly all he needed and was searching for some notes that he’d taken at the last Elder meeting he attended. A few additional codicils they wanted to add to the final alliance.
When he couldn’t find them, Bram called out, “Charles!” and turned, only to come face to face with Ghleanna. How long she’d been standing behind him, Bram had no idea. But at least this was the Ghleanna he knew so well. Her chainmail had been cleaned and polished, a dark blue surcoat over that with her sword tied to her waist and her two battle axes strapped to her back. Her leather boots had been cleaned and buffed and her black hair cut back to its usual length right below her ears. She had her arms folded across her chest and her legs braced apart.
This. . this was the Dragonwarrior he knew. The Decimator. Bram didn’t realize how much he’d missed her until she’d been gone.
“That was quick,” Bram said when he realized he was gazing at her like a lovesick schoolboy.
She blinked. “Quick? It’s been four hours. Maybe a little more.” “Oh? Really?”
“Hadn’t noticed,” he muttered and walked around her to return to his desk. “We can go in a few minutes.” “If we leave now we won’t get very far.” Bram sighed. “So we’ve already lost a day of travel?” “You were the one who didn’t want to be seen with me and my unruly hair.” “I never said that! And I don’t see why we can’t at least get started. I just need to find the blasted. . Charles!” Charles rushed in. “My Lord?” “My notes from the last Elder meeting? I can’t find them any—” Charles pulled the scrolls out from the pile on the desk and held them out to Bram.
Bram took the scrolls and shoved them into his travel bag. “Thank you.” “Of course, my Lord. . Lord Bram. . uh. .” “I shouldn’t be gone too long on this trip,” he went on.
“But if I am, don’t worry. My sister will be checking in quite often.” “Very good sir.”
Pulling the strap of his bag across his shoulder, Bram walked out of his study and headed for the front door.
“Don’t forget,” he informed Charles, “to pull together the research on the pirate attacks at the ports going up the coast. I’m supposed to meet with Duke Picton regarding that soon.” “I’ve already started, my Lord.” “Good. I’ll need to deal with that when I get back.” He stopped at the doorway leading to his small and very unkempt courtyard. He’d really have to get someone to clean it. He couldn’t ask Charles to do it himself. Bram needed him on more important matters at the moment — and didn’t he have a much bigger staff who handled these sorts of things? Maybe not. .
Bram glanced around, then demanded, “Blast! Where is that female?” “Right in front of you.” Bram nearly jumped out of his frail human skin when he realized that Ghleanna had gotten around him somehow.
“Don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Do you mean walk around? Because that’s what I actually did. I usually crouch more when I sneak — and then I kill someone.” Deciding not to argue with her, Bram bid Charles farewell and left the castle.
“I guess we still have to pick up your brothers.” “We do.”
“Where are they?”
“The Battle of Fychan.”
“And how far away is that?” he asked Ghleanna. “Is it a long flight? Will we make it there tonight?” They now stood outside his castle walls and Ghleanna gazed at him.
“What?” he asked, beginning to run out of patience.
Staring at him strangely, she said, “They’re at the Bolver Fields. You know. . the Battle of Fychan.” “Right. Right. You already said that. And I asked how far off is that?” Her gaze narrowed a bit. “Really?” “Really what?”
She took hold of his arm and headed west.
“Where are we going?” he asked. “We’re not going to fly? Won’t walking to a battlefield be a bit dangerous?” At least for him.
He asked questions but Ghleanna didn’t answer. But when they were about a half-mile from his castle, she led him up a ridge that overlooked the valley beneath.
A valley filled with the dead and dying of what appeared to be a long-running battle.
“Right outside your door,” she told him, staring at him with what could be either awe, pity, or disgust. “The Battle of Fychan has been outside your door for at least eight months. Everyone else in the nearby town as well as your servants, have abandoned the area except for you and poor Charles, who didn’t want to leave your precious books and papers unattended. I do hope you pay that lad well.” “You know. .” Bram gazed out over the battlefield. “Thought I heard some screams. . a few times. But I’ve been so busy.” She released his arm and, while shaking her head, walked off down the hill and to the field below.
“Come on, peacemaker. Let’s get my brothers. We can debate when we need to start later.” Morbidly embarrassed but not willing to admit it, Bram followed Ghleanna onto the battlefield.
“Good gods, you look like cold shit.” Ghleanna gazed at her brother and again wondered why she hadn’t smashed his bloody egg when she had the chance. Her mother would have eventually forgiven her.
“Thank you, brother. And you look fat and happy. Having an easy time of it here, are you?” “Fat? Fat?” He speared the moaning human at his feet. “How dare you! My human form is in fighting trim, you callous cow.” “If you say so.”
Addolgar glanced at the royal standing behind her. “Something’s attached itself to you, sister.” He shook the human remains off the spear he held. “Should I kill it for you?” Ghleanna reached back and caught Bram’s hand before he could walk off. She sensed him leaving and didn’t really blame him, but still. . he had to learn to toughen up. Then again, Addolgar did have a reputation among the royals as an intolerant bastard who’d kill without a second’s thought or remorse. A reputation that, in some situations, was quite accurate.
“He’s under my protection, Addolgar. So back off.” “He is?” He speared another human trying to crawl away. “Why?” “I’ve been charged with getting him to the Desert Lands and back. Alive,” she added so her brother was clear on this. “And a few of you lot are coming with me.” Addolgar glanced around the battlefield. The conflict seemed to have wound down and he appeared quite bored with it all. Her brother had done his damage and now there was nothing left to kill. Usually he’d return to his mate — unless she’d found her own battle to enjoy. It still amazed Ghleanna that instead of her brother finding a more sweet-natured female to complement his blackhearted and murderous nature, he’d taken to a dragoness with a worse reputation than his own. A dragoness even Ghleanna didn’t challenge unless she had no choice.
“Might as well go with you. Nothing left to do here.” “Bored, are you?”
“Killed everything to be killed. There’s nothing left but women and children — and they’re no fun to kill. Even when they scream and beg for mercy.” Bram yanked his arm away from her so he could walk off, but she caught the strap of his travel bag and held it. Knowing how precious the thing was to him, she knew he wouldn’t risk breaking it.
“Who is here with you?”
“A few of the younger ones. Cai, Hew, and Adain.” “What? None of my sisters are here?” She was unable to hide her disappointment.
“They headed into the west for some new battle. But I think we weak male Cadwaladrs can handle protecting one royal, sister.” “I guess you’ll do.”
“Well, don’t just stand there, you big ox. Go get them so we can be off.” “All right.” He shoved the spear into her hands. “Kill the rest of this lot, would you? I’ll be right back.” Once Addolgar walked away, the royal asked, “You really do hate me, don’t you?” “Don’t be foolish. Of course, I don’t.” She began to work her way through the still-breathing humans at her feet, slamming the tip of the spear into a spot in their backs that would kill them quickly. There was no reason to prolong their suffering unless necessary. “Stop worrying. You’ll be fine. And as long as you’re under my protection, you have nothing to worry about.” She finished off the last human, pulled the spear from his back, planted the tip in the ground, and leaned against the staff. She smiled at the royal. “Now doesn’t that make you feel better?” Bram glanced at the bodies that surrounded them before answering, “Not really.”
“These are my brothers,” Addolgar said. “Cai the Green, Hew the Black, Adain the Yellow.” “It’s gold, you bastard. I’m Adain the Gold.” “Yellow. Gold.” Addolgar shrugged. “Who gives a centaur shit? Now,” he said to Bram, “they ain’t earned their names yet, but they ain’t half bad. You’ll be fine.” “Yes,” Bram replied, “I feel safer already.” “Good!” Addolgar boomed, missing the sarcasm completely. “Now. . where’s Ghleanna?” “She needed a few minutes alone,” Bram told him.
“Went to take a piss, did she?” Cai slammed his sizable fist into his older brother’s shoulder. “Addolgar!” “What?” And Bram saw that smirk. “It was just a question.” “Don’t be such a bastard.”
“Don’t be such a suck-up,” Addolgar shot back.
“Why is he a suck-up?” Hew asked. “Because he doesn’t want you going on about our sister that way?” “What way? All I asked was—”
“Shut it!” Adain snapped. “Blood and fire, you are such a bastard!” “Fine. If the lot of you are going to get so girly about all this.” He turned away from his brothers and winked at Bram. And Bram, for the first time, felt a little more at ease. Especially since it seemed Addolgar would spend more time torturing his siblings than bothering with Bram.
“There you are!” Addolgar announced when his sister approached them. “The royal here said you went off to take a piss.” “Don’t involve me in this,” Bram told him.
“Right,” Ghleanna sighed. “That seems a very Bram thing to do. Announce that I’m off to take a piss. Next he’ll tell you when I’m about to take a sh—” “Can we just go?” Cai — thankfully — cut in.
Ghleanna sized the youngster up. “When did you get so girly?” “So where are we taking him?” Addolgar asked.
“To the east,” Bram explained. “The Port of Awbrey. There will be a boat there that will take us up the coast to the Alsandair ports. I’ll meet my contact there.” “A boat?” Adain asked, frowning. “Why are you taking a boat? Why not just fly into the Desert Lands?” “Flying into the Desert Lands would be seen as a sign of aggression by the Sand Dragons. And it’s faster to go by sea than to walk.
“That far south,” Ghleanna explained, “we’ve always traveled by foot unless escorted.” “Why not fly over the ocean then?” Bram, Addolgar, and Ghleanna laughed outright at that.
“Gods,” Bram observed, “they are young.” “What does that mean?”
“It means you’ve got much to learn about Sea Dragons,” Ghleanna answered.
Addolgar explained, “If more than one or two dragons fly too far over the ocean, the Fins will definitely consider that a sign of aggression.” Hew asked Bram, “So you really can’t make it on your own?” Bram could make it by himself easily, but he had his reasons for not flying over the ocean, alone or otherwise. Very good reasons. “Are you feeble in some way?” “Babysitting the royal is Bercelak’s idea.” Ghleanna told them. “You going to disagree with him, brothers?” When her younger siblings didn’t answer, she nodded. “That’s what I thought.” “Do you have any fighting skills?” Hew pushed.
“I have a mighty flame.”
The three younger brothers glanced at each other. “Don’t we all?” Cai finally asked.
Cai shook his head. “Gods, that’s pathetic.” Addolgar slapped Cai in the back of the head — ignoring his cry of pain — and asked, “Do you want to move out tonight, Ghleanna?” “No. We leave at first light.”
“That’s fine. We can all camp here for the night.” “No need. We can stay at Lord Bram’s castle.” Bram’s entire body jerked. “They can?” “Get your gear,” she told her kin.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Bram demanded once Ghleanna’s brothers had walked away. “Do you hate me so much?” “You are the one who wants my brothers to like him.” “No, I don’t. I couldn’t care less if they like me or not.” “Well, they’ll like you much better if they have a soft bed and warm food — or at least a cow or two — for the night. And what could it hurt?” “What if they disturb my things? My papers.” Bram began to panic. “My books!” Ghleanna laughed. “And what, exactly, do you expect my kin to do to your precious books? If they notice your books at all, I’ll be shocked.” She stepped closer, surprising Bram, and brushed her hand against his shoulder. “I won’t let my brothers harm your books or your papers.” “You promise?”
“I promise.” She grinned, and it was a beautiful thing. “I’ll take very good care of you, Bram the Merciful.” Her grin grew wider. “Trust me.”
Cai’s big boots landed on the table, right on top of the peacemaker’s important papers. So Ghleanna grabbed him by the ankles with one hand and flipped him back, Cai and the chair slamming to the hard earth-packed floor.
“Oy!” Cai demanded. “What was that for?” “You keep your claws and your big, fat feet off Bram’s books and papers.” Cai got to his feet and leaned down until they were eye to eye. “And if I don’t?” That’s when Ghleanna head-butted her younger brother. Since he’d been asking for it and all. And it made her other brothers laugh. She did love making her brothers laugh.
“You mad cow!” Cai yelled, gripping his head.
“You’ll do as I say, little brother, or that lump on your head will be the least of your problems. Now”—she looked at all her kin—“we’re going to eat and sleep like civilized dragons and no one will start anything. Understood?” When her brothers only grumbled in response, she cracked her knuckles for emphasis. “Understood?” she growled.
“Yeah, yeah,” Addolgar quickly told her. “Understood.” “Good.” She smiled and walked over to the royal, who stood a few feet away, watching her.
“See?” she asked. “I’ve got it all under control.” “You head-butted your brother,” Bram noted.
“Sometimes it’s the only way to get through to them. And it’s kind of fun,” she admitted. “Me and Addolgar do it to each other all the time. Since we were hatchlings. Used to drive our Mum insane.” “I can imagine.”
“Don’t worry about us.” Ghleanna motioned him away with her hands. “I’ve got control of this lot and I can see that you’re desperate to go and do something important with your books.” “I should stay. I’ve been told enough I’m a horrible host. Great peacemaker — horrible host.” “You don’t need to be a host with me or my kin. We can take care of ourselves.” “You sure you don’t mind?”
“I’d tell you if I did. Go on.” “All right. But just a few minutes. I just need to write a few letters. I won’t be long. I’ll be back before you know it.” “Sure. No problem.” Ghleanna watched the royal rush off to his study. “Won’t be seeing him for hours.” “So can we put our feet up on his things now?” Hew asked from behind her.
“No, you lazy git! And don’t test my patience. Head like granite, I have,” Ghleanna reminded him, pointing at her forehead. “Just like our dear Da.”
Bram signed the last letter he needed to finish and leaned back in his chair, stretching his fingers to loosen them up. That’s when he saw Ghleanna sitting in the chair across from him.
“Hello. Is dinner ready?”
One corner of her mouth quirked up on one side, but she didn’t answer.
“Four hours what? Four hours until dinner?” “Four hours until the suns come up.” “What?” Bram pushed his chair back and strode to the window. He looked outside and winced, realizing when he’d first sat down it had still been light out. Now it was pitch black. Even the moon was gone.
“I got up for some water and realized you were still in here. How are you going to travel all day without any sleep?” “I’ll be fine,” he promised.
“We’ve eaten. My brothers argued over who’d get to bathe in that big tub first.” She grinned. “I won that.” “Another head-butt?”
“There’s no shame in the head-butt. If it works it works. They all went to bed hours ago. Charles said you shouldn’t be much longer. . I think Charles lied to me.” “It’s not his fault. He always reminds me of the time and I just get. . lost.” “That’s all right. I find it endearing.” “You do? Most females have found it rude and intolerable.” “Stuck up, prissy asses, if you ask me.” Bram laughed. “I’ve never heard ‘stuck up prissy asses’ before.” “Because I just came up with it. Look, it’s not like you’re at the pub, feeling up the bargirls. You’re doing important work.” “You think what I do is important?” “Definitely. Because when your precious truces and alliances are broken, war breaks out.” Her grin was wide, showing all her teeth. “And then my important work begins.” She stood and walked over to him. “We need you peacemakers. Without you, there’d be no reason for war, now would there?” “It’s nice to know how integral my job is to your happiness.” “And my career! Don’t move up the ranks of Dragonwarrior without a war to fight, enemies to kill. So thank you, peaceful dragon, for being ever so helpful.” “It’s my pleasure, warmongering female.” They laughed and she caught his hand. “Now off to bed with you. You need at least a few hours if you hope to make it through the day.” She pulled him out of his study and led him down the hall. “Addolgar’s a tyrant when traveling. He likes to go and go and go. The quicker the better for him.” “Is that my shirt you’re wearing?” “I needed something to wear. Charles practically fainted earlier today when I got naked in front of him. These humans. . so ridiculous about their own bodies.” But what did she expect when her body looked so. . astounding. Long legs stretched out from under his shirt, while a plump ass moved seductively under the plain cotton. Then they were walking up the stairs and Bram realized she wore no underthings. Gods, the female was torturing him. What had he ever done to deserve such torture?
She stopped in front of his room. “This is your room, yes?” “It is.”
“I could tell when I walked past. All the books.” “I read a lot.”
“Don’t have to defend yourself to me. My cave is filled with weapons. Same thing.” She released his hand and gestured him inside. “Need help getting undressed?” Bram faced her. “Yes. Yes, I do.” “I was joking.”
“I’m not.” He lifted his hands. “They’re weak from writing.” “Bed. Sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.” “You shouldn’t offer if you’re not going to deliver, Captain.” “Yeah, yeah. Like I’ve never heard that before.” She walked away but returned. “Thanks, by the way.” “For what?”
“Letting my brothers stay. I know you’d rather have yourself impaled, but. . I appreciate it.” “No problem. Although I don’t know if I’d let them in when you’re not here.” “That’s probably a good idea.” She winked and walked off.
And unable to help himself, Bram followed her out into the hallway, watching that perfect plump ass move down the corridor until she reached her bedroom and stepped inside, closing the door behind her.
Bram blew out a breath and wondered about going down there and knocking.
“You haven’t gotten to bed yet?” Bram gritted his teeth—all of them sneak! — and said, “I was about to, Captain Addolgar.” “Just call me Addolgar.” The big oaf stood beside Bram now, staring off down the hall. “My sister. . you think she’s pretty, yeah?” Unsure where this was going, and a little terrified, Bram answered, “Uh. . yes. Your sister is very attractive. A handsome woman and a”—enticing? No. Don’t say that—“a beautiful dragoness.” Addolgar faced Bram, the two staring at each other. Addolgar was nearly the same height as he, perhaps an inch or two taller, but he was much, much wider. Among most, human or dragon, Bram never considered himself small. But when he was around the Cadwaladrs. . Honestly, did the adults perform spells to make their offspring so unnaturally large?
The dragon gazed down at Bram for several long seconds—Am I shrinking? Why does it feel like I’m shrinking? — then grunted at him and walked off.
“Get some sleep,” Addolgar called back. “We got a long trip tomorrow and we need to make a stop.” “A stop? I don’t have time for a—” The dragon halted at his door and stared back at Bram until Bram said, “Good. A stop. Can’t wait.” Another grunt and then he was gone, closing the door behind him.
And that’s when Bram knew he’d be lucky if he made it back from this trip alive.
For six dragons to leave for a time, there was an awful lot going on. She’d seen military campaigns start with less activity.
“Charles!” she heard Bram call from his study. “Have you seen the—” “Have it, m’Lord.”
“Are we leaving?” Addolgar demanded. “The suns are nearly up.” “Give him another minute.”
“I’m running out of patience.” “I can see that, brother. Everyone within a league can see that.” Bram stalked through the hall, followed by poor Charles, who was desperately trying to keep up with his long strides.
“You remember everything, Charles?” “Yes, sir. It’ll be taken care of by the time you get back.” “Good. Good.” Bram stopped in front of them. “Why are we just standing around? We need to be off.” Ghleanna slapped her hand against Addolgar’s chest before her brother could rip poor Bram’s arms off.
“We’re ready whenever you are, Lord Bram.” “All right then. Let’s go, let’s go.” He motioned them out and followed behind. They walked past the gates and Bram stopped.
“What are your cousins doing here?” Bram asked her.
“The troops are moving out from Bolver Fields and they have a tendency to pillage everything in their wake. My cousins will ensure that no one touches your castle or, more importantly, poor Charles. And I really think you should give him more money. He earns it.” Bram turned toward her, gazing into her face. “Thank you, Ghleanna. That was very thoughtful.” Ghleanna had rarely had anyone thank her before, so she didn’t know what to say and ended up staring after Bram long after he’d walked off.
“What if we get hungry?” one of her cousins asked.
“Cows. In the field.” She pointed a finger at them. “But you leave the human inside alone. He’s not to be eaten. Do you understand?” “But what if we’re really hungry?” And by the time she’d pulled her axe, her cousins had already charged back inside the gates, laughing the entire time.
They didn’t make their first stop until late morning, proving Ghleanna right about Addolgar. He was a tyrant about travel. But Bram was unclear why they’d come here. Gods, he hoped it wasn’t to round up more blasted Cadwaladrs.
“What are we doing here, Addolgar?” Ghleanna demanded once her talons touched the ground.
“You know why. Did you think you could leave the Southlands without coming here first?” “As a matter of fact, I did,” she snapped back.
“Well, you can’t. An hour here. A bit of food. And then we’ll be on our way.” “But—”
“No arguments, annoying female!” Ghleanna stamped her back claw. “Worthless bastard!” “Whiny harpie!” “This is your parents’ home.” The siblings faced Bram and Addolgar asked, “How’d ya know that?” Bram gazed at them all. “I used to visit. Quite often. Even stayed here for a while.” “You did?”
With a sigh, he walked off until he could comfortably shift and put on clothes. Once he’d done that, he headed toward Ailean the Wicked’s castle. Eventually, Ghleanna caught up to him. She’d shifted and changed into clothes as well.
“I remember you visiting.” “Remarkable. Since you were rarely here back then.” “But when I was here, I remember you. You were always chatting with my father.” “I came to him for advice quite often. He was a great help to me when I was first starting out.” Ghleanna slowed to a stop. “My father?” “Your father,” he said while he kept walking.
She caught up with him again. “My father helped you with that. . that thing you do?” “Yes. Your father helped me with that peacemaking thing I do that keeps you happily killing for a living.” She caught his arm and brought him up short. “He helped you do what?” “Many things.”
“Now you’re pissing me off.”
“Then my goal’s been obtained!” Frustrated but, it seemed, unwilling to beat the answer out of him, Ghleanna stomped her foot as she’d stomped her back claw earlier and said, “Tell me!” “No. I will tell you nothing. It’s between me and your father.” “What’s between you?”
Bram shrugged. “Things.”
Laughing, she tugged at his arm as Addolgar walked up behind them.
“Would you two pack it in. I want to—” Addolgar’s body lifted and flew into a nearby tree. Sent there by very strong arms and a total disregard for acceptable father-son boundaries.
“Still not paying attention, boy!” Ailean the Wicked bellowed good naturedly. For an older dragon, he still had a healthy set of lungs.
“You mad bastard!” “And watch your mouth, boy,” Ailean ordered.
The three youngest siblings stood beside their embarrassed older brother, laughing. Until another dragon crept up behind them, unseen, and slammed his shield into them, sending Cai and Adain flying and Hew screaming like a little girl in surprise.
“Weak!” Ailean bellowed. “The whole lot of you.” He suddenly pointed at Ghleanna. “Except her. Except my beautiful daughter who saw me all the way over there.” “You saw him?” Addolgar snarled, dragging himself to his feet. “And you didn’t warn me?” “I was talking to—”
“Bram!” Ailean held his arm out and Bram gripped it.
“Ailean. How are you?”
“Fine, boy. Fine. Notice you didn’t jump either.” He glared at Hew. “Unlike some others.” “Weak,” the older dragon with the shield said. “All your sons, brother. Weak as newborn babies.” “Uncle Arranz!” Ghleanna ran over to the older dragon and threw herself into his open arms. “It’s been ages.” “It has.” He put her down, looked her over. “You look good. Solid. Like your mother.” “Why are you here?” Ailean asked Bram. “I thought you were on your way to Alsandair.” “I thought Ghleanna should see Mum before we left,” Addolgar explained, while he brushed dirt and leaves off his clothes. “I heard from her last night.” Being able to talk to each other with their minds was the way immediate kin kept in touch. Very important when having to communicate with parents or siblings when a long distance off, but also a way for some kin to nag. Something that Bram was sure annoyed Ghleanna — at least at the moment.
“I’m glad she did.” Ailean looked at his daughter. “She was worried about you.” “I’m fine.”
“Tell her that then, so she’ll stop pacing the floors.”
Ghleanna’s mother wrapped her arms around her daughter and held her tight. Ghleanna closed her eyes and buried her nose against her mum’s neck. She loved her mother’s scent. It always made her think of home, made her feel safe — and very loved.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Mum. Really.” Ghleanna pulled away and saw the tears in her mother’s eyes. “Oh, Mum. Please don’t cry. I’m fine.” “I know. I know.” Her mother wiped at her eyes, smiled. “You know how worried I get, though. About all of you. I’m just glad you stopped by.” “Can’t stay long, though. Just an hour or two.” “You can eat, though, can’t you?” “Food!” her brothers cheered, pushing past her and going into the castle they’d been raised in.
“How long are you going to be on the road with that lot?” “Too long,” Ghleanna told her mum and they laughed.
Her mother’s smile was warm. “Bram!” He leaned down and hugged Shalin the Innocent, Tamer of Ailean. “Oh, Bram. I’m so happy to see you. How are you doing?” “I’m fine, my Lady.”
“Well come in, come in. There’s enough food for all of you.” She took their hands and pulled them into the hall. Like a pack of ravenous beasts, her brothers had already descended on the food that had been put out.
“Like wild dogs,” Ghleanna murmured.
“Not really,” Bram murmured back. “Wild dogs have more manners.” He smiled and, out of politeness only, Ghleanna smiled in return. Unfortunately, though, her mother caught her smiling and Ghleanna saw those gold eyes widen, her nostrils flare.
“Talk to me about your plans, Bram,” Ailean said as he walked into the hall. “Come back to the war room.” “You have a war room?”
Ghleanna waited until Bram and her father had walked off — while she tried not to notice her father taking the time to pinch her mother’s hip. . weren’t they too old for this sort of thing? — before she turned to her mother and said, “Stop it.” “Stop what?”
“You know exactly what I mean, Mum. And you’re going to stop right now.” Ghleanna started to head to the table, ready to fight her way through her brothers for a scrap of bread, but her mother yanked her back.
“You must be joking.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing. He’s just. . just. .” “Just what?”
“A peacemaker.” And she’d dropped her voice to a whisper. “What would I do with a peacemaker?” “The same thing I did with a whore.” And Shalin the Innocent sounded highly superior at the moment. “Made him mine.” “I have no intention of making Bram the Merciful anything. Mine, yours, or ours.” “Foolish girl! Right in your face. Right there. And has been. . for years! Yet you continue to ignore what’s right before you, then you whine—” “I do no such thing.”
“—about worthless scum like Feoras.” “Mum. . ”
“Fine. Fine. Don’t listen to your mother who is never wrong. See how far you get.” Then she lifted the hem of her skirt and flounced away. Her mother was an excellent flouncer. A skill Ghleanna had thankfully never learned. Instead she stomped like a proper warrior and threw Hew and Cai away from the table and head-butted Adain so she could get some food.
“This is excellent, Bram. Excellent work.” “Thank you. I’ve been slaving over it for months.” “Rhiannon give you a lot of changes?” Bram shrugged and Ailean laughed, leaning back in his chair. “I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re handling her well. Just stay clear of the boy.” “I try. She won’t let me. I think she’s trying to get me killed.” “She’s using you to make her mate jealous. I’m sure she doesn’t want you dead. Although if it happens, I’m not sure she’d lose any sleep over it. But that’s Rhiannon and that’s what you get dealing with monarchs, which is why I don’t.” He tapped the parchment Bram had given him. “But this, Bram. . this will get you killed. You do understand that? There are royals who don’t want Rhiannon any more powerful than she already is.” “But how would killing me stop this? Delay it perhaps but—” “Your death would make Rhiannon look weak and that will make her even more of a target. Besides, do you think anyone has your skill, Bram? To get dragons of all stripes to meet and agree on terms.” Ailean lowered his head. “Do I need to remind you of exactly how good you are at what you do, boy?” “No, sir.”
“Good. But I am glad my Ghleanna is traveling with you. You need her protection.” “It’s too blatant,” Bram admitted, knowing Ailean would understand. “I was trying to keep this quiet. Trying to make it seem. . of no consequence. But with a good number of your brood escorting me around the Southlands, it’s obvious this alliance will change things.” “It was already obvious to those who’d give a centaur shit anyway. Trust me, Bram. You’re better off with my girl watching out for you. She’s a solid choice by Bercelak. And her and Addolgar together? A mighty force. Let them protect you. At this point, there can be no subtle.” Bram relaxed back in his wood chair. “I guess you’re right.” “Don’t worry, son. What you’re doing is right. That’s all you need to know.” “Thank you, Ailean.”
“Any time. And feel free to visit more. Perhaps when this is all over.” Ailean handed the parchment to Bram and stood. “I’ve missed you. So has Shalin.” Bram stood and lifted his gaze up to see the giant blue dragon in human form. “I’ve missed you both as well. And when this is all done, I might take you up on that visit.” “Good. And you can bring Ghleanna with you.” Bram slammed the war room door shut before Ailean could walk through it. “Don’t start this again.” “And don’t you be a fool. You going to let her get away?” “She doesn’t even notice me, Ailean. She forgets I exist on this planet.” “And you forget everyone exists on this planet. When you’re working. That’s how it is with my girl. When Ghleanna works, she forgets everything but her troops and who her enemy is. Honestly, Bram, the pair of you were made for each other.” “I’m not the problem.”
“If you don’t go after what you want, lad, you definitely are the problem.” Frustrated — and knowing Ailean was right — Bram yanked the door open. “Can we just go please?” “You were the one who stopped me.”
As promised, the stay was short and within the hour, Ghleanna was hugging her mum good-bye.
“You’re crying again, Mum.”
“Because I’ll miss you.” She pulled away from Ghleanna and reached up so she could hug Addolgar. “I’ll miss all of you.” “Mum, all we gotta do is babysit this one.” Addolgar said as he pointed at Bram. “Easy job.” Bram sighed. “Yes. I do adore being equated to a human child.” After saying good-bye to her sons, Shalin returned to Ghleanna. They gazed at each other for a long moment.
“I love you, Mum.”
“And I you, my daughter.” They hugged again and then Ghleanna quickly turned away before she started to blubber like her mother. But she came face to chest with her father.
“And do I get nothing?” His voice lowered a bit. “Will I be paying for my past forever with you, my Ghleanna?” Ghleanna looked up at her father. Gods, she adored that face. But still. . “You do make it so very hard to be your daughter.” “But worth it, yes?”
“Some days, Da. . I really don’t know.” She walked around him and tried to ignore the hurt she heard in his voice when he whispered, “Good-bye, little one.” Ghleanna walked through the gates that surrounded her family home and toward the clearing where they could take off.
“You all right?” Bram asked her, his long stride matching hers.
“You know, your father—”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” “—he adores you like the suns.” Ghleanna stopped abruptly, spun to face him. “Did my mother tell you that?” “No. He did.”
“Once, years ago when I’d stopped by to discuss some strategy with a difficult Duke who’d decided dragons needed to be hunted by his army—” “Why didn’t you just kill the Duke and his army?” “Which was why I spoke to your father, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, you walked in, slammed a blood-covered axe on the table and said, ‘Thanks for the axe, Da. Worked like a charm.’ Then you walked back out and he sighed and said with great pride, ‘I adore that girl like the suns.’ Then we went back to our conversation — with that blood-covered axe sitting there the entire time.” Bram gazed off. “I tried not to take it as an unspoken threat.” Ghleanna shook her head a little. “Is that really true?” “I lie when I have to, Ghleanna. Like when I tell people our queen is utterly sane or that ‘No. Of course Bercelak would never kill your offspring while you slept.’ But on something like this? That is not something I’d lie about.” “You don’t understand. I am judged by my father’s past deeds because, as usual, he didn’t think past his cock. I am Ailean the Slag’s daughter, after all, which to many means I’m no more than a slag myself.” “You are judged by your father’s past because you allow yourself to be. Because you allow yourself to feel shame for the life he decided to live. How is that Ailean’s fault? Perhaps you should accept him as he is — the way he’s accepted you.” “Know so much about my family, do you, royal?” “Well. . I did live with your parents for a year while I studied alchemy under your mother.” Ghleanna frowned. “You did? When was that. . well, don’t walk off mad! It was an innocent question!”
They flew the rest of the day and late into the night until they reached the outskirts of the city of Baynham. Instead of sleeping outside, though, they all decided to go into town, get some warm food and soft beds.
But it had been someone’s brilliant idea for them all to stay in the pub for the night and share a single room with several beds. There was just one problem — the Cadwaladr males’ ability to snore in a way that suggested very loud temple construction.
It wasn’t even that Bram was a light sleeper. He wasn’t. Far from it, having slept through all manner of things during the time he traveled the length and breadth of the Southlands for several years. But four Cadwaladr males in one room? That was too much even for him.
They didn’t even snore in unison, but instead created a wall of sound that surrounded him so that Bram could never hope to find sleep anytime soon. After many hours of trying, he finally gave up, pulled on his boots, and slipped out of the room. Once he closed the door behind him, he let out a deep sigh of relief that the thick wood at least blocked a bit of the noise those dragons could make.
“Making a run for it?”
Ghleanna sat on the stairs that led to the next floor of rooms. She had one of her axes in her lap and was sharpening the blade.
“No offense to you, Ghleanna, but that noise—”
“I know. I know. Why did you think I offered to take first watch? Hew’s the worst of the lot, though, with Addolgar a close second.”
He motioned to the steps. “Mind if I join you or are you still mad at me for what I said earlier?”
Ghleanna hadn’t spoken to him since they’d left her father’s lands, and Bram knew he should have stayed out of it — but he couldn’t. Her rage at her father was unwarranted and for some reason none of her kin would tell her so.
In answer to Bram’s question, however, Ghleanna simply moved over a bit and placed her axe on the landing behind her.
Bram sat down beside her, and asked, “Too close?” “Not so’s I mind.”
Bram nodded and stared straight ahead. “Any trouble so far tonight?” he asked when the silence began to choke him to death.
“Nay. Quiet as a tomb.”
“Do you think a watch is necessary?”
“If my brother Bercelak is worried for your safety — it’s better to err on the side of caution.”
They sat in silence for a few more minutes until Bram asked, “Is that what taking first watch entails? Sitting around, sharpening your weapons. . and waiting?”
“No books to read?”
“Don’t need any.”
“No one to talk to?”
“Too much chatter gets on my nerves.”
“Do you ever find yourself wishing for an attack of some kind to help with the boredom?”
Bram gazed at her. “You truly are a soldier, aren’t you?”
“Me mum used to say I came out of my egg saluting and already in formation. Not sure I believe her, though.”
Bram chuckled. “I adore your mother. One of the kindest dragons I’ve ever known.”
“Aye. That she is.”
“And skilled with the written word as well.”
Ghleanna shrugged. “Wouldn’t know. Not much of a reader.”
“Well, tell me, because there’s always been some debate among my friends and I, and your mother won’t admit anything one way or the other — did your mother help your father write those books of his?”
Bram, finally enjoying their late-night conversation, thought it was an innocent enough question — until the tip of one of Ghleanna’s blades pressed against his throat, her black eyes angry as she glared at him.
Apparently not an innocent question at all.
Seething with rage, Ghleanna hissed, “You dare bring up those books to me, royal?” The series of books that had chronicled her father’s sexual escapades before he met Shalin — the damn things were still bestsellers. “Do you think I won’t cut your throat and leave you bleeding out on these steps like a cow used for sacrifice? Do you think Rhiannon can protect you from me?”
His gaze on hers, his voice steady, the royal stated, “I meant no offense, Captain. Although I don’t know why you’d be so offended.”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” she snapped back. “The daughter of a whore’s just a whore herself, right? You want to think I’m no more choosey about my bedmates than my father — fine. But don’t you dare bring my mother into it. She’s the purest thing my father’s had in his life and I’ll not have you sully it with your—”
“Wait.” He was remarkably calm considering the fact that she had her favorite blade to his human throat — opening a main artery was a sure way to kill a dragon in human form. “I don’t think we understand each other.”
“We understand each other quite well. No wonder you’ve been so bloody nice to me. You’re no better than the rest. Be nice to me, talk sweet to me, tell me my father adores me, then get me on my back or my knees, so you can run around telling everyone how you fucked the slag’s daughter. Isn’t that it, royal?”
“Ghleanna,” he began slowly, speaking to her as if she were a very slow child, and she knew some centaur-shit soothing words would leave his mouth. He was well known throughout the kingdom for his ability to talk himself out of any situation. Yet she had to say. . she was curious to see where he’d go. “I know that your father — and especially your mother — did not write the books you speak of. From what I understand, they were written without Ailean’s knowledge or consent. Those are not the books I meant.”
Ghleanna frowned. “Then what are you talking about?”
“The book your father wrote about handling close-quarter combat with Lightnings. Another about fighting human legions in open battlefields with no trees or mountains for cover. And there’s another on tactical maneuvers in the Western Mountains when fighting the barbarian tribes. He dedicated that one to you because of your work there a few decades back before you received your captain’s rank. But my favorite is about his peacekeeping efforts in the Outerplains between humans and dragons. He had some brilliant suggestions on how to use what he did there with all humans in the Southlands to ease negotiations. Of course, a lot of dragons think it’s a scandalous and outrageous book because his insane suggestions included things like not eating humans, not destroying their villages, not stomping on them for fun. Your father has some very unorthodox ideas,” Bram finished with a smile.
Yet when Ghleanna could only gawk at him, the hand with the blade sitting limply in her lap, Bram asked, “You did know your father had written books on philosophy and war tactics, didn’t you?”
As a matter of fact. . no! She didn’t know. She’d had no clue. Her father? Writing books? Even with her mother’s help. . her father barely read! Not that he was stupid. Far from it. But he’d always been so busy raising his offspring and teaching them how to protect themselves — mostly against him and his two brothers — that he’d never bothered to share his philosophy on anything other than what they should do the next time he and Uncle Arranz tossed their human forms off the roof.
“Gods, Ghleanna, you didn’t know, did you?” Bram asked, sounding appalled. She knew the peacemaker’s family was very close and very. . cultured. They probably sat around a dinner of roasted oxen and discussed world events. When her family got together, there was mostly just drinking and arguing, arguing and drinking. She loved it, though. Still. . Bram would know if his father had written any books. And he would have read them. Bragged about them. Ghleanna, as much as she loved her father, also resented him because he hadn’t seemed to be able to keep his blasted cock in his pants before he’d taken her mother as his mate. A reputation that had haunted her since she was of an age to take lovers.
Yet Ghleanna was still ashamed she hadn’t known something so important about her own father. “No. I didn’t.”
“He never told you?”
“No. But he did teach me how to use two axes at once to disembowel someone in seconds.”
“Well. . I’m sure that’s quite helpful, too.”
She slid her blade back into her boot. “I wonder why he didn’t tell us.”
“Maybe he thought. .”
Bram shrugged. “Maybe that you wouldn’t care.”
“Of course I would.” Ghleanna reached over and wiped the bit of blood away from Bram’s throat where the tip of her blade had dug in a little too deep. “He’s my father. No matter what, I love the old bastard.”
“Aye,” Bram said with a sweet smile. “I can see that.”
She planted her elbow on her knee and rested her chin on her raised fist. “Now I feel bad.”
“Because I should have known. I should have cared enough to find out.”
“And when would you have done that, I wonder? During the Battle of Hoesgyn or perhaps the Battle of Prothero in the Medus Mountains? Or maybe during the Battle of—”
“All right. All right. I get your point.” She gave a short laugh. “You certainly are Lord Know-It-All this evening, aren’t you?”
“Only when necessary. Otherwise I try not to let my brilliance overshadow my giving and loving nature.”
“Do you know that you’re not nearly as arrogant as most of my family?”
“Actually. . I do know.”
She gazed at him. “I’m so sorry I thought. .”
“The worst of me?” he guessed.
“Something like that.” She rubbed her hands across her face. “It’s been a very long few months. And not very good ones, I’m afraid.”
“Want to tell me about it? I’m a very good listener.”
“Tell you? So you can feel sorry for me, too?”
“Ghleanna, you just had a blade to my throat. There are limits to my mercifulness I’m afraid.”
That made her smile. A little. “I’m afraid there’s not much to tell really. I usually spend my time in battle. Dragons have few wars, but humans fight all the time. When one battle ended, there was always another. Another fight. Another war.” She briefly closed her eyes. “But one time. . this one time in a very long decade, I. .” She cracked her neck. “I took a chance.”
“You loved him,” Bram said, so quietly she almost didn’t hear him.
She shook her head. “Gods, no. I didn’t love him. I don’t love him. I’m ashamed to say I was just lonely. And stupid. Very, very stupid.”
“We all make mistakes, Ghleanna. The point is not to dwell on them.”
“Easy enough for you. You probably never make mistakes. When you fart, I bet rainbows shoot out your ass.”
“That is far from the truth,” he said around a laugh. “I’ve made my share of mistakes. Especially with females.”
“Apparently I’m easily distracted—”
“I don’t need your help in listing my mistakes, Captain.”
“It’s not a mistake. You have a lot on your mind. One just needs to be aware of it so you can be. . managed.”
“You manage me?”
“Quite well. And is that it? Being distracted because your brilliant brain is constantly turning isn’t much of a mistake.”
“I’m always involved in my precious books and papers.”
“Not a mistake.”
“And I spend more time doing things for the reigning queen than I do for anyone else in my life.”
She blew out a breath. “Still waiting on those mistakes.”
“Isn’t being a distractible dullard who’s never around mistake enough?”
“Not to me. Sounds like you’re just very busy. You simply need to find someone who can handle that. Who respects your space without crowding you. Probably someone who has a job of her own so you don’t become her job. That’s where you probably get into problems, peacemaker. You need an independent female who’s not threatened by all the work you’re doing.”
The royal blinked. “You mean someone like you?”
She shrugged. “Sure. If you like, I can introduce you to a few of my cousins. I’m suggesting my cousins rather than my sisters because you don’t want to have to go through the gauntlet that is my brothers. It’s not fair to any dragon.” She raised her gaze, found the dragon staring at her, eyes narrowed a bit. “What? Are my cousins not good enough for you? Because they’re not of royal blood? Don’t be such a snob, Bram the Merciful.”
With a sigh, the dragon stood. “On that note, I guess I’ll go back to bed. Try to get some sleep.”
Ghleanna pulled a key from the top of her boot. “Here.” “What’s this?”
“I reserved the room across the hall for myself but you can use it. See if you can get some sleep in there.”
Bram took the key from her. “Are you sure?”
“We have a long day of walking tomorrow. Many of the nearby towns are too dangerous to fly over. Plus you didn’t get much sleep last night. So go,” she insisted. “It’s fine.”
“What about you?”
“Addolgar will be up soon enough to take my place.”
“But where will you sleep?”
She looked over her shoulder at him and said, “In the room with you. Unless you snore.”
And that’s when she saw it. When he was dragon, his scales just shined a bit more. But when he was human — his face turned red.
“Wh-What?” he stammered. “No. No. I don’t snore.”
“Then I don’t see a problem. Do you?”
“No, no. That’s fine. I’ll leave it unlocked. Good-night.” Then he went into the room and closed the door.
Grinning, Ghleanna went back to sharpening her weapons.
Bram entered the simple room and sighed in relief. Had she noticed his sudden panic? And lust? No. No. He doubted that. She didn’t notice. She never noticed anything about him, including his attempt not to be overeager about the pair of them sharing a room.
Nay. She hadn’t noticed a thing.
Bram stepped into the room and smiled. Quiet. Lovely, lovely quiet. Without bothering to remove his clothes, he fell face first on the bed and tried to push thoughts of Ghleanna from his mind.
Didn’t work, though. She was right there. Like always. Driving him mad.
And then there was Feoras. She hadn’t said his name but Bram knew whom she’d been speaking of. Feoras the Fighter. So named because he always fought to find a way not to have to do anything. Always looking for the easy way ‘round. The easy way to earn gold, move up the ranks, whatever. Honestly, his name should be Feoras the Jealous. He wanted to be where Ghleanna was but he didn’t want to work for it. Not like she had. The constant training; battles with humans as human so she could hone her skills; taking any dangerous, sure-not-to-survive assignment that came her way. No. Feoras wasn’t willing to do that. But he’d still wanted to be a Captain. A Dragonwarrior Captain who received all the best assignments, led the most important battles. When that didn’t pan out, he’d fucked Ghleanna instead. Then ran around telling everyone. Including many of her soldiers in the Tenth Battalion, hoping to turn them against her. Ghleanna had been mortified and had disappeared for months.
But what she still didn’t know was that her troops had not taken kindly to what Feoras had done. They’d not taken kindly to it at all. And they’d gone after him like rabid dogs after a bone. Last Bram had heard, Feoras was still on the run, hiding out somewhere in the Creese Mountains. And Bram hadn’t said a word to Ghleanna about it, because he’d hoped that Feoras would be tracked down and killed in short order so that it wouldn’t matter. It wasn’t very merciful, but as he’d told Ghleanna — his mercy only stretched so far.
Then again, everyone learned that about him eventually.
Ghleanna finished sharpening the blades of her axes, her sword, and her knives. By the time she slid the last blade into her boot, the door to the bedroom her brothers slept in opened — followed by a nightmarish amount of snoring — and closed.
Yawning and rubbing his face with his hands, Addolgar dropped onto the stair right beneath Ghleanna. Unlike Bram, he’d never be able to sit next to her without his shoulders forcing her into the wall.
“Anything?” he asked around a yawn.
“Get some sleep. We have a few hours before the suns rise. I can take it from here.”
“Aye. Go, sister. Because nothing is worse in the morning than you without enough sleep. Cranky cow that you are.”
“Thank you so much for that. The love of my kin simply overwhelms me.”
Addolgar motioned her away with a flick of his hand and Ghleanna walked up to the room she’d put the royal in.
“Oy,” her brother whispered. “What are you doing?”
“Sleeping with the royal. It’s just for a few hours.”
Her brother grinned. “Saucy wench.”
“I just mean I’m staying in the same room, you dirty bastard.” She pointed at the room her younger brothers slept in. “You can’t expect me to put up with that for the next few hours?”
“No, no. I really can’t.”
Ghleanna stepped inside and closed the door behind her. The royal slept fully clothed on his stomach, his long silver hair reaching down his back, his head resting on his crossed arms. And, except for his breathing, he was silent.
No. She’d not be sleeping in her brothers’ room this night. Not when she could sleep in wonderful silence without having to make herself deaf first with one of her blades.
Ghleanna carefully placed her two axes and her sword on the wood chest at the foot of the bed — she still had blades strategically placed in her boots and inside her chainmail shirt and leggings should something need to be killed during the night — and eased onto the mattress beside Bram. He didn’t even move or wake up and she realized how exhausted he must be.
Once she was stretched out on her back, one arm behind her head, the other at her side, Ghleanna let out a luxurious sigh. Now she’d be able to sleep like a baby.
That is until Bram wrapped one arm around her waist and pulled her in tight against his body. Ghleanna froze. Was he awake? She didn’t think so.
She tried to remove his hand from her waist, but he only gripped her tighter. Then he moved closer, pushing into her side, resting his head on her shoulder, his face turned toward hers. His eyes were still closed and his breathing normal. He was asleep but. . still. He was awfully affectionate while he slept.
“Bram?” she whispered, loath to wake him up, but. . still. “Bram.”
He moved around a bit, sighed out, “More oil. Bring me more oil so we can see all those delicious scars.”
Good gods, what was he going on about? Or maybe she didn’t want to know.
Deciding there were worse ways she could be spending the night — like in a room with her brothers — Ghleanna stopped worrying and went to sleep.
It was the first good sleep she’d had without the help of ale in six bloody months.
“Wake up!” a voice boomed, shocking Bram into wakefulness. “The two suns are nearly up and we must face the day!”
“Shut up, Addolgar,” another, sweeter voice said from beside him.
“Don’t have all day, sister. We need to get on the road. Many miles to go.”
“I am quite aware. Now piss off!”
The door slammed shut and the body that sweet voice belonged to burrowed in deeper beside Bram.
“Uh. . Ghleanna?”
“Just another five minutes,” she softly begged. “Just another five.”
But in less than five minutes — more like ten seconds — Ghleanna jerked away from him, wide dark eyes gawking.
“What are you—” she began.
But Bram quickly cut in, “I was here first.”
“You. . oh. You were.” She closed her eyes, shook her head. “You got a bit clingy when I stretched out last night.”
“Did I?” Bram sat up, ran his hand through his hair. “Sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize. And you weren’t. . I mean, your hands didn’t go. . I mean. .” She let out another breath. “You were quite proper is what I mean to say.”
“Good. Good.” He threw his legs over the side of the bed. “Then we can forget it ever happened.”
“Right. Good idea. It never happened. We were both just. . tired.”
“And all that snoring.”
“Right! The snoring. How could anyone expect us to sleep with that lot snoring away? We had to sleep together. It was necessary.”
“Although,” Bram admitted after a moment, “it was quite lovely, wasn’t it?”
“Aye,” she replied, her voice soft. “It was.”
“Thank you for that.”
“And thank you. That’s the best I’ve slept in—”
The door swung open again, cutting off Ghleanna’s words. “Oy!” Cai yelled into the hallway. “Addolgar did see ’em in bed together! Who knew the little bastard had it in him?”
Hew stuck his head in. “They still have their clothes on. What’s the point of being human if you’re going to do it with your clothes on? Playing with the flesh is the best part.”
“Maybe they got dressed quick.”
“Nah. I bet they just slept.” Hew shook his head. “Boring.”
“Not everyone’s like you, Hew. Running around, fucking anything that moves.”
“Let’s go!” Adain yelled from out in the hallway. “I want to eat!”
The door slammed shut and Bram closed his eyes, trying to remember that this would all be over soon enough.
“That was a bit awkward,” Ghleanna sighed.
“Of course it wasn’t. We’re dragons. We don’t have all those weak sensibilities like humans.” He waved toward the door. “That was nothing.”
“Come on, you two whores!” Addolgar bellowed from the hallway, most likely waking up the entire building, and if not, the brothers’ laughter probably did the trick. “It’s time to eat! Let’s move, move, move!”
“Okay,” Bram told her. “Now that was awkward.”
After a quick morning meal in the pub, they’d gotten on the road as the two suns rose, heading toward the ocean and the port where they’d meet the boat that would take them into the Desert Lands. As they walked, Ghleanna kept thinking about what had happened that morning. Waking up in Bram’s arms — even fully clothed — had been. . strange. Mostly because she’d been so comfortable. She’d never been that comfortable in a male’s arms before.
Maybe it was because the royal seemed so non-threatening. He was Bram the Merciful, after all. He never ate humans and was always running around trying to create alliances and truces with their kingdom’s enemies. He’d never been in a battle in his life and hadn’t even noticed the one right outside his own castle gates.
He was definitely not the kind of dragon she ever saw herself with. As a warrior from a warrior clan, she’d always been with other warriors. Then again, she’d rarely stayed the night and when she did, she never slept in those warriors’ arms. And Ghleanna was even less comfortable with human males.
But Bram. .
She shook her head, confused. Annoyed. But surprisingly refreshed, as if she’d had a full twelve hours of sleep.
“You all right, sister?” Addolgar asked her after a few hours on the road. “You’ve been very quiet today.”
“Aye. I’m fine, brother.”
“Is it the royal?” he asked, his voice low so only she could hear. “Should I break him in half for you?”
Ghleanna smiled. She’d always been very close to Addolgar. They’d spent a lot of time together killing things in battle and weren’t very far apart in age. And it always warmed her heart how protective he was of her, although she was often the last one who needed that protection.
“No. That’s not necessary.”
“If it becomes necessary, you simply say the word.” They walked on for a bit and Addolgar added, “He’s not terribly weak, though.”
“The royal. He’s not too weak, I don’t think. And he doesn’t look weak. His human body’s not very large but it probably helps him blend in more with the humans. And as dragon he’s a tolerable, average size.”
Her brother shrugged. “Maybe you should see all that’s in front of you rather than just a small piece. I wanted a She-dragon tiny and soft, like a kitten. And yet my mate is everything but. And I adore that about her.”
Ghleanna sighed. “I don’t know what’s going on with you and Mum, but it is a very sweet thought, brother. Still, I think I may be too much She-dragon for our peacemaker. What kind of do-gooder like him would tolerate how many times a year I go out and kill things for sport and profit? I’m rarely home and when I am home, I’m usually recovering from battle wounds and working with one of our blacksmiths on new weapons I want to try out.”
“You give him too little credit, I think. Besides”—Addolgar leaned down and whispered in her ear—“when he doesn’t think you’re looking, he stares at your scars.”
What Bram had muttered in his sleep the previous evening came back to her, but she brushed it away and said, “All that proves is he’s odd.”
“Not at all. I know that look. Me mate has it for me when I get home fresh from a battle. He likes those scars, Ghleanna. He likes them a lot.”
Aye. Crazy. Every one of her kin was absolutely stark raving mad.
Bram was digging through his travel bag and walking, trying not to trip on anything, when he realized that he was surrounded by Ghleanna’s younger brothers.
He slowed to a stop. “Is there something you lot—”
“No, no. Keep moving.” Adain shoved Bram forward while Cai and Hew nervously looked back at Ghleanna and Addolgar. “You, uh. . you like our sister, yeah?”
What in holy hells was going on with everyone?
“You,” Adain pushed, “like our sister. That’s what Addolgar says.”
“Well, I don’t see—”
“All we want to say is that if you want to, you know, take a run at her — we won’t rip your arms and legs off.”
“Take a run—”
“Our sisters call it the Gauntlet. Most blokes aren’t good enough for ’em, you see.”
“Human or dragon,” Hew added. “Don’t matter. They’re mostly idiots.”
“But you’re not bad,” Adain confided. “And the females like the pretty ones.”
“Look, all we’re saying is that if you want a shot at her, we won’t stop you. The last bastard she was with — he hurt her.”
Cai whispered, “She don’t like to admit it, though.”
“Right, but you, you’re supposed to be real nice. Feeble maybe, but nice.”
“I am not—”
“So maybe you can take her out sometime. Or buy her something a female would like. Flowers or whatever.”
“And,” Hew insisted, “tell her she’s beautiful.”
“She is beautiful.”
“Yeah. Tell her just like that. Like you mean it.”
Bram stopped walking. “I do mean—”
“Good, good.” Adain patted his shoulder. “We’ll leave you to it then.”
The brothers walked off and Bram, confused and becoming more and more terrified by Ghleanna’s kin, went back to digging through his bag. And that’s when he finally heard it. A bird. A crow specifically. Cawing.
Bram looked over at the trees on the other side of the beach they walked on. The crow cawed again, his wings spread out wide from his body.
“What is it?” Ghleanna asked him.
“Someone’s following us.”
“Aye. We know.”
Surprised, Bram again looked at the brothers. Although they were still talking, they all had their hands on the closest weapon.
“You’re not going to panic on me and run, are you, royal?”
“My, you do have a high opinion of me, Ghleanna. It’s very heartwarming.”
She laughed and shook her head. “No insult meant. Simply wanted to be sure I didn’t need to chain you to me.”
“To stop me from running away? Not necessary.” Bram gave her a small smile. “However, if you find other reasons to chain me to you, feel free.”
Ghleanna stumbled a bit. “Wait. What?”
But before Bram could elaborate on his request — in detail — Hew yelled out, “The trees!”
The Cadwaladrs moved in unison and with purpose, all of them surrounding Bram, their shields up and locked together, their weapons ready to strike.
“Watch your right, Hew!” Addolgar yelled out. “Look to the trees, Cai. Adain, send a call out. See if any of our kin are nearby. Tell them where we are.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“All you need to know,” Ghleanna reminded Cai, “is that Addolgar and Hew did. Now shut the fuck up and hold formation!”
Then there was silence. A painful, bloated silence that had Bram panting lightly so that when he needed his flame, he could unleash it as he’d been trained to do since hatching.
They waited, the moment growing more and more tense, but not once did any of the Cadwaladrs move. Not once did they even flinch. Even the younger ones who, according to Cadwaladr Code were still too young and untrained to be on their own.
And, just when he thought perhaps Cai had been right and there was nothing for Addolgar or Hew to see, a dragon in full armor dropped right in front of them, the beach and trees around them shaking.
“Shift!” Ghleanna yelled and Bram shifted to his natural form at the same time the Cadwaladrs did. It was all that kept him from being crushed to death, too.
“Shields!” Addolgar yelled and with a slam against the ground, their shields changed from human-sized to a size fit for enormous warrior dragons. “Weapons!” Another slam, this time to the base of their weapons, which had the deadly implements expanding in size. He knew that the Cadwaladrs had some special blacksmith among them, but gods, what a creation.
“Ghleanna!” Addolgar ordered, “Protect the royal!”
And as soon as Addolgar’s words left his snout, the first strike came.
With the open sea to their backs, Ghleanna felt relatively sure the traitors — because that’s how she thought of them — would be coming from one direction. They could try to come at them from the sea but they’d be quickly seen and dealt with by the Fins.
No. Approaching by land was safer and quicker. Besides. . there were many of them. She counted at least twenty. And all of them trained soldiers of Rhiannon’s army. Soldiers Ghleanna had fought with, drunk with, raided small towns with. And yet, without a word, they were striking at the Cadwaladrs and the peacemaker.
For that betrayal alone, Ghleanna would make sure this beach would soon be called Red Sands.
The traitors advanced and Addolgar raised his lance. “Steady on, Cadwaladrs. Steady.”
The first traitor, a youngster who only recently got his Corporal armor, struck first, his impatience being his undoing as so often happened with those young warriors not trained by other Cadwaladrs.
Addolgar saw the opening and struck, his lance piercing right under the forearm — a major artery. The young warrior’s screams echoed out and the rest of the traitors attacked.
Ghleanna moved back, pushing the royal with her rear. He didn’t speak but she didn’t feel him shaking or trying to fly away in a panic. Good. She didn’t have time to track the fool down if he fled.
Her brothers fought bravely but, when more traitors came, they were forced to break formation. They did their best to keep their enemies away from Ghleanna and Bram, yet it was impossible to do it without risking their own lives. She wouldn’t have that.
When several went for Cai, Ghleanna used her battle axe to strike them down. Cutting one from shoulder to hip and the other from one leg to the other. Once she’d finished them off, she stepped back again to shield the royal.
“There are more, Ghleanna,” Bram told her, not once raising his voice. Never showing fear. “Coming from the north.”
She nodded. “Cai! Hew! North!”
When her two younger brothers turned, shields and weapons raised, Ghleanna sensed another dragon landing to the right of her and the royal.
She spun, pulling back her axe to strike, but she froze at the last second, her shock making her foolish and causing her to stop in mid-swing.
“Feoras?” she asked, unable to hide the emotion she felt at the sight of him.
The green dragon grinned wide — and slammed his sword into her chest. The last thing that went through her mind was that the only reason he’d missed her heart was because the royal behind her had pulled her to the side at the last second.
The peacemaker is much faster than I thought. .
Bram released a blast of flame that sent Feoras the Fighter — now Feoras the Traitor when Bram was done telling this tale — and a group of soldiers several hundred feet away from them. Bram hadn’t merely been bragging when he said his flame was mighty. It was a family truth. As if their flame compensated for their lack of weapons skill. With no more than two fiery blasts, Bram could wipe out an entire village.
“Addolgar!” Bram called out. Ghleanna was in his arms, blood pouring from her wound.
Her brother cut another dragon down before looking over his shoulder.
“It was Feoras!” Bram motioned to the dragon, who still hadn’t managed to get back on his claws, his head having struck the ground hard when he’d landed.
Addolgar snarled, ready to go after the one who’d cut down his beloved sister. But then more dragons landed around them.
“Take her!” he ordered Bram.
Bram looked around. All he saw were trees and ocean. The next port was several leagues away. And with him carrying Ghleanna — they’d never stand a chance. “Where?”
“Anywhere! Just go!”
“She’s dying, royal!”
Bram looked down at the She-dragon in his arms and realized that Addolgar spoke truly. Blood pumped from her chest in big gouts.
“Take her! Help her!” Addolgar killed two dragons in front of him by running them through with one thrust of his spear. “We’ll do what we can to hold them off.” He glanced back at Bram one more time. “Help my sister. Please.”
Bram nodded and took another quick look around, his gaze finally settling on the ocean. It was the last place he wanted to go. The place he swore he’d never return to.
Yet he had no choice but to risk it. So Bram grabbed firm hold of Ghleanna and took to the skies, moving over the ocean. He heard the shouts of those trying to capture him. They were coming after him but Bram kept going until he was far enough out and high enough.
“Ghleanna? Can you hear me?”
“Aye.” But she sounded weak.
“Take in a deep breath. The deepest breath you can. Then hold it.”
He felt her take in several breaths, but it was not easy with her losing so much blood. When he knew she’d done what she could and that she now held her breath, Bram tightened his hold on her — and flipped them both over.
A few of the soldiers were near now. Only a few feet away, but they never expected Bram to suddenly flip over — nor to suddenly race toward the ocean beneath them.
“Stop him!” someone yelled from the shore. “Stop him before he reaches the water. Stop him!”
Unwilling to stop until he was made to, Bram kept going, glad for his lighter weight, knowing it allowed him to move faster than the bigger dragons.
He neared the blue water, was right there when he heard Addolgar bellow, “What the hells is he doing?”
It was the last thing Bram heard before he hit the water, dragging Ghleanna down with him. Down and down, deep into the ocean.
A few dragons followed him in. Foolish dragons. Or they didn’t know what the older, more experienced ones did.
For as he kept going, the others behind him, those who ruled these waters, shot past him, their weapons out, their shark-like fangs bared. They ripped past Bram, the webs between their talons and the bright colored fin that cut down their back giving them unholy speed, while their gills allowed them to breathe.
Bram kept going until more dragons surrounded him. Older soldier Fins who’d patrolled these waters for quite some time. They looked at the wounded She-dragon in Bram’s arms and then at Bram.
It was Bram they recognized.
Understanding that their visitors were quickly running out of oxygen, the Sea Dragons separated the pair. A Fin wrapped his forearms around Bram while another did the same to Ghleanna. Then they used their underwater speed to whisk the visitors deeper in the ocean — and the caves beneath. To the Empress of the Sea Dragon Empire.
And the gods knew. . that conniving bitch was ten times worse than Rhiannon could even dream of being.
Bram used his forearms to brace his body, his talons pressing into the packed earth of the cave floor, and he spewed seawater from his burning lungs. He sensed much activity around him but he paid it little mind. He was too busy trying to get his bearings.
Confused, he lifted his head to try to see where he was but his eyes stung and his hair was in his face.
“Breathe, my Lord,” someone gently told him, patting his back. “You’re safe now.”
He recognized that voice, but from where? “Kleitos?”
“Good memory, old friend.”
“Where. .?” Feeling his lungs had cleared, Bram sat back and pushed the wet hair from his eyes. That’s when he saw Ghleanna. She lay on her back, with several dragons surrounding her. “No.”
He tried to get up, to go to her, but Kleitos quickly pulled him back. “Let them do their work, Bram. You can’t help her now.”
Shaking his head, Bram tried desperately to remember what had happened. “We were set upon,” he said out loud. “Betrayed.” He frowned, pressing his talons to his forehead. “They were trying to stop me.”
“Who, old friend? Who was trying to stop you?”
The thought was just out of reach, so Bram did what he always did — he reached for his travel bag. It was a Magickal item designed to survive all flames, including the ones from his shifting. But the bag was no longer on him. His gaze, suddenly clear, shot across the cavern and he saw several dragons going through it.
He stood but Kleitos grabbed his forearm, held him back.
That’s when everything became terribly, ridiculously clear.
“Get your claws off me, Kleitos.”
“Now, now, old friend—”
“We are not old friends, you deceitful bastard.”
Kleitos’s smile was wide, revealing those shark-like fangs. It had taken years, nearly a decade for Bram to stop having nightmares about those bloody fangs. “I know we’re not friends, but it worked for a time, didn’t it?”
Bram tried again to pull his forearm away.
“Now, now, my Lord. Don’t make such a fuss. I’m sure we can be reasonable about all this, wouldn’t you agree?”
Annoyed more than he’d been in an age, Bram slammed his head into Kleitos’s the way he’d seen Ghleanna do to Cai.
“What the hells was that?” Kleitos cried out, holding his head.
“You deserved it.”
“Barbarians,” Kleitos accused him. “All the Land Dwellers are nothing but barbarians!”
“That is enough, Kleitos,” a female voice ordered and nearly every male in the chamber dropped to a knee in supplication. Bram, however, merely bowed his head.
“My Lord Bram.”
The dragoness circled him. “You do look the worse for wear,” she told him, her claw brushing his shoulder. “What have you been up to?”
“I’m sorry to have dropped in like this, Empress. But I really had no choice. I was set upon and—”
“Yes, yes. The ones who followed you were slain by my soldiers. They were foolish to follow you down here.” She stopped in front of him, green-blue eyes looking him over. “Foolish for you to come back. I let you go once, Land Dweller. Who is to say I’ll feel so kindly toward you a second time?”
“It was not my first choice to come here, Empress, but to be quite honest. . I really didn’t have another option.”
“And that?” she asked, pointing at Ghleanna with a dark green claw.
“She is with me and helped save my life. I’ll do what I have to to protect her.”
“Will you now?” The Empress moved closer. Her scales, like the scales of her people, fascinated Bram because they constantly changed colors the way the sea around them changed colors. Swirling from blue to dark green to light pink to another shade of blue. It was a beautiful sight to behold — when you felt confident they wouldn’t kill you for sport. “That’s very interesting.”
She moved away, heading out of the cavern. “Keep them both alive,” Helena tossed over her shoulder. “At least until I change my mind.”
“It must be your lucky day,” Kleitos observed once Helena and her entourage had left. “Bram of the Land Dwellers.”
Sneering, Bram jerked his head a little and the bastard quickly scrambled away, hiding behind a few soldiers.
“Barbarians,” the Fin hissed. “All of you.”
And why would Bram argue with him?
Ghleanna knew someone was sitting on her chest. Someone extremely heavy. Addolgar? He’d done it before. He’d tried to smother her once with a buffalo.
But when Ghleanna forced her eyes open, all she saw were some strange looking dragons standing around her. All with scales in varying shades of green, blue, and yellow; and long braided hair that constantly shifted color whenever the light changed around them. And fins. Rather than horns on their heads, as any true dragon had, this lot had fins.
Fins? What kind of dragon had. .?
Gods. Sea Dragons. Sea Dragons were surrounding her. Why? Were they trying to kill her? Or, even worse. . experiment on her? The Fins had been known to do that sort of thing. They considered themselves intellectuals and superior to all other dragon species — the way all the other dragons considered themselves superior to each other. But where those on land were content to kill each other in battle, the Fins tended to avoid conflict. But those who strayed too far into their watery territory might be used to test out the Fins’ many potions and poisons and all manner of terrible things.
Moments from unleashing her flame to remove the Fins from her presence, a familiar and welcome face leaned over her. “It’s all right, Ghleanna. They’re here to help you. Just relax. Sleep.” Without her making one move, Bram had known what she was planning and had eased her discomfort. Such a useful dragon, that one. And so very cute.
“Sssh. Sleep.” He stroked her hair with his talons. “Shut your eyes and sleep.”
And, feeling much safer, that’s what Ghleanna did.
It had taken much work from not only the surgeons but the Empress’s personal wizard guild to save Ghleanna’s life. While the wizards kept her heart beating and her brain functioning, the surgeons had worked quickly to repair her lungs and the damaged artery caused by that traitor’s weapon.
And for that, Bram would make sure Feoras paid dearly, for Bram’s mercy only went so far.
Now he sat beside Ghleanna’s prone form and held her claw in his, waiting for her to wake. But he was anxious and with good reason. When he’d seen Kleitos scurry from the cave, smiling and giggling like a child, Bram knew no good could come of it.
It had been a few decades since Bram had been in the underwater lairs of the Fins, and it had been under very different circumstances. Circumstances he had no intention of repeating. This time, however, he was no hatchling of a dragon. And this time he had so much more to protect. But he wasn’t talking about bloody truces or alliances.
“You dare,” Helena’s voice softly demanded from behind him, “bring that here? Into my court?”
Getting to his claws, exhaustion making him much slower than usual, Bram said to the monarch, “I do not understand, Empress.”
“That,” she said again, pointing at a still-unconscious Ghleanna. “You brought that here. Abusing my good nature”—her good what? — “and risking my subjects.”
“I still don’t understand—”
“A Cadwaladr!” she bellowed. “You brought a Cadwaladr into my palace!”
“Kleitos said you called her Ghleanna. Is that Ghleanna the Decimator? Sister of that bastard Bercelak?”
“No! I don’t want to hear it!” She pointed her talon at Ghleanna and ordered her royal guard to, “Kill it. Before it awakes and destroys us all.”
The Empress’s eyes narrowed on Bram. “Did you say no to me?”
“I did and I apologize, but no one touches Ghleanna. We are unarmed and unable to fight, asking for your protection. So to kill us now—”
“But you didn’t give me all the facts. You simply brought that fighting dog into our midst like it was a harmless puppy.”
“She is wounded and has much healing to do. I don’t see what kind of threat—”
“She’s a Cadwaladr. Don’t pretend you don’t know what that means, peacemaker.”
“Aye. She’s a Cadwaladr. And my protector and my friend. Not only that, she’s directly tied to the Royal House of Gwalchmai fab Gwyar. Harm her, Empress, and Queen Rhiannon will not stop until your vast ocean is nothing but a boiling pot of Sea Dragon stew.”
“Like her mother then, is your young queen?”
“Actually,” he sighed, “no. She’s nothing like her mother, which means she won’t hesitate to do what she can to destroy you should you harm Ghleanna. I assure you, you’ll not have the same inaction you experienced with Adienna.”
“Is the Cadwaladr her pet?”
“No. She’s Rhiannon’s sister by mating. That bastard Bercelak, as you called him, is Rhiannon’s consort. And as we both know, my Lord Bercelak forgives nothing. Harm his sister and I won’t be responsible for what he does. And trust me when I say. . he’ll do something.”
“So I’m supposed to allow this low-born creature to wander around here among us? Untethered, unmonitored?”
“Ghleanna owes her life to you. Like all Cadwaladrs she takes that debt very seriously. As do I.”
“Which means what? Exactly?”
“It means I never forget those who’ve helped me.”
“Is that right?” The Empress’s eyes narrowed, her mind calculating as always. “Still. . we can’t take the chance.”
She motioned to Kleitos and he stepped toward Ghleanna’s prone body, a blade in his hand.
“Take another step”—Bram warned, stopping Kleitos in his tracks—“and I’ll flay the scales from your bones.”
One of the guard’s placed the tip of his pike against Bram’s throat and Bram moved his gaze to Helena. “Do you really think I’d let this piece of metal stop me?”
“Interesting,” she murmured, and Bram realized too late it was a test. She didn’t want to challenge Rhiannon — who did? — but she wanted to see how protective Bram was toward Ghleanna. How much she could possibly use his protectiveness to her own ends.
Annoyed with himself, Bram looked away and that’s when he saw that Ghleanna’s eyes were open and staring at Kleitos who, at the moment, was blissfully unaware of her.
He could have warned Kleitos; it would have been the merciful thing to do. .
Yet it was much more entertaining to watch Ghleanna raise her claw, slap the blade from Kleitos’s hand, pull back, and punch him directly in the snout. And she broke something in that snout. Something important.
Roaring in pain, Kleitos stumbled back, both claws around his damaged appendage, tears leaking from his eyes.
The Empress, now standing behind another contingent of guards who’d moved in to protect her the way Ghleanna and her kin had moved in to protect Bram, observed, “I see your pet needs a leash, peacemaker.”
“Forgive her, Empress. She’s still unwell. Not in her right mind.”
Helena stepped around her guards and whispered, “You can stop smiling, Bram. I’m sure Kleitos got the message.” She smirked and motioned to one of her guards. “Fetch Euthalia.”
The guard ran off and Helena studied Ghleanna, who’d passed out once more. “So many scars.” She shuddered in distaste. “An abused pet it seems.” She gritted her fangs. “Kleitos. Honestly. Stop all that blubbering.”
A few minutes later a sorceress arrived. “You called for me, Empress?”
“Do you have what we discussed earlier, Euthalia?”
“Aye, my mistress.” She held a large gold ring in her hand.
“Excellent. Put it on her.”
“Empress—” Bram began but Helena cut him off with a slash of her front claw and he was forced to watch while the sorceress stepped beside Ghleanna and fastened the ring around her throat.
And while they all silently observed, the ring grew smaller and smaller — as Ghleanna shifted to human. When it was over, Ghleanna was in her human form with a gold collar around her throat. A collar that would keep her in her human form for as long as Helena wanted.
“Is this really necessary?”
“Either this, Bram the Merciful, or I allow my guards to cut her Land Dweller throat and I take my chances with your queen — and you. Your choice.”
Bram had no option but to nod. “The collar, Empress.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Helena headed toward the exit. “Take him and his pet to one of the rooms we keep for human visitors,” she ordered her servants. “They can be human together.”
Then she was gone.
“I wish she’d allowed me to cut the Low Born’s throat,” Kleitos told him, copious amounts of blood leaking from his nostrils, his entire snout slightly off. He slithered closer to Bram and hissed, “I would have enjoyed watching the life drain from your barbarian whore.”
That’s when Bram headbutted the bastard again. You know. . on principle.
“Owwww! Why do you keep doing that?”
Ghleanna awoke with a snarl and demanded, “Why am I human?” “Calm yourself or you’re likely to open your wound again.” Bram stood next to her. He was also in human form, dressed in a plain cotton shirt, black breeches, and black boots. They were in a rather large bedroom with a closed door. She’d guess it was locked.
“Answer me.” And her voice sounded weak to her own ears. “Why am I human?” “Why do you think?” He sat down on the bed. “Because you’re a much bigger threat when you’re dragon.” “When last I woke, some Fin was standing over me with a blade.” “Aye. You handled him, though.” “Good.” Ghleanna tried to sit up, but she was too weak to do it on her own and Bram wouldn’t let her. With his hands against her shoulders, he gently eased her back to the bed. “Relax, Ghleanna. You’re not going anywhere until that wound heals.” She panted from even that small exertion but she hated feeling like this. Like she couldn’t defend them both if need be.
“You look exhausted,” she told him. “Have you not slept at all?” “Not much. But that’s all right.” “Where are we, Bram?”
“Palace of the Sea Dragon Empress Helena.” “I thought an Emperor ruled the Fins.” “He did — until his untimely death. Now it’s Helena’s empire to rule. And, unfortunately, Helena has heard about you, I’m afraid, or at least your kin. Hence your current human form.” Bram reached over and brushed her neck with the tips of his fingers. That’s when Ghleanna realized something was on her. She touched her throat, felt the metal around it.
“A collar? They put a collar on me?” “It’s a sorcerer’s tool that’s keeping you human. It’ll be removed when we leave. Is it uncomfortable?” “Not really. But it annoys me to know it’s there.” Ghleanna closed her eyes in disgust. “But no less than I deserve. I’ve fucked this all up royally.” “What are you talking about?”
“This.” She glanced around the room. “This is all my doing. Because I was weak and stupid.” “How the hells can you blame yourself for any of this?” “Who else should I blame?”
“Gods, I don’t know. . the traitors who set upon us perhaps?” “I should have listened to Rhiannon. I should have insisted on more warriors.” “None of us took this seriously except Bercelak and Rhiannon. And even they never thought there would be such an attack.” Ghleanna let out a breath. “But I should have known.” “Why you?”
“Because I’m smarter than all of you when it comes to general evilness and trickery. There are Elders who have many Dragonwarriors and soldiers in their debt for one reason or another. If they wanted to stop you from making this trip, they’re the lot who could do it. I should have remembered that and planned accordingly. But I was too busy feeling sorry for myself and trying to recover from that bloody hangover.” “There were forces greater than you or I who were busy trying to stop us, Ghleanna. I realize that now. Those who will never accept Rhiannon as rightful queen. To stop me, to have me killed, would reflect very poorly on her and her young reign. Now here.” He slipped a hand under her shoulders, lifted her a bit, and placed a cup against her lips. “It’s water. Drink it.” “Sea water?”
“Is this a time to joke?”
Who said she was joking?
She sipped from the cup Bram held, relieved it was clean drinking water.
When she pushed the cup away, she asked the question that she dreaded the answer to — yet she had to know, “My brothers?” “It sounds as if they’re alive and well.” “Sounds?”
“Warriors matching your brothers’ descriptions were spotted on the beach chopping the limbs and wings off the surviving traitors. Needless to say the Fins who spotted them did not stick around to verify it was your kin.” “I need to know, Bram.”
“I know you do. But you’re still weak and the Empress’s sorceress guild has protections up. You’ll never be able to contact them on your own.” “Unless you want my brothers coming down here and ripping this place apart—” “I didn’t say we wouldn’t try.” And gods, he sounded so exhausted. “But you’ll need my help.” “Right now, peacemaker? I need you more than I’ve ever needed anyone. And I’m sorry if I sound like I’m threatening. I’m not. It’s just my brothers. .” “I know well.” His smile was sweet. “And I understand more than you can ever realize.” He slipped long, strong fingers into her hand. “So we’ll do this together, yes?” Ghleanna nodded and she felt power flow from Bram and into her, giving her the temporary strength she needed to force her way through the barriers the Fins had protecting this place so she could contact her blood-related kin with her mind.
Sister. Thank the gods. Addolgar’s relief at realizing Ghleanna still lived was palatable, zipping through her like a bright wave. That’s when her first tear fell.
Addolgar. . the others?
Ease yourself, sister. They’re fine. But tell me you’re all right.
I’m fine, brother. Healing but fine. Are all the traitors dead?
No. And she could feel her brother’s anger even at this great distance. Feoras and quite a few others escaped while we killed their comrades. Seems loyalty is in short supply these days.
Good. Then I can kill Feoras myself.
We’re coming for you, Ghleanna.
No! You’ll be outnumbered and underwater has never been our best battleground.
I’ll not leave you to die among the Fins.
I have no intention of dying anytime soon, brother. Call to the Cadwaladrs. Get them ready for battle.
Those who aren’t already here are headed this way.
Good. Wait to hear from me. But do not, under any circumstances, come down here to fetch me. Understand?
Aye. No need to bark so. I hear you just fine.
Then I won’t need to repeat myself.
After a moment, Addolgar asked, The royal?
With me. Alive.
Her brother grunted. Good. I owe that bastard an ale. Hate to have it over his funeral pyre.
That’s very sweet, brother.
Go, sister. Rest.
I will. But send a few of the cousins over to Bram’s parents’ cave and his sister’s. It’s best we watch out for them as well until Feoras has been dealt with. But tell them nothing. Leave that to Bram.
I’ll take care of it. Now get some rest, sister. The Cadwaladrs will be ready when you need us to be.
Ghleanna ended the communication with her brother and relaxed back into the mattress. Through tears of relief, she looked at Bram and told him, “All who betrayed us will die.” Bram nodded and kissed the back of her hand. “And I’d expect no more and no less.”
Bram jerked awake, confused about where he was, his gaze searching the room. It wasn’t until he saw Ghleanna asleep in the bed, the fur covering her only up to her waist, that he remembered.
He didn’t know how the Fins did it. Lived under the ocean’s surface in the outcrop of caves they’d discovered eons ago. Bram couldn’t tell if it was morning or night. Had the suns come out or was it raining? Was it chilly or warm? He felt trapped in this place and he hated it. And although he could sneak out anytime he wanted — the guards barely noticed him and allowed him to leave the room as he pleased — he knew he wouldn’t go, which was why Helena allowed him the freedom of her palace. She knew he wouldn’t leave without Ghleanna.
He let his gaze rest on the She-dragon and again thanked the gods for saving her. She was healing quite well and was looking stronger with each passing hour. Aye, the wizards and surgeons had done a good job. But lack of skill, talent, and knowledge had never been a problem for the Fins. They were, in fact, well regarded for their knowledge on a vast wealth of subjects. No, the true weakness of the Fins was their arrogance.
Something that said a lot considering all dragons were arrogant to some degree. As a race they simply couldn’t help themselves. But even with their arrogance, most of them knew they couldn’t separate themselves from the world around them and still function. They needed humans, they needed other breeds of dragons, they needed the gods. . they needed everything life had to offer. Yet the Fins felt they were above all that. They didn’t need anything but their brilliance and their ability to live under the vast ocean.
“Do you never rest, peacemaker?” Bram blinked, realizing Ghleanna was awake and had been watching him. He’d been so busy letting his eyes rove over her exposed body, he’d failed to notice.
“I’ve slept some.”
“It’s not easy to relax.”
“Worried the Empress will change her mind?” “She’s been known to.”
Ghleanna started to push herself up and Bram came to her side, slipped his arm around her, and helped her until she could lean her back against the headboard. He brought the fur covering up until it covered her chest.
She glanced down and back at him. “Something wrong with me tits?” “No. They’re perfect. That’s the problem.” She smiled. “I didn’t know I was such a distraction.” “Then you are remarkably unobservant.” Laughing, she patted the bed. “Sit with me before I get sleepy again.” Bram did, sitting on the edge of the bed. A very respectable distance.
“Here,” Ghleanna pushed. “Stretch out next to me.” He thought about arguing but realized he didn’t want to. He hated being respectable all the time. Especially since most dragons weren’t, so why was he?
To Ghleanna’s surprise, Bram got on the bed beside her. He stayed on top of the fur and kept his boots on, but that was all right. She wasn’t sure he could handle it if she told him to strip naked.
“I have one question for you, Bram. And I want you to be honest with me.” “Of course.”
“Are you in danger here? Should we be getting you out?” Bram gazed at her. “You think I’d leave you?” “My assignment was to get you to Alsandair and back — alive. If something happened to me along the way. . well, that’s the price one pays when a soldier.” “Unless I know you’re safe, there won’t be an alliance.” “But—”
“I’m not leaving you, Ghleanna. And we can argue about that until you pass out from exhaustion or you can just let it go so we can sit here and relax instead. Staring at that blue-green wall.” “Is that algae?”
“It’s a design motif.”
“And you lost me.”
“We Land Dwellers don’t have many motifs, so that’s understandable.” She glanced around their very nice jail cell. “Are we really under water?” “Yes. We really are.”
“But we’re not in water at the moment, right? You know, by some Magickal means that could suddenly go away and I end up drowning?” “The Fins have gills but they are descended from land dragons. Although they don’t like to admit that. Ever. This palace was designed for the Land Dwellers they once were and the human pets they keep now.” “But the walls won’t suddenly come crashing in from the force of water, will they?” “After a millennia? Doubtful.” “So we’re safe?”
“I’m sure, Ghleanna.”
“Then why do I feel like the walls are closing in?” “It’s panic.”
“I don’t panic, Bram.”
“You do now.” He put his arm around her shoulders and gently pulled her close, careful of her wound. “Close your eyes, Ghleanna.” “So I won’t know I’m drowning?” “You’re not drowning. You’re fine. Close your eyes.” She did, appalled she was acting so weak, but unable to stop the fear that was coursing through her. “Now breathe. Deep breath in, deep breath out.” She followed Bram’s instruction. It helped. But she began to think his stroking of her hair might be helping more.
“You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” she asked when she felt calm again.
She wanted to push him for more, but now that the panic was gone, she was getting tired very quickly.
“It’s all right, Ghleanna. Sleep. Your body needs it.” “I’m getting better.”
“I know.” She felt something brush against her forehead and she realized Bram had kissed her. She wanted to ask him to do it again, but she was just so sleepy. .
Bram eased Ghleanna down into the bed again and brushed her hair off her face. Her color was back on her human form and she was getting stronger. He eased the fur back a bit and studied her wound. It was healing nicely.
There was a knock at the door, and Bram pulled the fur up to Ghleanna’s chin and said, “Come.” The door was pushed open and Kleitos walked in. As human.
Bram smiled, enjoying the knot that could clearly be seen on Kleitos’s pasty white forehead and the obvious destruction of his nose. “How’s the head, old friend?” The slithering bastard snarled a bit, then said, “The Empress requests your presence.” “Why?”
“Don’t ask questions, Land Dweller. Just come along. I promise your pet will be perfectly safe.” Bram glanced at Ghleanna one last time, unsure of what waited for him outside this room.
He walked to the door and stopped, glaring down at Kleitos. “She better be safe.” “Or what? What will the peacemaking Land Dweller do?” Bram jerked a little and Kleitos slammed back into the door, trying to get away from him. And to think Bram had at one time been afraid of this dragon.
Bram walked out and let Helena’s guards lead him to their Empress.
Ghleanna woke up with a Fin standing over her. Again.
“Good. You’re awake.” He handed something to a young assistant behind him. “I’ve taken out the stitches. You’ve healed up incredibly well.” Glancing around, Ghleanna sat up. “Where’s Bram?” “Who?”
“My companion. The Silver.”
“With the Empress, I think. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.” The Fin motioned his assistant away. “Now, I know you’re feeling stronger, but don’t let that fool you. You still need some time to recuperate. But I doubt you’ll be indisposed for long.” He gestured to her. “You’re quite the specimen. Built like a sturdy building. Are all your Low Born females like you?” “You’ve begun to annoy me.”
“Sorry, sorry.” He smiled and it suddenly struck her that he was in his human form. Perhaps that was for ease of treating her. “Drink lots of fluids. Water. A little wine. Eat well but nothing too heavy. I’ve tied your left arm down to ensure you don’t move it around too much. The outside of the wound has healed up but I don’t want to take the chance you’ll rip something internally. Although if having your arm tied down irritates you when you sleep, and if you’re not a flailer, untie it when you go to bed. Understand?” “I do.”
“Good. Good.” He nodded his head and walked out, closing the door behind him. She didn’t hear it lock.
Ghleanna sat up and threw her legs over the edge. She stood and quickly sat back down again. The room spun, and she closed her eyes, waiting for everything to stop. When it did, she blew out a breath and slowly got to her feet. Slowly being the key. Once she was up, she found a long cotton shirt that looked like it belonged to Bram. She put it on and went to the door. She carefully eased it open and, after a quick glance around, she stepped outside.
Ghleanna’s mouth dropped open as her gaze swept everything around her. This floor of rooms was just one of many. A rotunda built into the rock wall of the cave, with rotundas above and below that went miles in either direction. She leaned over a steel railing and gawked at all she could see. And she knew without being told that this was just a wing of the Empress’s palace. A place they kept their human “pets.” No. She wasn’t a big fan of the Fins, but she could appreciate their engineering skills because this was amazing.
Ghleanna turned and saw the two dragons guarding her door. The two sleeping dragons. Her first thought was that they were lazy but then she wondered if they’d been on duty since her arrival. She knew a few commanders who did that at home. They’d get so caught up in whatever they were doing that they’d forget the little things. For instance, that dragons can’t stay awake all day, every day until your hostage leaves your custody.
About to return to her bed — even if she were completely healed, she wouldn’t be making a run for it without Bram — Ghleanna heard someone call out, “My Lord General!” She looked over and saw a large dragon stop at the end of a hallway and turn to face whoever had called him.
Realizing how the sleeping Fins would look — and having been in the same position more than once when left on duty too long — Ghleanna went to the guards and lifted the eyelid of one, then the other.
“Get up,” she said low. “Your commander is coming.” She gestured with her free arm. “Get up, get up, get up!” They did, scrambling to their claws and standing at attention just as the General made his way down to her room.
“What’s she doing out here?” the General demanded.
“I’m looking for my companion.” Not much of a lie. “Where is he?” “I have no idea. But I want you back in your room.” “Just admit it.” She walked up to him, leaned her head all the way back so she could see that far up. “You’re afraid I’m going to take you on. Right now. Just like this.” She held up her one fist. “Let’s go, General. Let me show you my skills.” The General chuckled and shook his massive head. “Get some rest, Land Dweller. Perhaps, when you’re feeling better, we’ll have that challenge. Until then. .” “Your fear amuses me, General.” She grinned and headed back to her room.
The General moved on and one of the soldiers let out a breath. “Thanks for that.” “No problem. But if you’ve been here for more than a day, you need a break. Have someone else take watch as soon as you can manage it. Besides—” she shrugged and headed inside her room—“it’s not like I’m going anywhere at the moment.”
“You sent for me, Empress?”
“I did, Bram. Please.” She motioned him closer. And he was surprised to find Helena in her human form, her bright blue dress glittering in the glowing light coming from the walls. “What do you think?” she asked when he stood beside her.
“It’s beautiful, my Lady.”
They stood on a landing that overlooked an enormous hot spring.
“Would you like to try it out?” “No thank you, my Lady.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I’ll never be able to relax while I’m in it.” “Because of Kleitos?”
“Because of all of you.”
The Empress smiled. “I do like your honesty. You know, Bram, when I sent you off the last time I truly never thought to see you again. And I never expected to see my lover return — but you did as you promised. You got him released.” “I did. But I haven’t seen him since my arrival. Is he—” “I had him executed,” she told him flatly. “For treason, a few years back.” She shrugged, not appearing remotely fazed by that. “Long story. Anyway,” she went on, “I’m relying on your innate nature now.” “I don’t under—”
“A truce, peacemaker.”
Bram blinked. “Rhiannon who?” “Your queen.”
“The one you called wide ass?” “One time. Gods that viper forgets nothing!” “If you want my honesty, Empress, there is no way—” “Make it happen.”
“You’re not hearing me, peacemaker.” Helena stepped closer to Bram. “You will get me a truce. I want it and you’ll get it for me.” “I can’t force Queen Rhiannon to do anything.” “You can persuade her. You’re very good at that.” “Yes, but—”
“And I am trying so very hard to keep your low-born pet safe. Yet Chancellor Kleitos loathes her. I have him on a tight leash, but. .” Helena briefly pursed her lips. “What if that leash slipped from my grasp?” Bram clenched his jaw, but said nothing.
“I’m sure you remember your time with Kleitos, yes? I’m sure I need not remind you.” “No, my Lady. You need not remind me.” “Excellent. Then you’ll promise me, yes? A truce. A favorable truce with your queen.” “Aye. I promise.”
“Excellent,” she said again. “Excellent.” Then Helena walked off, leaving Bram to stare off across the cavern, rage and hatred making him unable to move for quite some time.
Ghleanna waited up as long as she could manage, hoping to see Bram before she fell asleep. Human servants came in, bringing her food and a tub so she could bathe. She’d done that and eaten — but still Bram had not returned.
And while she’d debated whether she should go out and track him down — she’d fallen asleep. Yet now she sensed Bram’s return, and knew he stood over her — staring.
Ghleanna opened her eyes and gazed up at him.
“I didn’t think it was possible — but this situation has managed to get worse.” “But you’re so calm,” she observed.
“That’s usually when you can tell everything has gone to shit.” “I’ll make sure to remember that.” Ghleanna struggled to get up with one arm. She’d left the other tied down because she’d fallen asleep before she could take off the binding. “Perhaps it’s not as bad as you think.” Bram caught her around the waist and lifted her until she was sitting up.
“I rarely blow things out of proportion, Ghleanna. When stakes are this high, I simply don’t have the luxury.” Ghleanna leaned forward and caught Bram’s hand. She winced a bit from the pain, and he said, “I should leave you to sleep.” “Like all the hells you will.” She tugged. “Come. Sit beside me.” He did, stretching his long legs out on top of the fur.
“Now talk to me, Bram. What has you so worried?” “She wants me to build a truce.” “A truce? Between. .” When Bram didn’t answer, “The Fins — and us?” Bram nodded. “She wants a truce with Rhiannon?” Ghleanna laughed. “Good luck to her then. Rhiannon hates her.” “And Helena her.” Bram’s voice was cold, his gaze across the room. She could see that he was drawing in on himself. Protecting himself for some reason. She didn’t think it was anything she’d done, and he created truces every day. Why should this one bother him? “But her subjects tire of their limits. They want to travel farther inland and, in return, we’ll be able to use the seas. Especially during wartime.” Ghleanna instantly saw the benefit of that. The thought of moving up the Northern Coasts and striking at the Lightnings almost made her tingle.
“That seems reasonable.”
“I am a peacemaker, Ghleanna. Not a miracle worker. Rhiannon will never agree to a truce with Helena. Never.” Ghleanna winced. “Because of that wide ass comment? When Rhiannon took the throne?” “It was said Helena’s exact words were, ‘I can’t believe that wide-ass cow now rules the Southlands.’” “And after Rhiannon heard that, Bercelak’s, ‘I love your wide ass’. . not really helpful.” Ghleanna waved all that away. “No matter. Simply tell Helena no.” Bram didn’t move. He didn’t speak. And yet Ghleanna could feel him recoil. Not from her, but from everything else.
Ghleanna pushed the fur off and got to her knees beside Bram. “What aren’t you telling me, Bram?” “Nothing you need to know.”
“Are you protecting me?”
“You’re still healing. You need rest — not tales of the past.” Fed up and worried for her friend — she didn’t remember ever seeing him like this before — Ghleanna straddled Bram’s lap.
He blinked hard, brought quickly back into the moment. “What are you doing?” Ghleanna tugged off the cotton material that held down her arm and had covered her breasts.
“Look at me, Bram.”
He smiled a little. “I can hardly look away.” “I meant look at my eyes, you pervy bastard.” She laughed and said, “Now hear me well. I am no weak female who cannot handle hard news. I am a Cadwaladr.” And her back automatically straightened, her chin lifted. “And we are in this together, you and I. For good and bad. So tell me what you’ve been hiding from me.” Bram closed his eyes, his breathing deepened. The walls of this place were closing in on him as they’d done to her.
Ghleanna lifted Bram’s hand and pressed it to the wound on her chest.
“We’re bound together, Bram. Nothing can ever change that. Nothing ever will.” “Understand, it is not shame that stops me from telling you the truth, Ghleanna. It’s fear. .” His words faded out, his gaze on hers, and Ghleanna’s brow peaked. “You fear what I might do.” “As you said. . you are a Cadwaladr.”
She appeared so insulted, Bram almost felt bad for what he’d said. But she always demanded honesty. So honesty was what she would get.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he argued. “It’s not as if I’m pulling this concern out of my ass.” She gave a little snort. “You might have a point.” “I just need to know—”
“I won’t touch her. The Empress. At least not without orders from you or someone who outranks me. There. Happy?” “Fair enough.” Bram took in a breath, watched his forefinger ease across the scar of her recent injury. He focused on that so he could let the words flow.
“Many years ago. I was lured here.” “By the Empress,” Ghleanna guessed.
“She wasn’t the Empress then, but yes. By Helena. I was young and she was. . beautiful, and it never occurred to me that I was being used. Once I was here, they sent word to Adienna that they had one of her royals and they wanted her to return the Fin who had gone past the port towns and been captured by Adienna’s troops.” “Adienna didn’t bargain.”
“No. She didn’t.”
“Then why did we not hear of this? This is the sort of thing the Cadwaladrs excel at. We should have been sent to fetch you.” “It was Adienna’s decision to do nothing.” Ghleanna leaned back, her scowl dark and dangerous, her voice flat. “She left you here?” “Aye.”
“So what did you do?”
“I bargained my own way out. It wasn’t easy. I learned to enjoy fish. All kinds of fish. And, in time, they eventually let me go.” “It couldn’t have been that easy.” “It wasn’t.”
Ghleanna cupped his jaw in her hand. “They hurt you.” “Yes. Some scales were removed to send to the queen. But that didn’t help.” “But there was more, wasn’t there?” “The Emperor’s chancellor decided to make me his personal project. I’m still not sure why.” “He enjoyed your pain. I’ve known blokes like that. They’re never for the quick kill. Not if they don’t have to.” “Chancellor Kleitos does like his pain. And he enjoyed mine.” “But you got out.”
“I did. The Fin Adienna had in her dungeons was Helena’s lover. When Adienna wouldn’t release him, Helena came to me.” “Because she thought her hostage would help?” Bram chuckled. “No. She came to me to complain. I’m in chains, missing scales — bleeding quite profusely. And she’s complaining.” “How’s that funny?”
“You had to be there.” He shrugged. “She complained and I listened, pretended I cared, pretended I empathized.” “Then you manipulated her?”
“No. I persuaded. And promised I could get her lover out.” “And she released you?”
“She had no choice. Her father would no longer help and Adienna wouldn’t bargain. Killing me would only ensure her lover’s death.” “So she let you go.”
“She let me go.”
“And, of course, you returned home and called for revenge.” “No. I secured the release of her lover.” “Why, Bram?”
“Because I’d given my word.” “I’d call you a fool except that I’m sure it is the very reason you’re now the most trusted dragon in the Southlands. Which I’m sure is why she’s asking you to get this truce for her now. You helped her before. .” “More fool I.”
“You survived, Bram. Without anyone’s help.” Ghleanna’s head tipped to the side and she studied him. “It couldn’t have been easy for you to come back here.” When Bram only stared at her, “And yet you did. You came here to save me.” “It was the only place I could think of at the time.” She stroked his cheek. “Gods, I owe you more than I realized.” “No. You owe me nothing.”
“Haven’t you realized yet?” he asked, frustrated. Because the gods knew he didn’t want her pity. “I’d do anything to keep you safe? Anything at all?” “I was to be protecting you, royal.” “We’d run out of options.”
Ghleanna framed Bram’s face with both her hands, her dark eyes focused on his mouth. He didn’t know what he’d said to prompt this, but he watched her lean in, his breath halting in his lungs as her lips neared his.
But then there was that damn knock at the door.
Bram closed his eyes. Why? Why were the gods torturing him?
“What?” he snarled.
Kleitos in human form walked in. “I am sorry to interrupt, Lord Bram. But the Empress has requested your presence at the Senate.” “Of course she does,” he muttered.
“Sorry, my Lord?”
“I said I’ll be there in a minute. Now go.” “Of course, my Lord. I’ll be right outside.” Kleitos slinked away, closing the door behind him.
“That was him, wasn’t it?” Ghleanna demanded after a moment.
“That was who?”
“The one who tortured you. The one who hurt you.” “How do you know that?”
“Because you’re never rude to anyone. Even my idiot brothers. Not only that but I could feel it in your body. The way you tensed. It was him.” “Ghleanna—”
Ghleanna scrambled off Bram’s lap naked, and stalked across the room. She yanked the door open and Kleitos quickly pulled back.
“Really, Kleitos?” Bram asked, slipping off the bed. “Listening at the door? Isn’t that beneath even you?” “Oh, no, my Lord. I was doing nothing of the kind. Surely you — owwww!” Ghleanna had rammed her head into Kleitos’s with all the force she could muster.
“You barbarian whore!”
That’s when Ghleanna hauled back and punched the Fin, most likely re-breaking his nose.
Kleitos scurried away and Ghleanna followed.
“I’m going to enjoy removing your skin, lizard.” Bram caught Ghleanna around the waist before she could get her hands around Kleitos’s throat. He picked her up and carried her back into their room, slamming the door with his foot.
“You promised!” he roared, shoving her away.
“I promised I wouldn’t touch the Empress. Didn’t say anything about him!” And damn her, but she was right.
Ghleanna itched to go back outside and finish what she’d started.
Imagining Bram as a young dragon, not even a full-grown adult, trapped in a dungeon and at the mercy of that slithering pond scum had her blood boiling.
She’d been alone like that before, but her kin had come quick enough. And she knew they would. She knew that none of her kin would leave her to die. But they were warriors, trackers, blacksmiths, pit fighters. Bram’s kin were cultured royals who relied on their queen for protection — and she’d failed them. Adienna had left their son and her loyal subject to the whims of the enemy.
And no one had suffered for it. Not Adienna. Not the Empress nor her father. And not Bram’s torturer. Unsurprisingly that stuck in her craw most of all.
“You’re right. You did only promise to leave Helena be. But now I’m asking you to do the same for Kleitos.” “I’ll not make that promise, peacemaker.” “He’s chancellor, Ghleanna.” “I don’t care.”
“Do you wish to get out of here alive?” “Of course I—”
“Then I want you to leave him be. Do you understand?” She looked off.
“Yes,” she hissed. “I understand.” “Good. I need to go.” He frowned at her chest. “Your wound is irritated.” “It’ll be fine.”
“It’ll be fine!”
Bram stepped back, raised his hands, palms out. “I’ll see you later then.” He turned but Ghleanna caught his arm.
“Ghleanna, I have to go.”
“I know. It’s just. .”
Ghleanna raised herself onto her toes and pressed her mouth against his, her hands sliding into his hair, fingers digging into his scalp.
Bram caught hold of her waist and she thought he meant to push her away. But he pulled her close, held her tight, and slipped his tongue into her mouth.
Her human body heated, her nipples hardened, her sex became wet. It was all instantly there. And instantly perfect. But then Ghleanna was falling, everything around her spinning.
Bram caught her in his arms. “Ghleanna?” “I’m all right.”
“I’ll send for the surgeons.” “No, no. Just bed. I’m just tired.” He didn’t look like he believed her. “Don’t question me, royal. Just take me to the bed and go to your meeting.” Bram picked her up in his arms and carried her to the bed. With infinite care, he placed her on it, then covered her with the fur.
“Get some sleep. We’ll talk more later.” Talk? As far as Ghleanna was concerned they were long past talking. But the peacemaker was skittish. Best not to spook him.
She nodded. “Later then.”
Ghleanna watched him walk out, the door closing behind him, and her mind turned.
For the first time in six months, she wasn’t thinking of her own misery. She was thinking of others — and how to make their misery worse.
When Bram didn’t return for several hours, Ghleanna got up again and found some leggings that fit her.
She opened the door — still unlocked — and walked out into the hallway. There were new guards at her door. They turned, facing each other, and slammed the butt end of their pikes into the ground.
“Why are you human?” she asked.
That was good enough. They probably didn’t get an explanation and knew better than to ask for one. “I’m hungry. Any food around?” “We can have the servants bring you—” Ghleanna waved that away. “Not in the mood for servants. I need to move around a bit. Or am I still under arrest or whatever you’re calling it?” “No, Captain. We are merely here as protection for an honored guest.” Ghleanna blinked. “Honored guest? Wasn’t it just a few days ago that I was the horrifying Low Born that had to be kept human?” “They still want you human, Captain, but you’ve been given leave to walk where you’d like.” So the Empress was sucking up — interesting.
Ghleanna started off, but eventually came to a stop. “And you’re to follow me everywhere?” she asked the guards right behind her.
Good. Even better. “Well, what’re your names then?” “Anatolios, Captain. This is Demetrius.” “Anatolios. Demetrius. Does the Empress feed her guards and soldiers well?” “She does, Captain.”
“Good. Take me to where you eat.”
The arguing turned out to be quite monumental. Full of passion and eloquence.
And yet. . it was also a phenomenal waste of time.
These senators, the representatives of the Fin populace, were arguing the logic of a truce with the Southland Land Dwellers. A very good discussion to have for any ruling body — except that these senators did not rule. They had no power except that which their monarch allowed them. And Helena, like her father before her, allowed very little.
But she enjoyed the arguing, enjoyed sitting on her throne and watching all of them go at it like wolves after a deer carcass, only to overrule them when they were done.
Even more annoying — she wanted Bram to be a witness to her power. As if he cared. As if any of this mattered when he could still feel Ghleanna’s skin under his fingers. Still taste her on his lips.
At the moment, that was all that mattered to him.
Bram blinked, glanced around. Helena smiled at him.
That sing-song voice. But. . but that was impossible. Absolutely impossible. Only immediate kin could communicate with each other among dragon kind. He’d already been in touch with his parents and sister. He’d only told them that he was safe and caring for a wounded Ghleanna. He had not told them where he was caring for her. He knew how they would take it and he didn’t want them to worry.
So they wouldn’t contact him unless it was urgent — and this female voice was not his mother’s or his sister’s.
There you are, my little ray of sunshine!
Rhiannon? How are you. . why are you. . what is happening?
Calm down, Bram. Calm down.
My witch skills have advanced quite a lot lately. Soon I’ll be able to create a space so we can talk directly to each other. Won’t that be fun?
Actually. . no!
Rhiannon giggled. Oh, Bram. Just so cute!
Ghleanna ate the cooked and seasoned fish and let the soldiers in the hall stare at her. Almost all of them were in human form — orders from their Empress, according to Anatolios. The royal was sucking up to Bram by sucking up to Ghleanna. That slut.
But Ghleanna would not worry about any of that now. She had other things to deal with.
“All right,” she said loudly, so the entire hall could hear her. And they all tensed a little, watching her closely as she pushed her seat back, stood, and sat down on the long table, her feet in her chair.
“What do you want to know about me?” “What makes you think we want to know anything about you, Land Dweller?” a Fin from the back of the hall asked.
“Because I killed Grimhild the Vile. The Lightning warlord.” “That’s a load of—”
“I tore him open from bowel to throat. I wear his horns on my battle helm and his scales are hammered into my shield. His teeth are a decorative necklace I wear at family gatherings.” Another Fin stepped forward. “And what makes you think we’d believe that?” He stepped as close as he dared, appearing tough to his comrades, but still out of arm’s length. At least he was out of arm’s length for dragons who’d rarely fought as human before. “What makes you think that we’ll believe a little twat like you brought down Grimhild the Vile?” Ghleanna slammed her foot down, breaking the wood chair into pieces. She picked up a leg and swung it. The soldier, unprepared, tried to block the blow with his arm, but Ghleanna spun, changed her trajectory, and sent him flying back twenty feet or so.
Biting pain hit her at the site of her recent wound, but she ignored it. Convincing herself she felt no pain, she tapped the chair leg against the palm of her hand and said, “Grimhild called me a twat, too.” She smiled. A little. “So. . would you lot like to hear how I brought the big bastard down?”
Why, Rhiannon, are you in my head?
First my question. . are you all right?
And that’s what was different between Rhiannon and the old queen. Rhiannon actually gave a shit about her subjects.
I am perfectly well, Rhiannon. And Ghleanna is healing.
Good. Bercelak. . he never says it, but he adores his sister. As do you, I think.
As do I. . you know.
A soft laugh. My dear, sweet Bram. But. . that female. The Empress. What does she want from you?
I don’t know—
Don’t lie to me, peacemaker. You wouldn’t be alive if she didn’t want something.
Why did he bother trying to hide anything from Rhiannon?
She wants a truce.
Aye. She’s quite. . adamant about it. I can try to put her off until Ghleanna is at full strength but — No, no. See what her terms are.
I am not my mother, peacemaker. I can be reasonable. It’s a new time for us all. A new time of hope and of change and of — You want access to the coast so you can attack the Lightnings, don’t you?
And it is time for those barbarian Lightnings to bow down before me.
You want me to arrange peace with one breed so that you can destroy another?
Get me my truce, peacemaker. Make me a happy monarch.
And then — Rhiannon was gone.
Ghleanna walked out of the army dining hall, Anatolios and Demetrius behind her.
“You do eat well,” she told them.
“Aye.” Anatolios was a little more talkative than Demetrius.
“You must have good representation in your Senate.” “Representation?”
Ghleanna slowed and stopped. She faced the two soldiers. “You do have representation? For the army? Older, ranking warriors who speak for you, ensure that you’re all fairly treated and compensated for risking your lives?” “The Empress’s rule is absolute, as Chancellor Kleitos has pointed out to the rank and file many, many times.” “Huh.” Ghleanna again headed toward her room. “That’s interesting.”
Bram eased into the room, trying to be quiet since Ghleanna was asleep. He placed notes he’d made for the truce on the small desk against the wall and debated whether to go back to work or not.
“Come to bed.”
Startled, he turned. Ghleanna still had her eyes closed but she held her hand out to him.
“If you say work, I’m going to get nasty. Bed. Now.” She opened one eye. “It’s not like we haven’t slept together before.” Bram sat at the edge of the bed and removed his boots. “At least this time your brothers won’t be storming in to wake us up and calling us whores.” He dropped the last boot and asked, “Or will they?” “Not that I’m aware.” She moved over and Bram got into the bed fully clothed. Ghleanna didn’t complain, for which he was grateful. He knew he couldn’t handle being naked around a naked Ghleanna. Not right now.
“Should you be sleeping on your side?” he asked. “And why isn’t your arm tied down?” “Don’t harass me,” she barked back, sounding adorably cranky half-asleep. “The surgeon says I only need to wear it during the day. I think he fears I’ll start swinging a sword before I’m fully healed.” That was probably because Bram had told the surgeon she might do that and did he have a way to keep her from doing so. But Bram wouldn’t mention that. Why cause problems when there were none?
“What if you flail wildly in your sleep? Then what?” “You’ll get hit in the face and my wound will be the least of your worries. Now can we both get some rest?” He relaxed on his side, facing Ghleanna. Her eyes were once again closed, her breathing even. She was asleep once more.
Bram didn’t know how things would be once they left here. Once they were free again, heading to Alsandair to finish what they’d started. But Bram knew what he wanted. He wanted Ghleanna and, as Rhiannon had accurately guessed, he’d wanted her for a very long time. Whether Ghleanna felt the same or not, however, he really didn’t know.
But when she reached out in her sleep and cupped his jaw in her hand, he felt a definite sense of hope.
Bram opened his eyes and stared at the big shiny fruit held up before him. “Yes, it is.” “Plus bread and cheese. Hungry?” Bram sat up, but immediately frowned. “Why is the area around your wound bruised?” Ghleanna shrugged and bit into a big piece of bread.
“What aren’t you telling me?” “Nothing. Eat.”
Bram glanced down at himself. “I’m. . naked.” Ghleanna nodded, bit into a juicy piece of fruit.
“And when did that happen?” “No idea.” She held out another piece of fruit. “Must say, though. . I do like you naked.” He took the treat from her hand. “Thank you. For the fruit and the compliment.” “You’re welcome.”
They ate in silence for a while, Bram busy trying not to stare. Gods, she was beautiful.
“Do you have much work to do today?” she asked.
“I’m afraid so. I heard from Rhiannon.” When Ghleanna frowned, he added, “Something to do with her increasing powers. Which are, I must admit, becoming daunting.” “She’d been held back a lifetime because of her mother. She has much time to make up for.” “I guess.”
“I wouldn’t worry. Rhiannon’s grandmother had that level of power and she managed it fine.” “And Bercelak’s there for balance. A rational thought in the chaos of Rhiannon’s mind.” Ghleanna raised a brow at that and Bram shrugged. “I’ve never doubted the good your brother brings to our young queen’s reign. I merely wish they wouldn’t stick me in the middle of whatever they like doing. It’s off-putting.” “Then you shouldn’t keep hugging her.” “It’s not me!”
Ghleanna laughed, bit into another fruit, and Bram noted, “You have your appetite back.” “Had I ever lost it?”
“It was definitely diminished for a while there.” Ghleanna stared at him for a moment. “You were very worried about me, weren’t you?” “Sword through the chest,” he said. “That may be normal for your kin, but not mine.” “You and your lot — sit around drinking wine and discussing important things, I bet.” “You’d be wrong. We sit around, drink wine, and argue. A lot.” “Argue? You?”
“Raised to argue. Both my parents are lawmakers, and no Dragon Law is created without much discussion, debate, and arguing. Sometimes a fist fight, but those are rare — and never very impressive. Almost sad.” Ghleanna shook her head. “And all your kind do it? Argue, I mean.” “My mother can find reason to argue about a grain of sand. And my father doesn’t think a meal is complete unless someone proclaims, ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! Where’s your proof to that statement?’ I don’t mind so much now.” He sighed. “It was a little overwhelming, though, when I was only eight winters. My wings hadn’t even unfurled.” “Me and mine. . we argue. But to back up your statement Cadwaladrs just need to be willing to take a claw to the face. Or a shield.” “Aye. I remember that.” Ghleanna blinked, frowning. “You were at our dinners?” There was a pause and then Bram demanded, “Was I entirely invisible to you?” “Well. . not entirely.” Deciding it was time to get to work, Bram began to get up. But Ghleanna caught his arm, her laughter annoying him even more.
“I’m teasing,” she said, pulling him back. “I swear.” “Isn’t it bad enough I assumed you’d always ignored me? Now I find out I was just invisible to you.” “That’s not true.” She put the tray of half-eaten food on the floor before taking his hands in hers. “I noticed you, Bram.” “Don’t lie.”
“I’m not. But you were a bit younger than me.” “Only by half a century or so.” “And I thought you liked my sister.” “Maelona?”
“Yes. Maelona. Pretty, shy, insecure, scar-free Maelona. That Maelona.” And she sounded wonderfully jealous.
“And you can stop smirking,” Ghleanna told him.
“Liar.” But he was an adorably cute liar. “Look, I just never thought—” “I was good enough?”
Aghast, Ghleanna said, “That’s not true!” “It is.” Bram stretched out on his side. “All the Cadwaladrs are the same.” “All the same what?”
“Snobs. You’re all snobs.” Ghleanna’s mouth fell open.
“Don’t look at me like that.” “We are snobs?” “Snobs. Big snobs. If one can’t handle a sword or an axe — not worthy.” “That’s not true.”
“It is true. And what does your brother call me? The thinker? As if it’s a disease. An ailment I need to be cured of.” “You can’t listen to Bercelak. He’s a mean bastard and he treats everyone as if they have ailments in need of cure.” “Snobs.”
“We are not. We’re not of royal blood.” “Snobs.”
“We’re just poor warriors.” “Who are snobs. It’s all right, though.” He reached over and patted her hand. “You don’t know any better.” “You condescending—”
“Now, now. No need to get nasty.” He smiled. “I like you despite your snobbery.” “Do you?”
“You don’t know?” He caught her hand, held it. “Really?” “I know I’m not an easy She-dragon to. . not fear.” “I’m not afraid of you, Ghleanna. I’ve never been afraid of you. To be quite honest. . I think you’re amazing. I always have. Since the first time you ignored me.” “I didn’t ignore you then.” She stretched out on her side, the two of them facing each other. “And I can assure you that I’m not ignoring you now.” Ghleanna bit her lip and asked, “So when do you have to work on your precious truce?” Bram reached for her, his hand slipping behind the back of her neck. “Not for days.” “Don’t you mean hours?” He tugged her close, their lips almost touching. “No, Ghleanna, I mean days. Minimum. I’ve been waiting a very long time to—” “My Lord Bram?” a voice from outside the door said.
Bram fell back on the bed. “This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.” And that’s when that Lord Kleitos idiot opened the door without invitation. He grinned when he saw the pair naked and nearly entwined on the bed.
“So very sorry to interrupt, my Lord, but the Empress asks for your immediate attendance.” “Right.”
Kleitos stood there, the silence in the room stretching, until he pushed, “Now, my Lord.” And that’s when Ghleanna charged off the bed and tackled the Fin into the far wall. She clasped her hand around his throat and squeezed. She felt water begin to pour from his skin and she warned, “I’ll snap your neck before you’ll have a chance to shift.” Kleitos settled back and Ghleanna explained, “Lord Bram will be along when he’s dressed and ready. You will no longer just walk into this room without invitation. And, if you can manage it, stop slithering around. I find it nauseating.” Ghleanna pulled Kleitos away from the wall and pushed him out the door and onto the walkway. “Now tell your Empress that Lord Bram will be there shortly.” She released him and Kleitos rubbed his neck, glaring at the two guards outside her door.
“And you do nothing?” he demanded.
Demetrius shrugged. “Our orders are quite specific, Chancellor—” “Never mind!”
Kleitos stormed off and Ghleanna cracked her neck. “Slithering bastard,” she muttered, before heading back into her room.
As she passed the two guards, Anatolios winked at her.
Ghleanna closed the bedroom door, but the bed was empty. It wasn’t a large room, so she had no idea where Bram could have gone.
Ghleanna walked around the bed, stopped, and placed her hands on her hips.
“Bram the Merciful! Stop laughing and get off the floor. The Empress awaits!”
Ghleanna had just finished pulling her shirt over her head when the bedroom door opened and the ruling monarch of the Fins walked through — without even a knock!
Even Rhiannon didn’t do that.
“Oh. I thought Bram would be here.”
Helena knew damn well Bram wasn’t here because she’d been the one to order him to some ridiculous Senate meeting or whatever, but the royal wanted to play games. The kind of games many She-dragons played. She-dragons other than Ghleanna.
“He’s in a Senate meeting, I think.”
“That doesn’t start for another hour at least,” Helena stated.
Then why did she order him to the Senate right away? Or was that demand simply Kleitos being a twat? Probably both.
Fighting a sigh, “Perhaps the library then. But is there something I can do for you, my Lady?”
“No, no. I just need to talk to him. Do you know which library?”
Ghleanna dropped her boots on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed so she could tug them on with her free hand. Bram had insisted on tying her arm down before leaving her. “There’s more than one?”
The Empress sighed and began to move about the room. “Are you enjoying your stay with us?”
“I’m glad I’m healing. Glad I’m breathing. So I guess I’m enjoying it.”
“I’m having most everyone stay in their human form. Just for you.”
Ghleanna fell back on the bed and lifted her leg up in the air, the boot half on and half off. She struggled to tug the tight leather on while trying to have this ridiculous conversation.
“That’s quite nice of you, my Lady. But it’s not necessary. I can hold me own in whatever form I’m in.”
Once she had the boot on, Ghleanna sat up. She grinned, shrugged. “It’s a skill. I am a Cadwaladr after all. . my Lady.”
The Empress stepped closer. “So you and Bram. . you’re very close?”
“But you have no claim on him, yes?”
“No. I have no claim on him.” Ghleanna held the other boot in her hand and looked up at Helena. “But I haven’t had him tortured and beaten either, which kind of puts me in the lead. . don’t you think, my Lady?”
Those strange-colored eyes narrowed, that back straightened, “Excellent point. Then again my father doesn’t have an entire forest of books on his past conquests. My, my, you must be proud,” she sneered. “Being the daughter of Ailean the Slag.”
A few months ago, the Empress’s head would have been ripped off and thrown against the wall, but not only had Ghleanna had a sword shoved into her chest by an ex-lover— something that often changed one’s perspective on the little things — but with all this time on her claws she had been thinking a lot about Bram’s words to her right after they’d left her parents’ castle. Her father’s life, his past, was not her own.
Not only that, but her father wrote books, was highly respected by the royal peacemaker, and had taught all his offspring to protect themselves in any given situation. Even Maelona had her skills. A whore Ailean may have been, but a loving, caring whore who adored his offspring and mate. Who adored Ghleanna. A daughter who’d refused to forgive him his past indiscretions. That is until now.
Now she’d be damned if she’d let some little prissy tail make her feel shame over anything. Those days were over for her. Long over.
“That’s very true, my Lady. Then again, according to what I’ve heard and my mother’s general satisfaction, I’m guessing Ailean the Wicked is an awesome—”
“Yes,” the Empress cut in. “I see your point.” She also clearly saw that Ghleanna wouldn’t be goaded. “Why don’t I leave you to finish dressing.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
Helena walked out and Anatolios, who still had the watch, stuck his head in. “You all right?”
“Aye. That one’s only as scary as you let her be.” Ghleanna held up her boot. “Could you help me with this?”
Eight hours of absolutely nothing but more arguing. Not even effective arguing but just ridiculous arguing because the final say on any matter was Helena’s. Yet she sat back and enjoyed the angry arguing of her Elders, senators, and other sycophants. Bram didn’t know if any of these dragons was aware that Helena already had her mind made up, or if they knew but decided to argue for her amusement despite that.
And, because she enjoyed spreading the misery around even more, she’d insisted on Bram being in attendance, even going so far as to track him down in the library where he was working diligently on her blasted truce.
Finally, the Empress called a halt to the day’s discussion. “We’ll meet tomorrow to explore this further.”
Bram stood and stretched his back. “Why do you let them think they have a say?” he had to ask, when the others had filed out. “Isn’t that just cruel?” And a waste of his bloody time.
“Not cruel at all. It’s good to let your subjects think they have some control over their lives, otherwise they get a bit unruly. I loathe unruly, don’t you?”
“Never thought much about it.” He began to organize his scrolls. “I’m going to see if I can get more work done. If you’ll excuse me, my Lady.”
“Aren’t you going to thank me?” she asked.
“For being nice. I’ve insisted everyone be human for the time being. So your little Low Born won’t feel so tiny and insecure.” The Empress smiled. “Wasn’t that nice of me?”
Huh. Bram just thought the Empress wanted to try on her overabundance of gowns. “Aye, Empress. Very. . nice.”
“I have to say you’re looking much better these days, Bram.”
“And you’ve really. . come into your own.”
Bram didn’t answer; he simply picked up his scrolls.
“My Lord Bram?”
“Yes?” he asked.
“I was just thinking that since you’ll be here for a while, perhaps we can. .” she reached out and stroked his arm.
Before she could go on, Bram felt it was important to point out that, “If you think I’ve forgotten how I was tortured and beaten when I was here the first time. . I haven’t.”
Helena folded her arms over her chest, a little sneer on her lips. “Going to hold that against me, are you?”
Bram decided retreat was his best option, so he headed back to the room he shared with Ghleanna.
But before he could make his escape, the Empress tossed at him, “I’ve heard that your Low Born has gotten rather chummy with the other soldiers.”
Bram stopped. He knew that Helena was a conniving, vicious sea-viper, but he couldn’t help the swell of jealousy he immediately felt.
“The soldiers do seem to like her. I’m guessing she’s very friendly when you’re away.” The Empress eased around him, smiling sweetly. “I’m sure she’s more comfortable with them. Her own kind and all that.”
“She is my kind, my Lady. Remember? Barbarian Land Dwellers. That’s us.”
Bram bowed his head and walked out. He made it to the room he shared with Ghleanna, but when he walked in, he found her gone.
Bram tossed his travel bag and papers into a corner and stalked out of the room and onto the walkway. The guards were gone as well. He headed back the way he’d come, trying to catch a glimpse of Ghleanna somewhere.
The Empress’s palace was a marvel of Sea Dragon engineering built inside a vast series of underwater caves. Air breathers could easily survive inside its ocean-colored stone walls for centuries. They had access to fresh lake and river water, and fresh air from the land above. How the Fins managed to get it all down here, Bram didn’t know. And he didn’t even think to ask, he was so concerned with finding Ghleanna.
Bram heard a roar down a long hallway, watched large-sized Fins heading in that direction. He recognized them as soldiers. His eyes narrowed and he followed, pushing through the dragons until he reached a chamber. Two Sea Dragons in human form battled against each other with spears while their comrades stood around them in a circle and cheered them on.
And, sitting on top of a boulder was Ghleanna. She wore another long shirt and dark blue leggings and her arm was still tied down under her shirt. Not surprisingly, she cheered right along with the other warriors — when she wasn’t stopping to chat with the generals who stood around her in their dragon form.
One male slammed another onto his back by using the staff of his spear and Ghleanna called out, “No, no, no!” She held her free arm out and — to Bram’s astonishment — one of the generals hauled her off the boulder and carefully placed her on the ground.
“You keep fighting like that, lad,” she admonished, “and you’ll be on your back a lot when you’re human.”
She waited until the dragon was on his feet. “You’re not paying attention to the way he’s coming at you,” she instructed. “You’re so busy staring at the tip, you miss the way his body’s moving. Human bodies hide nothing, but that spear tip can change on you in a second and you won’t have a chance to get out of its way.” She shrugged and lightly patted where she’d been stabbed by that sword. “Take my word on it.” The Fins laughed and she went on. “But if you pay closer attention to your opponent, you can watch what he does, and he’ll show you which way he’s going. I know very few human soldiers or dragons who don’t signal their move long before they make it. You just have to watch for it. Understand?”
The soldier nodded and Ghleanna slapped his shoulder, which didn’t seem to offend him. “Good. Good. But don’t worry. You’re doing well. Just need more training is all. I’m betting all of you need more training to fight as human.” She flicked her hand. “So get to work.”
The Fins went back to sparring and Ghleanna saw Bram and walked to his side.
“I leave you alone for a few—”
“I was bored. What did you expect me to do? Sit on my ass and count the algae on the walls.”
“That’s a design motif.”
“And again you lost me.”
“You should be in our room, Ghleanna.”
“You mean hiding? Why? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Not hiding. Resting.”
“You took a sword to the chest!”
The room grew silent and Ghleanna rolled her eyes. “If you’re going to make a big deal out of it.”
“You all right, Captain?” one of the soldiers asked.
“I’m fine. Going to take a rest. You lot keep up the work. I’ll check in later.”
She walked out and Bram realized that the soldiers were now all staring at him. “It’s for her own good,” he insisted. “She needs her rest.”
There was some grunting and they all turned away from him.
Letting out a frustrated growl, he followed Ghleanna.
“Do you enjoy doing that?” Bram demanded once he’d closed their bedroom door.
“Enjoy doing what?”
“Turning those soldiers against me?”
“What are you talking about?”
“A few days ago, they didn’t even know of my existence. Ten minutes with you”—he threw his hands up—“and they all hate me.”
“You’re mad. I was doing nothing but talking to them.” She lowered her voice, “Do you know they have absolutely no say and no representatives in their own government? That sea cow rules it all!”
“I know. That’s why I need you to leave the soldiers alone. Stop talking to them.”
“I don’t see why that upsets you so. You’re arranging a truce anyway, so they won’t be our enemies for long.” She walked up to him, leaned in close, and whispered against his ear, “Besides, it gives me a chance to find out how they fight on land and in the sea. You know. . in case your truce falls apart and I and my kin need to kill them all.”
She leaned back and smiled, sure she’d made her point.
“You’re bloody mad,” he said, shaking his head and gawking at her. “All of you. Every damn Cadwaladr in this world is bloody mad except your mother and your sister Maelona.”
“What are you bringing my sister up for?”
“Because I’m relatively certain she wouldn’t be running around after getting a sword through the chest, trying to teach Fin soldiers new fighting techniques.”
“That’s because she doesn’t know any fighting techniques. But if you think so highly of her, I’m sure I can arrange a proper introduction between you two.”
Bram glared at her for a few seconds before he reminded her, “Besides living with your kin, I also attended school with Maelona for years. When I returned to your parents’ home it was usually as Maelona’s guest.”
“Tell me, was there ever a time when you noticed me? Or did I not exist for you at all?”
“That’s not fair.”
He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “Forget it. I’m tired and I need sleep.”
“So you’re just walking away?”
“Looks that way.”
He growled at her — growled! — and reached over his shoulders to gather up his cotton shirt and pull it over his head. He shook out his silver hair, tossed the shirt onto a chair, and dived face first onto the bed.
“This conversation isn’t over, peacemaker.”
“Yes it is,” he said into the fur covering. “I’m tired of being reminded how little I’ve ever meant to you.”
“You’re acting like a hatchling.”
He lifted his arm from the bed, raised his hand, and gestured at her with two of his fingers.
Ghleanna’s mouth dropped open. “You rude bastard!” “Sleeping!” he yelled into the bed.
So unbelievably pissed, Ghleanna paced around the room for nearly a whole minute until she yelled, “This discussion is not done!”
Snarling — at her! — Bram pushed himself off the bed and stormed over to her. “What, Ghleanna? What is it you just have to say now? At this moment?”
He took a step back. “What? Why?”
She had absolutely no clue! “Because I said so.”
“Are you going to tell me you don’t want to?”
“Maybe I don’t.”
“I don’t need this.” He headed to the door.
“Scared, are you?”
Bram stopped. “What?”
“I asked if you’re scared. Frightened. Like a little mouse.”
Bram again faced her. “The only thing that scares me is how Rhiannon uses me to torture your brother, because he’s a murdering bastard.”
Ghleanna walked across the room and stood in front of Bram. “Then kiss me if you have the—”
Before she could even finish her challenge, Bram had slipped his hand behind Ghleanna’s neck and yanked her in until their toes touched. But he only stared into her eyes, not making any further move.
“What are you waiting for, peacemaker?” she asked, a little breathless.
“I’m waiting until I am ready.”
“So I’ll be waiting until the end of time for you to do something so simple?”
“There is nothing simple about you, Captain Ghleanna. And let no one convince you otherwise.”
Bram couldn’t believe Ghleanna. Such a maddening cow! And the worst part was that he’d wanted to kiss her for half a century at least! Now he had her but he was so mad at her he couldn’t see straight. And, if he were to be honest with himself, he was incredibly jealous. She was so comfortable with other soldiers, how could he ever hope to get close to her when they had so very little in common? When he’d dropped down on the bed, he’d figured it was over. His obsession for her. His quiet waiting. Waiting for her to notice him. And if all this wasn’t over, he’d make it over. He had to. How else was he going to live the next few centuries without her if he didn’t?
But he should have known. Ghleanna would never allow herself to be ignored. To be pushed aside. Not the Captain of the Dragon Queen’s Tenth Battalion.
And yet who was Bram? The peacemaker. The merciful one. The one who didn’t eat humans passing him on the road just because he’d missed his morning meal.
So, was he really going to let his peace-loving and, at times, non-violent nature stop him? Him? Bram the Merciful?
He, who had traveled all over the Southlands, Outerplains, and Desert Lands, on foot. As human.
He, who’d escaped the Sea Dragon Emperor’s dungeons with all his parts intact and wits about him?
He, who’d managed to not only survive Queen Adienna’s reign but the takeover of her daughter?
That dragon wasn’t going to take the kiss that was being offered to him because Ghleanna didn’t know what she had right in front of her.
He was many things, but Bram the Merciful was not a fool.
With his hand still gripping the back of Ghleanna’s neck, Bram leaned in, tilted his head to the side, and placed his lips against hers. He pressed his tongue to her mouth, stroked her lips until she opened to him. He pressed further, allowed his tongue to slip inside and he tasted what waited there. Gods, so wet and warm, he could almost taste the flame burning inside her.
Ghleanna slid the fingers of her free hand into his hair, leaning her body into his naked chest. He could feel her nipples harden under the soft cotton of her shirt, feel her pulse race under his fingertips.
And he knew in that moment that he would never be over Ghleanna. Not ever.
Ghleanna gripped the silver strands of Bram’s hair in her fist and melted against his body as she’d never done before with any male.
Good gods, this dragon had a mighty kiss. Yet what she found fascinating was how slowly he took it all. His lips easing around hers; his tongue lazily dipping in, swirling. The dragon took his time and she appreciated that. It was a rarity with most males, she’d found. Especially in her world, where everything was about moving fast and getting things done. Even fucking. Even a kiss.
Deciding to follow her instincts, Ghleanna pulled her hand away and lowered it to Bram’s groin. She reached for his cock, ready to play with it through his leggings and then play with it without them. But he caught her hand, held it.
“No.” He stepped away from her, looked around the small room. Ghleanna tried to pull her hand away, but he wouldn’t release her. Instead, he yanked her over to a desk tucked into a corner. He pushed her up on it, keeping her legs dangling. He gripped her leggings and yanked them off her body. She wore nothing underneath since she’d had nothing to put on and Bram stood there for several moments, his hand gliding up her thighs, brushing against her pussy, stroking it with his fingers.
Ghleanna reached for him again with her free arm, but Bram said, “No.”
And then she understood.
She placed her hand against the desk, palm flat against the wood. Her free arm kept her propped up so she could watch, but otherwise she relaxed back and let Bram take the lead. Because for once. . she didn’t have to.
Bram slipped a finger inside Ghleanna and watched her. She stared back, panting, her bottom lip catching between her teeth.
Gods, she was so hot. . and wet. He couldn’t believe she was already wet. From arguing with him.
He turned his finger, curling the tip and rubbing a little spot inside her. He watched her, enjoying the way her back arched, listened to the groan she let loose.
“I should leave you alone,” he murmured while he slipped another finger inside her, continued to play with her. “You need your rest. You’re still healing.” “Don’t you dare stop.” Bram grinned and pulled his fingers out of her. “But I have to stop.” Ghleanna groaned again, but this time there was real frustration.
“I’m fine,” she told him. “I swear. I feel great.” “You sure?”
“I’m sure. I am extremely sure.” “Lie back, Ghleanna.” She did. “Close your eyes.” She lifted her head. “Why?” “Because I told you to.” Her eyes narrowed a bit and Bram was certain she was going to argue with him, but she again stretched out on the desk and closed her eyes.
“Now do me a favor,” he murmured. “Just relax.”
And exactly how was she to relax? But she kept her eyes closed and waited.
“You aren’t breathing, Ghleanna.” “I’m not?”
“No. But you should.” “Of course, of course.” She forced herself to breath and continued to wait. Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait long. She felt Bram’s mouth press against the inside of her thigh, teeth grazing the skin. She shuddered and tried to spread her legs wider but he held her legs in his arms, and he was controlling how far she could open or close them.
The thought made her shudder.
“Are you in pain?” he asked, his breath — but not his mouth — brushing her pussy.
“What? No. No. I’m fine. Really. Fine.” “Just checking. We don’t want any relapses.” “There won’t be.” And she knew she was begging. “I promise.” “Good.”
Ghleanna still had her eyes closed, was still stretched out on the desk. Then she felt Bram’s mouth pressing against her, his tongue sliding inside her. And, as he’d done with that kiss, he took his time, rushed nothing. He used long, sweeping strokes of his tongue to carefully lick out her pussy. She moaned, unable to stay still on the desk, her body writhing underneath his mouth.
She should have known, shouldn’t she? That he’d have this talent. That Bram would know how to bring tears to her eyes and pleasure to her body. He’d be as careful and determined with her as he was with everything else in his life.
Ghleanna gripped the back of Bram’s head, her fingers digging into his hair.
“Bram,” she begged through her panting. “Bram. . please.” He didn’t reply but his finger returned, pushing up inside her, twisting and turning until it found that spot he’d discovered earlier. Ghleanna choked out a gasp, her body beginning to shake, her legs fighting to close. But Bram never lost control. Not of her, not of the situation. Without moving her from that spot, he twisted her around and tore her apart until Ghleanna came hard, her fist shoved in her mouth to stifle her scream since she had no intention of entertaining every Fin within hearing range.
When the climax had passed through her, Bram was moving up her body, kissing and licking his way across her flesh, spending extra time on her scars. Maybe Addolgar had been right — Bram did seem to enjoy her scars.
His lips moved over her throat, past the gold collar she wore until he slid over her jaw and took her mouth. Ruthless. There was no other word for the way he kissed her. There was nothing merciful in that kiss. He must keep his merciful side for every place but his bed.
And she had to admit — she really liked that about him.
Bram felt the way Ghleanna kissed him and he knew she wanted him. And the gods knew he wanted her. He wanted to be inside her so badly. But giving her pleasure by enjoying her pussy was vastly different from fucking her. He couldn’t fuck her. Not until she was better. . right?
Making up his mind, he pulled back but Ghleanna came with him, her free arm around his shoulders, her chest lifting from the desk.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Leaving you alone.” He took a breath, tried to steady his legs. “You’re wounded and it would be wrong to—” She tore off the material keeping her arm tied to her body and reached for him.
“Ghleanna, what are you—” “Don’t leave me like this, Bram. Please.” “But—”
She licked his throat, nipped his chin. “You can’t leave me like this,” she whispered.
“I can,” he reminded her. “I should.” “Please don’t.” She kissed him again and by the gods her tongue was talented. “We both know that once won’t be enough for me,” she reminded him when she pulled away. And it was true. She-dragons were demanding of their lovers, why should Ghleanna be any different?
“And if I hurt you?” “You won’t.” She grinned. “I’m incredibly sturdy. It’s in the bloodline.” She reached down and gripped his cock through his leggings and they both gasped, her hand stroking the length of him.
Bram began panting, his legs shaking. He caught her hand, held it.
“Evil vixen,” he accused her.
“I do what I must to get what I want. Perhaps you can punish me for my evil ways. . later. But for now. .” Bram pushed his leggings down until his cock sprang free. Then he gripped Ghleanna by her hips and dragged her ass to the very edge of the desk. Still holding her tight, he brought her close until he could push inside her, his cock hard and demanding. One good shove and he was there, both of them stopping, mouths open, their breathing shallow as they gazed at each other in unabashed amazement.
He had never imagined she would feel like this. So hot and wet and, gods, so tight!
Ghleanna brought her hands up, stroked his jaw, his neck and Bram kissed her. He pulled her tighter against him until he was buried balls deep. Until he knew nothing would be getting between them anytime soon.
Ghleanna surprised herself with a squeak. A sound she’d never made before. But she’d been unable to help herself once Bram filled her. She shuddered around him, kissed him harder and nearly wept when he began to move inside her. His strokes long, powerful, and as always it seemed, in complete control.
Knowing that for once she didn’t have to do anything but enjoy the ride was a rather heady experience for her. All day, every day, Ghleanna planned and plotted and executed. She led three hundred dragons into battle whenever they were called by their queen and every decision she made affected the lives of those dragons. But for once. . for once she didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t have to think, question, or kill. She just had to enjoy. And enjoy she did.
Bram still had tight hold of her hips when he began to take her harder, faster. And she didn’t mind. Did her wound hurt? A bit. But it was nothing she couldn’t handle. Nothing she wouldn’t risk to experience the best bloody fuck of her entire life.
She came hard, her body stiffening in Bram’s arms, her cry of pleasure caught in her throat. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and let the climax rip through her. When she gave that last gasp, Bram laid her back out on the desk and then he was pounding inside her, taking her brutally until he came, his body shaking over hers, his head dropping between her breasts.
Ghleanna stroked Bram’s hair and let out a soul-deep breath. They didn’t speak. Perhaps there was nothing to say. Instead, after a few minutes, Bram picked her up and stumbled to the bed, dropping them both onto it. He pressed his hand to her wound and she patted it. As she’d predicted, the wound had not opened. She had not been further damaged. She was fine. More than fine in fact.
He stayed inside her, managing to get off his leggings and boots without moving away from her.
Once Bram was completely naked, he began kissing her neck, her jaw, her mouth, and slowly, taking his time, he began to thrust inside her again. This time, she knew, would again be on his very controlled terms.
And she had no problem with that.
Bram woke and he knew Ghleanna was already awake too. He knew because he felt her sucking his cock into her mouth. She was under the fur cover, but he opened his eyes and watched as the fur rose and fell while she manipulated his cock the way she manipulated her damn battle axes.
One hand reached back and he gripped the headboard. Gods, her mouth! Her beautiful, wonderful mouth. Everything about Ghleanna was wonderful, beautiful, amazing, perfect. . absolutely perfect. Perfect, perfect—
“I have been waiting over an hour for—” The Empress of all Sea Dragons in this region halted to a stop after walking into Bram and Ghleanna’s room unannounced.
Helena stopped. Ghleanna, however. .
Helena’s mouth opened, closed, opened again. Then she rolled her eyes and snapped, “When you two cretins are done molesting each other, we are waiting for the next draft of your truce proposal, peacemaker. And I don’t like to wait!”
With Ghleanna turning him inside out, all Bram could manage was a, “Uh-huh” along with a thumbs-up.
Disgusted, Helena spun on her heel and stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
“Barbarians!” he heard Helena yell from the hallway. “Every Land Dweller is a bloody barbarian!”
If she said anything after that, Bram didn’t hear it. He couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the rushing wave in his head as his body bowed and he came in Ghleanna’s mouth. She sucked and licked until she’d milked him dry and then she crawled back out from under the covers, licked her lips, and grinned at him.
“Did I hear something?” she asked, cheeky cow that she was. “A little earlier?”
Bram caught hold of her face between his hands and held her in place while he kissed her, tasting himself on her lips, knowing she’d taken all of him in.
“You are such a naughty She-dragon,” he laughingly accused her while he pushed her back on the bed. “What am I going to do with such a naughty She-dragon?”
Bram had left her alone so he could finish that stupid truce. And feeling remarkably well, Ghleanna headed back to the soldier’s training room. When she entered, the soldiers stepped back, bowed their heads in respect.
Ghleanna grinned. Oh, yes. She had all sorts of things to keep her busy until Bram was done.
She picked up a battle axe, gave it a few practice swings, feeling complete with a weapon back in her hand, then asked the roomful of soldier dragons, “Who’s first then?”
While the senators argued and debated about issues they had absolutely no control over — why did he need to be here again? — Bram stared off across the chamber and wondered when this would all be over so he could get back to Ghleanna. Get back inside Ghleanna.
They’d only spent a few hours together in the big scheme of things, but gods! That female. She turned out to be everything he’d ever dreamed of. In bed and out. And not everyone fucked well while human — but she did. A good thing since it was one of his favorite pastimes.
“So,” the Empress asked over the shouting of the senators, “you and the Cadwaladr?”
Bram looked up at the dais she sat upon and replied, “Aye.”
“Shocking. I thought you’d find someone more. . feminine.”
She smirked and returned her attention to the arguing senators but Bram asked, “Why?”
“Why did you think that?”
Her eyes widened a bit and the Empress stammered, “Well, you are so. . and she is so. . and the two of you together are so. .” She gazed at Bram a moment, forced a smile and a laugh and said, “Oh, nothing!”
Bram had focused on the arguing senators again when one of the royal pages rushed into the chamber. He stood in front of the Empress until she motioned him closer. He whispered something in her ear. And, while Bram watched, her pale human skin turned bright red with rage. Helena jumped to her feet and rushed from the chamber, her entourage scrambling to catch up with her.
Bram gazed at the page. “I’m sensing this isn’t good.”
The page shook his head. “No, sir. It’s not.”
Ghleanna was sitting on the bed, trying to pull off her boots, when the door slammed open. She looked up, expecting a foolish Kleitos — but it was the Empress.
“You,” the royal snarled. “You did this.”
“I did what, my Lady?”
“Don’t lie to me, barbarian!”
Slowly Ghleanna stood, and she towered over the monarch. “I don’t appreciate being called a liar by you or anyone else, my Lady. I’m not one of your subjects.”
The Empress didn’t let Ghleanna’s size overwhelm her. Far from it. “But you could easily become one of my victims, Cadwaladr. You’re in my territory.”
“Aye. I am. But I have what you need, my Lady.”
Ghleanna heard Bram’s voice, but she didn’t move her gaze from Helena’s until the Empress sniffed and stormed out, taking her suffering entourage with her. Gods, to do nothing all day but follow that viper around. Like a form of hell.
Bram closed the door once they were alone and that’s when he asked, “Do you want us to die here, among the Fins? Is that your purpose, Captain? To get us both killed?”
“It all happened so fast,” she explained. “One minute I was showing them how to fight with a battle axe and the next”—she shrugged—“revolution.”
Bram walked over to the bed and sat down. “Don’t use that word. Not if you want us to live through the night.”
Ghleanna sat on the edge of the bed. “The soldiers have no representation in her court. No one watching out for them. And no say in decisions that affect them directly. How is that fair?”
“Fair? Captain, we are hundreds and hundreds of miles under the ocean and at the whim of a dictator.”
“A dictator not nearly as powerful as her father. A dictator who needs her army, who needs our queen. A dictator whose tiny head I could easily crush between my big, meaty hands.” She smiled. “A dictator who needs you. And now. . she needs me.”
“But why? Why do you want her to need you?”
Ghleanna leaned in, kissed Bram once, twice. “My reasons are my own.” She kissed him again. “But for now”—another kiss—“we’re going to let her stew.” And another.
“And while she’s stewing whatever will we do to fill the time?”
Ghleanna climbed into Bram’s lap, facing him. She put her arms around his shoulders and said, “Fucking, my Lord. We’ll be fucking.”
“Well. . if we must.”
Laughing, Ghleanna nipped his throat. “We must, my Lord. We must.”
Bram held Ghleanna’s hips, pulling her in tighter, gripping her hard with his hands while she gripped him hard with her pussy.
Sweating and gasping, the pair rolled, Bram on top once again.
He dragged his tongue along the new scar Ghleanna had where the sword had torn through scale and flesh and bone.
Ghleanna’s legs wrapped around his hips, her head thrown back and Bram buried himself inside her body again and again.
She groaned, loud and long, her body shaking beneath his as she came hard, his name a whisper on her lips.
Bram, grateful she’d climaxed because he was unsure he could hold on much longer, held Ghleanna against him as he came hard inside her.
Blindly, he lifted his head from her neck and sought her mouth, found it. They kissed, their tongues sliding, teasing, tasting — enjoying. And they’d been enjoying each other for hours.
Too bad nothing wonderful could last forever.
The bedroom door flew open.
“Are you two still at it?” the Empress snarled. “My empire is falling apart and you two are swallowing each other’s tongues — and other body parts?” Bram pulled out of the kiss and asked, “Is there a problem, Empress?” “You damn well know there’s a problem. She”—and the Empress pointed right at Ghleanna—“has turned my soldiers against me. Her death is mine for the betrayal.” Bram kindly suggested, “It seems a foolhardy move since she is the only one who currently has control of your soldiers, my Lady.” “I should have killed her when I had the chance.” “But it’s too late for that now. We have to deal with what we have. Here. At this moment.” Pointing at the door, the Empress ordered, “Get out, peacemaker.” “Empress, I don’t think it’s—” “Pull your cock out of her cunt and get out.” Ghleanna pressed her hand against Bram’s chest. “It’s all right.” He gazed at her a moment. “You sure?” “Positive. Besides, you need to finish that truce.” He did need to finish it. The quicker the better.
Once Bram was gone, Ghleanna sat up. She didn’t get dressed, didn’t wipe the sweat from her body or Bram’s seed from her pussy.
Instead, she smiled and said, “My Lady.” “You’ve turned my soldiers against me.” “Hardly. They just want what’s fair.” “I decide what’s fair.”
“Every strong monarch I’ve known has understood that their soldiers are their life’s blood. Deny that at your peril.” “What do you want, Land Dweller?” “What your soldiers want. Representation for them in your Senate — and for your Senate to have some actual power in your empire.” “I am the one who rules here. As my father did before me.” “Isn’t he dead now?” Ghleanna asked. “By poison, I think.” Cold blue-green eyes locked on Ghleanna. “That’s never been proven.” Ghleanna chuckled. “Of course. But imagine how loyal your soldiers will be to you if you do this? Who would dare risk their wrath by angering you, knowing you have several legions at your back? And, of course, I can help you with this.” The royal smirked. “And what will that cost me, I wonder?” “Not much, my Lady,” Ghleanna told her. “Not much at all.”
The gold collar was removed from Ghleanna’s throat and Bram watched her shift back to her natural form. She shook out her hair and wings and unleashed a nice bout of flame at the cave ceiling — something else that had been denied her by Helena’s yoke.
“Good gods,” Helena muttered to the sorceress who had placed and then removed the collar from Ghleanna. “Even her bloody scales have scars.”
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” Bram asked with a smile.
“Land Dweller,” she sneered.
Ghleanna put on armor given to her by the soldiers. It was quite. . elaborate and spoke of how they felt about her.
Her battle axes were tied to her back and her sword to her side.
“Excellent,” Helena said, prodding. She couldn’t wait to see the back of them. “So you’re off.”
“We are.” Bram faced the Empress. “Thank you for everything, my Lady.”
“You’re very welcome, Bram the Merciful. Good and safe travels to you.” She looked over at Ghleanna. “And to you, Captain.”
“Thank you, my Lady.”
She didn’t mention the truce because she didn’t have to. She knew Bram would keep his end of the bargain. It was a tragic flaw in his nature.
The Empress motioned her entourage to leave and Kleitos took the opportunity to slither over to Bram.
“Good-bye, old friend.”
The Fin sneered and turned to Ghleanna. “And good-bye to you, Captain.”
She gazed at the Fin. “And to you, Chancellor Kleitos.”
Bram turned, thinking they were done with all the formalities when he saw a flash of steel. He spun back around as Ghleanna’s sword rammed into Kleitos’s gut.
Gods, what had she done? What had she done?
Ghleanna twisted her sword, and Kleitos dropped to his knees. She pressed her back claw to his chest and shoved him off her blade. The Fin dropped to the ground, his insides pouring out from the hole Ghleanna had made.
Yet Bram began to notice something — no one did anything. Nothing. Not to him, not to Ghleanna. There was no shock, no confusion, no outrage.
Ghleanna wiped off her blade and put it back into its sheath. She walked to the Empress, and stopped, briefly bowing her head. “Empress.”
Completely confused, Bram followed Ghleanna to the tunnel they’d take back to the surface. “Ghleanna?”
She stopped, faced him. “Did you really think I’d let Kleitos live? After what he did to you?” She raised a brow. “Really?”
“I told you that Kleitos was not to be touched. You said you understood.”
“And I did. I understood that you wanted me to leave Kleitos be. I never said I would. Never agreed to that.”
“Gods,” he sighed in awe, “my father will adore you.”
Catching his tail with hers, Ghleanna tugged. “Come, peacemaker. My kin awaits.”
Bram landed on the ledge and waited for Ghleanna. She landed beside him.
“So Helena agreed?” he asked.
“She hated Kleitos and so did most of her army. Plus he firmly represented her father’s reign. Getting rid of him was a favor she was more than happy to allow.”
“You don’t like Helena, Captain. You’d do her no favors unless it was in your best interest.”
She shrugged. “Well, I wanted Kleitos dead and. .”
“And you still have the loyalty of her army, in case she ever tries to cross us. And you’ll most likely have that loyalty for a very long time after the rights you’ve won them.”
Bram grinned. “And if you’d been completely wrong? Miscalculated even the tiniest bit?”
“I’d have let you fix it.” She nuzzled his snout with her own. “Now let’s get out of here.”
Good plan. He was done with the memories of this place. He’d faced it again, and had conquered it — again. But there’d be no nightmares this time.
“Come. This way.”
Another mile to the surface they went, cutting tree roots that were in their way until they reached the mouth of the cavern. It was brilliantly hidden behind a close-by hill and together they maneuvered around it and headed toward the ocean.
But suddenly Ghleanna stopped.
Lifting her face, she gazed up, past the trees of the surrounding forest, at the two suns. “I didn’t realize how much I would miss them until they were gone from my sight for so long.”
“I don’t know how the Fins do it,” he admitted. “Living under there without the suns. The moon. It’s not like our caves, is it? Where fresh air and freedom are just a short walk or flight away. And the short time we were down there, I began to feel. .”
“I know. Me, too.”
Ghleanna caught Bram’s claw and tugged, her eagerness clear. “Let’s go. My kin wait for me on the beach.”
They walked until they reached the edge of the forest, but Bram stopped and gazed out. “How long do you think they’ve been standing there like that?”
He watched Ghleanna smile at the backs of her kin. They all stood on the beach, looking like statues, staring out at the ocean, waiting for Ghleanna to appear. She’d originally told Addolgar she’d be coming from the ocean because she hadn’t known there was another exit. One that placed them directly on land.
“Hours. Perhaps a couple of days.”
“And how much longer—”
“Days. Weeks. Eventually, though, they’d take turns. One bunch would have first watch and then another bunch would have second. . that’s just how they are. How we are.”
Ghleanna put a talon to her snout, then crept up behind the group of warriors. The number had substantially increased from the original group who’d been escorting Bram and he suddenly began to worry that he’d have all these Cadwaladrs escorting him into the Desert Lands.
Once Ghleanna was right behind her kin, she screamed. Like a wild banshee.
And her kin screamed in return, spinning around, raising weapons and shields.
“Did you lot miss me?” Ghleanna asked with a smile.
“You mad cow!” Addolgar yelled, shoving her with his shield. “That was about to be the second time you got a sword in the chest!”
“As if you’ve ever been that fast, brother.”
Then they were hugging and Bram knew nearly everything was as it should be.
Ghleanna accepted hugs, shoves, punches, and hair yanks for what they were. Familial affection — the Cadwaladr way. A way she’d missed so much.
“But you’re all right, yeah?” Hew pushed. “You sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine.” She held her forearms away from her body. “Look at me. Better than ever. Them Fins have good surgeons, they do.”
“Thank the gods for that,” Kyna said. “Isn’t that right, Kennis?”
“It is. For them. ’Cause if they hadn’t sent our girl back to us—”
“—we’d have grown gills and gone down there ourselves to their watery pit to tear the scales from their flesh and those bloody fins from their backs.”
Ahhh. Nothing like the true love and caring of the Cadwaladr Twins.
It was all as she’d expected and she was damn grateful for her kin. But what Ghleanna hadn’t expected. .
“The Twins would have been the least of the Fins’ problem if they hadn’t sent my girl back to me alive and well.”
Eyes wide, Ghleanna faced her father. He was in his battle armor, weapons strapped to him and ready. He hadn’t left her mother in ages to go into battle. He left that “to me brats.”
“I’m so glad you’re home, girl. So glad you’re safe.” Ghleanna swallowed past the lump in her throat before she threw herself into her father’s arms. Let them all say what they would about Ailean the Wicked — none of it mattered. His heart was as big as any ocean and the love he had for his offspring as mighty and strong as any mountain.
“I’m glad, too, Da. And what I said to you before—”
“It’s forgotten, Ghleanna. Don’t even think about it.” He pulled back. Smiled at her. “Understand?”
“Good. And Bercelak’s sorry he couldn’t be here—”
“He can’t leave Rhiannon when we have traitors in our midst.”
“—but he said you’d understand.” Ailean gazed down at his daughter and Ghleanna saw in that one look how proud he was of her. “Now, what do we do next? Escort you and our Bram to the Sand Eaters? Or take you back to Rhiannon first?”
“First Feoras dies.”
As one, all the Cadwaladrs faced the forest behind them. . and Bram the Merciful.
Frowning, Kyna asked, “What was that?”
“Feoras dies,” Bram repeated.
“And why is that then?”
Bram walked toward them, his reliable traveling bag around his shoulder. “Because he betrayed the throne, betrayed our queen, tried to stop an important alliance that I’m sure he’ll try to stop again and, most importantly. .” Bram stood in front of Ghleanna now, his claw brushing along her jaw. “. . he tried to kill my Ghleanna. For that offense alone he dies.”
Cai rested his elbow on Ghleanna’s shoulder and asked, “But ain’t you the merciful one?”
“I am.” And, with his gaze never leaving Ghleanna’s, “But there are limits to my mercifulness, I’m afraid.”
Ghleanna waited for Feoras about five miles from where Rhiannon had tracked the bastard down. The queen’s skills had, as Bram had said, gotten mighty. It seemed she could track nearly any dragon she wanted without ever leaving Devenallt Mountain unless the fugitive had the protection of a witch as strong as she. And Rhiannon had tracked Feoras here, not more than fifteen miles from where he’d tried to kill Ghleanna.
As Bram had said, Feoras and the rest of the soldiers he’d bribed, were waiting for Bram to return so they could finish the job that had been started.
And here Bram was, relaxing next to a tree, still in his dragon form, quietly scratching away on some parchment. Did he ever pay attention to anything going on around him that wasn’t on a piece of paper or in a bloody book? She doubted it. But he seemed to have complete faith in her. He still trusted her to protect him and that was all she needed to know.
She heard Feoras and his soldiers moving through the trees. They were quiet enough but Ghleanna knew what to listen for. The flutter of a leaf, the warning of a bird. . the slither of a tail.
Feoras came around a boulder, but he stopped when he saw Ghleanna standing there. He reared back in surprise, golden eyes blinking wide.
“I. .” His gaze shifted and he saw Bram leaning against that tree, still writing — and blatantly ignoring him.
“You. .?” she pushed when he stopped speaking. “You. . what? Thought I was dead?”
Feoras focused on her again. “I knew you wouldn’t go down that easy.” He leered. “You never did. . go down easy.”
“Not unless I want to.” She moved forward, pulling out her axes, holding one in each claw. “I am going to stop you here.”
“You’re going to try.” Soldiers moved out of the trees, some stopping and staring at her, also seemingly shocked to see her alive. If she survived this, her name would be legendary. “You going to take us all on? Are you into that now?”
“Your disrespect to Captain Ghleanna,” Bram said from his tree, his voice soft, “offends me.”
“Does it now?” Feoras said with a laugh. “Oh, well. Don’t want to offend Bram the Merciful. He might bore us to death with his vast knowledge of nothing.” Feoras sauntered closer but not close enough to Ghleanna’s axes. “So, Mercy. . you seem quite attached to the fair Captain. Tell me, did you two get close while she was trying to survive the wound I gave her?”
Bram continued to scribble away on his parchment. “We did. Very close. In fact—” he finally looked up from his papers but he gazed at Ghleanna—“I love her. Have for years.”
“Gods!” Feoras laughed. “Are you really that desperate, friend? Because the honest truth is, when it comes to getting under a Cadwaladr wench’s tail, the last thing you need to do is tell them you love them.” He eyed Ghleanna and she couldn’t believe she’d ever found him attractive. “That’s how it is for all of them, but especially Ailean’s offspring. All whores. . just like their father.”
Ghleanna had heard it all before but, unlike her sisters, she never knew how to let it roll off her scales like rainwater. But that was before, wasn’t it? When she actually gave a centaur shit what other dragons thought. Now, however, she realized what her kin had been trying to tell her was true — she was a mighty She-dragon who could do better than Feoras the Traitor. A sad, jealous lizard not worthy of her time or her drunken whining. That being said, she also had no intention of letting Feoras goad her into a rash move. There was a plan, and she intended to stick with it.
But when Bram unleashed an explosion of flame that rammed into Feoras and half his soldiers, sending them flying back through the trees, decimating part of the forest in the process while setting fire to another part. . she had to admit she was surprised. And rather impressed.
“What?” Bram asked her when she could only gawk at him. “I thought you wanted them over in that clearing so they were surrounded by your kin.”
“I. . I did. It’s just I thought you were going to run and let them give chase. Not set the entire forest on fire.”
“I don’t run for anybody. I wouldn’t worry about the forest.” He glanced up at the sky. “It looks like it might rain. Besides, I warned you. . my flame is mighty.”
“I thought you were embellishing.”
“I don’t embellish.”
“I see that now.”
They stepped through a wall of flames and into the clearing as Feoras and his fellow traitors got to their claws.
Feoras was angry now. Bram could see that. Because it was one thing to be bested by a fellow Dragonwarrior, even a female, but by a politician? No. He wasn’t having that.
More traitors landed in the clearing.
“They weren’t there,” one of the soldiers told Feoras, before his eyes locked on Ghleanna in surprise.
“Where are they, Ghleanna?” Feoras demanded. “We’ve been watching that kin of yours for days, knowing they’d lead us to the politician. And we both know they won’t leave you to fight alone with just this one by your side.”
“They’re waiting,” she told him.
“For me to kill you.”
That’s when Ghleanna threw the first battle axe. But Feoras was fast. He quickly stepped aside, and the axe hit the dragon behind him in the chest — killing him instantly.
“Bitch,” Feoras snarled.
“Come on, Feoras.” She swung her second axe in an arch. The flat of it slapping hard into the middle of her claw. “Let’s finish this.”
He roared and charged her and Ghleanna flew at him. They met, collided, and spun. When they landed, Ghleanna pulled away first and swung her axe. Feoras ducked, moved around her. She quickly turned, lifted her weapon, and blocked the sword aimed at her back.
More dragons surrounded Bram, but these were friends not foes.
“This has been coming,” Addolgar remarked while he watched. He’d never intervene in his sister’s fight unless her death was imminent. That was the Cadwaladr way.
“Aye,” Bram answered. “It has.”
“Were you two all right down there? With them Fins?”
“Aye. Quite all right. The Empress wants a truce with Rhiannon and her army came to worship Ghleanna.”
Addolgar shook his head. “How does the cranky cow manage to do that? A few days with her — and they’re ready to follow my sister into hell.”
Feoras slammed his fist into Ghleanna’s snout, sending her tripping back. But she stayed on her claws and struck again.
“What about you, peacemaker?” Addolgar asked.
Without taking his eyes off Ghleanna, “What about me?”
“Would you follow my sister into hell?”
“Wherever her soul goes, mine will follow.” Bram let himself briefly glance at Addolgar. “She means everything to me. But you already knew that.”
“Yeah. We already knew. The whole lot of us. But you’re so damn polite, we figured you needed a push.” He gestured at the growing number of watching dragons. “We never expected all this, though.”
“Nor I. Not for an alliance.”
“An alliance in writing. With dragons of the Desert Lands. You make that happen, and Rhiannon becomes the strongest dragon monarch in the last six centuries.”
When Bram only blinked, Addolgar added, “I’m not stupid, royal. No matter what you’ve heard.”
Ghleanna blocked another blow from Feoras’s sword. Spun, brought her axe down, and when he blocked it, brought her tail around and slammed the tip of it into a weak spot under his arm.
Feoras roared in pain and yanked his body away from her. He stumbled a few feet ahead of her, bringing his arm down to stop the flow of blood.
Ghleanna turned on her talons, swung her axe and imbedded it into Feoras’s spine.
The dragon whimpered, his body tensed. Ghleanna yanked out her axe and walked around him. Feoras dropped to his knees, gazing up at her once she stood in front of him.
She held out her free claw to Addolgar and he tossed his own axe to her. Ghleanna caught it, held it.
“Don’t, Ghleanna,” Feoras begged. “Please. Don’t.”
Ghleanna stared at the dragon for a moment. “I never loved you at all,” she murmured. “I know that now.
“Of course—” Ghleanna hefted both axes—“that makes this so much easier.”
She brought both axes together, not stopping until the blades met in the middle of Feoras’s neck. The dragon’s head popped off clean, landing on the ground at Ghleanna’s claws while blood shot out and covered his comrades.
She stepped back and slowly looked over the other warriors and soldiers who were waiting. Waiting for their next orders. Their next decision. Ghleanna gave it to them.
“Death to all traitors!”
Her kin roared in agreement before descending on Feoras’s foolish sycophants. She walked through the slaughter and over to Bram. He, again, leaned against a tree — waiting for her. And beside him stood her father.
“You off then, Da?” she asked.
“Aye. Too old for all this killing.” And to prove that, her father turned and brought his axe down on the head of a traitor that had gotten too close. Spun once more and cut off the legs of another.
He faced them again. “Need to get back to my rocking chair and some hot tea.”
“Clearly.” Ghleanna hugged her father. “Tell Mum I’m fine and when this is all done, I’ll be back to see her.”
“You better. She will track you down if you don’t.” Ailean smiled at Bram. “Take good care of her, royal. She means the world to me.”
“I will, sir.”
Her father walked off and Ghleanna looked at Bram.
“That—” and he motioned to the pieces of Feoras’s body—“was a bit showy.”
“I like to give the lads a bit of a show. It’s good for morale.”
He leaned down, pressed his snout against hers. They held like that a moment and then he told her, “You have more killing to do.”
“And I thought you’d try to stop me.”
“My mercy has never extended to traitors, Ghleanna.”
She stepped away from him, twisting her axes in both hands. “Then I’ll get to work.”
“Good. Because when we’re done here, we still have a contact to meet in Alsandair.”
“Overachiever,” she accused him with a grin, before she turned and killed every traitor in her path.
The Sand Dragon King’s first born son and his entourage of fifty, a count that did not include his battalion of warrior dragons, gazed down at Rhiannon for several minutes. He said nothing as he watched the queen, then sniffed and turned from her.
Bercelak had his sword out and almost embedded in the Prince’s back but the black dragon was taken down by at least four of his brothers and three of his sisters.
“I’ll sign,” the Prince said, sounding more bored than he’d been on the trip — which was no small feat. He represented his father on this, the king refusing to sign anything until he or someone he trusted had met with the new queen. So instead of Bram getting the signature he needed and returning to Rhiannon with alliance in claw, he’d been forced to bring the Prince and his entourage back to the queen’s court. It would have been an intolerable and long trip, too, if not for Ghleanna.
Bram held up the parchment and handed him a quill. The Prince scratched off his signature and walked out, his entourage and guards following.
Ghleanna motioned to several of her cousins, “Escort them to the Borderlands. Keep ’em safe until they cross.” Once the Prince had left her court, Rhiannon snarled, “The arrogance!” “He is the Dragon King’s first born and heir to his throne,” Bram reminded her.
“A throne of sand. As if that’s anything to brag about.” Rhiannon closed her eyes and roared, “Bercelak! Would you leave your brothers and sisters alone!” “They started it!”
Rhiannon opened her eyes and smiled at Bram. “So my Lord Bram, it seems there are traitors in my midst.” “Aye, my queen.” “Did you get any names from Feoras?” “Well. .”
“I took his head before we had the chance,” Ghleanna admitted.
“Honestly!” Rhiannon shook her head. “Just like your brother. Kill first, ask questions of the corpse later. Well. . I guess I’ll just have every Elder interrogated until someone admits his involvement—” “Or,” Bram quickly cut in, “I could do a quiet inquiry into the matter. Perhaps I can find more accurate information than torture can provide.” “Did I say torture? I don’t remember saying torture. But your mercy, as always, leads the way. So you have my permission.” “Thank you, Majesty. And the truce?” “Truce?”
“The one you wanted with Empress Helena?” “The squid? Oh, yes. Yes.” Although Ghleanna knew the conniving cow forgot nothing. “Leave the documents with Elder Margh.” “Very well, my queen.” “And thank you, Lord Bram, for all your excellent work and sacrifice.” “I’m at your service and the service of your throne.” She smirked. “I know.” Rhiannon glanced at the alliance document the Sand Dragon had signed. “But I must say that when Bercelak and I have our offspring, we will never allow them to be as arrogant as that!” Ghleanna passed one quick glance to Bram before they both replied, “Uh-huh.”
Please don’t hug me. Please don’t hug me.
But she did. And now Bram had two sets of black eyes glaring at him.
Finally, he said out loud, “It’s not me! I swear!” Rhiannon laughed and leaned back from Bram. “So cute! Isn’t he cute, Bercelak?” “No.”
“Bercelak’s only teasing.” “No, I’m not.” And then Ghleanna was there, prying Rhiannon’s forearms from around Bram’s shoulders.
“Back off, she-viper! This one’s mine. You’ve got yours. Now you’re stuck with him!” “Oy!” Bercelak bellowed.
Bram pulled Ghleanna away from the one Dragonwitch who could turn her blood to acid. “Everyone just calm down. There’s no point in—” “And what the hells is going on with you and my sister?” Bercelak demanded.
Ghleanna stepped between Bram and her brother.
“I wouldn’t challenge him if I were you, Bercelak.” The greatest Dragonwarrior snorted. “Is that right?” “He’s got skills.” “What skills?” “He’s a right good head-butter. You should see what he did with the Fins.” Good gods, had the female gone mad?
Bercelak moved in. “Their heads are soft — like pudding. Not like mine. Hard as granite.” That’s when Ghleanna said, “Addolgar says his head is harder than yours.” “That’s ’cause it is,” Addolgar happily tossed in.
“Centaur shit.” “Come on then, brother. Try me.” Bercelak refocused his attention on his brother and Ghleanna grabbed Bram’s claw and dragged him out of the throne room.
“Wait. . are they really going to—” “Head butt each other until one passes out or dies of blood on the brain? Yep. They really are.” “And they protect our queen and lands. How reassuring.” “You’ll get used to it.” “Ghleanna.” And Bram stopped, bringing her up short.
“What is it?” “I’m a dragon. I naturally assume I always get what I want. But there are no guarantees with you, I’m afraid.” She grinned. “Are you asking me now what you should have asked me a fortnight ago when we were lounging in the Sand Dragon King’s salt springs?” “Well, I couldn’t rightly ask with your brothers, sisters, and cousins constantly popping in to stare at us and say, ‘You two ain’t done yet? What exactly are you doing in there anyway? ’” “Good point. But you are asking me now?” “I am.”
“To be your mate?” “ I am.”
“Because you love me as I love you?” “Aye.”
“Because you can’t imagine your life without me?” Bram cupped Ghleanna’s jaw with his claw, stroked a talon across her scales, and in a heartfelt whisper replied, “Aye.” That’s when Ghleanna crossed her forearms over her chest and demanded, “Are you going to keep hugging that Rhiannon?” “But it’s not me!”
Bram looked up from his work and smiled. “You’re back quick.” His mate shook her head. “We’ve been gone eighteen months battling bloody Lightnings.” “Oh.” He pointed at the document he worked on. “This is the truce for that. If it makes you feel—” “It doesn’t.”
Oh, well. Best not to dwell, and changing the subject was always a good way to go. “Did you know they insisted I add a clause just for your nephew? What exactly was Gwenvael doing in the north?” “You really don’t want to know.” She came around his chair and dropped into his lap. “Just wished you’d been there to calm that situation down.” “Or you could stop bringing Gwenvael with you anywhere.” “That’s our next option. At least not until he has a mate who can control his whorish ass. He’s beginning to rival my father!” “Beginning?”
“Och! Let’s not speak of it.” She kissed him and Bram held her tight.
“Have you gotten any sleep since I left?” she asked while Bram kissed a new scar on her throat.
“Why go to bed when you’re not there?” “Well, I’m back for a while.”
“Is it just you?” And Bram was already leaning in to kiss her again.
Bram’s eldest slammed his blood-and-gore encrusted battle axe onto the table — on top of Bram’s books and papers. “I’m starvin’. Any food?” “Well—”
“Da.” His second oldest, a dragoness who looked just like her mother, unloaded a battalion’s worth of weapons onto the table — on top of his books and papers. “Any food? I’m starvin’.” “I just asked,” her brother remarked.
“Are you saying I can’t ask?”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t ask, you whiny little cow.” Two more of his offspring stormed in, dropping into chairs and putting their feet up on the table — all on top of his damn papers!
“You really want more offspring?” he had to ask Ghleanna as he always asked at moments like this.
“Just three more. Maybe four. Addolgar already has six!” “Well, I’m not trying to keep up with your siblings, Captain! And do you think we can teach the next lot better manners?” “They’ll still be Cadwaladrs, luv.” “Guess that’s a no then.”
“Oy!” Ghleanna barked at the lounging dragons. “Get your hooves off the table and put your weapons away like I bloody taught ya!” Grumbling as they liked to do, his offspring did what they were ordered. They’d learned early not to question their mother’s directives. Not if they, to quote Ghleanna, “Know what’s good for them.” “Look at this mess they left,” Ghleanna complained. “Charles!” “He’s out researching something for me and his name is Jonathan. Charles has been gone from this life for ages.” “I know. But I still miss him,” she sighed. “Bang up job he did.” “Jonathan will be gone for a few days.” He kissed her neck. “Perhaps the offspring can go to the pub tonight. For a few hours.” Ghleanna laughed and put her arms around Bram’s shoulders. “I’m sure that’ll be hard to do. You know how pious they all are.” Bram buried his nose against her neck, breathed in deep. “Gods, female. You smell like blood and death.”
Ghleanna smiled. Honestly, this dragon. “I’d be insulted, peacemaker, and hurt, if I couldn’t feel your cock trying to burrow its way through me chainmail.” “You’ve always known what you do to me, Ghleanna. Especially when you come back from battle with all your new scars and still covered in the blood and gore of our enemies. There’s only so much a dragon can take!” “All right. All right. Calm yourself. You barely notice when I’m gone and then you’re all over me when I’m here.” “It’s how I get through our time apart. It’s worked so far. Now kiss me again.” She did, melting at the way his tongue delved deeper, his fingers stroking her shoulders and back. He’d do the same when he got her naked, but then he’d be slower. Lingering over every part of her. It made it worth coming back to a bloody castle rather than a cave.
Ghleanna glared across the table at her youngest male offspring and the rest of the brats standing beside him. “Then go get a cow.” “You’re not going to feed us? What kind of mother are you?” “One that can separate your legs from the rest of ya!” “Or,” Bram cut in, “you can go to the pub. We’ll meet you there later.” Her youngest daughter shrugged. “Ain’t got no money, do we?” “I don’t understand. Why aren’t you pillaging like the rest of your kin?” “It was the Northlands, Da. Ain’t nothin’ to pillage but the crows in the trees.” “And snow,” their eldest added. “Lots and lots of snow.” Bram motioned to his study. “You know where I keep the gold coin.” As if on fire, their offspring made a desperate run for their father’s study, climbing over the table and fighting each other through the door. It wasn’t pretty.
“You tolerate them because you love me,” she quickly reminded him.
“Gods, I do love you. I even love that lot. Crazed, murdering scum that they are.” “They are cute. And already making their names. And. .” “And?” Bram pushed.
“I was promoted to General.”
Bram’s smile was real and so very warm.
He hugged her tight. “My beautiful, beautiful mate. I’m so proud of you.” She knew that. Reveled in it. “And believe it or not — I got my rank directly from Bercelak.” “How the hells did you manage that?” “No idea. And you know how he is. If we’re Cadwaladrs, we gotta kill twice as many as other Dragonwarriors before that tight-lipped bastard will even grunt in our direction.” “Still a ray of sunshine, is he?” Ghleanna laughed until their brats tore past them again on their way out the castle doors.
“Off to the ale,” she muttered.
“And leaving us alone.”
“Aye. That they have.” She pressed her forehead against her mate’s. “Gods, I’ve missed you, peacemaker. Those bloody cold nights fighting those damn Lightnings. And all I wanted was to get home to you.” “You are, Ghleanna. You are home. And I’ve never been happier.”