Elsbeth calmly nocked an arrow into her grandfather’s crossbow and contemplated which of the villagers she’d have to shoot first.
“Come out, Angus Weaver! ‘Tis your doing that the beast is attacking and eating our livestock!”
Wood planks shivered beneath hard blows as the mob outside beat their fists against her door and shouted their anger.
“Aye, Angus, come out! You ain’t welcome here no more!”
She waited until there was a pause in the battering and jerked the door open to face her adversaries. A cluster of startled villagers greeted her with glassy-eyed stares and spirit fumes strong enough to ignite a torch at six paces. As one, the crowd swayed back at the sight of the crossbow she pointed at them. Elsbeth was no marksman, but she could hit what she aimed for at close range. She leveled the sights on the mob’s ringleader, Malcolm Miller.
Big, muscled, with a head of shaggy hair and unkempt beard, he reminded her of a bear—brutish and quick to use force to get his way.
Torchlight danced across the crowd, enhancing their drunken swaying—an eerie effect that transformed men into a single, viperous creature ready to strike the moment she moved. Malcolm’s features were especially cruel in the flickering light, reminding Elspeth of a Fool’s Day mask that had once frightened her as a small child. She suspected the light revealed much about Malcolm—the beast lurking behind the façade.
“Move aside, Elsbeth.” He lurched closer, hesitating when she raised the crossbow a little higher.
“Or what, Malcolm?” Her finger tightened against the bow’s trigger at the mob’s restless movements. Rivulets of sweat tickled her ribcage. The lump of fear wedged in her throat made it difficult to breathe, but she refused to move from the doorway. “Why have you brought these good people out into the night to beat my door down and disturb my grandfather’s rest?”
Malcolm sneered, his small eyes glittering with a combination of malice and lust that made Elsbeth’s skin crawl. “You know why, woman. We want Angus.” Spittle flew from his mouth in a noxious spray. “He’s the reason the dragon is destroying this village and wiping out our herds.” He turned from her to face the crowd. “Is it not so, friends?” he trumpeted to his followers. “We had no trouble with dragon-kind until Weaver settled here, telling his tales of slaughtering such a beast and showing his dragon armor to all and sundry.”
A chorus of ayes answered him, and the men surged forward once more, driven by Malcolm’s words, to punish the man they believed the harbinger of their misery. Again, they hesitated at the sight of Elsbeth’s ready crossbow.
The ringleader jeered at his companions. “It’s just one woman with a single bolt! She can’t stop all of us!”
Elsbeth raised her voice to match his. “Aye, just one bolt to kill one man. Which of you lads is willing to die so the rest of your brave friends can drag a crippled old man out into the cold and hang him?” Her upper lip curled when Malcolm himself made no move to rush her. “You Malcolm?” she sneered. “Give me an excuse. You’ve been nothing but a thorn in my ass since we came to live at Byderside.”
Her grip on the bow firmed when Malcolm growled and took a threatening step forward. So be it. The miller’s son would go down first. Elsbeth had never killed anyone before, and her stomach churned with both terror and horror, but she didn’t hesitate and took aim.
A commanding voice rang out. “Stop this! Hold, I say!”
The crowd parted, opening a path for a diminutive, white-haired figure dressed in a night rail and tattered robe. Irena the Elder strode to the front, almost glowing with an aura of power. She leveled a glare on Malcolm so withering, he flinched away from her, shame-faced. Elsbeth wondered how such a small woman managed to quell an angry mob more effectively than a loaded crossbow. Whatever worked, she thought, heartily grateful for Irena’s sudden appearance.
The elder came to stand next to her. “How are you, girl?” Her voice was low, for Elsbeth’s ears alone.
“Terrified,” she whispered. “Thank all that’s sacred you came when you did. I thought I’d have to shoot Malcolm.”
“No great loss there, and it might shut him up for once.” A twinkle of amusement lit Irena’s faded blue eyes, and Elsbeth smiled, despite her grim circumstances.
Irena turned her damning glare on the rest of the crowd. Like Malcolm, many bowed their heads and shuffled their feet. A few, however, refused to be shamed and shouted their grievances.
“That dragon is killing our livestock and burning our fields!”
“It’s vengeance for its kindred. Angus killed one of its own!”
The old woman gave a disdainful snort. “And ye thought to stop it by swinging a dying old man on a gallows tree?” She crossed her thin arms. “Come straight from Will’s tavern, didn’t you, lads?” A few mutters confirmed her assumption, but none spoke up to argue, not even Malcolm who alternately glared at Elsbeth and undressed her with a lascivious gaze.
“Go home,” Irena ordered. “If you wish, we’ll hold council tomorrow to discuss this problem, but we won’t be doing here in the cold night while a frightened woman holds off a pack of drunkards far gone into their cups.”
Elsbeth held her breath. Please, she prayed. Let the elder’s words be enough. She swallowed back a relieved exhalation when the men slowly wandered away, a few leaning on each other in stuporous camaraderie as they stumbled home.
Malcolm left last. Unlike the others, drink hadn’t made him pliable, only more vicious, and he bared his teeth in a feral smile, gaze icy and sober. “This isn’t over between us, woman.”
Fear burned a cold fire in her belly, but she met his gaze, hiding that fear behind a shield of disdain. “We’ve yet to start anything, Malcolm.” She kept the bow trained on his midriff. “And we never will.”
He glowered at her, then spat at her feet before turning to walk away. His hulking body cast a misshapen black shadow on the ground, as if a beast, instead of a man, crossed the village square. The two women watched him leave.
“Watch yourself, girl,” Irena said. Worry lines added more wrinkles to her forehead. “Malcolm has coveted you since you first came to Byderside. His interest grows dangerous.”
The bow suddenly felt heavier than a cart shaft in Elsbeth’s hands. Her shoulders sagged as she lowered the weapon to her side. Tears stung her eyes. “May the gods bless you all your days, Elder. “I think you saved my grandfather and me this night.”
Irena gave another of her signature snorts and patted Elsbeth’s arm with a wrinkled hand. “Bah. You did fine on your own. I thought for sure Abelard would piss his trousers when you swung that bow his way.”
Elsbeth’s laugh sounded weak to her ears. “Then he wasn’t alone. I nearly pissed my skirts when Malcolm decided to test my resolve.”
The humor eased some of her tension, soothed the fear scraping along her nerves. She pushed open the cottage door wider. Firelight from the small hearth spilled into the darkness. “Please come in and get warm. I’ve plum tea from the south. A barter good from a merchant in Durnsdale.”
Irena accepted and strode into the house. Though small, the home Elsbeth shared with her grandfather Angus offered comfort and sanctuary, and never had she been so glad for the sturdiness of their door.
The hearth fire warmed a main room redolent with the scent of dried herbs draped from the rafters. A cauldron hung suspended over the flames. Steam spiraled upward in lazy revenants from the cauldron’s contents, venting through the chimney Angus insisted they have built to keep the house clear of smoke haze. A scuffed table and pair of benches took up most of the room, sharing space with a loom tucked into a corner and surrounded by baskets full of brightly colored wool skeins and thread reels. The loom held a half-finished rug sporting a celestial design woven in colors of blue, black, and deepest burgundy.
Elsbeth unloaded the bow and returned it to its place near the door. She checked the door’s crossbar, making certain it was wedged well into place. For the first time since their move to Byderside, the barred door did not feel so invulnerable. She doubted she’d see the back of her eyelids tonight. Despite Irena’s edict and the villagers’ obedience, she didn’t trust they wouldn’t congregate again and pay her another visit before dawn’s break.
Irena made her way to the loom for a closer look at the rug. The woman’s wizened face crinkled into a map of care-worn roads as she peered closely at Elsbeth’s latest creation. “This is lovely, girl. One of your finest, I think.” She traced a path across the rug, fingers just above the bias without touching. “What city merchant with a fat purse and a spoiled wife commissioned this one?”
The heat from the fire felt good on Elsbeth’s chilled arms. She stirred the coals and lowered the cauldron closer to the fire to boil the water for tea. “A spice trader ready to spend a good profit from a loaded ship. That’s my second one for him. He’s commissioned three.” She straightened and sighed. “Who knows if I’ll finish the third now.”
Irena met her gaze with a troubled one of her own. “The village will want a solution to the dragon problem by end of the council session tomorrow.” She left the loom and settled onto the bench Elsbeth prepared by the fire. Her aged bones creaked as she sat.
Elsbeth pulled two cups from her small chest of dishware, keepsakes from a mother she didn’t remember. Anger seeped into her voice, along with indignation. “Angus and I have broken bread with these people for five years gone, Elder. Before he took to his bed, he was always welcomed at the Hound and Hollow for an ale and a smoke. I’ve quilted with the women and taught some of their children how to weave. I’ve played my fiddle at their handfastings.” She prepared the tea, pausing every few moments to wipe away the tears that spilled from her eyes and dripped down her cheeks. “And yet they turn on us like a pack of dogs scenting the sick or the weak in their midst.” The cups rattled together. “I almost had to shoot someone tonight.” Her voice shook as much as her hands.
The old woman’s touch, soothing and soft, halted her frenetic movements. “‘Tis a natural thing to be frightened, Elsbeth, and angry. Malcolm and his lads were lucky you didn’t kill one of them. I never saw that bow waver in your hand.” She squeezed Elsbeth’s forearm. “They’re not all bad folk, girl. They’re just afraid, and fear can turn civilized men savage.”
“I know, but it still feels like the worst betrayal.” Elsbeth sniffed back more tears, poured their tea and took a seat next to Irena. “Do you believe the dragon is doing this as revenge like they say? Punishment for my grandfather killing one of its own?”
“I believe it’s a pile of horseshit.”
Elsbeth almost spit out a mouthful of tea. Irena muttered another string of oaths and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. “If this were about vengeance, every other town and dale would have been reduced to an ash heap years ago.” She paused and delicately sipped her tea. “I know a little of dragonkind. It seems to me if they were all flying about exacting blood vengeance for a dead relative, there wouldn’t be many of us humans left.”
Elsbeth’s eyebrows rose. “Their strength is legendary, as is their magic and wisdom. But their numbers seem few. “Wouldn’t they seek retribution for men killing them off?”
Irena shook her head. “I don’t think so. You never hear of dragon towns or communities. Their lairs and caves house only a single dragon. They’re solitary creatures, little concerned with a brethren’s welfare.” She patted Elsbeth’s arm once more. “To my way of thinking, the dragon troubling this area is here for an easy meal or two. How hard can it be for a beastie like that to make off with a ewe or a cow, eh?”
“True, but it doesn’t solve my problem. The villagers are sure Angus is responsible, and I doubt they’ll listen to reason now.” Elsbeth rose to refill both cups. “We can’t leave, Elder.” She cleared her throat of its betraying warble. “My grandfather is too weak to move. He wouldn’t survive a journey to another town, not even to one as close as Durnsdale. If the men will only wait a fortnight, they won’t have to bother with lynching him.” Grief made the words bitter on her tongue.
A hacking cough sounding from the single bedchamber punctuated her remark. Elsbeth stood and set her cup down on the table. “Excuse me for a moment, Elder.
The room lay shrouded in semi-darkness, its only illumination a half-burned candle set on a chest against the wall. Angus Weaver reclined in his bed, huddled beneath a mound of blankets. Candlelight sallowed his shrunken features and dulled the wisps of white hair sticking out from his scalp.
Elsbeth sank to her knees by the bed. She took his hand, clasping the fingers gnarled and twisted by the bone sickness. “It’s late. You should sleep, Atuk,” she said, using the the informal, affectionate term for “grandfather.”
He peered at her with rheumy eyes. “I heard someone knock. Who comes?” His voice, once strong and filled with ready laughter, was nothing more than a reedy whisper.
She kissed his palm, grateful his hearing was as poor as his eyesight these days. That had been more than a knock at the door. “It’s only Irena, Atuk. She came to visit.”
“At this late hour?”
“Yes. She knows of a nobleman, newly married, who is building another home for his bride. His factor is seeking craftsmen to furnish the home. He might be interested in a rug.” A lie, and one she told with ease. Angus would never know of this night’s sad work if she could help it.
Angus sighed and stroked Elsbeth’s hair with his free hand. “Give her my regards, will you? I’d greet her, but I’m afraid I…” He trailed off, his hands falling to the covers, his eyes closing in an exhausted slumber.
She kissed his palm again and tucked it under the blankets. His breathing was harsh, stuttered—the rattle of bones in a soothsayer’s cup. She pinched the candle before leaving, plunging the chamber into darkness. He’d sleep well enough until morning when she’d brew a medicinal draught to ease his chest and give him nourishment.
Irena had abandoned her place on the bench to stand in front of the hearth and warm herself. Her voice held a quiet sympathy. “How is he?”
Elsbeth shrugged. “Well enough, all things considered. He wanted to know who knocked at the door.”
The elder eyed her closely. “It’s times such as these when it helps to have a man in the house. A young, healthy man,” she qualified when Elsbeth opened her mouth to argue that there was a man in the house. “Don’t be daft, girl. You know what I mean.”
Of course she knew what Irena meant; she just didn’t agree with her. “A man like Malcolm?”
Irena blew out an indignant huff. “Of course not. You’d kill that lumbering tarse within a month.” She grinned, and Elsbeth couldn’t help but grin back at the ridiculous image of her felling the hulking Malcolm Miller with a skillet on her wedding day.
Irena’s expression turned earnest, questioning. “I’m old, Elsbeth. I’ve earned the right to meddle and ask indelicate questions. Why haven’t you taken a husband? We’ve had no wars for decades. There are many men to choose from here in Byderside and Durnsdale, and you’re a handsome woman. Do you want to reach my years with no companion or children? Do you want to face a village mob on your own?”
Elsbeth resumed her place on the bench and stared into the fire. Bright memories, always skating the surface of her mind, bloomed before her in the flames. A solstice celebration, the eve of her twenty-second birthday, a dark-haired man with a silver tongue and eyes that caught the moonlight and reflected back lightning. Caressing hands and the heat of a mating fever.
For two miraculous days, she had loved and been loved by the wanderer Alaric. When he packed his belongings and set out for the road, he’d offered his hand. “I cannot stay, Beth,” he said. “Come with me.”
Elsbeth had stared at that hand with a terrible longing. She wanted to reach out, grasp his fingers and walk beside him on his journey, sleep next to him beneath the flicker of stars and a waxing moon. But another man waited in her village, one who had loved and cared for her since she was a child, one who needed her in his illness. “I cannot leave,” she replied.
He’d kissed her then, a hard possessive kiss that branded and claimed her as his, though he would leave her and not return.
The memory had left its mark—a scar never faded, a pain never dulled with time. She shrugged. “There was a man once, one I’d have gladly shared my life with then. But circumstance isn’t always kind.” Her short laugh held sorrow as well as amusement. “No mob would have dared visit this house had he lived here.”
Irena’s face was grave. “But there is no such man, and the mob waits for council. The old dragonslayer cannot remain if the dragon does.”
Elsbeth rubbed her hands over her eyes and sighed in frustration. “What should I do, Irena? March out and beard the beast in its lair? I’ve no warrior’s skill, and this creature is formidable. News is that it’s already killed five men and their horses for challenging him.”
“Then face it with another weapon, girl.”
Puzzled, Elsbeth waited for Irena to expound on her enigmatic remark.
A smile of pure satisfaction curved the elder’s mouth. “Remember, I know a little about dragons. Those foolish boys set out to fight the beast and kill it. You, my girl, will play for it and bargain.”
Elsbeth grimaced at the village elder. “I’m going to die.”
“No you’re not.” Irena watched with an eagle eye as her grandson, Ewan, helped Elsbeth don Angus’s notorious dragon armor.
“And then I’m going to be eaten.” Elsbeth grunted a protest when Ewan pulled the straps on the breastplate tight against her ribs.
“No you’re not,” Irena repeated. She thumped Ewan on the arm. “Here, you’re working too fast and overlooking things, you nitwit. You missed a buckle there.” She pointed to a spot somewhere near Elsbeth’s thigh.
They stood in Irena’s solar, fresh from a shouting match with the village council earlier that morning. Elsbeth peered down at herself, trussed up in layers of dull gray dragon scale, and groaned. “Irena, you and the council are sending me to my death. I’ll never survive this meeting—if I even find the dragon.”
Irena shushed her. “Hush. You’ll live through this and come away with a bargain that ensures the villagers leave Angus in peace, and the dragon leaves us and our sheep and cows alone. I have every faith in you, girl.”
She beamed as Elsbeth took a turn about the room. The dragon armor made only a faint whisper as the scales rubbed together with her movements. Angus’s boasts about the armor’s superior qualities weren’t empty ones. Stitched and laced with a combination of leather and chain mail, and lined in silk, the suit was lightweight, flexible and quiet—certainly compared to clanking plate armor. It resisted fire, spear point and broadhead, as well as a broadsword’s lethal slash. Elsbeth thought it a wonder anyone had ever killed a dragon with that kind of natural protection covering its body.
She spread her arms. “How am I supposed to play my fiddle in this?”
Irena rolled her eyes. “You’re a right good fiddler who can play wearing a fish barrel. Besides, if you reach such an accord that the dragon asks you to play, you can shed the armor.”
“If?” Elsbeth never liked “ifs” and Irena’s plan, backed enthusiastically by her fellow council members who weren’t risking a hair on their heads, was full of “ifs.” This one promised a gruesome end for her if it didn’t turn into a “when.”
Irena frowned. “There are no guarantees, girl, but it will work.” She patted Elsbeth’s back. “Trust me. Besides, you faced down an angry crowd last night. What’s different?”
“I don’t think they planned to kill and eat me.”
“Considering Malcolm was in that little party, I wouldn’t be so quick to make that assumption. Imagine if you had to face him alone with naught but your armor and fiddle?”
The elder had a point. Elsbeth made a last adjustment to her pauldron. “I’d want the entire dragon with me, not just the armor.”
By the time Ewan loaded the dragon scale shield and supplies into the waiting cart outside, a sizeable gathering had converged in Irena’s garden. Elsbeth tucked Angus’s helmet under arm, took a breath and marched out to greet her spectators.
Raucous laughter broke out among the villagers but was quickly silenced when she asked, “Any of you brave souls care to accompany me to Maldoza?” She smirked at the sudden quiet and shifting gazes. “I thought not.”
They cleared a path for her as she passed, a few offering wishes of good luck, most shaking their heads in disbelief at the foolishness of her endeavor. Irena stayed close beside her, vigilant and narrow-eyed, daring anyone to scoff.
Elsbeth strode to her waiting cart and pony, pausing when Malcolm stepped forward and blocked her path. His blunt features were shiny in the morning heat, as if he’d bathed from an oil jar. Remnants of breakfast hung in his beard and decorated his teeth when he smiled at her. She shuddered but held her ground.
“I trust you’ll charm the beast, Elsbeth, and when you come back, I’ll be waiting.”
She skirted around him, ramming an elbow into his side for good measure as she passed. “Then you best be waiting with your sword buckled on, Malcolm.” He laughed at her warning and returned to the crowd.
Elsbeth didn’t look back. She’d deal with him later. Malcolm Miller had been a nuisance since she’d known him. Even when his wife lived, he had always watched Elsbeth, made known his lust for her. Irena was right. She’d have to step carefully around him. Since his wife’s death, that lust had turned to a strange, malevolent obsession, spurred on by her cold rejection to his numerous advances. A dragon waited for her at the cliffs of Maldoza, and a wolf in a man’s skin waited here in the village. She wasn’t sure which of the two was more frightening.
When she clambered up to the cart seat, Irena was there to hand her two water flasks and a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry about Angus, girl. Ewan and his friends will bring him here. We’ll take good care of him. Even Malcolm won’t cross my threshold without an invitation, and I’ll be cold in my grave for a decade before that ever happens.”
Elsbeth took the other woman’s hand and squeezed. “Thank you, Irena. I still think this is a fool’s errand, but I’ll do whatever needs doing to keep Angus here and safe.”
Irena gripped her fingers in return. “The gods shelter you, Elsbeth.”
The villagers edged back when the elder turned and shooed them away with sharp words and flapping hands, looking like a goose girl herding a flock of stubborn geese from her door.
Elsbeth clucked to the pony, and the cart rattled onto the road with a creak of wheels and jangle of harness, leaving behind the relative safety of Byderside.
The smoother road soon gave way to rutted drover paths that set her bouncing on the cart seat and her teeth clacking together. She ignored the rolling pasture lands and fields of wheat and barley that stretched for leagues on either side of the path. Instead, she focused on the towering rise of pock-marked rock in the distance. It would take her most of the day to reach the cliffs of Maldoza, and truth be told, she wasn’t in any great rush to get there.
Rising in steep ascent from the flat ground, the cliffs jutted into the morning blue in sharp, stygian spires. Elsbeth had always admired them most at late afternoon, when they sparkled in the slanted rays of the sun, giving the illusion of a jeweled veil on a grieving queen’s crown. The face of the cliffs was scarred with holes, lidless eyes that surveyed the fields with an unblinking stare.
Many a tale had been told to scare children about those dark caverns—how haints and banshees roamed their shadows, screeching and howling with the fury of the early spring storms. Too practical to believe every story told around a campfire, Elsbeth still suffered a flutter of unease at the sight of the peaks rising like obsidian teeth filed to points.
Ghosts didn’t scare her; dragons did, and somewhere in that honeycomb of caves one waited and possibly watched her approach. She shivered, despite the thick padding of dragon armor and the hot morning sun beating down on her.
She finally stopped to rest just after midday, coaxing the pony to a grassy hillock overlooking Donal Grayson’s southern pasture. Below them, a small pond reflected rolling clouds and swathes of sky on its mirror surface. After watering the little mare at the pond, she unpacked and ate her lunch.
It would likely be her only meal. Camping out alone on the winding paths that cut through the haunted cliffs guaranteed another sleepless night and little appetite. A faint inner voice urged her to abandon such a foolish journey, return to the village and pack their things. If she were careful and slow in the going, Angus might survive the trip to Durnsdale. They had enough money saved to afford a decent inn for a few days until she found more permanent quarters.
Another voice however, the one indignant at being forced out of their home because of a false charge leveled against Angus, insisted she make the trip, see the plan through. Not only to help her grandfather, but to show the Byderside villagers just how stupid they were acting.
Contrary to her earlier protestations, Elsbeth thought Irena’s unusual idea might work. The gods knew that knights on horseback, with their spears and gleaming swords, had failed to rid the countryside of of the dragon. They had done nothing more than anger the beast and get themselves killed and eaten in the process. Or so everyone assumed. None of the men who rode off for Maldoza in search of glory and treasure ever returned. Whole or in pieces.
Irena’s advice echoed in her mind. “Why not try something different?”
Why not indeed? Elsbeth smiled and tipped back her water flask for a drink. A woman dressed in old dragon armor carrying nothing more than a crossbow and a fiddle was certainly different.
The elder had sworn dragons liked music. “Trust me. I know a little about dragons,” she’d said.
Her enigmatic statement puzzled Elsbeth as she finished her lunch. How the fragile elder of a rural village knew about dragons begged many questions, but in the frantic events and preparations of the past day, she hadn’t thought to ask. Fighting off drunken men wanting to kill Angus, plotting with Irena over how to save him and wondering how she might survive this mad scheme had left her head spinning. She sighed. It would be good to have Alaric at her side right now.
As soon as the thought occurred, she squelched it. This was no time to indulge in such daydreaming. The fact was she hadn’t seen or heard from her erstwhile lover in eight long years, and he wasn’t here now. She could thank Irena for inciting such thoughts. Her question as to why Elsbeth wasn’t married had awakened a long-buried yearning for a man she had once loved and refused.
The clear image of laughing gray eyes glittering with desire rose in her mind’s eye. Alaric had charmed every man, woman and child when he entered the village of Ney-by-the-Water. Elsbeth, mistrustful of the bard suddenly in their midst, had been no more immune than the others, though she tried her best to hide it. He had brought with him an amazing cache of stories, and the villagers fought with each other for the honor of having him sup with them and hear his tales told in a voice as rich and luxurious as priceless silk. He had taken her heart and left her with nothing more than memories.
Her reticence to accept him amused him. “You’re a suspicious one, Elsbeth Weaver. What evil do you think I plan for your friends and neighbors?” His smile teased her, a gentle mockery of her wariness.
He confronted her one day outside her home while she sat in the afternoon sun and wove a new rug on her loom. Elsbeth had almost run into the house when she spotted him approaching but refused to let him see how much he disturbed her.
She answered his question with one of her own. “How long will you stay in Ney-by-the-Water, Master Alaric?” She raised an eyebrow when the storyteller folded his long legs and sat down next to her, uninvited.
“Another fortnight, maybe. Why do you ask?”
Her fingers paused on the loom’s shuttle. She didn’t want him this close. He’d surely notice her blush, the way her breathing sped up when he drew near—just like the other silly maids in the village who flirted and batted their eyelashes each time he got within spitting distance.
His knowing smile made her bristle. A bard’s words were his trade, and more than a few village maidens had succumbed to such treacherous skill only to be left behind with a fatherless babe in their belly as a reminder of their folly. Elsbeth had no intention of falling into such a trap.
“A fortnight?” The shuttle clacked back and forth on the loom with growing speed as she wove. “How fortunate for you that our village is so welcoming to strangers, and you’ve a skill for spinning tales. You’ll be well-fed by the time you leave.”
Alaric draped his arms over his knees and bowed his head. Elsbeth admired his hair, the color of roasted chestnuts. Sunlight sheened his long locks with russet highlights. His wide shoulders rippled with muscle, and her fingers itched to draw swirling patterns over the smooth golden skin revealed by his sleeveless vest.
She frowned and slammed the shuttle down against the loom, wrenching the rug’s weft and warp. Too handsome by far, and he knew it. Elsbeth hoped he’d caught her not so subtle barb about leeching off the generosity of others. It might be an unfair accusation. It was customary for villages to house traveling bards, but she wanted him gone. He was far too dangerous to her senses, and she refused to feed his vanity with her admiration.
Alaric raised his head and gazed at her with storm-cloud eyes. His smile was not so easy this time. “Aye, the women in Ney-by-the-Water are fine cooks. Your men are lucky.” He reached out to touch her arm, halting when she scooted away from him. The smile disappeared. “Your people have been kind to this traveler, Beth. All save you.”
Elsbeth flushed, ashamed. He didn’t exaggerate. She had purposefully avoided him and kept her replies short to the point of rudeness on those few occasions he tried talking to her. Not once had she invited him to a meal since his stay, despite Angus’s hints that it would be a fine thing having the storyteller at their table. She left any gathering he joined and did her best not to meet his gaze when it landed on her.
It was the height of discourtesy, but she had counted on Alaric’s popularity with the other villagers not to be noticed. And honestly, she never imagined he would notice, though she often caught him watching her as she ran errands in the village or visited neighbors.
“I’m a poor cook,” she said grudgingly. “You miss nothing but burnt stew and hard bread.”
Alaric shook his head. “Untrue. I miss the company of a fine woman I’ve admired since I came here.” Her hand froze on the shuttle. “You may not reveal your true self to me, Beth, but I’ve watched you with others and heard you play your fiddle. You make magic with your music, and you’ve a smile like the sun after a gray rain.” His voice deepened, the words rolling off his tongue like a caress. “I want you to smile that way for me.” Again, that sun-browned hand reached out to touch her.
Elsbeth stiffened but didn’t move away this time, too stunned by what he said to do anything more than stare at the long finger tracing a delicate line down her arm.
“I’m not your enemy, Beth,” he said. “Invite me to your table.”
She jerked out of his reach and scrambled to her feet. “Don’t call me that,” she snapped. “It’s not my name.”
Alaric remained seated, eyes gone frosty. “My apologies, Mistress Weaver,” he said in a voice no longer warm, but distant and cool. “I meant no disrespect.”
Elsbeth exhaled a long breath. She was usually good-natured, possessing a ready laugh and an appreciation for a well-told joke, but something about Alaric brought out the shrew in her.
“You’ve a smile like the sun after a gray rain.”
The man possessed a tongue coated in poisoned honey, and the sensible part of her mind warned her not to give in to such deadly charm. Still, his compliment freed the butterflies in her ribcage, and it was only fair that she and Angus feed him at least once.
Elsbeth ignored that internal sensible voice. It was just supper after all. “I’m serving lentils and a bit of pork tonight. There’s always more than my grandfather and I can eat.” Alaric’s gaze thawed, and his delighted smile enhanced his prominent cheekbones.” She frowned. “I’ll serve at the sixth hour. If you’re not here, we won’t wait.”
He rose gracefully. Elsbeth was a tall woman, but Alaric towered over her. She caught his scent, an intriguing combination of sunlight and cool sharpness—pine or cedar or some other evergreen that grew on the shadowed slopes of Findley’s Mountain. Her nostrils flared. He smelled as good as he looked.
She moved away, warning him with a narrowed gaze that he stood too close. Alaric raised his hands in surrender and stepped back a few paces. He grinned, his eyes alight with pleasure at her invitation. “I’ll be there,” he promised. “And lentils are my favorite.”
Elsbeth snorted and rolled her eyes. “Oh, I’m sure they are, Master Alaric.”
He laughed then, a low, vibrant sound that caressed her ears and sent a tingle down her back. If she didn’t escape into the house soon, he’d spot the blush fast crawling up her chest to her face. She hurried to the door.
“Will you play your fiddle for me, Elsbeth?” he called out to her.
She halted to cast him a disapproving look over her shoulder. “Supper and music, storyteller? You ask a lot for a tale or two.”
The intensity of his gaze belied his casual smile. “Ah, sweet lass,” he said softly, “I’d ask for much more if I thought you were inclined to give it.”
Heat flooded her cheeks the moment she shut the door behind her. She closed her eyes and tried to catch her breath. If this kept up, they’d have to eat in the dark so Alaric couldn’t see her red face.
The pony’s wuffling shook Elsbeth out of her nostalgic musings. Tater, so named because of her rotund belly and dull brown coat, wandered closer, grazing on a thick carpet of grass next to where Elsbeth sat. The pony nudged her none too gently out of the way.
“Sorry, Tater,” she said and rose to dust the crumbs of her lunch off her hands and armor. She was being an idiot, wasting good daylight mooning over a man long gone or long dead.
She repacked her supplies and was harnessing Tater to her traces when the little mare’s ears suddenly flattened against her head. Her eyes rolled, and she stamped her hooves. Only her mistress’s firm hold on the halter kept her from bolting, and the cart rattled with her struggles.
The hairs on Elsbeth’s nape rose. A moment earlier, a chorus of birdsong and insect chittering had risen from the fields. They’d gone silent now. From the corner of her eye, she spotted the shadow of great wings passing over the pond’s glass surface. A concussion wave of air bowed the stalks of wheat and rippled the still waters. Tater squealed and lunged in her traces, nearly jerking Elsbeth off her feet. She held onto the halter with one hand and scrabbled for her crossbow on the cart seat with the other. It wouldn’t do her much good. She couldn’t nock a bolt and hold the pony at the same time, but it calmed her rising fears just to have the weapon in hand.
She stared up but saw nothing, only a blue emptiness broken by a tattered drift of clouds. Whatever had flown above them and sent the pony into a panic was gone or turned invisible by some arcane magic. Elsbeth waited while Tater shivered and sweated. Soon, the first bird calls resumed, and the fields came alive once more with sound.
A shadow of wings and the pressing weight of air. A dragon. A dragon had flown over them, low and fast. Elsbeth was certain of it, though she had seen nothing as it flew by except shadow on the pond’s surface. Magic. Surely it was. A beast so large would be a target for every spearman in the surrounding counties. It would employ a means to camouflage itself for protection. She took a deep breath and said a heartfelt prayer. By some divine grace, the dragon hadn’t noticed them, even when the pony squealed and shook the cart to its pins. That, or it simply wasn’t very hungry at the moment. She shivered.
Maldoza, rising ahead of her in its tapering majesty of sparkling rock, no longer held a strange beauty for Elsbeth. It was merely a haven for a monster. Her stomach soured at the thought. Only the memory of the mob at her door and her helpless grandfather wasting away in his sickbed kept her from leaping onto the cart seat and turning Tater homeward. Angus would have gone apoplectic if he knew of this mad plan she and Irena had hatched. Elsbeth adored her grandfather. He was worth any risk she’d take in order to protect and ultimately save him.
She patted the pony’s sweaty neck. “Come on, lass. Just a little farther and you’ll be safe and sheltered with Master Grayson.”
The rest of the journey to the cliffs’ base remained uneventful. Elsbeth kept the crossbow in her lap and watched the skies. She found Donal Grayson, flanked by a pair of sharp-eyed sheepdogs, waiting for her as she guided the cart to his door.
Short and bent by age and years of laboring in his fields, Donal was the last of the border farmers remaining on their homesteads. He’d resisted moving to Byderside once the dragon attacks started. “I’ll not give up my farm over some lizard planting his fat ass in the cliffs and eating a stray cow or sheep. This is my land, and I’m staying on it.”
The village elders had finally given up, calling him stubborn and stupid for not listening to reason. Donal paid them no mind, defying their dire predictions of becoming a dragon’s next meal. He worked his farm, planted his fields, and kept a close watch on his herds.
He helped Elsbeth from the cart and smiled at her from a lined face sun-cured to the patina of saddle leather. “Well, if it isn’t Angus’s granddaughter. What are you doing here at the ass-end of Byder County, Elsbeth?” He eyed her armor curiously.
Elsbeth hugged him. She liked Donal and always invited him to their house for a meal when he made a rare visit into Byderside. “Help me unhitch my pony, Master Donal, and I’ll tell you my news.”
She stayed only long enough to put Tater in one of Donal’s paddocks, unload her supplies from the cart and recount the events of the morning and previous night.
Donal scowled when she finished her tale. “Never could abide Malcolm Miller, or his da for that matter. I’d lay down a harvest’s worth of profit that Malcolm killed his wife.” He pointed a finger at her. “You be careful around him, Elsbeth. He’s a nasty piece of work.”
Elsbeth nodded and stayed silent when Donal continued. “I’d think Irena gone daft, but her idea has merit. I’ve seen a parade of knights and their horses riding to the cliffs and never returning. Sometimes the beastie leaves their swords in my field as payment for a sheep or two. You should see the ruby I pried out of one hilt.”
Her eyes rounded. “Wait. Are you saying you two bargain?”
The old farmer flashed her a black-toothed smile. “In our way. You’ll notice my fields aren’t scorched, my barn not burned. I’ll put a ewe or two out in my south pasture for him. The beastie takes ‘em, no trouble. And sometimes he drops a shiny stone at my door.”
Donal’s revelation stunned her. Even though she had agreed to Irena’s plan, it had been more out of desperation than faith. “Irena was right then.”
“Of course she’s right. The old girl knows a thing or two about dragons.”
She eyed Donal. “That’s what she said. How is it a Byderside elder knows so much about dragons?”
He gave her the same knowing look Irena had. “That’s her story to tell, lass. Now, let’s get you back on the road. I’ll show you a shortcut to the cliffs that’s also easier to climb, especially with you being on foot and all.”
Donal’s shortcut was a quicker way to the cliffs’ upper levels, but also up a path choked with a low-growing web of plains scrub vine sporting thorns the length of a man’s finger. Elsbeth crushed the vine under her boots, grateful for the armor and its protective scale. Without it, she’d be stripped bloody by the clawing plants.
Another hour of walking, and she cleared the last of the thorny flora. The path continued its spiral up the cliffs, steeper now but blessedly free of vines. The sun beat down on her, plastering the garb she wore under the armor to her skin. She stopped, panting from the heat. Too bad she didn’t bring a horse. Going by horseback might have been easier. She smiled and pulled a long swallow from one of her water flasks. Unless she rode a warhorse, they wouldn’t get far. The typical farm mount would bolt at the first scent of dragon and throw Elsbeth off the cliffs in the process.
A hawk glided in hunting flight through the endless blue above her. Elsbeth wondered if the field mice and shrews hid in their burrows, away from the raptor’s sharp eyes. Gods knew they had more sense than she if they did. She was like those mice: small and weak against a much larger, deadlier predator. “Nice, Elsbeth,” she muttered. “You haven’t the wits of a field mouse.”
She climbed higher, accompanied by suffocating heat and the droning chorus of cicadas. By the time the sun set, she was sticky with sweat and exhausted by the long trek. She had, however, made it to the middle face of the cliffs where the largest caves punched dark holes into sheer rock.
A stony outcropping split into a wedge shape jutted up from the parched ground, creating a shelter from the wind and a place to rest her back. The cicada song faded to silence as Elsbeth shrugged off her pack and gusted out a relieved sigh at the sudden lightness on her back and shoulders. If only she could shed the armor, but that would have to wait.
Dry brush and scrub vine had found its way to this patch of ground, and she gathered an armful to use as kindling. The small fire she built gave off comforting light and offered protection against nocturnal hunters smaller than dragons. She settled against the rock’s niche and reached for a flask. Her water was tepid and stale but felt good on her parched throat as she drank.
The fields below transformed from oceans of gold and green to seas of pewter as the moon rose higher and replaced the sun’s light with its own gentler rays. The cliffs cast a pointed crown of shadows against the backdrop of roads and the far candle-lit villages and towns. Haunted it might be, but Maldoza offered the most breathtaking and encompassing views of the countryside Elsbeth had ever seen. No wonder a dragon had chosen the cliffs as its eyrie.
Despite a night sky festooned in stars and clear of clouds, the air hung heavy and still, like the last breath before a storm’s onslaught. Elsbeth didn’t like the quiet. Even at night, things rustled and whispered in the fields and forests. But here, on the bleak paths cut into the cliffs, nothing moved. Even the fabled haints didn’t howl—a small mercy for which she was glad.
Irena had filled her ears with advice before she left Byderside. “There’s no sneaking up on the beast, Elsbeth. Walk as if you’re off to visit a friend, not steal from him. Sing, speak loudly, even play your fiddle. Dragons are great lovers of music, and it will see you long before you see it. Give it cause to wonder instead of attack.”
Elsbeth hoped she was right. Her nerves stretched taut beneath the unending silence. She’d take Irena’s words to heart. A little music would calm her and maybe draw the dragon out. She was here to bargain, not pilfer or kill. She prayed the creature would be more curious than hungry when it finally showed itself.
She pulled the fiddle case from her pack. Inside the case nestled her most treasured possession. Her father’s before it was hers, the fiddle was the only connection she had to her parents, dead these many years. Angus had taught her to play, just as he’d taught her to weave. Ever patient, ever encouraging, he’d smiled and hid his flinches when, as a novice of both skills, she snarled the threads on her loom and sawed her bow against the anguished strings.
The hush around her thickened, as if the cliffs themselves waited to hear her play. Elsbeth stood against the rock, tucked the fiddle under her chin, and ran the bow hairs once across the strings. They answered her summons with a plaintive call, the sweet notes drifting into the silence. The night sighed.
She paused. What to play? There were the old songs, tunes every fiddler learned at their teacher’s knee. They played them at weddings, funerals, solstices, and child blessings. She knew them by heart, could play them in her sleep, and had set villagers to dancing into the wee hours in spinning kaleidoscopes of colorful skirts and garlanded hair. Still, such lively music seemed out of place here, beneath Maldoza’s glimmering shadow and the wheel of stars above her.
She thought of Angus, slowly dying in a sickbed in Irena’s house. Her throat ached with unshed tears. No matter how much she might wish otherwise, her grandfather didn’t have long to live. Memories of his teaching her to play rose in her mind, the summers when he was the fiddler at the solstice celebrations in the barley fields, and she danced with the other village children in the bright sunlight. Elsbeth again set the bow to the strings.
“For Angus,” she said. “May your spirit live young all the days of the world, Atuk.”
The fiddle sprang to life at her touch, and she played while she wept silent tears. A tune of love and nostalgia, its mournful notes flooded the moonlit pathways. The flames of her campfire flickered in rhythm to the song, and Elsbeth closed her eyes, lost to the music and the bright images of her childhood.
The tune segued into another and then another, and her memories changed, turning once more to Alaric and that blissful summer nearly a decade earlier.
Despite her initial resistance, she’d fallen for him. He’d won her, not with florid compliments or boasts of great deeds, but with things more prosaic. After the first reluctant dinner invitation, Alaric had returned a half dozen times to eat with her and Angus.
Elsbeth was taciturn at first, content to let conversation between Angus and the bard flow around her while she served their meal. The fact he not only ate her food, but did so with gusto, astounded her and delighted Angus. He didn’t look like he was starving, and starvation was the only reason she could think of that might inspire someone to wolf down her cooking with such enthusiasm.
He was at ease in their humble home. Other, wealthier families had hosted him on numerous occasions, their houses far more gracious and sumptuous than Angus’s. Alaric, however, had sat with her grandfather at their beaten table, shared a smoke, told his fascinating tales, and listened, enraptured, as Elsbeth played her fiddle, looking as if he wished to be no other place but with them.
As much as she hated to admit it, he fascinated her. No idler content to find a shady spot and watch as others worked, he often volunteered his help and labored in the fields and on the threshing floors. Once, at a barn raising, a brawl almost broke out between the unmarried village women over who would sit near him at lunch. Elsbeth hadn’t joined in the fray, satisfied to admire him from afar.
She invited him for supper several times at Angus’s urgings. Alaric accepted immediately, though his smile was rueful.
“And you, Beth,” he said once. “Do you want me there?”
Elsbeth didn’t pretend coyness. She disliked it in others. “Yes,” she replied before walking away.
“You warm my heart with your eagerness, Beth,” he called after her in a voice filled with laughter.
And you frighten mine with your charm, storyteller, she thought darkly.
Their dinners had slowly transformed. Her food was still burned or undercooked. Alaric still had two or more helpings. She played her fiddle for him afterward, but he no longer shared a pipe with Angus. Instead, he escorted her around the village’s perimeter, making idle talk as they admired the summer moon.
The villagers, ever curious of their neighbors’ doings, soon talked of the bard’s courtship of Angus Weaver’s granddaughter. And it was a courtship of sorts. Evening chats soon turned to kissing in the concealing shadows of the copse of woods that butted up to the village. Tentative at first, she’d finally shed her reserve and returned Alaric’s desire with a passion long-hidden.
Elsbeth, on the cusp of spinsterhood by Ney standards, had experienced her share of kissing and more, but none like these. Alaric kissed her with his body and his soul, not just his mouth. He was generous with his affections but not overwhelming, taking only what she gave him.
“You are too good to be true,” she teased him one evening as they sat together on a flat rock bordering the shallow creek that gave the village its name. Elsbeth savored the warmth within the circle of his arms. His chest was a solid wall against her back, his heartbeat a faint and soothing lullaby.
“You mean I didn’t live down to your first assumptions.” His voice was somber, lacking any reciprocal teasing in its tones.
Elsbeth half turned so she could see his face. Shadow and moonlight chased each other across his features, casting them in high relief. He stared at her with eyes that drank the light.
“No,” she said and cringed. “You didn’t. I was wrong to judge like that and hostile to you when I had no reason to be.” She stroked his neck, the hollow of his throat. “I hope you’ll forgive me. I convicted you on the behavior of bards who came before you. They’re a faithless lot. You’re not like them.”
His mouth thinned to a grim line. “Yet I follow their path, Beth. I sit here with a village woman in my arms, one with no protector except an old man with signs of bone sickness.” Alaric slid a finger under her chin and tilted her face to him. “I won’t lie or give you pretty words dressed in ribbons or dipped in honey. You’ll have my honesty.” His breath caressed her cheeks as his fingertips stroked her throat. “I want you,” he whispered, the declaration as fervent as any prayer. “Want to make love to you, want to mount you here on this rock, feel your legs around me as I take you.”
All the air in her lungs vanished, and her heartbeat knocked a war drum’s rhythm against her breastbone. She stared at him, into his eyes, gray as a rainy day.
His harsh expression relaxed into more rueful lines. “I’d tell you I loved you if I thought you’d believe me. But loving you won’t keep me here, no matter how much I wish it otherwise. I can only be what you first condemned me with in your eyes—a man wanting a woman so badly he can taste her, and no future to offer her. I will leave Ney-by-the-Water in two days.”
Elsbeth closed her eyes, despair, desire, anger and elation—all of them rushing through her at once. His words, seductive in their bare honesty, made her ache. She wanted those things too, wanted more than to recline here in his arms and trade kisses. Her elation over his oblique reference to loving her crumbled under the knowledge that she had only two more days with him.
The fates are laughing now, she thought. Elsbeth Weaver, so proud, so sure of her own heart and intelligence that she’d not be taken by the smooth charm of a handsome wanderer, had fallen deeply in love with one. Knowingly, willingly. And she didn’t regret it for a moment.
She turned fully in his arms so that she faced him on her knees. “You’re not like them,” she repeated. “You’ve seduced me with your honesty, not your lies.” She smiled when his eyes flared. “You can’t give me a future, but are you willing to give me two days?”
He didn’t return her smile, but his hand rode her back, pressing until she fell against him. The intensity in his voice made her shiver. “We can live a lifetime in two days, Beth.” He stared at her “Are you sure about this?”
She kissed him, savoring the curve of his lips on hers, the taste of his mouth, sweetened by the mulled wine she’d served with dinner. Alaric groaned and parted his lips, deepening the kiss. Elsbeth sucked on his tongue, passing hers along his teeth and the roof of his mouth. She wanted his taste, his scent, all of him. Her hips rocked, setting a slow grind against his stiff cock. She moaned into his mouth, and he echoed the sound.
A flurry of hands and half-muttered instructions accompanied the toss of clothing onto the rock and some even into the creek. Naked, Elsbeth held Alaric’s head close as he suckled her breast, his tongue laving her nipple in varied strokes before turning his attention to the other breast. She writhed in his lap and combed her fingers through his hair, loving the feel of silky locks on her bare skin.
She returned his caresses, coaxing out deep groans when she teased his small nipples with delicate kisses and the swipe of her tongue on their tips. His fingers dug into her hips when she nibbled the length of his collarbones and the strong column of his neck.
Alaric suddenly pulled away from her, and she whimpered at the loss of such closeness. “Beth,” he said in a tight voice. Sweat beaded his forehead. “Not slow this first time. I won’t last for slow. Later, I will savor you.” His hands gripped her hips, fingertips pressing into her buttocks. He ground against her, his cock nudging, seeking the slick entrance to her body.
Elsbeth couldn’t agree more. She slipped her hand between them and moaned her approval when her fingers wrapped around his shaft. He was hot, hard, and smooth to her touch. Trickles of semen smeared her fingers as she stroked the head of his cock.
Alaric sucked in a breath before lying back on the flat rock, a portrait of shadowed planes and moonlit angles. “Ride me, Beth,” he ordered in a guttural voice. “Hard.”
She did as he bid and sank down on him, her palms braced against his chest as he filled her. They groaned in unison. Alaric gripped her hips in hard hands, guiding her until they set a quick rhythm. There were few words exchanged, only the occasional gasp, and the slippery sound of skin sliding along skin as she rode him.
Alaric coaxed her head down for a kiss, mimicking the thrusts of his cock with his tongue in her mouth. His hands roamed her body, stroking her breasts, her shoulders the curve of her waist. “Gods, Beth,” he said between short breaths. “Two days. I need more than two days. I need that lifetime.” With that, he rolled them both until it was she on her back and he above her, still inside her.
Elsbeth whimpered and clutched him closer when she felt him withdraw. “No, don’t.”
He reassured her with a hard thrust that he was going nowhere. She eased her legs over his shoulders, the position tilting her hips to bring him deeper. They gasped in unison.
He slowed his pace and turned his head to kiss each of her knees. One hand drifted down her leg to map the contours of her midriff—the hollow of her belly and tracery of her ribs, the undercurve of her breasts and the dip of muscle leading to her navel. His eyes blazed silver. “You are beautiful, Elsbeth. Soul and flesh. All of you.” His fingers dipped lower, teased and tantalized, stroking her most sensitive spots until she writhed in his arms.
She arched her back, heels digging into his shoulder blades when he suddenly quickened his rhythm and deepened his thrusts. His features drew tight, eyes rolling back as his lips flattened against his teeth. Sweat sheened his body, and her own skin glistened in the fey moonlight.
The heat pulsing throughout her centered low, burning hotter as she neared her climax. “Now,” she whispered.
Low sounds erupted from his throat. He thrust twice more, his grip on her hips sure to leave bruises the next day. Elsbeth tightened her legs and held on as he moaned out her name and came hard inside her.
His fingers continued to play her like a harp until she heaved against him, twisting and crying out as her breath burned in her throat and nostrils. Her legs slid off his shoulders, and she lay on the rock, a boneless heap of quivering muscle. When Alaric lowered himself on her, she made only a token protest. He adjusted his position so as not to crush her. He stared down her, face wreathed in a satiated smile, eyed dark as slate.
Elsbeth smiled and tucked back a strand of hair away from his cheek. “You look like a cat who’s found the crock of cream.” She caressed his back with lazy strokes.
“I believe I just put cream in the crock.” He clutched her hips when her laughter threatened to push him out of her. “Careful, lass,” he warned. “It’s a touch of paradise in there. I’m not ready to leave it just yet.”
He sobered and stroked her face with gentle fingers. “Two days, Beth,” he said softly. “I hope you have nothing else to do because it’ll be me occupying your time. Take care of Angus, weave your rugs, but I’ll have you to myself every spare moment.” He glided a hand down her side and hip. “I’ll have my cock in you in every way, too.” His kiss was hard, possessive. “A claiming. I for you, you for me. I need the memory to carry with me.”
Elsbeth shivered in his arms. She wanted him the same way, needed a memory as much as he did. She caressed his hair, never tiring of its silkiness against her palm. “Then why are we talking? You’re wasting precious time, storyteller. Give me that lifetime you promised.”
She played until her arms ached, and her jaw throbbed from pressing so long on the fiddle’s chin rest. Perspiration dampened the hair at her temples and made her neck itch. When the tune ended, she lowered the instrument and took a deep breath. Tears streamed down her cheeks, dripping onto her dusty boots. She wiped them away with a grimy hand.
“I will offer you the wealth of kingdoms if you but play one more time,” a resonant voice said from the infinite dark.
Elsbeth screamed and dropped the fiddle and bow. The voice surrounded her from all directions, thrumming through the soles of her boots to dance up her calves and rifling the stray hairs that had escaped her braid. She dove for her crossbow and shield, sliding over bits of gravel and tangling vine.
Dragon. Dragon. Oh gods, the dragon. It was here.
The plan, so calmly discussed, so neatly laid out in the safety of a solar and again in the council hall, burned to ash in the fire of her terror. Pure, screaming instinct shrieked in her head to RUN! RUN NOW!
Her leg muscles automatically flexed, and she went up on her toes, ready to sprint away. Only her reason, nearly drowned out by her panic, stopped her from rushing headlong over a cliff edge or straight into the gaping maw of whatever monstrosity lurked invisible in the shadow.
Run where, Elsbeth?
She labored to inhale more than a half breath and pointed the loaded crossbow in a slow sweep around her while she crouched behind the shield. It was a futile exercise. There was no true target for her to aim at, no solid shape emerging from the night’s treacle shadows. Even with the moon illuminating miles of farmland, she saw nothing beyond the periphery of her campfire. That gloom carried a distinct scent, sharp like the morning after the first frost and tinged with the acrid bitterness of charred wood. For some odd reason, the first smell reminded her of Alaric.
“You’ve not much respect for so fine an instrument when you drop it on the ground in favor of that sad toy. What are you hoping to kill? A vole?”
The question reverberated off the rocks and made her teeth rattle. A blacker shape in the darkness moved with a sibilant hiss, like sand sliding against sand.
It still sounded as if the creature surrounded her from all sides as well as above and below her, but Elsbeth swung the crossbow in the direction where the voice seemed loudest. “Who are you?” She cringed at how she warbled the question. “What do you want?”
Growling laughter made the ground beneath her shiver. “I might ask you the same.” The sand-slipping grew louder. “What is a solitary woman doing on the cursed cliffs of Maldoza in the middle of the night, dressed in armor and playing a fiddle?”
A gust of smoke-scented wind barreled across her campsite, blasting the meager flames of her campfire into a bonfire. Elsbeth leapt back, cowering behind both rock and shield. The greater illumination revealed a sinuous length of black-scaled hide, twice the circumference of the old oak tree in Byderside’s square. The scales, shaped like teardrops, overlapped each other and made her own dragon scale shield look no bigger than the saucer for a teacup.
A scream bubbled up her throat to hum behind her clenched teeth as a monstrous reptilian head partially emerged from the nebulous dark to loom above her and regard her with eyes the size of serving platters.
“Dragon,” she whimpered.
The great head swung to and fro in the smoky murk, its elliptical pupils dilated, reflecting back the pale moon. Elsbeth was certain she careened toward fear-induced madness when a bony ridge of metallic scales running the length of its snout wrinkled in what she thought looked absurdly like a human frown.
“Hardly,” it said in that sonorous voice and snorted its disdain of the term in a puff of blue smoke belched from its nostrils. “I am a wyvern.”
“What’s the difference?” She clapped a hand over her mouth, mortified. Aye, she’d gone completely daft.
The smoke cleared and the bonfire blazed, light catching on black scales. The parts of the creature’s body revealed suddenly coiled upward into a towering spiral. Once more the air around her blew in gusts, bending the flames until they sheared across the rock she cowered behind for safety. The coil loosened, collapsing toward earth, and Elsbeth’s shrill scream bounced off the cliff walls as a visage from a demon’s nightmares hurtled toward her.
The colossal head with a feathered cockscomb of elongated scales loomed above, blotting out the stars. The wyvern, in all its majesty—or all its horror—watched her with a reptilian gaze behind a haze of smoke curling from its wide, armor-plated nostrils.
Like her grandfather’s description of the dragon he’d slain, it sported a pair of enormous bat-like wings tucked tight against its body. Teeth longer than her arm and sharper than sabers gleamed ivory, caging a tongue that flickered out as if to taste the air. Scales rippled as clawed feet gouged furrows into the hard ground, sending bits and pieces of rock shrapnel flying into the air. Whatever her visitor wanted to call itself, it certainly looked like a dragon to her.
Unlike Angus’s description of his trophy kill, this beast possessed only two legs—powerful back shanks she had no doubt would lever it into the air with one spring or shred a horse into bloody hair ribbons with a single swipe of a clawed foot. The legs in the front had merged with the wings, just like a bat’s, and its body was that of a viper, sinuous and serpentine.
The wyvern coiled itself around the entire campsite with Elsbeth and her fire in its center. The great head still hung above her, nostrils flaring and contracting as it breathed. Those silver eyes scrutinized her and narrowed.
Elsbeth cringed behind her puny shield as the wyvern’s head swung closer. Its breath, smelling of peat fires and burnt wood, heated a path down one side of her body. Had she not been wearing the armor, it might have blistered her skin. A high-pitched ringing in her ears warned she was on the verge of fainting.
A long sniff, and the wyvern reared back as if surprised. “It cannot be,” it declared, and lunged forward to catch her scent once more.
Behind the shield, Elsbeth sobbed. “Please don’t eat me.”
Some small part of her still able to think coherently raged at her situation. Irena and her I-know-a-little-about-dragons nonsense! What was she thinking to even consider this outrageous idea! Now instead of facing off with Malcolm Miller and his pack of toadies, she had a dragon—wyvern—sniffing at her like she’d make a nice first course before the main meal of Byderside sheep or cow.
The same growling laugh, this time laced with annoyance, vibrated the ground. “It’s well known amongst our kind that humans taste foul. I might kill you, but rest assured, I won’t eat you, even if you do offer the worst insult by calling me a dragon.” It sniffed her a third time. “Dragon armor and a fiddle. Strange combination, but so familiar.”
It didn’t give her time to ponder such an odd remark. She yelped, dropped the shield and crossbow and scampered halfway up the outcropping when the beast suddenly smashed a clawed foot onto her fire, smothering the flames. The sudden blackness camouflaged it completely, except for its eyes. Only its silver eyes and the moon above offered illumination.
Why had it killed her fire? Even the bonfire it had become offered no threat to a creature that could surely something even more spectacular with a simple sneeze.
As if it read her mind, the wyvern spoke. “All things are clearer when revealed in the dark.”
A cool wind spun off the fields below, bringing with it the howls of the mythical haints bound to the cliffs for centuries. Elsbeth climbed off the outcropping when the wyvern did nothing more than watch her. Despite her self-castigation at even considering Irena’s advice, she was too committed to their plan to cast it aside now, especially when she had no idea what else to do. And while this creature might deny dragon heritage, it liked music just like dragons did. Just like Irena said. She reached for her abandoned fiddle and bow with shaking hands.
“Shall I play for you?” Her voice was a mouse’s squeak, her stomach knotted so badly her ribs hurt.
The wyvern continued to watch her, light eyes growing darker with each passing moment. The serpentine body tightened its coils, muscles twitching in agitation. A swift slide of scales hissed across rock and gravel. Though terrified, Elsbeth was also mesmerized at the sight of so much power and grace.
“I knew a woman once,” it said, the great voice softer now. “Who played such an instrument as if the gods danced along the bow hairs.” The silver eyes were almost completely black and reflected a strange intensity not present earlier. “Tell me your name, fiddler, and why you are here.”
The council house, packed tight with villagers, erupted into pandemonium with Elsbeth at its center. She sat next to Irena, exhausted from worry and a sleepless night entertaining a wyvern. The long trek back from Maldoza had just about finished her off. Her fatigue kept her from lashing out and swatting one of the villagers shouting his protests at the council.
She’d risked her life traveling to the cliffs with nothing more than a damn fiddle and sat through the night in hot dragon armor negotiating with an enigmatic monster for her grandfather and the rest of the villagers. They had reached an accord, odd though it was in some respects. Now the villagers fought with each other over who would have to give up a portion of their livestock for the agreed-upon tribute to the wyvern.
Next to her, Irena put her fingers to her mouth and blasted a whistle that set Elsbeth’s ears to ringing. “Enough!” she shouted. “Enough!”
The hall’s occupants fell silent. All eyes settled on the small elder. She stood on the council dais, hands fisted at her hips. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “What more do you want?” The crowd shuffled and rumbled its discontent, but no one interrupted.
Irena paced the dais. “The beast is here for another month, maybe less. We can give up a dozen cattle or sheep if it means our village is left in peace.”
One of the villagers spoke up. “But who, Elder? There are some among us who can’t afford to give up a single chicken much less a ewe. And what of those who don’t own herds? What do they sacrifice?” His gaze slid to Elsbeth, accusing.
A red haze passed over her vision. She forgot the courtesy afforded the elders and jumped in front of Irena. “How dare you, Manny Howe!” The villager dropped his gaze. “My grandfather is dying. Instead of spending the next three weeks tending him, I get to entertain a wyvern. I’d give over three herds of cattle if I could make such an exchange and stay home with Angus.”
Her eyes watered with frustrated tears. She didn’t want to argue; she just wanted the bargain she risked her life for fulfilled. If the village rejected the wyvern’s demands, Elsbeth would pack her grandfather and their necessaries and be gone from Byderside by first light. Angus might not survive the trip, but she’d be damned if she’d sit idly by and watch the world around her reduced to cinder heaps because a few greedy farmers refused to give up a cow or two.
No one countered Elsbeth’s remarks. With the confirmation that Angus’s armor was not the root of their problems, many were ashamed of their behavior toward him and Elsbeth.
“What about a lottery?”
As one, the crowd turned. Donal Grayson stood in the back of the council hall near the door and puffed on his pipe. He spoke around the stem. “Those families with livestock enter their names. If you can only afford one sheep or one cow, put your name in once. If you can afford more, put your name in twice or more.” His eyes narrowed, and he took the pipe out of his mouth and pointed the stem at the crowd. “And don’t think we don’t all have a measure of each other’s worth.”
“What of those who don’t have more than a sow or a few hens?”
Elsbeth answered that one. “We buy one from a neighbor who does—for a fair price—and give it over. If you haven’t the coin for that, then barter a good or even your labor. Everyone can use an extra pair of hands to help, whether it be child-minding or working the fields.”
A mumbling grew among the villagers, this time less combative, and many nodded their heads in agreement with her and Donal’s suggestions. Elsbeth clutched her skirts, praying they’d consent to the lottery.
Irena patted her arm, her gaze warm with approval. She and the other council members conferred for a moment before facing the villagers once more. As always, she acted as spokeswoman.
“Thank you, Donal and Elsbeth. Those are fine ideas.” She addressed the crowd then. “What say you? A lottery tonight? Council will visit each of you and assess your holdings. For those who are chosen and have no livestock to give, you may parlay with a neighbor who does and decide between you a price. If you deem it necessary, council will mediate and oversee the exchange.” More nods among the villagers, and Elsbeth held her breath. “What say you?” Irena repeated.
The chorus of “ayes” was loud and sure, if not altogether enthusiastic. Side discussions followed the agreement until one of the elders closed the meeting and urged the villagers outside. A few stopped to embrace Elsbeth or shake her hand and wish her luck.
One, the village healer and midwife, took her hand and squeezed. “You did a fine thing, Elsbeth. For us, yes, but mostly for your grandfather. I’m not so sure my grandchildren would brave a fire-breathing beast in its lair for me.”
Elsbeth smiled. While the telling of it sounded grand, her epic adventure had been nothing more than a long, sweaty walk up the cliff paths and a strange evening talking to a creature more articulate and shrewd than any aristo politician or counting house administrator. She pictured the villagers’ collective astonishment if she told them that once she conquered her terror of the wyvern, it had made her laugh a few times with its dry wit and acute observations of human nature.
Her humor faded. Were it not for her grandfather’s failing health, she might look forward to the three weeks spent in the wyvern’s learned company. It had not asked much from her personally. Twenty days as a “guest” to play her fiddle and keep it company. But those were twenty days away from Angus, and in that time she would fret and wonder if he would be alive when she returned to fetch him from Irena’s house.
She sighed and turned to the other woman. “I’m off to see Angus. I want to spend as much time with him as possible before I return to Maldoza. Will it be all right if I don’t attend the lottery tonight?”
Irena patted her hand. “Do you have to ask? No one will begrudge you this time, Elsbeth. And if they do, I’ll box their ears to set them straight.”
They both laughed. Elsbeth shouldered her lightened pack. She still wore her dragon armor and desperately craved a bath. “Thank you. Also, if you can put my name in the lottery for me, I’d appreciate it. We only have a nanny goat, a pregnant sow and a small coop of hens, but I can sell a rug or two and buy a ewe or wether from Donal.”
Byderside had not elected the diminutive Irena as a council elder because of her retiring nature. She swelled with indignation. “I most certainly will not. You’ve given your tribute, Elsbeth. You’re part of it. No one expects you to participate in this lottery.”
Elsbeth doubted that and wanted no mutters of unfairness or partiality. She had money saved from sales of her previous rugs. She could afford to buy livestock for the tribute if necessary. Malcolm was the wealthiest man in Byderside, with a sizeable herd of cattle. He’d sell her a cow or bull without hesitation, but for a price she was unwilling to pay. She’d purchase a wether from Donal instead. He was a friend and a good man who’d made his own bargain with the wyvern and done well by it.
She accompanied Irena to the hall’s doors. “Please, I don’t want any more trouble. If my name is picked, I’ll give you the coin for a sale. Buy from old Donal, not Malcolm.”
Irena huffed, reluctant to relent. “I’ll think on it. And I wouldn’t buy a gold crown from Malcolm Miller if he offered it to me for a ha’penny.” She gave Elsbeth a nudge across the threshold. “Get going, lass. Angus has driven me to distraction with all his complaints and wanting his ale warmed just so and his toast buttered on a particular side.” She winked. “It’s your turn to put up with him before you leave him to my tender mercies.”
“Elsbeth, why didn’t you tell me?”
Propped up against a mound of pillows, Angus lay in bed and stared at his granddaughter with accusatory eyes. She sat next to him, holding his hand. The lies about to pour from her lips were enough to earn her an eternity of damnation.
“I’m sorry, Atuk. I didn’t want to worry you. When Lord Tybalt’s factor expressed interest in the rugs, it was on the condition I present them for his review. He insisted on meeting the weaver.” She ran her thumb along his hand, the skin of his twisted fingers as thin and fragile as old parchment. “It was only Durnsdale, Atuk. You and I have made that trip many times in the past. I knew the roads, knew the town, and it looks like we’ll have a profitable sale, but…”
“Lord Tybalt has offered to sponsor me as an applicant to the weaver’s guild.” Elsbeth could hardly meet Angus’s eyes. “I could be accepted, but only if I agree to three weeks of review and demonstration of my skills.”
Angus’s cloudy gaze lit with joy, and he pressed her hand between his palms with a strength that startled her. “My sweet girl, this is wonderful news! Tell me more. I knew the guild would recognize your worth one day!”
Almost two hours passed in which Elsbeth spun her tale of guild acceptance and swallowed tears as Angus, more lively than she’d seen him in months, gave her snippets of advice on how to present herself at the first guild meeting and what the masters looked for in apprentices. By the time she took her leave, he was nearly asleep, worn out by the excitement of her news. She kissed him on the forehead and stared at him for several moments, memorizing his sunken features in case he was gone when she returned.
The blaze of late afternoon sunlight greeted her when she left Irena’s house for her own. Elsbeth, used to the candle-lit luminescence in Angus’s room, was almost blinded by the brightness. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes and found herself face to face with Malcolm.
He blocked her path, a hulking darkness that reeked of sour ale and violence. She tried to step around him, but he matched her movements, holding her captive in the village square’s open space.
“What do you want, Malcolm?”
Suspicion glittered in his black gaze. “‘Twas an easy bargain you made up there, Elsbeth. Armored knights on warhorses couldn’t conquer the serpent, and all you needed was a fiddle?” He reached out a hand to touch her hair, and she jerked away, revolted by the idea of his hands anywhere on her.
Elsbeth shrugged. “The wyvern was reasonable enough. Then again, I didn’t come at it with a javelin and an empty purse waiting to be filled, so it was willing to listen.” She tried to sidestep around him, and once more he blocked her. “Get out of my way, Malcolm. I’ve a house to close, supplies to pack, and a journey to make. You’re wasting my time.”
“Easy, lass. I just want to talk.”
Malcolm didn’t talk. He bullied, fished, and intimidated. If that didn’t work, he used his fists. Elsbeth didn’t think him foolish or bold enough to physically harm her in the public square, but she never underestimated his brutality. Like Donal, she suspected Malcolm’s wife had met a premature and bad end at her husband’s hands.
She crossed her arms and waited for the first opportunity to escape. “Then talk and be done with it.”
He smirked and ran a paw-like hand over his beard. “You say it ain’t a dragon but something close.” His small eyes gleamed. “Did you see its treasure? Were there jewels? Gold?” He leaned closer and closer with every question, almost knocking her senseless with breath that smelled of rotten mutton.
Elsbeth gagged but saw her chance to flee. She whipped around him while he was off balance and sprinted across the courtyard, putting enough distance between them that he wouldn’t catch up before she reached the safety of her house. “Nothing,” she called over her shoulder as she raced through the middle of the center green. “No gold, no jewels. Just a wyvern waiting to slaughter you if you’ve a mind to pay him a visit,” she taunted.
She slammed her door behind her before turning to peer out the small window adjacent to the door. Malcolm still stood in the square, staring at her house with an expression so malevolent that she wouldn’t have been surprised if the roof suddenly caught fire. She leaned against the wall and blew out a long breath. Too bad the wyvern eschewed humans as food, otherwise Elsbeth would find a way to replace a hapless ewe with one Malcolm Miller as part of the tribute.
Less frightened and hesitant about her second trip to Maldoza, Elsbeth made quick time to Donal Grayson’s land. She’d left Byderside at dawn the following day with good wishes this time instead of derisive laughter. Somehow, it didn’t make her feel better. The villagers were placing their faith in her now, faith that the wyvern would uphold its part of the bargain, and faith that she would uphold hers well enough to please it.
She found Donal on his roof, rethatching a section blackened with scorch marks. Her stomach dropped. Had the wyvern abandoned its unspoken accord with the farmer and given his house a warning taste of fire?
Donal saw her and waved, disappearing over the side of the roof and re-emerging around the corner. “Welcome back, lass,” he said with a smile. “How’s Angus?”
“Well enough to annoy Irena.” She eyed the roof. “What happened to your thatch?”
He shrugged. “Bit of a mishap with me hearth. Nothing a little more long straw can’t fix.” He laughed at her relieved sigh. “Worried about the lizard, eh? You needn’t. He’s been behaving himself.”
As before, they stabled Tater and stored the cart. Donal pointed to her clothing, an ensemble of long tunic and trousers in homespun brown. “You’ll have a hard time getting up the cliffs by way of the shortcut. That scrub vine will tear you to ribbons without your armor.”
Elsbeth adjusted the pack on her shoulders. The dragon armor had been useful, but it was hot, and she didn’t miss wearing it. “I’ll take the long way this time. The climb is steeper but clear, and the wyvern gave no set time for my arrival.”
She promised Donal she’d be careful and set out for the cliffs well before noon. A light breeze, smelling of hay and wildflowers, blew off the stretch of fields before her, swirling dust devils on the road in its wake. In the distance, the low chorus of cattle lowing accompanied the buzz of insects.
Maldoza, sparkling in the sun, cast its shadow over pastureland, a reminder of things darker and more mysterious than Byder County’s peaceful countryside. Elsbeth wondered if the wyvern watched her from the sanctuary of one of the caves. She hoped so. It would know she honored her part of the bargain.
While it might take her longer to reach her destination, the path winding up the cliffs was clear of the vicious scrub vine. Elsbeth had only taken a few steps before a rush of air buffeted her back, and the sun cooled. She turned and nearly jumped out of her skin at finding the wyvern looming over her, folding giant wings against its back.
In full sun, the beast was even more imposing. Scales that had shown black beneath the moon’s luminescence glistened crimson in daylight. They flexed over massive, rippling muscle like a tapestry of rubies. Its underbelly and neck were armored in mottled gray scales streaked with blues, pale yellows and pinks. The colors deepened or faded with the changing light.
Elsbeth’s curiosity overrode her surprise. Camouflage. Like a lizard, the wyvern’s skin changed, adjusting with the play of light so that it blended with sky and clouds as it flew. Anyone looking up might see it only as a fast-moving drift of clouds or a teasing ripple of sunlight to fool the eye.
“Mistress Weaver,” it said, and a murder of crows burst from a nearby withered tree, startled to flight by the resounding voice. “You’ve kept your end of the bargain. Does this mean you trust me not to devour you?”
Prior to her first meeting with the wyvern, Elsbeth didn’t think such a creature capable of amusement, but humor laced its question, and she responded in kind.
“I trust that you want a fiddler to play for you more than a meal to eat. I can’t play if you’re chewing on me.”
The armored skin around the wyvern’s muzzled tightened, stretched back. Silver eyes, rimmed in black, grew darker, and streams of smoke swirled out its nostrils on a deep huff of what sounded like laughter.
“Well said. I shall enjoy your company, mistress, and your conversation.” It lowered its head, drawing close enough so that Elsbeth could see her reflection in the elliptical pupils. “If you could touch the sun, would you?”
She stared at the wyvern, baffled by the question. “Forgive me. I don’t understand you.”
“You can walk up the cliff paths. By the time you reach our meeting place, the sun will have set, and you’ll be thirsty and tired. I can fly you there in a matter of moments.”
Elsbeth’s eyes widened. Fly? On the back of a wyvern?
“It would be a very short trip, and I’ll fly slowly. You can use the down scales on my neck to hold on.” The wyvern blinked once, twice, pinning her in place with a silver-coin stare. “Or, if you’re afraid, you can go the hard way.” She stiffened at the faint challenge in his words. “Your choice.”
What a tale fantastic to tell—one among many she was quickly collecting. Elsbeth, the rug weaver who flew with a wyvern and played it a tune or two on her father’s fiddle. She might plunge to her death on the way to the cliffs, but oh what a way to die. To do something no living man or woman of her acquaintance had ever done—fly like a bird. It was too amazing to refuse. Exhilaration and no little fear surged through her veins in a heady mix.
“You won’t drop me?”
The wyvern’s stance changed, back legs straightening so that it towered even higher above her. It looked down upon her from its impressive height with an equal measure of affront and approval. “No, I won’t drop you.”
Elsbeth inhaled, belted the pack more tightly around her waist and swallowed to fight down the butterflies fluttering madly in her belly. “Never let it be said I’m a coward.”
Again that reverberating huff of laughter. The wyvern lowered its head and stretched out its neck in invitation for her to mount. “I think only a fool would say such a thing about you, Elsbeth Weaver.”
She had never been so deliciously frightened in her life. The wyvern was true to its word, flying slow, if not low, over the fields ringing Maldoza. Elsbeth sat in front of the wyvern’s wings and clutched the softer down scales for purchase. Wind whistled past her ears, lifting her braid so that it whipped behind her. The tip snapped against one of the great wings that beat the air in powerful rhythm.
The wyvern’s neck flexed beneath her legs as they banked away from the cliffs, soaring higher into the sky. Below them, Byder county, mundane, bound by the seasons of planting and harvest, took on a magical appearance. Fields and pastureland spread out in a patchwork quilt of color. Small herds of cattle and sheep grazed peacefully, undisturbed by the great predator flying far above them in the summer haze.
They finally landed on a plateau crowning one of the escarpments jutting from the cliffs. Elsbeth slid off the wyvern’s neck to stand on shaking legs. She grinned when it swiveled its enormous head and regarded her with an unblinking stare.
“That was the most frightening and wonderful thing I’ve ever done,” she said, and laughed.
“Is it?” The wyvern folded its wings. “I’d think walking the paths of Maldoza at night to confront me would be your most frightening moment.”
“My second most frightening experience then, and one I’m glad I had.” Elsbeth smiled at the wyvern. “Thank you…”
What was its name? During their negotiations, she’d never thought to ask its name. She didn’t even know if it was male or female. Elsbeth blushed, feeling unaccountably rude. The wyvern might be helping itself to valuable livestock and angering towns and villages for miles, but it had been courteous to her in every way.
She raised her palms in a supplicant gesture. “Forgive me, I don’t know your…”
A certain tension rose between them. Elsbeth held her breath, waiting for something she couldn’t capture but knew would once again alter her perception of this fascinating creature.
“Names,” it said in a gruff voice, “have great power. They pin a spirit to earth, give it form and weight. Make it beloved or hated, remembered or reviled.” The silver eyes shone bright in the sun. “My given name means ‘kingly’ and is too difficult for the human tongue to pronounce. You may call me Alaric.”
Elsbeth’s heartbeat stuttered in its beating, and she gasped. The memory of storm-cloud eyes soft with laughter filled her mind. Her Alaric had been neither dragon-kind nor king, but a human bard, yet there had always been something noble in his bearing, something powerful in the way he moved and how he measured a person with a penetrating gaze. She smiled, despite the ache in her chest, a longing never lessened over the years. It was fitting somehow that he and this extraordinary creature bore the same name.
The wyvern watched her in silence for a moment. Thin streamers of smoke drifted from its nose. “A name not unknown to you, I see.” The crimson scales along his back rose in a spiky ridge, much like a cat bristling its fur in warning. “Beloved or reviled?”
His reaction puzzled her. Elsbeth knew nothing of wyvern behavior save what she’d learned in the few hours spent in this one’s company, but her instincts warned her answer to his question was crucial, even pivotal to how they might deal with each other over the next three weeks. The stiff scales rose higher at her hesitation, spreading to the ones behind his ears until they created a flared mane.
Alaric repeated the question, his words making the ground tremble beneath her. “Beloved or reviled?”
“Beloved,” she said, “and never forgotten.” She offered a weak smile. “I sometimes play for him, though he does not hear.”
Alaric’s raised scales smoothed down, and his eyes glowed a softer pewter. “Are you sure? Mayhap he hears your music in dreams.”
Elsbeth shrugged. “Mayhap, if he’s still alive.” This strange conversation made her uncomfortable, though she couldn’t explain why. She changed the subject. “Is this where we’ll stay?” She waved an arm over the plateau and the patchwork fields below them.
“No. Only dragons are vain enough to make themselves open targets by basking on an upland perch. Not a few have found themselves made into suits of armor because of it.” The bony ridge above one of Alaric’s eyes rose, and Elsbeth blushed. “I’ve a lair deep in the cliffs. Difficult to find if you don’t know the way, but you’ll find every comfort there for your stay with me.”
Elsbeth had her doubts. She’d explored a few caves in her lifetime. Some were dry; most were damp and covered in fungus. All were dark and usually decorated in bat guano. She prayed Alaric’s idea of comfort matched her own, and she didn’t have to spend three weeks in some dank, foul-smelling pit.
The hiss of scales rubbing together whispered in her ears as Alaric coiled his long tail around her. It slid against her calf, almost a caress in its slow glide.
“Trust me, fiddler. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
If anyone asked her why, she couldn’t have given them a satisfactory answer, but Elsbeth did trust the wyvern. Alaric was a menacing combination of belching fire, monstrous black claws and teeth like sword blades. Until her meeting with him, he’d terrorized Byderside and Durnsdale, stealing cattle, killing knights and burning down barns. Still, she no longer found it difficult to reconcile the image with that of the courteous, often humorous creature before her. Maybe he was right. Names had power. His had certainly affected her view of him. Alaric the wyvern, reminded her of Alaric the man and long-lost lover. And with that comparison came a measure of reassurance.
She laid a tentative hand against the wyvern’s glossy neck, fascinated by the heated smoothness beneath her palm and the contrast of her skin against the crimson scales. A great shiver rippled from Alaric’s neck to his tail. “I trust you, though you’ll have to watch that I don’t wander off and lose my way.”
“Don’t worry, Elsbeth. I’ll not lose you.” Alaric’s silver eyes went black. “Never again.”
His answer confused her, made her wonder.
Elsbeth sat cross-legged in front of the wyvern with her fiddle resting on her lap. The glow of light from an unseen source surrounded them in the large cave where her host made his home. Magic most likely, she thought. The type all dragon-kind seemed to possess.
“Tell me more of these beasts you hunt in your homeland, the ones who wander in herds and have noses that swing and curl and can pick up tree trunks.” She tuned the strings on her fret board and gave Alaric a doubtful look. “Though I think you tease me with such tales, Master Alaric.”
Alaric lay on his belly, tail wrapped tightly around him so that his head rested on the coils. A treasure hoard, beyond Elsbeth’s most avaricious imaginings, surrounded them. Gold coins shimmered in heaping mounds and spilled across the cave floor in glittering streams. Rubies, sapphires, and emeralds—jewels of every type—reflected colored fire that danced across the walls. Wyverns weren’t dragons, he’d told her, but they shared an obsession for treasure and keeping it close.
“I, a wyvern, tell tales of fantastical beasts?” He watched her tune the fiddle. Smoke from his nose hovered above his head in a cloudy haze.
“Good point. Why one such as you might make up stories about fabled creatures makes little sense.” She smiled. “You could just as easily talk about yourself.”
After two weeks in her host’s company, she’d learned to read a few of his expressions. In some ways they were almost human. The bony ridge above his eyes rose, much as a person’s eyebrows, when he was doubtful or surprised. When he smiled, his eyes squinted at the corners, and his scaled cheeks tightened. Elsbeth liked it best when he laughed. It came from deep in his chest, a low vibration like a giant cat’s purr. Never loud or grating, his laughter thrummed the ground beneath her, and she often found herself laughing with him. Only the flash of razor teeth sometimes made her uneasy.
He was intelligent, humorous and appreciative of her music. Elsbeth never grew tired of stories involving his travels. Nomadic by nature, Alaric had traveled the world and seen things she had only dreamed about. Listening to him tell of far, exotic lands with their great temples and ancient rituals made her sigh with longing. What would it be like, she wondered, to see the whole world and experience its riches? Were it not for Angus’s failing health and her fear she might not return to him before he died, Elsbeth would greatly enjoy her time with the wyvern.
“Were I a dragon, I’d fill your ears with every vanity imaginable. From my esteemed bloodlines, to the mates I’ve taken, the offspring I’ve sired, the knights I’ve killed and the treasure I’ve hoarded.” Alaric shrugged, causing his wings to lift. “Wyverns boast enough, but for dragons, it is high art.”
One of his statements pricked her curiosity. “When I first met you, I assumed you were a dragon. We all did. What makes a wyvern different besides the shanks?”
“Many things.” He flexed his wings. “For one, we are much larger and faster flyers.” His tail uncoiled. “Our tails are longer, more useful.” He sniffed in disdain. “And we are far more intelligent.”
He scraped the floor with one curved claw. “That armor you wore came off an adolescent dragon. Most that die in confrontations with men are ones old enough to get in trouble and too young to know better. Older dragons, and wyverns for that matter, know how to hide, use their magic for defense or are formidable fighters. A feeble human male is no match for a full grown adult.”
That startled her. Elsbeth had never viewed Angus’s dragon armor as anything more than proof of bragging rights. She was proud of her grandfather. He was brave to face down an adversary superior to him in size and strength, but she didn’t always understand the motivation to seek something out and kill it for trophy. Alaric’s remark certainly humbled Angus’s accomplishment.
“Those scales were from a young dragon?” The idea made her little sick.
“Aye. Probably no more than seventy-five or so in human years. No older than a hundred years, I’d wager.”
Her eyes widened. “Young at seventy-five? How old are you?”
Alaric chuckled. “In human years? Six hundred and four.”
Over six hundred years old! Elsbeth could hardly grasp such an age for any living being. She hesitated in asking her next question, not wanting to offend. “Is that old?”
The chuckle turned to an outright, booming laugh. “No. I’m considered in my prime, with full mating rights and offspring to carry my bloodline.”
She ignored the small voice inside that warned her not to pry further, that it was rude. But Elsbeth was far too fascinated by the details of wyvern culture to pay heed to the rules of courtesy. She cleared her throat. “Do you have a mate now? A wife?”
He snorted. “Mating is seasonal. Wyverns are like dragons in that we don’t bond with our kind. Females choose their males amongst the fastest flyers, the best fighters. It ensures strong offspring. Beyond that, we are solitary, barely tolerant of each other.”
Irena had said as much. How sad, she thought. To come together only for the purpose of creating young, never for companionship. It seemed a lonely existence. “Do wyverns not love?”
Alaric’s silver gaze darkened. Elsbeth paled, afraid she’d asked a question considered taboo amongst wyverns. He answered in a low, growling voice. “We love, just not our own. Like dragons, we are most vulnerable to humans because we form bonds with them. We take human form and walk amongst you. You are a passionate, creative and sometimes colossally stupid race. You burn brief, but you burn bright. It’s what draws us.”
Elsbeth blinked, stunned by his revelations. “You live among us as people?” The idea gave her pause. How could one tell if a man was not truly a man, but a beast ensorcelled? Would he have a ravening appetite? An urge to set fire to things? Would one find him gnawing on a whole sheep? Raw?
Rumbling laughter interrupted her musings. Alaric gently blew a stream of smoke at her. “Humans are so expressive. Your faces give away your thoughts. Let me guess. You were wondering which farmers and merchants of Byderside might be hiding draconus heritage right under your very noses.”
She blushed and smiled ruefully. “It crossed my mind.”
“I can assure you, none are there. We would have clashed over territory by now if that were so.” Alaric’s humor faded. Elsbeth was sorry to see his eyes darken once more, a sure sign something troubled him. “Wyverns are nomadic. We assume the guise of wanderers, never staying in one place more than a month or two. We can only hide our true nature for so long. The magic used to change us is both powerful and draining.”
“Have you ever…” Elsbeth paused, remembering something he said when they first met on the cliffs.
“I knew a woman once who played such an instrument as if the gods danced along the bow hairs.”
At the time, she’d registered very little beyond his menacing size and her own churning terror at coming face to face with a notorious creature of legend. Now, safely entrusted to his care and comfortable in his presence, she recalled his voice.
Melancholic and filled with yearning, he’d spoken of the human woman who played a fiddle as if he lost the most precious thing to him. “Forgive me,” she said. “I don’t mean to pry.”
Alaric’s wings rose in a shrug. Elsbeth gazed back at her reflection in the obsidian pools—red hair tangled about a thin face flushed with the heat of her embarrassment.
“You aren’t,” he said. “I took on human form years ago and met a village woman who played her fiddle. She enchanted me with her music and all else about her.”
“You loved her,” Elsbeth whispered. A small ache blossomed in her chest.
“I love her still.” Alaric’s dark gaze never wavered.
The strangest sense of anticipation settled within her, a gladness she neither recognized nor could explain. Elsbeth reached out to skate her fingertips across smooth scales. “I’m so sorry, Alaric.” She sighed. “For what little it’s worth, I understand your sadness.”
His eyes remained black, obscuring the elliptical pupils, and the telltale shiver rippled his scales. He suddenly rose, towering over her. She scooted back, clutching her fiddle to her chest.
“Come,” he said. “And bring your fiddle. There is a place within the heart of Maldoza open to the sky. You can play there and remind me of better days.”
They traveled swiftly through the labyrinth of tunnels that cut deep into the cliffs. Elsbeth carried a small torch by which to see as she followed Alaric into the blackness. For one so massive, he moved incredibly fast, and she had to maintain a steady jog just to keep up. Passageways that seemed too small for him to fit offered no obstacle. The warping feel of magic passed over her each time they moved through one as Alaric either altered the corridor or himself to get through the narrowest spaces.
The ability to wield such spells left all of Maldoza’s interior open to him. Elsbeth understood more than ever why no knight had yet been successful in confronting and killing the wyvern. Five turns and a double-back later, and she was completely lost.
Alaric looked at her over one wing. “It’s not much farther, Elsbeth. Do you wish to ride?”
“No,” she panted. She was no delicate flower or some aristo woman used to being carried everywhere. And for reasons she couldn’t quite explain, Elsbeth didn’t want Alaric to think her weak.
The tunnel in which they passed grew lighter, and she heard the sounds of bird calls and rushing water. Elsbeth no longer needed the torch as they drew near an archway. She drew next to Alaric and gasped.
The corridor opened onto a massive, roofless cave. Sunlight streamed down in wavering stripes of gold and pale yellow, illuminating thousands of birds nests crowded in the layered rock. A spring bubbled up from the floor, spilling water in meandering rivers. Unlike the lair she shared with Alaric, this one was cooler, misty with the flow of water and a gentle breeze that swirled inside and ruffled her hair.
“This is part of Maldoza?” She stared around her in wonder. “No one would guess from the outside this place exists.”
“It is well-hidden and only visible from above. I chose Maldoza as my temporary home specifically for this cave. It is safe from intruders and easily guarded.”
Alaric’s rumbling voice sent nesting birds into flight. They flew skyward in a protesting din of screeches and chirps. Only their echoes remained along with the underground spring’s quiet music.
“Follow me,” Alaric said, and led her down an easy path to the cave floor.
Elsbeth leapt nimbly from rock to rock, holding her fiddle case tightly in one hand and the torch in the other. They halted at the opposite side of the cave’s perimeter, and the wyvern indicated a flat rock for her to perch.
“Here is a good spot.” He didn’t settle next to her but rested on his haunches and watched as she doused her torch and opened her fiddle case.
Elsbeth quickly finished tuning the fiddle and ran the bow across the strings in a few experimental passes. The cries of the strings filled the cavern, but they were muted, softer. She frowned at Alaric. “This is a beautiful place, but my music won’t sound as good. Are you sure you want me to play here?”
At his nod, she stood and began to play—a lively wedding reel that had always been Angus’s favorite. Muffled by the cave’s mist, the tune filled the chamber with a softer cadence, as if she played it in a dream.
Alaric had not moved during the song, neither to stretch out beside her nor tap a claw in rhythm to the music. Elsbeth was dismayed to see his eyes were still black, and he watched her, unblinking.
She cleared her throat. “Forgive me,” she said. “Does my playing displease you now?” A slow dread rose within her when his scales bristled. What if he no longer enjoyed her fiddle? She still had a week remaining. Would he abandon their bargain and start terrorizing the countryside once more? “Is there another tune you’d like to hear?”
“Do you have a husband?”
Elsbeth almost dropped the fiddle. “What?”
“When I found you at Maldoza, you played your fiddle as if you mourned a friend and serenaded a lover. You’ve not played that way since.” The scarlet scales expanded more, stretching from behind Alaric’s head to the tip of his tail. “What lover inspired you to weave your soul into your music? That’s what I want to hear, not some melody you’ve performed at every harvest dance.”
She stared at the wyvern, shocked by his words. What was she supposed to say? His admonishment had nothing to do with her skill and everything to do with the heart of her playing. Those spiking scales were a sure sign he was displeased with her.
Elsbeth gave everything to her performances, no matter how mundane the celebration or how removed she was from the people celebrating. She played for strangers with the same enthusiasm she played for friends. “I don’t understand what you’re asking,” she said.
“Play as if your lover stands before you and waits to hear the songs you created for him.”
His command was making her uncomfortable, as was the intensity of his gaze. “I have no husband, and only the memory of a lover.”
Alaric’s scales subsided slightly. “Alaric the man, beloved and not forgotten?”
Elsbeth gave a tentative laugh at his reminder of their earlier conversation. “Yes.”
His scales smoothed back into place. Alaric lowered his head until he was almost nose to nose with Elsbeth. “You played for him that first night on the cliffs. I could hear it on the wind, feel it in my blood. All the passion you carried for a man now lost to you.” His long tail curled around her feet. “That is what I want to hear again, Mistress Weaver—your soul in the bow.”
The knot in her throat threatened to choke her. Elsbeth breathed on a shudder and blinked away tears. It took two swallows before she could speak. “You ask more of me than you know.”
His faint huff of laughter was devoid of humor. “Oh, believe me, I know of what I ask.”
Elsbeth suffered a brief moment of anger—anger at being forced to bare an unrelenting pain to the wyvern. He was no longer a stranger to her, but even Angus only guessed at how badly Alaric the Bard’s departure had hurt her. She’d indulged in a moment’s maudlin nostalgia on the cliffs when she played with him in mind. She’d been lonely and frightened. She never imagined the reviled creature haunting Maldoza and terrorizing Byderside might be so sensitive to her music.
Wyvern and woman faced off in silence. Elsbeth almost refused, then remembered Alaric’s own confession, one given willingly and without hesitation. Like her, he’d loved and lost. “One song, Master Wyvern, and then something else.” Her voice turned pleading. “I beg you.”
“One song, Mistress Weaver. And then you may play your harvest tunes.”
She nodded, placed the fiddle under her chin and closed her eyes. An image of her Alaric rose in her mind. His dark hair, silvered by moonlight, was soft against her fingers. He twirled her around the solstice fire, gray eyes hot and promising all manner of seduction once he whisked her into the shadows. Elsbeth held that image and put bow to fiddle.
Her surroundings faded, buried by the power of her music and the emotion fueling its fire. She played as she had on the cliffs, pouring nearly a decade of love and memory into her song.
She’d composed it shortly after Alaric left, a tribute not to the sorrow of his leaving, but to the joy he’d given her in the time he’d lived among them and made her his lover. The strings thrummed beneath her fingers, alive with a magic even wyverns could not create. When she played the last note and opened her eyes, she was stunned to see the cave once more and the wyvern watching her.
“Beth,” he said, voice reverent and deep, “had you played that at Ney-by-the-Water, I would have never given you the choice to stay.”
Elsbeth gaped, unable to believe what she just heard. The blood rushed to her head. “Who are you?”
Pinpoints of light glimmered along Alaric’s scales, coalescing until they covered his body in a ruby nimbus. The light pulsed like a heartbeat, flashing off the cavern walls and the flow of water beneath his feet. Elsbeth turned away, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the brightness.
A voice, still deep but quieter than the wyvern’s, spoke. “Look at me, Beth. You know who I am.”
She didn’t want to turn, didn’t want to look upon the reality of a man who, for eight bleak years, had been no more substantial than her most treasured dreams.
Where Alaric the wyvern once stood, Alaric the man now faced her. Her stomach flipped; her heart thundered in her chest. Dressed in nothing more than the sun-burnished skin that made her palms ache to touch him, he stood within a haze of sunlight. Except for shorter hair and a beard, he was unchanged since she’d last seen him walk the roads leading away from her village.
His next words were not those of a poet romancing his love, nor those of a bard coaxing a reluctant maid to his arms. They were the words of a warrior, a conqueror returning to reclaim what was his and no one else’s.
“’Tis a good thing you have no husband, Beth, or I’d have to kill him.”
Elsbeth, who’d faced down an angry mob and bargained with a wyvern at the haunted cliffs of Maldoza with a stiff spine and absolute resolve, fainted.
She awakened to a subtle warmth seeping through her clothing along her right side and the familiar scent of spruce and snow. The cavern’s spring no longer bubbled in the background, and she lay on the pallet she’d brought with her. She was again in the wyvern’s lair.
Afraid to open her eyes, she remained still, basking in the heady recollection of meeting Alaric again. She didn’t want her dream to fade, didn’t want to find herself alone and heartbroken with only a puzzled wyvern wondering why she’d fallen asleep on him.
“You have to open your eyes sometime, Beth.” That voice, so loved, so familiar and never forgotten, breathed gently in her ear.
Elsbeth kept her eyes tightly closed. “No, I don’t,” she said. “This is a good dream. I don’t want it to end.”
The warmth along her side shifted until it pressed down on her from shoulder to ankle, and she snuggled against a solid chest and long thighs that slid between hers. Fingers flittered across her cheekbones and drifted into her hair.
“Does this feel like a dream?”
Elsbeth moaned softly and finally opened her eyes. Alaric, the bard who had given her weeks of happiness and eight years of loneliness, stared down at her and smiled. He rested on his elbows and forearms. He was so close, she could see the fine lines fanning from the corner of his gray eyes, the curve of his eyelids. Black hair, streaked russet by the cave’s ambient light, fell across his forehead. It was shorter than she remembered, just grazing his shoulder instead of falling below them. A beard graced his cheeks, accentuating the line of his jaw.
“Are you truly here, or am I just wishing you to life?”
His bare shoulders, golden and smooth, flexed. He lowered his mouth to hers and brushed her lips in the faintest kiss before pulling away. “Ah, Beth, if such wishing worked, I’d have wished you to my side years ago.”
Held spellbound by his smoky gaze, she stared for several moments, drinking in the sight of him as if he were cool water on a sweltering summer day. She’d missed him. Dear gods, had she missed him.
Elsbeth touched him then, a tentative caress of fingers and palms tracing the slope of his shoulders and neck. Alaric’s eyelids lowered to half mast, and his breathing hitched. He shut his eyes when she ran a fingertip over his cheekbones and across the bridge of his nose. A strong, handsome face with a generous mouth that smiled easily and had brought her to delirium with a simple kiss. A beloved face.
“I was afraid you were dead,” she whispered, curving her hand against his cheek.
Alaric opened his eyes and turned his head to nuzzle her palm. “I was dead,” he said, “until a fortnight ago when I heard a fiddler’s music on the cliffs.” A soft kiss danced across her lips. “I didn’t think it possible, but you’ve grown more beautiful with time, Beth.”
Beth. Everyone, even her grandfather, called her Elsbeth. Only Alaric had ever called her Beth. Sometimes teasing, sometimes passionate, it belonged strictly to him.
Elsbeth blushed. “Oh, yes,” she said and smiled. Her fingers sketched delicate patterns on his arms. “All these new lines on my face become me so well.”
Hands, both graceful and rough, slid into her hair, cupping her head. Alaric no longer smiled, and his eyes narrowed. “The woman who bewitched me eight years ago had only half the grace and beauty she has now. You will grow lovelier with every passing year. If you live a wyvern’s lifespan, you will only enthrall me more.”
Blood, heated by desire and elation, ran hot in her veins. She slid her arms around him, embraced him fully. It seemed more desperate daydream than reality, but he was in her arms once more, the lover she thought gone forever. Elsbeth spread her thighs wider, bringing him fully against her so she could feel his erection through her trousers. He moaned, hands tightening against her head, hips thrusting lightly in response to her silent invitation.
His lips teased hers with half kisses. “We’ve much to discuss, Beth.” The sweep of his tongue on the underside of her upper lip sent tingles dancing down her arms and legs. “I came back for you.”
She dug her fingers into his back, shocked at that confession. She wanted to know, desperately wanted to know what happened to him during those lost years, why he had not found her when he returned for her, and who was this man that wore the guise of a wyvern?
Her hands mapped the ridges and valleys of muscle, moving lower to caress his lean buttocks. “Not yet,” she whispered, trying to capture his mouth for a deeper kiss. Her legs wrapped around his, pulling him closer into the juncture of her thighs. “Not yet. Give me this. Convince me this is real. That you’re real. That I won’t wake up alone in the fallow dark, with nothing but the memory of you next to me.”
Alaric didn’t hesitate. He traced his tongue across her lips, held her head still and opened her mouth to stroke and plunder. New and yet familiar to her, he tasted and felt as good as she remembered. She helped him remove her tunic and trousers, pausing when she lay before him, covered only in the mage-light illuminating the cavern.
His hand trembled as it hovered over her hip. “I’ll say it again.” His voice was soft, reverent. “You’re more beautiful now than you were eight years ago.”
He stood and helped her rise. Elsbeth blushed as he did a slow turn around her. She knew he viewed her with partiality. Nearly a decade had brought the inevitable changes. She was not so firm in some places, a little wider in others. But she chose not to point them out, content to let him admire her.
Alaric, on the other hand, was as flawless as she remembered. The gift of wyvern magic, she supposed. Lean and muscled, he moved with a feline grace, unaware of his extraordinary effect on her senses. Or so she thought. He met her gaze with an amused one of his own. Not only was he aware of her perusal, he reveled in it.
“Still find me appealing, beautiful Beth?”
“I’d be blind not to,” she said, gaze drawn to his cock, stiff and jutting from a nest of black curls. She smiled. “Still as proud too.”
He brought her into his arms. Elsbeth sighed in sheer pleasure at the feel of his skin on hers. “Eight years,” she said. “Yet this feels the same.”
“No.” He bent to kiss the sensitive spot where her neck and shoulder met. “This is better.”
Alaric made slow love to her then. Unlike the first time they coupled years earlier, this wasn’t frenzied or desperate. He took his time, and Elsbeth savored his touch. He kissed and licked her everywhere, leaving no part of her untouched by his mouth. When he spread her thighs and lowered his face to her curls, she’d sucked in a breath, eager for the feel of his tongue on her, inside of her.
He played havoc with her body and her senses, stroking and sucking while she pleaded with him not to stop and then begged him to halt before she expired. When he brought her to orgasm, her cries carried throughout Maldoza.
She returned the favor, pleasuring them both by taking his cock in her mouth. He stood before her, hands buried in her hair as she knelt, sucking him leisurely. It was a slow torture she performed. Her tongue ran the length of his shaft, the sensitive vein along its underside. His bollocks were cool in her hands, his taste salty in her mouth. It wasn’t Elsbeth on her knees who was the supplicant, but Alaric whose thighs shivered beneath her palms and whose hands clenched her hair. His climax was as intense as hers, his knees buckling as he filled her mouth.
They loved through the long hours of the afternoon. Alaric reasserted his earlier claim, taking her in ways that left no part of her untouched or unbreached by him. It was a loving debauchery, and Elsbeth gloried in it.
In the aftermath, they lay spooned together. Elsbeth, satiated and exhausted, was almost asleep. Alaric’s fared no better. His voice was faintly slurred when he spoke. “Do you want a bath?”
It was an effort to respond. “Later,” she mumbled. Her eyelids dragged down, despite her best efforts to keep them open. She was half afraid of slumber, afraid this was indeed a dream, wondrous and fleeting as a zephyr. And she had so many questions. Instead, she yawned and entwined her fingers with Alaric’s where they rested between her breasts. “I like your scent on me.”
He hugged her close and chuckled. The sound soon changed to a gentle snore. Elsbeth fell asleep to its steady lullaby.
“Why didn’t you tell me in Ney that you were more than a man?” Elsbeth crouched in front of a wash bowl Alaric had given her and sponged herself clean.
“Because you might have thought me less than a man if I did.” He bathed beside her, golden skin glistening with water droplets in the lair’s magic light. “Think on it, Beth. I had a difficult enough time convincing you to even speak to me, being that you thought me nothing more than a drifter with a glib tongue and evil designs on innocent village maids.” His mouth turned up in a faint smile. “You were wrong about that you know.”
Her eyebrows rose. “What? The part about your glib tongue, or the evil designs on village maids?”
Alaric laughed and danced tickling fingers down her ribs, making her wiggle and laugh as well. “The last. I had designs only on one woman, and she did not fall easily to my charms.”
“That’s because you used the wrong charms at first. I fell quickly enough after you ate my cooking without complaint. Had I known then you could just as easily enjoy an uncooked haunch of ox, I might not have been so seduced.” She toweled off with a dry cloth and returned to their pallet, keen to have him against her once more.
“And you’ve still the sharp tongue to go with that fiery hair.” He joined her, reaching out to curl a lock of her hair around his finger. His smiling face sobered. “The wyvern is who I am, Beth. The man merely an enchantment. One that took me nearly three hundred years to master and another fifty to grow comfortable with.”
She captured his hand and kissed the back. “But the heart’s the same. Do you know there have been times when I’ve watched your face and seen something beyond the scales and those horrendous teeth—an expression, especially when you made some joke, that reminded me of Alaric the bard. I thought it just the sad yearnings of a lonely woman. I wanted to see similarities simply because you shared the same name.”
“I considered taking you from Ney, regardless of your wish to stay. You almost saw the wyvern then, ready to swoop away with you.”
“I shame myself and my grandfather’s devotion by admitting I was tempted to say yes when you asked me to go with you.”
Alaric stroked her arm. “But you stayed anyway. There’s no shame there. You honor Angus. You stayed for your family. I left for mine.”
He’d led to the question she’d wanted to ask for almost a decade. “What happened? Where did you go? You never fully explained it to me, only that your kinsmen needed you.”
“That was a half-truth.” He flinched at her frown. “This enchantment I wear, it’s taxing and requires great strength to hold it for long periods. When I met you, I’d already worn the guise of a man, uninterrupted, for four months. I knew I’d have to change back to my true form while I could still control it. Transforming from man to wyvern in the middle of a human village unexpectedly wouldn’t bode well for me.”
That last made her shudder. Had such a thing happened, he’d have sent the villagers screaming and running into the woods in terror. But not all. Ney rightfully boasted of brave men—good hunters and seasoned fighters who wouldn’t flee but instead, find the nearest crossbow or javelin with which to kill the beast.
“The stuff of nightmares,” she said and hugged him more tightly to her. He kissed her forehead. “But that isn’t what kept you away so long. Tell me of those who needed you.”
“My brethren rarely fly these skies. Our lands are in a far country, one very different from here. With those strange beasts I told you about and others like them. We were struck by a plague. Wyverns dying in mid-flight from some unknown sickness, eggs never hatching, their shells consumed by a black rot. It took our young first, and then the old guardians.”
Plague. The hairs at her nape rose. Every person’s worst fear. Death came on silent feet and without warning. It held no code of honor, taking the young, the weak, and the old first. The greatest warriors couldn’t vanquish a foe that made no stand but passed nameless and unseen in the streets.
“What was it?”
He shrugged. “We never found out. A council was called to discuss what to do.” That same horror making her skin crawl softened his voice. “So few of us left. The pestilence had killed a good half our number, probably more.”
“I’m so sorry, Alaric.”
His handsome features were drawn; his eyes darkened to the color rain clouds. “The plague burned itself out eventually, but not before killing nearly all our young.”
She stroked his face. “Such suffering. Humans have dealt with plagues as well. Families destroyed, children buried. I assumed you’d forgotten me when you left. After dealing with such tragedy, I can see why you might.”
She squeaked in protest when Alaric crushed her to him. His brows lowered in a scowl, though he loosened his grip. “Never. You flow through my blood like the magic I wield. I came back to Ney, Beth, three years later, but you and Angus were gone. Daldan, the blacksmith, said you’d moved south. I searched but never found you. Too many villages and none knew of a red-headed fiddle player.”
Elsbeth’s soul soared. He’d returned for her! Made the journey to Ney once more to seek her out. How strange that it was when her faith in his professed love for her had been at its lowest. She kept that to herself. “I rarely played then, only for my grandfather when he asked. I hadn’t the desire at the time.”
“And how is the old dragon slayer?”
The post coital languor had vanished with Alaric’s telling of the wyvern plague, but Elsbeth had only wanted to hold him closer, grateful he had not succumbed to the disease, grateful she’d been given this blessing of a chance to reunite with him. His inquiry after Angus served to remind her that this joy was on someone else’s borrowed time.
Alaric’s eyes narrowed at her silence. “Beth?”
She took a breath, hoping her voice didn’t warble with the threat of tears. “He’s dying, Alaric. It will be an unexpected boon of merciful gods if he’s still alive when I return to Byderside.”
He went rigid against her, every muscle tense. Elsbeth stared at him, surprised by the sudden change. His mouth thinned to a tight line. He stared at the cave’s ceiling for several minutes, and it was she who puzzled over his silence this time. “Alaric?”
She gasped when he suddenly rolled onto her, the gasp smothered under an onslaught of frantic kisses. She sank into him, opening her mouth to welcome his tongue, stroking his in return.
Alaric slowly lightened the kiss, nibbled the corners of her mouth before raising his head. “Why didn’t you tell me before now?”
Elsbeth ran her fingers through his silky hair. “Because you were Alaric the wyvern before now, and I knew you as nothing else. What interest would you take in my life beyond my music and what inspires it?” She smiled. “Besides, were you me, wouldn’t you be cautious about singing the exploits and praises of someone who wears the hide of a relative, distant though it may be?” He didn’t return her smile, only gazed at her with a troubled expression. Her smile faded as well. “What’s wrong?”
Alaric sighed before rolling off her and rising to his feet. Elsbeth gasped. Gods, what a beautiful man. She shook her head. Or wyvern.
He held out a hand to help her up. “Let’s get dressed. I want to show you something. Proof of merciful gods.”
He took her back to the roofless cavern. Night had fallen since they’d made love in Alaric’s lair, and the space was doused in shadows. Above them, the dome of bright stars glimmered, reminding her of Maldoza itself with its sparkling of tiny rocks imbedded in its pocked façade.
Alaric raised his hands and breathed on his fingertips. Captured moonlight, white and cold, spread from his hands. It passed along the floor, trickling along the rocks like the underground spring. Shadows fled to the corners, leaving the high silhouettes of birds sleeping in crevices in their wake. Elsbeth sucked in a small breath. Here in the blue glaze of mage-light and stars, Alaric’s sculpted profile was ethereal, peaceful.
He turned at her soft exclamation. “What?”
She smiled. “You’ve the look of a man well satisfied and content with his world.”
He smiled in return, traced a meandering line down her throat with a gentle finger. “And you’re a woman well-loved.”
The smile faded, and his eyes darkened. “I put all my faith in your silence, Beth. You must tell no one of this.”
Tell no one of what? Elsbeth blinked, confused. She’d assumed he wanted this place kept secret and had no intention of remarking on it when she returned to Byderside. Angus had often accused her being more close-mouthed than a hermit monk under a vow of silence. He didn’t exaggerate.
She touched Alaric’s arm. “I would never betray you.”
He nodded, took her hand and led her across the cavern’s rocky floor to a splinter of darkness wedged between two walls of sharp rock. From one angle, it looked like nothing more than a long shadow cast by the play of illumination on the cavern walls, but when Alaric brought her around to the second wall, she discovered a tunnel large enough to accommodate several people with ease.
She peered into its gloom. Alaric sent more of the pale mage-light into the tunnel, and Elsbeth gasped at what it revealed.
“An egg!” She didn’t wait for his permission to enter, but stepped onto the raised ledge and hoisted herself inside for a closer look at Alaric’s newest secret.
The egg was massive, nearly twice the height of Alaric in his human form. Save for its size, it looked like any bird’s egg, with a pale blue shell mottled with brown spots. It lay in a nesting of black rocks and flushed a lavender shade at intermittent moments, as if keeping time with a silent heartbeat. The nest was hot. Where Elsbeth had shivered in the cavern’s main space, she now broke out in a sweat.
She glanced at Alaric, eyes wide. “Is this…?”
He wore a guarded expression, as if he was unsure of her reaction to his revelation. “Wyverns mate every other spring. The females bear a single egg, and it is the males who hatch them. A female’s fire isn’t hot enough to keep the egg warm. When she hatches, I’ll return her to her dam.”
Seeing that Elsbeth was more fascinated than put off, he climbed into the tunnel with her. His hand stroked the air just above the egg’s surface. “See the color of the shell? The blue cast marks it as female. Were it browner, it would be a male.”
He waved a hand to the main cavern. “This place offers not only protection, but space. When she hatches, she will have the room to practice her flight in preparation for her journey to her dam’s territory.”
Elsbeth walked slowly around the egg, admiring the miracle of a life in the making before her. Alaric’s child. Offspring through the mating with a female wyvern. She smiled to herself. Somehow, she could find no jealousy within her. It was hard to see a creature a thousand times larger than her and possessed of scales and wings as competition. “What will you name her?”
He followed her as she continued her exploration of the egg. His face was soft, approval and admiration for her shining in his eyes. “I won’t. Wyvern council will. The matriarchs always name the offspring. Only then are they recognized as members of the wyvern tribe.”
Hearing Alaric’s explanation of wyvern culture made her pause. She stared at him, seeing a tall, broad-shouldered man, finely made with a sublime face any human female would admire. Yet it was only an illusion—one that went deep to blood and bone, but still an illusion worked by powerful magic. Yet the heart and the spirit were the same, and it was these with whom she fell in love.
“Did the matriarchs name you as well?” she asked.
He gave her a formal bow, as if she were royalty. “I am Alaric, out of Goetia, by Caratacus.”
Elsbeth laughed and curtsied in return. “And your name means kingly.”
“How very fitting.” She reached out, gliding her hand just over the egg as he’d done, noting the heat pulsing off its surface. “May I touch her?”
He pulled her hand away. “It’s too hot. You’ll burn yourself. And it will get even hotter in a few moments. Would you like to see me warm the egg?”
“Yes, I would,” she said, delighted and curious as to how he would do it.
Alaric hesitated. “I will be wyvern again, Beth.” There was something poignant about his uncertainty, as if he still found it hard to believe she accepted his shape-shifting so easily.
She shrugged. “You never stopped being wyvern, Alaric.” She eyed him with a scowl. “You have little faith in me. How is it that you, a wyvern, can love a human woman and yet doubt this same woman can love the wyvern in return?”
His arms encircled her, pulling her close. Elsbeth rested her hands on his shoulders and tilted her head back. “I prefer this form because I can embrace you, love you, and make love with you,” she said. “However, if I could turn wyvern myself for you I would. But I have no magic. So you only get this puny human.”
She pulled him down to her then, opening his mouth with her lips and sliding her tongue inside for a brief caress. He groaned at her touch, fingers massaging the muscles in her back.
“It is all I want,” he said against her lips. “You are all I want.”
They kissed again, and he filled her mouth with his tongue, stroking, sucking, imitating with leisurely thrusts what he would do to her when they returned to his lair. Elsbeth opened to him, wrapped her legs around his waist when he cupped her bottom and hoisted her higher against him. She rubbed against his cock, swollen and straining against his trousers. She wanted him again, craved the feel of him inside her, inside her mouth, the hot slide of his seed trickling down her thighs or pulsing against her throat in a salty stream.
“Mine,” he murmured against her throat and gently suckled the skin there.
Elsbeth moaned. She tilted her head back to encourage more of his nibbling and caught sight of the wyvern egg in the corner of her eye. “Alaric,” she whispered, brought back to earth.
“Hmmm?” Alaric dipped his tongue into the hollow of her throat.
“The egg, remember? You’re supposed to warm it.”
He halted his worship of her skin abruptly and lowered her to the ground. Elsbeth clutched him for a moment, trying to steady legs gone more wobbly than an old loom. “You are a dangerous distraction,” he said, his expression caught between a frown and a smile.
“And you are no less guilty of that than I am.”
He bowed once more before nudging her toward a large boulder at one side of the cavern. “Stand there. It’s protected.”
“A very large fire.”
He stripped where he stood and gave her his clothing for safekeeping. As when he’d first revealed himself to her, Alaric invoked a silent magic, shape-shifting from man to wyvern. The cavern, with its canopy of stars, burst into movement as frightened birds took flight and circled the opening, protesting the wyvern’s presence with loud whistles and chirps.
Alaric arched one of the bony ridges above his eyes and favored Elsbeth with one of his odd smiles. “I’m not so welcomed here in this shape.”
Elsbeth watched as the displaced aviary settled slowly back to Maldoza, perching along the cave’s spired top. “If they only knew they are in more danger of me shooting and eating them than of you feasting on them.”
A huff of laughter was his response. “Indeed. I haven’t much use or appetite for something no bigger than a fly is to you.”
He approached the cave housing the nest, and she marveled at the grace of a creature so massive. Alaric checked to make certain she was still safely behind the rock. Satisfied with her position, he faced the cave, took a deep breath and blew hard.
“Gods’ mercy!” Elsbeth yelped as scarlet and orange fire jettisoned from Alaric’s mouth, and smoke flumed from his nostrils. Her first instinct was to scream for him to stop, that he’d literally cook his own offspring. Then she remembered a comment he’d made about wyverns. Only the male’s fire was hot enough to keep the egg warm.
He blew on it twice more, sending back drafts of scorching air into the main cavern. Elsbeth huddled behind the rock, grateful for the shelter and happy not to have her eyebrows singed off.
When he finished, his chest heaved like great bellows, and residual smoke poured from his snout and mouth. His voice, smooth and resonant, was now hoarse. “That will be enough for another day or two.” He arched his long neck, peering at her from his far height. “Are you well, Beth?”
She crept from behind the rock, clutching his clothes. “I’m fine.” She shook her head. “What madness makes men challenge creatures like you? We stand no chance against you in a fight.”
Alaric shrugged his wings and recited the spell that changed him to human form. Elsbeth wordlessly handed him his trousers.
“It is because you fight us that you lose.” He slid the trousers over his legs, pausing to leer at her as she watched him dress. “There is a recent legend amongst both dragon and wyvern kind of a dragon who took a human woman, a singer renowned among her people for her wondrous voice, as his favorite. He was killed in a territorial battle by a rival—a firedrake even larger than the greatest wyvern. In revenge, the dragon’s human lover seduced the drake with song and slew him in his sleep. We call her Irenya Firekiller.”
Elsbeth almost forgot to hand him his shirt. “What was her name?”
He pried it out of her fingers. His voice was muffled as he pulled the shirt over his head. “Irenya. She’d be an old woman now. The knights who came here to challenge me might have learned a thing or two from her on how to battle a dragon—or wyvern—and win.”
“I know a little about dragons.”
Irena’s face, care-worn and etched by the numerous lines of more than sixty years of living, rose in her mind’s eye. Elsbeth had thought her statement strange, but hadn’t dwelled on it, too caught up in the heat of her own crisis. Now, when she thought back on it, the elder had said that with a secretive smile and a distant sorrow in her gaze. Was Irena the Elder also the Irenya Firekiller dragon kind spoke of with admiration?
“Beth?” Alaric’s still hoarse voice interrupted her musings. He was fully dressed and shod. He held a hand out to her. “Are you ready? We should leave. It’s late.”
She gripped his hand and let him lead her past the nesting cave. They halted briefly so she could take another look at the egg. The cave was too hot to enter now, and the egg glowed like an enormous sapphire on its bed of heated rock. “May we come back tomorrow so I can see her?”
His gray eyes lit with a combination of delight and desire. “If you wish.”
They picked their way across the rock floor to the tunnel leading back to Alaric’s lair. Behind them, the cavern darkened until all that remained was a crimson patch of smoldering rock nestled in a cleft of cliff wall and the rush of wings as birds returned to their nests.
They made love twice, and Elsbeth was reminded of her two days with Alaric in Ney. There had been an aura of desperation cast over their time, and it was here again. She didn’t fall asleep until very late and stirred restlessly on their pallet.
She awakened in the blinding dark, struggling to breathe as a strong arm slowly crushed the air out of her. Alaric twitched in his sleep next to her, muttering incoherent words until he said, “Not yet, Beth. Not yet.” He squeezed her harder.
“Alaric,” she wheezed, praying he’d awaken before he suffocated her.
His stranglehold loosened immediately. “Beth?” His voice, sleepy and confused, tickled her ear.
Elsbeth stroked his arm, troubled by his murmurs and the frantic clutching of his embrace. “You were dreaming. Go back to sleep.”
He didn’t protest, only tucked her more closely against him and slid into a restful slumber. When she next woke, he was already up and dressed. A small fire burned in one corner, and he tended a makeshift spit holding a roasted fowl.
“The birds are not as safe from me as you thought,” he said with a smile. Fat drippings from the roasting bird popped and sizzled in the fire. “There’s warm water for a quick bath there.” He pointed to a tall ewer made of beaten gold, encrusted with sapphires next to an equally priceless bowl. “After breakfast I’ll take you back to the cavern.”
She hastened to bathe, dress and eat, eager to see the egg once more. They returned to the open-air chamber. An early morning mist hung in the air, shrouding the crevices and ledges in a damp, white veil. Elsbeth made her way to the nesting cave and peeked inside.
“You can go in. It’s cool enough now.” Alaric gave her a quick nod of encouragement.
The outer cavern was cold, but inside the nesting cave she was warm enough to remove her heavy outer tunic and drape it over her arm. The egg had returned to its beryl shade. Elsbeth circled it slowly, occasionally holding her hand out over the surface to feel its warmth. A mark, different from the brown specks mottling the shell, caught her eye. She crouched near the nest of rocks for a better look.
“Alaric,” she said from her place near the egg’s tip. “Come look at this. There are two small cracks here.”
She barely had the words out before he was in the cave beside her. Unlike her, he didn’t hesitate to put his hand on the shell, nor did his palm burn from the contact. The illusion of a man, she thought. The dichotomy was brought home to her many times in small ways.
Alaric rose and made a thorough inspection, pointing out three more cracks. “She’ll hatch very soon. Maybe tonight.”
He didn’t look happy about it. His face had taken on a bleak cast. Unease trickled down her back in a thin stream. The egg. Something was wrong with the egg.
“What is it?” she asked.
He gazed at her, eyes gone dark. “Beth, you can’t come back here now, not even with my protection.”
He ran a caressing hand over the shell. “When wyvern young first hatch, they are sharp-eyed, fast and ravenous. Adults won’t eat humans, but our young know no better. She’ll smell your blood and see you only as prey. I can fend her off, but she’ll only need one chance at you. And you’ll die. I’ll not risk it.”
Unease turned to disappointment. Elsbeth was drawn to the egg. It was life in the making, and this was Alaric’s child. Still, she had no wish to be someone’s first meal. If he felt it no longer safe, she’d do as he asked and stay away from the cavern. But his grave expression puzzled her.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?”
Suddenly taciturn, he took her hand and kissed it. “Time to go,” he said. “We must return to my cave.”
“My cave, Beth.”
Elsbeth didn’t argue. They made the short journey back to his lair in silence. A good thing, as she didn’t think she could talk around the hard knot that had suddenly lodged in her throat.
She almost yelped in surprise when, reaching his lair, Alaric halted abruptly and pulled her into his arms. Taken aback by his quick actions, she didn’t immediately return his hard kiss. Like his sleeping embrace of the night before, the kiss tasted of desperation, of melancholy, of farewell. Her stomach twisted, even as she returned his ardor with her own.
He buried one hand in her hair and used the other to strip her of her tunic and trousers. He took her against the wall, with her legs around his waist and his hands cupping her bottom. He’d given her only enough time to steady herself and stumble to their pallet before he took her again.
Afterward, Elsbeth stroked his damp hair and took in her surroundings. The lair, with its soft light and the familiar scatter of her supplies and his treasure, had quickly become a second home to her. Some would be aghast at such a thought. Some would think her daft—Elsbeth Weaver, happy in the depths of haunted Maldoza with only a savage wyvern for company.
She instinctively knew what Alaric was about to tell her. Knew it in her bones and blood. The part of her worried about Angus sighed in relief. But the greater part mourned. Their time was over.
His breath cascaded over her breasts. He kissed a gentle curve and spoke against her skin. “I release you from your bargain.” She said nothing, and he raised his head to look at her. “The egg will hatch, and these cliffs will be too dangerous for you to inhabit, even if I keep her confined to the cavern.” He rose on his elbows, leaning over her so that he might see her better. His handsome face was sharp with a silent grief. “And your grandfather needs you, Beth. Almost as much as I do, but my time is not so limited.”
Truth and necessity made for pitiless companions. They demanded much and offered little in return. Elsbeth wanted to return to Angus, had fretted over her time away from him, wondering if he still lived or if Irena had overseen his burial in the village cemetery. Still, she didn’t want this too-brief time with Alaric to end. A life of loneliness and the lingering pain of missing him, was something she’d grown accustomed to over the years. No more. It would be so much harder a second time.
Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes. “Fate and family separate us once more.”
Alaric kissed each tear as it fell. “You cannot stay.”
“And you cannot leave.”
The irony of those words, repeated eight years later, wasn’t lost on her.
“Merciful or not, the gods have a poor humor.” Alaric’s feeble smile only emphasized the spark of anger kindled in his eyes. “I’ll take my young to her dam in a few days.” He gripped her shoulders with hard hands. “Wait for me. I will return. Don’t leave Byderside, Beth. I’ll search the world for you this time, but I’d rather find you safe in your village.”
His insistence eased her aching heart. His promise pushed back the emptiness blossoming within her. She even teased him a little. “What if you choose to stay with your female wyvern?”
Alaric laughed, a touch of real amusement in the sound. “Then I best prepare for a bloody brawl. Damoshin is a fierce female, unwilling to share her lands. She’d challenge me if I dared stay more than an hour or so after returning our offspring to her.” He kissed her lightly. “Remember, we do not bond with each other in that way.”
Elsbeth ran her finger down his nose, stroked the curve of his cheekbone and the softness of his beard. “I’ll wait, but confess I’m afraid. I want more than another near decade of empty years, Alaric.”
He captured her hand and pressed it to his cheek. His voice was fierce, determined when he answered her. “Then you fear for nothing. I came back for you once. I’ll not lose you again.”
“If Angus were not so ill and your little one not so perilous, I’d insist you let me stay.”
“There’d be no insisting, Beth. I wouldn’t let you leave.”
They didn’t speak again, save for murmurs of encouragement and pleasure as Alaric took her again, this time leisurely. Afterward, they bathed each other with the tepid water remaining in the ewer. Elsbeth ran her cloth over Alaric’s body with the reverence of a votary. She savored the feel of him, the curve of each muscle, the smoothness of his bronzed skin. Committed them to memory in case he did not return, and she had nothing more than an image that would inevitably dim with age.
He helped her pack and dress in that same silence, as if by not speaking, time would slow and give them a few more hours together. Elsbeth was the one to break it first. She shouldered her pack. “I’m ready.”
Alaric gave her a grim smile. “Then that makes one of us.” He embraced her, heedless of the cumbersome pack. “I will fly you to the farmer’s land, the one near Maldoza’s base.”
Elsbeth was tempted. Anything to prolong her time with him. But his obligations were as important as hers. Someone depended on him as well. “No. You need to be near your daughter. I’ve walked the cliffs twice now. I’ll be fine.” She stared at him, swallowing hard to hold back tears. “I love you. Be safe.”
Alaric crushed her to him, kissed her as if he would draw her soul from her body and hoard it as he did his treasure. When they came up for air, his gray eyes were turbulent. The flush of passion graced his cheekbones. “Keep faith, Beth,” he commanded in an unyielding voice. “Nothing will stop me from returning to you this time. Do you understand? Nothing.”
She almost fell off the cliffs twice. The tears she’d held at bay when saying goodbye to Alaric refused to be squelched any longer. He’d promised to return, and she believed him, but it didn’t make their parting any easier. Elsbeth smeared the tears on her cheek and admonished herself. “Foolish watering pot. No better than Annais Smith who cries over a broken fingernail.”
Her self-reproach did the trick, and the tears dried. She smiled. Annais might be the silliest, most empty-headed twit in all of Byder county, but she at least had the sense to watch where she was going. Elsbeth slowed her descent down the main cliff path.
The sun approached its midday position, and the heat was stifling, relieved only by a slightly cooler breeze from the north. Elsbeth paused to enjoy its touch. Suddenly, she heard voices, familiar ones carried on the same breeze. She searched for a place to hide and spotted a cleft in the rocks, one that offered an overhang by which she could view her fellow travelers without being seen.
Her heart jumped a beat, then sped up when she saw Malcolm trudging up the path, followed by his two toadies, Galen Horn and Jamie Knowles. They were heavily armed, weighted down with hand axes, sickles, crossbows, and quivers bristling with quarrels. All three wore pieces of Angus’s dragon armor.
Elsbeth stifled an outraged gasp as they drew closer. They’d stolen Angus’s prized armor! She kept still in her hiding place, but the desire to march out there and confront them was almost overpowering. How did they get the armor? And were Angus and Irena all right? Fear and acknowledgement of her position tempered the desire to abandon her hiding place and challenge them. She was a woman alone on the cliffs. Matched against three armed men, there was no contest. Elsbeth shuddered to think what they’d do to her if they found her.
She leaned farther out on the ledge, hoping to catch what they said to each other. Malcolm cursed Galen, admonishing him. His words made her blanch.
“Keep quiet. We’ll light one torch and keep one close at hand. If we trap it in a small cave, it won’t have room to fight. A dozen poison arrows will take any beast down, even one that big.”
Dear gods, they’d come to kill Alaric. Her stomach plummeted to her feet.
Galen, a ferret of a man who feared his own shadow unless he could hide behind Malcolm, spoke. “What if it breathes fire on us?” His voice shook.
“Hide behind that bit of dragon scale you took off old Angus’s armor. And stay out of the way.”
Jamie, far more intelligent than Galen but as easily led, gave Malcolm a sly look. “What about Elsbeth?”
Elsbeth recoiled in disgust at his lascivious tone and the echoing lechery in Malcolm’s smile.
“The beast has probably eaten her by now. I know I would have. Nice bit o’ tart that one, but never learned her place.”
“What if she’s alive?”
“Then I’ll teach her to mind that disrespectful tongue by shoving my cock in her mouth. No hunched old crone to protect her here in Maldoza.”
The image his words elicited made Elsbeth want to vomit.
Galen licked his lips. “I’d like a go at her myself. All that nice red hair. I wonder if her cunt hair is the same color.”
He yelped when Malcolm suddenly rounded on him, a deadly skinning knife in his hand. “I’ll be feeding you your own bollocks if you so much as touch her, Galen. I’ll share the treasure, but the Weaver woman is mine.” He turned to Jamie. “Same goes for you.”
Jamie held up his hands in surrender. “Yours for the taking, mate. I don’t like redheads.”
Elsbeth, sick to her stomach at their conversation and lightheaded with fear for Alaric, eased her way back down the ledge as quietly as possible. Her mind raced. She couldn’t stay here, hidden away while Malcolm and his cronies marched into Maldoza with their greed and poisoned arrows, ready to ambush Alaric.
If she left her hiding place, they’d spot her immediately. Elsbeth knew she could outrun Malcolm, but wasn’t so sure about Galen or Jamie. Both were whip-thin men, light on their feet and likely fast. That is if they even bothered to try and catch her. They might just fire a bolt into her back and have done with it.
She could follow them from a distance, staying far enough back so they wouldn’t hear or sense her behind them. If her luck held, they’d choose another tunnel to enter, and she could parallel them, following the track now familiar to her, and warn Alaric of their intrusion.
The second option was truly her only one. Elsbeth crouched in the deep shadow of the crevice and said a silent prayer as the three men walked past her. They didn’t slow or stop, oblivious to her presence. She waited before leaving the safety of her hiding place to trail behind them, shadowing the outcroppings jutting up from the path.
They kept a steady pace. She almost lost sight of them more than a few times. Only once did Jamie slow and look back over his shoulder. Elsbeth froze behind a monolith of sparkling rock and prayed no else heard the thunder of her heartbeat. When they finally reached the caves, she sighed, relieved when Malcolm and his minions entered one of the larger caves.
During her fortnight with Alaric, she’d learned to navigate some of the tunnels, but not all. Such an endeavor required a lifetime of exploration. Anger and disgust welled up inside her. She prayed they got hopelessly lost, condemned by their own greed to die in Maldoza’s black maze of corridors without food or water. Elsbeth had never been one to wish such a fate on anyone, but these three threatened the man she loved and the child he cherished.
Galen was the last to disappear into the cave, taking reluctant steps until an impatient Malcolm yanked him inside by his shirt front. Elsbeth waited a few moments more before shedding her pack and sprinting into the smaller tunnel leading to Alaric’s lair.
Inside, the tunnel was treacle-black, a smothering darkness that might have overwhelmed her had Alaric not taught her how to feel her way along the walls for markings in case she ever lost her torch.
Elsbeth had almost reached the lair when her luck ran out. Too focused on reaching Alaric before Malcolm did, she’d grown careless and missed the faint flicker of light to her right. She plowed into Jamie, knocking them both down in a tangle of limbs. A flash of steel caught torchlight. She screamed and rolled, desperate to avoid being split gullet to belly by Jamie’s wicked boning knife.
She shrieked again at the scorching pain ricocheting across her scalp as someone yanked her to her feet by her hair. Malcolm’s blunt features swam before her eyes. He clutched her braid in one beefy hand. His breath, more rancid than ever, wafted across her face. Elsbeth gagged.
“Well, if it isn’t the fiddler queen of Byderside. So brave, so noble. Too good for me, but you’ll bed down with a great lizard.”
Elsbeth clawed at the hand practically scalping her. “Your own swine in their muck are too good for you, Malcolm.” She spat on him. “Murderer.”
Malcolm only smiled, revealing yellowed, broken teeth. He wiped her spittle from his cheek, licking it from his fingers. Elsbeth’s stomach churned in protest. “Aww, Elsbeth, you shouldn’t believe all the stray talk you hear. My Olwen was content. A slap and a tickle now then, a good meal. And knowing who her master was. She forgot sometimes, and I had to remind her sometimes.” He shrugged, unrepentant. “Accidents happen.”
His features, bestial in Galen’s flickering torchlight, sharpened. Elsbeth groaned, and tears of pain trailed down her cheeks when he tightened his hold on her hair. “Now, you tell me where the treasure is, and don’t lie. Why else would you be running through the tunnels, eh? You saw us and want to hide the gold. Saving it for yourself, were you? You’ll have to share now.” He reached out a hand to fondle her breast. “Treasure and more.”
Elsbeth fought him, striking and kicking at him despite the agony flooding her face from her abused scalp. She didn’t stop until Malcolm subdued her by wrenching her arm up behind her back. He cuffed her for good measure. Black stars exploded behind her eyes when he struck her. He no longer held her hair, but the pain in her cheek from his blow eclipsed that first torture. Her vision narrowed as her eye swelled shut.
Malcolm kissed her ear. “Give over, you stupid cunt. I want the treasure.”
She jerked away. “You can have the treasure. I’ve no use for it.”
“Good.” He let go of her arm and shoved her ahead of him. “Then get going.”
Elsbeth stood for a moment, at a loss for which way to go. If Alaric was in his lair, she’d lead his would-be killers right to him. However, if the egg was as close to hatching as he thought, he’d be in the open cavern, keeping watch until his youngling emerged. She chose the lair.
Malcolm shoved her a second time. “Standing there will only anger me, Elsbeth. Shall I give you a taste of Olwen’s medicine?”
She shivered. “This way. It isn’t far.”
With the torches lighting the path, she no longer had to run her hand along the wall for guidance. She smirked at Galen’s nervous commentary.
“It’s a maze in here. How do you find your own ass in a place like this?”
She might have laughed at Jamie’s exasperated reply if her circumstances weren’t so dire. “Galen, you’d have trouble finding your ass standing in the middle of Crosshill Road.”
All talking ceased at a strange, piercing scream echoing through the cliffs’ warren of tunnels.
“What was that?” Galen froze ahead of her, looking wildly around him.
Elsbeth didn’t know, but she could guess. The egg had hatched. She shrugged, as if unconcerned. “Just a bird. Sometimes they fly in and get lost. They usually die in the dark.” Like you will, you greedy bastards.
Malcolm wasn’t fooled by her indifferent response. “That’s no bird.” He cuffed her again, hard enough to drive her to her knees. This time Elsbeth spat blood. “Deceitful bitch! It’s protecting its hoard, and you’re leading us away from it.”
Elsbeth raised her hands to shield her face from another blow. “No! I swear, the treasure is this…”
“Hold your tongue, bitch.” Malcolm hauled her to feet and gripped her arm hard enough to numb her fingers. “Jamie, you lead. Galen will take up the rear.” His yellow teeth gleamed in the half light as he smiled a malevolent smile. “If she escapes me, shoot her.”
They no longer relied on her for direction. Instead they followed the myriad screeches and chirps resounding throughout the tunnels and growing louder as they moved deeper into the cliffs.
Elsbeth swallowed a defeated sob when they emerged from one of the tunnels opposite the cavern from where she and Alaric had come on their earlier visits. The sudden quiet made the hairs at her nape rise. The birds nesting on the stairstep ledges had flown once again, and only the spring’s lively bubbling broke the silence. They were being watched, and it wasn’t a friendly perusal.
Jamie must have sensed that predatory scrutiny. He raised his crossbow and did a slow turn, gaze passing over the many caves and concealing clefts cut into the cliff walls.
Galen, oblivious to any danger, whistled. “Would you look at this. No one would guess such a place sits in the heart of Maldoza.”
Malcolm growled at him. “Just keep your eyes open. Something that big can’t hide for long.”
Jamie never took his eyes off the three caves diagonal to him. “Whatever it is, it knows we’re here and is watching us.”
“Smart lad. Certainly more so than the lackwit next to you.”
Everyone, save Elsbeth, jumped at the new voice amongst them. Her knees almost buckled in relief at the sight of Alaric, as a man, standing across from them, looking no more concerned than if he’d encountered them at a handfasting or in a tavern. Three crossbows, loaded with poison-tipped bolts, sighted on his heart
Malcolm jerked Elsbeth in front him. “Well now,” he said in a casual voice, as if he were about to ask Alaric to join them at the pub for a pint or two. “Who are you?”
Elsbeth didn’t call out, but pleaded silently for Alaric’s forgiveness for leading his enemies here. He gave her only a brief nod of acknowledgement.
His voice, polite and even, belied the black fury in his eyes. “I might ask you the same.”
Malcolm raised his bow. “That’s no business of yours, friend.”
Alaric never looked away from Malcolm, though he tensed when Galen and Jamie walked the course of the walls on either side of him, intent on getting behind him. “And who I am is none of yours. I’ll say it once and only once. Release the woman and leave while you can.”
Malcolm laughed. “Is that so? And who made you king of the cliffs? Seems to me, we have the advantage here, unless you’ve a fancy for taking an arrow in the gut.” He squeezed Elsbeth. “And you,” he sneered, fetid breath almost making her faint. “So noble, so long-suffering. Saving Byderside by doing a lizard’s bidding.” Shards of agony lanced her bruised jaw at his bruising grip. “Getting tupped by a drifter is more like it.”
“Let her go.”
Malcolm smirked. “Come and get her, lad.”
Alaric shrugged and vanished.
Elsbeth’s surprised gasp was lost amid the shouts of her captors.
Galen swung his bow in a wild arc, heedless of whom or what he aimed at. “Did you see that? He just disappeared!”
“You just don’t look in the right places.”
Galen’s features paled at the realization that Alaric had reappeared directly behind him. “What…?” was the last thing he uttered before Alaric snapped his neck in a quick, efficient motion.
His lifeless body struck the rock floor with a soft thud. Jamie, round-eyed with terror at witnessing his companion’s death at the hands of a sorcerer, took aim at Alaric.
Half strangled by Malcolm’s clutching hold, Elsbeth cried out. “Alaric! Their bolts are poisoned!”
Malcolm hissed and clapped a hand over her mouth. It did neither him nor Jamie any good. Alaric’s smile was chilling. He strode toward Jamie, undeterred by the threat.
Jamie cursed and fired. Elsbeth screamed behind Malcolm’s hand. At the moment the bolt would have struck Alaric full in the chest, he disappeared a second time. The arrow shot through empty air and hit the opposite wall before falling harmlessly in a puddle of water.
“No!” Jamie bellowed, hands shaking as he scrambled to reload before Alaric reappeared. Like Galen, he had only a second to stare as Alaric meted out a similar fate.
Alaric disappeared a third time. Malcolm, alone now with Elsbeth as his hostage, backed against the cavern wall. He dropped his bow in favor of his skinning knife and held it tight against her throat.
“Show yourself, you sneaking bastard! Face me if you have the bollocks!”
Alaric’s derisive voice echoed within the cavern. “Fine words from a cur that uses a beaten woman as a shield.”
Malcolm pressed the blade against her skin even harder. A stinging pain and the warm trickle of blood froze her in place. Elsbeth didn’t dare breathe hard. Malcolm’s grip on the knife was hard, but terror made his hand shake. He could easily slit her throat by accident.
A low snarl resonated through the cavern. “Harm her again, and you’ll be dead before you take another breath.”
Malcolm jerked her off her feet when Alaric suddenly appeared almost on top of them. He lashed out, yanked the other man’s knife hand away from Elsbeth and hurled him several feet to the side as if he weighed no more than a basket of yarn. The knife slid across the ground until it came to rest near the bolt from Jamie’s failed shot.
Alaric addressed her without taking his gaze off Malcolm. “Elsbeth,” he said softly, and she was startled by his use of her proper name. “My offspring is watching all this from that cave directly across from you. She’s deciding which of you to attack.” Her mouth went dry at his words. “Whatever you do, stay in place. Don’t run unless I say so. Prey runs.”
Elsbeth nodded and swallowed, fighting down the instinct to do exactly what he said not to do. She looked to the cave he indicated, saw the shift of dark shadow among lighter shades and the brief glow of silvery eyes. So intent was she in watching for any movement from the hatchling, she almost forgot Malcolm until he started shouting curses at Alaric.
The villager gained his feet and held up his fists. “Come on then. No magic tricks. If you have any balls, you’ll fight me fair.”
Alaric’s eyebrows rose in disbelief. “Fair? What do you, with your armed henchmen and my woman as your hostage, know of fighting fair?” He closed the distance between them in two strides.
His first blow shattered Malcolm’s nose and sent him careening against the wall. Malcolm howled but regained his feet, blood pouring down his face. Alaric gave him no chance to recover. Another strike, followed by the brittle snap of bone, made Elsbeth wince. Malcolm’s right arm hung loose at his side.
Alaric continued his brutal pummeling. The two men were of equal size, but Alaric had the strength of a wyvern and used it on his adversary with merciless intent. He batted Malcolm around the cave much as a cat with a captured mouse, herding him ever closer to the cave where the hatchling watched and waited.
Finally, Malcolm fell to his knees, breathless and wheezing with pain. “Mercy,” he pleaded in a voice clogged with blood. “Don’t kill me.”
Alaric cocked his head. “I’m not going to kill you.” Elsbeth shivered at his smile, empty of all humanity. He looked to the cave, where an excited chirping began. “She is.”
Malcolm followed his gaze. His eyes rounded in horror. “No!” he screamed. “No!”
The newly hatched wyvern leapt out of the cave. Scarlet-scaled, with a whip tail and tightly folded wings, the young female stared at her prey with the silver eyes she’d inherited from her sire. She slammed a clawed foot down on Malcolm, pinning him in place.
Alaric turned away and sprinted across the cavern. He grabbed Elsbeth’s hand. “Run now, Beth, and don’t look back,” he shouted over Malcolm’s agonized screams.
They raced into the tunnel leading to Alaric’s lair. Elsbeth easily kept pace with Alaric, terror and Malcolm’s screeches at her back giving her feet wings. They stopped only when they reached the lair. She leaned over and took several deep breaths, grateful to no longer hear Malcolm’s cries. “Dear gods,” she panted. “I’ll have his screams in my nightmares for years to come.”
Alaric’s silver gaze was pitiless. “If he didn’t serve a more practical purpose, I’d have ripped him apart myself.” He brushed gentle fingers over the uninjured side of her face before tracing them to the cut on her neck. “He put his hands on you,” he raged in a quiet voice.
“I’m well enough.” She touched a sore spot on her jaw and winced. “Though my teeth hurt a little.”
Alaric cupped her face in his palms. She jerked instinctively away, trying to avoid more discomfort. “Peace, Beth,” he said. “Let me do this.”
A silky warmth flowed from his hands. Elsbeth sighed as it seeped into her skin, easing the ache in her mouth, the swelling of her eye. He caressed her face and throat for several minutes until the pain was completely gone, and she could see fully once again.
She touched her face gingerly, no longer feeling the swelling or lacerations. “More wyvern magic?”
Alaric smiled and kissed her. “It’s not all stealth and illusion you know.”
Elsbeth took his hand, lacing her fingers through his. “I am so sorry, Alaric.” The words poured from her in a rush. “I saw them on my descent and tried to warn you. They caught me in the tunnels. I thought if I led them here, they’d be too busy stealing your gold to bother with you and the egg. Then we heard her chirp, and…”
He placed a finger against her lips to halt her babbling. “Beth, stop. You did a brave thing coming back.” He hugged her to him, and his tone was admonishing. “Brave and foolish. Those tunnels are treacherous. Getting lost would have been the lesser of the evils that lurk in those blind places. “His hands slid down her back to cup her bottom. “Don’t ever do something like that again, or I’ll redden your backside.”
The events of the past hour struck her then, and she shuddered in delayed shock. “Don’t worry. I’m not very good at playing the valiant. You’re on your own the next time.” She was only half teasing him.
They embraced in the dim lair, surrounded by the scatter of gold and gems Malcolm and his companions had died for. Elsbeth savored Alaric’s warmth, his scent of winter cedar, the feel of him against her. She couldn’t stay, and he couldn’t leave. Not yet.
A series of whistles and anxious chirps drifted toward them. Alaric stiffened, alert to his offspring’s call. “She’s frightened.”
Elsbeth stepped away and gave him a small push back toward the roofless cavern. “You best go back. I know nothing of wyvern young, but I’m guessing she wants her father.” At his hesitation, she nudged him again. “I’ll be fine, Alaric.”
His handsome features tightened. “Tell your villagers those men are dead, killed by me. Others will be reluctant to challenge. If you tell them otherwise, some might come and search. I’ve no longer the patience, nor the time, to fend off greedy humans lurking where they shouldn’t, and I’ll kill whoever I must to protect my child.”
Elsbeth nodded. “Go. She needs you. And Angus needs me.”
Alaric lifted her in his arms. He made love to her mouth, tongue sweeping in to lay claim, to imprint his memory on her. “Wait for me, Beth,” he said against her lips. “I’ll return by next summer.”
He set her down and strode toward the tunnel’s darkness. He didn’t look back.
Spring in Byderside was a busy season. There were the fields to attend and the sowing to do. And there were always weddings and the infant blessings after the long winter. On this particular April day, Elsbeth sat on a bench in the village square and tuned her fiddle in preparation for a performance that night.
Irena sat next to her, puffing on her favorite pipe and calling out pointers to those who decorated the square for the ceremony. “Old Angus would have had plenty to say about this union, my girl. The widow Aelis, marrying that young pup from Hallowfaire.” Irena chewed the pipe stem. I can hear him now.” She lowered her voice in a fairly accurate imitation of Angus’s. “What’s that woman doin’ marrying a lad still wet behind the ears? Can’t find herself a real man?”
Elsbeth laughed. “That’s jealousy talking. He never admitted it, but I think he was sweet on Dame Aelis. Besides, Duncan Pharr is only two years younger than Aelis, hardly a stripling.”
“That, and he’s rich and handsome. Aelis improved her lot the second time around.”
“He’s also kind. I’ve watched him. He dotes on her.” Elsbeth played a few experimental notes, satisfied with the tone. “He’s asked me to play Gundrig’s Ballad for her tonight. Very romantic.”
Irena sighed around the pipe. “I do like that one. I could once sing that son in a way that made gods weep.”
“And seduced dragons and drakes?”
She eyed Elsbeth askance. “I never thought of myself as a legend. Maybe your wyvern lover exaggerated.”
Elsbeth chuckled. “Not likely. Alaric was quick to tell me that dragons, not wyverns, embellished their tales. But about themselves, not others. Irenya Firekiller is much admired among dragons and wyverns alike.”
She smiled when Irena chewed harder on her pipe stem and muttered a short, “Hmpf.”
They remained on the bench another half hour, chatting while Elsbeth rosined her bow and checked her fiddle one last time. The square gradually filled with people, dressed in their finery and eager to celebrate Aelis and Duncan’s union with dance, song and plenty of good ale.
Elsbeth rose. “I’m off. I need to change out of my everydays and dress for the wedding. I’ll see you later. Do you need anything before I go?”
“No. Get along. We can’t start the dance without the fiddle and the flute. Ewan will come searching for you if you’re late.”
Back home, Elsbeth rifled through her small chest of clothes, deciding what to wear. She paused and lifted a length of indigo silk from the chest. Alaric’s gift to her, along with a priceless emerald. She’d found both nestled in her pack when she returned to Byderside.
The silk, a long tunic dress, belted with an embroidered kirtle, flowed across her palm soft as warm butter. It caught the light of her candles in a bright sheen reminiscent of Alaric’s gem hoard.
In nine months she’d heard nothing of him. No whispers of a wyvern or dragon returning to the county, no admiring comments of a skilled bard visiting the nearby towns. Elsbeth tried not to fear that silence. Nine months was a small passage of time compared to eight years. But it was so much harder now, with Angus gone and her only company the vibrant memories of her fortnight with Alaric at Maldoza.
She took the tunic and kirtle from the chest and brought it to Angus’s room, now hers since his passing. It had taken her weeks to adjust to sleeping in the room, and there were days when she walked in, fully expecting to see him reclined in the bed, sipping his medicinal tea or softly snoring.
Elsbeth missed him as much as she missed Alaric. Angus had died three days following her return from Maldoza. He’d held her hand and slipped away with a sigh just after dawn. She had mourned him and still did, but his death had been a blessing—a rest from the terrible sickness that left him crippled and bedridden.
She touched the tunic with reverent fingers. Angus would have been ecstatic to see Alaric again. He’d always been fond of him and had not bothered to hide his disappointment when Alaric left Ney-by-the Water.
Voices from outside, chattering and cheerful, floated to her. Elsbeth hurried with dressing. She plaited her hair, weaving a beaded black ribbon through the plait to dress it up. There was no mirror for her to check her appearance, but the admiring looks from some of the men and the envious ones from the women told her the tunic suited her.
“Well, lass, aren’t you a fine sight this evening?” Donal Grayson took her hand and bowed over it in a courtly gesture. “You’ll outshine the bride I think.”
He’d exchanged his tattered farmer’s clothes for colorful coat and trews, and Elsbeth returned his compliment. “I think you’ll outshine the groom.” She eyed his garb. “And here I thought you only owned clothes in shades of brown and…brown.” He laughed at her teasing and offered to escort her back to the square.
The wedding went smoothly with only a minor mishap when Duncan spilled a little of the union wine on his new wife’s bodice. Aelis, ever good-natured, only laughed and joked he’d have to lick it off when they were alone.
The celebration after was a merry affair. Lanterns, strung on ropes and hung from low tree branches, lit the square. Tables, mounded with rich foods cooked by some of Byderside’s finest cooks, were flanked by barrels of wine and crocks of warm ale. Guests from Byderside, Durnsdale, and Hallowfaire feasted and drank and finally called for the fiddler and the flutist to play.
Elsbeth took her place next to Ewan at the edge of the dance area. Ewan looked to her for guidance. “What do we play first?”
She tucked the fiddle beneath her chin. “Gundrig’s Ballad, then Merry Alice. After that, we’ll play whatever the spirit wills us to play.”
Guests began dancing as soon as the first chord was struck. Elsbeth played with gusto, as lost to the music as the people who twirled to its rhythms. She and Ewan played a dozen tunes straight before taking a break.
He gave her a sheepish look. “I have to water the verge, Elsbeth.”
She swatted him lightly on the arm. “Well don’t just sit there telling me about it, Ewan. Get going. I can play a tune or two without you.”
Ewan dashed off, leaving his flute in her keeping. Elsbeth gazed at the crowd surrounding her, laughing, drinking and celebrating the marriage of Aelis to Duncan. A tall, imposing figure caught her eye. She inhaled sharply at the brief glimpse of broad shoulders and rose, her heart fluttering in her chest. The crowd parted, revealing a blond stranger, from either Durnsdale or Hallowfaire. Her sudden exhilaration died a quick death.
She returned to her seat. The dull despair she had fought off for months seeped into her soul with an insidious chill. Alaric had promised he’d return, and she believed him. But sometimes it was difficult, especially now in the middle of a wedding celebration.
She smiled weakly when Irena caught her eye. A few of the guests called out to her, requesting a lively reel or a more sedate cotillion. Elsbeth took up her fiddle. The tune she chose was not a favorite of Angus’s, nor one she’d written for Alaric. She’d composed this one for herself and her memory of a past summer day when she’d flown on a wyvern’s back, breathed in the wind and saw the green and gold lands stretched out below her.
A hush fell over the crowd as she played. Many who’d come from the nearby towns whispered their admiration of her skill, the way her music captured some indefinable wish, or emotion, or memory. Those of Byderside were quick to boast it was she who saved the village by bewitching a wyvern with her fiddle.
Elsbeth remained oblivious to them. She wakened from the haze of her memories to enthusiastic applause and a voice that made her knees weak. Had she not been sitting, she would have fallen.
“The gods still dance upon your bow, Elsbeth Weaver.”
She looked up, and this time another tall, broad-shouldered man stood before her. Not a blond farmer, but a dark-haired bard with the summer storms trapped in his gray eyes and wyvern blood in his veins. He wasn’t of Hallowfaire or Durnsdale, but a far country where mythical beasts roamed rolling plains, and ancient kings, descended of gods, built temples to their dead.
The first question on her tongue was not one she expected to ask. “What did they name her?”
Alaric laughed, a joyful sound that turned a few heads their way in curiosity. “She is Peregrine, out of Damoshin, by Alaric.”
He plucked the bow and fiddle out of her hands and set them on a nearby table. Elsbeth threw her arms around him when he lifted her, uncaring of the neighbors who stared at her in open-mouth amazement.
“You’re here,” she whispered. “You came back.”
He crushed her to him and brushed a delicate kiss across her lips. “I promised I would. I keep my promises.” His features were more somber, his shoulders tense. “Wyverns may mate with women and bond with them. But they cannot breed with them. I can’t give you children, Beth.”
Elsbeth stroked the line of his nose with one finger. “I will love you all the days of my life, but I can’t give you six hundred years, Alaric.”
He rested his forehead against hers, his relief palpable. “And I will love you until the end of both our days. That will be enough.”
She thought of her most recent tune. “Will you take me flying again? Far from here. To the great oceans and the land of your birth.”
“You’re not afraid?”
“Only if you let me fall. Only if you stop loving me.”
Alaric tightened his embrace. “The world itself will fall before that ever comes to pass, my sweet Beth.”
Calls rose from the milling crowd, demands for Elsbeth to play another tune. Ewan had returned and stood nearby gesturing to her fiddle where it lay on the table. She sighed, reluctant to leave Alaric’s arms. He was here. He was here! And she thought her heart might burst with the knowledge.
“I have to play,” she said.
Alaric shook his head. “Not this time. This time the fiddler dances.” He nodded to Ewan. “You’re on your own with this one, lad. Play something lively.” He released Elsbeth and held out his hand to her. “You flew with me once. Now let me fly with you.”
She laughed and gripped his hand. “Come, wyvern,” she whispered for his ears alone. “And soar with me.”