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ZS- The Dragon, The Witch, and The Wedding - Taurus by Amy Lee Burgess, Zodiac Shifters (1)

Prologue

When I was five I tried to climb Zodiac Mountain, right to the top where the dragons lived. I brought my most prized possession, Bunny, the little stuffed rabbit that my grandmother had made for me before I was even born. Bunny slept in my bed every night, and was my constant companion all day. Grandmother had enchanted her so that she could talk—only to me—and she was my dearest friend in all of the Kingdom of Tauria.

That day I was determined to give her to the dragons as a peace offering. Or, as I called it back then, a peets offering.

When I was two, my Aunt Eleanora found a chest buried in a field near the foot of Zodiac Mountain. She’d been planting herbs, starting a new field. Everyone in our coven told her she was too close to the mountain, but since the king had taken a fancy to her, Eleanora always did things her way.

She found a small chest while digging and brought it back to the coven. All the adults examined it for markings, but none existed. With no way to tell who the chest belonged to, they decided it was Eleanora’s to keep. When opened, the chest revealed a blue tuber, which was curiously not rotted. Magic, perhaps. Or maybe it had only recently been buried, although Eleanora swore she’d not seen any disturbed earth or vegetation.

We witches of the Tauria coven were herbalists and gardeners. Which of us could resist a strange, new plant? Could we eat it? Grow it? This tuber was a far more fascinating treasure than jewels or gold. It was as if we were meant to find it.

Eleanora planted the tuber in her herb garden, and when it sprouted, she harvested her small crop, careful to keep some for replanting.

She cast a revealing spell on the crop to discover any harmful qualities. The spell yielded no negative results, so she baked some of the tubers. As was the coven’s custom with new plants, they were consumed during a ritual.

My grandmother went to bed that night looking every bit of her eighty years. When she woke the next morning and glanced in the mirror to comb her hair, she shrieked so loudly half the coven raced to her side, convinced she was mortally injured.

Instead, they gaped in awe. Grandmother looked twenty again. As did everyone who’d eaten the tubers during the ritual.

Excitement spread. Youth magic such as we’d never seen! We could make a fortune selling these tubers. First, though, we’d give one to the king as a present.

Luckily for him, a mighty Tauria dragon was present in the throne room when my coven appeared before the king. The dragon told the king that if he were to taste even a morsel he would die a terrible, painful death, as only dragons could safely consume them. Mortals always died. Dragons had kept their tubers a secret from the kingdom, which is why we hadn’t recognized them. We’d believed dragons naturally retained their youth and lived for a thousand years, when all along it had been the magical tubers.

The king argued that the witches had not died, and they were not dragons. He’d ordered one of his pages to take a bite of the tuber, obviously suspecting the jealous dragons merely wanted to preserve this treasure for themselves.

The poor page took a bite. As the dragon had warned, the man went into agonizing convulsions and died within moments.

The king, livid with the witches, demanded one of them take a bite, suspecting they were attempting an assassination. My grandmother took the tuber from the ground and crunched into it. She didn’t die, and king and dragons alike were forced to accept that witches weren’t quite as mortal as previously believed.

The dragons bitterly protested the witches had stolen their one and only magic. They demanded we give them back all the tubers we possessed and swear never to grow another.

Of course my coven refused. Why should youth and near immortality be taken away from them simply because the dragons wanted to hoard all the magic to themselves?

Tensions escalated between the witches and dragons until the king intervened. No doubt influenced by Eleanora’s captivating beauty, he sided with the witches. We had found a chest, we had not known to whom it had belonged. He ordered us to return the chest with a token tuber inside to the dragons, and that should satisfy them. Because they were loyal to the king, the dragons reluctantly accepted the chest, but the indignity of the perceived theft continued to seethe inside them.

When I was five the matter had been settled for over two years, but dragons still muttered curses beneath their breath when they flew over our fields, and they refused to guard us as they once had. Dragons patrolled the sky and protected the kingdom with brawn and fire, much as the witches protected the land with magical potions and spells. Together, we were stronger than we were on our own.

Although the king had ruled in the witches’ favor, he could not make the dragons protect us the way they once had. Nor could he stop them flying low over our fields, smoke trailing from their huge nostrils. Our magical spells only lasted a finite amount of time, and if they found any vulnerable crops, they charred them to ash.

Even though she was no longer his mistress, Eleanora went to the king. The dragons burned our crops. We had not destroyed anything of theirs, and the matter was settled. Shouldn’t they pay us back? The king, most likely reluctant to rouse the wrath of the dragons any more than he already had, declined to intervene. We had our magic to protect our fields. It was our responsibility to protect our herbs.

I set out with Bunny only two days after a field of my grandmother’s favorite lavender was fired. Her particular strain had potent magic mixed into the roots, and now we’d be lucky if we could salvage enough seed to start again. Meanwhile, we owed the king our tithe, and we would be short this year.

All my life I’d heard stories about dragons and their love of treasure. They collected precious things and locked them away so only they had access.

Bunny was precious to me; therefore, according to my five-year-old’s logic, the dragons would also prize her. Maybe if I gave her to the dragon leader, our coven would be forgiven. Surely, it was worth a try.

I knew Mother and my grandmother would never allow me to climb Zodiac Mountain on my own, so I stole away before dawn, hoping to be back before breakfast. I had no concept of time, nor of the skill and strength required to climb that mountain.

I hadn’t gotten far up the steep, winding trail, when my little legs cramped. My blistered feet protested each step. Tears trickling down my cheeks, I leaned against a cool boulder and hugged Bunny hard, vowing only to rest a moment. Sunrise streaked the clouds with pink and purple; I hadn’t much time before breakfast.

“Why are you crying?” A slender teenaged boy in a brown shirt and leather pants emerged from around the other side of the boulder. His green eyes gleamed strangely in the weak sunlight. They glowed like jewels. “Are you lost?”

“My feet and legs hurt,” I told him, rubbing at a sore spot on my calf. “I have to get to the top of the mountain to see the Tauria dragons and be back down before breakfast, but all my muscles ache.”

The boy gazed up at the peak of Zodiac Mountain where, faintly, I could see the stones of the dragons’ lair.

“I don’t think you can make it,” he said, but he wasn’t being condescending, merely factual. “Why do you have to go up there? You aren’t a dragon.”

“If I were a dragon, I’d fly,” I told him. “If I were a dragon, I wouldn’t need to go. I’m only a witch from the Tauria coven.”

The boy stiffened, his incredible green eyes narrowing. “A Tauria witch? An awfully small one, if you ask me.”

“Witches come in all sizes. We have to be babies before we can be big,” I told him earnestly. “Do you know where babies come from? When my little sister came to live with us, Mother told me. It’s not a secret, so I can tell you if you want.”

The teen stifled laughter. “I know where babies come from, little witch.”

“Yeah, you’re a grown-up, aren’t you?” I gazed up at his face. He stood at least six feet tall, and I had to crane my neck. “Grown-ups know everything.”

“Or so they think,” grumbled the boy. “You can see I’m grown and can go out and around on my own. Why can’t they see that?”

“Are you from the village? Aren’t you afraid of dragons?” I asked.

He regarded me with a skeptical gaze. “Aren’t you? You’re the witch climbing the mountain to get to them. Tauria dragons don’t like witches. They protect villagers. They’d never harm a villager.”

“They won’t harm me either,” I said, hugging Bunny tightly. “I have a peets offering. You aren’t apposed to hurt people who come with those.”

“A peets?” The boy wrinkled his brow. Then a slow smile lit his face. “You mean peace. What in the world could a little witch like you have to offer great big dragons?”

I swallowed a lump in my throat. I hoped Bunny didn’t believe I didn’t love her anymore. Loving her was the whole reason I was offering her. I wished she could talk to me, but she wouldn’t with the boy here.

“My Bunny.” I held her out for his inspection, but kept a tight grip on her. He could see, but I didn’t want him to touch her. She was for the dragons.

He stared at Bunny, then me for the longest time. His eyes grew wide, then sad before he smiled at me. “She’s your special friend, isn’t she?”

“I’ve had her since I was born. Before even. Grandmother made her for me.” I struggled not to cry. Peets offerings were hard.

“What makes you think the dragons will find Bunny an acceptable peace offering? You do know they refused all the offerings the witches have made since they stole the tuber.”

“We didn’t steal,” I insisted. “My auntie found the chest buried. Nobody’s name was on it. And when she found out the box belonged to a dragon, she gave it back.”

The boy rolled his eyes. “You may be a pint-sized witch, but you sure spout coven rhetoric like a big witch.”

“Dragons just burned my grandmother’s favorite lavender field. She was going to give that crop to the king. Now he’ll be mad because she can’t. He likes to put the dried lavender into his pillows at the palace.”

“Giving the dragons Bunny won’t get the lavender back,” the boy pointed out.

“No.” I shuffled one foot in the dirt. “But maybe they won’t do it to other fields if they have Bunny. She’s a good friend.”

“Anyone can see that just by looking at her whiskered face,” the boy declared.

I smiled at him. He was a nice boy. Villagers liked witches. When they were sick, we healed them. I knew some people in the village, like my papa, but I’d never seen this boy. Maybe he wasn’t from Tauria. Perhaps he lived in one of the other villages in the kingdom. I wasn’t able to play with the village children often, but I didn’t mind because I had Bunny. My little sister grew bigger every day. Soon she’d be ready to play with me, too.

“Go home, little one,” the boy suggested. “Grown-ups have different rules than children. I’m sure they’d never treasure Bunny as much as you do.”

Tears leaked out of my eyes. “But I want to do something. Dragons are so pretty when they fly in the sky, and Mother says they used to be our friends. Now all anybody wants is to be young and live forever, but I’d rather have friends.”

“Me, too.” The boy knelt before me and placed his hands on my shoulders. “Do you really think Bunny would help?”

I nodded. “Yes. You said anybody could tell by looking at her what a good friend she is. I have to give her to the dragons. You see, don’t you?”

“I see a little witch with a big heart,” he said. “I hope it won’t be broken.”

“Want to come with me to the mountaintop?” I asked.

“You’re going to be missed,” he said. “The sun’s nearly up. If the witches think you’ve gone to the dragons, there could be trouble.”

“But Bunny,” I protested. “I have to give her as a peets offering!”

The boy considered for a moment, then grinned at me. “How about if I bring her to the dragons for you?”

“It has to be me! The dragons have to see me, a witch!”

He wiped tears from my cheeks with his thumbs. “I’m going to show you something. I think you’ll let me bring Bunny for you after that.”

I leaned against the boulder, my skin breaking out in goosebumps from the cool surface of the rock.

The boy moved away into a small clearing and stood tall.

“Watch,” he said and lifted his arms. A ring of fire surrounded him, the flames leaping orange. He whirled in a dizzy circle, blurring from boy to dragon in the space of two breaths.

The fire died away, and a green dragon stood where the boy had been. A jagged ruff of leathery cartilage framed his face. Everything about him was different except for his green eyes. That was how I knew it was still him.

“You’re a dragon!” Entranced, I stepped forward, drawn by his beauty.

“Not just a dragon, but a Tauria dragon, like the ones you’re looking for,” he said. His dragon voice contained a smoky undertone missing when he spoke as a mortal.

“What’s your name?” I asked, “My name’s Marley.”

The dragon lowered his head. “Asking a dragon’s name before he offers it is considered rude in my culture, but you didn’t know.”

I stared at him, confused. How could asking someone’s name be bad manners?

“I’m sorry,” I said, but my confusion must have shown because the dragon snorted.

A warm puff of air blew my hair around my face.

“My name’s Donovan,” he said. “I think little witches with peace offerings deserve to know my name.”

I reached out a hand to touch his neck. His soft skin felt like silk beneath my fingers.

“You never touch a dragon without permission,” he said, snorting balls of fire from both nostrils. I jumped back, shamed, and hung my head.

“I’m not doing anything right today,” I whispered as the ground blurred through my tears.

“I give you permission, little witch.” Donovan nudged me with his muzzle. He smelled like hot cinnamon.

Shyly, I stroked his nose. An idea swelled within me. One I thought was so good, I’d risk him telling me I was rude to ask it.

“You could fly me to the mountaintop and back again. I wouldn’t be so very late for breakfast.”

“If witches saw you atop a dragon, they’d pull me from the sky with their cursed magic, thinking I was taking you hostage.” Donovan lifted his head above my reach.

“I would tell them the truth,” I said, but my heart pounded sickly at the thought of Donovan coming to harm.

Donovan tilted his head and stared at the sky. Obviously, he was thinking about my words. I held still so as not to distract him.

Donovan brought his gaze level with mine and regarded me. His head was much bigger than mine, but I felt no fear, only a thrill of excitement to be so close to a living, breathing dragon.

He said, “I will bring Bunny. If you give her to me, I’ll pass her along to the council.” He didn’t blink. “That’s my final offer. Take it or leave it.”

I leaned against his soft, warm chest, debating. I held Bunny up so she could see my face. Her black button eyes winked at me, tickled awake by the sunrise. Oh, I loved her. Who would have tea parties with me if she lived on the mountain with the dragons? I wished she could talk to me and tell me goodbye.

“Bunny,” I said, a catch in my throat. “I know we talked about this before at home, but now it’s really happening. You’re going to go live with the dragons and be a peets offering. I know the dragons will love you just as I do. Donovan is going to fly you to the top of Zodiac Mountain. You can see everything from a dragon’s back. You be a good girl, and you always remember that I love you, and you’re my best friend forever.”

I kissed her and hugged her tight before thrusting her into Donovan’s sharp claws.

He held her gently, encircling her so that none of his claws poked her.

“You’re sure?” He unfurled green wings, each one bigger than I was.

I nodded because tears wouldn’t let me speak.

“You’re a good friend and a good witch, little Marley,” Donovan told me before leaping into the air. Higher and higher he climbed until he was above the tallest of the trees. Bunny shrank to a tiny little speck in his claw. I waved as the tears coursed down my cheeks, and I couldn’t see anything.

I wasn’t late for breakfast. Nobody even knew I’d left. A few days later, Mother asked me whatever happened to Bunny.

“I gave her away,” I said. “I’m too big for bunnies now.” But I lied. I would never be too big for my Bunny.

I waited days and days for the dragons to come visit and tell us they were our friends again, but they never did. And the night they burned Eleanora’s field of sage, I knew I’d given up Bunny for nothing, and I’d never see her again. I cried hard into my pillow as the flickering flames cast eerie shadows on my bedroom wall, but I didn’t hate Donovan because I knew he’d tried. I couldn’t even bring myself to hate the other dragons. Grown-ups sometimes had reasons little children didn’t understand. Maybe this problem was something even a Bunny couldn’t fix.