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He'd heard the sounds of battle for quite some time. But, as always, he ignored it. The wars of men meant nothing to him. Never had. But those same sounds right outside his den? Well, that did stir him to move.
His tail unwound from around his body and he slowly moved to the entrance of his home. He didn't know what to expect and was not sure he even cared, but things were pretty boring right now and this just might prove interesting. Or, at the very least, provide dinner.
The blade entered Annwyl's side, ripping through armor and flesh and tearing through organs. Blood flowed and she knew she was dying. The soldier smiled at her cry of pain, which only brought out the telltale rage Annwyl had become famous for.
She raised her blade and, with a cry of pure bloodcurdling fury, swung it. The steel sang through the air as it swiped through the man, separating his head from his neck. His blood slashed across her face and arm. The other soldiers stopped. They had handily disposed of her small band of warriors without much trouble once they had them backed into this desolate glen. But she never allowed them an easy path to the killing blow. Until now.
Her life's blood drained from her body and she knew her time grew short. Her vision hazy, she felt weaker and lighter. She struggled to breathe. But she'd fight as long as she had breath in her body. Annwyl raised her sword, clasping the handle in both bloody hands, and waited for the next attack.
One of the men stepped forward. She could tell by the look on his face that he wanted to be the one to take her head. Present it to her brother so he could keep it as a trophy and warning to others who would dare question hisreign.
She watched him move with assured slowness. Clearly,he also knew she was dying. Knew she couldn't fight much longer.
Her legs shook as her strength fled, and her body ached to lie down for just a few minutes and sleep. Just a little nap....
Annwyl's eyes snapped open and she realized the soldier was that much closer. She swung her sword and he easily parried the blow. He smiled and Annwyl would give her soul for just one last surge of strength to wipe that smug smile off his face.
The soldier looked back at his comrades, making sure they were all watching before he killed her. But he left himself open. And one thing her father always taught her ... never let an obvious opportunity pass by. She ran him through with her blade, slamming the steel into his stomach as his head snapped back around to look at her in horror. For good measure, she twisted her sword in his gut, watching in satisfaction as he opened his mouth to scream but left the world with nothing more than a whimper.
She yanked her blade out of him and he dropped to the ground. She knew that would be her last kill, but she would still die with her blade raised. She turned to the remaining men but they, to her surprise, no longer found her of any interest. They looked past her. Into the cave she now stood in front of.
Annwyl tried to figure out what new trick this could be, but she never took her fading eyes off the men in front of her. Even as the ground shook under her. Even as they backed away from her in obvious horror. Even as the enormous shadow fell across her body, completely blocking out the sun.
It wasn't until the men screamed and began to run that she glanced up to see black scales hovering just above her. When the scales moved, as a large breath was inhaled into even larger lungs, she finally looked back at the fleeing soldiers.
The stream of fire flew across the glen, destroying trees, flowers, and, eventually, men. Using her sword now to prop herself up, she watched as the enemy soldiers were engulfed in flame, their bodies writhing as they desperately fought to put out the fires that covered them.
A small sense of satisfaction rippled through her, even with the knowledge that she would be next. As the screams died away, Annwyl again looked up to find the dragon now looking down at her. He watched her with obvious curiosity and made no move to blast her into oblivion. At least not yet.
"I'd fear you, Lord Dragon," she got out as the little strength left fled her body and she dropped to one knee, her hand still holding her blood-covered sword. "If I weren't already dying." She gave a bitter half-smile. "Sorry to deny you that tasty morsel." She coughed and blood flowed onto her chin and down her burnished steel armor. Annwyl's body dropped to the ground. And, soon after, she felt herself moving. She didn't know whether her soul had passed over to the land of her ancestors or into the mouth of a beast, but either way she was done with this life.
Annwyl heard moaning. Incessant, loud moaning. It took her several long moments to realize that she was the one making the annoying sound.
She forced her eyes open and struggled to focus. She knew that she lay in a proper bed, her naked body covered with animal furs. She could hear the crackle of a pit fire nearby and feel its warmth. Other than that, she had no idea where she was or how by the gods she got here. Last thing she remembered ... she died. But there was a little too much pain for her to be dead.
Her eyes focused and she realized she was in a room. A room with stone walls. She blinked again and attempted to still the rising panic. These were no mere stone walls. But cave walls.
"By the gods," she whispered as she reached out and touched her hand to the cold grey stone.
"Good. You're awake."
Annwyl gulped and prayed the gods were just playing a cruel joke on her. She raised herself on her elbows when that deep, dark voice spoke again, "Careful. You don't want to tear open those stitches."
With utter and almost heart-stopping dread, Annwyl looked over her shoulder and then couldn't turn away. There he was. An enormous black dragon, his wings pressed tight against his body. The light emanating from the pit fire causing his shiny black scales to glisten. His huge horned head rested in the center of one of his claws. He looked so casual. If she didn't know better, she'd swear he smirked at her, his black eyes searing her from across the gulf between them. A magnificent creature. But a creature nonetheless. A monster.
"Dragons can speak, then?" Brilliant, Annwyl. But she really didn't know what else to say.
"Aye." Scales brushed against stone and she bit the inside of her mouth to stop herself from cringing. "My name is Fearghus."
Annwyl frowned. "Fearghus?" She thought for a moment. Then dread settled over her bones, dragging her down to the pits of despair. "Fearghus ... the Destroyer?"
"That's what they call me."
"But you haven't been seen in years. I thought you were a myth." Right now, she silently prayed he was a myth.
"Do I look like a myth?"
Annwyl stared at the enormous beast, marveling at the length and breadth of him. Black scales covered the entire length of his body, two black horns atop his mighty head. And a mane of silky black hair swept across his forehead, down his back, nearly touching the dirt floor. She cleared her throat. "No. You look real enough to my eyes."
"I've heard stories about you. You smote whole villages."
She turned away from that steady gaze as she wondered how the gods could be so cruel. Instead of letting her die in battle as a true warrior, they instead let her end up as dinner for a beast.
"And you are Annwyl of Garbhán Isle. Annwyl of the Dark Plains. And, last I heard, Annwyl the Bloody." Annwyl did cringe at that. She hated that particular title. "You take the heads of men and bathe in their blood."
"I do not!" She looked back at the dragon. "You take a man's head, there's blood. Spurting blood. But I do not bathe in anything but water."
"If you say so."
His calmness made her feel overly defensive. "And I'm not just taking men's heads. Only the enemies of Dark Plains. My brother's men."
"Ah, yes. Lorcan. The Butcher of Garbhán Isle. Seems to me if you simply took his head your war would be over."
Annwyl gritted her teeth. And it wasn't from the pain of her wound. "Do you think that I've not thought of that? Do you think that if I could get close enough to the little toerag that I would not kill him if I had the chance?" The dragon didn't answer and her rage snapped right into place.
"Well ... do you?"
The dragon blinked at her sudden outburst. "Do you always get this angry at the mention of your brother?"
"No!" She barked. Then, "Yes!" Annwyl sighed. "Sometimes."
The dragon chuckled and she fought the urge to start screaming. And to keep screaming. His laughter wasn't an unpleasant sound, but chatting up a dragon ... well, perhaps she was finally going mad. The dragon slowly moved from behind her and brought more of his enormous body into the room. He settled to her right, but she could only see half of him without turning her head. The rest remained outside the alcove. She wondered what he looked like in his entirety.
"Why, exactly, am I not..."
"You would be, if I hadn't found you."
"And why did you save me?"
"I don't know. You ... fascinate me."
Annwyl frowned. "What?" Compared to a dragon, she was nothing. Just human.
"Your bravery. It fascinates me. When you saw me you didn't try to run like those men. You stood your ground."
"I was already dying, what was the point?"
"It doesn't matter. The dragon-fear affects young and old. The dying and the strong. You should have run for your life or dropped to your knees begging for mercy."
"I drop to my knees for no man," she snapped before thinking. He laughed outright. A low, pleasant sound. Like his speaking voice. Shame it belonged to a monster.
"I'll keep that in mind." He chuckled as he carefully turned his big body, his head coming frighteningly close to her, and walked out of the chamber. She watched as his tail swung into the room, its sharp end grazing against the stone walls. She tried not to panic when she realized that his tail alone stretched the length of at least two of the tallest men in her troops. "I will send someone to help you up and get you fed."
"What?" The dragon slammed his large head into the ceiling.
Annwyl lowered herself back on the bed. That had just been a dream. "Nothing. I'm tired."
"Then you best get some sleep."
"Wait!" He stopped and looked over his shoulder at her.
Annwyl took in a deep breath. "Thank you. For saving me."
"You're welcome, beautiful one." He started walking again. "But don't get too comfortable," he casually tossed over his shoulder. "Who knows what I'll make you do to repay me my kindness."
Annwyl leaned back against the soft bed and felt a shudder run through her. She just wished she could say that she shuddered from fear or, at the very least, revulsion. What truly worried her was that it felt like neither.
Fearghus rubbed the fresh bump on his head. He'd heard about Annwyl the Bloody's rage, but he had no idea how overwhelming it could be. Her angry bellow was damn near as powerful as a dragon's roar.
No wonder she hadn't defeated her brother yet. He terrified her. He could tell from her overzealous rage at the mere mention of the man.
If she faced Lorcan now, even if her body completely healed, he doubted she would defeat him. Either her anger or her fear would get the best of her.
And for some inexplicable reason that thought worried the hell out of him. When did he start caring about humans? Unlike some of his kin, he didn't hate humans. Yet he didn't live among them either. So his original plans for the human girl were to simply heal her wounds, then dump her near a human village. He didn't like complications. He didn't like anyone around him. He liked peace. He liked quiet. And not much else. But the mere thought of just leaving her somewhere sickened him.
He could already tell this was going to get complicated. And he hated complications.
"Good. You're awake." Annwyl looked up into the face of a woman. A witch, based on the precise, but brutal scar that marred one side of her face. All witches were marked in such a manner on order of her brother. The face behind the scar looked as if it might have been beautiful once. "You must have fallen asleep after he left." She pulled the fur covering off Annwyl's body. "Let's get you up."
Annwyl slowly swung her legs off the bed and, using one arm, pushed herself up.
"Careful now. Don't want to open up that wound again."
Annwyl nodded as she sat quietly, waiting for the nausea that suddenly descended upon her to pass.
"You're very lucky, you know."
"Most other dragons would have made you a meal. Not a guest."
Annwyl nodded slowly, "I know." She looked at the witch again. "I have seen you before."
"Aye. I help at the village when I can."
"The healer. I remember now. I had no idea you befriended the dragons."
"They have my loyalty."
Annwyl looked at the woman's scars. Not surprising she risked life among the dragons rather than of men. "Did my brother do that to you?"
"He ordered it. He is not a friend to the Sisterhood." The woman wrapped a robe around Annwyl's bare shoulders.
Her brother hated all witches. Mostly because they were women. And he absolutely hated all women. "He's always been afraid of that which he does not understand."
"Does that include you?"
Annwyl laughed as she slowly pushed herself off the bed. The laugh sounded bitter even to her own ears. "My brother understands me all too well. That's why both of us have struggled to take any ground."
"I see you did not escape his punishment." The witch motioned to the wounds on the young woman's back. The raised flesh healed but still an angry red.
"That's not from him." Annwyl pulled the robe tight around her body. Velvet and lush, she loved the softness of it against her battle-hardened skin. She wondered what rich baron the dragon took this from as he tore his caravan apart and ate the occupants.
The woman put her arm around Annwyl's waist and helped her to a table laid out with food and wine. "Your name is ... Morfyd. Yes?" Annwyl lowered herself into a sturdy chair.
"Did you help heal me as well?"
"Well, thank you for your help, Morfyd. It is greatly appreciated."
"I did it because the dragon asked. But betray him, lady--"
"Don't threaten me." Annwyl easily cut in without even looking up from the food before her. "I really hate that. And you need not remind me of my blood debt to the dragon." Annwyl sipped wine from a silver chalice and stared at the woman. "I owe him my life. I'll never betray him. And don't call me 'lady.'Annwyl will do."
Carefully placing the chalice on the wood table, she found Morfyd staring at her. "Something wrong?"
"No. I'm just very curious about you."
"Well," Annwyl grinned, "I've been told that I'm fascinating."
Morfyd pulled out the only other chair and sat across from Annwyl. "I have heard much about your brother. It amazes me you still live."
Annwyl began to eat the hearty stew, desperately trying not to think too hard about what kind of meat it contained.
"It amazes me as well. Daily."
"But you saved many people. Released many from his dungeons."
Annwyl shrugged silently as she wondered whether that was gristle she currently chewed on.
"No one else would challenge him. No man would step forward to face him," Morfyd pushed.
"Well, he's my brother. He used to set fire to my hair and throw knives at my head. Facing him in combat was inevitable."
"But you lived under his roof until two years ago. We've all heard the stories about life on Garbhán Isle."
"My brother had other concerns after my father died. He wanted to make sure everyone feared him. He didn't have time to worry about his bastard sister."
"Why didn't he marry you off? He could have forged an alliance with one of the bigger kingdoms." Annwyl briefly thought of Lord Hamish of Madron Province and how close she came to being his bride. The thought chilled her.
"He tried. But the nobles kept changing their minds."
"And did you help them with that?"
She held up her thumb and forefinger, a little bit apart.
"Just a little."
For the first time, Morfyd smiled and Annwyl found herself warming up to the witch a bit. Annwyl pushed her nearly empty bowl away from her and drank more of the wine. It shocked her how well she ate. Shocked her that she still breathed.
"Make sure you finish off the wine. I have added herbs that will heal you and stave off infection."
Annwyl stared warily into her wine chalice. "What kind of herbs?"
Morfyd shrugged as she stood, picking up Annwyl's empty bowl. "Lots of different ones. It's my own potion. It works quite well. It can also heal rashes and gout. And prevent a woman from becoming with child. But I guess that doesn't matter to you."
Annwyl glanced up from her wine. "Why do you say that?"
"Because you're a virgin."
Annwyl froze. That couldn't be just an assumption. She'd lived with a male army for well over two years; everyone assumed she'd lost her virginity ages ago.
"How did you ... know that?"
"He told me."
Annwyl knew the witch meant the dragon, and that's when the fury built up in her chest. A fury she never could control. "Dragon!" She bellowed his name so loudly, Morfyd stumbled back away from her.
The ground shook as the dragon returned to her. "What? What is it?"
Annwyl forced herself to her feet, her hand against her recent wound. "How did you know? And tell me true."
"Know what?" He looked at Morfyd who shrugged and quickly left. Almost ran.
"That I was a virgin. No one knows that. How did you?" She had no idea how long her deep sleep held her. Unable to protect herself. Unable to stop someone from ... she shook her head. She couldn't bear to even think it.
"This is why you demand my presence? Because I know your deep, dark secret?"
"Not that you know. But how you know."
He lowered his head until they were eye to eye. But Annwyl, too angry for logic, did not flinch or back away. Considering his head was the length of her body and she towered over most men, she probably should have. Instead she let her anger wash over her. Just as she always had. "Well? Answer me!"
His black eyes narrowed at her angry shout, and his nostrils flared. "I can smell it on you."
Annwyl reared back from the dragon. "What?"
"I can smell it on you. That no man has been with you. That your maidenhead is still intact. That you, beautiful one, are a virgin."
Annwyl looked at the dragon in horror, her voice no more than a whisper. "Really? You can smell that on me?"
"No," he responded flatly. "But you are quite chatty in your sleep."
She rolled her eyes. "You tricky..." Her anger fled as quickly as it came. She leaned against the table, her strength waning.
"So, did you think I somehow took advantage of you while you slept?"
"Well.... "Annwyl flinched as one talon tapped impatiently on the stone floor awaiting her answer. "The thought had crossed my mind." She lowered herself into one of the other chairs surrounding the table, too weak to stand any longer. "I'm sorry. I know only what I learned from my brother ... and he would have checked."
The great beast sighed. "I have heard tales of your brother. You do realize he should have been killed at birth?"
Annwyl smiled. "If only." She looked across the cave floor to the bed. It looked so far away and her body was still so weak.
"Here." He lowered his claw and opened it. Black talons as long as her leg glistened at Annwyl.
"You must be mad."
"How did you think you got in here?"
"Yes, but..." There she went again. Treating him as an animal when, in the little time she'd known him, he'd treated her with more respect than any man she'd met at her brother's castle.
She pushed herself up and took the two steps to his outstretched claw. With force of will she didn't know she possessed she stepped onto it, pushing out the vision she had of him shoving her into his mouth like a piece of steak. He lifted her up, gently moving his forearm until he had reached the bed. He carefully lowered her onto the fur coverings.
"Now, let's try not to have any more fits of anger until you get more of your strength back."
Annwyl laughed. "As you wish."
She sat down on the bed, her long legs hanging over the side. She watched his body leave the cavern. His long tail following behind. But Annwyl wondered if it had a will of its own as it whipped out and wrapped itself around her leg. For a brief moment she worried it might drag her across the room. But instead it caressed her leg, the ebony scales rubbing against her calf. Then it released her and disappeared with the dragon that wielded it.
Long after he'd gone and she slid herself back under the fur covers, Annwyl still felt where he'd touched her leg. And she wondered what insanity had begun to take over her normally sensible mind.
Lorcan of Garbhán Isle stared out over his battlements, watching the two suns lower in the west, and wondered how his sister kept slipping from his grasp.
No matter what he did or what he tried, she just wouldn't die. And the longer she lived, the more men she killed. His men. His troops. The number of headless bodies with her name carved on their chest rivaled even his own. Of course, his took thirty-one years to achieve. She'd accumulated hers in little over two.
He wished now he'd killed her when he had the chance. She was ten, he just fourteen. She had just arrived, sleeping soundly in her new bed. He held the pillow in his hands. He knew he could smother her, and no one would ever know. But she woke up, looked at him, and flew into a blinding rage. Which he returned. His father found the two of them rolling around on the floor trying to choke each other. The man had not been pleased and he made them pay for waking him out of a sound sleep.
Lorcan winced, remembering the brutality of the beating they both received. What gave him small satisfaction was that he'd expected the beating. His bastard sister apparently lived a simple life in her poor village and received little or no discipline. Her reaction to her punishment ... well, truly reward enough for him.
He didn't know one could hate someone as much as he hated this girl. But she continued to make a fool of him. There were several surrounding kingdoms that gave her campaign gold and troops in the hopes she would do what they could not. Kill him. Take his throne.
He'd see her head on a spike outside his castle walls first. And he now had the perfect ally to assist him.
He never much liked witches. Didn't like the idea of such weak beings as females having that kind of power that they probably could not control. But he tolerated sorcerers well enough. And Hefaidd-Hen was just what he needed. Pay him well and Hefaidd-Hen would hand you the world. He'd proven himself over and over the few months they'd been allies. Although he still hadn't captured his sister.
Lorcan heard the moan of the soldier pinned to the floor beneath his boot. With a sneer, he pushed his foot down harder on his neck. The worthless little bastard had failed him. He'd come back without the bitch.
He glanced over his shoulder at his lieutenants. They watched him, trying their best to hide their fear. But he could smell it. He looked back at the lowering suns. "I want my sister." He growled the words low. "I want my sister!" He slammed his foot down, snapping the man's neck and crushing his jaw. "Now get out of my sight!"
He heard them run from the room.
They better run.
He would have his sister. He would see the bitch dead if he had to destroy half the world to get to her.
"Well, I see now why the women in the village avoid her. She's crazy."
Fearghus the Destroyer settled his enormous bulk near his lair's underground lake. "She's not crazy, little sister. She's angry."
Morfyd settled against a rock opposite her brother, wrapping her cloak tightly around her body. Her human form was constantly cold, constantly shivering. And yet, she lived freely among the humans. They all believed her to be human. Merely a powerful witch and healer. Even as Annwyl's brother ordered her face sliced open during the early days of his reign, she stayed human. Fearghus could simply never understand why.
But for the first time, Fearghus needed to call on his sister as a human. His power could only keep Annwyl alive for a short time. Morfyd and her ancient dragon Magicks actually healed the girl by mending her damaged organs. And as a human female, she could comfortably tend to the girl's needs.
Morfyd nodded. "From what I've heard she has much to be angry about. It's a well-known fact that her father was a tyrant and her brother hated her from the day she appeared."
"Do you know why?" Fearghus found himself becoming obsessively fascinated with the girl.
"I know they don't have the same mother. Annwyl's mother never married her father. You know how important that is to these humans. And Lorcan never let her forget that she was a bastard. A poor bastard, no less, from some little village east of Kerezik."
"Can she be trusted?"
Morfyd shrugged. "Her men are loyal to her. And as much as the village women avoid her they do respect her. They trust their men's lives with her. But whether we can trust her? That I do not know, brother. She's still human."
Fearghus, too, wasn't sure he could trust Annwyl. Dragons possessed powers that far outweighed most creatures. But these powers, like their ability to use flame or to shift to human, kept them alive. Humans were a treacherous and dangerous lot and made killing one of his kind as some sort of rite of passage. No. His brethren relied on secrecy.He couldn't and wouldn't betray that to a girl he knew nothing about. Just bringing her to his lair was a dangerous risk he normally would never take. There were very few who knew a dragon lived in Dark Glen. And those who stumbled upon him in the past he quickly silenced.But that hadn't been an option for Annwyl. She really did fascinate him, just as he said. Her bravery. Her strength. Her beauty. And she was beautiful. Tall. Strong. Brown hair with golden streaks that reached down past the waist of her lean body.
"I'm still impressed she challenged you like that," his sister continued. "Although it could just be more proof that she's mad."
Fearghus heard her, but barely. His mind busy recalling when he first found Annwyl. He shifted to human to easily remove her armor and get at her wound. He remembered how quickly and strongly his human body reacted to the sight of her. Naked, pale, and covered in her own blood, there was something about her that called to him. As he chanted the spell that would keep her alive until Morfyd arrived, she watched him with the darkest green eyes he'd ever seen. Over the subsequent days, while he cared for her, he kept seeing those eyes in his dreams. That long, lean body covered in many battle scars there as well.
Without even trying, the girl trapped his attention and he couldn't stop thinking about her, which was unusual. Quite a few females had graced his life over the more than two hundred years he existed. All of them beautiful and cultured. Some human and some dragon. But none entranced him like this tiny girl. How tall was she anyway? Maybe six feet? He smiled; only his people would call her "tiny."
A small fireball hit him in the face. He again looked at his sister, smoke still curling out from her human nostrils.
"I said she'll want to return to her men as soon as she can."
His sister smiled up at him. "And will you be ready for that, idiot?"
"It's Lord Idiot to you." Fearghus rested his head on his crossed forearms. "And yes, brat. I will be."
No matter how beautiful Annwyl was to him, he wouldn't get involved with some human girl. He would simply let her heal, then send her back to her people. And that would be the end of that.