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Dragon's Revenge: The Ring-Witches of Nesht, #2

Dragon's Revenge: The Ring-Witches of Nesht, #2

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Dragon's Revenge: The Ring-Witches of Nesht, #2

Length:
673 pages
9 hours
Released:
Apr 24, 2019
ISBN:
9781386834427
Format:
Book

Description

Powerful Ring-Witches, Mayra and Wolfe have fled their kingdom, accompanied by their witch-warrior friends, escaping with the dragons they rescued. But once they reach the dragon's cold homeland, they find an empty Aerie. Where are the dragon females and the younglings? Barely do the witches have time to rest before they are winging their way to rescue the stolen dragons—but this one is challenging from the beginning. The witches quickly find themselves trapped in a vast system of caverns with Hagan, an evil, fanatical dragon, and his helpers—a greedy shapeshifter and a wrathful gnome. Mayra is running out of time. If she doesn't wrest a powerful talisman from Hagan's control before he can use it, he will take control of all the noble dragons that Mayra loves. Hagan threatens to kill his hostages—the female dragons and their tiny offspring—unless Mayra allows him to collect his terrible treasure from its hiding place. Can Mayra and Wolfe rescue the dragons—large and small—and find the talisman before Hagan and his irrational accomplices destroy all that the mighty dragons hold dearest to them? It won't be as simple as it was battling humans, for Hagan, a wielder of dark dragon magic, dares the Ring-Witches to battle him—the most savagely horrific dragon ever hatched.

Released:
Apr 24, 2019
ISBN:
9781386834427
Format:
Book

About the author

Debi loves sharing her tales of altruistic dragons and wild-blooded witches, unworldly ælves, mischievous sprites, and clever, magical cats. Step into one of her tales and you’ll be engulfed in a world not so different from your own in some ways and utterly contrasting in others—where courage and honor mean everything; and cowardice and betrayal can cost you your life. Ah, but the rewards! Eternal love and unending adventures, where worlds without modern amenities are not as simple, or as challenging, as you would think. Join a quest through serene and dangerous woods or find an adventure in endless, icy mountains, with strong and dedicated women and men, wielders of magic and swords, who will teach you what a friend truly is. Or an enemy. Some beings are good, some bad, many don't know what they are, and it's hard to know which is which, But one thing is certain--with the varieties of species and the worlds they live in, full of discord and harmony, love and hate, virtue and corruption, life can be breathtaking!


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Dragon's Revenge - Debi Ennis Binder

Prologue

HIGH IN THE MOUNTAINS of Ceshon Pass, the great black dragon Gaulte rested, dreaming of death. He had killed before, and so he would again; there would be no bargaining with the blue-skinned Phailites. Those savages had stolen the females and youngling dragons of his Aerie and hidden them away. The Phailites had then awaited the males of Ceshon Aerie. How brave those scrawny humans had imagined themselves, taming savage dragons by threatening the lives of captured families.

Gaulte growled low in his throat. Shame—hot and greasy—slid over him. The enslaved males were saddled and mounted like draft animals and flown to the kingdom of Nesht. Proud, peaceable creatures, used to lay waste to innocent humans, destroy beautiful forests and despoil animals the dragons would have happily eaten, to carry men who slaughtered without reserve.

A small murmur, a human voice, grounded the great dragon. He slowly opened brilliant eyes that looked as though they were cast with endless stars in a golden-red sunrise. The female witchling near his front talons had turned in her sleep and returned to the warmth of her mate’s arms.

Simply the sound of her voice made him sane again, her presence would keep him thus. How was he going to explain that to Hesta?

Gaulte sat unmoving, letting the pure moonlight bathe away his remainder of that unexpected burst of rage. With the males freed, their one undertaking now was to find their families. And then, the Phailites would die.

The glow and the shadows of the soothing moonlight turned Gaulte into a magnificent statue of a savage beast. The two enormous black horns crowning his head spiraled back to curve around either side of his long, intelligent face. The groupings of smaller horns that ran down his long, thick, scaled neck formed low spikes on his back, protection against being bitten, but low enough to allow his riders to sit well above them. With his husky, muscular body, and thick limbs, he was the largest dragon in his Aerie—in any northern Aerie. He was also learned and altruistic, he loved the witchlings that slept spread out around him and the others of the Aerie and he looked forward to introducing them to the others of his Clan.

There was nowhere for his thoughts to go beyond his plans of revenge. Unfortunately for the Phailites and all their lofty plots, they had made the one miscalculation certain to turn any dragon of the Ceshon Aerie into one as savage as a wild dragon. They had harmed their kin.

Gaulte fell back into a miasma of memory. The black dragon had not killed alone. His strange, starburst eyes went to the witchling, Mayra ara’Ferren, who lay tucked up, warm and safe, with her mate, Wolfe Sieryd. They slept under the edge of Gaulte’s leathery wing.

Mayra was diminutive, yet so fierce. She seemed too small to fight, let alone win a battle. Yet the first time he had laid eyes upon her, she had been bloody and wounded, fighting to free him before she had known he was a dragon. She fought a savage human and his demon-animal, the bushdog, and killed both to free Gaulte. Defying her grandfather, the King of Nesht, Mayra, Wolfe, and Gaulte had then freed the captured dragons and fled Nesht with a small assembly of witch-warriors.

The witchlings slept deeply now; they had battled hard to earn their respite. That they trusted the dragons enough to sleep with them filled Gaulte’s heart with something he had thought forever lost—love for humans.

Mayra has great bravery and compassion, dear Hesta. Gaulte spoke with what the witchlings called mind-speak. That was customary among all dragons, but none but he conversed with a mate who was not there. Mayra’s mate scowls in his sleep, he being a dark and savage assassin. But she is taming him, much as you once did me. You will like him. He huffed softly, a dragonesque chuckle. Once both were wealthy and powerful Ring-Witches, but now possess little more than clothing and weapons. Having bonded with a dragon and left her home behind, she seems content now. I believe you will find her enchanting—Gaulte hesitated. That likely wasn’t a good word to use—for he had been enchanted and he had killed with no compelling cause.

Despite Gaulte’s resolve to maintain his composure, reality returned in a rush of dark memories. Phailites—the savage blue humans with whom the dragons shared a frozen homeland—had stolen into the dragons’ Aerie while the male dragons were away, hunting. They drugged the females and younglings, took them to a location still unknown to Gaulte, and then returned for the males.

The trap-and-capture the blue humans set for the males differed greatly from that of the females. Gaulte’s long, sharp teeth ground together as he remembered the vicious blue man’s words—I have drugged your females and younglings. I will just as easily kill them! They are dragons and I do not care. The Phailites had forced the mighty males of the powerful Ceshon Aerie to submit to having reins placed over their heads and saddles on their backs.

His mind’s eye would forever see him bending his head so the blue man could place cursed reins on him. The device had seemed so small and insignificant, until pain seared into every part of Gaulte’s being and liquid fire burned into his body. Something with unbound evil had created those reins, for every time the blue bastard drew back on them, the mind-numbing pain shooting through Gaulte felt like countless fiery swords stabbing into him.

The memory haunted and shamed Gaulte, tasted like rotted meat in his mouth. He shook his head, flung away savage anger, and felt the reins. He stopped, took a deep, calming breath, and embraced the memory of Mayra, rubbing stag-elk fat into leather, softening the reins that had almost killed her the first time she had touched them and removed their magic. As she had worked the leather, she had talked to him, promising they would fly together, gloriously high as they sought his family—

Yes, he wore those reins now! But their sensation was so different, like soft, weathered leather, their only purpose now to ensure the safety of the witchlings who had freed the dragons.

Before the happenstance that joined his mind with Mayra’s, Gaulte had doubted he would ever be free of the enchanted reins that had forced the dragons into service as pack animals but remembering would always haunt him. Butchery. The Phailites destroying without reason—animals, people, villages. Forests burning, fire everywhere, the screams, the horror—the smell. It still made Gaulte ill.

Gaulte’s thoughts flung about, seeking anything to replace that memory—and they sharpened on Tamsin, his youngest nestling. Pride displaced fear. Even when dread filled him, thinking somehow, someone knew about Tamsin’s magic, he still felt his heart swell with pride over the tiny, beautiful youngling.

Tamsin was the first dragon to hatch with her mystical magic since the first Chronicles were written. All dragons could cast some levels of magic, especially within their Aerie. Dragons could speak to each other, mind to mind, and a dragon’s scales gave protection against both magical and non-magical threats. But little Tamsin had a sort of magic not seen in centuries and he had to find her.

Gaulte huffed and moved his massive shoulders. He hadn’t planned to make this stop—dragons and witchlings, had left Nesht as soon as possible to start north, to home. But all eight of the massive male dragons had suffered from their magical captivity and needed to rest.

He watched the moon as an hour had passed and he still couldn’t sleep. His thoughts slid back to a new life, where the Ceshon Aerie and Gaulte’s Clan were redefined—it now included humans.

That thought made him attempt a smile, even though he knew when he bared his fangs, he looked like he was going to attack. His low laugh rumbled out. While still at the Fortress, Gaulte had attempted to imitate a human smile and a woman—not a witchling—had fainted. The witchlings had laughed. These beautiful little witchlings had earned the respect of the dragons as no other humans ever had. His Clan’s witchlings were not weak.

Gaulte huffed again. Not even a moment of levity made him forget the lifesaving quest the dragons and humans had embarked upon.

None of the dragons believed the kidnapped dragons of the Ceshon Aerie to be dead. Humans succeeding at killing dragons? It did not happen, especially not with females protecting young. It was almost laughable, picturing what a female dragon would do to any human even trying to harm a nestling.

Yes, the females had been caught off-guard and had been overcome with drugs. But it would not happen twice. Gaulte suspected they had been kept drugged since their capture. There was no other way—females were more savage than males. That was a simple truth, which had led three male dragons to warily ask their leader a simple question—did Gaulte expect the Aerie females to welcome humans as fully as the males had?

Gaulte hadn’t answered. He wasn’t one to offer answers without certainty. What would he say now? He bonded to another being? Another female? He tried it out, mentally—

I bonded to another being—though neither of us saw the other before that bond became fixed. I know that is a rare union—

He winced. That wasn’t what he meant. He tried again. Not as our union, my beloved, and not unknown to our kind, but you cannot lay blame at my talons. How could I save the other males, and then you, were I not courageous enough to blindly trust an unknown presence and bare my pain, my fear, as I did to this witchling?

He scowled. He couldn’t say such a thing to Hesta, he sounded ridiculous. But somehow, the black dragon had to make Hesta understand! Only then would his mate truly appreciate the basis upon which a mighty dragon, Gaulte, her mate, had bonded with another female. A human.

The thought of returning home and beginning his search for his family warmed Gaulte; he finally felt the cold grip of his fear and anger trickling away. Watching the witchlings and dragons sleeping further calmed him. They huddled together, dragons warming the humans; and for now, all was peaceful.

Before he drifted back to sleep, he merged with all that was tranquil and quiet around him, and again opened his mind to hunt for Hesta. Time after time, he searched the towering mountains and low valleys, sent thoughts through high winds and ice, seeking a trace of her Center, that inner part of Hesta that made her draconigena—dragon-born. It was that part of her that none but he, as her mate, could touch. As he had left Nesht, he felt her, fleeting and desperate, searching for him. The joy that coursed through him spurred them on to seek, now with hope they lived. But he had felt nothing since, and this was no different. 

Nothing responded to his seeking. But he was almost home. Home—a place to start seeking.

Chapter One

THE CESHON MOUNTAINS are legendary, well known as arduous to traverse and even more challenging to inhabit.

Mayra cast her odd, silvery-gray eyes at her mate. He looked as glassy-eyed as she felt Gaulte continued.

The seemingly endless mountaintops serve as a barricade, hiding what lies at the center of that vast ring of boiling springs and massive rocks—dragon Aeries, human villages, and pastures and small forests that feed a variety of small and large animals alike.

Mayra stemmed a slight sigh. She appreciated that Gaulte was keeping his mind-speak soft and low for those not accustomed to hearing him, but was the black dragon even listening to himself? Apparently not—

Most of those who occupy Ceshon try to do so in harmony, and for the most part, it is a land of peace—albeit a cold one—to those of us hardy enough to make our home here.

Riding upon Gaulte’s broad back, Mayra, Wolfe, and his familiar, the black cat, Poppie, joined the other witch-warriors and dragons, traveling in silence as they listened to the black dragon expound upon the wonders of the endless mountains of ice around them. Mayra wondered if she should tell the black dragon his welcoming speech was far from that to the witches.

Wolfe’s wry comment—Gaulte doesn’t seem at all aware that he sounds as though he is trying to sell a leaking cottage to an ill-informed human—made Mayra smile, but it was true. Finding and saving the stolen dragons would be difficult in these wild lands, even considering how much her fellow witches wanted to be here. Gaulte’s seemingly desperate attempts to make the place sound welcoming weren’t helping.

The witches had asked endless questions as they learned as much as they could about their new and challenging home. They did not complain. Wolfe and Mayra knew they would not; they had given themselves wholly to this quest. They would ride to the ends of the known world to complete it. To pass time they took turns resting and they practiced using mind-speak, an ability made easier by their proximity to the dragons.

As dragons and witches traveled, and the skies darkened, the infinite spires and savage cliffs of the Ceshon Pass mountains gave way to another sort of mountain. Here they saw vast, barely hospitable plateaus providing flat areas large enough to accommodate a clan of enormous beasts seeking a place to rest.

Two days after the party had left Nesht, they stopped to rest on a plateau that was protected from the winds and had a thick layer of dead grass that protected them from the cold ground. The dragons had hunted, all had eaten, and near the middle of the night, all slept. Gaulte could not. So, he closed his eyes to the winds, and he let his mind roam.

Earlier that day, the travelers had passed over a broad, deep fissure that marked a pronounced difference between the lands of Nesht and the ice of the northern dragon lands. With the witchlings wrapped in layers of fur, they weren’t as aware as the dragons were when they passed into the colder world.

Gaulte smelled the ice and snow and felt the cold of the sharp, stony mountains of home long before he saw them. The sting of fierce ice storms that swept down from the high north brought the scents and ambiance that made him long for home so keenly that, but for the needs of the witchlings accompanying them, he and the other dragons of his Clan would have driven onward. Gaulte knew his kin would follow him—without even stopping for food or rest—if it meant they would reach their home sooner and begin the hunt for their stolen families. He gazed down at Mayra. It did not matter. He owed the witchling his life; he could not have left her behind.

Should he warn them that they would continue to sail above an endless terrain, painted in shadows of blue and white? While familiar to the massive reptiles, it was so different from the vast green forests and flowering meadows his human companions had known, that more than once, they must have recalled Gaulte’s warning as they departed Nesht—dear witchlings, my world will differ greatly from that to which you are accustomed. Perhaps to the point where you will find it difficult to stay there.

The witches had a retort ready—don’t other humans already live there? Then so shall we.

Perhaps they could, mused Gaulte, recalling their valiant stance. They had the determination, but did they have the physical endurance to make a home here? The Phailites were as large and sturdy as the male witchlings, but the blue-skinned humans had a level of savagery and animal-like canny—a will to survive—that might be missing from these more civilized humans.

Gaulte’s golden starburst eyes flickered to the dominant human male—Wolfe Sieryd, Mayra’s chosen mate. That large warrior-assassin had been known to lose his grip on civility at the drop of a talon. Perhaps with his guidance—tempered by the sage and compassionate Mayra—the witchlings could survive this world.

A huff of laughter escaped the dragon. He again wondered what his mate Hesta was going to make of these new Clan additions. Gaulte paused in his musings and gazed around the encampment, always ensuring no one was creeping up on them. Satisfied with their safety, he closed his eyes.

And as they always did, his deliberations turned to the Phailites. Calling them all savages, as he was now prone to do, was unfair, but he could hardly help himself. How had the once-docile, blue-skinned farmers and traders gained evil magic? Who had given them the means to enslave the male dragons of Ceshon Aerie and abduct the Clan’s females and younglings?

Gaulte shook his head. Strange things had happened to the dragons while captured. Lack of enough food had kept his Clan nearly too weak to fly; they had been held apart from each other, and when together, were unable to communicate with words—a single uttered word would have brought the agonizing pain of the magical reins. Stranger still—and puzzling to no end—the Phailites had prevented the dragons from connecting with each other’s thoughts. What terrible magic had the power to send the dragons’ unspoken words sliding into the ether?

The black dragon gave another soft huff. The greatest anomaly by far—though unable to communicate with his kind, Gaulte had still been able to use mind-speak to connect with both Mayra and Wolfe, without the Phailites ever realizing it. That undetected connection had been the conduit to freedom for the dragons. Once Mayra had freed Gaulte and the blue man and his fiendish pet were defeated, the witchlings’ magic had released the others of Gaulte’s Clan from their bondage. Eventually, Gaulte had conceded that whoever—or whatever—had created the magic reins for the Phailites to use, did not understand the anomalous magic wrought by the witchlings.

Gaulte stretched the muscles of his neck and shoulders. He was weary but he still could not sleep. He moved his massive black body to better shield the witchlings asleep around him from the swirling, biting-cold winds.

The black dragon gazed out at the males of his Clan, feeling affection for each dragon. They were even-tempered beasts, keeping themselves away from others of their kind, but on amicable terms. The Ceshon Aerie had always avoided the Phailites, but the dragons had not been antagonistic. No, those blue-skinned demons had ended that peace, not a dragon.

His attempt to remain calm and soothe himself failed, for his ever-circular thoughts returned almost at once to the witchling he guarded discreetly, again reliving her rescue of him from the vicious slavery of the Phailites.

Gaulte growled under his breath. Planning the demise of those beings took up an excessive amount of his time. He devised in careful detail, and then refined his schemes to kill the remaining blue men—tearing them limb from torso, bit by bit until they returned his mate and nestlings to him. It would be much more satisfying than the short, vicious executions of the Phailites who had forced the dragons to fly them to Nesht. Much more gratifying.

Gaulte stirred and in the light of the full moon overhead, the black dragon saw Fauler, his one whole-sibling and the Aerie’s second in command, open his gold eyes.

Gaulte—Fauler’s thoughts spoke to his nestmate on an elevated level, so as not to disturb the witchlings. The other dragons slept soundly. Though your young witchling would understand your plan to kill the Phailites, might your bloodied images frighten her? Fauler’s mental admonishment brought something like a chuckle from Gaulte. Fauler hesitated as though considering something. Is she able to be frightened, Gaulte?

Gaulte was still staring up at the stars but he answered. I actually do not know what she fears, Fauler. However, I will show more caution when reassessing the plans for revenge that my inner eyes see, Gaulte returned dryly. He considered then continued. Perhaps I am not as attuned to the fears of the witchlings as I should be. Mayra did not receive her injuries from my captor. She tried to meet that human head-on, but he was a coward. He sent his demon-thing after her. It was a bushdog that injured her so gravely. And she alone destroyed it with her magic and her blade. She grievously injured the Phailite and his weakness allowed me to kill him. She—

Gaulte?

The slight, female mind-speak of Mayra interrupted them, and a drape dropped over the dragons’ mental conversation.

Gaulte and Fauler glanced at each other. They had scolded the witchlings for not guarding their thoughts, yet now they themselves had done the same. Gaulte’s low, rumbling laugh made Mayra smile up at him, though she was still half-asleep.

There is still time to sleep, Gaulte told her. I suggest you use it.

She nodded. She nestled deeper into Wolfe’s arms and fell back to sleep.

We must also rest. Gaulte sent a mental touch out over the other dragons of his Clan. All of them were still sleeping amid the witchlings. The Valley was quiet. There was no need for a guard. None but other dragons would dare attack them, and here, on this small bit of rock, there were neither dragons nor an opportunity for Phailites to perpetuate their underhanded trickery.

As he continued to gaze out at the silent landscape, the clouds overhead caught his attention. A soft rumble went through him.

Fauler, do you see above us? They look like—come and cover these two, I will return shortly. The black dragon shifted to the edge of the flat rock, leaving Fauler to take his place shielding the witchlings from the cold. Gaulte dropped over the side, unfurling his wings as he fell. The icy wind was like magic as it caught his wings and he shot upward.

Yes! He had his answer almost at once, for as soon as he felt a touch of warmer wind on the scales of his face, he knew he had found the thermals—the currents of air that floated high above the icy mountains of this land and would carry them home swiftly and effortlessly.

The moon was at its zenith when Gaulte returned from his short flight. His landing awakened the other dragons, and he shared his discovery.

At last, I feel the bite of the freezing wind lessen as it threads with warmer currents. We have found the thermals! He rumbled with his distinctive laughter. Those magical winds will warm our witchlings, and take us home, at least a day sooner.

Chapter Two

MAYRA had been the prideful High Ring-Witch of the Kioreu Clan of reevers, the magical element in a large unit of warriors. She had been linked to a Clan that blindly served the king since she was five and ten. The reevers acted as King Forcial’s voice, his command, imposing his rule across the kingdom. They were the king’s means of maintaining his strong reign without having to expend much effort himself. Mayra had wielded magic as strong and fearsome as the warriors’ blades. She had undergone a lifetime of training and conditioning to have the ability to save Gaulte and his dragons.

She now lay wrapped in the muscular, tattooed arms of Wolfe, her Ring-Witch mate, once a highly paid assassin and spy—and perhaps, he would always be, for those were talents that could serve him anywhere. But Mayra would never again ride with reevers. Reevers rode, fought, and wielded power in the name of the King of Nesht. The witches had trusted King Forcial, and he had betrayed them.

Betrayal had enabled her to leave behind a life she had loved, but it had not been simple or painless. It had never mattered to her that the king was her grandfather, and so his was not the betrayal she would never forgive. She would never forget Leisher Bren, but never, never would she forgive him.

Mayra shivered and Wolfe’s arms tightened around her. She smiled as she felt another small source of warmth, Poppie. The black cat nestled between the two witches.

Snatches of an odd conversation between Gaulte and Fauler had awakened Mayra earlier, but the dragons were now silent.  

There was nothing to do but lean back against Wolfe, and smile at Poppie’s protest over being disturbed. But as soon as Mayra closed her eyes, pictures from the dream that had awakened her this time, returned. Entwined with the conversation of the two dragons, that dream had chilled her more than the cold. She wished she had listened longer before calling out to Gaulte.

Her fingers unconsciously traced over the wide black Rings that encircled her wrists. As her fingers touched the deep engravings, gentle vibrations traveled through myriad filaments that lined the inside of each Ring, some so fine that they were barely visible. The sensation that emerged into her body sent comforting calm spreading within her, for those filaments were now part of her, having grown into her nerves until their augmenting capabilities spread throughout her body. Ring magic, she thought, with a sleepy smile. My magic. Amplification of all that I know, all that I can do.

What’s wrong? Wolfe’s deep voice was a scant whisper, but she knew he was wide-awake.

Nothing, she returned. I awakened too early.

Yes, and one time we would have had the perfect activity to put us back to sleep, he groused. Her fingers brushed his black Rings and she felt him jerk. He squeezed her against him. Don’t tease me, he warned. His rough whisper sent heat through her that was almost as warming as his touch.

She leaned around Poppie and brushed her lips across his. Go back to sleep, she whispered. Think of this as an exercise in self-control.

Wolfe chuckled. As Mayra watched his moonlit face, his eyes closed. Within a few moments, he was asleep. She envied his ability to fall asleep so easily. But she also appreciated the time she had to reflect before she drifted to sleep.

Wolfe did not ask about her dreams although she knew he suspected what had awakened her yet again. He didn’t know all the details of what had happened to her when she rescued Gaulte from the Phailites, but he had seen enough to know it was violent and bloody.

Once the witches had realized how to break the enchantment over the dragons, the invaders had quickly fallen. By the gods, that battle had been as savage and remorseless as the Phailites themselves.

The image of Leisher Bren, Warlord of the Kioreu Clan of reevers, once again coalesced in her mind. Leader of the fiercest clan of the king’s enforcers, he had been her mentor, her father figure, what she strived to be as she grew and learned from him. In those years, he had been all that was honorable and valiant. Seeing him as he had been before they parted had both broken her heart and hardened it.

Leisher Bren had deceived her all their long relationship. He had betrayed Mayra, for his action of saving her life had unmasked him as a powerful Ring-Witch, where before he had scoffed at and dismissed her magical prowess. But worse, he had betrayed the entire kingdom. Leisher Bren, a reever warlord who had often disparaged royalty, had also been revealed as the true King of Nesht. He had been little more than a child when he had changed places with his look-alike cousin—because he had not wanted to bother with ruling a kingdom. And for that alone Mayra would never forgive him.

The memory of her words still echoed across the stable yard of the Fortress as he was readying to leave and return to their Clan, as though nothing had happened.

You were honor-bound to your duty, she had cried out. "An honorable man undertakes his obligation and endures as best he can until he fulfils it, or he dies. You cannot—quit!"

Her words still rang in her head. Leisher Bren had turned his horse and left. He had not looked back.

WOLFE AWAKENED ALERT and hungry. He knew that Gaulte was gone, but he wasn’t concerned. The black dragon might be scouting ahead, but more likely was hunting for food for his kin. Wolfe was far more aware of the lithe elf-like woman in his arms, her breathing deep and even as she slept. He lowered his nose to smell her hair and then her neck, aware that this was a mistake. How the fucking hell was he supposed to make love to her while they lay surrounded by dragons and other witches—any of whom would gleefully watch and probably offer suggestions.

That thought made him chuckle. Mayra was a shy and reserved woman, and not a one of their friends likely knew that.

Friends? Did that mean the dragons, as well?

The witches and dragons had quickly blended into a rare group. Either species were strong as individuals, but while together, as one element—their strength knew no bounds, no fear, no hesitation to fight. As one, dragons and humans were witty and earthly, teasing each other, and—with their virtues and vices so similar—not unlike a large family of steadfast siblings. Yes, friends meant dragons, too.

Wolfe moved again, then stopped short and grimaced. The sharp stab of an ice-cold piece of metal penetrated his tunic. It was a tube of silver metal, a relic from their battle at the Fortress—a weapon that was almost as long as Mayra was tall. The Phailites had used them to shoot ravaging fire and they had proven to be far deadlier than dragons or witches. Wolfe had scooped this one up after Mayra’s battle with the Phailite who had wielded it and hidden the thing when they left Nesht. He had brought it with him, anxious to discover who—or what—had made it. No one had yet been able to make it work, but all had seen its lethal effectiveness first-hand.

Mayra was stirring. Wolfe kissed her forehead, pulled her closer to him, and slid his warm hands beneath her tunic. He would awaken her by lighting a pleasurable fire in her, but this time there would be nothing to quench that heat. As Wolfe opened his eyes, he caught Poppie’s blue eyes following his hands as they went up Mayra’s tunic. He felt the cat tense to pounce, and gave her a warning shake of his head, then grinned.

Having two strong-willed females to contend with was proving to be as trying as his brother, Aristen, had predicted it would be.

MAYRA AWAKENED WITH a gasp. Massive arms were holding her; a large, rough hand slid up her stomach and chest, pausing to cup her breast. Her eyes flew open as Wolfe’s fingers slid across her nipple, and she felt it tighten. Abruptly, a large hardness pressed against her back and bottom. She smiled. At least some parts of Wolfe were awake and ready to—

The other witches and dragons were rising. Mayra wanted to lie in Wolfe’s arms, enjoying the warmth he provided, but it was time to continue to trip to her new home. She turned over and gave Wolfe a teasing grin.

So sorry, she whispered. We must wait longer.

Perhaps, he growled. If you weren’t so fucking vocal we might—

She laughed and covered his lips with her fingers.

You just wait. He drew her close to him and again she felt just how much he needed and wanted her. A pleasurable jolt went through her. I am patient, he growled, but each day that passes, my sweet, will make it that much harder for you to walk.

She smothered a laugh. Not if I attack you, first.

He grinned. I like that idea. You come to me, then, and make me ravish you.

That shouldn’t be too hard, came a gravelly voice from overhead. Gaulte’s sharp-tooth grin was more a leer. The two of you are conveying your lust all over the encampment.

And as both males expected, Mayra blushed bright red. Gaulte, was learning to recognize the odd emotions of his new companion and he seemed to enjoy teasing her. His deep, raspy laughter erupted from him, and he suggested they rise for the day.

FOLLOWING HIS DISCOVERY of the thermals, Gaulte realized that he needed to modify the present flying arrangements of witchlings and dragons. And for that, he would have to use the diplomacy Mayra accused him of lacking in dealing with humans. That had brought roars of laughter from his kin. He chuckled. Some of those witches would have been appalled to know how transparent their feelings were to Gaulte, but it made working with them less complicated.

Using the windstreams allowed the dragons to increase both their speed and the heights at which they flew, but they had to fly much higher than they had been. Gaulte sensed that three of the witchlings were growing more fearful; as the dragons rose higher into the sky and flew faster, he smelled, even tasted their fear.

The dragon said nothing for now. The three witchlings who were now pale, and sweating were male, and according the Mayra, it would ill-serve them to point out their fear. But they couldn’t cower and feign fatigue; Gaulte needed their sharp eyes to watch below for any danger.

The dragon tightened his thoughts to encompass Mayra and Wolfe.

Some witchlings grow fearful as we fly higher. An odd snrking laugh escaped the dragon. Your male kindred would sooner perish than let anyone know. But their fear prevents their vigilance, and while they must search below us for Phailites or other dragons, they are incapable of even looking down.

Mayra and Wolfe exchanged incredulous glances. They didn’t need to speak aloud to know what was going through their minds. After enduring what it took to have their Enhancement Rings placed around their wrists by the Sorcery Guild—usually done when they were children—how could a Ring-Witch fear anything, least of all how high they flew? Having their wrists cut open to place myriad filaments within, allowing those golden wires to fuse with their nerves and grow throughout their bodies had been known to make the most hardened warriors faint away at hearing of the process.

What do you propose we do? Wolfe looked the other men over—by the gods. He chuckled. Gaulte is correct. You can see just by looking at them, they aren’t happy travelers.

I have an idea—Mayra’s mind-speak was thoughtful—we will move everyone around. Yes, I believe that will work, and we will not single out those men. We will use an old reason to move them about—a male, given the task of protecting a female, through their size differences. She stopped as the dragon snickered.

Gaulte couldn’t picture a female dragon requiring the protection of a male for any reason.

Mayra leaned down closer to Gaulte’s hidden ear. Was that a wicked laugh? she whispered.

That might be a plan, but what do magical females need protection from?

That’s true, Mayra admitted aloud. Using mind-speak too long made her head hurt. And if you were to suggest such a thing—these females might be tempted to show you just how much they need protecting! What are you planning?

You shall see, dear witchlings. Gaulte did love being mysterious.

And so, as humans and dragons made ready to travel on the third day, Gaulte addressed the Clan. The witchlings were huddled around a large fire, drinking tea, and chewing on hard bread.

The winds grow quite strong, the black dragon mused, as though he hadn’t already decided what he was going to say. I will feel more comfortable if a male and female ride together—the larger male to help ensure the smaller female doesn’t get caught up by the wind and fall.

He quieted their expected protests at once, raising one razor-taloned hand in a wholly human mannerism borrowed from Wolfe, though the witches would never have told him that.

The currents can be treacherous—Gaulte paused as he saw winces in some witchlings—the mind-speak was still too strong for some of them, and so he switched back to spoken words.

The stronger human males might be called upon to keep another rider with them safely in the saddle. He grinned, showing an alarming amount of long, sharp, curved teeth. Though at one time, such a gesture was certain to negate the warm feelings the witches got from him, they were growing accustomed to dragons, smiling. And tell me, would you not find it more pleasurable to ride with the opposite gender?

The snickers among both human and dragons turned to laughs as the witchlings threw friendly punches at each other. The black dragon gazed at them indulgently. Unlike most humans, they were ferocious warriors who often acted in ways similar to his own younglings. He swung his head toward Mayra and Wolfe. I shall leave the pairings to the two of you.

I assure you, Mayra said with a slow grin at Wolfe, riding with a male is much more entertaining.

While the others witchlings resumed talking and teasing, Gaulte again linked his thoughts with Wolfe and Mayra.

I sense the bonding of some witchlings and dragons, but for some, I fear it might never happen. Gaulte’s tone was sad yet hopeful, and the way his emotions tinged the words the dragon sent to her warmed Mayra. Some of my kin suffered significantly from their bondage. I fear that even now they see all humans differently. Not as their enemy, but neither yet their friends. Let me make two of the pairings, and a fierce foursome they might become, perhaps even friends.

Gaulte gazed around for a moment before finding the two who still held themselves apart from the humans.

Aleize and Jerek, Gaulte sent abruptly, and the two dragons snapped to attention. I will pair you with the Ring-Witches Kirik and Richart, as lone riders, that you may guide each other. I am sure the four of you have many tales to share.

THE ABRUPT BUZZ OF conversation between dragons and humans alike showed their surprise at Gaulte’s decision, but Mayra realized there was keen perception behind the pairings the black dragon had made. Gaulte had deliberately chosen Richart—a new Ring-Witch, but a strong reever who had learned his magic from Mayra, and Kirik—an older and experienced Ring-Witch who had been a Sorcery Guild weapons trainer before joining a reever clan, and to whom discipline was a conviction. Those two men would serve well as companions to the two aloof dragons, for both dragons were protective of their mates and still raging over the treatment of those dragons.

The three male witches I saw as anxious already seemed more enthusiastic, Wolfe observed with a chuckle. Perhaps they’re motivated by the prospect of protecting a female.

Perhaps, Mayra agreed. But I know none of those females will yield to being cosseted. Those men had best be careful what they say.

I’m sure they know that, Wolfe said. Did his own woman even realize he knew to be as careful? He hid a grin. Probably not, she viewed herself as evenhanded and rarely unreasonable.

Within a few minutes, she and Wolfe had determined who should be with whom. She hesitated over the last young woman, Fleura, who looked misleadingly delicate, and might need pairing with a man with knew how to keep his unwelcome opinions to himself.

Fleura, who had quickly become one of Mayra’s rare female friends, was at one and twenty, the youngest witch-warrior in their new Clan. She wasn’t fragile, though she could look so, if she desired. She was an uncompromising witch-warrior who feared little and loved her crafts. What Mayra appreciated by far was Fleura’s unabashed skill at using herself as one of her best weapons. A foe, upon seeing a slender, lovely, ingenuous woman, would lower his defenses. They would meet her magic or her blade long before realizing their mistake.

At the start of their journey Qintas, a burly witch-warrior, had ridden Fauler with obnoxious confidence. However, the first time Fauler had shot higher into the air, Qintas had turned close to the same green shade as the dragon. The tall, blond-haired warrior took the call for lovely Fleura to take Fauler’s reins and he to join her, more graciously than Wolfe had expected.

Fleura, pursed her lips, gave Qintas a hard look, and gestured him up behind her in the saddle.

Don’t want you to overlook me if I start to fall off, she said drily.

Qintas eyed Fauler. The dragon, shaking with laughter, presented a difficult climb. But the robust male witch-warrior obeyed the fierce-eyed little beauty, and hauled himself up and into the saddle, muttering under his breath as he went.

We must ride all the harder now, said Gaulte gravely, eyeing the rising sun. There are certain places we must be at darkfall to ensure we are well-protected from those who might see us from the ground.

MAYRA WAS DOZING, ENJOYING a sense-stirring dream that involved a nude Wolfe and a waterfall when Gaulte’s massive leather wings flapped. The movement startled Mayra awake; she inhaled a lungful of sharp, icy wind and coughed. Wolfe’s chuckle earned him a jab—her elbow into his hard gut. She was entitled to be jumpy; she might have taken to riding, but three days later, that didn’t mean it was always perfect. And though she would never tire of traveling with Gaulte and Wolfe, she was also weary and a little disagreeable.

Gaulte seldom had to propel himself onward, especially after the dragons had sailed into the thermals, but whatever he was doing now, he was doing at an alarming speed. Mayra breathed a sigh of relief as the black dragon leveled out again, and her irritation at both Wolfe and the dragon faded.

Mayra leaned over and looked down, then ahead of Gaulte. She looked back at Wolfe, puzzled. They hadn’t been flying more than half the morning, yet Gaulte had left the thermals. He was headed down and away from the winds, toward a flat, bare plateau, jutting out from the surrounding mountains.

She felt Wolfe’s perplexed thoughts join hers. It seemed too early to stop for a relief break or for food. Was something wrong?

Why are we already landing?

Gaulte did not reply.

Chapter Three

SAVAGE GUSTS OF WIND sliced across the naked cliffs of the ice-shrouded Ceshon Peaks. Each blast felt as though the cold gods of the North, brandishing razor-sharp blades of ice, sought to torture any living creatures that dared expose themselves on the mountainside.

Young Fyrid af’Heyr was tired of being cold, but he endured it stoically. He was nearing the end of his ritual byoun—where at seventeen, the males of his Clan ventured out to face the elements and become a man—now able to take a mate if he wanted one, and own a piece of usable land.

Dressed in layers of fur and well-armed, he was already resourceful and canny enough to withstand the cold, learning to exist with nature, using what he found for shelter and food, all without complaint. Who would he gripe to—the two huge canines who accompanied him? They would bark playfully at his voice and chase snowflakes. His beloved direwolves—Balc and Nena— loped free and uncaring alongside him through the rocky crags above the plateau. In their way, the siblings were as young as he was and equally adventurous.

At least my feet are covered far better than yours, my friends! he thought as he paused at his tedious task. The human male and two direwolves hunted well together, none were yet fully grown, but direwolves and human were already huge, well-made examples of their species.

Fyrid sat down to rest and looked around. How many hours had he already spent busily cutting apart the desiccated remains of an enormous stag-elk? He wasn’t sure, but he knew that he had been trying to pry loose the sharp hooves from the stag-elk for over an hour. His stomach growled again.

He could have spent an entire day pulling pieces of tendon and bone from the dead animal. They would bring him no small amount of barter back home, perhaps even some coin if he could sell the bits to hide-workers and toolmakers. But he needed to hunt, to feed his companions and himself. He rose and stretched.

As he put the last of the stringy brown pieces of flesh into a pouch across his chest, he hesitated. A dry sound, a whisper of leather, a feeling of movement—suddenly the hairs on his neck and arms rose. He looked around several times before he chanced to glance upward.

The world changed for Fyrid af’Heyr. A strange, hot flash of both fear and euphoria shot through the young warrior and crawled up his skin. For a long moment, the entire world froze around Fyrid. His heart pounded. A choked gasp escaped him, and he sat down heavily into the snow.

Massive winged creatures—dragons—silhouetted against the weak sun as they passed overhead, silent but for an occasional dry whisper as wings flapped.

That brief sighting was all it took to send Fyrid staggering back to his feet, inanely thankful he had kept his skin-and-hide snowshoes fastened to his heavy boots. He looked around him, seeking shelter, as he realized that he must now keep himself and his companions hidden from something in the air.

The young Phailite seldom worried about anything around him seeing him, as he blended well with the blue-shadowed and snowy world around him, wrapped head-to-toe in furs as he was. Even when the fur moved away from his pale, blue skin, he was hard to see. But now, the one time he required unheard of protection—from dragons—he had foolishly left behind the essential bit of equipment those of his Clan usually carried that would have kept him unseen from above.

Lessons from the men of his Clan rushed at him. He covered the possible glare of the blade across his back with a cloth thrown over the hilt, then yanked out his wood-and-hide snow goggles and pulled them on. With everything set, he turned to follow the path of the dragons, hoping both that he could keep up with them, and that they would land before he lost sight of them.

He called the two direwolves and took off running again, gesturing them back to his side as they ran through the snow. He knew he needed not worry; the four-legged beasts would not leave behind their two-legged pack lead. Fyrid led them away from the cliff edge in irregular spurts, darting between rocks and bushes, trying to ensure their movements did not call attention to them. Ungainly in the snowshoes, Fyrid avoided the larger obstacles he could see. The direwolves held back, following as he tried to work out where the dragons could be going.

Then Fyrid remembered the thermals and he stopped short. He could feel his heart pounding; he leaned against a boulder and took a deep, calming breath, wincing at the cold that assaulted his lungs. He removed the screening goggles he wore against the intense glare of ice and snow and looked up. After a while, he could trace the paths of the thin, darker clouds his uncle had pointed out to him last year.

Fyrid still enjoyed that memory. The excitement had bubbled up in him—alone in the high mountains with the man who had taught him most of what a male of his Clan needed to survive the harsh environment in which they lived. And then, unexpectedly, Uncle Payk had for the first time since the tragedy brought up the subject of the dragons living in the surrounding mountains.

Dragons use the thermals, the elder man explained, to fly more efficiently across the vast skies. The river-like currents follow specific routes and can determine where dragons might be going.

And then, Payk af‘Unshyr had spoken no more about the forbidden subject of dragons.

Fyrid could now see the streaks of dark haze, illuminated by the light of the pale sun. He replaced his goggles, called to the direwolves, and set off, spurred on by his uncle’s words to follow those long, thin, churning clouds. He ran until the icy air he was breathing was as sharp as a knife, stabbing him in the sides.

Finally, he had to stop to bring his breath under control. He frantically sought the dragons, looking around for a moment—the slits of his goggles were too narrow. The young warrior readjusted the bone inlay of the wood-and-hide covers. He had just replaced them when he again caught sight of the great beasts.

Fyrid coughed; he hadn’t mean to suck in that icy air so rapidly and he winced. From his point of view, the dragons were gradually growing larger, and that meant they were dropping from the sky. Where, in this area, would there be enough room for dragons—several dragons—to land?

Fyrid slid down among a group of dark, stunted trees, and jumped down into a cleft in the rocks. The hollow was shallow, but wide enough for him and the canines that followed. He squatted and grew still, again working to control the vaporous clouds produced by his gasping breath. After a moment, he yanked off his snowshoes, dropped to his stomach and crawled forward, then raised himself up on one arm and cautiously peered over the edge and down.

The shot of pure elation that went through him almost set him to coughing again. He went reeling onto his back, staring up at shadowy, rippling clouds, his heart pounding again. Fyrid no longer worried about dragons seeing—he was now above the great beasts! He grinned as his heart continued

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