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Thick silence changed the shadowed woods into a sepulcher. Not a single murmur or hoof fall betrayed the four crouched men or their mounts. Branin prayed those who might soon reside beneath the sod would not be his men... or an innocent. All too often of late, the raiders had struck holds, both large and small, with impunity. The erratic attacks made it difficult to predict their next target.
Branin cursed Broch, the firebrand former lady of Ky’Port, who led the raiders with the skill of a trained general. Over the years, many women had tried to seduce him in order to claim they’d bedded a dragon shifter or to garner the power a dragshi wielded. At their first contact, he always made it clear no dragshi could have a permanent liaison with a true human, and that his favors could not be bought with money or wiles. Most women took his word and remained satisfied with what companionship he allowed. If they pursued their relationship to a physical level, it was done with no expectations beyond mutual pleasure. Broch went beyond the usual flattery and flirtations. Sharp words always seemed to lie just beneath her light tone and apparent sincerity. Despite her physical beauty, he had sensed the ruthlessness within her. No matter how hard she threw herself at him, the fire never kindled.
He shrugged trying to resettle his battle armor. The heavy metal not only transferred the chill of the late spring morn to his bones, a piece of the horsehair padding had shifted and the neck plate rubbed. Still he stayed motionless. In his earlier days he would have forgone the extra protection, but that was before his mind had touched Anastasia’s. Since her dragon soul twin Jessian awoke and Anastasia joined the ranks of the dragshi to become his mate, he no longer took unnecessary risks. Dragshi, like the true dragons, mated for life in this world and the one beyond. He had to live—for her.
Through the link Branin held with his friend, Liam, he heard his fellow dragon shifter readying his own small group of soldiers. Branin grasped the mental link he held with his men. No hint of betrayal colored their thoughts, only the anticipation of seasoned warriors.
Liam’s image appeared in Branin’s mind. The tall man looked as relaxed as if he strolled with his wife, Dealan, through a summer garden. <We chose the men for their special talents,> Liam sent on a tight link from his position farther along the trail.
<Not their fighting ability?> Branin retorted. He and Liam had only selected men for the mission who didn’t object to a mind link. <I admit, not having to yell commands is easier on the throat.>
Branin heard the other man’s interest in keeping the conversation going and kept up the voiceless banter. It helped relieve some of the tension. Liam was one of the few dragshi with battle experience and the only shifter who could beat Branin in either armed or unarmed combat. Their skills were so closely matched, their bouts provided many an evening’s entertainment for the other residents of Cloud Eyrie. Both hated the calm before a battle.
Although I know how to wait patiently, it does not mean I enjoy it, Branin fumed.
The snap of a twig crackled into the cloudless sky. Branin signaled his men to readiness. The raiders are here!
Labored breathing and a swish preceded the entrance of a man on skis. His arms pumped in a rhythmic motion propelling him along the icy trail. Heavy furs covering his body added to the man’s broad shoulders, making him look more animal than human.
Recognition pulled at Branin. <Uaine, over here.> Branin’s frustration that it was not the expected band of thieves turned the mental command into a sharp hiss.
The newcomer looked around. His gaze lingered on his backtrail before he slid over to Branin. The time it took to remove the skis and gulp a swallow of water only added to Branin’s frustration.
He forced himself to relax. Uaine would not delay unnecessarily since he was a skilled fighter and tactician.
Uaine’s expression announced bad news even before he spoke. “The Ceoltier Guild sent word. Raiders struck three valleys over. Six men on skis broke into a woodcutter’s shed and took the supplies kept there for stranded travelers. All were captured.” Uaine lifted his head bringing his eyes level with Branin’s. “I’m sorry. Broch was not among them. The men were just local footpads. Not the ones you sought.”
Branin bit back a curse. “Stand down,” he called over his shoulder. At the command, soldiers converged around him.
Liam rode up with his small party and joined the circle of men. He raised an eyebrow. “Air search?”
“Uaine, take charge of the men,” Branin ordered. “There is a clearing down the trail large enough for Liam and me to shift into dragon form. We’ll leave our mounts with you and search by wing. If nothing is found by sunset, take the men home.”
After making arrangements for continued watches and to be notified of any sightings of Broch, Branin led the way to the clearing.
Liam walked to the opening in the trees and waved to Uaine who tightened his grip on the reins of two fidgeting horses. White mist surrounded Liam. When it cleared, a yellow dragon towered where the man had once stood. Now in the form of his dragon soul twin, Orfhlaith, Liam reared back on his haunches and launched himself skyward.
Branin summoned his own magic. A heartbeat later, he spread the amber wings of the dragon form of his soul twin, Llewlyn, and leapt after Liam.
~ * ~
A breeze blew strands of long black hair into Broch’s eyes. Impatiently, she pushed them away and wriggled her tall frame into the rain-hollowed dip in the rocks. Three blankets and a sleeping fur created a comfortable bed while the overhanging ledge and a line of boulders concealed her from observation by either ground or air. From her resting place near the mountain’s crest, she lifted the spy glass to her eye. Far below, a line of men on horseback turned into the trail heading to their village. “Good,” she snarled. “Go back to your homes and your wives.”
Practiced movements slid the mariner’s tool into its leather carrying case and poured a stoneware mug half-full of wine. “Not fine crystal, but this will do. Wine not only keeps away the chill, but is as good a way to pass the time as any.” Relishing the tart bite of the sparkling drink, she watched the distance widen between her hiding spot and her pursuers. The southern region had been good to her. Thick woods made pursuit difficult, and the winter, mild compared to that of her home, allowed travel—and raids—throughout the entire cold season. It kept her men happy and well fed.
Those dragons will give up soon, she reassured herself. They had already flown six circuits of the area. Unless his Lordship Branin Llewlyn is looking for me, Lady Broch of Ky’Port, not Broch the leader of a raider band. Anger at his refusal of her favors years before resurfaced. Pain shot up her thigh just as it had ever since her childhood when a dragon shifter had healed her broken leg. In fact, the crescent-shaped scar that remained after the dragon’s fire had been the cause of the rumor of a curse that haunted Broch all her life.
As if he sensed her thoughts, an amber dragon winged into view.
Relax, Broch urged. Shifters can track anger. She changed the direction of her thoughts. Instead of a darker emotion, she pictured Branin in her bed. Her body warmed with heat that had nothing to do with the late afternoon sun. One hand rose to loosen her collar. A finger grazed the sea pearl embedded in the handfast token around her neck. Branin’s dark hair lightened into that of another—Hicca, her husband.
Memories of the passions Hicca aroused at their first meeting inflamed her skin even more than the imagined tryst with the dragon lord. Hicca might not be the best lover I’ve ever had, but he chased away the cold many a night during the past cold season. Unlike Branin who’d rejected her, at their handfasting, Hicca had knelt in an unusual display of acknowledgement of her position as helpmate.
Maybe it is time for me to return to the northern camp. Maybe by now Hicca will have returned. It will take more than two sevenday for Morcant to sail around the continent’s horn, time for the clamor raised by my raids to dissipate. She smiled and finished the wine. And, giving the people more time to gather more money... for me.
~ * ~
Mist dampened Broch’s hair and face and slickened her grip on the ship rail. For days, banks of iron gray clouds had hounded Deep Lion. Her sigh escaped over the waves. For the first time in days, sunbeams pierced the clouds and orange light burnished the back of her closed eyelids. She didn’t know how long she’d stood that way enjoying the last of the day’s warmth, until the fading brightness made her open her eyes. Kissing the horizon, the sun painted the cave-pocked bluffs a deep crimson. Broch turned from the view to watch the crew, most of whom had stripped to short breeches. Sweat, mingled with sea mist, glistened on the men’s tanned skin. The first stirrings of an unexpected emotion added more moisture to her already sea-dampened clothes until she turned her face back to the breeze.
A flicker of movement at the corner of her eye chilled her bones. The darkness of a shadow glided across the deck. With a cry, Broch dropped into a crouch, expecting to see red wings. Instead of a dragon with claws unfurled to pluck her from the deck, a flock of sea birds rose from the waves. Stream after stream of them obscured the sky, forming intriguing designs amidst the clouds.
They are only birds, not dragons, Broch chastised herself. The closer the flat-hulled Deep Lion came to land, the more omnipresent the birds became. Their raucous cries permeated the air both day and night. Like the crew, Broch’s nerves vibrated in reaction to the clamor until sleep became impossible. Some birds grew so bold as to line the rigging at dawn, hampering the sailors every time they tried to raise or lower canvas.
Realization of her defensive position straightened Broch. Frantic glances to see if anyone noticed her reaction to the birds added to her racing nerves, but no one gave any indication of her unusual action. The crew of Deep Lion kept about their duties. Hafgan and Lludd, her right hands, leaned in the shade of the main mast, their faces expressionless masks.< Her desire to yell at the birds, to lash out at those who inspired the fearful move, filled Broch, but she restrained her urges. No dragon soared amidst the smaller creatures. Relief warred with anger and fear. She was safe—for now.
~ * ~
The cabin boy’s knock and message of Deep Lion’s approach to land brought Broch back to the bow rail. She pulled the fine tulle fabric of her headscarf tighter around her face. At least I need not fear identification by those cursed ceoltiers. Between the jar of cream she’d acquired in the Far East and the work of the region’s skilled surgeons, her burn scars were no longer recognizable as such. Flares of fire enveloped her at the memory of the pain, of enduring the knives and needles the physicians used to scrape the raised welts smooth and to stretch the puckered skin that marred her face. Once again, the features of the cot holder who’d caused the injuries filled Broch’s vision. As it had since the failed raid on the homestead, anticipation of her revenge added to the heat ravaging her body.
Commands and the sound of running feet brought Broch back from her contemplations to watch the crew. The soft slap of water beneath the hull accompanied Deep Lion’s maneuvers around rocks hiding beneath a sea smooth as glass. Despite the weather on the horizon that should have churned both wind and waves, there was barely enough force to move the ship. Even the lightest canvas failed to hold air for long. “Come on, blow,” Broch growled at the gray skies. She wanted to get into port, get a hot bath, “and food,” she added. “Too bad the only man of the crew skinny enough to fit in the small galley was not a dab hand with pots and pans.” She smiled. He has other attributes. Until the birds became too obnoxious, the cook’s skills shortened the sleepless nights. Although she had not summoned him to her quarters for more than a sevenday, maybe she would request him to share her bed when they reached port.
The headlands that protected the city slid by, revealing the ship’s destination. “Finally,” Broch breathed, “Alcari.” Beyond the clutter of the docks, neat concentric arcs of increasingly larger and more elaborate homes made the mountainside look like terraced gardens. With each new vista, Broch became more introspective. The town reminded her too much of another town and of her time there with Hicca.
Will I find a clue within the rich townhouses of Alcari to Hicca’s disappearance? Or at the docks?
End of Chapter One, to read more, Hatchlings Curse is available for sale at the following List of Ebook sellers and in print from Amazon / Barnes and Noble
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Copyright 2015-2016 by Helen Henderson
Cover Art by Fantasia Frog
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