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Talann ignored the encroaching river that lapped at his feet. He stood alone. His tense frame focused on the torches flickering in the darkness of the opposite bank. Behind him, two dozen men crowded beneath blankets draped over tree limbs. The improvised shelters provided little protection from the storm-whipped spray. Loud rumbles expressed the men’s discontent as they squatted with their arms crossed over their chests for the meager warmth the act provided against the winds ripping down the narrow gorge.
An oath escaped his tightened jaw. Some means must exist to save the people and small herd of horses trapped by the now impassible river. Plan after plan flickered into existence to be ruthlessly quashed. All he needed was to get a line across the defile. But not even the strongest marksman could send an arrow that distance. “A single narrow cord would provide the means to re-establish the ferry boat,” he rumbled.
At least once the heavier tow ropes were pulled across, his military training corrected.
Once again, Talann cursed the quirk of fate which had denied him his heritage. If, like his parents, he had been born with a twinned dragon soul, he could take on the form of a dragon brother and fly across the water. I can’t. And my parents are two days travel away—still grounded by a late spring storm. Images of his parents, the Lady Anastasia Jessian and Lord Branin Llewlyn, faded and the aristocratic image of Lady Lexii Beylnea appeared in his mind.
“No,” escaped as more of an expletive than statement. Even though she was the only dragshi close enough to assist, she could not be risked. Until the true dragons sang a song of welcome to a male shifter, Lexii had to be safeguarded, protected from all harm.
The legend of the shifter lovers, Cailin and Lasair drifted into Talann’s mind. Over the years, the tale resonated in his heart and helped him curb his wild streak. A chill unconnected with the rain which drenched his clothes and ran down his collar rippled through his body. His mate murdered by a fanatical dragon-hater, Lasair took his own life.
At that point, Talann’s mother’s soft tones always saddened. “Son, never forget. Bravery must be balanced with caution. Someday your mate will appear and you must think of her. Like the old ones themselves, dragshi mate for this life and the one beyond.”
Resignation twitched Talann’s lips. Ever since his birth everyone assumed he and Lexii would marry. However, no matter how much he liked her, how hard he tried, some cosmic quirk of fate kept them apart. Her mere presence in the same room grated against his soul like an iron nail dragged against a rock. If he and Lexii were together for too long, they fought for any or no reason. Their monumental clashes rocked Cloud Eyrie until either one or the other of their parents intervened. He acknowledged the end result with a grim smile. I saddled Ohlmar and galloped off into the countryside. Controlling the heat he always felt at the injustice, Talann returned his attention to a problem he could solve.
The crunch of rocks underfoot preceded a body sliding into position at his left side. Only one man dared the familiarity—Kynan—a friend and companion since childhood. With a brusque flick of his fingers, Kynan pushed dripping blond locks out of his eyes. “Tal, don’t even think of it. The current is too fast. And Uaine says things are even worse upstream.”
Talann glanced at his friend who radiated the same tension he himself felt pulsing in his veins. The reference to Uaine, his mother’s childhood friend and now leader of the contingent who protected Lexii, gave Talann a momentary pause. Without a word, he returned his gaze to the opposite shore.
“Don’t try it Tal. Even though you swim like a water dragon, you’ll never make it,” Kynan persisted. He tried a different tack. “Storms this time of year don’t last. The winds will die down soon and your father can travel by air. He can be here in two days. Wait and let him fly the rope for the ferry boat across.”
The look on Kynan’s face told Talann the other man didn’t believe the airborne rescuers could arrive before the waters overran the beleaguered people on the other side of the river. The brightening skies showed the true measure of the threat. Each candlemark they waited reduced the safe haven area of the small hillock.
Hoof falls and the sound of labored breathing sounded out of the darkness. A fast-moving shape shifted Talann and Kynan’s gaze to the trail leading from town. The shimmering mane of a seidheirn and the slender frame more suitable for a lady of the court than a warrior announced the new arrival’s identity. “It’s Glyn,” Kynan hissed. A breath later, he added, “He’s alone.”
Words harsher than Talann intended slipped out. “I bet not for long.” Wherever Glyn was, Lexii could not be far behind. Glyn fulfilled the same role in Lexii’s life as Kynan did in his—friend, confidant, and bodyguard. Even though he held a special position among both the dragshi and the true humans, Talann knew Lexii outranked him and was the one person with the authority to prevent the rescue attempt. Sour thoughts soared through his mind. Unlike her, I have not gone through First Change. The dragons did not sing at my birth. More bitter than angry, one final fact loomed over the others. I am not dragshi.
Glyn’s cloaked and hooded figure dropped to the ground, and after a quick pat of the mount’s foam-lathered neck, strode over. “Lexii is but moments behind.” A gesture indicated the mare now being rubbed down. “I don’t know how she does it, however Buar bespoke the mare Lexii rides.”
Talann’s shrug acknowledged the mystery of the seidheirn. The magical cousins to true horses chose their riders, and sometimes befriended other humans as well. An even greater wonder was not the amount of communication between seidheirn, but between human and animal.
“In contrast to her master’s orders, Lexii’s mare agreed to run a little slower so we’d arrive first.” Glyn turned a stern gaze on the river. “Talann, if you’re going to cross, you had better do it now.”
“My father couldn’t order me not to try to save those trapped, whether man or beast,” Talann growled. “Dragshi or not, Lexii won’t stop me.”
Out of the darkness, panicked bugles and terrified screams rose over the pounding of water. Glances at his friends told Talann of their readiness to support whatever decision he made. “Bring the ropes.” A tug stripped off his rain-logged tunic. “And the grease.”
~ * ~
Preparations for the crossing finished to the sound of approaching hoof beats. Talann stood naked except for his linen briefs and ankle high boots. His skin glistened from the grease smeared on it to cut the drag of the water. In a sweeping look, he evaluated the line of men behind him. Each held a determined grip on the lines, the only chance of salvation for their loved ones.
“I’ll delay Lexii,” Glyn said stepping into the saddle. “Kynan will back you until my return.” Then, after a glance at the now slightly calmer waters added, “Tal, safe crossing. See you on the other side.”
Kynan gave the narrow cords tied around Talann’s chest a tug. “Ready when you are.”
Three deep breaths later, Talann pulled off his boots and tossed them aside. He let enough air escape to give the order. “Let’s do this.” His teeth chattering from the cold, he waded out into the rough waves and in a lithe move, dove into the dark depths. Currents countered his every stroke. Despite throwing every ounce of his will and muscle into the task he made slow progress. Each time he surfaced for a breath of air, the opposite shore seemed more distant. A deep gulp and he once again dropped beneath the roiling water.
The pounding beat of an ancient call to war, a tune Talann felt rather than heard, filled his head. His father’s deep tenor filled the mental link between them with the words of the “Battle Hymn of the Seidheirn.” Glyn and Kynan joined in with their lighter tones. Lexii’s soprano wove a descant above them all. Lady Eirwen, leader of the dragshi, consolidated the wishes of those she ruled into a simple message of strength and sent it along in the music.
The chorus used to keep steeds in a synchronized step and motivate men’s souls acted on Talann. He visualized himself standing, not alone, but as in the song, “shoulder to shoulder.” The ethereal cord between him and his friends glowed from their efforts to support him. Although suppressed worry laced the prayers and energy sent by his mother, the Lady Anastasia, Talann sensed only pride in his father’s mental tone, none of the darker emotion. However, combat experience would have enabled the older man to hide such things.
Renewed by the energy being sent from the dragshi, Talann found his muscles moving in time to the ancient beat. The next time he rose for air, he had made progress. Emboldened, he filled his lungs and after sighting on glowing landmark of torches, struck out for the opposite shore.
<Talann, dive. Down now!>
So insistent was the tone, he obeyed. Swift kicks took him towards the sandy bottom. The sight of branches passing between him and the opposite shore told why the command, but not who. The question would have to wait. As his fingers scrabbled for a purchase to keep him from being carried downstream, insight honed by climbing the steep mountain trails around Cloud Eyrie distinguished submerged shapes. Debris on the river bed provided more than a counterbalance to Talann’s natural buoyancy, it also held him in position against the invisible wall of force pushing against him. Logs, rocks, and the sunken remains of a boat formed a ladder unseen from above. Over his shoulder, the current formed the cords leading to Glyn and the villagers into a shimmering arc.
Praying the ropes did not catch on a stray piece of debris, Talann forced his way to the first rung and grabbed the slick tree branch. The sharp edges cut into his water-weakened skin. Still, he retained his hold on both mind and body. With the slow precision of a child learning to crawl, he moved in the shadowed murk to the next rung of the horizontal ladder—and the next. Each handhold closed the distance to his destination—the other bank of the river. His lungs burning, he kicked for the lighter color of the surface.
A half-submerged rock provided support while he sucked down long gulps of air. Blinking to clear vision clouded by pain and stinging spray, he searched for torches or other indication of his destination. The brightening skies revealed not only how far he had come—but how far away the shore remained. A tingle at the back of his head warned someone wanted mindspeech. With no magic of their own, neither Glyn’s nor Kynan’s connection was that strong. The familiarity of the presence meant dragshi—and Lexii. Talann braced himself for the first twinges resulting with contact from her, but only support and a sense of a communal brotherhood, such as one amongst soldiers appeared. Where was the irrational urge to fight that usually came with Lexii’s mental touch?
<I won't order you back, Talann> Lexii sent over a tight link.
A heartbeat later, as if the shift in speakers was of no import, Glyn took over the conversation. <Lexii took on Beylnea’s form and is using dragon long vision to monitor the river. She says the flood brought trees down from the upper slopes of the valley. Their inter-wound branches are now hung up in the rapids three bends up river.>
~ * ~
Cold rain hid Talann and ran down Glyn’s neck. A shrug shifted the leather breastband, although the garment still rubbed the bruise obtained during an earlier weaponry session. The last few seasons it had become increasingly hard to masquerade as a male. It had been easier to impersonate a boy during her childhood years at Cloud Eyrie. Even later, at the Ceoltier Guild, her disguise remained unbroken while she mingled on an equal basis with the apprentices.
She never understood why even though made of the same material, the tunics and pants were much more comfortable than the breastband. Although, she did admit, she was glad for more than the protection the clothes provided against the damp. Despite their suppleness, clothes fashioned from the special mountain elk hide wouldn’t cling like other fabrics, such as soft startlton, and betray the slight curves in her body.
A warmth at odds with the night’s chill drifted down her spine. It grew until the sensation enveloped every muscle and sinew. The darkness receded and everything seemed sharper. Previously unseen objects came into view including rocks that just moments before were part of the black mass of water.
This must be what it is like to have a soul twin, she mused. Only one thing accounted for a true human to have the ability. Somehow the dragshi are using me as a focal point. But how? I cannot even bring fire to cold wood.
The dragshi’s use of magic now accepted, Glyn visualized herself a deep well being filled by the magic that now flowed through the mental connection. Energy from Talann’s parents formed the core of the flow. Behind it, Glyn recognized the mental signatures of Lexii and her parents, Lady Dealan Gwenteirr and Lord Liam Orfhlaith.
<You do well, Glyn.> A vision of Lady Eirwen in her familiar pose, with hands resting lightly on the wooden arms of the upholstered chair in her office, filled Glyn’s mind. Despite Eirwen’s age of more than a millennia, the other woman’s mental tone was strong. In fact, the force behind the contact made Glyn feel the older woman stood beside her, rather than leagues away.
Although she couldn’t discern the identities of any other individuals, Glyn sensed Eirwen had gathered magical support from the rest of the dragshi at Cloud Eyrie and was now forwarding it on in an effort to save not only Talann, but the stranded villagers. The dark depths of the imaged well soon filled. Just before it overflowed, military-honed instincts took over and Glyn pictured herself sending the glowing force onward to Talann.
* ~ *
The light touch of magic started at Talann’s head and spread down his body. With it came a lessening of the agonizing spear thrusts in this chest.
An easy link formed and he reached out to Glyn. The confidence sent by his friend buoyed his own flagging spirits. <Not much farther to go, Tal. You’re almost there.> Talann sensed a rapid conversation at the edge of the link.
<Rain has stopped on the upper slopes,> Glyn continued. <Between the easing and the dam, the water level is stable... at least for a few moments. Kynan and Uaine estimate the block won’t hold long. A half candlemark at the most.>
Now or never. After a deep breath which sent another stab of fire into his lungs, Talann pushed off from the rock and let the current carry him a few feet downstream before stroking for the far shore. What followed turned into alternating periods of black and red—the darkness below the surface and the desperate gulp of a breath.
Worry, Talann identified as coming from Lexii colored the link. Even before she made the pronouncement he knew—the dam had broken. A road so loud it overwhelmed the rush of water grew closer. Only moments remained before the wall of debris reached him. Adrenaline powered his muscles through the choppy waves.
Water rushed over his head, submerging him. Sputtering, he struggled upwards. No sooner had he breached the surface, than a wave knocked him against a rock. Sharp pains surged through his chest.
End of Chapter One, to read more, Hatchling's Mate is available for sale at the following List of Ebook sellers, and in print from Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Createspace
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Copyright 2015-2016 by Helen Henderson
Cover Art by Fantasia Frog
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