Vengeance has two paths—death or love.
Hatchling's Vengeance - A Look Between the Pages
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Moonlight broke over the peaks sending glints of light onto the black stones. A sensation of agelessness emanated from the ring of slabs as tall as five men. Glynnes stood in the center of the stelae, transfixed by their lure. Chiseled marks, symbols in an ancient language, covered the panels. Unbidden, she reached out and touched the glyphs executed by some ancient craftsmen. The sharp edges pricked her fingers as she traced a female dragon swallowing a large fish, then outlined the carvings of the aerial acrobatics of a mating flight.
“It’s not fair,” she growled. “It should be my turn.”
Glyn fought to suppress her jealousy.
Lexii is a friend, whispered her conscience. Despite the difference in their rank, they had been constant companions since childhood. As the daughter of Lady Dealan Gwennteir and Lord Liam Orfhlaith and the first baby ever born to dragshi parents, Lexii’s destiny had been set. From birth, the dragon song which welcomed her into the world proclaimed the existence of a twinned dragon soul and Lexii’s path as a dragon shifter. Whereas Glyn was an orphan who traced her lineage to trader clans, not the dragon lords.
Another sense of duty, one instilled in Glyn from her arrival at Cloud Eyrie to become Lexii’s bodyguard added to her guilt. Even though she herself was now a dragshi, the old habit of protecting Lexii, of putting her first, surfaced from time to time.
Still, Glyn was honest enough to admit, at least to herself, that it became harder and harder to watch another do what she so desperately wanted. And this time, she did not have the comfort of her own mate, Talann. He winged in Lexii’s mating flight—as a suitor.
“Ancestors beyond the veil, protect and guard Talann,” she whispered. Silently she added, “And don’t let him be the one to catch Lexii.”
Frustration added its own sorrow. I am exiled beyond the wall of mist.
<Our turn will come.> The comfort that flooded Glyn could only have come from her dragon soul twin, Janaleigh. The only other dragon who initiated contact was Fitheach, the dragon soul connected to Talann. And right now both were locked behind a tight mental block.
Glyn wished she felt the sureness Janaleigh projected. Yet again she wondered what the dragons knew that their human twins did not. The strength that had enabled Glyn to hide her true gender all the years she guarded Lexii hardened her determination to wait her turn.
If Janaleigh can wait so I can, Glyn vowed. After all, she has more to wait for. She won’t come in to her own until the time I depart the world of man and she takes control of our shared body.
Sensing an undercurrent in the mindlink to the dragon, Glyn broadcast reassurances to the spot in her mind the dragon soul occupied. <You’re right, Janaleigh. At least we found our mates. We are not alone.>
Where before the contact with the dragon soul had been comforting, now desire colored it a vibrant red. <Someday soon, you and Talann will take on my and Fitheach’s forms and fly.> Smugness entered the mindlink. <We will fly high and fast, and a hatchling will result.>
Glyn hid her own worry that she would never have a child so deep the twinned dragon soul could never find it. After all, she reasoned, the old ones, the true dragons did not sing a welcome at my birth. The tortured years of loneliness she had endured darkened her mind for an instant before being banished by her determined will.
She realized that since Janaleigh had awakened, it was easier to force down the old resentment. After all, despite Talann being the son of two dragshi, the Lady Anastasia Jessian and Lord Branin Llewlyn, the old ones did not sing at his birth. Just as they were silent at his mother’s entrance into the world. “Like me,” Glyn whispered, “there was no sign of a dragon shifter’s birth until our soul twins awoke.”
Her gaze rose to the massive temple build of stepped levels of the same rock as the panels and lingered on the top ledge—the spot from which female dragons, or dragshi in dragon form, launched themselves to begin the mating. The image of Lexii, glowing golden in the throes of passion while being courted by two suitors filled Glyn’s mind. However, it wasn’t the yellow dragon presenting Lexii with large fish that tore at her heart, but the black one—Talann.
Again she murmured, “It should be me.” Like the dragon counterparts, humans twinned to a dragon soul also joined for life in this world and the one beyond. Once vows were exchanged between the handfasted couple, they were never broken, even by death.
No one, neither dragshi nor ceoltier, nor the old dragons on their ledges above Cloud Eyrie knew why, but mating flights, either by dragshi in the form of their dragon twins or true dragon required multiple suitors for any possibility of conception. A contradiction which caused consternation amongst the older dragshi.
Glynnes bit off a curse and wondered at vagaries of life. Until Talann’s mother discovered the Place of First Rising and the stelae, few mating flights between true dragons had yielded a hatchling. “And the cause,” she muttered, “was the chase by extra males. Even though they were not meant to be victorious and mate with the queen, at least two suitors had to be on the wing for a successful mating between the queen and her chosen one.”
Yet their participation had to be more than a show. All risked a fall to a mountain peak when exhausted wings refused to keep them aloft. According to legend, more than one mortal wound had been inflicted when a participant in the flight fell under the thrall of the mating. His mind lost; in a blind frenzy he attacked anyone in his path. Because of this, each of the handful of mating competitions undertaken since the wall of mist around the Place of First Rising had was pierced had involved only three dragshi—the handfasted couple and a trusted friend. For only a friend would risk being ripped to shreds by sharp talons or use his own strength to keep the involved couple from crashing to their deaths on craggy mountains cliffs.
In her mind, Glynnes knew Talann had to fly as wingman in Lexii’s flight. Kynan, Lexii’s mate, had been to Talann what Glyn had been to Lexii—confidant, bodyguard, and most importantly, friend.
Heat burned her fingers. White fire on the black rock showed a single dragon with five males in pursuit. Lost in her reflections, she hadn’t noticed the carvings glow brighter and brighter in response to Lexii’s heightening arousal.
~ * ~
Activity on the lake stopped Haldric within the shadowed tree line of the jungle. He didn’t need to look to know Nesseq followed a step behind. The soft rustle of her skirt told of her position an arm’s reach farther back up the trail. His hand signal sent her to her knees on the ground. A glance showed she had not only chosen a soft bed of ferns that would help mute the sound of any movement, but the low-hanging branches broke up her outline and concealed her from the air. At least, he thought, I don’t have to worry about her hair revealing her position. The hats she had become quite adept at weaving from the supple tree fronds covered her sun-bleached white hair.
Satisfied that Nesseq was well hidden from even the sharp eyes of dragons, Haldric moved to a spot where he could see the gentle waves—and anyone approaching by either land or lake. The traders of Clan Weiss were not due until the next full moon. Haldric looked forward to their visit and exchange of the salted fish curing in the caves for other necessities he and Nesseq needed for their small compound. He had received no word of any other wagon train coming south to resupply the researchers at the temple. In fact, just the day before he had watched the dragshi and the retired masters of the Ceoltier Guild assisting them in deciphering the stelae leave the temple area leading a dozen pack animals. Nesseq and I should be alone at this end of the valley.
Out on the lake, a dragon dove to the water’s surface, rising with a large fish in its claws. Soon the captured prize was added to the pile already on the beach. “Now I understand,” Haldric cursed. There will be mating flight—and soon.
Annoyance at the disruption of his routine warmed his neck. He had planned to take advantage of the cooler night air that kept the small biting bugs from attacking and go fishing. However, with dragons in the air, he did not dare take the small boat from its hiding place amongst the reeds.
Haldric quashed the rising anger. The cursed shifters can home in on strong feelings, especially anger and hatred. “Must calm,” he muttered, repeating the low mantra.
Several deep breaths later, the heat left his face. It was easier to do now without the Parant’s constant exhortations of the evils of the dragshi and their supporters, the ceoltiers. As always, Haldric repeated the justification for his disobedience. The dragshi did attack the hidden valley where the Parant held court, but showed more mercy to my uncle’s followers than the leader did to his own. The Parant, Haldric still could not think of his kin as such, but as the religious leader, put any and all under his thrall. And enforced his will with a drop into one of the deep cave pits for all who resisted the “training.”
Shadows crossed Haldric’s soul. Including me. My uncle had given the order that I was not to come South with him.
A smile twitched his lips. “The dragshi’s attack gave me the chance to escape the Parant’s influence.” Without it I would never have known Nesseq loved me for myself, not because she was ordered to do so by the Parant.
Still, old habits were hard to break and he stood motionless within the sanctuary of the jungle until the dragon climbed skyward and winged away. “At least,” he muttered, “the cats go deep in the jungle when the dragon’s fly. Nesseq will be safe while I work.”
For long moments, Haldric stood, scanning the space from the lake surface to the scattered clouds in the sky. The dragon did not return. When the area remained quiet for half a candlemark, he turned to the now sleeping Nesseq. A smile twitched his lips. She had worked so hard for the last three days—and nights—picking and preserving baskets of the small red fruits unique to the dragon’s valley. The fruits, prized by those in the northern climes as a mid-winter treat, withered quickly in the jungle heat and had to be soaked, the hard rinds removed, and the soft sections sealed in ceramic jars before the juice dried in the shell rending the fruit useless for trade—or anything else. And a portion of the proceeds from the trade were for her.
Unlike the trade goods Clan Weiss offered, the cookware she had been able to secure and bring with them on their frantic escape from the shifters was poorly made. No matter how any times the pots were sealed, food stuck. Several pots no longer held water.
A low moan escaped as Nesseq, caught up in an old dream, thrashed around in her sleep. The nightmares of being under another’s will returned less frequent than seasons ago, but an occasional reminder of her time as the Parant’s handmaiden returned.
Haldric hurried to her side. “Easy, darling,” he whispered until she quieted. With a gentle touch, he moved a strand of sun-bleached hair from her damp brow. “Nesseq, I want to make the visit worthwhile for Clan Weiss. If I unload the wagon now, I can still get another load by dawn.”
His cheeks warmed with at his wife’s drowsy smile and sleepy mumble.
“You rest, I’ll load the wagon.”
Swift strides took him to the boat. Tossing aside the concealing matt of tree limbs, he bent and man-handled a large fish to his shoulder. Although he staggered under its weight, he lowered the burden with a grunt in rough boards of the wagon. A scan of the area ensured no creature, neither dragon nor the black cats that inhabited the region, would disturb Nesseq. The draft horse used to pull the wagon cropped contentedly at the end of its rope. The animal would give warning of either dragon or cat and its hooves could be as lethal as a sharpened blade.
Load after load Haldric repeated the circuit—lift, stagger, drop, scan and return for more. The moon cleared the treetops before the boat was empty.
His breath coming in short gasps, he leaned against the wagon. A faint rustle of cloth on the breeze spun him to face the source. But it was no wild creature that stood there, but Nesseq with a smile on her face. Her hands lifted in summons and she moved in close. Her breath wafted hot on his neck. “Darling,” she whispered.
Her fingers traced over his bare chest. Energy shocked his skin with each swirl. Her fingers pulled at the laces of his pants.
Fighting the fire racing in his veins that her touch triggered, he checked the sky for dragons. However, none darkened the moon. Only an echelon of birds winging toward the distant shore broke the blue of the sky.
A distant bugle rolled down the beach. Again Haldric cursed the timing. The mating flight will begin at dawn. And, one of the after-effects of the Parant’s training is that Nesseq is susceptible to their broadcasts. Conflict cooled the rising ardor. He had to get her away before the dragons rose. Swift calculations told him he didn’t have enough fish for the items he wanted to buy for her. Another reason to spend a day in the deep caves fueled his determination to make another catch. Salting the fish will keep us out of the way of the dragons.
“Nesseq, no,” he ordered.
Her lips pursed in a pout that transformed to a sly smile. Her touch teased until he managed to capture her hands. In the temporary reprieve, his chest heaved with deep breaths to regain control.
The Parant would take advantage, lust encouraged.
And died for his excesses, conscience argued.
Nesseq’s low moan sounded into the night.
Logic whispered to yield to their rising desire. Nesseq is willing.
Still Haldric fought her advances. Guilt about all the women he had taken rose. The faces of those who had come to him as the obedient followers of the parent, willing to give anything for the privilege of being a follower appeared in a chilling parade.
I am not that man any longer. I have been faithful to Nesseq, never taking her in anger or lust. And I won’t do it now. Again he tried to reach the teasing woman. “Nesseq, my love, the dragons will soon fly. These are not your own thoughts. You’re under their influence.”
“I don’t care,” she murmured. “I want you—here—now.” A tug freed her hands and she reached up to slip the loose bodice of the blouse from her shoulders. “You are mine, Haldric.” She pressed against him and he could feel the heat of her body through the thin fabric. “Now and forever.”
~ * ~
Lexii’s strident call rang out in the darkness. Kynan’s tenor answered her challenge. Talann’s gaze shifted to the pile that was his shirt and vest, the items discarded during his and Glyn’s private farewell. His wife had not wanted to leave and it had taken some convincing until she agreed to wait outside the wall of mist for the mating flight to end.
A second, more urgent, bugle sounded from the launching ledge. The yellow dragon broadcast such an allure, Talann ignored his clothes and ran to the open space at the bottom of the temple. He summoned his magic and between one step and the next, switched forms with Fitheach and emerged on the wing.
Heartbeats later he approached the temple. On the flat ledge, Lexii in the form of her dragon soul twin, Beylnea, arched her neck in a come-hither summons.
Snatching a fish from the pile caught the day before, Talann stroked skyward with his burden secure in his claws to where Kynan circled.
Kynan growled, but backed off allowing Talann to present his offering to Lexii. After three more trips, he landed on a ledge farther down the building.
She gulped down the fish and moved onto the next. Her color brightened with each bite and soon mirrored the deep gold of the setting sun. She stretched her wings and whistled.
Passion flooded Talann’s veins at the seductive call. The air vibrated with a sensuality that he felt in every sinew of his body. His efforts to control the effect of Lexii’s siren call enabled him to retain his senses, but failed to lessen the physical affect.
From the spot he inhabited in Talann’s mind, Fitheach broadcast his own response. <We will fly this time?> The dragon soul answered his own question in a sorrowful tone. &glt;But we can’t. It is Beylnea who rises, not Janaleigh.<
The dragon’s comment reminded Talann of the divergent personalities amongst the dragon souls. Some refused to name a person they didn’t like, merely projected an image. Others tended to name the twinned soul rather than the human one. For a heartbeat, he wondered at Fitheach’s use of Beylnea, rather than Lexii, who at the present controlled the pair’s shared form.
It is just because, Fitheach awaits Janaleigh, Talann reassured himself. Not because of any antipathy to Lexii. Whether the dragon soul intended it or not, his comment added to Talann’s control. Our time will come Fitheach. First Glynnes and I will fly in your forms, and then one day, you and Janaleigh will soar above the lake together.
He looked at Kynan who crouched two dragon lengths away. <Ready?>
<As I ever will be,> Kynan answered. <Although I wish Lexii would launch, already. This waiting is getting on my nerves.>
As if she heard, between one heartbeat and the next, Lexii rocketed herself skyward. Speed enhanced by mating drive quickly carried the glowing dragon past the waiting males. A powerful kick thrust Kynan into the air close on her tail. Fighting the urge to succumb to the lure, Talann followed a heartbeat later. This was Lexii’s flight—not Glynnes’. He owed Kynan his life several times over and could not—would not—fail him.
Lexii pulled away. Then hovering, snaked her head over a wing, teasing her rapidly-approaching mate. Before he got close enough to twine necks, she winged away. Lost in urges as ancient as time, she folded her wings and dove, pulling out above the tree line.
She rose higher. Her hide, vibrant with arousal, glowed against the sky. A wing’s distance above the chasing suitors, she halted to see which of the pair locked in aerial combat leagues below she would allow to mate with her. Her bugle taunted and teased.
Following a compulsion stronger than time, Talann overtook Kynan and arrowed in close pursuit of the soaring Lexii. He projected an image of them flying side by side. Sensing her increased interest, he whistled her name in a lover’s croon.
Lexii answered with one of her own and rose higher.
Sparks flickering from his wings, he circled beneath Lexii. Each loop brought him closer, without actually overtaking her. His muscles burned with every stroke. Lower down, Kynan closed the gap.
Talann gasped at the insanity in his friend’s roars. Still he continued to mirror Lexii’s intricate maneuvers. Finally, his chest heaving, he slowed. <Lexii, end this,> he sent on a tight link. <The flight has lasted too long. You and Kynan are exhausted. If you consummate now, you’ll crash into the peaks.>
Lexii whistled again, testing Talann’s control. Only the physical demands of flight and the strength of his friendship with the pair allowed him to maintain a splinter of reason against the siren call. It had been hard enough to resist the mating urge when it was between the true dragons, now it involved two of his own kind. No, he argued, my two best friends.
His tenuous hold over his own will weakened and he grabbed onto Fitheach’s comfort. <Our time will come,> the dragon soul returned.
A bugle, an imperative summons, came from the hovering Lexii and she glided toward Talann in an open invitation to twine necks.
The pain of refusal surged through Talann. Once again he repeated the mantra, Lexii is wed to Kynan.
<But I am larger, stronger,> Fitheach grumbled. <Of interest to any female.> Sadness and recognition of the truth colored his tone. <But that is not Janaleigh waiting for us.>
Kynan thundered his anger and surged forward in a whoosh of wind. <Lexii is mine.>
Fear for his friend chilled Talann. Kynan’s lost in the mating thrall. The other dragshi’s hide glowed a brilliant orange from his exertions. His entire being broadcast a single determination—he would wait no longer.
Kynan trumpeted his defiance. <I will fly Lexii. No one will stop me.>
As he swept past, he stretched out a claw. Sharp talons raked Talann from shoulder to wingtip, ripping through flesh and sinew. The pain of a thousand knife cuts tore through his body. He faltered, then fought to recover the lost attitude. Every wingstroke became an agony.
Still he fought to keep his friends in view. They needed him now more than ever before. Without someone to awaken their reason, to pull them from the thrall of the mating, they could crash onto the mountain peaks.
Kynan climbed above Lexii then dropped. Where before his talons were extended, now they grabbed Lexii around the waist, and in almost the same motion twined necks. Sparks leapt from orange wings to Lexii’s golden ones until the unnatural blaze surrounding the pair turned them into a miniature sun. Their silhouettes rose until they were nothing but small black motes against the clear sky.
Kynan’s triumphant call and Lexii’s lighter bugle added to Talann’s pain.
Sadness darkened Talann’s soul. It should have been me and Glynnes. We waited too long.
Although a glacial ice surrounded his chest, fire burned along his wing. His muscles refused to move. Crippled, he plunged toward the ground.
Glyn, I’m sorry. Forgive me.
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Copyright 2016 by Helen Henderson
Cover Art by Fantasia Frog Designs
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