Dragon Destiny - Chapter One

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Branin grimaced as the cold winds from the ice fields tugged at his wings, the frigid air piercing even thick dragon skin. Ranks of clouds on the horizon warned of the nearness of winter storms. Soon, he would need to return to the sanctuary of Cloud Eyrie. He could not survive outside sturdy walls, even if he remained in the dragon form of his twinned soul, Llewlyn. Still Branin soared higher, seeking solace from his dark mood. He dreaded the long months during which weather isolated Cloud Eyrie from the world. Snow-blocked passes and roof-high drifts prevented travel in human form by foot or horseback. Gale force winds prevented escape by wing. Winter trapped him inside walls of stone, denying him the option of escaping his loneliness in the skies above. All the other dragshi had met their mates. Their happiness, the depth of their attachments, especially that of his friends, Liam and Dealan, just emphasized Branin’s solitude.
  His plans to winter over somewhere other than the high mountain complex of the dragshi vanished with the unexpected summons from Lady Eirwen. After his first rebellious thought to ignore the order from the ruler of the dragshi to return, he surrendered to the inevitable. Within the walls of Cloud Eyrie, even the temporary companionship of a woman disappeared.
  Until his true mate appeared, he resigned himself to lesser relationships with the opposite sex. 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 the companionship. If they pursued their relationship to a physical level, it was done with no expectations beyond mutual pleasure. He pictured the red-haired beauty he just left. 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 sensed a ruthlessness within her. No matter how hard she tried to throw herself at him, the fire never kindled.
Branin screamed his frustration to the sky. Liam and Dealan had found each other within weeks of their first shift into dragon form. According to the ancient records in the back recesses of Cloud Eyrie, he and Llewlyn had already waited longer for their mates than any other dragshi had ever done. Llewlyn woke more frequently from the shadowed corner of Branin’s mind where he slept and the dragon’s discontent echoed Branin’s own. They were alone and, Branin feared, destined to remain that way forever. Again, he yelled to the winds. However, what echoed back from the ice-covered peaks sounded more like a moan than a dragon’s trumpeting call.
  A hint of emotion whispered at the edge of his senses. He could tell the feeling did not come from his fellow dragshi, or, from one of the old dragons. That left only a true human.
  The depth of the other’s longing called to him. His own hunger answered. Reaching out with a gentle mental summons, he asked, <Who are you?>
  Surprise and astonishment replaced the dark despair Branin first felt from the unknown person.
  <Do not be afraid,> Branin encouraged. <Tell me your name.>
  No matter how hard he listened, no response answered his question, although Branin detected the low rumble of thought. He curbed his normal instinct to charge forward. Instead, he flew tight circles between the steep cliffs and waited. Three loops turned into four, which stretched into ten. Wet flakes from the approaching storm pelted him. A strong downdraft caught his wings and dropped him several hundred feet. Retreating before the black clouds, he tried one last time.
  <Mine is Branin. Your loneliness touched me. Please, what is your name?>
  The contact snapped. In the final moment of its existence, a single word whispered into Branin’s mind. <Anastasia>
~ * ~
  Anastasia pulled her jacket tighter against the crisp breeze. Even here on the southern coast, the area did not totally escape winter’s grasp. Riding rear guard on horseback provided none of the comforts afforded a wagon driver, but she preferred the solitary task. Despite the fact that cold rain often soaked her clothes or dripped from her long braid.
“At least, Geneth, you won’t have to plow through snow drifts to reach Alcari,” Anastasia told her mount. “Remember last year when the mountain blizzards trapped us in the caves for weeks? This winter we’ll be warm and safe.” If bored.
The dappled mare twitched her ears in reply and plodded along the grassy trace, to all appearances uninterested in their destination.
“You don’t fool me, you lazy glut,” Anastasia said with a laugh. “You just want to roll in the straw and suck feed grain into that bottomless pit you call a stomach.”
Geneth snorted, then settled into an even, long-haul gait. Accustomed to the gentle rocking, Anastasia freed her mind to wander. She would be eighteen by the next full moon, only two sevenday away. Even if some of the guilds and masters broke tradition and took older students, she was long past the age to be apprenticed to learn a trade. Shona, the only other girl near Anastasia’s age, had left the caravan a season earlier to improve her skills with special training under a local weaver in Caltherty.
“It’s not fair.”
Anastasia replayed the discussions between her father and uncle held about her leaving the train. Since her mother was dead, as head mistress, Aunt Karenina would normally arrange for a fostering. But Anastasia’s father and uncle both forbid the arrangement, demanding that Anastasia stay and teach the children until the clan could get a ceoltier assigned to travel with them.
“You remember our previous journeyman, don’t you Geneth? Portly, hated the road, loved sweets.”
After the mare tossed her mane, Anastasia continued her musing. She’d taken over teaching the children two years ago when the ceoltier left. So far, the guild had not been able to find someone willing to endure the rigors of a trader caravan. That her father and uncle both agreed no one possessed her skill at teaching the little ones their numbers and letters did nothing to ease her melancholy. She was trapped. Girls could not officially be a ceoltier so even if she did leave the family she could not use her talents to earn a living as a tutor or scribe. Marriage did not offer any escape. No man, either from within the clan or from any of the towns or villages, interested her enough to accept a proposal.
To get her anger under control, Anastasia pulled up the mare at the top of the hill. All the wagons slowly clanked on, leaving her alone with her reflections. A desperation, stronger than anything she had ever felt, washed over her. She added her own unfulfilled desires, then cast the strengthened emotion out into darkening skies.
“Who are you?” returned a quiet query.
Eyes wide, she glanced around. She saw no one close enough for her to hear them speak. Besides, she heard the voice in her head. An unlikely answer came from the old legends. One creature had the capability of mindspeech--a dragon. Or, she corrected, a dragshi--a human with a twinned dragon soul. A human who could shift his form from man into dragon. Her quick scan of the cloudless sky revealed no great winged beast.
Knowing she remained earthbound when others had the freedom of flight, tightened Anastasia’s chest. Deep breaths released some of the tension. “To go where I want would be wonderful,” she sighed. “I wish I was a dragshi.” This time when the question, What is your name, repeated she hesitated only a heartbeat before answering. <Anastasia.>
~ * ~
Broch pushed a stray strand of red hair back from her face. She crumpled the message in her hand and cursed everyone and everything. How dare her father recall her? Especially now on winter’s eve. He could at least have waited until spring. She just needed a little more time to snare Branin. Once she got him into her bed, she would have the riches--and power--she deserved.
The two crystal goblets next to the unopened bottle of wine on the table raised an idea. If Branin were my escort, accompanied me back to Ky’Port, we would be alone on the trail. With time and privacy, no man with blood in his veins has ever been able to refuse me. Branin will beg me to marry him.
“Maybe all is not lost,” she muttered. She sat down at the table and pulled out a piece of scented paper. Moments later, the ink sanded and dried, she tied a gold-edged ribbon around the rolled sheet. Swift strides took her to the door. Outside, several drudges cleaned the hall. “You,” Broch called, pointing to a pale-faced girl. “Attend me.” She thrust the message into the servant’s hand. “Take this to Lord Branin. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lady.” Her head bobbed while she repeated the order to herself. “Message, Lord Branin.” Backing away, the drudge turned and ran toward the other wing of the hold.
Broch watched until the girl rounded the corner, then walked back into her room and shut the door. She glanced at her trunk in the corner and started to gather her belongings. Soon, the bed was piled high with gowns and filmy scarves. Sweat dotted her forehead despite the chill of the day outside. Filling a glass with wine, she sat on the padded window seat to await the response to her note.
Warmth lured Broch from a deep sleep. The direct rays of the late-afternoon sun played across her face. She stirred with a moan when muscles, held stiff for hours, twinged. Her question of why am I asleep on the window seat cut off in mid-phrase at the sight of her bed. All the memories of the morning, the hope of her intended liaison, and the anger of her father’s recall, flooded back. The light knock on the door stopped her examination of the chaos. Broch quickly checked her reflection in the mirror before calling out, “Enter.”
Disappointment-fueled anger replaced the anticipation of seeing Branin. Instead of the dragshi, the head steward stood in the doorway. More disheartening, the man clutched the pink scroll in his hand.
“Lady Broch,” he said with a bow, “Meghan was not able to deliver your message.” He took four steps and placed the scroll on the table alongside the empty wineglass. “I am sorry to inform you, but his lordship received an urgent message from the head of the dragshi and left late this morning. We looked but could not find you.” After a few moments, he stepped closer and held out a folded note sealed by a circle of dark blue wax. An impression of a dragon on the wing proved the authenticity of the missive. Before Broch could respond, the steward placed the note in her hand, bowed, and left the room. Moments later, she rushed to the stables. Leaping into the saddle, she spurred her horse out onto the cobblestone street and the countryside beyond.
Throughout the next few hours Broch searched against the rose-colored sky for the dark mote that would be Branin’s dragon form. The words of his leaving replayed in her head. His note expressed his regrets that he could not spend the rest of the winter with her and assured his continued friendship.
A glint of amber magnified by the setting sun rewarded her efforts. She turned her mount’s head in that direction. With sunset’s fading light, she followed Branin’s shadow against the full moon for miles until he soared over the mountain and into the darkness beyond.
~ * ~
Branin raced back to Cloud Eyrie with great sweeps of his amber wings. More than just the impending weather triggered his haste. He wanted the privacy of his quarters to contact Vivel. If anyone could unravel the mystery of Anastasia, the ceoltier could. Vivel’s guild had contacts throughout all of Nerelan.
Cloud Eyrie’s complex of entwined buildings appeared none too quickly for Branin, despite the fact the stone would imprison both his heart and body for the duration of the winter. A gust of harsh wind swirled the clouds covering the mountain and revealed another problem. He had planned to use the cliff ledge all the dragshi used for takeoffs and landings. But four dragons filled the space, transforming into their human shapes. Liam’s dark gray bulk hovered above them, waiting his turn to get out of the weather. In the dragon form of his soul twin Orfhlaith, Liam overshadowed the entire ledge. Llewlyn is even larger, Branin growled. I’ll have to wait until Liam finishes.
Three strokes shifted Branin over to the large courtyard used in the summer for dances and a gathering space for all the local residents. A handful of bright cloaks raced towards the shelter of the wide portico. He could see where three others were in the midst of changing form.
Branin searched for another option. It won’t be more than a few heartbeats before that storm hits. I’ll be soaked through to my skin before I can get to shelter. Unless…?
He changed his angle of descent toward a small courtyard. Eirwen will tear a few inches from my hide if she catches me, but, at least I won’t get drenched. Three beats later, he hovered beside the balcony of his quarters. He stiffened his shoulders so just the tips of his wings moved to slow his rate of fall. Even then, their edges grazed the lower balcony rails. A length from the ground, Branin curled his dragon tail alongside his body and snaked his head under his shoulder. The amber ball that was now his body shimmered and dissolved into a white mist that drifted down to cobbles already darkening from the rain.
Rain merged with the mist. A form solidified in the murkiness. Branin, now returned to his human shape dropped into a crouch. His bent knees absorbed the bulk of the landing’s impact. Rain chased his heels as he straightened and raced toward the narrow door leading to the back stairwell. He leaped inside and slammed the door.
“Eirwen told me you would be here,” a low voice said. “I told her you would not be so stupid and risk yourself and Llewlyn by landing in a space too small.” Displeasure at being proved wrong leaked from the newcomer’s tone.
“There was no danger.” At Ranald’s raised eyebrow, Branin changed his approach. “Three dragons were already on the ledge. I risked more waiting to use it. And besides, I’d be drenched instead of standing here talking to you.”
“My wife wishes to see you... right now,” Ranald said. His tone hinted of steel beneath the gentle request. “She said to drag you dripping wet, if I had to.”
Ranald turned. Waving imperiously, he ordered Branin to hurry.
Branin hid a smile at the shorter man’s attitude. The slight-framed Ranald posed no threat. He spent more time in the archives than the training ring. In fact, Branin knew he could beat any of the dragshi in either armed or unarmed combat, except for Liam. Their matches provided many an evening’s entertainment for the other residents of Cloud Eyrie. The physical activity helped Branin pass the time until the birth of the next dragshi, his intended mate. It won’t be long. He had told himself that lie every night since Llewlyn emerged and their joined life began.
The image of Ranald physically forcing him anywhere helped Branin curb his irritation at the delay in contacting his friend, Vivel of the Ceoltier Guild. No matter how much he wanted to go to his quarters, no one dared disregard a request from Lady Eirwen, ruler of Cloud Eyrie.
Brushing off the clinging water droplets, Branin straightened his tunic. “Very well, Ranald.” His liquid drawl purposely rolled the long ell. “I will come along peacefully, if only to spare myself the indignity of you dragging me.” With a laugh, he gestured the shorter Ranald ahead.
During the long walk to the other side of the main hall, Branin searched his recent actions for anything that might have earned him the Lady Eirwen’s displeasure... besides landing in the courtyard.

 End of Chapter One, to read more, Dragon Destiny is available for sale at the following List of Ebook sellers, and in print from Amazon / Barnes and Noble 

Copyright 2014 by Helen Henderson
Cover Art by Fantasia Frog Designs

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