Grateful she didn’t have to live with those massive egos and petulant moods, Edilyn set the platter down next to her new friend. No sooner had she stepped back, than the doors opened to admit their long awaited guests of honor.
The dragon clan.
Her lips involuntarily curled as they entered the hall in all their expensive finery. Their dark leather armor was trimmed in gold and silver, that glimmered in the bright sunlight as it spilled in through the windows. More beautiful than any human, they were here for the Winnowingâ€” to choose the best, noblest warriors of her clan to be their partners in war.
Supposedly, it was the greatest honor to be chosen by them. The men and women of her clan clubbed each other for the chance, and spoke of little else the rest of the year. All the eligible youth practiced for this day, hoping to be among the ones taken to live with them.
It was the last thing she wanted.
â€œWhy do you tremble so?â€
Rage. But she didn’t answer the old man. She couldn’t.
â€œAre you afraid?â€
â€œNay,â€ she scoffed.
â€œNot even a little?â€
She shook her head. â€œNot even a little,â€ she repeated his words. â€œMerely concerned that I might make muster.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€
Pain lacerated her soul at his innocent question that forced her to remember things she wanted to keep buried. But what was the use?
And before she could stop it, the truth tumbled out of her lips. â€œEvery year I audition for the brenin with my skills, and I best all my clansmen.â€
â€œThen what’s the problem? Why aren’t you mated to a dragon?â€
â€œDon’t want to be. Rather, I want the brenin to choose me as a marchoges.â€
â€œBut not for the dragons? Why?â€
â€œBecause she knows she’d break their backs and cripple them,â€ Gryffyth said as he walked past them.
His friends burst out laughing.
Stifling the urge to toss something at the arrogant prick, Edilyn narrowed her glare at Gryffyth’s worthless hide, while he and his cronies vanished into the crowd.
But she wasn’t so callous.
She turned back toward the old man. â€œI’ve no interest in being chosen by the dragons. In fact, I never appear for the Winnowing. Rather, I withdraw before it begins. I want to stand on my own. But the brenin refuses me. Every year. He only wants draigogs for his army.â€
And speaking of, the call rang out for the contestants to gather.
She glanced down at her guest. â€œDo you need anything else before I join them?â€
â€œNay, my lady. Good luck to you.â€
â€œAnd to you, my lord . . .â€ Heat crept over her face as she realized how rude she’d been to him. â€œI’m so sorry that I forgot to ask your name. How thoughtless of me.â€
â€œYou’ve been anything but thoughtless, dear Edilyn. Call me Emanon.â€
â€œLord Emanon. It’s been my pleasure to assist you.â€ She gave him a slight bow, then ran to join the others.
Emanon sat in silence as he watched Edilyn push her way through the crowd. Taller than most of even the men, she held an exotic kind of beauty that made her stand out from the others. Or maybe it was her zest for life. Her innocent exuberance in the face of their negativity.
She was a beacon through their dull storm.
He’d never seen anyone so determined in the face of adversity. Rising to his feet, he kept to the outer edge of the crowd so that he could watch her compete. Like a free-flowing ebony banner, her long black hair blew behind her as she raced to her place beside the others. Her cheeks were mottled bright red from her exertion while her ample breasts rose and fell with her excitement.
Aye, she had a lush, full body that said her appetite wasn’t just for life, but was robust in all things.
Several of the women curled their lips or rolled their eyes at her approach.
She smiled in response and boldly wished them luck. She was such a cheeky, jovial lass. Dressed in a garishly orange tunic that fell to her feet, it was interlaced with green and blue that seemed faded or smeared. She’d placed sprigs in her hair and horned helm. He wasn’t sure if she wanted to appear as a drunken sprite, a tousled flower . . .
Or a wilted bull that had rolled around a field for a bit.
And that forced a rare grin from him. If he could appreciate anything in life, it was that degree of defiance in the face of those who wished you ill.
â€œDid he come with you?â€
Emanon narrowed his gaze at the man nearest him as he heard the brenin’s gruff voice questioning Tarius Kattalakis. A rare Katagari Drakos, Tarius was the current leader of this group who’d come here to pick mates from the humans. It was a spring ritual they’d been practicing for decades now and it was one that left Emanon sickened.
Every year, the drakos came, watched the humans and opposed the Greek gods’ decree for their people by selecting a mate, when they all knew that only the Fates themselves were supposed to assign them their life partners. It was this kind of hybris that had caused their race to be first cursed.
Yet the Katagaria Drakos, because their progenitor Illarion was a son of Ares, and had been biologically bonded against his will to the Arcadian prince who was a grandson of the goddess Nyx, thought themselves above it.
Illarion would never intervene on their behalf to save them from the wrath of the gods. Honestly, he had no greater love for their hybrid species than he did of humanity. If the truth were known, he’d tried his best to get his brother to leave them all to die after their creation. The only reason any Were-Hunter had ever survived had been the benevolence of Maxis Dragos. He was the one they should be currying favor to.
He was the one dragon who would gladly hand-feed them to their enemies, and laugh while they bled out at his feet. The son of Ares cared nothing for these creatures. Nothing for their races or their wars. He felt no obligation to them whatsoever.
And he never would.
Burn in Tartarus, you bastards . . .
Their treatment of Edilyn was exactly why Illarion had no love of humanity. The whole problem with human beings was that they were so seldom humane. And those whose genetics had been combined with animals were even worse. Instead of being made better, they’d sunk to an all-new level of viciousness.
Emanon ground his teeth as he started to leave so that he wouldn’t have to stomach another moment of their vile presence, and yet his gaze went back to Edilyn.
She rubbed at the bottle on a string she wore around her neck, and smiled a smile that enchanted him in a way nothing ever had. Damn. It left him breathless.
Worse? It quickened his blood and fired a need inside him to taste those lips. For the first time in his exceptionally long life, he actually desired a taste of human flesh for something other than a quick, bloody meal.
He hungered for her.
What the Hades?
And still the men in front of him continued to speak. â€œNay, he’s not here. But fear not. We are more than able to protect your village and people.â€
â€œDid he not receive my offer to marry my daughter?â€
Tarius sighed. â€œIt’s not that. They claim he’s sterile.â€
â€œI heard he’s insane,â€ Bracis added. â€œAs the first of our kind, he couldn’t handle the transition from beast to man. While he physically survived, he broke mentally.â€
â€œIt’s a shame.â€ The brenin let out a tired sigh. â€œOur enemies grow bolder and stronger. We lost half our best warriors in the last battle.â€
â€œWell, we’re here now and we’ll take care of you.â€ Tarius turned his head back to the contestants. â€œWho is that tacky brunette who keeps winning?â€
â€œAye. She’s here every year.â€ Scoffing, Tarius passed a smirk to Bracis. â€œShe’s a stout one, isn’t she?â€
The brenin shook his head. â€œI think she’s hoping one of you will take her since no man among mine will have her.â€
â€œShe’s an orphan with no property. No dowry. No family. All she has in this world is that old war bow she carries. Pathetic really.â€
And yet she who had so little held more kindness than any of the rest. The last thing that made her in Emanon’s eyes was pathetic.
As he watched her racing against the others, his respect for her grew. They did everything they could to trip her, knock her from the path or cause her to veer from the goal.
Edilyn didn’t falter or stumble. Steadfast and determined, she ran with her held high, and kept her gaze on the goal, without regard to any of the others or the tricks they used to foil her journey. Nothing and no one could stop her.
In the end, she crossed that finish line first. Way ahead of the others.
It’d been a long, long time since he’d seen such intrepid courage. Instead of congratulating her for the achievement in spite of their ill-behavior, they glared. Their hatred increased to such levels, he could feel it as a living creature slithering in the air around them all. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck to see such tangible evil.
Still, she continued on, with resolute grace. She even glanced at him, smiled and waved.
Stunned by that unexpected act, he gaped and felt the most peculiar fluttering inside his stomach. One that only fueled his hunger. He had no idea what it was. Never had he experienced anything like it.
Brushing at the perspiration on her brow, she went to retrieve her bow for the last round of games. He didn’t miss the way her exotic features softened ever so slightly the moment her hand touched the wood.
Aye, it was exceptionally dear to her.
With an adorable bite to her lips that betrayed her uncertainty, she brushed her gloved fingers against her father’s engraving as if taking comfort from it. Then, she moved into place before her target and carefully nocked her arrow. She held the bow and arrow low to her thigh while she waited patiently for her turn.
One by one, the archers released their shots.
When it was her turn, Edilyn lifted her arms with the mastered precision that came from years of practice. â€œYou’ve got this,â€ she whispered in a tone so low, he was sure that he was the only one who heard it.
But as she pulled back the string for her release, the unthinkable happened.
Her bow snapped in half. The top part, along with the arrow, fell to the ground while the bottom remained in her firm grip, and tethered by the string.
â€œNo!â€ Tears filled her eyes as she lost the last link with her father.
The immaculately dressed Morla tsked at her. â€œShame that. But it’s not like anyone was ever going to choose you anyway.â€ Then she made her shot.
Emanon took an involuntary step toward Edilyn before he even realized it. Yet he knew there was no comfort anyone could give her for what had just happened.
For what the rich bitch had just rudely and needlessly taken, without regard of consequence or compassion.
Morla had cracked Edilyn’s precious bow to remove her from the competition because she knew she lacked the skills to compete. Because she’d been unwilling to spend the years it took to learn the skill. Nor did she care what she robbed from another. All that mattered was that she got what she wanted. To hell with the rest.
How could she?
Suddenly, a loud cry rang out. No sooner had it settled than the crowd around them erupted into a vicious attack party. Cloaks were thrown off soldiers who’d come in under the guise of celebrants.
Morla and the rest of the humans who’d been competing to be mates for the dragons scattered to hide. So much for being warriors. That said it all about their loyal bravery.
The only one who stood her ground was Edilyn.
Seizing Morla’s dropped bow, she slung her quiver over her back and began aiming for their enemies. Enemies who were quickly cutting a swath through the Kattalakis dragons and the brenin’s people.
Awed and impressed, Emanon watched Edilyn fearlessly protect the very assholes who’d been so cruel to her. Why? He couldn’t imagine. Personally, he’d let them all burn. The only ones he’d ever protected were his brothers.
No one else was worth a single drop of his blood.
That had always been his firm stance and his oath.
Until he saw the killing blow aimed at Edilyn’s back. A blow she couldn’t see at all, as she was focused on others. In that one quick, vital heartbeat he made a decision he’d sworn would never be his.
Lunging to save a human’s life, he transformed into his true dragon form.
Edilyn froze as the huge, massive dragon circled her. With a giant, spiny head, he formed a wall of yellow-orange scales that rippled and shimmered in the daylight. Terrified, she thought he was attacking her at first.
Yet rather than attack, he let loose a stream of fire at those who’d snuck into her village. With a ferocious hiss, he whipped his tail and lowered his black-tinged wing toward her. Climb aboard, my lady Edilyn.
Her jaw fell as she recognized the deep voice that no longer held the cadence of an ancient man. â€œEmanon?â€
His yellow serpentine eyes gentled as he gave her a bashful grin. Illarion, my lady. And it would be my honor to serve you.