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The Last Dragon King (First Two Chapters)

Chapter One

 

I hauled my kill over my shoulder and grunted under the weight of it. The cougarin had been a full-grown adult male and was my largest kill to date. He would bring enough meat to feed my mother and little sister for at least two moons, as well as give us something to trade at the market. Winter wasn’t for a while but I wanted to get new furs for both my mother and Adaline. 

Stalking the beast over the last week had proved fruitful and I couldn’t help the lopsided grin that drew the corners of my mouth up as I walked into my hometown of Cinder Village. 

Being at the base of Cinder Mountain, and the coal mines inside of it, meant that the fine dust from the mountain coated everything in the village, and today was no exception. The rocks that dotted the village road held a thick layer of ash, as did the tips of my hunting boots. I barely noticed anymore; you just got used to it when you lived here. It was in our ears, nose, teeth, and other places not spoken of. 

In Jade City, the capital of Embergate, you could spot a Cinder Village resident from a mile away. We puffed dust with each step and we were damn well proud of it. The people of Cinder were a hardworking people. We didn’t sit on our butts all day.

“Nice kill, Arwen,” Nathanial called from his post at the top of the guard gate entrance to Cinder Village. Nathanial was one of the most handsome guys in Cinder Village. Sandy-blond hair, hazel eyes, and a sharp jaw… just looking up at him now made my stomach warm.

I gave him a goofy grin. “Come for dinner later? Bring your parents.” 

He nodded, pursing his lips. “Would love that.”

We were twenty winters out from the Great Famine but my parents remembered such a time and trained us younger ones on how to hunt and grow food, and to skin and prepare a kill. Usually it was the men doing the hunting and the women doing the growing, but with my father dead, I didn’t have that luxury. They also taught us to show kindness and give a meal when you had plenty. Times were a boon now, and this cougarin was much more than we needed. 

The weight of the animal was starting to cause a sharp pain between my shoulders, its blood dripping down the front of my shirt from the arrow wound in its neck. I couldn’t wait to drop this off to my mother and then wash up. 

I passed the market stalls, giving nods to the men and women working them, and marveled at the pretty garlands of flowers that had been hung up around the village for May Day. I’d worried that I wasn’t going to make it back for the beloved festival of love. I’d made my kill just in time, and if I washed up quickly I might even be able to join the kissing tent. 

Pushing my legs faster, I turned the corner to the row my mother’s hut was on. We were a simple people who lived a simple life. Thatched huts, fresh river water, potato fields, and coal mining—that was Cinder Village. The ash from the coal mine made the soil fertile and so we were known for our large potatoes and sweet tubers. 

I once visited our capital, Jade City, when I was fifteen winters old and my jaw had unhinged the entire three-day trip. It was the most beautiful city in all of Embergate, which is why our king lived there and all of the kings before him. Jade City was full of such opulence and splendor that had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. More jade, gold, and ruby than I’d ever seen in all my life. The roads were all brick, the buildings white stone, the city lit up at night like a jewel. The mead was flowing, the food stalls were stocked, and the streets were full of dragon-folk. 

I had never been around so many powerful dragon-folk in my entire life, but Jade City had been crawling with them. The dragon-folk were linked to their king, Drae Valdren. He gave them power through himself, and so it made sense they wanted to live near him. Dragon-folk with enough magic had the power to heal, to breathe fire; they had extreme strength. But fully shifting into a dragon’s form, that was for the king alone—the most powerful dragon-folk to ever live. 

Here in Cinder Village we were a bit of an anomaly. Technically, we were in Embergate territory and ruled by the dragon king, but we were mostly a mixed bunch. Humans, dragon-folk, elves, fae—even a few stray wolven ended up here. Anyone who was of mixed race or of diluted magic was usually outcasted from their territory and wound up here, making a colony of sorts. A mixed breed society. My mom was fully human. Her parents defected from Nightfall City when she was little, and my dad was a mix of human and one-tenth dragon-folk. It wasn’t enough to have any cool fire powers, but he was able to lift large rocks in the mines and provide a good life for my mom and I. Until he died when I was nine… 

“Bless the Maker, look at that kill!” my mom shrieked from the doorway of our hut, and it pulled me from my thoughts about my father. Every muscle in my body hurt. I was tired, I stunk, and I was covered in blood, but seeing my mom so happy caused me to grin goofily at her. 

“We’ll need to take out the waistband of my trousers by next week,” I joked. My little sister Adaline popped her head out from the doorway as her eyes grew as wide as saucers. 

“Cougarin stew for dinner!” she shrieked in joy. 

That got a chuckle out of me. The baked potatoes and greens were filling, but nothing like Mama’s cougarin stew. 

I stepped inside our home, shuffled across the freshly swept floor, and passed the kitchen which led to the back porch. Mother already had the butcher table and knives out. She knew I wouldn’t come home empty-handed, and her faith in me made me proud. 

After slamming the beast down on the table, I groaned, rolling out my neck. 

“You did good, Arwen.” My mom smoothed my hair and then wrinkled her nose. “But you smell like death.” 

Adaline broke out into a full-on belly laugh and I sprang from where I stood and ran after her with my arms out like a bloodsucker from Necromere. 

She gave a genuine shriek of terror. Now it was my turn to burst into laughter.

“Alright, don’t scare your sister. Go and wash up, it’s May Day!” my mother scolded me. 

May Day. 

I sighed. All the single girls and single boys of age would stand in the village square blindfolded and then start walking towards each other. Whoever you reached first, you kissed. 

It was a long-held tradition of Cinder Village, and as terrifying as it sounded it was kind of thrilling as well. Legend said whoever you kissed on May Day would become your spouse. At eighteen winters old, this would be my first May Day. I was eligible last year but had been sicker than a dog from eating some bad berries, so I was unable to attend. 

I reached up and touched my lips, wondering if Nathanial would kiss me—you weren’t supposed to peek, but some of the boys let their blindfolds slip so that they could gravitate towards the girl they wanted. 

I wanted Nathanial.

I slipped into the bedroom I shared with Adaline and grabbed a clean tunic and trousers. My mother had long since given up trying to get me to wear skirts and dresses. Ever since my father died nine winters ago, I’d had to become the hunter of the family, and hunting in a dress was just downright stupid. 

Adaline was hiding under her bed furs, probably afraid I’d rub cougarin blood on her. I walked towards her and hovered over her. After a moment, thinking I was gone, she slowly pulled down the covers, but when she saw me she screamed again, yanking the furs back up. I burst out in delighted laughter.

“Arwen!” my mother snapped. 

“Fine,” I groaned, the laughter dying in my throat. 

Sometimes I just wanted to mess around with my little sister, but my position in this family required me to grow up faster than I would have liked had I been given a choice. We had a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, so I knew better than to complain. 

“Oh,” I called back to my mom as I was walking out to the community bathhouse. “I invited Nathanial for dinner,” I said casually.

A dinner invite on May Day was no small thing. 

The corners of my mother’s lips quirked up into a conspiratorial grin. 

“To be nice! To share the bounty,” I told her, heat creeping up to my cheeks. It was customary after a good hunt to invite a guest to the feast. Good luck even. She knew that. But it was also encouraged to invite potential suitors over for dinner on May Day so that the families could meet and start getting used to the idea of a potential marriage. 

“Of course, dear,” she said in a sugary sweet tone, and I scowled at her. I was eighteen winters old. I’d be expected to take a husband soon. Nathanial would be a good choice. He had a prominent job in the village, and he was one of the only boys in town who didn’t seem threatened by my hunting trips with the other men in the village. Even when I married off, I’d still have to provide for Adaline and my mother. He understood that. 

Brushing my mother’s weird smile out of my mind, I headed down the alley between Mr. Korban’s apothecary shop and Mrs. Holina’s bakery, and stepped into Naomie’s bathhouse. 

“Oh, child!” Naomie plugged her nose when I strode inside. “You smell like a dead ratin! You’ll need your own soaker tub with extra sandalwood oil.” 

I grinned. 

Naomie was like the village grandmother—with the tongue of a snake. She took care of us all and hit us with the truth no matter how much it would hurt. For daily washings I would just use the heated bucket of water in our hut, but for washing after a week of hunting I needed Naomie’s soaker tub and soap stone. 

I followed her into the women’s washroom and past the group soakers, nodding to the women I recognized. Mrs. Beezle and Mrs. Haney were currently enthralled in the town gossip. I caught a snippet of Bardic needing to cut down on his drinking, and Mrs. Namal needing to tend to her husband so his eye didn’t wander. The top layer of their bathwater was black from cinder soot. 

When Naomie stepped into one of the private soaker rooms, cordoned off by a thatch wall, I set my clean clothes down on the stool beside the small one-person soaker tub. Cinder soot and dirt was okay for a group soaker, but blood and hunting guts were not permitted. 

Naomie was at least sixty winters old, her fingers gnarled from the winter bone disease. Her silver hair was always tied into a tight bun on top of her head. She spun the tap and the water gushed from the faucet, filling the tub as steam rose up to the ceiling. Naomi was one of the few people with running water in the village. Her shop was directly situated over a natural hot spring. Her great-great grandfather had been a metal worker, so he’d welded the pipes and built everything so that the water would be pulled up from the ground. Her family had owned this bathhouse for as long as anyone could remember. 

“I’ve had to raise my prices,” Naomie said, looking at me with a bit of pity. “This war the Nightfall queen has started at the border is affecting my ability to get the soap stones and perfume oils from the elves in Archmere.” 

I nodded. “How much?”

“Two jade coins or an acceptable barter,” she said. 

Two jade coins? It used to be one. I’d heard a little about the Nightfall queen causing trouble with shipments coming into Embergate but hadn’t thought much about it. That evil woman was always starting wars.

I nodded. “I can give you the jade coins, or I just brought down a full-grown male cougarin. You can see my mom after closing to pick the best cut.” 

Her eyes lit up. “I’ll take the meat instead, thanks kindly,” she said, and I nodded as she slipped out of the room. 

Cougarin was gamey but delicious, with very little fat or gristle on it. Elkin was the only more desirable meat around, so I knew I could barter some good stuff with this kill. Maybe I’d get mother a nice new dress for the changing of the seasons festival in fall. 

Stripping off my clothes, I let them drop into a dusty blood-crusted pile at my feet and then I stepped into the water. 

A groan of pure joy and relief left me, and some of the ladies outside the thin thatch wall snickered. I didn’t care. It was too good. As I slid deeper into the water, I felt a few parts of my back sting. At one point in the hunt I’d tumbled and hit my back on a rock. There must be a scratch or two there. 

The water continued to rush out of the tap as I daydreamed about having running hot water in our hut. I would take a soak every single night. I’d wash the clothes in hot water, and the dishes, and just for fun I’d stick my face in hot water in the mornings to revive myself. 

I sighed in contentment. 

“Coming in,” Naomi announced before she stepped into the small enclosure. 

I didn’t bother to cover myself. Naomi had seen me naked hundreds of times. I’d been coming here since I was a babe with my mother. Besides, she didn’t look; she was a professional. She poured a stream of oil into the rushing water and the strong scent of sandalwood hit my nose. 

Another sigh. 

Cinder Mountain was known for its sandalwood grove trees, so the oil was plentiful here and the scent always reminded me of home. 

A soap stone plopped into the water and slid under my back but I ignored it. I’d soap later, I just wanted to soak. Every muscle in my body was screaming out for joy right now.

“Got any cuts?” she asked. 

Naomie tended to the men after they came in from a hunt, so she knew what the body sustained after such a trip. 

I nodded and sat up, showing her my back. 

She whistled low. “The bigger one looks infected. I’ll get the neem oil and add it to the bath. The cougarin meat is still a good trade.” 

Neem was expensive, so it was kind of her not to charge extra or ask for more meat. 

She disappeared and shuffled back in with the neem, pouring it into the bathwater as well. She then reached in and grabbed the soap stone as I sat up and hunched froward. She ran it along my back in the parts I couldn’t reach and I hissed when she lightly grazed it over the cut. Must have been bigger than I thought. I’d been so excited to kill my first cougarin that I’d lost all sense of pain and just wanted to make it back home. 

After getting my back tortured by the old woman, she dropped the soap stone into the tub again and left. 

Finally, I can relax. 

I leaned back against the angled tub and slid as far down as I could go before drowning. My hair snaked out around me and I was shocked and slightly ashamed to see it looked brown and not blond because it was so dirty. The bathwater had a slight reddish tinge to it from all the blood, so I closed my eyes and just breathed in and out slowly, letting the scent of neem and sandalwood fill my nostrils. 

Seven days of stalking the beast and sleeping on rocks and leaves was all worth it now. Gone were the days of hunting small game like rabbits and possums and being ridiculed by the males. I was a respected hunter now—Hades, the men might even let me join the hunters’ guild—

“The king’s men come this way!” a female voice shouted into the bathhouse and my eyelids snapped open, jarring me from my daydreaming. 

The king’s men? Were they drafting for the war or something? Why else would they come here all the way from Jade City? Normally, we brought coal or sandalwood to them to trade; they never came to us. We were the dirty forgotten village of Embergate that the king tolerated but never visited or paid any mind to. There were no powerful dragon-folk here for him to draft into his army or be of any use. We were a bunch of mixed breed mutts.

“Listen here!” the same young woman said throughout the bathhouse and I sat up, reaching out to peel the thatch door open and look at her. 

Kendal. I should have known. She was the town gossip and lived for any bit of news, especially news from Jade City and anything concerning the dragon king. She liked to think of herself as the town crier. We were friends, but I didn’t enjoy her company for too long.

Reaching into her coat, she pulled out some official looking scroll and opened it. 

“King Valdren seeks a new wife to give him an heir.” She paused for the collective gasp that ripped through the bathhouse, mine included. 

He’d only been married to Queen Amelia for three winters and lost four children with her before she finally succumbed to death in childbirth. He had been a young king, married at my age, and was now only twenty-one winters old. Their marriage was the reason I’d traveled to Jade City when I was fifteen. A royal wedding was an exciting affair throughout the realm. Queen Amelia been gone only a single winter, and without an heir he was vulnerable to the Nightfall queen, who sought to take over this realm and purge it of dragon-folk magic. It was inevitable that he’d seek a new wife, but hearing it official like this was shocking. 

Kendal cleared her throat, trying to hide a grin. “He is now opening a full search throughout all of Embergate for a new queen—”

The gasps and shrieks of excitement tore throughout the bathhouse and I couldn’t help but snicker at their desperation. The king would never marry a Cinder girl. It was just formality that he announce it here as we were technically a territory of Embergate. 

“To bear him an heir,” Kendal went on, “he will send sniffers to each town and village and city within Embergate’s borders to find all eligible women with powerful enough magic to carry his child to term. They must be presented to him by next full moon.” 

The collective groans of disappointment filled the space. “He’s not going to find anyone with powerful magic in Cinder Village!” one of the younger women said, defeated. 

“Not one powerful enough to bear a dragon king heir,” Naomie agreed.

They were right. Sadly, Queen Amelia died because his magic was too powerful for her to carry his child, and I heard she had been nearly half dragon-folk. 

Kendal tossed her hair over her shoulder. “I personally am one-quarter dragon-folk and so—”

The bathhouse erupted into laughter and I couldn’t help my own snort. 

“Honey, one-quarter?” Naomi shook her head. “To carry a child to term for the dragon king himself, you’d have to be half dragon-folk and blessed by the Maker.”

Kendal rolled up the parchment hastily and shoved it in her pocket. “We shall let the sniffers decide!” She tore out of the bathhouse, then the gossip started up full-bore. 

“Poor young man, losing his wife and four children,” someone said. 

“Why couldn’t she carry an heir? Hades, with my hips I could give him ten children,” Bertha Beezle crooned.

I suddenly felt protective over the late queen. 

“She didn’t do anything! The king’s magic is too strong for mortal women,” I snapped. 

Any ounce of humanity the queen carried was torn in half by the pure-blooded dragon king’s magic as she went into labor.

The gossiping died down then and I decided now was a good time to wash my hair and drown out the talking. I’d met her once, Queen Amelia—well, met was a lie, but I’d seen her from a distance during my trip to Jade City. The king had already gone inside by the time I’d climbed on top of the flower shop roof and laid eyes on our new queen. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Her long hair was inky black and fell in thick curls to her waist. She wore a dress with so much jade on it, it must have weighed as much as a cougarin. It was said that King Valdren and Queen Amelia were betrothed since birth, chosen as the perfect couple to usher in a new dynasty of magical heirs. How cruel life could be sometimes. 

First the king loses his father just after getting married, then his children don’t make it to term, and then he loses his wife and stillborn child? It was almost too much loss to bear. So I didn’t dwell on it. I genuinely hoped he found a new wife and had a healthy child.

Grabbing the soap stone, I rubbed my body and hair vigorously until my skin was raw and I smelled like an apothecary shop. My hair was now the color of pale corn silk, and other than some bruises and dirt under my nails that would never come clean, I looked decent. Standing, I poured a final clean bucket of water over myself and then heaved out of the bathtub. After brushing my teeth at the small sink Naomie had against the far wall of my private room, I wrapped myself in some linen and pulled the drain plug. Watching the brown and blood-tinged water swirl down the drain, I quickly towel-dried my hair and braided it over one shoulder before slipping into my clean blue cotton tunic and white trousers. 

From the commotion outside, I knew that news had traveled fast and the entire village would be buzzing with this gossip for weeks, long after the sniffers came and left. 

For the king’s men to come to our village on May Day was a big deal. 

“Arwen!” My mother’s voice came from behind the thatched partition. 

I pulled it back and waved her over, but my hand froze midair when I saw the color drained from her face. She rushed forward, grasping me by the upper arms, and leaned in to whisper in my ear. 

“You need to leave now. Run,” she whispered. 

I chuckled, wondering what she was playing at, but when she pulled back her face was as serious as I’d ever seen it. 

“What’s wrong?” I said. 

She looked over her shoulder as if saying we couldn’t speak here, and I nodded. My body was still with shock; my mom never acted like this. She was calm and very rarely showed fear. Something was up.

Following her out of the bathing tent, I gave Naomie a smile and wave and scurried in the direction of our hut. As we were rounding the corner to our street, I saw the white May Day kissing tent was now set up in the middle of the village. Strands of pink and purple garland hung from the opening. It was picturesque, romantic. The young women of the village were already going inside. 

I stopped. “Mother, can this wait? I missed last year and… I was kind of looking forward to…” To my first kiss. I didn’t want to say that, but my mother caught on. 

She glanced at the kissing tent and surprise flickered over her face. “Right. May Day and you missed last year because of the sickness…” 

I nodded, looking eagerly at the tent opening as I saw Nathanial slip inside. 

“Mom, please.” 

My mother walked over to some wildflowers growing in front of Mrs. Patties’ house and plucked a purple posey, tucking it into my braid. “Go and have your May Day kiss and then rush right back home. I’ll pack your things.” She nodded. 

I frowned at that. Pack my things? I’d just gotten back from a week-long hunt. There was no way I’d be going out again without some proper rest. But she’d consented to the kissing tent so I wasn’t going to argue. Scurrying off across the yard, I ran first to Miss Graseen’s herbal garden and snatched a sprig of mint. She poked her head out of her kitchen window and grinned. 

“Kissing tent?” she asked. 

I blushed and shoved the two mint leaves into my mouth, chewing on them vigorously to freshen my breath. Even though I had just brushed my teeth, I wasn’t taking any chances with my first kiss. Miss Graseen let us take a sprig here and there, and in turn we all pulled her weeds and mended her fence when predators broke in. 

I doubled back, ready to enter the white silk tent, when I craned my neck to the main gate, hearing a commotion.

A large procession of the king’s Royal Guard were coming through and headed right this way. I froze, in awe of the horses and their armor. The sunlight glinted across the golden dragon crests on their chests, and I momentarily forgot about the kissing tent. I’d wanted to be in the Royal Guard since I could hold a sword. That of course was not very ladylike and so my mother had discouraged it, but I’d never lost that dream. To my knowledge, there was only one woman in the guard. 

Regina Wayfeather.

She was rumored to be the leader of the entire Royal Guard. I wanted to run over and see if she was here and shamefully ask for her to touch my hunting bow for good luck, but I couldn’t ignore that my window to get my first kiss was closing. Not to mention that my mother seemed out of sorts so I’d have to run home right after.

As the king’s Royal Guard dismounted and started to walk towards the tent, I slipped inside. The bustle of excited chatting reached my ears and my gaze flicked to the other side of the tent, where the young eligible men stood. I locked eyes with Nathanial and he grinned, which caused me to return the smile.

“Arwen!” Kendal called, and I veered to the right, where all of the young women stood in a long row. They were all in their best dresses and had even applied charcoal eyeliner and beetroot lip color, while I stood in linen trousers and a wet braid that Mother had tried to fancy up with a flower. 

Now I felt foolish. Who came to the May Day kissing tent in trousers? 

A hunter.

When my father died, it was the middle of winter. I’d never forget the pangs of hunger that following year for as long as I lived. The village gave us handouts here and there, but without a hunter in the family to do a monthly trip or work in the mines, we would have surely died. That year, I made my first trap and started bringing back small game. 

Ratin was the lowest animal on the totem pole, but it allowed my mother to grieve and not have to rush into a new marriage to try to put food on the table. 

I shook my head to clear my thoughts.

Mrs. Brenna, who was hosting the May Day tradition, walked towards the center of the room and cleared her throat. Brenna was human, and one of the village seamstresses. She sewed all of our wedding gowns, so making some lifelong matches today was in her best interest. She always wore beautiful dresses that pushed her giant breasts halfway into her throat and distracted all the men.

“Today may very well be the day you meet your future wife,” she told the men, and was met with whoops and cheers. She then turned to the women: “Don’t worry, they get better at kissing as time goes on.” 

We all burst into nervous laughter, and a few of the men groaned at her insult. 

I lined myself up directly with Nathanial, then the blindfold came down over my eyes. 

“No cheating,” Kendal said as she tied it tightly behind my head. I made a slow and deliberate move to raise my blindfold a tiny bit but a hand came down hard, smacking mine. 

“This is in the Maker’s hands now,” Mrs. Brenna scolded me, and my stomach tied into knots. 

“Young lovers,” Brenna announced, “walk forward and kiss the first person you touch.” 

The sound of scrambling feet filled my ears as we all stumbled forward, arms out. I wanted to call Nathanial’s name, but that would seem desperate. I tried to look down and see if maybe I could recognize his boots, but Kendal had tied this blasted blindfold too tight. Before I knew it, I’d bumped into someone, and his arms came around my waist to steady me. 

My heart hammered in my throat. This was it. This would be my first kiss. 

Please don’t be booger-picking Vernon, I prayed to the Maker, and then reached up, trailing my fingers up his chest to find his face. His body froze under my touch and I almost lost my nerve. Was he scared? My fingers slid over the soft fabric until I reached his neck and then paused, afraid to grasp the sides of his face. 

His hands were statue-still at my lower back, and I licked my lips to wet them. In the May Day kissing tent, the girls were the ones who made the first move, and you were allowed to back out if you didn’t feel ready. 

Is this Nathanial? 

Did he want to kiss me or run? 

Rumor had it that all the guys peeked and Mrs. Brenna let them tie their blindfolds loosely. That if a guy got a girl he didn’t want to kiss, then it was a chaste peck, similar to one you would give your mother when young. But if he liked you… rumor also had it that it would make your whole world spin. 

I wanted my world to spin. 

Because my father died so young, I’d been thrust into the life of hunting and wearing trousers and sharpening my blade. Don’t get me wrong: I liked that life, but it made it hard for the other boys to see me as a kissable girl. 

I want to be kissed, dammit.

A lump formed in my throat as nervousness built in my stomach. I swallowed it down and leaned forward before I fully lost my nerve. Trailing up his chin with my thumbs, I felt the stubble and sharp jawline of a man that was definitely not Nathanial. 

I froze, panicked. 

Nathanial still had a baby face, no stubble, and his jaw was chiseled but not that much. Upon feeling this manly wide jaw and stubble, I wondered if I should go for his cheek. I was so set on kissing Nathanial that confronted with proof this wasn’t him, I wanted to back out. 

But then his lips were on mine as he made the first move, breaking the cardinal rule of the May Day tent. A small electric spark shocked my skin and I gasped. He did the same—both of us inhaling the other’s surprise. Heat traveled down to my core and I leaned forward, deepening the kiss.

His lips were soft and unsure at first, but then they opened and I slid my tongue inside just like Kendal told me to and it collided with his. A small moan escaped him and my world spun as a grin pulled at the corners of my mouth. His hands at my waist stroked a smooth circle on my hips while his tongue did the same in my mouth.

Holy Maker. 

This was the best first kiss a girl could hope for. My stomach burned with heat and my heart grew fluttering wings in my chest. The warm pillowy lips on mine made everything in me scream for more. 

“Alright, it’s getting hot in here!” Brenna announced with a laugh. “Take off those blindfolds and meet your match, my young lovebirds!” 

All at once he fell away from me, the lips, the hands, the warmth, the butterflies. It was as if I’d been plunged into a frigid ice bath. I reached up, frantically yanking the blindfold down, and came face to face with the back of the white tent. 

He was gone. 

An ache formed in my chest. My throat tightened as I cleared it, trying not to show emotion but feeling as if I’d just been left at the altar. You didn’t run away from a May Day match unless you thought the kiss was awful and you never wanted to see them again. 

I peered to my left and the hole in my chest grew wider. Nathanial was beaming down at a flushed Ruby Ronaldson. Her inky black hair fell in soft waves to her waist, where Nathanial held her hips tightly over her green silk dress. Ruby was a baker. She was feminine and wore dresses and knew how to cook—perfect wife material, and everything I was not. 

Tears blurred my vision but I blinked them back. I didn’t want to be here anymore, this was stupid. Turning around, I snuck out of the side opening of the tent and went in search of my mother. 

She’d looked so scared earlier, and now I welcomed whatever distraction she was about to throw at me. Anything to forget that world-changing kiss and aching goodbye.

 

Chapter Two

I stepped into our home and the scent of the boiling cougarin stew made my mouth water. My gaze flicked to my traveling pack leaned up against the wall. It had been cleaned and looked fully stocked and ready to go. 

“Mom, you’re scaring me. Why did you pack my bag? I just got back.” 

She set my pile of dirty clothes in the washing hamper and then turned to face me with tears in her eyes. “I sent your sister to play with Violet so we have some time to say goodbye privately.” 

My eyes nearly fell out of my skull. “Goodbye? Mom, I’m not going anywhere. I just got home from a week on the road.” Not to mention I just got left in the kissing tent and was now mortified. Whoever my world-tilting kisser was, I wanted to avoid him now at all costs. I wanted to go into my room, cry myself to sleep, and then stay in bed for the next two days. 

My mom wrung her hands together, shaking her head, which made her dark brown curls fall away from her face. “I’ve kept a dark secret from you your entire life,” she said and I froze. 

I reached out and grasped the edge of the chair, not prepared for those words to ever leave my mother’s lips. “What are you talking about?” 

My mother stepped closer, picking up my travel bag and handing it to me. “You have to leave before the sniffers find you.”

I took the bag but then let it fall to my feet. Reaching out, I grasped my mother’s shoulders and looked her right in the eyes. “What dark secret?”  

It was something you never wanted to hear anyone close to you say. Now I was full-on freaking out. Why did I need to keep the sniffers from finding me? They smelled magic on people and I barely had any. I would be of zero interest to them. 

She sighed, and her breath smelled of sage and rosemary, reminding me of my childhood. She loved chewing on the herbs while cooking. 

“Your father and I tried for a child for five winters but the healer said there was something wrong with his seed.”

Her words cut right through me, causing chills to break out on my arms. What was she saying? 

“You are my child. My daughter,” she growled, reaching out to grasp my forearms as if trying to convince me. 

That declaration made me sick. Of course I was her daughter. Why is she telling me I am her daughter? 

“But another woman birthed you,” she said, and I dropped my arms, breaking out of her grasp, and collapsed into the chair beneath me. My chest heaved, my breath coming out in ragged gasps. 

She fell to her knees in front of me, tears streaming down her face. “I should have told you sooner, but it was never a good time, and I didn’t want you to think that you weren’t mine.” 

I sat there in stunned silence for a full minute until she stood again and pulled up the chair before me. 

“Who was she? The woman?” I asked, finally able to suck in a full breath and keep my panic at bay. 

My mom chewed the inside of her lip. “A traveler passing through. Dressed like a highborn wearing bright colored silk, embroidered with jade. This was when I was still working at the tavern.”

I was a highborn? Was that what she was telling me? Highborns were at least half dragon-folk, maybe more.

“What happened?” I didn’t recognize my own voice. I needed information, and quickly. The hole in my chest was too big now and I needed to fill it with something or I was afraid I would disappear. 

My mother swallowed hard. “She came to the tavern alone, heavily pregnant, pale as a ghost and speckled in blood. She looked shaken, like she’d seen a battle. Due to her obvious status, I didn’t ask questions. I just showed her to her room.” 

I waited for her to go on. She glanced at my traveling pack and then at the door and leaned forward. “She went into early labor in the middle of the night. The entire tavern was awoken with her screams. Bardic sent me to tend to her and I did.” 

Holy Hades!

A woman fleeing a battle was thrust into early labor in Cinder Village? I wondered where she had been traveling to. Cinder Village was at the very tip of Embergate territory, you didn’t come here unless you meant to. But highborns didn’t come here. Some people had been known to hide here. The ash covered life wasn’t desirable, and so not many people came looking. Had she meant to have her baby here? To have me and leave me behind where I wouldn’t be found? 

My mom’s hands shook. “I sent for Elodie. She was the most advanced in laboring at the time, but word came back that she was sick with the black lung and couldn’t help.”

Elodie died of the black lung the year I was born, then my mother became the village midwife. This must have been the event that started her career! From tavern barmaid to village midwife. I’d always wondered how she made the leap.

“Go on,” I urged her. 

My mom picked up my pack and walked it over to me, tears streaming freely down her face. “We don’t have much time.” 

I stood, taking the pack and placing it on my back. “I won’t leave until I know the whole story. Why do I have to go? Did the highborn die in labor?” 

In all my life I’d maybe seen my mother cry twice. Once when my father died and once when she delivered Mrs. Hartley’s stillborn. These were far more tears than I’d seen in my eighteen winters. 

“It was a full sundown to sun-up labor. In that time we bonded. I told her stories of your father and I to pass the time or distract her. I told her of all the times we tried to get pregnant, where I grew up, anything to keep her from crying out in pain. She told me things too. Scary things.”

“What kind of things?” I gripped the straps of the pack tightly.

My mother stepped closer, lowering her voice. “I didn’t fully understand what she said. A lot of it sounded like a pain-induced ramble, but one thing I got very clear.” She brushed the curls away from her head. “Her entire family was murdered for some type of ongoing feud she had with the dragon king. Her magic was a threat to him she said. She… she said she was a full-blooded dragon-folk.”

My eyebrows drew together in confusion. A full-blooded dragon-folk would make her a royal and that wasn’t possible. The king didn’t have a sister. 

My mother went on: “She escaped, but she warned me that if anyone ever detected this magic in her child, that child would be killed.” 

Full-body chills rushed down every inch of my skin and I froze. “I’m that child?” 

My mother nodded, reaching out to stroke my cheek as her tears intensified. “She died in labor—too much blood loss. But I saved you and took care of you and loved you and made you mine.” 

A whimper left my throat as I found it hard to contain my own tears. 

“I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. It was selfish but I didn’t want you to ever think that you weren’t wanted or loved.” My mom could barely speak. 

It was an awful thing not to tell me, but in that moment I forgave her completely. I understood. When was it a good time to tell your child that they were the offspring of a woman whose family was murdered and on the run? 

Never. 

“I forgive you.” I rushed forward and our arms went tightly around each other at the same time. 

I noticed now that where I was fair she was dark, and we really looked nothing alike. Not like the other girls and their mothers. Not like her and Adaline. 

Wait. 

I pulled back and faced her. “How did you have Adaline if there was something wrong with Father’s seed? I saw you pregnant, I was there at her birth.” 

I was five when Adaline was born but I remembered it. It was one of my first memories. My mother’s screams had scared me. 

Shame burned my mother’s cheeks and she stared at the floor. “After you came to live with us, your father wanted a second child so badly. He permitted me to… lie… with another man to see if it really was his seed that was broken.”

I wasn’t prepared for that answer and it must have shown on my face. 

“Please do not judge. It is a very much common thing to do, and there was no love or passion between us,” she rushed to say. 

I wasn’t judging, I was just… in shock. My father had been a jealous man who once threatened to rip Bardic’s balls off if he looked at my mom’s cleavage in the tavern. I just didn’t see him allowing her to lie with another man. 

“He felt guilty he couldn’t give me the children we wanted,” she said finally. “Tell me you understand?” 

I needed a drink. I wasn’t normally keen on wine or mead but right now I could drink an entire bottle. I nodded. “I understand.” I also wanted to know what man in the village was Adaline’s birth father but I didn’t dare ask. It wasn’t important. 

It made me miss my father even more now. He loved my mother so much and wanted another child with her so badly that he let her crawl into another man’s bed to have one. It was just another testament to his kindness. 

“You must go,” my mother urged. “Just say you are going on another hunting trip and return in a week’s time. I packed your bag for two weeks just in case.” 

Another week on the road. The dust, the constant vigilance for looters or stalking animals. Sleeping on a bedroll, bathing in the river, the cold nights… I just got back from doing that. I didn’t want to go again, but I knew that I must after what my mother had just told me. 

“I’ll go,” I murmured. 

She sighed in relief. “This whole thing will blow over in a week’s time. The king doesn’t do a census of Cinder Village, so the sniffers won’t even know they missed you.” 

I tightened the straps on my pack and gave her one last hug. “Tell Ada I’ll miss her.” 

My mother nodded and smoothed my hair. 

I took one last look at the stew simmering on the stove, a stew that I would never taste, and the skinned cougarin drying out on the back porch, and stepped up to the front door.

“Oh wait!” my mother called. “I almost forgot. The highborn woman also said that she’d put a protective spell on your magic but that it would wear off with time as you come of age. If the sniffers do catch you, play dumb. Say you are mostly human with diluted dragon blood.” 

“Well, I thought that’s what I was my entire life,” I mumbled. I did have an uncanny sense of balance, I was the fastest runner in my class, and I could track any animal within a mile. I thought it might be the small amount of dragon magic in me from my father. 

“Goodbye, Arwen,” my mother said, like she would never see me again, and that was unsettling. 

“Goodbye, Mother,” My voice cracked as I swallowed my emotions. 

As I slipped out into the bustling village, I wondered just what in the Hades had become of my life.

 

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Sonya Parsley
Sonya Parsley
15 days ago

I am in love with this book already. Wow fantastic can’t wait for the book to be released. I have preordered it can’t wait

Tracy Tetlow
Tracy Tetlow
13 days ago

Loved the 1st 2 chapters now I have to read the rest