ARIC made his way carefully through the woods, treading lightly and keeping to the edges of the trail. While it was unlikely anyone else would be outside the castle grounds this late at night, it would be foolish to risk getting caught.
He snorted and adjusted his cloak to better hide his features. He had no reason to be out on this night, at least not one of which his father, the king, would approve. Visiting his beloved aunt would not be a good enough explanation if he were discovered. In fact, it would be the justification his father was looking for to instill some discipline into his eldest child. Aric was heir to the throne of Astria and as such was supposed to act like a prince, not some peasant sneaking about. King Brandr had forbidden both Aric and his sister, Georgia, from seeing their aunt after their mother’s death seven years earlier. Aunt Hannah was apparently not a good influence and had encouraged the siblings to defy their father for far too long. King Brandr had tolerated her presence while his wife was alive but he did not now.
As far as Aunt Hannah was concerned, she was merely encouraging his children to think for themselves and question what they did not understand. She’d told the king as much but it only served to aggravate him further. “They must not understand very much at all,” he’d snapped as his reply.
“I am not a child, Father,” Aric muttered under his breath. He was twenty-four, having taken his oath the year after his mother had died. It was an oath in two parts, each supposedly as important as the other. Aric did not see it that way. He had no issue in vowing to protect Astria with his life; it was his home. But it was the second part of his promise his mother would not have been impressed by.
Her sister certainly was not, and had said as much. It was one of the reasons King Brandr had wanted to be rid of his sister-in-law, of that Aric was certain. He still remembered the expression on his aunt’s face when she’d been banished from the castle. Her face like thunder, she’d turned to the king and told him that he couldn’t stop fate. It was already written in the stars, and blocking one path would merely mean another would take its place.
King Brandr had grown quiet at that. His skin gray, he’d merely shrugged and gestured for his guards to ensure the Lady Hannah was gone by that evening. He’d then told Aric and Georgia they were to have nothing more to do with her. They’d both stared at him with the disdain the order deserved, linked their arms together, and walked away.
Aric and his father had agreed on little since.
So why had he stalked out of his aunt’s cottage in a temper, and worse still, told her she was a foolish woman who needed to learn the difference between reality and the stories she insisted on still telling? The creatures she spoke of were nothing like Aric’s father had described. Yet, it hadn’t seemed that long ago he’d sat at her feet, hanging on every word.
Dragons no longer existed in Astria. The king’s vow to rid their land of them was an empty promise. He would not have made it otherwise. Aric wasn’t sure what had upset him more, the fact that she so obviously didn’t believe him, or that she might be right and he’d made a vow he could not keep.
He was not a child. So why did he feel as powerless as one? His beloved twin was promised in marriage to that idiot, Prince Thorold, a man she did not love. There had to be another way to unite their kingdoms. Surely the king could see that? Damn it, Aric would have given himself to Thorold in marriage to save his sister if that had been acceptable.
A choked laugh escaped his lips. The suggestion had not been received well, although Prince Thorold’s father, King Malachite, had laughed and told King Brandr it was a good thing one child was prepared to do her duty and provide the kingdom with heirs, as it appeared the other would not.
The situation had gone downhill from there. King Brandr had quickly told King Malachite it was a joke, a way to lighten the evening and had apologized for Aric’s inappropriate sense of humor. Clearly he had forgotten—or chosen to ignore—the incident with the stable boy the previous summer.
Aric never would. Nor would he ever forgive his father for it. He and Jevon had shared a kiss, nothing more. The king had overreacted. Aric had gone to his father, ready to apologize for his indiscretion, but it was already too late. Jevon was gone, and with him the chance for Aric to discover whether what he felt for his friend was lust or something deeper.
A sharp crack filled the air. Aric froze. He drew his sword, looking around warily. There was someone else in the woods with him. Something man-sized at the very least, judging by the loudness of the branch breaking. There were no wild animals here; they’d all been almost hunted to extinction, just like the….
No! Aric took a step backward. His breath caught in his throat. It couldn’t be. He knew a few of them still existed elsewhere, but they weren’t supposed to be here in Astria. They hadn’t for years.
He glanced around, seeking somewhere to hide. It must not see him. If it did, he’d be dead. Damn it. When had he entered the clearing? It would take him too long to reach the nearest tree and dive back into the shelter of the woods.
He cursed himself, and his tendency to ignore his surroundings when his mind went off on tangents. Perhaps if he moved slowly, he could back up the way he’d come before it noticed him.
Its head turned, the sides of its mouth turning up into what couldn’t possibly be a smile. It took a step toward him.
Aric stood his ground, his knuckles white around the hilt of his sword. He held it up, putting it between himself and the beast. “Keep back!” he commanded, using the words to calm himself, as there was no way it would understand.
The sketches he’d seen didn’t do the creature justice. This wasn’t some feral animal, or a mindless beast. He could see its intelligence reflected in its dark, slitted eyes. The way it was so obviously studying him sent a chill through him, but he stood his ground.
The dragon laughed, just for a moment, then it inclined its head in almost in a bow. “Prince Brandric,” it said softly. “It is my honor to finally make your acquaintance.”
“You… you spoke.” The sword shook in Aric’s hand. This couldn’t be happening. He blinked once, twice, but the dragon was still there watching him, waiting for his reaction. “You don’t exist, at least not here, and not now,” he said firmly.
“I assure you, young prince, I certainly do.” The black dragon took a step closer. “Put down the sword. I need to speak with you.”
“No!” Aric still stood his ground but he wasn’t going to lower his sword that easily. Now he was face-to-face with the beast, however, he was having doubts a mere sword would be enough to take it down. “Why should I speak with you? According to everything I’ve been taught, we are enemies and I should run you through right now!” The dragon was about three times Aric’s size, and its body was covered in scales. Aric swallowed, trying to remember his training. He had to aim for its underbelly. That was its weakness, where the scales were not as dense.
The dragon looked at Aric, and the sword he held, as though daring him to try. “Just because you have been taught something does not mean it is true.” It studied him again. Aric met its gaze without flinching. He would not show any fear. “We need to speak about your future, and that of your sister.”
“How do you know of my sister? How do you know me?” Aric let anger show in his voice. Better that than fear. “Leave her out of this. She is of no concern to you.” He glared at the dragon. Every creature, man or beast, had a weakness; it just needed to be found, and then exploited.
The sword wavered in his hand. Those were his father’s words, not his. How much of what his father had said was the truth? Dragons no longer existed in Astria; the last of them had been hunted down and killed by the king. That part of the oath Aric had pledged four years ago was empty, a promise he’d known he would never have to honor. It was the only reason he’d taken it. Otherwise he would have found another way to show his fealty to the kingdom and demonstrate his obedience to his father, the king.
He bit his lip.
Dragons were cruel, evil beasts, incapable of intelligent thought.
Dragons were proud, regal beings, misunderstood and hunted by those who feared what they could not understand.
The latter were the teachings of his aunt, the former those of his father.
“It is not my wish to harm either of you.” The dragon appeared thoughtful. It was not exactly the reaction of the beasts the king had described.
“You can talk.” Aric knew he was stating the obvious but the words slipped out before he could stop them. “I don’t understand.” He was still alive. It was making no move to attack, there was no fire coming from its nostrils. If the dragon wanted him dead, it would hardly waste time with small talk. “I don’t understand any of this.”
“I talk to those who understand me.” The dragon cast an eye skyward. “We do not have much time. Soon your father will discover your absence and look for you.”
“What do you want of me?” Aric lowered his sword but did not sheathe it. He’d always wanted to believe his aunt’s stories of dragons over those of his father’s. She’d told him tonight to trust his feelings, to be ready to believe in something he might perceive to be unreal. He wasn’t sure he trusted this dragon, but his aunt had always kept him safe. “It’s going to take more than the few words you’ve spoken so far to convince me I shouldn’t kill you.” Or at the very least run like hell and hopefully escape with his life.
“Fair enough.” The dragon eyed Aric up and down. “I see much of your mother in you. The Lady Maelys was a good person and taken before her time. She will be sorely missed.”
At the mention of his mother Aric took another step forward before he realized he’d done so. “You knew my mother?” He was unable to stop the wistfulness and sadness that crept into his voice. She would have known what to do, she always had. “My mother?” He stopped abruptly, a memory of her coming unbidden to his mind. “My mother did not want me to take the oath. She told me I should never….”
“Kill a dragon?” The dragon finished the sentence for him. “Your mother was well thought of amongst our kind.”
“You said you had something to tell me.” Aric cleared his throat, not wishing to reminiscence about such things, at least not now. He was losing his mind, he must be. This was a dream, it had to be. Yet why did it feel so real? “And my name is not Brandric. It’s Aric. Brandric is what my father calls me.”
“Aric, then.” The dragon inclined its head again, lowering its voice. “Your sister is to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom. This must not be allowed to happen. It will not unite your kingdoms, but is merely a ploy to gain your father’s trust.”
“I already know that.” Aric had heard two of King Malachite’s men talking. Once the marriage had taken place, King Malachite planned to invade Astria and claim it in the name of Logan, his own kingdom. “He… they talked about using magic.” Aric had told his father about what he’d overheard, but he hadn’t been believed. King Malachite, King Brandr assured his son, would not attempt to betray Astria by using the evil that was magic. Nor would he use their children’s marriage to gain control over Astria. He was an honorable man who had stood by Astria and its people many times, their armies united against a common foe. Together they had triumphed over those who might use magic against them, and worked to rid both their lands of the threat of dragons.
Aric had never trusted King Malachite. There was something about the man that made his skin crawl, but if asked to explain, he couldn’t. Only two people had ever believed him: Georgia and Aunt Hannah.
“The only way to fight magic is with magic.” The dragon looked around, then cocked its head to the side as though listening to something Aric could not hear. “You must seek the Sword of Sherwin, Aric. The quest will not only save your kingdom, but also your sister.”
“I….” Aric stared at the dragon. He’d heard of the sword, of course he had. It was an old tale told to him by both his aunt and his mother. The sword was a thing of power. “It doesn’t exist. It’s just a story. Or if it did, it was lost generations ago.” He shook his head. Surely the dragon couldn’t be serious?
“Then it is time it was found again, isn’t it?”
“You make it sound simple. It’s not.” Aric looked up at the dragon. Its eyes were the same color as its scales. They seemed to bore into his own, searching his heart, and his soul. There was something ageless about it, powerful yet lonely. He shivered, and averted his gaze.
“You see what others don’t, young Aric.” The dragon opened its wings. Aric gasped. They were the length of several men, black cobwebs of fine leather and scale. “Follow your heart, and trust your instincts.”
“But I don’t know where to look.” Aric wanted to believe the dragon, he truly did. Georgia couldn’t be allowed to marry Prince Thorold, and Aric could not stand by and let his kingdom fall. Killing dragons had only been part of the oath he’d taken. He might not intend to keep that part of it, but he certainly would keep the other.
The dragon had already begun to flap its wings. It was preparing to leave, and Aric knew once it took flight he’d never be able to stop it. “Follow your heart, Aric. Do what is right.”
Aric stumbled back, his sword falling to the ground. He couldn’t kill the dragon, but more than that, he didn’t want to. “I don’t know where to look,” he yelled after it. The dragon did not reply but instead took to the air, gliding, hovering above him, its movement graceful, majestic. Something about it called to him, touched him.
He wiped at his eyes. They were wet.
When he looked up again, the dragon was gone.
THE moon disappeared behind a cloud, taking with it much of the light. Aric came to his senses with a jolt. How long had he stood staring at the sky?
He shivered and wrapped his cloak around him. When had it become so cold?
In the distance, the visible lights in the castle were beginning to wink out in turn. One candle still burned in the window of one of the topmost turrets. Georgia. She would be waiting for him. Although Aric had planned to sneak out without being noticed, his sister would know he was gone. She always knew, although he’d never figured out how.
She’d also be annoyed he hadn’t invited her to go with him.
His sword retrieved and safely in his sheath again, Aric began to run. The tunnel they used to secretly get in and out of the castle lay just beyond where the King’s guards patrolled at night. He’d need to cross the short distance between the edge of the woods and the castle without being seen. Usually it wouldn’t be a problem, but with it being much later than he’d intended, the guards would have already changed shifts, so he couldn’t sneak in while they were busy doing so.
Overhead an owl hooted, but apart from that the night was strangely quiet. As he got closer to the castle, he heard noise from the stables. The horses were restless, as though something had spooked them.
He could have sworn he heard something, but if asked to describe the noise he wouldn’t have been able to. It was more intangible than anything, an undefined sense that he was not alone. He glanced up but all he could see was a large shadow that was gone in an instant. This incident with the dragon had unnerved him more than he wanted to admit.
The guards were talking, warming their hands over the fire, their voices quiet enough that their words could not be clearly heard. Whatever Aric had seen, or felt, they clearly hadn’t. One of them, Gareth, nodded toward the stables, his companion following his gaze.
Aric saw his opportunity and took it. While the men were distracted, he ran, barely making it to the shadows of the castle wall before they returned to their duty. He pressed himself against the brickwork, fumbling behind him for the catch to open the hidden door. One of the guards began to turn in his direction. Aric swore to himself, certain he was about to be caught. To his relief the door opened and he almost fell into the passageway behind it before quickly closing the entrance.
Only members of the royal family knew about the potential escape route from the castle. The secret had been handed down for generations, although Aric was certain his father had forgotten he’d told them about it, as he didn’t appear to suspect his children of using it.
He stood there for a moment, breathing heavily, waiting for the shout that he’d been spotted, but there was nothing. A close call, but for the moment he was still safe. He reached for one of the torches lining the wall. His hand was shaking. This was ridiculous.
A rat ran across his foot and he jumped. Taking a moment, he gave himself a stern silent lecture. He was a prince, and a knight. It should take more than a semi-lit passage and a rat to unnerve him.
No, that had come with the dragon. Hell, he’d had a conversation with a dragon. It was intelligent, and hadn’t eaten him. A snort escaped him. Just how much of what his father had told him were lies? What was he supposed to believe anymore? And more importantly, who could he trust?
Georgia. He’d gladly lay down his life for her, and she for him. They’d always been close, although they did argue at times. Their mother had called them stubborn and strong-willed. He’d often wondered if they took after her in that. After all, they had inherited her looks, both of them with light-brown hair and dark-blue eyes, rather than the blond hair and lighter blue eyes of their father.
He missed his mother. So did his father. Sometimes, midargument, King Brandr would stop and ruffle Aric’s hair, telling him how much there was of his mother about him. It was unnerving, and often served to derail any thoughts Aric might have had of telling his father exactly what he thought of him.
Their relationship had been better while his mother was alive, but then Aric had been much younger, and still ready and eager to accept everything his father said as truth. Over the past few years, as he’d begun to think more for himself, he’d found he didn’t always agree with his father’s decisions, or the way in which he ruled their kingdom.
Aric had always kept his opinions to himself, but losing his aunt, and then his closest friend, because of his father’s inability to listen to reason had driven the final wedge between them. He still had no idea whether Jevon was alive or dead, and even now the king refused to talk about it when Aric tried to broach the subject. He was not about to sit back and lose his sister too because his father had decreed this sham of a marriage would take place.
When he reached the end of the corridor, he extinguished his torch and returned it to its rack. The rank, damp smell, almost as though someone had died there a long time ago, was worth enduring for the freedom at the other end.
Aric eased open the door and peered through the crack in the paneling. One of his father’s servants scurried past, and Aric quickly closed the door again. He waited for the sound of footsteps to fade before checking again that his way out was clear.
He saw no one. He waited a few moments to be sure and then silently crept from his hiding place, intent on making his way directly to his sister’s chambers.
“Aric!” Georgia hissed his name before he’d taken more than a few steps. “Quickly!” She shoved a tankard of mulled wine into his hand; she was already dressed in her nightclothes, and was holding a candle. “Father is heading toward your room. He suspects! We must hurry.”
He took the tankard and followed her. She led him to her room, pulling her robe more firmly around her. “We are not children, Georgia.” For some reason having to do this grated on him more than it usually did. “We are the heirs to the throne! We shouldn’t have to skulk around at night fearful that our father might catch us.”
Georgia’s expression clouded. She sat down at the table in her room, gesturing for him to sit opposite, the chess set between them mid game. “You are heir to the throne, Aric. If we are caught, I have much more to lose than you do. I am about to be sold like cattle, a pawn sacrificed in marriage for our kingdom. I’d prefer to spend the little time I have left in my home still able to come and go as I wish, rather than locked up like a prisoner.”
“You have just as much right to the throne as I do!” Aric protested, although he knew she was right. They might be adults now, but their father was the king and as such had the power to do what he wished. “I am only the older by a few minutes, and you know it.”
“You are also a man. A woman only sits on the throne when there are no male heirs.”
“You know I don’t agree with that,” Aric said quietly, “and I am not about to provide Astria with any heirs of my own.” It was not unknown for a king to marry another man for love and have a concubine in order to father children. Aric had already decided he would not bed someone he did not love. He would name Georgia’s children as his heirs and get around it that way.
“When I marry it will be for love, and any children I have will be conceived in the same way. I’ve told Father that, but he will not listen.” Georgia lowered her voice. “That idiot Thorold drools when he eats, Aric! I’ve seen him. I don’t want to live the rest of my life with someone like him.” She indicated the chessboard. “There is no point in winning a game that holds no challenge. If he even knows how to play.”
“You shouldn’t have to marry someone you do not love.” Aric heard the bedroom room open behind them. He moved one of the pieces on the board, his knight knocking over one of the rooks and removing it from play. “We’ll find a way to fight this, Georgia. I promise.”
“Often marriage comes first, and then love follows,” the king said from the open doorway.
“Often it doesn’t.” Aric didn’t look up from the board when he answered his father. Instead he took a long draft of wine and leaned back, using the action to unclasp his cloak, so that it fell to lie draped over the back of his chair.
“I do have your sister’s best interests at heart, Brandric.” Something in King Brandr’s voice made Aric turn to look at him. His father looked tired; there were fine lines around his eyes Aric hadn’t noticed before. “My spies inform me that our kingdom is under threat of attack. We need all the allies we can get. Georgia’s marriage to Prince Thorold will unite Astria and Logan and guarantee both our futures.”
“King Malachite has always fought by your side, Father. Why the sudden need for a marriage contract? It was never required before.” Aric allowed some of the anger he felt enter his voice, although he knew it would only serve to aggravate the situation between himself and his father.
King Brandr lowered his gaze for just a moment. The siblings exchanged a glance before Georgia put Aric’s thoughts into words. “How long ago did you promise me in marriage to this man, Father?”
“I’d just lost your mother, Georgia.” King Brandr did not look at his daughter. “I needed to ensure Astria had a future. We were at war, and we were losing. King Malachite offered his help.”
“For a price, which you paid,” Aric noted bitterly. “Did it ever occur to you that perhaps Astria would prefer to take its chances, rather than enter into a deal with the devil? And what about Georgia? This is her life, not yours.” He stood and glared at his father.
“You were children, Brandric,” King Brandr pointed out calmly. “I made the best decision at the time. King Malachite is far from the devil. He is a good man, despite your misgivings about him. I do not regret it.”
“Of course you don’t.” Aric took a step toward his father. “You were only thinking about Astria, after all.”
Georgia made a warning noise. Aric ignored it.
“I am your father, and your king.” King Brandric drew himself up to his full height, his face like thunder. “You need to remember that, son.”
“A king should care about his subjects, Sire, in much the same way a father should care about his children.” Aric knew he was treading on dangerous ground. This was an argument he would never win.
“You are behaving like a child.” King Brandric shook his head. “I love both you and your sister, Aric, but I have to think about the greater good. What do you think would happen if our enemies won? What kind of a future, if any, would you have then? They’d kill you.” His voice trembled. “At least this way you still have a chance.”
For a moment Aric hesitated, but his anger was too far gone. “There is another way, Father. There has to be. King Malachite plans to use magic against us. Why not?”
King Brandr cut him off instantly. “We have had this discussion before, Brandric. I have also spoken to King Malachite about it. He was horrified you would think such a thing and promised me he would speak to the men you claim you overheard.” His expression hardened. “I will not condone the use of magic within my kingdom either by friend or foe. He feels the same way, and Logan has similar laws on the matter. You know that. I am disappointed in you, Brandric, and in how far you are prepared to stoop to poison my mind against a man who has been nothing but friend to Astria.”
“Some friend,” Aric muttered. The man was an ally because he’d been paid to be one: paid with the promise of his son taking Georgia’s hand in marriage.
“Brandric! That is enough.” King Brandr raised his hand then lowered it. He was shaking. “It is important to me that you and your sister work together with me for the good of our kingdom. Your responsibility to Astria comes first, above all else. I know you are upset about the thought of Georgia marrying this man and leaving our home, so I will excuse your insubordination this once because of it.”
Aric didn’t dare allow himself to feel relief at his father’s words. He knew him too well for that. King Brandr was angrier than Aric had seen him in a very long time.
“However, it cannot be allowed to continue. I will not risk losing our alliance with Logan, and I am tired of you questioning my decisions. Tomorrow morning, you will publicly give your blessing to your sister’s upcoming marriage and pledge service not only to Astria but Logan as well.”
“No!” Aric was horrified at the thought. He couldn’t stand in front of their people and lie. “But, Father?”
King Brandr spoke firmly. His mind was made up and there would be no changing it. “Yes, Brandric, you will, because if you do not, I will not hesitate to throw you into the dungeons for treason. Consider yourself fortunate that I am not calling the guards to do it now.”
He turned and walked out of the room.
“Aric!” Georgia pulled her brother into a hug, holding him tightly for a few moments before letting go. “This argument with Father has gone on long enough. I know you do not agree with all of his decisions, but you cannot keep questioning him. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened.”
“I cannot stand in front of the court and pledge my allegiance to Logan.” Aric shook his head. The very idea made him sick to his stomach. “I’ve tried to bite my tongue, Georgia, but I can’t allow Father to further align himself with King Malachite. It will destroy not only our family but Astria, too.”
“Then what do you suggest we do?”
Aric spoke softly, his mind already made up. “We are not going to do anything, Georgia. I am leaving tonight. I will find the Sword of Sherwin, return with it, and save you and our kingdom.”
“It doesn’t exist. It’s just a story.” Georgia pulled away, staring at her brother as though he were crazy. “You’ve always thought so. You can’t risk your life over a story.” She shook her head. “Go after Father. Apologize to him. Tell him you will address the court, that you are upset by the thought of my impending marriage. It will at least give us some time to decide on our next course of action. It is foolish to risk spending time in the dungeons when all you need to do is swallow your pride and do what he wishes, just this once.”
“It’s not just a story, Georgia.” Aric took a deep breath. A morning spent in his father’s court would only serve to delay what needed to be done, and as soon as possible. His sister’s marriage to Prince Thorold was to take place in less than two weeks. “A dragon spoke to me tonight and told me to follow my heart, to do what is right. It told me to find the sword.”