Dew clung to the low bushes beneath the forest's canopy, dampening his fine cloak and boots much as his quest dampened his spirits. Wan sunlight glimmered overhead, unable to dispel the wet or his gloom. Pure folly this venture most likely would prove as he held out little hope of acceptance. Indeed, he doubted she would come to him of her own volition, but kicking and screaming as all the others had in the past. Complacent and resentful of him the hamlet he brooded over had grown.
Britannia had faced the Roman threat, forgetting much of the old ways in the strife against a common enemy. He and his kin retreated to wait out the occupation. Though respected and held in awe in those hot, arid, and often exotic places, deep in his heart he yearned for the green hills of Eire, Scotia, and Cymru. Five hundred years passed before the invaders melted away like a night-candle guttering at dawn. He had seen another century since his return and still his kind struggled.
With the Druids gone or reduced to a few fugitives, the Romans' last legacy nibbled away at his race's power and he liked it not at all. Like tallow's persistent, greasy stain on fine linen, the new faith named him and his kind demons and demanded their extinction. Only in such places, tucked high in the mountains could they find sanctuary or hold any sway.
'Twas not that he did not believe in a Creator. Was not his own breed a part of that greater being? Yet to deny magic and the creatures of it seemed unnatural to him. There remained but a handful of unicorns, centaurs, and his own race, living among humans.
Perhaps the others might give up, but he would do all he could to see something of his people survived, even if diluted with other blood. He pulled his cloak closer against a gust of chill autumn wind, shrugged off his dark mood, and strode through swirling leaves as he headed toward the village.
The leaden, blustery day mirrored Lilybet's mood after nooning. She had fled in search of a savior, but Alwin was all that remained to beg for help.
The gangling youth smirked his refusal, shrugging his bony shoulders. "Another time, I'd serve. But I'll not be responsible for the beastie toastin' us." The lad glanced around nervously as if the creature might hear, then scurried off, leaving Lilybet in a rage.
Her final chance to escape immolation scampered from sight without a backward look. Soon the elders would concede to the monster's plaguey demand. Without success, she had beseeched every man save kin. Whether spoken for or unattached, not one dared provoke draconian wrath to deliver her from its clutches.
'Twas near harvest and time for the dragon's levy of a virgin girl. The only other fit lass had married last year, leaving Lilybet alone to offer. She stomped back home.
Brac, her stepfather, awaited with a scowl. "Out lookin' for a way to dodge it, eh?"
He handed her the chicken feed and left without her answer. She fed the birds, then slopped the pigs. Her favorite, a sow she'd named Isolde, snuggled against her.
Lilybet sighed and absently patted the pink and black head. "Ah, my fine friend, if I'd not been so picky, perhaps I'd not be in such a fix. Now I'm soon to be dragon fodder and naught will put himself out to change it."
"Lilybet, come inside. We've a guest," Brac called from his inn's door.
She tossed the bucket aside, smoothed her braid, and straightened her apron. Strangers rarely journeyed to Anarawd's valley high in Cymru's rugged Snowden mountains.
The inn more resembled a tavern than a proper hostel, for locals made up its customers rather than travelers. Yet she had heard tales of the occasional bard, nobleman, or traveling priest who dared the rocky path. As a child, Mum had spoken of a pair of minstrels who had called many years before. An idea tickled at Lilybet. After laying eyes on their visitor, it tormented her. Not unlike an unreachable itch that demanded a good scratch.
The man stood a full head above Brac, the tallest townsman. A dark, hooded cloak hid his features. Golden embroidery bordered the expensive cloth and a harp's waxed-leather carrying bag peeked over his shoulders. No surprise Brac had seated him at their best table. Her stepfather motioned for her. She hung back at his introduction, fiercely aware of her shabby clothes.
"This be my daughter, Lilybet. She'll serve supper if you wish."
The man turned his head to consider her. She could have sworn his eyes glowed green within the cowl's shadow. Brac beckoned impatiently and she hurried over.
He returned his attention to his patron. "What will you, sir? There's mead or ale to quench your thirst and fine mutton stew if you hunger. Or we can kill a chicken if that be more to your taste," he said with a worried look creasing his heavy brows.
"Stew is fine. And mead to drink." The stranger's voice, so deep, dark, and smooth, brought chills to Lilybet's skin. She wished he would push back the hood.
Brac jostled her arm and hissed at her. "Go on, get it."
Lilybet started as if from a dream and nearly ran to the kitchen shed. After ladling a huge bowl of savory stew, she tapped Brac's finest mead and poured a generous portion into their best horn cup. For good measure she added a slab of precious white bread and a dollop of sweet butter. She would answer for it later, but what did she have to lose?
When she dashed back into the common room, she couldn't hide her grimace. His coming had ruffled the tiny berg as a carelessly tossed stone ripples a pond's still surface. The news had spread through Anarawd. Nearly the whole of them crowded around to gawk and question him.
She pushed her way through the crush to set his meal before him, then lingered to listen. He took their prying well. His enchanting voice held no impatience as he told of his travels. Not once did he lower the concealing hood despite Lilybet's wishing. When she would have gone, he caught her hand.
"Bide another moment," he said, then released her. He gestured to her stepfather, hovering nearby.
"The food be all right, sir?" Brac near begged, then shot an accusing look at Lilybet. Their guest made an impatient sound.
"I merely require quiet to eat and rest from my journey."
"Ah, yes." Brac perused the crowd, then raised his voice above the din. "Closing early, friends. 'Tis too cramped in here for so many."
They grumbled, but drifted away until the place stood empty save Lilybet, Brac, and the nameless stranger. That one leaned back in his chair and waited. Lilybet felt certain he'd paid handsomely, but she had never seen Brac so unsettled, even when Mum fell ill. He shuffled from foot to foot, wringing his hands and mopping his brow.
"Be there anything else, sir?"
"A few moments alone."
"Aye. Come along, Lilybet," Brac said, taking her arm to hasten her.
Brac raised his eyebrows, clearly unhappy with the latest request. Lilybet could see the war between his need to keep her intact and his greed on his face.
"Sir, she's a good girl. Besides... " He hesitated.
Lilybet knew he considered telling of her fate. She couldn't let him speak it. "It's all right, Da. I'll be out shortly."
Brac frowned and left muttering about consequences. The stranger ate without speaking. Lilybet stood beside him, her fingers itching to uncover his head. She restrained herself and concentrated on his fine hands.
Long tapered fingers, clean nails; strong, yet without sign of heavy labor as marred the villagers' paws. A bard's hands with callused pads from plucking harp strings. Her gaze turned to her own fists, clenched before her, scraped and reddened with tending animals, kitchen, and inn.
"Your mother was a fine woman, Lilybet," he said unexpectedly.
"Wh... what?" she stammered.
"I knew your mother. A true Cymry's child. She showed no dread of me, but then she didn't fear your father either."
"Brac? Why would she fear him?"
He made a strange noise; half laugh, half derisive snort. "That pathetic thing? No. Your real father was my friend."
Lilybet's face heated. "How dare you? Mum loved my father."
"Indeed, but Brac's not your true father. Well you know it." He held up his hand, silencing her protest. "We'll speak of this later. Sit beside me while I eat. I desire your company."
"My father... Brac... he won't like it." She took a deep breath and a chance. "Because of Mum, Brac doesn't trust me."
"Ah. Well, I'll not give him reason to distrust you further. Go then." He raised another spoonful to his mouth.
She didn't want to go. A yearning she'd buried for so long she'd nearly convinced herself it didn't exist pushed itself into the light. This stranger knew her father. Any rag of pride fled in the face of this need. "What would you tell me of my father? My time's near gone."
When he remained quiet, she all but wept. Lilybet's footsteps dragged as she joined Brac outside to finish her chores. As long as she could remember, she had suffered his resentment, for her mother could bear no other children. It galled him Lilybet wasn't his. Mum had said naught beyond the fact Lilybet's father had been someone special. Brac demanded silence on the matter.
While Lilybet chopped wood, milked the cow, and cleaned the kitchen, Brac conferred with the council. By the time she finished, the darkening sky had sent folk to their homes. Brac waited near the back door. Together they headed inside.
The stranger, standing before the fire, turned at their entrance. "I wish a room for the night. One is available?"
"Aye, sir. We've had few visitors these past years, but we keep it ready just in case. Come, I'll show you around." Brac's look told Lilybet she had better check the bed linens.
She rushed upstairs to throw open their biggest room's door. The chimney ran through it, making it the warmest chamber next to Brac's. Her own, backed against the thatched roof's corner, waxed icy on winter nights. Brac's voice drew nearer and she quickly fluffed the bedding and pillows.
"Right in here, sir. Our best room." He led the stranger in. Lilybet looked up. A glimpse of a strong chin and full lower lip beneath the cowl teased her as the man spoke.
"This will suffice. How much?"
Though Brac named a price far above their usual charge, the man didn't balk at paying it. Her stepfather shooed her out and downstairs. After she scraped the dishes, she covered the cooking coals, then returned to the quiet, darkened inn. Brac had retreated to his own room.
Forlorn, she absorbed the inn's essence. Unless the stranger took pity on her tonight, all too soon her aunt and cousins would prepare her for the dragon. She prayed the traveler would change her fate. As she climbed the stairs, she gulped down a dry piece of coarse brown bread for supper.
In her room she quickly washed in cold water, then donned her mother's wedding dress. Tiny flowers, stitched in pink, yellow, and purple thread, outlined the hem and wide neckline of the dark blue dress. The summer of her thirteenth year Mum had given it to her, just after her first flow.
Mum said it was time she learned what womanhood meant. Lilybet had looked forward to her own wedding day until that winter five years past, when her mother caught cold. She died within a month and took the light from Lilybet's life. Mum wouldn't have wanted her to end like this. She'd have wanted her daughter to find love and have babies of her own.
Lilybet's hands shook as she undid her hair. By a single precious candle's light, she brushed her long sable tresses, inherited from her mother, and lay them over her breasts. Her nipples puckered against the room's chilly air. Gooseflesh needled her arms and legs as she moved into the hall.
She swallowed her dread of the unknown. A greater terror pushed aside her misgivings and she moved on. Boards groaned beneath her bare feet as she crept closer to his room. Her candle's flame wavered as did her resolve. Better to die and save the village? Or live shamed, alone, and filled with guilt for wanting survival? A draft gusted down the hallway and hurried her steps.
Faint, sweet strains of harp music and song drifted from the stranger's room. More than half-expecting no answer, Lilybet rapped lightly on the ash-planked door. The lyric notes quieted, but she heard no movement. Moments plodded by and she feared he thought someone objected to his singing.
She bowed her head, half-miserable, half-glad, and turned to go. The door swung open and the bard's hand snaked out to grasp her shoulder. His fingers lay hot and strong against her bare skin. She hunched her shoulder against the firm, but gentle touch. At her movement he dropped his hand. Embarrassment and doubt crowded her mind and kept her gaze at his chest level until he spoke.
"You have need of me?" He stood in the candle's golden circle, yet his own glow far outshone the flickering light. As she gazed into his lambent emerald eyes, Lilybet's voice deserted her. No wonder he went cloaked. Such beauty incited either envy or desire beyond reason. His questioning look forced her to think. She tore her gaze from his and studied his boots.
"I... crave your aid. A dragon bides in the caves above this valley. Every ten years it demands virgin sacrifice. All our maids have wed. Except me. I would take no man before and now not one will have me." Her face flamed, but she continued. "Mayhaps 'tis selfish, but I've no wish to die. Yet if I must, I'd know what happens 'tween man and woman."
"You would have me rid you of your maidenhood?"
"Aye," she whispered, mortified, yet in an agony of hope.
"Far be it from me to deny such a plea. Come, Lilybet, I'll not bite." He held out his hand with a mysterious, knowing smile.
When he drew her into his warm room, her hand trembled in his. The door shut with a decided snick though he'd not moved. Magic, she could sense it all around him now. She'd not felt it earlier. Almost as if his cloak protected more than his looks.
Her hand still captive in his, Lilybet returned his study. Freed from the hood's shadow, his face showed dimples bracketing full, sensuous lips. Beneath golden brows the same shade as his luxuriant hair, long thick lashes framed his eyes, which glinted with what she suspected was humor at her expense.
No hurt accompanied that thought for she sensed no ridicule and despite her shame in seeking him out, she could not help admiring him. His broad shoulders and powerful, but elegant body spoke of a warrior's way of life though he carried no weapon.
He cupped her face with his free hand, then ran his thumb across her lips. Tingles raced down her spine and settled as an ache low in her belly.
"My friends call me Draca. It would pleasure me greatly if Anghard's daughter would call me thus." His magnificent voice poured over Lilybet as he drew her closer.
"Aye, Draca," she murmured just before he claimed her lips. Her entire body lit with an inner flame threatening to consume her. Any remorse she felt at thwarting the elders' plans fled before the passion Draca called forth.
She flung her arms about his neck, threading her fingers through the thick, fine golden hair at his nape. His lips left her to nip at her ear, then followed her neck to where it joined her shoulder. Lilybet's legs threatened to give way as tiny shivers ran up her spine and an odd, liquid heat settled at the junction of her thighs.
Those hands of his played her as he had played his harp, making her body sing as they traveled over her hips, cupped and kneaded her buttocks as he pressed her against his lower body. Strange words he murmured in her ear as they shuffled toward the bed. Her breasts ached and she felt as though she'd just run through the wood.
Lilybet stretched like a satisfied cat in the big bed. Weak sunlight struggled through the window's hide coverings. She reached over to where Draca had lain, but found the hollow cold and empty. The room had grown frigid and it seeped into her heart. He had gone; no trace of his presence lingered but one.
The soreness between her legs confirmed she no longer qualified for sacrifice. Any regret came from wanting more of Draca's loving. She suspected no other man she knew would please her so well through the long, frosty nights.
He had held her afterwards, asking her what she wanted in life. No one but Mum had ever asked her such a thing. Something within him called for her trust and she told him what she had only spoken of to her mother... her tie to the land's magic. They had talked until she fell asleep, curled against his warm length. She had even forgotten to ask about her father.
Though disappointed at his absence, Lilybet's lips curved in a triumphant smile. With a longing sigh, Lilybet turned over and snuggled deeper beneath the covers. To ensure discovery, she stayed in the room... in the bed where Draca had taken her innocence.
She dozed, weary from her unaccustomed activity and lack of sleep. In her dreams she relived the new sensations she'd learned from him. Alone in the bed, she moaned and writhed as though his hands still touched her, as if he still penetrated her flesh.
Brac's poking around downstairs woke her, aching and frustrated with the emptiness within her body and soul. The reason for her actions the night before pushed aside the torment. Why had Brac not looked for her?
In a fit of anger, she flung back the covers, climbed from the bed, and hurriedly replaced her nightgown. She gave a final look at the bloody evidence of her lost maidenhood, then flounced back to her room to dress. Her stomach growled its protest and compelled her downstairs.
"Ah, there you are. Look who's here, Lilybet. They've breakfast for you. All your favorites." Brac smiled broadly and rushed her over to the table. Her aunt and cousins scuttled about, setting out a feast. Lilybet's heart sank. She must tell them. They could no longer give her to the dragon.
"Da, last night -- "
"Now, hush, child. 'Tis natural to fear. Sorry 'tis if you did not sleep well. At least you'll have a full stomach to meet the beastie." He chuckled.
Lilybet's blood ran cold as the import of his words became clear.
"No, 'tis too early. At least another sennight."
"Nay, a messenger arrived at dawn. It wants you today." Brac's expression told her he relished the idea of getting rid of her sooner than he'd planned on.
"But there's something I must tell you before--"
"Hush. There's no time for such." He thrust his face close, his breath full of old ale and unscrubbed teeth. "Besides, there's no way you can wiggle from this. So you'd best fill your gut."
Lilybet recoiled as much from his hatred as from the stink. Brac stepped away to lean against the wall and scowl at her. She wished he'd found her in Draca's bed. Better yet, she should have asked the bard to take her with him. But she'd not asked, certain she had time to escape if Brac didn't believe her.
"'Tis important I tell you!" she nearly yelled.
Brac's face went rigid at her disobedience. More quickly than she ever seen him move, he grabbed her arm, pulled her over to the table, and shoved her onto the bench.
"Eat," he growled, then shooed the other women before him as he left.
Lilybet stared at the food and groaned in frustration. Was last night all for naught? It could not be. She pushed away from the table and made for the door. Perhaps she could yet flee. Surely if the monster found itself deceived it would consume her, then destroy the village. Even if she survived, she'd not chance the town's ruin. Surely they'd find another. Villagers crowded around outside. Her aunt's pale face broke into a sad smile at her appearance.
"Finished already? Come, let us dress you in the gown."
"Aunt, I'm not worthy," she protested, close to tears.
"Not true. You be our only salvation. If not for you, innocent babes would burn," her aunt said, then hustled her inside and upstairs. Despite Lilybet's attempts, they would not heed her.
To Lilybet, descending the stairs in the painstakingly made white gown passed too soon. When she saw the elders awaited her, she nearly bolted. The headman approached, cloth rope ready to bind her wrists as the dragon had decreed centuries before.
"'Tis time. Fight us not. You do a great service and we wish you no harm."
Lilybet laughed hysterically. Wished her no harm? How ridiculous. They wished her in the great beast's maw. Still, she did not resist as they firmly tied her hands before her, then placed her in the waiting oxcart. The feeble winter sun peeked through the clouds, following their serpentine path up the rocky road.
They reached the scorched clearing before the caves and halted near the tall post where they would chain her. The place reeked of brimstone. A deep chill settled in Lilybet's soul. In this dank, malodorous place she would die. And for what? A terrible mistake.
Without a word, the men took her from the cart and fettered her wrists. She hung from the chains, her gaze accusing them of the greatest stupidity. None met her eyes as they fled to watch from a safe distance. Did they know and not care? She wished to scream out, "I am not virgin," but did not.
A deafening roar and the terrible rumble of heavy footsteps shook the ground beneath her feet. Small rocks and pebbles pelted her from the hillside. Lilybet huddled closer to the post's poor protection. Her horrified gaze riveted to the cave's yawning throat as the huge head emerged.
Pale sunlight glinted on golden scales as the dragon swung its nose from side to side. The beast sniffed the air scant yards before her, nostrils the size of her biggest cooking pot dilating to take in her scent. When it turned toward her, Lilybet squeezed her eyes tight. Her hands pulled against the chains as gusts of hot, sulfurous breath washed over her. Surely the wickedly sharp teeth would pierce her.
Her heart pounded at the light nudge against her thigh. She opened her eyes. The creature nuzzled her, not unlike her favorite sow seeking affection. Vastly intelligent, luminescent greenish gold eyes gazed into hers with a vaguely familiar look.
"Just what did you expect, my dear?" the creature asked in a deep, somewhat breathy voice.
"Certain death," Lilybet managed. A throaty chuckle erupted from the enormous mouth and exposed menacing teeth. The dragon rose to strike her chains loose with a single blow of its talons. When Lilybet collapsed, the beast caught her gently in its paw and licked her face with its soft tongue.
"I will not hurt you. Surely you know that." At her puzzled look, it cocked its head. "Can you stand?"
"Aye, but -- "
"Be strong. I've not finished yet," it whispered and turned to the cowering villagers. "Hear me, mortals. Centuries I sought the right maid. That quest has ended. No longer will I require virgin sacrifice. Still, you will tithe me as your proper lord. Return after harvest next year with a quarter of the yield."
The dragon laid its head at Lilybet's feet with a contented sigh and watched the men scramble away. They turned to see her fate, but a great cloud of smoke poured from its mouth, hiding Lilybet from their view. It roared again, frightening them into a hasty, stumbling run. Lilybet covered her ears at the awful sound, then coughed from the fumes.
"What will you do with me now? No maid am I. Yesterday I... I... a passing stranger happened by. I... gave myself to him," she said, staring at the ground between her feet. Its taloned digit compelled her to face the beast.
"I know, Lilybet," it said with a pointed smile, then carried her into the caves.
When it set her down, Lilybet gazed in wonder at mounds of gold and gems piled in every corner. A bed, chair, and table, hewn from oak and smoothed to a fine sheen, sat tucked against one wall. Tall candelabra lit the place. Beside the furniture a glowing orb rested in a clawed holder. She whirled, seeking the dragon's human comrade. The beast stood alone, its form wavering and changing, shrinking until Draca stood in its place.
"I have waited impatiently for you to mature, Lilybet. When my friend fell in love with your mother, it near broke his heart. She would not leave her village and he could not stay."
"A dragon, as well?" she whispered.
"Aye, that he is. We can take human form for short periods of time, but it strains our magic. If we remain thus too long, we die."
"Why do you want me? What of the other maids?"
"They feared me as human or dragonkind. You alone braved your people's reproach to join me. Perhaps 'tis your dragon half, but you alone did not scream or weep or wail at my true form." He laughed. "The others? I merely frightened them, then took them to another village, far from here."
"They live then?"
"Lilybet, dracos don't eat humans. We attempt to induce temperance in humankind." A wry smile twisted his lips. "Unfortunately, they can prove most stubborn and cowardly."
"What do you wish of me?"
"To be my mate. I am lonely. Hundreds of years I have searched. Not among my own kind, nor among humans have I found such a kindred spirit as yours." Draca walked toward her and took her hand. "Join me. Together we will watch the world change before us."
"If I refuse?" she dared ask.
Anguish dimmed his glowing green eyes. He released her hand and moved to the mounted orb.
"If you wish to leave, I will take you to another place and make certain they accept you. Afterwards I will return here." Draca took a deep breath and lay a hand on the globe. "This solitary existence wears on even dracos."
"What do you intend? You would not harm yourself on my account?" Lilybet's heart ached at his dispirited expression.
"'Twould be unnecessary. I will merely diminish till no trace of me bides."
"No! You must not." She hurried to wrap her arms around him in fear he might vanish before her. "As a dragon's companion I'll fare better than as an innkeeper's daughter. But how can we join if you cannot hold this form?"
Draca did not answer her in words, but enfolded her in a passionate kiss. Lilybet tingled from head to foot, filled with a strange heat unlike that when they made love. When he pulled away, Lilybet blinked in surprise. Again, the dragon stood before her, yet he did not tower over her.
"So, my love, what think you?" he asked with a satisfied laugh.
Lilybet took a step toward him, then stopped to look down. A huge, golden-scaled body, ending in taloned feet, greeted her eyes.
"Oh, my!" she gasped.
"Come." Draca led her deeper into the caves, to a clear pool lit with torches. He stood beside her to gaze into the crystal depths. Two dragons stared back.
"Perhaps I've waited for this my whole life," Lilybet said. Her smile grew as Draca twined his neck around hers. This form would alarm her childhood tormentors. Better yet, she'd found another soul who understood her.