Engaging The Dragon
Almere felt the dragon's bulk sizzle between her thighs, hard and smooth like riding a man. How she missed her husband, Stannock, far away at the wars in the northwest!
She and her dragon dropped through shouting halls of air, wheeled dead-stop before the cliff that led to her father-in-law's castle, then Fire-Smasher banked and rose, blazing, to the top of the wall.
“Hello, the guard below! Almere demands the right to enter.” She pulled on the rein of fire that controlled her pet, her blue eyes sparkling in a tan face. Her yellow wide-brimmed hat flapped in the breeze created by the descending dragon.
“Open the landing roofs and make way for the princess,” the guards called.
Armor clinked below. Soldiers leaned on the great chains that supported the roof gates which slowly ground apart.
Once in the King's castle, her dragon pranced high above on wings of translucent emerald, scarlet, and periwinkle blue. Almere forced a cooler breath to calm the flutter in her chest.
“You weren't gone long this time.” Stannock's half-brother leaned against a pillar. The portico yawned in the open air, inviting rest. “The dragon is fed?”
“Suitable shrubs and rodents from the valley.” Almere slumped into an expanse of pillows within the queen's chair. The Queen mother rode a beast of her own under the burning triple suns of the planet Draxxt and seldom came home before nightfall.
The Queen's dragons were not like Fire-Smasher. All of the other dragons were faster and stronger – fierce and waiting for a battle. Fire-Smasher, whom Almere rode astride, fast and desperate before her husband left for the wars – “Kiss me, Stannock, kiss me hard,” she begged and her wet mouth clung to his, two of their four full moons ago. Now there was his brother, sturdy and insolent, who stared at her with moist dark eyes half hidden under drooping lids.
“Where is the Queen?” she asked.
“She plays the part of a young girl, as usual, up and away in the clouds until the last sun's set.” Tevron moved only his lips, then the tips of his fingers wriggled in his tight pockets. The pillar supported his weight. His body shifted to stand more firmly on his feet. Almere feared he would lunge in her direction, and what would she do then? A face like her husband's but darker and older on his bold smiling half-brother, his bodyguard and rival, the brother who stayed behind as king's advisor while Stannock fought on the fronts of the wars. All these months, her husband was gone, her bed empty.
Almere twisted a piece of her wavy black hair in her fingers, blue eyes flashing.
“I must bathe, Tevron,” she said. She was able to mask her fear from him; with a dismissive gesture, she got to her feet.
Tevron nodded but he was not ready for her to leave. “Mariette will run your bath. The servants have heated the water already.”
“It's good of the queen's maids to wait on me so.”
“Only fitting for the queen's daughter-in-law. What do you know from the day's trip?”
She stretched and her muscles welcomed the release of tension. She could feel his hard stare on her half naked body, her bodice pulled apart from the fierce ride. “It's been a hard ride, and the spies in the northwest have come back with no news. I saw the fires at the edge of Gracklen. I'm afraid for Stannock.”
“Afraid for my brother and his soldiers?” The thick figure in the shade of the portico moved into the light of a double moon. Night came suddenly in Gracklen. “They fight for the land of the Trolls at Many Waters. It's all about land. There is another solution than war, but my brother is thick-headed and won't listen. Though he's brave, I'll give him that.”
Her loins ached.
“Damn him,” she cursed.
“You miss him?” Tevron stalked like a dark animal to her side.
Out of annoyance, Almere flicked the dragon whip still in her hand. “That is not a question.”
“I know you, Almere. I've seen the desire in your eyes, felt your heart smolder like hot coals.”
She drew back and thought of her husband, so different from his dark brother, and she felt afraid again. She could see Tevron's thin white smile in the gloaming.
“He's sent no word of the war. The dragons here are restless to join their cousins and flock,” Tevron said. “My own beast has long since been lost in the wars, flown to accompany Stannock with his servant and baggage, my mount torn from me because I chose to stay at the palace and attend the King. That's all right. Dragons are scarce. I have my eye on a young one, eager to grow and learn from its master.” He smirked at the thought of a new pet.
“You will never mount my Fire-Smasher,” Almere denied, aware of his designs. “You wait here, Tevron, and torment me while you let your brother go to war on your behalf.”
“My mother, the Queen, wishes for grandchildren, while you remain barren due to my absent brother. Didn't I take the better path? If you would allow it, I would step in for my brother. Stannock is useless here, but active on the front where he fights instead of loves.”
The Queen wished for grandchildren, and Almere was alone here without a husband to spawn them. If only she could produce heirs. Queen Ericaania reminded her often of her barrenness. Almere had no other husband. Not like Ericaania, who took two husbands and then was left with only the old King, Hakor, who had murdered the Queen's first love and left her with their strange dark child, Tevron. Almere knew that her mother-in-law never forgave King Hakor, but from that day on, she feared the king's displeasure because of the bargain she had struck to keep her and the dead Malcoom's child alive and under King Hakor's protection.
Tevron slipped his hand under the silky fabric of Almere's bodice. “I have no wish to be murdered at a meal or in bed,” he assured her. “I can wait.”
She flicked her whip onto the back of his hand and screwed her mouth downwards. Her stomach heaved. “I have no wish to sleep with you.”
A dragon looped through the evening sky, talons outstretched to alight on a high tower.
“I AM DESTRUCTION,” the dragon gloated. “I AM FATE.” It smiled and settled on the tower, guided by reins of fire held in the hand of a tanned, older but supple woman.
“Ericaania has returned.”
“My cue to depart,” Tevron said and left. His voice so much like her husband's, away at a war they may not win, a war Almere longed to rejoin with her dragon and his friends, Queen Ericaania in the lead with sure hands on the flaming reins of her plunging mount.
Fire-Smasher, Almere's immature red dragon, leaped in a stream of fire to be with the larger dragon. The King's guards grasped the sparkling reins that hung from above and led both dragons to their stables for the night where they were free to eat small live mammals and count their gold. The Queen's dragon, a translucent crimson flame in the dark, slipped from the top of the tower to the landing platform near the Great Hall, then his great low voice hummed from within the castle stronghold. Almere heard Fire-Smasher reply with a low hiss. He attempted to prophecy the battle tomorrow. Almere felt her loins weaken and she moistened.
“Is the King not glad to see me?” Ericaania's words came from deep within a cave of fire, her dragon flickering in the night from the stables below.
The King's reply rumbled from the Great Hall. Guards came out to secure the inner gates. Two moons rose high in a night black and as sticky as Almere's own sweat.
“I was delayed by a happy feast in our neighbor's garden,” Almere could hear her mother-in-law say. “I thought of my lord the entire time, and we got away as soon as we could, my dragon Lockjaw and I.”
The King's voice rumbled in reply.
“Did you have a good time today, Mother?” Almere stood inside the barred doors and faced the woman she might have loved, given other circumstances. “Did our neighbors treat you well at the feast? As they always must, for you're always late at this time of year, coming from their hospitality. When the early cold comes on us during the evening, and it's only at home that we're comfortable. We miss you, Mother, the King especially.”
“Yes,” the Queen replied. She put her arms around Almere, who pulled away uncomfortably. “Now a hug and off to your bath you go. First you, then me, for I'm chilled to the liver with the long ride today.”
“Long ride? What about the feast with the neighbors?” Almere reminded her, eyes misted, sorry for the King. “Mother, I'm sick about your lies. Father doesn't deserve this, and neither do I.”
“Lies? You sorry skinny bag of fluff.” The Queen laughed. “You're just like I used to be at your age, Almere. A papa's girl. If your own father had lived, and your mother hadn't been banished at such a young age, you might have grown to be a proper wife.”
“But I had my father's dowry,” Almere reminded her. “And he loved the King, your husband. Enough to betroth me to the King's only son at a young age, before we were of age to consent.”
“Should have been someone else,” Ericaania complained. “You are barren, child.”
“Not enough time to decide that yet,” defended the younger woman. “And how do you know it is me?” she asked boldly, not considering the wrath of the Queen at such an impertinent suggestion.
“Our son will provide us with an heir yet,” the Queen declared confidently. “Either with you or he'll take another wife.”
Almere's heart trembled and her gut twisted. It was possible Stannock would take another wife, she knew that. They had tried for an heir for ten cycles of the moons already, and she was still as slim and barren as when she had come as a virgin bride to his bed.
The King rumbled a few more words from within his room next to the Great Hall. Almere stood in the foyer with Ericaania and listened to the sick man cough.
“Coming, dear.” Ericaania's voice echoed through the tapestry-lined rooms. “I'll wheel you out to say goodnight to Almere.”
“If I could move, I'd wheel myself out there and shoot you through the eyes.” The King raised his voice to cover the sound of weeping. Who was weeping? Not her mother-in-law — it was the King, and Almere bowed her head in sympathy. The Great Hall was not so great that sound couldn't travel through the tiled and tapestried hallways to the foyer where she stood. The King cried out, and the wheels of his chair scraped against the doorway as his massive torso lunged past the smoking torches on the walls to greet his beloved daughter-in-law, whom he cherished as his own flesh. The Queen stood in the background, forgotten. Her jaw was set.
Fire-Smasher and Lockjaw, their meals finished, circled overhead, now crimson transparent in the light of the double moons. The other two moons were rising. Almere could clearly see the outline of her husband's older brother leaning against the balustrades outside, half hidden by dark shrubs, his face sullen and his eyes smoldering as he glared into the porticos of the Great Hall. She could feel the man's lust and hatred burning into her heart even with the distance between them. Almere shuddered, put her cool arms around the warm body of King Hakor, and joined the Queen in the depths of the palace. There was a sound in the night, close by, a rattle and thud, and then all lay silent beneath the moonlight streaming through the window slits of the inner chambers, surrounded by green silk, embroidered tapestries, great bronze shields, and blood-encrusted pikes.
Almere stopped to pick up the large red stone thrown through the portico above. “It's a sign,” Ericaania said. “The rabble are out there, waiting to get us.”
“We're not safe,” Almere agreed, smoothing her thumb along the pebbled, ruddy surface. “This is enough to have crushed my head if it had found its mark.” She knew, though, that the stone had not been thrown by a peasant nor an unhappy servant. Someone lurked in the shadows outside, who hated her and the Palace and the Court. Someone very close to home – and dangerous.
She shuddered. Come home, Stannock. I need no protector but you, and my dragon speaks of deception. Come home and share my bed. I need you, my husband. Let your Captain take care of the battle in your absence. Captain Devvid and the old general are well able to do so.
There was never any answer to the prayers she sent to the skies. Her marriage bed remained cold and bleak. Cold like the beating heart of her husband's brother and his lustful eyes which taunted her with their crippled resemblance to Stannock's, or a mockery of the twin jewels of Fire-Smasher's orbs, burning with a patient desire. She thought of the old prophecy of a Dracaena or half human, half dragon female who would save the land of Draxxt. If the bloodline were to come through the Royal lineage, as the legend intimated, she didn’t know how or from where it would spring. Perhaps the Palace was haunted and perhaps she was cursed.
Tevron glared at the profile of his sister-in-law outlined by the flickering flames in the foyer of the Great Hall. Tevron's half- brother, Stannock, was second in command of the army that fought in northwestern Gracklen, their country, a war with the invading Trolls and colorful Picts far beyond the borders of the King's castle and the crippled King himself.
“My brother is a brave man and foolish, as brave men are, more heart than brains,” Tevron muttered to his servant. He continued to cast glances at the slim young woman beyond the courtyard as a plan took shape in his hot brain. He wore tight black trousers and a silver coat, open at the chest, where dark hairs curled luxuriously about a metallic swastika icon on a sturdy chain. The servant Paige stood next to him, a willowy wraith by an oak tree, the servant's adolescent body still unformed and gangly, hair blond and curly, grey eyes fixed on his master.
Almere was not aware when Tevron stopped his scrutiny and turned his back on the palace. His own living quarters were humbler and this irked his molten soul – he, the son allowed to live, of a former king murdered by his rival, the still young King Hakor. He was only half-brother to Stannock, who was the favored son and sole male legitimate heir.
Tevron bent and picked up a sizable red stone, muttered an incantation over it, and pitched it at a flickering window slit of the palace. His mother had begged King Hakor for Tevron's life and he had granted it in exchange for silence about Malcoom's death. That silence had cost her dearly through the years, for she had loved Malcoom more than Hakor, and her knowledge might have been a means of controlling her second husband if it were not for her dark son and the need to protect him. For Ericaania was ambitious and thwarted in that ambition, and thus the long wild rides during the day, and the lovers, he thought.
“May it bring you a curse,” Tevron muttered as the stone took flight, and Paige beside him grinned. They heard the distant thud as the stone ricocheted off the portico and into the inner hall.
“I'm sure it will, sir. It will at least make her consider the source, for a moment, and perhaps fear.” The young man slapped his hand on his thigh. “Tis cold,” he complained. “I'll draw you a hot bath and warm your sheets with hot bricks.”
“Damn you.” Tevron drew a flask from a pouch at the waistband of his tight black pants and drank deeply. He wiped his mouth with the back of a dirty fist and replaced the flask in the pouch.
“Sir?” Paige stood a head shorter than Tevron; he looked up to inquire of his master.
“Yes, a hot bath. And damn them all to Hades.”
“The women control the old king, my father Malcoom’s rival. Why did Hakor let me live? A wolf would have destroyed his enemy's children. He's a weakling, and he'll live to regret it.”
“The walls have ears,” Paige whispered in earnest.
“Yes, and it's high treason I speak of, my words flow foolishly with anger and ale. We'll see my brother dead and the old king put out of his misery before the winter's on us, my brother's young widow in my bed, and my mother banished. With her coterie of dragon shit.”
Paige led the way to the sumptuous rooms at the end of the portico. “They say the dragons are enchanted. They can talk, and they know the future.”
Tevron scratched his crotch. “They love fresh meat, gold, and their riders, but I'll lure them away. I’ll have an army of my own, with my faithful followers and the Palace guards that even now hide in the shadows.” He threw aside the heavy curtains just inside his doorway.