Captured by The Dragon
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Table of Contents
The matron, Mrs. Park, stared at Astrid and Jane sternly. “We have very strict rules here in regards to our prisoners.”
Astrid nodded. She had learned all of this during training, but Mrs. Parks acted like the newest addition to the Hawthorn Facility didn’t know a thing. This was maybe due to the fact that Jane, the other new addition to the prison facility, seemed so nervous and unsure of herself.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Astrid. Mrs. Parks looked at her over the tops her glasses as if Astrid was a naughty child speaking out of turn.
“These prisoners are very dangerous. While their iron shackles bind their magic, they still retain the evil seductiveness of their voice and their gaze. And don’t”— and here she struck the top of her desk with a bamboo back scratcher, causing both Astrid and Jane to jump— “Don’t look directly into their eyes! This is why you’ll wear these whenever you tend to the dragons.”
She handed them what appeared to be pairs of glasses, which had special lenses that obscured dragons’ direct gazes. Astrid had handled pairs of glasses like these during her training. They had a blind spot in the middle that forced your eyes to look around its edges to see. Mrs. Parks handed them sets of earbuds, which blocked off sound, but also allowed communication with their partners and the technician in the security booth.
“Remember, look into the monitors above the cells. They’ll display what the dragons are saying to you. Do not take the ear buds off for any reason. They view humans as playthings, and will do anything to trick you. Since you are new, they will try all their games. But keep the upper hand! Remember your training. Now put on your glasses and earbuds. For this evening I will go with you, but after this you both will guard the dragons during the third shift. You should be grateful for this duty, as they are more active and restless during the day. Come along, now, it’s dinner time. Jane, if you will push that cart there. It has their food.”
“How many are here?” asked Jane with trepidation.
“Currently, three,” said Ms. Parks. “We had four. But we executed one this morning. Our new Prime Minister has no patience with these unrepentant abominations.”
Jane sighed with relief, which, in Astrid’s eyes, marked the young woman as a coward. One did not sign up to work with dragons if you did not have the backbone to face them. But it was the cool pride in Mrs. Parks’ voice at the Prime Minister’s actions that shocked Astrid. Sure, housing and feeding for their extraordinary long lives was a hot political issue. But Parliament had decreed that no dragon would face death at the hands of humans, that is, until the newly elected Prime Minister pushed for the “just punishment” of the crimes of dragons, many of whom were convicted of murder.
“Which one was executed?” asked Astrid breathlessly.
Mrs. Parks eyed her with suspicion. “You aren’t one of those dragon lovers are you?” she asked coldly.
“No, no,” denied Astrid. “It’s just in school I studied all the cases.”
“All the cases?” said Mrs. Parks with an arched eyebrow.
“I majored in exopsychology, with a minor in draconology.”
“Oh?” said Mrs. Parks with obvious disapproval, as if Astrid’s particular choice of university degree was an affliction.
“Well, when I started there was that big kerfuffle about possible alien contact, remember? And there was a big push to train exoscientists and that got me a full scholarship. Only that whole thing turned out to be a big fat dud, so I minored in the one non-human sentient species we have on the planet. Otherwise, I would have lost my funding.”
“Oh, right then,” said Mrs. Parks grudgingly.
“And as you know, there aren’t many jobs for someone with my qualifications.” Astrid said this last a bit of hauteur in her voice, but Mrs. Parks was seriously annoying her. If the government thought her studies were worthy enough to fund the four years she took to get her degree, then a prison matron had no business questioning it.
Mrs. Parks snorted. “Well, I’m so glad you deigned to join our ranks, Ms. Davis,” she said scornfully. “We don’t always get someone with your, er… qualifications. I do hope you don’t find it beneath your education to work with dragons.”
Actually, Astrid was thrilled. Since she was a little girl and her grandmother had told her stories about dragons, she was fascinated with them. And her love for the tales grew beyond what her grandmother told her. Astrid loved any story, real or myth, about them. It was sad that they were so often painted as demons or murderers. To Astrid these last stories seemed concocted, the product of human fear, despite there being few instances of dragon criminals.
“No, of course not,” said Astrid. “I’m happy to take any work that fulfills my obligation to the government for funding my education.”
“Uh, huh,” said Mrs. Parks with a doubtful tone. “Well, the executed shifter was the one who used the name Austin Drake.”
“Oh,” said Astrid. Sick disappointment filled her. Austin, before he was arrested, had a distinguished military career. He did, that was, until a records match found another Austin Drake who served in the First World War. That was soon after the Reveal, when a prominent London newspaper reported the news that dragons lived among humans. Any piece of evidence that pointed suspicion that a person was a dragon resulted in witch hunt. Austin’s crime was treason, which carried a death sentence until Parliament stayed all of them. But now that had changed. And a beautiful golden dragon was no more.
Astrid felt her eyes mist and she reached under her goggles to quickly wipe away the evidence of her treasonous heart. It was not politically correct to have an appreciation for the only other sentient species that shared the Earth with humans.
“Something wrong, Ms. Davis?” asked Mrs. Parks.
“Dry eye. Forgot my drops this morning.”
“Unfortunate. Take care that you don’t forget critical job duties. That could cost all of us.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Astrid dutifully.
“But the one you should especially watch out for is Templeton Rawlins.”
“Oh, he’s the one that murdered Prime Minister Pearce,” piped up Jane. “I read about that in history class.”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Mrs. Park. “He’s been here for twenty-four years, and a nasty bit he is. He’s caused at least three guards to quit in fright. One had a heart attack shortly after he quit his employ.” The matron leaned in and spoke with a conspiratorial tone. “We suspect Rawlins used magic on him for that, but since we didn’t find any breaks in his ironwork, he must have had a confederate do it for him. In any case, the Prime Minister decided he is too dangerous to keep, and the execution order will be coming any day.”
Astrid bit her lip to keep her protests from spilling on her lips. Rawlings lived quietly prior to his arrest, managing his family estate and in general keeping out of the public eye. Aside from the one instance of criminality, he’d never harmed a single soul. Though there was a rogue element in every society, she had a difficult time fitting the crime to the dragon, even if the evidence was incontrovertible.
Mrs. Parks used her key card to unlock the outer and then the inner doors to the inmates’ quarters. There was a row of heavy duty tempered glass doors lining the hallway on either side of granite walls. Hawthorne was a medieval castle converted for use as this facility and a considerable sum had been spent in upgrades to make it suitable to house the strongest and most devious dragons.
“You’ll notice their ironwork,” Mrs. Parks said coolly. “The locks to the shackles on their wrists, neck and ankles are electronic, controlled by codes in the security booth. Our technicians rotate the codes on a daily basis and they, along with the shift supervisors, are the only ones that have them. Special permission is needed to key the codes in the locks, which must come from my day mode counterpart, Mr. Roache, or me. The chains retract into the wall to pull the inmate against it when we need to enter their compartments. It’s best to try to secure their co-operation for this, as they can seriously hurt their human bodies by fouling the operations of their chains with their bodies.”
“They would do that?” said Jane.
“Oh yes. It’s happened. They don’t like being restrained that way and will do anything to avoid it.”
Astrid puckered her lips. She thought she’d hate being restrained by shackles on all extremities; the neck would be hateful enough. It was one thing to read about it in the schoolbooks and another completely to see it in the flesh.
“This one is Evan Waters.”
“He’s the American dragon, isn’t he?” said Jane.
Mrs. Parks nodded. “Yes, as you know, he was arrested when a DNA scan at the airport picked up his dragon heritage.”
Astrid worked hard to keep the daggers from her eyes. Evan was only fifty percent dragon, a hybrid, and by all accounts couldn’t even shift. But he was detained anyway on immigration charges since he lied about his heritage on his visa to gain entrance to the country. As far as she knew, he hadn’t even been to court.
“Hello, Waters,” said Mrs. Parks nastily. “These ladies are your new guards, Ms. Davis and Ms. Hellstrom. They’ve brought your dinner.”
“Go fuck yourself,” appeared on the electronic screen above the door. Astrid remembered Mrs. Parks explaining this. However, Hawthorne’s newest matron was shocked that the speech-to-text software so literally displayed the dragon’s crude words.
“Eloquent, as always,” said Mrs. Parks. She shoved the covered dinner plate in a special glass box in the door that only opened inside the cell when the slot on the outside closed.
Waters lifted the lid, and cursed. He picked up the plate and flung it against the glass. Ground raw meat slid down the glass as the metal plate clattered on the flagstone floor.
“You know I don’t eat that shit,” danced the words on the screen.
“It’s a dragon’s dinner, Waters,” said Mrs. Parks, “and that’s what you get. If you don’t want to eat it, that’s fine.”
Tem was deep into his meditation when the disturbance roused him from his thoughts. It was a nice meditation, filled with the slow tearing of flesh from the live body of his enemy, strip by strip with Tem’s own claws. In his head he heard his victim’s eternal screams, because the man he was shredding wasn’t a man at all, but one of his own. A dragon filled with lust for power, willing to betray his own people to obtain it. But mid-way through his fantasy, the low thrumming that comprised dragon speech vibrated through the granite and Tem heard Evan’s distress. Evan didn’t know the dragon tongue when he arrived, but he was an apt student and picked it up quickly.
“They gave us women as guards,” said an angered Evan. “As if that would stop us.”
“Women? That’s a first,” replied Tem neutrally. Tem had other bones to grind and the fleeting appearances of different guards didn’t perturb him in the least. Humans were so short lived that he barely paid attention to them anymore.
“They gave me raw meat again,” groused Evan.
“That’s a shame.” Raised as a human, Evan had never developed the natural tastes of dragons. Most of the cooks understood this about Evan and sent him human food, but someone was on tear to punish the dragons after that guard died. Of course, they blamed the dragons, but the fact was the man had a weak heart that was due to give out. Tem could sense the aneurism as it grew, but the guard thought that Tem was playing mind games with him and refused to listen.
Tem roused from his pose on the floor to peek out the glass to watch the conversations on the screens. With his dragon hearing, he could hear the women’s voices clearly, though the dragons’ voices when speaking as humans were muted through the thick glass of their cells and his.
Mrs. Parks stood in the center with the usual nasty expression on her face. She was a piece of work that deserved a good scorching. Tem felt his stomach rumble with the desire to eat some brimstone and give the woman what she so desperately needed, but that option wasn’t available. It only ended in heartburn, especially with the improperly prepared raw food diet the “experts” decided that dragons should have.
“Now, this one is Calvin Porter. Mr. Porter, how are you today?”
Calvin didn’t answer. He never did. Out of all of them he did the most poorly in this environment and had withdrawn within himself. He wasn’t eating or drinking. Dragons could exist for ungodly amounts of time without either, but eventually even the sturdy dragon physiology would fail.
“Come on, mate,” Tem thrummed. “Wake up. Give the old woman a taste of her medicine.”
Tem saw the thrust of the meal into the exchange box, and shook his head when Calvin refused to respond.
“He doesn’t eat?” said the red head. Now there was a tender bit. He wouldn’t mind getting a few licks of that.
“We can’t make them, can we?” said Mrs. Parks without sympathy. If Tem didn’t know better, he’d think she was part dragon herself. But nope. Not a bit of dragon resided in the woman’s withered frame. Good thing too. Tem wouldn’t want to claim her as one of his species.
The smaller female shrank behind the redhead. “You feed him, Astrid,” she said as if Tem was a rabid dog. He deliberately gave her a predatory smile, which made her shrink even further until she was behind the elder matron. Mrs. Parks must have filled the little one’s pretty little head with stories about the appetites of dragons. He smiled sardonically. Tem didn’t intend to disappoint.
Astrid’s face puckered, rousing a pleasant prickling along Tem’s spine, which he hadn’t felt for a long time. But it didn’t deter him from his campaign of terror. As the woman strode forth with his covered plate, he rushed the glass. He couldn’t actually hit the glass. The shackles on his neck, hands and feet prevented him from reaching that far. But just the sight of him flinging his body recklessly forward and screaming was enough to make most guards jump back and swear.
Astrid didn’t flinch. Instead, infuriatingly, she cocked an eyebrow at him.
“I take it you object to the menu, too.”
Confident. Self-assured. A man could like that. But right now, the dragon in him was annoyed.
“What would you know, newbie?”
She didn’t take the bait.
“Is there something else you’d prefer?”
“Oh, are we a five-star hotel now?”
She looked at the words above her head and smiled. It was a pretty smile and that thought disturbed him. Humans were the enemy. At least, one of his enemies.
“Obviously not,” she said. “I’m just asking in case I can work things out for you.”
“How noble. A considerate human. Well, a live goat would be nice. I’m so tired of the rats that haunt this place.”
Incredibly, she chuckled.
“I admit. Rats are not the finest cuisine.”
Good Lord. She was trying to joke with him. Tem was intrigued and appalled at the same time. It sparked the anger that roiled in his gut each of his waking moments.
“Do you think to mock me?” he roared. He flung his arms up in parody of the wings that should be unfolding there. Tem shook his arms in frustration at the vicious iron that melded his body to this three-dimensional world. How he wanted to pull his dragon body from the other dimension that held its great bulk and form, to break free of this hell, and fly far away from the prejudices of short-sighted and fearful humans. How he wanted to go home.
After he killed the man that put him here.
But what the woman did next shocked him.
“I’m sorry,” she mouthed. Astrid did this with her back to her companions, and didn’t speak the words aloud so they could hear them. But the movements of her mouth were unmistakable.
Tem was so shocked he was struck speechless.
Astrid opened the slot and slid forward the meal. Her scent clung to the metal dishware, and Tem involuntarily breathed deeply, taking in the sweet fragrance. His intimate parts stirred with memories of what it felt to hold a woman.
Tem, old man, he told himself. You’ve spent too much time in captivity. [_The first girl that smiles at you and you’re gone. _]He wasn’t a young dragon and thought himself beyond the lusts of youth.
“I’ll work on that goat for you,” she said sweetly. “Until then you’ll just have to content yourself with the steak tartar. Next time, I’ll make sure there is a raw egg on it.”
She smiled at him, again a gesture that her companions could not see, and her grin filled Tem with questions. Had someone managed to sneak in a confederate past the sympathizer tests? Had some of his old cadre regrouped and sought a way to release him?
But then again, she could be just some silly little girl with romantic notions about dragons. Hell, it was true that human females were attracted to dragon pheromones, which is where those nasty stories about dragons taking virgins came from. No. Dragons didn’t need to kidnap virgins or any woman. They came to them. Which was why human men hated dragons so much. Tem chuckled. All a dragon had to do was be within whiffing distance of a susceptible female and those women forgot about their human men for good.
Tem backed away to his bunk and sat down, staring thoughtfully at the retreating figure of the young guard called Astrid. She followed her companions so he got a clear view of her rear end. It was nicely shaped and swayed as she walked. Reflexively he licked his lips.
He had an idea, one that would annoy Matron Parks and maybe titillate the guard called Astrid, if they showed her the security tapes. He pushed down his prison issued sweats and gripped his thick shaft in his hands. He hadn’t done this in a while, mainly because the male guards were unimpressed with his antics. But now with the sweet face of Astrid in his mind and his hands on his member, it grew swiftly in his hands. Remembering the round globes of Astrid’s ass, precum leaked on his hands. Dragons tended to have more of that than human males, so his pole was good and lubricated as his hands stroked it. He imagined spreading Astrid’s legs and staring at the pink petals of her most intimate flesh and imagined the joys he would find inside. His next thought was breaching her soft entrance and filling her with his great dragon cock. Tem rode the tidal wave of sensation of the velvet silk of her inner walls. In his mind she was moaning, whipping her head side to side in rising pleasure.
“Come for me, Astrid,” he said, and his phantom lover screamed his name as her core convulsed around him. His hands were a poor substitute for that sensation, but he was fully into the fantasy now and he exploded in forceful streaks of pearly white cum on his chest
He lay back on his cot, thoroughly spent. Tem hadn’t allowed himself that release for many years, not since they put in the security cameras. But right now, he could imagine the look of horror on Mrs. Park’s face. And perhaps young Astrid would have a smile on her face as she watched his pleasure.
It was a protest of his incarceration. He may be jailed, restrained, shackled, but he was not a prisoner. His actions were a deliberate mind fuck, but resistance was not futile. On the other hand, he was sure Astrid’s face would haunt his dreams this night.
Ah, Astrid, he thought. What are you doing to me?
Mrs. Parks pursed her lips in disapproval.
“Disgusting,” she said as the three of them watched the security tapes of their interaction with the dragons.
They stood in the security office, which was ringed with monitor screens showing different locations throughout the facility. Mrs. Parks had the technician who watched the screen step out for a break as the three of them surveyed the action. It was a tiny room that must have been a storage room at one time. But there was simply not enough room for four people.
Mrs. Parks had thought it would be instructive to watch the tapes and she was free with her comments to both of the young women throughout. But when they reached the end of the video where Rawlins jerked himself off, Mrs. Parks became pensive.
She muttered a few words under her breath that sounded suspiciously like, “indecent, abominable, horrid.” Her fists were bunched at her hips but she did nothing to turn off Rawlin’s raw sex show.
“Can they really have no privacy?” asked Astrid. Mrs. Parks shot her a look that could peel paint off the walls.
“Of course not,” the matron replied. “They are dangerous creatures. You saw how they acted. Especially that Templeton Rawlins.”
Astrid wondered what Rawlins had done to the matron, other than his masturbation session, to make her remarks even more acidic than usual. But she turned her head away from Mrs. Parks sharp and critical gaze. They were sentient creatures, damn it, and deserved some dignity. No wonder the inmates were in full revolt. She would be too if she were treated like an animal.
“But you, Ms. Hellstrom,” said Mrs. Parks, “You showed fear in front of the prisoners and that will not do. Not at all.”
Mrs. Parks wielded her sharp tone with the precision of a surgical instrument. Jane paled, not just at the words, but the nasty tone of Mrs. Parks voice.
“I’ll do better, ma’am,” she said timidly.
“You should take from Davis, Hellstrom. She keeps a level head with them.”
“That’s the schooling, ma’am,” said Astrid coldly. “Knowledge overrides fear.”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
The ring of a cell phone filled the small room and Mrs. Parks pulled the device from her pocket. “Excuse me, ladies. It is the commandant.” She spoke the words as if they were of major import and Astrid supposed for a small and mean administrator like Parks, such a call was.
Mrs. Parks stepped out of the room and shut the door.
“She’s an absolute horror,” hissed Jane.
“You noticed that.”
Jane shivered. “I don’t know how I can keep working here.”
“Why did you apply in the first place?”
“It was my father’s idea. He has connections in the government and thought it would be good for me to get into government service. You know, steady employment, benefits.”
“Good choice,” said Astrid. She struggled to keep the sarcasm from her voice.
But to her horror, Jane broke out in a rush of tears. The girl turned shaking toward Astrid and though she thought the girl foolish and unnecessarily dramatic, Astrid wrapped a comforting arm around her.
“I can’t bear it, I just can’t,” Jane wept. “They are awful creatures. And what they did to that guard…”
Jane burst into another gush of tears and Astrid patted her back.
“There, there,” she said. “There is no proof they did anything to the guard. He was probably sick and didn’t take care of himself properly.”
Jane snuffled. “You think so?”
“It is the most logical explanation. Look at them, Jane.” Astrid flicked a hand to the monitors. “They are chained and housed behind heavy glass walls. They can’t do anything except scare you to death, which they seem to do very well.”
Jane pulled away and gave her an angry look.
“So you are judging me too,” she shot.
“Look at you, all cool and collected with your University education. You look down on simple girls like me. Well, Papa didn’t have money to send me to University, so you can keep your snooty ideas to yourself.”
Astrid crossed her arms and stared at the monitors. It did no good arguing with someone like Jane, who really did have few prospects if she didn’t go to college. Even secretary jobs were had to come by because computers did so many things now; only the very rich would spend money on someone to look pretty at a desk. And Jane, she thought uncharitably, just wasn’t that pretty.
It was a cross thought brought on by a difficult first night. It was disheartening to see these dragons battered by captivity and the hostile attitude of staff. Whatever crimes they were accused or convicted off, they deserved their dignity, at the very least. Astrid, having studied all these cases thoroughly, was not convinced they were the criminals they were painted as by the state. But she dare not say any of that, not here, and certainly not now.
“You can think that, if you want, Jane. I’m just here for the work. And I was assigned this duty. It wasn’t as if it was a choice.” Never mind that Astrid prayed for the chance to work in one of these facilities, just so she could get close to dragons.
“Right. Having to work off your student debt obligation.”
Jane’s tone suggested that Astrid was awarded a high honor, regardless. This told Astrid that Jane’s university problems weren’t just a matter of finance. She couldn’t qualify academically. Astrid tried to work up sympathy for the girl, but Jane’s scornful attitude made that difficult.
Astrid turned her attention back to Templeton Rawlins, who now lay on his cot with his eyes closed. He hadn’t made a move to clean himself and he lay there as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
Then he turned his head toward the camera and stared directly into it. For the briefest second, Astrid could have sworn she saw the reptilian eyes of a dragon staring at her. The irises were a magnificent gold with a darker ring of bronze at the edges, though the pupil was a dark slit through the center. He seemed to be staring directly at her.
She sucked in a breath, transfixed by the rare sight. Dragons weren’t known to partially shift, even when not bound by iron. Maybe it was just her imagination.
“Do you see that?” Astrid asked her companion.
“What?” said a disinterested Jane. She glanced over her shoulder to see Jane inspecting her nails. Astrid shook her head.
“Nothing,” said Astrid and glanced back at the screen. But Rawlins had turned his head away as if he knew that Astrid’s glance had turned from him. And when she caught his eye again, they were the warm caramel brown she had first gazed into.
The door to the security room opened and Mrs. Parks huffed in.
“You’re still here?” she said, as if she expected them to be elsewhere. “Well, we’ll go over your other duties now. Come along.” She tsked at the sight of Rawlins on his bunk with his chest covered in his spunk.
“Well, that’s one of those nasty creatures we won’t have to deal with soon. The commandant gave me the word. Rawlins’ execution order just came through.”
“What happened to the other girl?” asked Tem. “The one with you yesterday?” Tem stared at Astrid who wore the ridiculous glasses that were supposed to keep them safe against dragon “enchantments.” They were silly and ineffective, but it was wisest that the dragons did not reveal this. One never knew when the slightest chance at escape could present itself, or what thinnest edge of an advantage would help that goal.
Are you beating time with my girl? thrummed Evan. He had taken a shine to the pert redhead, and even allowed her to enter his cage to clean the stinking mess of the previous dinner from the glass of his cage. This involved retracting the chains into their sheaths in the walls and standing flush against the stone, not exactly the most comfortable of situations. That Evan allowed it revealed his soft spot for their newest guard.
Your girl? replied Tem.
“She left me a chocolate bar under my plate. She was quite cute about it.”
Tem reflected that Astrid might be the most effective weapon yet sent in against the dragons. Her apparent kindness was a balm against the cruelties of their existence and could cause them to lose their desire for resistance. This created a resolve to steel himself against her charms. It was a resolve that quickly dissolved when she turned her adorable smile on him.
“She called in sick,” said Astrid.
“And where is the redoubtable Mrs. Parks?”
“She had a last-minute meeting with the commandant. But redoubtable?” She arched her eyebrow.
“It’s a word,” said Tem.
“But is it the correct word? Recalcitrant is more like it.”
“As in ‘hard to deal with’?”
“I’m glad you know your five syllable words.”
“Sweetheart, I invented five syllable words.”
Astrid smirked. “Really?”
“Someone had to educate the savages.”
“You talk a good game, Mr. Rawlings. But you aren’t that old.”
“Call me Tem. All my friends and some of my good enemies do. And how do you know my age?”
“Tem, eh? What am I? Friend or enemy?”
“Don’t know. Can you tell me?”
“I’m your keeper, Mr. Rawlins. I certainly can’t be your friend.”
“For you, perhaps.”
He grinned. “I understand, sweetheart. You have to toe the party line.”
“Do I?” she replied provocatively.
There was a tension in her shoulders that was a sign of something, but what, Tem could not tell. But she kept the silly grin on her face, which again told him she was hiding behind it. But why?
“I think you should get a shower,” she said.
“Why?” said Tem.
She glanced at his chest, which he still had not bothered to wash from last night.
“You know why.”
“We aren’t allowed showers.” He shook his wrist, rattling the chains on his arms. “The shackles could rust.”
“Then maybe you need a good sponge bath.”
“Why? Are you offering?”
She cocked her head, but then down toward the plate she put in the exchange slot.
“Well, you know how that works. I’d have to retract the shackles and put you against the wall. Are you up for that?”
“Hmm, bondage and a sponge bath. I don’t know how I can resist.”
“Hey,” thrummed Evan in protest.
“Quiet, boy,” he replied. “I’m working here.”
“Oh, okay,” came Evan’s dispirited reply. Damn. Tem couldn’t help but feel for the boy, trapped in here just for his ancestors, and not any real wrongdoing of his own. But Tem was a mission: Operation Freedom. He smiled at the pretty attendant. She gave him one back.
“So, you are into bondage?” she said sweetly.
She snorted and Tem thought it was charming.
“I have a real thing for discipline,” said Tem with a smirk.
“Oh, a real 50 Shades man, eh?”
“You don’t know what that is?”
“Yes, I do, we’re allowed a movie from time to time. I thought Christian was rather tame. Nothing much interesting there.”
“It was supposed to be a love story.”
Tem snorted. “Sure. With blindfolds and whips. That spells true love.”
“I see you are a skeptic.”
“And I see you’re an incurable romantic.” He slid forward, coming to the half foot he was allowed toward the glass. “Careful, darling. Remember humans are crunchy and tasty with ketchup.”
Hey, interjected Evan with a thrum. You know nothing of ketchup. Here you people call it ‘sauce.’
“You don’t scare me, Mr. Rawlins,” said Astrid. Her words brought him sharply back to her countenance, staring at him through the glass. She was totally unaware of the rumbling communication between him and Evan.
“No. Eat your dinner and I’ll see about that sponge bath.”
“Don’t go to any trouble. I happen to know that my social calendar is shockingly thin of late. A missed clean-up or two won’t offend anyone but me.”
A pained look came across her face and he wondered if she wanted a chance to get up close and personal. She nodded her head again toward his plate, this time more pointedly.
“At least eat. You never know what you’ll need your strength for.”
She was trying to tell him something.
“Okay, sweetheart. I’ll do that. Just to make you happy.”
She turned and looked over her shoulder toward him with a snappy shrug.
“I’ll check on you later,” she said. And then she sauntered away, affecting the cool matronly demeanor that was expected by her employers. Damn. She was up to something. And sexy. Damn sexy.
Hold up, old man. Until proven otherwise, she’s the enemy.
She left Evan a chocolate bar. What did she leave him?
He drew out the covered plate, reveling the intoxicating scent her hands left on it. With a turn, he set in on the metal protrusion that served as a desk on the right-hand wall. The security camera pivoted and followed him, but he was used to this. He pushed the chair forty-five degrees from the table in an affected casual air. Long experience taught him this position also had the advantage of blocking the line of sight of the camera to objects on the desk.
He lifted the metal cover and saw the mass of ground raw chicken. He sniffed. If he kept eating this dreck he’d get seriously sick. There wasn’t any ground bone in it, which was essential to a dragon’s diet.
“Fee, fie, foe, fum,” he hummed, remembering the old fairy tale. “I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”
[_You’ve definitely been locked up too long. _]
Then you better see what you can do about that.
Talking to and answering himself was a bad sign. He definitely needed to get out of here.
Back to provocation.
He turned his head to the camera.
“Hey. I’m still waiting on my live goat.”
The image of Astrid rolling her eyes filled his mind. The flash of her eyes, the exasperation in her sigh was as real as if she stood in front of him.
What the hell was that?
Stay on task.
He cautiously tipped the plate up and to his disappointment found nothing. Why did he think she had left something for him? Then he remembered Evan’s candy bar. That couldn’t fit underneath the plate like he said, unless—
Tem inspected the dish again. It appeared to be sealed in its heavy base, but he slipped in his thumbnail between the crease of where the plate met the base and found the two pieces could separate. Coolly, slowly, so as not to alert whoever was watching for Astrid’s subversion, he lifted the plate and found a slip of paper. He pulled it out with his index finger, sliding it along the base and nipping it out with his forefinger and thumb.
As thin elegant script flowed across a small square of parchment paper.
Sorry. They’ve scheduled your execution for two days from now. I don’t know what I can do, but I’m trying to work out something.
A small spark of hope flared in his heart. Even the suggestion of freedom was a piece of joy that he wouldn’t deny. But she was one human girl and he couldn’t hope that she could overcome all the security measures installed in this prison.
In one way, it would be a relief. Twenty-four years in prison wasn’t so long for a dragon of his years, but it was still intolerable to be denied his true form, to fly the skies and enjoy the freedom of the wind.
But it was wrong. He did nothing to deserve death but oppose a scaly worm that was bent on humanity’s destruction. As annoying as the younger race could be, it had incredible potential and deserved to live.
Tem stared at the paper and saw it was a damning piece of evidence. The last thing he wanted was the lovely Astrid to get into trouble for trying to help him or him agreeing to it. He stuffed the paper in his mouth and chewed it into a pulpy mess, then swallowed it. Tem still wasn’t sure whose side she was on. She could be a provocateur sent to excite him to a new crime. How much could he trust her?
She’s human. Very little.
He had to warn her off trying to help him.
Because if she did try, he was sure it would not go well for either of them.
Astrid’s heart beat double time as she walked away from Tem’s cage.
_Tem. He asked me to call him Tem. _
She felt honored, but knew she shouldn’t be. It was a tactic the prisoner used to try to gain her trust. From her Psychology of Inmates class, she understood this very well.
Astrid couldn’t be sure if the dragon had worked arcane magic on her to skew her feelings toward helping him. The iron shackles were supposed to shut down the magic, but in truth there was still much they did not know about dragons. And Astrid remembered the manifestation of Tem’s dragon eyes. That shouldn’t happen either. Perhaps the iron was not a sufficient deterrent to a dragon’s powers? Or maybe older dragons had more power than their human keepers realized? Certainly planning a breakout from a secure facility was a radical notion even for her. She wanted to work with dragons and learn more about them. But she didn’t want to become a criminal to do so.
And she didn’t put it past Tem to hide his abilities to keep what small margin of advantage he had over his human keepers.
Still, Mrs. Parks’ announcement of Tem’s execution had galled her.
Tem was the oldest dragon in captivity; he might be the elder of all the dragons on the face of the Earth. Her intuition told her no, that the older dragons were too cagey to get caught. But then again, Tem wasn’t exactly caught, but maneuvered into a certain position before his capture. At least that was what a review of his case file told her. But the upper crust manner in which he lived his life, the kinds of connections he had, told her he was a man who knew powerful people. Usually such individuals did not end up in prison unless they ran afoul of the powerful. This, she suspected, was Tem’s real crime.
Not something for which he should suffer execution.
Still, she was one woman against a huge organization, and she was supposed to be working for it, not against it.
Astrid walked into the security room and sat in the chair next to Tim, the technician that monitored the equipment and the alarm systems through the grounds.
“They’ve taken a liking to you,” he said simply.
Tim was about her age, with spiky blond hair and several piercings in his ears and above his eyebrow. Astrid didn’t know how he got away with “being out of uniform,” as the employment manual put it, but he did his work efficiently and Mrs. Parks seemed to like him. At least, she didn’t scowl at him like she did Astrid and the absent-without-leave Jane. Astrid hadn’t had a chance yet to get a feel for his politics on the matter of dragon incarceration. But if he was as vetted as thoroughly as everyone else, he was a law-and-order man, despite the metal in his face.
“Are you going to give him his sponge bath?”
His face was carefully composed but she could swear his voice held a smirk.
“Why would you care?”
“It would be seriously hot to see you wash him down. Do you think you can manage to pull his sweats down? I’m sure that area needs to be cleaned too.”
He spoke the words so evenly and in such a quiet voice that Astrid was caught off guard at the suggestive nature of his words.
“Tim,” she said just as evenly. “Are you a pervert?”
“Nope. Gay. I was seriously cheesed that Mrs. Parks made me leave the room last night so I didn’t get to see him again. And then she secured the recording so I couldn’t watch it. Took me all night to hack her passcode. By then it was time for day mode to come onboard.”
Astrid looked at Tim with new appreciation. Not that hacking evoked her admiration, but his persistence in trying to secure a piece of information did. Like her brother, now a computer systems student at University, Tim had a drive to master whatever systems in his charge, whether he was allowed that information or not.
“I was wrong. You aren’t a pervert. You’re a data daemon.”
He smiled. “Sorta. But instead of a program that initiates actions when a program is tripped, I’m more like a data dragon. I run in the background and keep an accounting of information.”
“Why would you do that?”
“It’s my job,” he said cryptically.
What? Did he mean he was a watcher of the facility employees? Who did he work for? She felt as if the floor was falling underneath her. How deep of a situation was she in?
“Should I call you Inspector Gadget?”
“Luv, that’s classified information. On a need to know basis only.”
She swallowed hard. “So why are you telling me this now?”
“Because I’d hate to see a nice bird like you get fouled by nasty politics.”
“And that’s what you think this place is?”
“Not my place to say. And there’s one thing about me that you should know.”
“I don’t do more than what the program calls for.”
“Strict protocol, eh?”
He gave her a glance and shrugged his shoulders. “Government pension, luv. I don’t corrupt the data stream. And the data stream says the dragons are a danger.”
Astrid sat and studied the monitor. She came to study the dragons. She studied hard for four years to get a chance for this work. But things were rapidly devolving into an untenable situation. Calvin Porter was obviously dying, a suicide by refusing to eat. Evan Waters didn’t belong here at all. And Templeton Rawlins was slated for the executioner’s axe.
Her hands curled at her side in her frustration. This was not what the government told the people. It certainly wasn’t justice. And, if allowed, the government would let the race of dragons die from unnatural causes.
What did Tim mean when he said he didn’t do more than what the program calls for? That if he guessed she was going to do something foolish he wouldn’t stop her? Or did it mean that he’d follow ‘strict protocols’ and alert the others if she did something to help the dragons?
Tim sat with his eyes flicking from monitor to monitor. He was a serious and thorough worker but the expression on his face was inscrutable. Astrid simply had no compass here to help her decide what to do.
“So, you’ll keep a good watch on me if I go in and give him that sponge bath?”
“It’s my job,” he said with a crooked smile. “Unless, of course, I have to go the bathroom.”
“Yes,” he said with a smirk. “I might have to rub one off, and I can’t mess up the monitors.”
“Pervert,” she said.
“There are little perks to this job.”
She clapped him on the shoulder.
“I hope you enjoy yourself then.”
“Wait a second,” he said. “I have to use the john now. Keep an eye on the boards. I’ll be right back.”
Tim launched from his seat and out the door before she could say anything. She sat looking at the screens at a loss for what to do. Then at Tim’s station she saw a blinking strip at the bottom of his main screen. With a shock she realized they were the day codes for the electric locks on the doors and shackles. Her brand new key card would handle the doors, but the codes for the shackles had to be input either from the central board here, or as a back-up, on the shackles themselves.
Astrid swallowed hard. It didn’t matter if Tim made a mistake leaving these codes in full view or did it deliberately. There was no way she’d get this information again. If she was going to do something to help the dragons, it had to be today and it had to be soon before Mrs. Parks returned from her meeting with the commandant.
Tim returned in a rush and fell into his swivel chair.
“Everything okay?” he said.
“Sure? These dragons are tricky.”
“If I didn’t catch it, I’m sure it’s on the tapes.”
“Right. So then, are you going to give Rawlins his sponge bath?”
“Should I?” she said.
“That’s up to you, luv,” he said staring at the screens. “That’s up to you.”
The acrid scent of his own cum on his chest filled his nose as he lay on his cot. The cot was a particular form of torture, the length a shade too short and the laughable thing they called a mattress too hard to be comfortable.
He growled, a low rumble that began in his throat but spread to his chest.
What? thrummed Evan.
You do that, eh?
Lord, you are grumpy. What’s going on? Thinking about the lovely Astrid?
Tem’s denial curdled in his throat, producing a bubbly grumble that thankfully didn’t travel through the walls. He was thinking about Astrid. Or rather discrete molecules of her scent clung around him that prevented him from not bringing images of her to mind.
The flash of her smile.
The brightness of her eyes.
Her svelte curves.
The sway of her hips.
It was enough to bring him to a half-hard state, a purgatory of repressed thoughts and un-actionable desires.
Even before his imprisonment, Tem hadn’t had such strong feelings for a female. Not that there were many she-dragons in the first place, but the very few occasions he had met one hadn’t done anything to set his heart aflame. No. The vixens he had met were cold, calculating and tended to think of dragon bulls as an amusement when convenient, and annoying the rest of the time. That dragonesses could reproduce asexually when they so desired did nothing to draw the sexes together.
Which was why half-dragons such as Evan existed. Male dragons were as passionate as females were dispassionate. And human women, or sometimes men, could meet the fire within a dragon’s heart with their own animal passions. Most of the time, such matings were fruitless since the intersections between dragon and human genome were few. But there had undeniably been a rise in hybrid births, no doubt a cause for alarm within the government. To Tem this rise in hybrid births made sense. Humans had an incredibly ability to harbor, combine and disseminate recessive genes. This probably led to humans with recessive genes mating with other humans with recessive genes, creating rare individuals who could bear dragon young. It was a fascinating development that he had been studying before he was arrested and imprisoned, and was something he had thought on much during these past twenty-four years.
It was important research to Tem because of the unexplained decline of the dragon population. Except for the hybrids, and the few dragon queens secreted and sequestered who could asexually reproduce, the outlook for dragon propagation was bleak.
He missed his research.
He wanted his old life back.
Through prudent investments and sensible land management, Tem’s family had lived comfortably on their estate. That was, until his mother and then his father passed on. Then Tem was alone.
His parents’ inability to produce a sibling had driven Tem into the wilderness of genetic research. He traveled the world to meet other dragons and obtain samples of their DNA. Tem spent countless hours in the salons of European high society developing criteria for determining who could harbor dragon DNA and who could not. It was tedious research, but worth it. He had developed a checklist of traits that could indicate the presence of dragon DNA.
Red hair is one trait, his brain reminded him.
_I know, old man. I know. _
Was this why Astrid fascinated him so? Did the patchwork of her DNA send him signals that she was a potential mate?
Dear Lord, no, he groaned.
There were problems with that outside his incarceration. One was the short life span of humans.
Could you survive her death? His brain asked.
It’s a little early to be talking about that.
Still, when dragons fell in love, they did so with their whole beings. When a mate died, they were likely to follow.
Maybe the dragonesses don’t have it far wrong, after all.
You can’t be responsible, reasoned Tem, for propagating a race and have a little thing like love throw a wrench in the works. Dying would be a big wrench.
[_Who said anything about love? _]rumbled the animal part of his brain. _A little one on one action would feel very good. _
Yes. It would.
But it would be dangerous. Wrong.
Dangerous for him, for her. Wrong because of the obvious mismatch between the two species.
Candles in the wind.
That’s what humans were. Brief was their span. One in growth, one third in propagating and raising their young, one third in slow death.
It was infuriating. Frustrating. Impossible.
An image of her standing before the cell block doors with her keycard in hand flashed in his mind. She stood poised as if trying to make a decision.
From where did these crazy images come? The visions of Astrid were persistent and growing more frequent. Something was going on, but he couldn’t figure out what.
“Astrid,” thrummed Evan happily.
With his jaw clenched, Tem sat and lowered his feet to the cold granite flagstone. This was another torture, that the fucking floor wasn’t warm enough to keep his feet from freezing. The thin slippers the prison gave them to wear didn’t do a thing to ameliorate the situation. He put the pain and the thoughts of cold out of his mind as he spotted Astrid give Evan a little wave while she pushed a metal cart toward Tem’s cell.
Tem did a long, slow exhale as Astrid walked the hall. He couldn’t help but notice the hardened nipples that poked and jiggled at the fabric of her uniform. He swore. The temptations of her flesh were enough to drive a dragon mad.
“Hello, Mr. Rawlins,” she said. “Are you ready for your sponge bath?”
He smiled his most predatory smile, not to welcome her, but to warn her off. For added effect, he licked his lips.
“I may be, but you, darling? Are you ready?”
Her eyelids fluttered, then her eyes settled into a smoldering half-lidded glance that went straight to Tem’s cock.
“Me being ready is not the issue. I’m just here to serve your needs.”
Inwardly, Tem gasped. Her words of submission were honey to his dragon and an unassailable draw.
No, Tem. This way lies madness.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”
Do not quote Hamlet to yourself. You know how the rest of that goes.
“Into my grave.”
But Tem’s internal arguments failed against the human who stood before his cage with the promise of sweet touches and the heady perfume of her scent.
“Well, then, serve me,” he rumbled.
Her eyes twinkled with bemusement.
“Lift your arms. Walk backwards slowly,” she said in a coldly professional voice that belied the mischievous glint in her eyes.
Tem, well used to this hated exercise, raised his arms and spread his legs. Astrid hit the controls at the door, and the chains retracted slowly. He shuffled back step by step until his back hit the cold granite walls.
The door to his cell slid to the side, and Astrid strode inside. The full effect of her musky essence hit like a freight train, taking his knees out from under him.
Good thing you are chained to a wall.
Shut the fuck up.
Astrid’s gaze wandered over to his body, spread eagled on the wall. She took a sharp intake of breath and then shook her head. With slightly wobbly steps she moved closer to him, pulling the cart behind her. As Astrid moved within inches of him he saw that that cart held a metal bowl of steaming water, soap, and a pile of towels and washcloths.
“So,” he rumbled. “You are going to wash me down?”
She shook her head and pointed to her earplugs.
“Take them out,” he mouthed.
She shook her head again.
“Sorry, Mr. Rawlins. But I will try to be as quick and efficient as possible.”
She stepped closer and unbuttoned the shirt he put on earlier. It was specially constructed so that the under seams of the arms would pull apart to accommodate the shackles that would never come off. She pulled apart the seams and slipped off the shirt, exposing his chest to the cold of the cell.
Astrid soaped a washcloth and soaked it in the steaming water. The gentle and sensual movement of her hands fascinated Tem. She took a deep breath as she pressed the cloth to his cum covered chest.
“My,” she breathed, “you did make a mess of yourself.”
But her mouth didn’t move.
He heard that—her thoughts.
“Yes, I did,” he answered.
Her eyes flew open wide and she stumbled back.
“What? What was that?” she said, her voice panicked.
Tem would have done anything to assure her that this was all right. But he couldn’t.
Because he knew this was the worst thing that could happen between them.
Astrid swallowed hard as her heart hammered in her chest. She never imagined that touching the dragon would have such a startling result. But what was more: Tem was more distressed than she.
Pressing her lips together, she stepped forward again and pressed the washcloth to his chest.
Is this too hot?
[_Not hot enough, _]replied Tem.
She felt then how terribly cold he was in this cell, day after day, year after year and shivered.
I’m so sorry, she thought.
So, he replied, _am I. But with you touching me, not. _
She continued the slow decent of the soaped cloth down his chest and got lost in the landscape of his broad pectoral muscles. He seemed to sigh and then, incredibly, rumble in a low grumbly purr. It soothed her to hear that sound though it should have alarmed her. It wasn’t a human sound.
But I’m not human, Tem replied.
She rinsed the cloth and made it hot again, then retraced the motions of her hands. He sucked in a deep breath.
Does it matter? she thought. That you aren’t human?
It always mattered to me, _]replied Tem. [_But why shouldn’t it matter to you?
Astrid didn’t know. In all the lore she ever studied she never heard of this, of telepathy between humans and dragons.
It’s very rare, he replied. Almost a myth.
Astrid was in a rhythm now: rinse, stroke, rinse his skin, her hand swirling on his neck, chest and abdomen. She had removed the mess from Tem’s chest, but that wasn’t what was motivating her to continue touching him.
If felt so good, so very satisfying to have her hands on his body, it didn’t occur to her she should stop. It was as if she was in a fever dream where the line that marked reality blurred. Her only awareness was her hands brushing on his skin, which drew the most delicious purrs from the man.
It hardly mattered.
His scent rose to her nose, leading her along a path of intoxication that drew her farther, not just into him, but herself.
His rhythmic purrs turned into thrums that vibrated through her body. She felt as if she were a violin on which he was playing the most intimate tunes. The vibrations surged down her spine, and up her thighs to her core, setting alight a fire that had been only hinted at in her young fumblings at love. But these pulses were deeper, fuller, searing pathways of white heat through her nerve endings.
You must stop, said Tem’s mind. You don’t know what you are getting yourself into.
Stop. How could she? There was only one purpose, here, now, and that was to touch this man, this dragon, this gorgeous male, and resonate with his essence.
You don’t sound like you want to stop.
Damn me. Wanting and needing are two different things.
And what do you want? What do you need?
I want your hands on me. I need you not to do that.
Astrid smiled the kind of smile that only an inexperienced woman could, one of innocence and mischief. She was on the edge of discovery, of treading a new and foreign country, and she did not care if she had the visa to do it.[_ _]
Her breathing sped as she untied the string of Tem’s sweats. He pulled against his bonds in protest.
Do not act as if you don’t want this, she told him with her mind.
_God help me, yes, I do. _
[_All I’m going to do is touch you, _]she sent innocently.
[_All? All? You have me begging against my better nature with a sponge bath, woman. _]
She chuckled and pulled down his pants to reveal the magnificent piece of him that pointed straight and proud toward her. Astrid closed her eyes as she stroked it tentatively and was surprised at how soft the skin felt, almost like velvet, yet held what seemed like a steel rod within. Pre-cum leaked at the tip and she palmed it. The heat from his head filled the palm of her hand and she cooed as she twisted her hand this way and that, spreading around his natural lubrication.
His scent, rich and musky, rose off him and she could not resist the urge to bend her head and touch her tongue to his flesh.
Oh, good Lord, groaned Tem.
She had never done this and the taste, slightly salty but laden with undertones that declared “male”, intrigued her.
I need more.
You are playing with fire.
Yes, but you are a dragon.
That should be your warning.
Of what? How delicious you are?
Tem made a throaty noise that teetered between approval and disapproval of her intended action.
You have me at your mercy, he replied.
I think you enjoy that.
I think you do not know the depths of a dragon’s appetites, and how far we will go to fulfill them.
Oh? Is that meant to scare me?
Too bad. You don’t.
With a shrug of her shoulders, she smiled and brought both of her hands up the length of his shaft. He shuddered.
Your hands are soft.
You are not.
Pre-cum leaked on her hands and he made a throaty purr as she wrapped her hands around his shaft and stroked again.
Is this your idea of torture?
Are you in pain?
She inched her hands down his shaft and cupped his balls.
Does that help?
No, he growled.
She massaged them with her fingers, enjoying how they felt against her fingers. Her breathing sped up as she imagined Tem’s thick cock inside her. A curious burn and tingles raced through her body and pooled between her legs. The sensations rushed through her, like a tiny flame consuming dried moss and tiny branches. They built from insistent pulses to a searing flame that raced through the dry kindling of her incipient desire.
She let one hand reach between her legs and she bent her head to Tem’s shaft. As her tongue flicked against the flame red head, her fingers touched the raw flesh beneath her panties.
Tem drew in a deep breath and she licked and nibbled the velvety head of his cock. The taste of his precum was exquisite and she lapped at it eagerly.
Good Lord. I need my hands in your hair.
Astrid reached for the keypad in the shackles and pressed the code that released his hands. Without waiting, Tem ripped the stupid lenses off her eyes, and dropped them to the ground and fisted his hands on either side of her head. He urged her lower, to take him more fully, and she opened her lips wide and sunk down on his delicious rod.
His cock filled her mouth, stealing all her senses except for her awareness of how very much she wanted him. Her hand explored her own flesh more forcibly and she found the center where she sunk her fingers.
Raw images of what she was doing flooded her mind from Tem’s perspective. There were no words, just his rising passion at the carnal pleasures she performed and his desire to take her fully, to sink himself into her sweet heat.
His passions nearly overwhelmed hers with their intensity, but she rose, higher and higher, both loving and insensate to his shaft filling her mouth. Want drove her further than she had ever been, though she wasn’t sure just where that need would take her.
Tem thrashed as her tongue lashed his cock and low noises came from his throat. His shaft grew thicker and throbbed and then he cried out as pulses of cum shot into her mouth.
She had never tasted anything so delicious and she eagerly swallowed everything he gave her. She suckled every drop and the thought of having that part of him inside her spurred a final flurry of her fingers on her desire wracked flesh.
Astrid shuddered as a wave of fire crashed on her, exploding every nerve ending in her body. The walls of her core pulsed on her questing fingers and sent more delicious shocks through her body.
Was that Tem, or her, or both of them? She pulled off Tem and he pulled up upright to hold her against his chest.
They stood there lost in each other, listening to each other’s breathing.
Are you okay?
Of course. Why do you doubt it?
You released my shackles.
Only your hands. You needed them.
_Yes. I did. _
Astrid raised her head and pressed her lips to his, enjoying the feeling of his body against hers. But his muscles grew hard and bunched as if he was trying to defend himself.
I shouldn’t have done this. Lord, what have I done?
The shock of what Tem had allowed jettisoned him from the sexual haze that had snared the dragon when Astrid walked into his cell. Astrid gazed at him with hurt and trepidation and he hated it. He was old enough, damn it, not to be drawn into mating on instinct alone.
He couldn’t bear the look in her eyes. Every piercing shard of doubt and fear revealed in those beautiful green globes shredded his heart like little knives.
What did you do, old man? What possessed you to let her touch you like that?
Ah, what didn’t possess him. Common sense. Decency.
There were other dragons that had no compunction about using their wiles on human women. Dragons, at any time, were a powerful draw to a human woman.
He wanted to[_ _]reassure her, but he had no good words. Confusion washed over her face and he sensed her rising panic that she had done something to displease him.
It’s not your fault.
Four little words. They were so useless, so inadequate. She blinked and he felt her disbelief.
[_ I- _]she started.
[I— _]broke in Tem— _knew. I knew _as soon as you walked into my cell that you should turn around and leave and never come back. _
She shook her head stubbornly[_. _]
[_We don’t have time for this. _]
She bent and released the shackles on his ankles and finally the collar on his neck.
What are you doing, human?
_Getting you out of here. _
You can’t do this. Danger. Danger to you!
You can argue or you can help me get Calvin. I’ll release Evan.
And then what are we supposed to do?
“You’re the dragon[_,” _]she said aloud. “I’m sure you have dragon tricks up your sleeve. But we don’t have much time. The technician will return to his station eventually.” She smirked at that and rude images of what the technician was probably doing in the bathroom filled his head.
Please. No visuals.
Astrid tossed his shirt at him and he pulled it on while she went to Evan’s cell. Evan gave a whoop and ran out of his cell, looking extremely pleased.
“How about my girl?” he said.
Tem pursed his lips. This was not the time to explain what had happened between him and Astrid.
“No time for chit chat,” said Astrid. She entered Calvin’s cell and released his shackles. His limp body fell into Tem’s arms.
Harsh klaxons rang and Astrid sprinted to the outer door. She swiped her key card but the door refused to budge.
Astrid’s alarm sent shock waves through Tem and the urge to shift gripped him. He needed his dragon form and strength, but not here in this tight place. Tem handed off the unconscious Calvin to Evan and rushed to Astrid.
“What are we going to do?”
It was a matter of whether his human form was strong enough to do what he planned. He couldn’t fully shift here, but he could pull what strength he needed from his dragon form, or at least try.
Otherwise, not just him, but Astrid, Calvin and Evan would be dead meat.
The klaxon continued its raucous noise as he raised his leg and kicked.
Astrid’s eyes grew very wide and she gasped as he flung his foot into the metal door. If he were a mere man he would have shattered his foot or ankle, possibly both. Drawing from his dragon form, the strength of dragon sinew and bone wrapped around his human form and flung a massive force into the steel. It shrieked and crumbled, until the metal hung at on odd angle from the frame.
“Go!” he yelled as he took Calvin from Evan. “Run.”
At once the lights in the hallway shut down, leaving them in darkness.
“I can’t see,” said Astrid.
“I can,” said Evan. “Take my hand.”
Tem’s dragon eyes allowed him to watch Astrid and Evan flee down the hallway, but his dragon sense of smell told him that there were humans standing at the end. The acrid odor of gun oil told him they held rifles.
“Stop!” yelled Tem.
Their footfalls faltered in the dark and then were silent.
“I need,” said Tem, “to know where this hallway is positioned in relation to the outside. Where is the closest outside wall?”
“This is the basement,” said Astrid. “The outside walls are up.”
“Then the hard way. Evan, take Calvin, Astrid stay behind them.”
Evan took Calvin and hefted him over his shoulder.
“Who’d have thought he’d be heavy,” the younger man groused.
But Tem didn’t have time for conversation. Humans were stunningly good at gathering forces and he could imagine a good size one was forming up now. Calling on his dragon body for strength, he also formed an energetic shield that he hoped would protect all of them from flying bullets.
It had been a long time since he had summoned what humans called magic. The electric force of the shield danced around his body, making his skin itch and crawl.
He flung his body down the hall to face the human soldiers that jammed the doorway with their bodies. It was a choke point, meant to head off the dragon’s escape. But it was the point of their defeat as well.
Tem did not have time to be subtle or gentle. He flung the force field at the armed guards and they fell backward into each other and to the floor.
“Come,” he said urgently. This was surely just the first wave of defenses; there would be others.
“Wow,” said Astrid, as he helped her over the pile of humans. He lifted her with one hand and easily swung her over. “Are they—?”
“Unconscious. Where to?”
Their feet slapped against the cement floors of the basement hallways as they twisted and turned through different corridors. They made the entrance of the lift but found the doors were shut. Again, the humans must have thought this would be a barrier.
“It won’t open,” said Astrid in distress when her key card failed.
“No worries, sweetheart,” said Tem. “Back away”
Tem rammed his foot into the door of the elevator several times and at the last good shove of his foot it crumbled under the force of the blow.
“You’re terribly good at that,” Astrid said. She peered inside. “But what now?”
Tem looked over her shoulder and noted that the elevator car had settled at the sub-floor below. He cast his glance skyward and followed the cable. It would have to do.
“As you said, I’m the dragon.”
Tem put his hands-on Astrid’s arms, pushed her gently aside and kicked off his slippers.
“What are you going to do?” said Evan. “And are you doing it soon? No disrespect, but Calvin here—” He shifted the man on his shoulder and huffed for emphasis.
Tem checked the elevator shaft one more time, and then pushed off, launching his body at the thick cables. And as he did so he shifted.
Behind him Astrid gasped as his human body stretched then twisted into wings, tail and claws. It was a fearsome sight at any time and he worried what Astrid would think.
It was one thing to be attracted to a dragon and another to face the reality of his form.
With a metallic ring Tem’s claws clutched the cable. He glanced over his shoulder. Both Astrid’s and Evan’s eyes were wide at the sight of him.
He extended a forepaw to Astrid.
And all hell broke loose.
Astrid stared at Tem in his true form and gasped. He wasn’t just beautiful; he was gorgeous. Usually dragons came in different colors, from a dusty gold to rusty brown or occasionally green, but the coloring of Tem’s scales sparkled in an iridescent deep amethyst.
His wings and forepaws deepened to ebony at their tips, while his claws glittered in the emergency lighting like onyx knifes. His gold eyes blinked at her, reptilian in shape but sparkling with intelligence.
It was the first time she had seen a dragon up close and she was awed.
The dragon extended his forepaw.
It was Tem’s voice in her head and this comforted her, but still the sight of Tem as a dragon froze her feet in place. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand what he wanted. She got that she was supposed to climb on his back and help the others there too. He meant to break jail by hauling all of them onto his form and she couldn’t for the life of her see how it could be done any other way.
But when she reached for him, a gunshot whizzed past her hand, and then another. She jerked her hand back.
Ping. Ping. Ping.
The shots grew more frequent, peppering the air with whizzing hot pieces of metal meant to harm.
Tem raised his beautiful triangular head and roared. It was a sound so loud and deep that the walls shook around them. The shots stopped briefly, but when Tem began the climb on the lift cable, they started again. But then whatever he had used to stop the bullets at the first rally point of the guards, he started using again. The shots glanced off him and clinked against the walls of the lift.
Evan pulled Astrid’s arm and jerked her away from the opening, which was entirely sensible even if she wanted to watch Tem. It was an unreasonable desire to keep an eye on the dragon, because logically Tem was far better equipped to deal with the threat to their lives than she was.
But she was finding that when it came to Tem, unreasonable desire was the order of the realm.
Human screams rent the air and bodies fell to the roof of the car below with a horrible thud. Tem roared again, a challenge and warning to whoever would stop them, and the walls shook with the force of thunder.
Beside her, Calvin twitched and he groaned. Astrid didn’t know what to make of this, but it seemed that each time Tem roared it drew a response from the unconscious man.
Evan slung the man off his shoulder and held him against the wall.
“Calvin!” he called. “Calvin! Wake-up!”
The older dragon opened his eyes slowly and blinked.
“Tem?” he rasped.
“I’m Evan. Evan Waters. Tem is trying to get us out.”
“Tem,” the man said as a heavy sigh. He closed his eyes again as if utterly exhausted and Astrid gripped his hands.
“Please,” she said. “Stay with us.”
Tem boomed again and rattled the cable, daring the humans to come after him.
Calvin’s eyes flew open again. “It’s not a dream?”
“No. Tem is fighting for us,” said Astrid.
“Good. At least I won’t die here.”
You aren’t dying anywhere, old man.
In a day of surprises, Astrid was shocked again. Tem spoke not just to her, but through her to Calvin.
“What?” he said, just as surprised as Astrid.
Can you shift? asked Tem.
Calvin groaned and even Astrid could see the dragon was too weak to be helpful.
That’s okay, old man. Save your strength. Get ready. I’m coming.
Tem’s claws clinked on the cable and soon his dragon head poked through the lift opening. He shook his head, like a puppy shaking off water from its fur and gave a throaty purr. Astrid could almost swear that he was grinning.
He pushed through his forepaw and shoulder, extending them into a bridge to his broad shoulders. Astrid navigated Tem’s limb first, and was astonished to find his skin, though it looked like hard scales, was smooth, silky and elastic.
Of course, darling. Hard scales would provide too much wind resistance.
After scrambling up his leg, Astrid settled on his neck where she could sit astride, and helped pull Calvin up while Evan pushed. With Calvin seated, Evan followed.
Hang on, declared Tem. Clutch my hide.
Astrid dug her hands into Tem’s skin.
I’m not hurting you?
[_Sweetie, you’d have to do a lot more than that to hurt me. _]
“He said to grab his skin,” she called over her shoulder.
“He’s talking to you?” asked a stunned Evan. “How? I don’t hear him.”
But Astrid shook her head as Tem began his climb. His powerful shoulders moved between her legs, causing her to remember their brief time in his cell.
“Steady, sweetheart. We’ve a ways to go before we can get distracted again.”
She heard Calvin curse and Tem rumbled with displeasure behind her.
_Later, later, old man. Job one is getting clear of here. _
Pull by pull, moving with unholy speed, Tem took them up the length of the cable. They passed several floors where Astrid spotted men laying on the floor beyond half opened lift doors, but she couldn’t tell if they were injured or dead.
But at the topmost floor the door was flung wide open and a defiant Mrs. Parks stood there, rifle in hand. She wore protective goggles but Astrid did not see the ear plugs. Behind Mrs. Parks stood the commandant, unarmed, but he had an expression on his face that declared he should be feared. Astrid had seen his picture hanging in the hall, but this man’s face was far thinner and weaselly than his official photo indicated.
Parks pointed the rifle at Tem. It wasn’t a normal rifle but was fitted with tranquilizer darts.
“Halt, you abomination!”
Tem howled, but it wasn’t in fear. It was amusement.
“You should move away, Mrs. Parks,” called Astrid. “He’s not in a mood to be generous.”
Mrs. Parks turned a contemptuous glance to Astrid.
“I knew it. Dragon lover. We’ll hunt you down, and prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
“There’s a problem with that,” called Astrid. “You’ll have to catch us first.”
Tem rumbled and it sounded like agreement with her words. Then, in one fluid move, he launched from the cable and straight into Parks and the commandant. They landed with a hard oomph on the floor and Tem scrambled over the keepers. Astrid could have sworn that he was chuckling.
The dragon prowled the hallway, swiveling his head, and looking for an opening to escape the building. Astrid had not been to this part of the castle yet, but it looked like the administration wing of the building. She caught glimpses of people peeking over the tops of their desks, looking fearful and awed as they moved down the hall.
They should, she thought. Tem is awesome.
_Thank you, sweetheart. _
Clattering on the floors alerted them to another imminent danger. Astrid gripped Tem’s skin harder when she saw the beefy men in military uniforms stretch across the corridor. One held a grenade launcher pointed at them.
“You can’t be serious,” groaned Evan.
To their left was a set of closed double doors.
_Tem. To the left. _
Tem burst through the doors as a grenade shot over his tail. The incendiary hit a wall and exploded, blasting shock waves that rattled the walls and furniture in the offices to the side. But Tem kept steady on his feet as they surveyed their situation. They had entered a conference room with a table that stretched its length. The far-left wall held a wide window that overlooked the peaceful valley beyond the Hawthorne Facility. The sound of the soldiers’ boots stomping on the floor told Astrid it was a matter of seconds before they had to face this new threat.
Tem studied the window and pressed a paw against the glass. He shook his head.
I need heat, he mused.
In a swift motion, he turned to face the door, just as the soldiers appeared.
Tem snarled and slashed the air with his claws. He took one threatening step toward them.
The soldier with the grenade launcher leveled it at Tem. He fired and Astrid shrieked.
But Tem moved his head and opened his jaw wide, swallowing the grenade whole.
“Oh God, no!” cried Astrid
She felt the explosion within him, and she feared the worst, that he would be harmed or killed by the explosive. But he belched like a man who had one too many pints on a Saturday afternoon and chuckled. Then he opened his mouth and spewed a scorching line of actual fire before their attackers. Absolute fright possessed their faces as these soldiers found, to their horror, that they faced a threat for which they were not prepared.
Astrid had never seen men move so fast as they poured out the door back into the hallway.
Tem had never seen men move so fast as they poured out the door back into the hallway, almost falling over each other to gain their escape from the fire breathing dragon.
Any other time he’d be laughing, but the after effects of the grenade rumbled in his gut. He wasn’t supposed to eat incendiaries and because the explosives in them weren’t sulphur, he was sure he’d suffer some heartburn for this. But it was a small price to pay if they could escape.
Cover your faces!
Tem not only shared this thought with Astrid but he thrummed it to Evan and Calvin as well.
Flame spewed from his mouth, pouring on and stressing the glass. It cracked, then shattered, shards flying in all directions. Glass struck his hide, but he couldn’t worry about that now. His sharp ears had caught the sounds of additional boots filling the hallways. They didn’t have long.
Hang on! Keep your faces covered.
He fervently hoped his passengers could keep their seats. He found to his relief that Astrid was burying her face into his neck. The last thing he wanted was for her to get hurt.
Tem hopped to the ledge of the ruined window and looked out onto the land and airscape. It didn’t look good. Troops massed on the ground, a helicopter spilled a searchlight on the ground. But they had few options and just this one chance. They were doomed men anyway, and it was better to die in flight, than at the end of an executioner’s blow.
He pulled on his muscled hind legs and sprung and spread his wings, hoping for an updraft. If there wasn’t one, things would be grim.
Tem was a powerful dragon at anytime, but the three others weighed him down. He struggled to keep airborne, and to do this he drew his wings in powerful but exhausting sweeps, looking to gain an air current that would carry them away.
Above them, the helicopter trained the light on Tem and he knew they were in trouble.
He banked to avoid it, to keep alight, to find an airstream that would save them. All his concentration was on this task. He could not think about the dragons he bore, or the woman he had met a day before who would now play a pivotal role in his life until his end.
Gritting his teeth, he beat the air with his wings, banked left and circled but with no luck. His heart pumped furiously in his chest as he pressed his wings into the recalcitrant atmosphere that seem determined to ground him.
Astrid caught his distress and pressed her face into his shoulder.
You can do this.
How did these five simple words fill his heart with hope? Or was it her total trust that he could not betray? He pumped harder, even as his heart felt it would burst, every wing tendon and bone straining to push against the still night air.
He was greeted with a rush of slightly warmer air and climbed. Tem rose beyond the helicopter, beyond the search lights from the ground, and gained an even warmer thermal current.
A roar filled his ears and he looked over his shoulder and swore. A military jet was on their tail and gaining fast.
We’ve got a problem, thrummed Calvin. Got any more fire left in you?
Tem’s stomach rumbled emptily.
[_Don’t think so. _]
Damn. Then you know what you have to do.
[_Prepare the boy, _]signaled Tem.
Tem had to trust that Calvin would give the necessary instructions to Evan. He had to concentrate on Astrid. He and Calvin would come through this okay, and probably Evan too, but Astrid, being human, would have the roughest time.
[_Astrid. When I say ‘when’ you need to take the deepest breath you can, filling your lungs and hold it, no matter what. And grip me so tight that your nails pierce my skin. And pray very, very hard that I don’t bugger this up. _]
Tem? He felt her fear and regretted it.
[_I don’t have time to explain. But trust me, first chance, I will. _]
_Do it. _
He didn’t know whether she meant his ill-defined course of action or his forthcoming explanation but the jet was getting uncomfortably close. All it would take to send them tumbling to their deaths was for the jet to edge into and disturb his airstream.
He heard Astrid, Evan and Calvin suck in deep breaths, and he did the same. In his mind’s eye, he called up the dimension where all things, all time, all thought existed at a single endless and all-encompassing microsecond of time.
It had been a quarter of century since he did this and dicey at the best of times. Entering the place between dimensions required utmost concentration and singular strength of will. The harrowing flight from Hawthorne tired him and if it wasn’t for Astrid on his back he might not have tried. But he wanted, no needed, her safe and this was the only way he could do so.
The entry to the place dragons called “between” was brutally sharp and heartlessly cold, and he felt Astrid shiver. But it was only a microsecond. As long as she didn’t try to breath, as long as she didn’t move, she’d be okay. He prayed for that.
Tem so needed her to be okay.
She was beginning to panic. And he had no time to steady her. The next thing he had to do required his utmost concentration or they were all dead.
He focused on a single place, the broken spires and crumbled walls of the one safe place on Earth for Tem. If there was any real magic for dragons it was this, the ability to always center on and find this spot.
The next fall jarred all of them as they fell into the atmosphere. Dawn streaked pinks and golds at the horizon as the sun rose up from below a tall mountain range. It took him a few minutes to get his bearings, but soon he knew exactly where he was.
Here? thrummed Calvin. You sure that is wise? With these two in tow? She won’t like it.
Where are we? hummed Evan.
You’ll see, Tem offered unhelpfully. He was exhausted and didn’t have it in him to offer explanations.
Tem found the ruins that served as his homing beacon and circled around them. He sensed Astrid’s curiosity, but also her unease. And he didn’t blame her. Where they were going, a human hadn’t set foot for two thousand years.
Who is that? thrummed another, more strident voice.
It is I, Tem. May I enter?
There was a long pause as if the recipient of his message was considering his request.
_You may enter. _
He braked and descended to a large courtyard. Like the surrounding battlements, the ground was broken. Weeds grew between crumbling flagstones as if no one lived there.
That was wrong.
As Astrid, Evan and Calvin descended from Tem’s back, a cloaked woman emerged from the shadows. She approached slowly as if contemplating every second she lived and walked the Earth. Eventually she stopped in front of Tem.
“Shift,” she ordered. She regarded Tem coldly as if he was an inconvenience, but he was used to that.
Tem shifted to his human body and she looked him up and down.
“The years have not been kind,” she said simply.
“Hello,” said Astrid with annoyance. “And who are you?”
“Did you have to bring your pet?” the woman said caustically.
“Yes, I did. This is Astrid. And Astrid, this is her majesty Rhea Gentrix, Queen of the Dragons—and my Aunt.”
Rhea Gentrix lowered her hood and looked over the unlikely crew that had landed in her courtyard. She was beautiful, in human terms, with bright green eyes and straight reddish brown hair that flowed around her shoulders. But her gaze was calculating, without warmth or compassion and it added a hardness to her demeanor that was unwelcoming. Astrid now understood the complaints of some humans: that dragons didn’t have hearts.
“Captain,” she purred, holding her hands out to Calvin. “Have you come to back to our service?”
Calvin bent his head. “I serve at your pleasure.”
“Excellent,” said Rhea. “When you’ve rested from your ordeal, come and speak to me.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
She eyed Evan with suspicion.
“And who are you?”
“Evan Waters, ma’am.”
“And how did you come into this company?”
“I was in the same prison as Tem and Calvin.”
Rhea sniffed as if trying to catch a scent and frowned.
“A hybrid,” she said with disapproval. “Can you even shift?”
“I didn’t even know I had dragon heritage until I was arrested.”
“This,” she said imperiously, “is what comes of sloppy breeding.” She spoke these last words with a pointed gaze at Tem, who kept an impassive face.
“Excuse me,” said Evan heatedly.
“Step back, boy,” warned Calvin. “She is our Queen and has the right to judge as she sees things. This is not the human world, where everyone is equal before the law.”
“Yes,” hissed Rhea. “This is most decidedly not the human world.” She then turned to Astrid who shivered under her gaze. The Queen of the dragons inspected her coldly as if the human were some sort of commodity to be weighed and measured. Astrid got the impression that she was prey to be taken out with a swift swipe of a dagger-like claw.
Rhea walked toward Astrid, and Tem protectively threw his arm around her.
“I tell you, Aunt, Astrid is here under my protection.”
Rhea Gentrix’s green eyes glittered.
“Is she now? No human has walked this ground, but you bring one now. What makes her so important?”
“She rescued us. Released our bindings so we could escape.”
If Astrid had thought that the Queen would show appreciation, she was disappointed.
“Your problems with the humans are your own, Templeton Rawlins, and puts all of draconry at risk from persecution from humans.”
“But they are doing that already,” burst out Astrid.
“Astrid,” hissed Tem urgently. “Don’t speak.”
“No, Tem,” said Rhea slowly and deliberately. “Let the human speak.”
“Astrid, not another word,” warned Tem.
“No, Astrid. Tell me what you want to say.” Rhea’s voice rolled out seductively and Astrid felt she [_had _]to say something.
“Your majesty,” said Astrid. “Tem was arrested under false pretenses.”
“Astrid!” said Tem.
“Silence,” ordered Rhea. “So you are saying, child, that Tem is innocent of the human charges against him?”
“And that humans deliberately overlooked the evidence of his innocence.”
“Stop this,” said Tem.
“No!” While Rhea spoke this word in a normal tone of voice, the psychic force of it made each one of them step back. “You bring this human here, to my court, and you expect me not to pass judgment on her?”
“Astrid is not all humans, Rhea. She did, in fact, help us to escape the human prison.”
“And why were you in there in the first place, eh?” said Rhea heatedly. “Did you not ignore my instructions to report here?”
“Are you judging me too, Rhea?”
“Yes!” she boomed. “How dare you disobey me? I am your Queen.”
Astrid stared at Tem, her heart beating double time. Despite her extensive education on dragons, she didn’t understand everything that was going on here. But she gathered that Tem was in serious trouble.
Tem and Rhea stared at each other and Astrid felt the storm in his heart. He had no love for this dragon woman, in fact he felt considerable rancor toward her. A mass of emotions rolled through Astrid from Tem, ranging from disgust to anger. He was close to erupting on the last.
Please, urged Astrid,[_ don’t_].
You don’t know what she expects of me, he replied.
No. I don’t. But you brought us here for a reason.
She heard his inward sigh[_. Yes, I did. _]
Tem dropped to one knee and bent his head. Astrid felt how he hated this, to submit to this woman. There were deep resentments in his heart toward her. But he was reining that in for what he felt was good purpose.
“Then judge me, Rhea. Leave Astrid out of this quarrel between us.”
Rhea’s face softened then, and she walked to Tem and put her hands on his head.
“You’ve come home and that is what is important. As for the human, she will be our guest until we return her to her home. But mind that she breaks no rule of this house.”
Rhea turned abruptly and walked swiftly away to the portico that surrounded the courtyard and into the shadows of doorway.
“Well,” snorted Calvin. “That’s just lovely.”
“What is all the fuss about?” asked a clearly confused Evan.
“Old business, boy,” said Calvin. “And new. Tem, how are you going to explain what happened to Rhea?”
“What happened?” asked Astrid.
“I won’t explain anything. Clearly this is beyond the scope of even Rhea’s authority.”
Astrid balled her hands at her side, growing annoyed that Tem was keeping her out of the conversation.
“What is going on?” she asked pointedly.
“She isn’t going to permit it,” replied Calvin. “And frankly, I agree with her. What were you thinking?”
“That is none of your business,” replied Tem.
“What is this ‘sloppy breeding’ business about?” said Evan. His face was drawn in consternation.
“My mother is concerned,” said a new feminine voice from behind them, “that the strength of dragons is diluted by the introduction of human DNA into our lines.” A young woman glided from the shadows of the portico.
“Reanne,” said Tem holding out his hands.
“My Lord,” said Reanne taking them. “Long has it been seen since I’ve seen you last.”
Astrid’s eyes narrowed. She found she did not like this woman touching Tem.
“My lady, it is good to see you again.”
Tem’s bright smile at meeting this Reanne chick really annoyed Astrid. She bit her lip to keep from speaking. Astrid had no claim on Tem and it was obvious these two knew each other from years before she was even born. Besides, even Astrid had to admit that Reanne was stunningly beautiful. An obviously younger version of her mother, her expression was far more relaxed and warm than the dragon Queen’s.
“I am aware of your mother’s views,” said Tem.
“But your guests are not. It was a risk, Tem, that you brought them here.”
“It was the safest place I could think of,” he said simply.
“Yes, the persecution against dragons across the world grows. If my mother could shelter all dragons here, she would. But our Queen does not suffer the intrusions of humans well, Tem, and you know this.”
“It is their world, Reanne, not ours.”
“Yes. There are seven billion of them and at best a few hundred thousand of us.”
“Not counting the hybrids,” said Calvin.
Reanne turned her gaze to Evan and a soft smile played across her lips. “Yes, not counting the hybrids. I’m afraid Mr. Waters, that you are betwixt and between these two worlds now.”
“That’s not a problem. If I can get home, I’ll be fine. Where I come from being part dragon is not a crime.”
Reanne shook her head sadly. “Things have changed since you were imprisoned, Mr. Waters. A new President got new laws passed and things are nearly as dire for dragons as in the United Kingdom. And I’m afraid your case made you notorious in America.”
“Let’s discuss these things later, Reanne,” said Tem. “Calvin is in need of food, and Astrid and Evan need to rest from the shock of our travels.”
“You are right, Lord Tem. There are rooms prepared for each of you and I’ll have food sent to them. Please follow me.”
Reanne walked toward the portico and Tem followed.
Calvin fell in step behind them, but then stopped and swayed. Quickly, both Evan and Astrid moved forward to steady him.
“Let me help,” said Evan and he pulled Calvin’s arm around him.
Reanne and Tem stopped in their tracks upon hearing these words.
“Are you okay, Captain?” asked Reanne.
“He nearly starved himself to death in the prison,” said Tem.
“That was foolish of you, Captain,” scolded Reanne.
“You were not there,” croaked Calvin.
“Well, you are here now. Can you walk?”
“I’ll walk just fine. Evan will help me.”
“Just don’t let my mother know what you did. She is not above administering punishment these days, and that is the last thing you need.”
“And just what is our Queen above these days?” said Tem sourly.
“Very little,” said Reanne. “Which is why it was dangerous for you to come here.”
“He truly did not know he was half dragon?” asked Reanne as she lit the lamps in his room.
Tem was focused on Astrid’s distress as she settled into another wing that served as guest quarters. He did not hear Reanne’s question at first.
“Oh, Tem. That little human has you wrapped around her finger, doesn’t she?”
Tem groaned. “It is more than that.”
Reanne stopped what she was doing and regarded the dragon.
“How?” she asked.
“I thought it was a myth.” His voice sounded tortured even to him.
Reanne sucked in a breath and this confirmed Tem’s worse fears.
“How do you know?”
“How do I not? I can’t bear the thought of being apart from her. Even now I just want to go to her room. I can’t bear the thought of her being near another male.”
“Well, that’s just lust. It’s normal for males and I imagine that being in that place you’ve been denied, and that’s fueled the lust.”
He shook his head.
“No, Reanne, you don’t understand. I hear her thoughts.”
“What?” said Reanne, now truly shocked.
“Yes, and what’s more, she can hear mine.”
“And do you feel what she feels?”
“Yes,” he said almost as a whisper.
“Oh, by the Gods, this is a disaster!”
Tem sank to the bench by the bed.
“You think so?” he said acidly.
“My mother will have a fit. There will be no protecting the girl from her.”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
“Does the girl understand?”
“She’s enamored, but no, she does not know the consequences of this.”
“Oh, by the triune Goddess. Tem, tell me you haven’t completed the bonding.”
“No. There was no time.”
“Well, that’s one good thing. It gives us an opportunity.”
“I’ll take her away, perhaps to America. I’ll take Evan too. Perhaps—”
“YOU WILL NOT TOUCH HER!”
The force of his response shocked Tem, but he was standing now, towering over Reanne and shouting at her. He was one microsecond away from shifting into dragon form.
Reanne backed away.
“Tem, keep your voice down. I might understand this, at least part of it, but mother will not. And it will be your Astrid’s death.”
“Even if I do not complete the bonding?”
“She would be safer if you did. If she was claimed as property—”
“Astrid is most definitely not that.”
“Yes, but by our law, that is all she can be. You know this. Why am I explaining this to you?”
Tem put his face in his hands. “I never expected any of this. I’m five hundred years old, for heaven’s sake, have known hundreds of women, and then, then this tender shoot, a breath of wind crosses my path, and I lose it altogether. I must be getting senile.”
Reanne scoffed. “Hardly. You are not a tenth of the way there.”
“Well, I won’t live that long now, will I?”
“Is that really your main concern?” asked Reanne gently.
“No. It is the thought that she’d die at all that kills me.”
“Ah, so. Then there is one thing you must do.”
“What is that?”
She sighed. “You know.”
Tem indeed did know and a part of him wanted Astrid very much. But to carry through with the bonding? To join their souls for all time?
“So my mother doesn’t kill her.”
“What that make a difference if Rhea kills me?”
“It is a gamble either way,” said Reanne. “And I cannot tell which one carries the greatest odds you’d come out of this alive. But I cannot help but think along the lines that you do. What is between you and the human goes beyond the laws of men and dragons… there is a deep purpose here.”
Reanne stepped within inches of Tem. “And maybe that’s a better purpose than what my mother has in mind for you anyway.” She bent and kissed him on the cheek.
“Out of all the dragon males, your passion runs the hottest. It is why my mother wants you to father the next generation. But your heart was made to love only one, and I think you have found her.”
Reanne quietly and gracefully exited the room, leaving Tem alone with his thoughts.
And in his thoughts was Astrid, a beautiful young woman that had no idea what was in store for her. She was now a fugitive from her own people, in the middle of nest of dragons that would kill her upon their Queen’s command.
It was an unholy mess.
What is between you and the human goes beyond the laws of men and dragons… there is a deep purpose here.
Tem couldn’t imagine what that would be and Reanne’s words did not comfort him. But what he did know that, since the first time had Astrid touched him, his heart beat in time with hers.
And as he thought about this his mood plummeted to dark depths that he never imagined existed. Even during his most hopeless moment in prison, he had never felt this lost or helpless. It just wasn’t in his nature.
And then he realized it was in Astrid’s. He was feeling her emotions and he couldn’t bear it.
Before he realized he was doing it, he was striding the halls of Rhea’s palace to Astrid’s door. He ran past beautiful frescoes and ancient sculpture, down the marble faced walls and floors, to the wing where Astrid was housed. He stood there at the polished teakwood door, unsure of what to do. His head told him to turn and go back to his own room, but every other part of him wanted, no needed, to be with Astrid.
The door tore open and there stood Astrid with tears streaming down her face.
“Tem,” she said shakily, “I was going to look for you.”
“And how would you have found me, eh?” he said with a smile. Tem felt great relief just at seeing her. “There are four hundred rooms in this palace.”
“Four hundred?” Her eyes grew wide.
“Yes, not counting the kitchen, the dining room, the throne room and the pool.”
“Well, actually it is an underground cavern that is fed with hot springs. I’ll take you there sometime.”
Tem felt her mood tumble again, and she turned and fled into her room.
“Astrid,” said Tem. He followed and shut the door behind him.
“What am I doing here, Tem? Your Queen hates me and each time she stares at me I get the feeling she wants me dead.”
“Oh, fuck,” said Tem. He stood inches from her now, though she had her back to him. He wrapped his arms around her waist and leaned his forehead to her neck.
“She won’t hurt you. I won’t allow it.”
“But what she was thinking— Tem, she expects you, and Reanne, oh—” she made little noises in her throat.
“That’s an old plan, and one I rejected a long time ago, Astrid. And it’s thoroughly imposs—Wait. You heard Rhea Gentrix’s thoughts?”
“Sure, Tem, like I can hear yours, and Calvin’s, and Evan’s, though his are a little harder to catch. Reanne’s for some reason I can’t, or maybe, I just didn’t know she was there until she showed up—”
“Wait. Stop,” said Tem. This was impossible. How could she hear Rhea’s thoughts, or anyone else’s besides Tem’s? He had never heard of anything like this before.
_Red hair. Green eyes. Impossibly stubborn. _
Tem kissed the back of her neck and she sighed. But he wasn’t being romantic.
Human. She tasted so human. Her passions ran as hot as her blood.
Astrid leaned her head back against Tem’s shoulder.
“I feel much better now you are here.”
Tem leaned into her and started a rocking motion, almost as if they were dancing. “Hmmm,” he hummed. “Beautiful Astrid, lovely Astrid, with the pretty red hair. How can it be that I met you?”
“I think,” she whispered, “I was looking for you.”
“Oh, not you, Tem Rawlins, specifically. But you, the essence of you. The dragon Lord. My grandmother was from Ireland and she’d tell me stories of dragons and how our ancestors served the dragon Lords. She told me how our family, at least the women, was graced with the ability to read the dragons’ minds so we could better help them. We were the seneschals between the dragons and humans, the gatekeepers, and we mediated their relationship. Some called us ambassadors, my grandmother said, others called us traitors to our race. Of course, I thought she was a dotty old woman, until tonight, that is.”
Tem had not heard anything like this story before and he figured that Rhea Gentry had some explaining to do.
“So, what happened?”
“A dragon Lord and a human woman fell in love, and neither dragons or humans liked that very much. The was a great battle between the dragon Lord’s followers and the dragon Queen…”
Astrid sucked in a breath. “That was Rhea Gentrix, was it?”
“Rhea has always been our Queen,” he said gently.
“She killed that dragon Lord,” said Astrid with a pained voice. “Oh, my God, Tem. Oh, my God. Get away from me! Go away! Don’t let her see you here with me!”
Astrid was beside herself in fright. The last thing she wanted was Tem harmed on her account. She struggled against him, trying to find a way to break free and put distance between them.
But Tem didn’t let go of her. Instead he pulled her closer to him so that the globes of her bottom rested against his hips. Her frantic attempts to get away resulted in her shimmying against his body. But he held her fast and Astrid became very aware of not just the dragon’s heat against her back, but his arousal as well.
“She won’t hurt me,” he whispered hotly in her ear. “And with what you know about her, she can’t hurt you either.”
Astrid gasped as Tem pushed his hips and the sheathed length of his cock between the cheeks of her derriere. But Tem held her tightly so that she couldn’t wriggle away.
“Ssh, ssh, relax. I can handle Rhea.”
His voice was soothing and she stopped struggling. Astrid was so very aware of his hot breath on her neck and the strength of his arms holding her. His intoxicating scent, hot and male, hung around her and she couldn’t help but breathe it in. Her senses spun dizzyingly and Astrid melted against him.
Part of her knew she was succumbing to the seductive power of Tem’s dragon, but another part of her yearned for his touch. When the servants first led her away from Tem, she had nearly panicked. At first, she didn’t know if it was fear from being in a new place. But the longer she spent away from Tem, the more her anxiety had grown. But now, with his body pressed to hers, she understood why.
Grandmother had never told her about this intense yearning to be near a dragon.
This went beyond a wish, or a desire. She had never felt need shake her to her very core like this; as if she couldn’t touch him she would die. But his touch, instead of satisfying her, fueled a deeper hunger for more. He stroked her hair and her body shook under his caresses, yearning for his hands to touch her flesh. She craved the brush of his fingers on her breasts, her stomach and, God help her, between her thighs. A little sound escaped her throat as Tem nibbled on her ear, which sent an explosive jolt through her.
It was too much. She couldn’t make sense of this and she desperately wanted to slow this down, to understand what was happening.
“You said you would explain things to me,” she said.
“I think,” he said in low voice that sent tingles down her spine, “you’ve explained more to me in a few short sentences than my family has told me in my entire life. They made it sound like humans always hated us, but that wasn’t the truth.”
And sharing thoughts?
There were rumors, as I said, almost myths, of certain humans who could do that. But I never heard of the seneschals, so there was nothing to connect it with.
But you heard something about that?
It was more in the context of having a special bond with a human.
A romantic bond.
But I can speak to many dragons.
So what we have isn’t romance?
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Tem, whispering in Astrid’s ear. He stroked her hair and she leaned into the touch. “The heat from your body travels through me like electricity. When we were in that cell, your hands kindled a fire, not just in my body, but in my soul. Do you know how rare that is, to touch a dragon’s heart?”
“Funny. I’ve studied dragons all my life but I find I know nothing of a dragon’s heart.”
He turned her around to face him.
“Up until now, I thought I did. But I find I was wrong.”
Tem bent his head and covered her mouth with urgent hunger. The heat of his mouth on hers sent shivers of naked desire down to tips of her toes. She took his questing tongue greedily and caressed it with her own. His hands cupped her face, holding in place as he took his fill of the flesh of her mouth.
Her knees wobbled under as waves of sensual pleasure washed through her body. The world slipped away into one sensation after another as Tem broke the kiss and worked his way down to her breasts. He cupped one, and squeezed it. In Astrid’s lust filled state, that one moment sent white heat tingling between her legs.
With a wicked glint in his eye, he unbuttoned her shift and peeled away the top to expose the creamy and round flesh of her breasts. Tem fingered the tips of her nipples and felt them harden by desire with his thumbs, making little circles around them. Finally he flicked his thumb against the nub, now over sensitized by Tem’s attentions.
A little noise escaped her throat and instinctively she pushed her hips to connect with his. His shaft pulsed beneath his clothing and Astrid wanted to feel more of him.
[_Soon. _]He sent this single word as if he was unable to say more. Tem’s mind was aflame and he was in the same state as she, wanting, needing, a primal urge filling him that he could not control.
Astrid did not want him to.
[_Soon. _]He urged again as a plea. She sensed that as much as he wanted her, he was holding back too and Astrid did not understand why.
Oh, my Astrid, you cannot know. We do not do this, like this. Not since the beginnings of our race.
His words made no sense, but then again what drew them together didn’t either. Tem wanted her and she returned that feeling wholeheartedly.
We’ll be bound together for the rest of our lives. Do you want that?
Did she? She hardly knew. And right now her thoughts were too scrambled to think. Astrid dropped her hand to his hard shaft.
I know I want you, Tem.
He sucked a nipple sharply into his mouth and her breathing sped as her heart did a dance in her chest. Tem nipped the nub with his teeth and Astrid gasped. With a swirl of his tongue he laved away the pain and a wave of shivers rolled through her body.
“Please,” she pleaded.
Astrid swore she heard an approving rumble from Tem’s chest. He walked forward, pushing her back, one step, then another, and a third and fourth. Something hard hit her back; a wall or one of columns of the big room.
Tem fingered Astrid’s prison guard uniform.
“Time we get rid of this,” he said and, reaching behind her, grasped the dress on either side and ripped it in half along the back seam as if it were tissue paper. The remnants fell at her feet and revealing that Astrid wore only a black lace garter and her black stockings.
His eyes raked her body and fell to her nearly naked hips. Tem fingered one of the straps that ran down her waist to her upper thigh.
“Astrid, you are full of surprises. I haven’t seen one these in a long, long time.”
She shrugged. “You were in prison for twenty-four years.”
“Before that,” he said huskily. “Where are the panties?”
“Lucky laundry,” he said. “Fortunate me.”
Astrid was totally exposed and vulnerable to the sexy dragon and as he raked her with an intense gaze filled with lust, she quivered. How did just a look wash her with pleasure? It was if she was an instrument and all he had to do was pluck any part of her to draw out her pleasure.
Tem brushed his fingers against her mound crowned with reddish hair and she whimpered.
“You like that?” he said.
“Yes,” she breathed.
“This is so glorious. A true redhead.” His fingers explored the cleft of her mound inciting her desire to a level she had never experienced.
“Spread your legs.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Spread your legs,” he said in a seductively low voice and she could not refuse. He dropped between her legs and kissed her mound.
Your perfume is so sweet.
Astrid gasped as he buried his tongue in her cleft. He lashed her sensitive flesh with long, questing strokes, seeking pleasure spot. And when he did, the fire that ran up her spine nearly overloaded her brain.
“Oh!” she whimpered as he continued his sweet assault. Without thinking she grabbed his dark hair and pulled him closer.
You want more?
Yes. Oh, yes.
Tem’s fingers quested the tender petals of her entrance, seeking the way in.
[_You are so wet. You’re killing me, Astrid. _]
His fingers found the entrance and he slid the tip of his finger inside and Astrid squirmed at the delightful sensation. It was so terribly intimate. And new.
Tem drew back suddenly as if catching her thoughts.
“Wait?” he said. “You’ve never done this?”
She bit her lip as she met his gaze.
“I’ve never done anything, Tem. At least nothing serious, with anyone.”
A virgin. She had to be a virgin. Tem groaned, both elated and concerned at the same time. Dragon stories were filled with stories of virgins left as sacrifices. But unlike the stories, they weren’t there to be eaten, at least not as food. No, virgins were as close to the divine as a man could get. Now Tem understood a part of his attraction to Astrid. It wasn’t just a physical drive; it was a spiritual one.
A piece of the divine stood before him and there was only one thought that pounded along with his heart.
“Oh, Astrid,” he groaned again, in awe of the gift of this beautiful creature.
“Tem,” she said trembling. Her need called to the core where his dragon lived.
He laid his hands on her hips and buried his face between her legs. She was wet and hot and her feminine scent had him shaking. His cock strained from his balls to the tip and pulsed with the need to be buried inside her. But she was untried and unprepared. He had to make sure she was ready.
Astrid arched her back pushing herself into his invading tongue and writhed and moaned as his lips and tongue lashed her sensitive flesh. The sounds she uttered prodded him to intensify his efforts. He found her entrance and drove his tongue inside her. Her cream cascaded into his mouth and on his lips and she bucked against his face. Astrid tasted exquisite, finer that the most expensive wine and was more satisfying than any earthly pleasure.
Her legs trembled beneath his hands and he slid his thumb to find her that pink nub of flesh that would drive her insane. He stroked its outer flesh and she groaned aloud.
Her breathing sped up and his dragon hearing picked up the runaway thudding of her heart. Her muscles clenched as she crushed herself against his face, moaning loudly. Astrid fisted her hands in his hair and Tem lifted one on her legs, then the other over his shoulders and dove as deep into her with his tongue as he could.
Her hands clutched his hair and she cried out in pleasure. Her tight walls clenched around his tongue as more of her juices released onto his tongue. Tem held onto her tight as she rode his face thrashing with each contraction of her body.
Astrid slumped against the wall.
“Oh, my God,” she breathed.
Tem lifted her and her legs slipped off his shoulders. With a wolfish grin, he crushed his lips to hers and claimed her mouth again.
What are you doing to me?
Worshipping your delicious body. I can’t get enough of you.
Astrid broke the kiss and leaned her head against his shoulder.
“God help me,” she whispered. “I can’t get enough of you either.”
Tem kissed the top of her head and then lifted her into his arms. In a few short steps, he was at the bed and he pulled her down with him as they fell into it. She laughed, but when he turned her on her back, her eyes opened wide.
His heart was racing as she lay under him and he saw her swallow hard.
“I want you badly,” he said. “But I will take my time.”
“I don’t know if I want you to.”
“Trust me, you want me to go slowly. You are too precious to hurt in any way.”
“I know you won’t hurt me,” she said her eyelids fluttering.
Tem was heartened by her trust in him and it made him all the more determined to make her first time something she’d enjoy.
“I want to see you,” Astrid said.
Tem got his knees and pulled down his sweats. She rose on one elbow and stroked his half hard shaft. Tem shuddered and put his hand on hers.
“I want you too much.”
Astrid took away her hand and lowered her head as if he scolded her. Tem raised her chin with his fingers.
“That’s a compliment,” he said.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said her lips trembling.
“You know more than you think,” he said gently.
“I want to please you. I’m afraid I won’t.”
“Oh, sweetheart, there is no way you can’t. You can see how much I want you.”
Astrid looked between his legs where his sweatpants tented with his hard-on.
“Hey, where’s that woman that was so eager to go down on me?”
“It’s one thing to do that, and another to—”
Her consternation melted him.
Tem drew her to him. “We won’t do anything you don’t want to,” he said gently. He kissed her again, this time gently and slowly and he felt her relax against him. Tem stroked her body in long lazy strokes, her breast, her stomach and she made little whimpers as he did. His dragon was impatient and shook within from frustration, but there was no way Tem was going to force this on Astrid. This moment was too important.
He brought his fingers to her mound and reveled in the softness of her skin. Tem’s breathing hitched as he flashed on pushing his tongue inside her.
“Sweet, sweet, Astrid,” he said. “You taste delicious and I want taste you. But I’m also going to make you ready for me. Do you want that?”
“Yes,” she said almost as a moan. “When you touch me the only thing I want is you.” She gave him a smoldering look from under half-lidded eyes and Tem almost lost his resolve to go slow.
He leaned over and kissed her coppery bush and then took long licks along her inner thighs on each side. She hissed when he pulled away between her legs and then sighed when he slid his index finger inside her. She was so soft and hot that he nearly lost it there as he imagined sinking himself deep within her.
She writhed under the attention of his finger and he sunk in another, curling them to stroke her g-spot.
“Oh,” she said.
“You’re so tight, baby,” he whispered.
“I need you, Tem,” she gasped. “Please.”
He couldn’t take it. Tem pulled off his sweats and kicked them away. He knelt between her legs and stroked his cock staring at the petals of her flesh glistening from her wetness. He guided the tip of his shaft there and pushed against the tight hole.
“Oh,” she whimpered.
“You feel so big,” she said. “But good, so good.”
Tem rumbled his approval. “Baby,” he said and he pushed forward a little, filling her entrance with his cock. Sweat beaded on his brow from the effort of holding back. He rocked back and forth teasing both of them with that motion. He was barely inside her and needed more.
“Tem,” she pleaded.
He lifted her legs and urged her to wrap them around his waist. He grabbed her hips with both hands, trembling with sweat dripping from his brow and inched forward inside her. She was so tight he gritted his teeth. He didn’t know if the resistance he felt was because how tightly her walls gripped him or if he had encountered her cherry.
“Hold on,” he gritted and inched forward. She shook underneath him.
“Are you okay?”
“Tem, you are driving me crazy. Come on, baby. I need you. All of you.”
“Oh hell,” he said and pushed forward as heat and wet engulfed him and became the center of his world. He could not hold back any more and sunk as deep as he could go. There was no holding back now and he was lost in the rapture of taking her, in that place of no thought that was all sensation and no words. As his rhythm built she bucked her hips with his so that they crashed together and came apart, again and again. She screamed his name and clenched around him in waves.
So tight. So tight. His passion climbed higher demanding release and he shook from the force of his desire. He bent to her neck intending to kiss her. Instead he found her flesh so tender he sucked in to his mouth and then sank his teeth in her skin. At that very second, he understood that this woman was more precious to him than any piece of gold in his personal hoard. She was his entire world and would be until the day he died.
The need to possess her utterly swept through him like liquid fire and he exploded, shaking. As his cum jetted in powerful spurts and he pressed against her furthest inner walls, he howled her name so loudly it filled the room.
They held each other tightly as they came down from the heights their lovemaking took them. Their breathing calmed and Tem licked where he had bit her.
“Why did you do that?” she said.
Tem didn’t know what to say. Yes, instinct had taken over, just like it always did when Tem was with Astrid. But this was something more. He had suspected this would happen and he did try to warn her.
“It’s an ancient thing, so old we’ve nearly forgotten it. It isn’t done now, at least I haven’t heard of any mate bondings like this. I’ve claimed you, Astrid, or rather the dragon part of me did. You are mine now and will be forever.”
“Claimed? Like in marriage?”
“Oh, no. It’s much more serious than marriage. It’s the mate bond.” He picked up her hand and held it to his heart. “Feel my heart. It beats in time with yours and will until my dying breath. I am yours as much as you are mine.”
“Mate bond,” she said. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“That is because,” boomed another voice, “it’s not allowed.”
Tem stiffened and pulled away from Astrid. In Astrid’s doorway stood the Queen of dragons, her eyes glittering with a fierceness that spoke of deadly retribution.
At Rhea’s entrance, Tem stood. Astrid hurried to cover herself with the top sheet of the bed while her cheeks burned as Rhea gazed at her scornfully. As embarrassed as she was, Astrid was mortified that Tem was standing there naked, but his eyes contained restrained anger. He stared at the dragon Queen in defiance and Rhea glared back with her hands fisted at her side.
Astrid’s heart beat faster in fear. She knew little about Rhea but she had seen Tem’s destructive abilities in action. As a student, Astrid had suspected that there as a stricter hierarchy in dragon society than was generally known. Having met Rhea was instructive, but Astrid had little to go on to parse the politics of dragons.
Tem held out his hand to her.
She will not hurt us.
How can you be sure?
She stood next to him and Tem put a protective arm around Astrid’s shoulder.
“So, Templeton Rawlins, you defy me yet again,” said the Queen.
“Rhea,” said Tem coldly.
“At least you know my name,” she said sarcastically. “Do you recognize me as your Queen?”
“We’ve always had a difference of opinion.”
“Is that what you call your insubordination?”
“Trust me, Rhea. I’ve never been subordinate to anyone.”
“That much is obvious. But this, you and her, I cannot allow. This union is a threat to all dragon kind.”
“A threat? It doesn’t matter. It is done.”
“And I can undo it.”
“As your Queen, yes. It is under my authority and within my powers. I haven’t had to in thousands of years, but I will if the need arises. Mate bonds, especially with humans, are dangerous to dragons and you know why.”
Astrid was lost. Pieces of important dragon knowledge were painfully missing from the human database. Why would mating with humans be harmful to dragons?
“Dangerous? Who is the threat, Rhea? You’ve been many things over the years, but the one thing I did not expect you to be was a liar.”
“Liar!” Rhea stormed.
“It seems you have revised our history.”
“I have heard a story from Astrid. So tell me, Rhea, why have we not heard about these seneschals?”
“There wasn’t just one dragon that fell to the charms of, of this subspecies.” She spat out that last word as if it were a poison. “They were polluting our gene pool.”
“The only polluting element here is your racism. And you put us in peril because of it.”
“Me? I was trying—I did— save dragon kind!”
“What happened to the seneschals, Rhea?” said Tem coldly.
Rhea studied her nails casually. “What needed to be done…”
“What happened to the seneschals, Rhea?!” Tem shouted.
“We killed them,” said a deeper voice. Tem and Astrid turned their heads to see Calvin standing in the doorway of Astrid’s room.
“Believe me, had I realized that you were coming here, I would have stopped you if I could.”
“What are you doing, Captain?” said Rhea in a warning voice.
“Telling the story we should have told the younger ones all along. Rhea is right. The seneschals and the dragon Lords grew too close. That was our fault.”
“No, Rhea. You see what happens when you hide things. The ability to become a seneschal is too deeply buried in their DNA for us to have killed off all of it.”
“You, Calvin?” said Tem. “You participated in the slaughter?”
“I did what my Queen commanded me to do. But Tem is right, Rhea. We became murderers of humans and we lost our conduits to the human world. We did do more harm than good.”
“I knew you were cold-blooded Rhea,” spat Tem, “but murdering innocent humans?”
“They were not innocent!” Rhea raged. “They broke our laws and consorted with their dragons.”
“Not all of them,” said Calvin gently.
“Enough of them! Enough to pollute our gene pool! How long will dragons continue to be dragons id we mate freely with that?”
Rhea pointed to Astrid, who drew closer to Tem. Astrid grew afraid despite Tem’s closeness because she did not know what the dragon Queen would do.
“Be careful,” growled Tem. “You know nothing about Astrid.”
“She’s human! That’s all I need to know! Guards!” she screamed, “arrest him.”
Tem pushed Astrid to the bed. “Stay down!” he hissed as a stream of dragons rushed in and surrounded Tem. Astrid looked around for a weapon to use, but there was nothing. It hit Astrid that Rhea had given her a room so bare that it contained nothing, not a lamp, or statue, or even a bowl of fruit, which could be used as a weapon. She might be able to use the bed sheet, but she was using that to cover her body. But it looked like things were happening quickly and she needed to be prepared. She fumbled for her dress, which had fallen under the bed, and dressed quickly while she watched the tight tableau unfolding before her.
The guards stood before Tem as if they didn’t know what to do despite their Queen’s demands. Astrid gathered that they had a healthy respect for Tem’s battle abilities.
“Arrest him,” demanded Rhea. Her face was tight with anger and she was visibly shaken.
“Come on, men. Arrest your general,” taunted Tem.
General? Astrid sucked in a deep breath. Tem was the dragon’s military leader? What else did Astrid not know about Tem?
“Tem!” protested Calvin. “You can’t expect them to choose between you and their Queen.”
“Why not? Do we not expect our leader to act in the best interests of us all? She failed that.”
“Tem,” warned Calvin. “Even I can’t make that choice.”
“I think,” growled Tem, “you’ve made your choice. Astrid.” He held out his hand to hers. “We’re leaving.”
Tem pushed past the soldiers with Astrid in tow.
“No!” screamed Rhea. “You will not leave.”
The dragon Queen grabbed Astrid’s arm and pulled. Tem whirled and pushed Rhea angrily away. Rhea stumbled, fell to the floor and the guards, seeing the assault on their Queen, rushed Tem.
Things happened very quickly and Astrid stood in the center of the storm. Calvin helped Rhea to her feet. Tem fought the guards that had fallen on him. His arms and legs were a rapid blur as he tried to hold his ground against desperate odds. But there was only one of him and twenty dragon soldiers and when he felled one man, two more were on him.
“Astrid, run!” he called. But in the split second in which she tried to decide whether to obey or stay, strong arms gripped hers. Heart hammering in her chest, she tried to pull away.
“Stand still, human,” hissed Rhea Gentrix, “and I will not harm you. But move and I will be happy to.”
Astrid swallowed hard as Rhea’s nails pressed painfully into her skin. Her heart sank as she saw several guards grab hold of Tem as he struggled and some others deliver painful blows to his midsection.
“Let go of me!” he roared in a voice that shook the walls.
“Captain,” said Rhea.
Calvin stepped forward. In his hands were two wide bracers and from their dull gray color, Astrid deduced they were iron.
“No!” cried Astrid.
“Quiet!” snapped Rhea. She grasped the back of Astrid’s uniform in her steely fingers and dragged Astrid toward the door.
Astrid flailed her arms trying to gain purchase against the dragon Queen, but Rhea was far stronger than she looked.
“Tem!” she cried when she saw Calvin snapping one iron bracer around Tem’s forearm and then the other. Astrid caught Tem’s eyes, which were filled with a look of betrayal and defeat.
“No! No! No!” screamed Astrid as Rhea dragged her out of the room and roughly down the hall until they came to a section of portico that looked out over the wide courtyard.
“Shut up!” shouted Rhea. She turned Astrid to face her and roughly backhanded her. Pain shot though Astrid’s jaw. She saw stars and then the world went black.
Tem woke with his ears ringing and every muscle in his body screaming. He sat dully in the dark space he occupied and worked to piece together what had happened.
Rhea. Oh yeah. He remembered the look on the ancient dragonesses’ face as she watched him beaten by his own soldiers. It was a moment of victory for her, but one Tem intended wouldn’t last long.
Astrid. Oh, god, Astrid. The fear and pain in her face as that witch of a vixen laid hands on her and dragged her away would haunt Tem to the end of his days.
Tem tried to stand, but found to his consternation that the thick bands on his forearms were locked to the chair in which he sat. The iron bands, bracers as they were more properly called, restricted his ability to shift.
“Damn you, Rhea Gentrix.”
He was worried about Astrid and what the dragon Queen would do to her.
He called to her in his mind, but she did not answer. Immediately he was concerned. Had Gentrix done what she promised? Had she dissolved the bond between him and Astrid?
Tem didn’t know that such things were possible, but then apparently Rhea had hidden much information from them.
Rhea considered mating bonds a danger to dragons? Why? Did it have anything to do with her breeding program? That made some sense, but there had to be more to it than that. Rhea had always hidden the bulk of the knowledge about mating bonds from the dragons. Why? There was a deeper secret here. Tem was sure of it.
But all he had were questions and an ache in his heart because he was separated from Astrid. That was far worse than the pain in his body, because those would heal. He suspected the longer he and Astrid were apart, the more the ache could grow.
You are right about that.
Rhea! Damn it! She was in his head.
And outside the door.
The locks clinked and the door creaked open. Rhea entered holding a lantern that she hung on a hook by the door. It cast a faint light, just enough for Tem to see he was in a small bare cell. Even if he didn’t have the bracers on, he’d never have been able to shift in this size room.
His chair, he saw, was pushed against the furthest wall, which explained the chill at his back. To his right there was a sleeping platform of the same gray rock that made the walls of his cell.
Rhea stood at the doorway and regarded Tem with cold, glittering eyes.
“I should have you killed,” she said.
“Why not? That seems to be the theme of the day. Everyone wants me dead.”
“That is not true. Tem. I don’t want you dead. I just want you obedient.”
Tem twisted his palms upward. “How’s that working for you?”
“You are a stubborn dragon,” she said taking a step closer.
“What do you want, Rhea?”
“What I said.”
“Not happening. Where’s Astrid? Because if you’ve harmed her, when I get free, I will kill you.”
Rhea asked. “Obviously, she is alive and well. You’d be dead otherwise. A mate bond is nothing to fool with, Tem. A human. How could you? How long could she live? Another sixty years perhaps. And then where would that leave you. Why would you give up your immortality for a human?”
“Life means nothing with her.” In his heart he knew it was true, realized it the moment he put his claiming mark on her.
“Ah,” she said pacing the small cell. “That is where you are wrong. The war with the humans is coming Tem. It was foretold years ago. But to win it I needed my general, and when you were born, I knew it was you. You were always the strongest male, the one the other dragons followed easily.”
“Obviously, not so much now.”
“That is because you laid hands on me and no dragon can stand to see that. But I can forgive that. I need my general, Tem. I need the man that the dragons will follow into battle. I won’t give you up to a silly headed piece of fluff.”
“So you’ll do what you claimed? Destroy our mating bond?” Tem spoke his words scornfully. He had hoped that was an empty claim, but he never did know Rhea to make pronouncements she could not fill.
“I will,” she said with an infuriating lightness in her voice. “I’ve done it before. And the moon is right for it tonight, so we’ll do it then. In the courtyard.”
“What do you mean?”
“All the dragons here will be there. I will perform the ceremony. When it is done, you won’t even remember her.”
Tem rattled his braces linked to his chair.
“You will regret this, Rhea. I don’t care who the fuck you are.”
Rhea scoffed. “You will.” She turned her back on him, lifted the lantern from its hook and left the room. The door clanged shut and Tem was left alone in the dark.
What made him think it was a good idea to come here? Clearly, he had misjudged the whole situation. And what were these prophecies she talked about?
Tem roared with frustration. He needed to get out of here and find Astrid. Rhea wouldn’t stop at erasing their bond, if indeed she could do that. No. Once she was sure that their bond was broken, she’d kill Astrid, just as she had killed the other seneschals.
The sun came up and sent slices of light across the floor from the wind behind him. But the light did not cheer him. Shackled yet again, after being released from a two and half decades long imprisonment, and unable to protect Astrid, his heart was dark with his own failings. He would never forgive himself if something happened to her.
He roared again, but his frustrated vocalizations only rang emptily around the stonewalls of his prison. Tem vowed to find a way to punish Rhea Gentry, mother or no.
The shadows lengthening on the stone floor was all that marked the passage of time. No one came to the cell, offered food, or even clothes. He was still naked and he supposed that Rhea wanted to humiliate him for disobeying her.
It only made him angrier.
Finally, the cell fell into total darkness and grew cold while anger blazed in his heart. He resolved that whoever came through that door would have a very bad time of it when they released the shackles from the chair.
The door opened with a creak and Tem was ready to fight. But he was surprised to see Reanne peak in then enter the cell.
“Are you taking me to the ceremony?”
Reanne hiked the lantern onto the hook by the door, just as her mother had hours before.
“No. I’m supposed to talk some sense into you.”
“She’s so sure she can break my bond with Astrid,” he said bitterly.
“No, she’s not. The spell she wants to use is an ancient one for when a dragon is grieving to death over the loss of a mate. It works best if she has consent. She doesn’t have it, does she?”
“I’m afraid, Tem. She wants a war with the humans. She doesn’t know how they’ve changed, the weapons they have. My mother will doom us all to death. And I don’t want to die.”
Reanne pulled a key from a pocket from within her robe. With shaky hands she unlocked Tem’s iron braces. He pulled his arms free and shook them.
“You’ve taken a big risk here,” he said.
“No. I haven’t. You go, and get Astrid and get as far away from us as you can. Rhea will think twice about going to war with the humans if you aren’t there to lead the troops. Here.”
She slung a pack off her back and handed it to Tem.
“Clothes, for when you need them. Now make it look good.”
Reanne stood straight with her shoulders back.
“Make what look good?” asked Tem. He suspected what she wanted but he was loathed to do it.
“Make it look like you’ve overpowered me. Strike me on the chin so I pass out.”
“Reanne, I can’t do that.”
“If you want to protect me, you will. If I have bruises she’ll believe my story, at least until you are far enough away to be safe.”
“England. Rhea ordered Calvin to take her there and when he got the word, kill her.”
“Damn her,” muttered Tem.
“Yeah. Mother is a real piece of work. So it’s time for you to go, Tem. Get to it. Strike me. It is the only way to protect me.”
Astrid woke shivering with wind pushing at her furiously. It was as if she were standing in a wind tunnel. Only she knew she wasn’t standing. Instead, when her eyes adjusted to the brightness, she found to her horror that great, gray dragon claws were holding her.
Hold on, Astrid. She recognized the voice in her as Calvin’s.
Where are we going?
But he didn’t answer her question. Instead he asked another.
Do you remember Tem’s instructions when you rode him to the palace?
Then get ready and when I say ‘now’ hold your breath and don’t move.
Calvin rose and then flew in a great circle.
He dove and Astrid gripped his claws with all her might as the air around them grew deathly cold and quiet. But she held her breath so long that her lungs wanted to burst. Astrid didn’t remember it taking this long the first time Tem took her here, wherever “here” was.
Then air rushed around her again, buffeting her body painfully and filling her ears. Calvin rode the air currents in great circles.
Where are we?
But as before, Calvin said nothing. He rose suddenly, the swoop in great spirals toward the Earth. Astrid felt lightheaded, as if she wasn’t getting enough air as the ground rushed toward them.
Calvin transferred her to one claw, back stroked his wings, and landed on his back legs, then fell forward with a thud on his free forepaw. He let go of her close to the ground and she rolled onto soft grass.
She got to her feet and brushed her hands off as she surveyed the broad field they stood in.
“Where are we?”
“England? You brought me back to England? I’m a fugitive here.”
“That is what Rhea instructed me to do. And it was smart of her. You are less likely to try to escape if you know the law will take you in.” Calvin pulled a sack off his back and fished through it. He drew out her shoes and a black cape.
“Here,” he said. “To ward off the chill and to cover that matron’s uniform. That’s a dead giveaway.”
Astrid, thoroughly annoyed, jerked the items out of Calvin’s hand. “So, I save you from prison, and you are all willing to do Rhea Gentrix’s bidding,” she said sharply.
“She is my Queen, Astrid, and has been for thousands of years. She’s been a good Queen for us, mostly, and has her reasons for fearing and hating humans. If it wasn’t for Rhea, dragons would have died out on the Earth many generations ago.”
“You’re just making excuses for her,” snapped Astrid.
Calvin didn’t answer. Instead he turned where he stood, and then stopped and nodded his head then walked in the direction he faced.
“Wait!” she called.
“Come,” he said. “I have place for us.”
Astrid looked at her surroundings. She had no idea where she was, or where she could find help. But Calvin was correct. She was more likely to get turned into the authorities than not. And the dragon could fly faster than she could run. Astrid put aside her misgivings and followed the elder dragon through the soggy field. But she didn’t like it, not one bit, especially when she remembered how Calvin had put the bracers on Tem while the soldiers held him down.
It upset her to think about that and the pain in Tem’s face as Rhea dragged her away.
She marched up to Calvin.
“Is Tem okay?” she demanded.
The one word answer maddened Astrid.
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“Nothing. Rhea doesn’t want him harmed.”
“And what’s going to happen to me? What are we doing here, Calvin?”
They came on a little rundown looking garden shed.
“Here,” said Calvin simply.
“Here? This place?” said Astrid incredulously.
“Yes,” said Calvin firmly. He opened the door and it shrieked on rusty hinges.
She entered the shed, which barely had room for both of them. But Calvin pulled up a section of flooring, revealing a tunnel.
“Down you go,” he said.
“If you think I’m going down into that hole, you are insane.”
Calvin sighed. “Look, Astrid. I know you don’t like this and you have every reason to hate me right now. But I’m not going to hurt you and I’d like a space where we can sit and explain some things to you. So please, climb down that ladder.”
Astrid huffed, but descended the ladder, and Calvin followed her.
“It’s dark,” she complained.
“Just keep going.”
When she came to the bottom lights flashed on around her revealing concrete walls.
“A bunker?” she said.
“A little more than a bunker,” said Calvin. He walked ahead of her to a door set in the far wall and keyed numbers into a touch pad. The door opened with hiss.
“Come,” he said as he entered and Astrid followed.
Lights flicked on and Astrid gazed on the scene amazed. Spread on the floor going to the back of the room was a huge mound of glittery gold. It was a mass of jewelry, plates, coins, cups and statues.
“Tem’s hoard. Or rather one of them.”
“A smart dragon doesn’t leave his gold in one place.”
“But this, this—I mean how did he get all of it?”
“The usual,” said Calvin unhelpfully.
He shrugged. “Inheritance. War. Finding old hoards. Tem is especially good at the last.”
“I see,” said Astrid sinking to the floor. “Why did you bring me here?”
“It’s our meeting place should things go bad. Should Tem escape he’ll come here.”
“So you aren’t on Rhea’s side.”
Calvin’s eyes blazed. “I’m on the side of my people, Astrid! And we are at a critical point. Should we mess this up, we might cease to exist.”
“Mess up what?”
Calvin sighed and sunk to his heels.
“There is a reason that Rhea is against dragon-human pairings and it’s not racial purity. Well, not entirely. She does believe that humans pollute the gene pool of dragons. But mainly, it is because a prophecy was made on the day she took the throne: that she wouldn’t keep it. A male dragon would take the throne from her and install his mate, a human, on it. This is why she was so infuriated when one of the dragon Lords, one of her own council, took a human mate, a seneschal. Rhea demanded he set aside the mate, but he refused, and the Council of Lords were divided on the matter.”
“Wait, I’ve never heard about this Council of Lords,” said Astrid.
“I know. It was broken. There was war between us then and many good dragons, many dragon Lords died.”
“And then the seneschals.”
“Yes,” sighed Calvin. “Rhea was just as glad to rule without the oversight of the Council. One of the things she decided was that we couldn’t associate that closely with humans again. And for many centuries she felt safe, until Tem brought you to the palace and her old fears were inflamed again.”
“And then she came to my room and found—”
“Yes. A dragon had taken a human mate. But not just any dragon, but the one she counts on to lead the dragons into battle against the humans.”
“Oh, dear Lord.”
“She means to kill you, Astrid.”
“How do you know?”
“She ordered me to do it.”
“What?” Astrid skittered back, and looked around wildly for something to use as a weapon.
“Astrid, relax. I’m not going to kill you. I’ve killed too many humans and that never should have happened.”
There was such regret in his voice, that Astrid understood something new about Calvin.
“In Hawthorne, you stopped eating not to protest your captivity.”
“No. Out of the all the dragons, I deserved it. They just didn’t schedule my death fast enough.”
“Oh, Calvin. No. You can’t think like that.”
“I can’t now. Tem needs all the help he can get to avert disaster for our kind. We can’t win in a war against your kind. There are too many of you. Your weaponry has grown with your technology. We must find a way to coexist.
“Astrid, I don’t know why things happened like they have. I don’t understand why Tem felt compelled to take you as a mate. But all that has happened was foretold many centuries ago. And dragon prophecies usually—” He stopped speaking and cocked his head toward the door. “I hear something. Get behind me, quick.”
Astrid didn’t hear any noise, but she trusted the super sharp hearing of dragons. She scuttled to position behind Calvin, who stood and drew a long knife from inside his robe.
Finally, Astrid heard scrapping noises at the door.
“Intruders?” she asked.
“I smell, along with the blood of Englishmen, the telltale scent of their weapons.”
“Is that door locked?” asked Astrid.
“And I don’t suppose there is a back door to this place,” she said.
“A dragon doesn’t need back doors,” said Calvin scornfully.
“Right, because they never come in handy,” said Astrid.
“Get down!” said Calvin.
Astrid barely had time to hit the floor before a horrendous blast shook the walls and tore the door off its hinges.
One word tore from her throat.
The natural healing powers of dragons couldn’t work fast enough to heal Tem from the beating he had taken at the hands of the palace guards. When he took to the air every muscle complained. But there was one thing that drove him: to get to Astrid as quickly as possible.
He hoped that Calvin would take them to his dragon hoard on his property in England. They had set it up as an emergency meeting place, long ago. But he wasn’t quite sure of Calvin’s loyalties at this moment. Calvin’s admission that he participated in the slaughter of the seneschals was a shocking confession. And Calvin had backed up Rhea’s arrest of Tem. He would just have to trust that Calvin would wait for Rhea’s word before he harmed Astrid.
Tem dropped [_between _]rushing as fast as he could through it, as he centered his thoughts on his family’s homestead and the upgraded WWII bunker that housed his dragon hoard. He took particular delight in that hoard, it being the first one he had assembled as a young dragon.
But now he hoped his most precious treasure was waiting for him there.
A sense of urgency overwhelmed him and he tore into the sky above his land, only to hear Astrid call to him, just as he caught sight of vehicles and men with weapons circling around the bunker.
Astrid was afraid. And he had to get to her. At least he now knew where she was.
Tem swooped over the government men who had far too many weapons to be ordinary police. He roared loudly, his voice filled with thunder. The soldiers looked up and some started to fire. But Tem had his shield up and they fell away to the ground, peppering each other with their own fire.
He dove and picked up a man in his teeth and shook him like a rag doll while the soldier screamed in fright. Tem banked and dropped close to the ground and dropped the man to the grassy field, thinking he got better than he deserved. He roared again, warning all those who invaded his land to get off.
They did not get the message. Instead a huge rumble from deep in the ground filled the air and Tem felt Astrid’s fear spike. This infuriated him. How dare they endanger her? Tem now felt no compunction to leave these men alive and he landed, ready to take them all on. He tore into the men, flinging them into the air with a snap of his head, not caring where they would land. Someone cried for the men to fall back, and they scurried away from the shed like the rats they were.
Tem was about to shift when Astrid, then Calvin, tore from the doorway. He hurried to them, grateful that Astrid was alive and apparently unhurt.
“Tem!” Astrid cried.
“Let’s get out of here,” yelled Calvin, “before they regroup.”
Tem couldn’t agree more and extended his forepaw to Astrid.
Calvin moved far enough away to shift and now two dragons stood tall over the soldiers. Astrid settled on Tem’s shoulders and clutched his hide firmly. Calvin took the air and Tem followed.
But they didn’t get far before a small missile tore through the air, and another.
Pain tore through Tem as a missile struck his right wing, knocking him off balance. He fell like a stone with Astrid clutching to him fiercely. The ground rushed up and he slammed into it.
Astrid flew off him with a cry and he shifted as he rolled. She stood and ran to him flinging her arms around his neck.
“Tem! Are you hurt?”
“Nothing?!” she said, looking at his bleeding arm.
Calvin circled around them and Astrid stared at him.
“Calvin tells us to go. He’ll hold them off.”
There wasn’t much Tem could do. With his wing injured, he couldn’t fly.
“Tell Calvin to be careful,” said Tem.
“I already did.”
Tem spotted a group of soldiers running toward them and he grabbed Astrid’s arm and pulled her along as he ran. He knew where he was. This was the place where he spent his summers and holidays when he wasn’t at school or Rhea’s palace.
Where are we going?
_Follow me. _
Tem ran for a stand of trees so they could have cover as they made their way to his house. They were in a desperate situation and Tem did not know what they would find when they got there. Any experienced military commander would figure that they would head there. But it was Tem and Astrid’s best option. He had money in the safe and they would need that. If they were lucky, the caretakers hired to care for the estate would have a car they could take. At least he hoped there were caretakers. He had left access to enough money with his solicitors to take care of business for him while he rotted in the government prison.
Astrid stumbled behind him, which brought him back to the present. He stopped and steadied her as she struggled to catch her breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She shook her head. “No, we have to keep going.”
Branches snapped behind them and they started running again. Tem saw the end of the windbreak ahead and, at the top of the hill, their objective: a two-story manor house. Its granite walls rose against a sky full of dark clouds and incipient rain.
Tem looked back at Astrid who nodded her head. They ran out of the woody windbreak and across the stretch of grass that became the slope that led to the crest of the hill. But inside of running straight off the hill, Tem pulled Astrid to the right and toward a stream that meandered close to the base of the hill. They rounded the broad curve and encountered a small waterfall and a pool at its base.
“This way,” Tem said and he bent and splashed through the shallow pull, drawing Astrid along with him. She gasped as he flung them through the waterfall and they stumbled into a cavern. Tem turned and grabbed Astrid and pulled her against him for a deep kiss.
For those brief seconds the world fell away. Their two hearts beat together as one. Nothing was as delightful as having her in his arms.
“What’s that for?” she asked when he finally pulled away.
“For being wonderful,” he said. “For being brave. For having faith in me.”
“I’ll always have faith in you, Tem.”
“But the hardest part is upon us,” he said. “We have to escape and I cannot fly, not yet. And we have to get away from here. Soon the soldiers will swarm all over the manse and there will be no escape. They’ll put me back into Hawthorn and you another jail altogether.”
“We’ll get out,” she said confidently. “When we are together, we can do anything.”
“I hope you are right, Astrid. Because we are going to need that and a fair amount of luck to get clear of this situation.”
“Let me look at your arm,” she said. “You’re a mess,” Astrid tugged on the hem of her uniform and ripped a strip of cloth from it, then stepped to the waterfall and wet it.
“We are on the run for our lives and you want to clean my arm?”
She picked up his arm and dabbed away at the blood on it.
“We can’t let it get infected,” she said as she lifted his right arm. Astrid drew in a deep breath. “It’s stopped bleeding. I didn’t know dragon healing worked that fast.”
“Depends on the dragon. For me the skin will seal together fast, but the deep tissue damage takes longer. This arm, this wing, won’t be functional for several hours.”
Astrid bent her head and kissed the area that was wounded.
“What was that for?” said Tem with a smile.
“Maybe a kiss will help it get better?”
“We don’t have time for kisses, or anything else.”
“Right,” she said, chastened. “So what’s our plan?”
“I should have money in my safe upstairs. It will be enough for us to buy a good escape across the channel and then I have some friends in Belgium that will help us get farther away.”
“Then let’s get on it, then,” she said.
“Oh, no. You wait here.”
“No,” she said firmly. “You aren’t leaving me alone again. I’m going with you.”
They didn’t have time to argue and Tem didn’t like idea of being separated any more than she did.
“You follow me and do what I say. I haven’t been in this house for a quarter century and I don’t know what is waiting there.”
She nodded. “How do we get there?”
“This way,” he said as he took her hand.
“A secret passage?”
“Yes, it was built during the French Revolution to help smuggle in French nobility.”
“Oh, you have history, Tem Rawlins,” she said with delight.
“This house does. Now, quiet, so I can listen.”
They stole deeper in the cavern that turned into a tunnel. Tem’s dragon eyes let him see just fine, but Astrid stumbled several times. Tem worried she would injure herself and scolded himself for not insisting she stay behind. A small spot glowed ahead, which Tem knew to be the start of the more finished part of the tunnel. A single electric light glowed there ahead of the wood door that led to the basement. Tem opened the door and searched with his hand for the switch that turned on more lights.
A few bulbs handing from the rafters switched on, revealing a room filled with leftovers of successive generations: dusty old tools, furniture and canned goods from Lord knows how many years past.
“This way, Astrid.”
Tem walked to a panel in the way and pushed it. It swung away to reveal a narrow stairway.
“You sure you want to come?” he said.
“Absolutely. You aren’t getting out of my sight again.”
Tem led the way, walking as quietly as he could. Astrid took off her heels and followed him. It was steep climb, as old secret staircases hidden in the walls of manor house tend to be. Tem reached the top, pressed his ear to the panel and heard nothing.
He hoped it was safe to open the door.
This panel slid to the side and it took a little effort, as apparently, it hadn’t moved in many years. But he managed to jerk it open with one last great pull and he looked in upon his study.
It was lit and a small fire burned in the fireplace, like he was expected. And apparently he was. Sitting behind his broad wood desk was the man that had engineered his imprisonment.
Astrid saw Tem’s shoulders stiffen.
Run. Go back.
But when Astrid turned she found the bead of a laser site of a rifle pointed at her chest. She gasped and Tem turned to look past her to see the same thing. With lightning quickness, he threw his good arm around her waist and fell forward through the doorway Tem stood at the moment before. While Astrid rolled away, Tem slammed the panel shut and pulled a legal bookcase across it.
An amused rumble caught Astrid’s attention and as she got to her feet she got the surprise of her life. The Prime Minister sat at a large wood desk, smoking a cigar, looking very entertained. Tem swiftly got to his feet and put a protective arm around Astrid, glaring at the man.
“Tem, well, well,” the Prime Minister said with a predatory glint in his eye. “You’ve given us a good chase, but it is time we got you back to your cage.”
“Tem is innocent,” blurted Astrid.
“Well, of course he’s innocent, but that isn’t the point is it? Let’s see, you’re Astrid Davis, the matron that what? Helped him escape?”
“Don’t say a word Astrid.”
“Oh, please do speak. You have such a pretty voice, as well as, ahem, other attributes.”
Tem’s face turned red. “You keep your scaly claws off of her, you traitor.”
“What is this?” Prime Minister Abalon said as he rose from the desk. He stubbed his cigar in an ash tray. He sniffed like a dog would to catch a sent. “Have you mated with the human? Now, Tem, you know my mother won’t put up with that.”
“Try to keep up, sweetheart,” leered Abalon.
“Rhea,” said Tem through gritted teeth, “is his mother.”
“And your cousin?” said Astrid.
“Oh, she is precious, Tem,” laughed Abalon. “Yes, we are cousins. But that hardly mattered to my mother. She made him her general anyway, a position that should have gone to me.”
“Well, you know your mother. She can’t stand the idea of someone trying to take her throne from her.”
“And what do you know of it?” said Abalon. “You weren’t even hatched yet.”
“Wait,” said Astrid. “Was he the dragon Lord that took a human mate and the dragons went to war over it?”
“Very good!” said Abalon. “You do go from zero to sixty in three seconds. My, aren’t you sporty?”
“Automobile references aside,” said Tem with annoyance, “what the hell are you doing here?”
“Here? In my own house? Oh, that’s right. You didn’t know that the government confiscated your property. But thanks for revealing that dragon hoard. I didn’t know it was there. I’ll make sure it receives a good home, along with that tasty bit of yours.” He smiled salaciously at Astrid.
“You will leave Astrid alone!” roared Tem. “She is my mate.”
“Ah, a mate bond? Too bad I don’t remember mine. Mother was quite good at erasing it.”
“So you betrayed her too,” snarled Tem, “by giving your mother permission to do that.”
“As you said,” said Abalon coldly. “Mother wasn’t going to allow me to take her throne. The prophecy warned her. Either I allowed her to erase the mate bond or go to my death. I chose to live.”
“Yes, after many good dragons died for your cause. You don’t deserve to lead the dragons.”
“I will,” said Abalon smugly. “Because I will cause the humans to rise up against our kind. It’s already begun. And thank you very much for raising panic in the country. The military is clamoring for the chance to root out and destroy the dragons here. By the time we are done, I will give mother a choice. Abdicate or face the extinction of our race.”
“You’re despicable,” snapped Astrid. “You’d use humans for your ambitions?”
“What else are humans for, dear? Now, come along. I have a nice cell for you.” Abalon stepped forward and grabbed Astrid’s arm.
“I told you,” growled Tem. “Keep your hands off her.” He rushed at Abalon, who backhanded Tem with such force that Tem flew across the room into a glass fronted bookcase. The glass shattered around Tem and he slumped to the floor groaning.
“Tem!” screamed Astrid.
“You really must try to forget him, dear,” said Abalon, tightening his grip on her arm to painful levels. “He will face the executioner in a few days’ time.”
Astrid twisted furiously in the Prime Minister’s arms, but he was too strong. He pulled her toward the door and flung it open. Relentlessly, he marched down the hall and into a great atrium. He pulled at the door.
“Stand down, stand down,” he called. “I have one of the prisoners.” He yanked Astrid through the door with him and Astrid saw a line of heavily armed soldiers pointing their guns at the house.
“Stand down,” he yelled again and the men lowered their weapons. An officer came forward to take Astrid, but before that could happen a great roar shook them all. Astrid twisted to see Tem holding on the doorway glowering at Abalon. With his blood streaked clothes, his hair in disarray, and the fierce look on his face, he was absolutely frightening. Then he launched forward and in mid-air shifted into his magnificent dragon form.
Tem landed on Abalon and raked his face with his talons, causing Abalon to cry out. But then Abalon also shifted too and became a silver dragon whose scales shone in the dull sun. The two great dragons writhed on the ground, doing battle, roaring and hissing. Each of their jaws snapped noisily as they tried to sink their cutting fangs into the other’s neck.
The soldiers stared in disbelief as the two dragons rolled on the grassy lawn in a mass of snarling reptile flesh. It was the most frightening thing Astrid had ever seen.
Abalon roared and broke away as blood streamed from his neck. He rolled, coming close to Astrid, then shifted. In one swift move, he jerked Astrid forward and held her against him.
“Surrender, Tem, or I’ll kill your mate!”
The soldiers raise their rifles and waited for an order to fire.
“Don’t!” screamed Astrid. “Save yourself!”
Tem roared with rage and flapped his wings, but the right one, though it moved, still wasn’t right.
“Wounded,” said Abalon in Astrid’s ear. Good.”
“Fire!” he yelled.
Just as that instant, a gray-green dragon dropped from the sky and landed in front of the line of soldiers. He laid a line of hot fire in front of them and the grass burned hot and fast, forcing them back.
“Calvin!” cried Astrid.
Calvin turned and regarded Astrid and Abalon. He shook his head and Astrid saw the anger in his eyes. His clawed feet shook the ground as he moved forward one step after another. Abalon clutched Astrid tighter, using her as a shield against the clearly enraged dragon. Calvin shot a line of fire above Abalon’s head and the smell of burnt hair filled Astrid’s nostrils. He shrieked and his grip loosened. Astrid turned and jammed her knee upward and the dragon howled and fell backwards.
Tem shifted to human again and advanced on Abalon with murder in his eye.
“Give it up, Abalon” said Tem. “All these men have seen you turn into a dragon. You’re finished as Prime Minister now.”
“Don’t think so,” said Abalon. Astrid, Tem and Calvin watched as Abalon strode through the fire raging on the ground and in the line of soldiers behind it. He ripped a grenade launcher from the surprised soldier holding it. Then he yanked at the man’s ammunition belt and tore away a couple of the grenades while the man protested. Abalon laughed and tossed the grenades in the air and shifted. He caught them in his dragon mouth as easily as if he was snapping up marshmallows in the air.
“What is he doing?” said Astrid.
Avalon laughed as his stomach rumbled. The soldiers stared in disbelief.
“Retreat, retreat,” an officer called and all the men scrambled to find safer ground. But Abalon opened his mouth and breathed molten orange death on the soldiers. Men screamed as they died and the ammunition in the soldiers’ ammo belts exploded in fitful pings. Abalon rose in the air with a great flap of his wings and poured more fire on the men and equipment ringing the house. Vehicles exploded into roaring flames igniting the shrubs and trees close to the house. More men cried out in their death throes and both Calvin and Tem roared their rage at this unspeakable act. But they were in the middle of an inferno. If they did not escape they would be casualties too.
Astrid ran toward Tem.
“We’ve got to go,” she said.
He nodded and gestured to Calvin. The elder dragon moved closer and extended his foreleg. Tem and Astrid climbed to his back and, with one final roar of disapproval, Calvin rose into the flame filled air and bore them away.
Tem and Astrid sat on the hotel bed watching the news. His hands were clenched as he saw how Abalon spun what happened at Tem’s estate, or rather, his former estate. That house and land wasn’t his anymore. He regretted that. He loved the place and had looked forward to settling there again.
“He made you responsible for everything,” said Astrid bitterly.
“Of course he would,” said Tem. “I made things easy for him. The humans in the UK are mobilizing for dragon hunts and the rest of the world is being whipped into a frenzy over our supposed crimes. It won’t take long for Rhea to strike back, especially if any dragon is harmed.”
Tem hated how it had all turned out. Innocent men were dead and Abalon still held a position of power he never should have had. And now he and Astrid were not just fugitives in their own country, but world-wide fugitives. Their pictures littered the newsfeeds and social media platforms.
Astrid stared out of the hotel window.
“I’ve always wanted to visit Paris with the man I loved,” she said wistfully.
Tem put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
“Paris is for lovers,” he said.
“Are we?” she said. “Lovers?”
It struck Tem that he had not said those words to Astrid. He could make excuses. Everything happened too fast, their meeting, their mating, the impossible situation they were embroiled in. But Astrid didn’t deserve excuses. She saved his life and not just when she unlocked his chains in Hawthorne prison.
“Are you sorry,” he asked, “for meeting me?”
“Oh no!” she said quickly. “Yes, things have turned out poorly, and they don’t look like they are going to get any better in the foreseeable future. But I’d rather be with you during the worst time of my life than anyone else in the best.”
“That,” he said, “sounds a bit dotty.”
She gave a rueful half laugh. “I suppose. But it’s as if I’ve been looking for you all my life. I know it sounds incredible, but I feel like you have been calling to me each day of my life.”
“Now that really does sound dotty!”
Astrid picked up a pillow and hit him on the head.
“Hey!” he said laughing. “Watch it. You are a danger with that thing.”
“The only thing dangerous here is you, Tem Rawlins. Big. Bad. Dragon.”
She leaned in and gave him a searing kiss. Her juicy lips pressed into his and he put his arms around her waist and flipped her to her back. He claimed her mouth, as the world fell away and it was only the two of them, here, now.
“You are so beautiful,” he said as he peppered her neck and breasts with kisses. “So very sexy.”
She squirmed beneath him and he smelled her arousal at his touch.
“Astrid,” he said seriously looking deeply into her eyes.
“I have to say this. I want there to be no doubt for whatever happens in the future.”
Concern filled her lovely eyes.
“I love you. Now, and forever.”
She smiled brightly. “Oh, is that all?” she said in a teasing voice.
“Yes,” he growled. “That is all. There isn’t anything else.”
“Well, good. Because I love you too.”
He descended on her again with many kisses up and down her body, growing hard with her writhing and moaning underneath him. How he wanted this woman.
But before they could really get started, there was a knock on the door.
“Don’t answer it,” said Astrid.
“We can’t let Calvin stand in the hall while we take our pleasure.”
She giggled. “Sometimes you say things in the most formal way.”
“Hah, you should have heard me in Elizabethan England. Now that was a time when people fell over themselves to speak the Queen’s English in the most interesting ways.”
“Just how old are you, Templeton Rawlins?”
The knock at the door became more urgent.
“A dragon never tells,” he said with a wink as he pushed up from the bed. Astrid stood too.
He checked the peephole and confirmed Calvin stood at the door. When he opened it, Calvin swept in carrying a number of bags. Astrid took a number of them from his hands and set them on the small table by the window.
“You owe me big time,” said Calvin. “That gold dealer was a thief! Took a twenty percent commission for converting the gold to cash.”
Tem rummaged through the bags.
“You’ve got enough gold, old man, to buy and sell anyone.”
“You still owe me,” grumbled Calvin.
Tem smiled at Astrid as he dug his hand in one bag with delicious smells. “Don’t ever try to separate a dragon from his gold. For all he complains, I will be paying him back big time from my own hoard.”
“And mind that you do.” said Calvin crankily.
“We are in Japan. It’s all over the place.”
“I don’t mind. I love sushi. I just hope you got a lot of it.”
“There’s not enough sushi in the world to fill your dragon belly, but I did purchase enough to feed twelve humans.”
“That should be enough for now.”
“Here,” said Calvin slinging a backpack to the chair. “There’s a hundred thousand American dollars there, spendable almost anywhere.”
“Not popular in certain countries, but I doubt you’ll be going to any of them.”
“How much is that in pounds?” asked Astrid.
“82,000 give or take.”
“That’s just to get us situated,” said Tem. “When things die down, I’ll contact some of my banks and get what we need.”
“Won’t the authorities be looking out for that?” asked Astrid.
“Where I bank, the authorities don’t care.”
“The perks,” said Calvin, “of doing business with people for centuries instead of years. Here,” he said, tossing a box to Tem and then to Astrid. “You can go red,” he said to Tem. Astrid I got you black. I hope that works.”
Tem turned over the box of hair color. “You think this is necessary?”
“Yes, you shouldn’t make new passports using your old pictures.”
“But Tem can fly us anywhere we need to go,” said Astrid.
“You’ll need some sort of identification wherever you are.”
“Okay,” said Tem. “We’ll take care of this.”
“Here is the address of the man who will make the passports and IDs for you. He’s expecting you anytime this afternoon.”
“Sure, thanks, Calvin.”
“Then I better get going. Rhea will start getting suspicious if I stay away too long.”
“You don’t have to do that,” said Tem. “You can stay with us. It’s a risk to go back to her palace.”
“Someone has to keep an eye on Rhea and right now she thinks I’m one hundred percent loyal.”
“I still don’t understand why Abalon didn’t tell the press about you,” said Astrid.
“He’ll make me into a monster when he wants to. Right now he wants to keep the conduit open to his mother. And that means me not falling into the hands of the authorities.”
Astrid threw her arms around Calvin’s neck and Tem had to restrain a growl. She just didn’t know what it did to him to see her touch another male.
Hush, you, Astrid sent. It’s just a friendly hug.
“Take care, Calvin, and keep in touch.”
“You keep your head down and take care of that woman” Calvin said to Tem over Astrid’s shoulder.
“You can be sure I will.”
Tem shook Calvin’s hand and the door clicked shut behind him.
“So,” said Astrid. “Here we are.”
“Yes, here we are.”
“On the run,” said Astrid.
“With sushi,” said Tem.
“Uh huh.” She took one from the package and held it out to Tem.
“I can get used to you feeding me,” said Tem with a sly smile.
“Hah,” she said and pulled it away playfully.
“Hey,” complained Tem.
‘Okay, okay,” she laughed and held it out to him. “After this though, there is going to be dessert.”
“You,” she said with a wicked smile.
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Templeton Rawlins is a dragon shifter and lives for one thing. Imprisoned when his dragon heritage was revealed, and on a false charge of murder, he spends his long days in solitary confinement having dragon dreams of revenge. One man betrayed Tem to the authorities and this is who Tem desires to destroy. He knows he has little chance of breaking from the iron shackles that bind him and his dragon magic to his human form. His frustrated dreams of his enemy’s destruction have eaten his soul, and make him a danger to any human who comes near him. While Tem’s shifter magic is bound, his dragon power of seduction is not, which is why the specially trained humans who bring him his food come in pairs. Then one night, a single human comes and speaks as if she has no fear of him. This human intrigues Tem, in ways he’d long forgotten. Dragon shifters have always fascinated Astrid Davis, since the first days of the Reveal, when the media reported the shocking discovery that dragons were real and not myths. The news that dragons could shift into human form and hide in society sowed fear and distrust among humans. Any dragons found were imprisoned. Any human suspected of harboring even a tenth of dragon blood was shunned from society. But Astrid couldn’t help but admire the shifters, who, she was convinced, did more good than harm in the world. She wanted to learn more about them, so she trained and took a job as a dragon guard. When she met Tem, she was immediately drawn to him, even though he showed utter scorn for her. But would Astrid’s determination to help Tem place her at the wrong end of the law? And would Tem’s desire for revenge override the attraction they felt toward one another?