The forests of Miriam Cait’s new world hold more secrets than she can count, and more dangers than she cares to know. Unfortunately, hey must travel through one such forest on their way to Xander’s kingdom. The troubles start with a drenching rain and end at the city of the Arbor Fae, a wood folk who have more than one skeleton in their closet.
A darkness has fallen on their woods, and Xander and the others volunteer their services. Unbeknown to them, the danger is far older and far deadlier than they could have imagined. Friends become foes and enemies multiply as Miriam and her dragon lover try to defeat the rising evil before they, too, are consumed by the darkness.
The life of a Maiden to a dragon didn’t seem so glamorous. Actually, at that moment it was downright miserable.
“A warm fire. An electric blanket. A roof over my head.”
That was my dream mantra as our group of two dozen riders rode through a torrential rain. All around us was a world of mud and thick forest. We were three days out from the High Castle, and ahead of us was another four days of outdoor fun. The dirt road we traveled on was now a mud pit fit for any hog. My cloak was soaked through and there were two puddles always with me, one in each of my riding boots.
I could barely see ten feet in front of my horse’s nose, and what I saw I didn’t like. More rain. “A warm fire. An electric-”
“Do you know how to create electricity?” Xander, my personal dragon lord, asked me. He rode close beside me, and in front of us were half our guards.
Behind us were the other half along with a few servants and our two friends, Stephanie and Cayden.
I raised my hooded head and arched an eyebrow at my dragon lord. “Do you even know what electricity is?”
He smiled and gave a nod. “Yes. Darda spoke often of your world when she first came into my mother’s service. Her tales of electricity, power without physical force, have stayed with me.”
“She’s from my world?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Yes. The Portal is always open, and because of that people have been known to fall through. The rules demanded she not return to warn others, and so she was pressed into the service of the priests of the Portal until she was given to my mother.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the short woman who followed behind us. Her stooped servile posture and primitive attire didn’t bespeak of a person from my world. Still, that did explain her talk to we girls in the stable and about what we were leaving behind.
“So how long ago did she stumble into this place?” I asked him.
“Nearly sixty years ago.”
I winced. That was a long time without electricity.
Xander stared ahead and pursed his lips. “I have long wished to see this magic of your world, and that is why I asked if you have knowledge enough to create this electricity.”
I shook my head. “Nope, not a thing. I doubt I could create an electric shock by dragging my feet, much less enough that could power a light bulb or something simple like that.”
Xander looked ahead of us and a small smile played across his lips. “Then I still must continue my dream.”
I felt a little guilty at having dashed his hopes. “Maybe you can go there some day,” I suggested.
He shook his head. “That is not possible. You yourself witnessed what would happen were I to even touch the Portal’s surface.”
“But I got through,” I reminded him.
Xander returned his gaze to me and studied me. “Yes, but you are the first. I should not consider myself an exception to a rule that has stood a thousand years.”
I wrinkled my nose. “So how come I’m an exception?”
He shook his head. “That is a mystery the priests could not solve and our books could not answer for us. However-” A teasing smile played across his lips, “-I would not have you make the attempt again.”
I raised my head and saluted him. The raindrops nearly drowned me. “I promise I’ll be a good little Maiden.”
He chuckled. “I expect you to be something other than that, but I would ask nothing else of you.”
I smiled, but the smile soon faded. Thinking about what I left behind reminded me of the rain. I huddled inside my wet cloak and shivered as the damp sank into my bones. The forest around us seemed so vast, and I felt like just a tiny, wet little speck in it.
Xander pulled his horse closer to mine and reached behind himself for his travel blanket. He let go of his reigns to drape the blanket across my shivering shoulders. The weight of the thick woolen blanket was preceded by the heat it trapped inside me.
I grabbed the front-top edges to keep the blanket on my slick shoulders and smiled at him. “Thanks.” I glanced around us at the tall forest with its thick-trunked trees and undergrowth. “It feels like we’ve been in this place forever. How much farther do we have to go before we get out of this place?”
“The Viridi Silva is one of the largest forests in our world. We won’t reach its southern boundary for another two days,” he told me.
Xander looked at the guards ahead of us. Their heads were topped with rounded metal helmets and their hands were hidden by thick leather gloves with holes at the ends. They wore silver armor covered in cloaks, but I could see the armor had slits in the back near their shoulder blades. The look was similar to what the priest of the Portal had, and I knew what that meant.
“Are there any humans in this world besides the ones from mine?” I asked him.
Xander nodded. “Yes, but their settlements are few and far between. Many mated with dragons long ago and the dragon blood overrode their human line. Others have simply faded into history.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Darda and Stephanie. “So we’re kind of an endangered species here.”
“I am afraid that is very close to the truth,” he agreed. He straightened in his saddle and cleared his throat. “Spiros!”
The helmet of one of the guards was more elaborate than the others. Rather than a smooth top, his had a crest like the spine on a dragon’s tail. He pulled his reigns back and turned toward us. The man was about thirty with a scar across his left cheek. His face was marred with care, but the corners of his lips had a hint of a smile. There was also a twinkle in his eyes that reminded me of Xander.
“You called, My Lord?” he shouted back.
Xander nodded. “Yes. I wish for your presence at my side for a moment.” Spiros gave a few brief instructions to a young man of twenty who traveled at his side before he galloped over and joined us. Xander gestured to me. “I haven’t properly introduced you to my Maiden. Miriam, this is my captain, Spiros.”
His barely-concealed smile appeared as he bowed his head to me. “It is an honor to meet you, My Lady.”
I nodded. “Ditto.”
“Spiros and I grew up together, so do not be alarmed if he appears too impertinent,” Xander warned me.
“If I am impertinent it is because I feel my advice will do you some good, My Lord,” Spiros countered.
Xander chuckled. “Do me good? As when you coaxed me into riding my father’s finest bull to see if its name of ‘Devil’ befitted it?”
“You rode him very well, My Lord, and no one doubted your bravery afterward,” his captain argued.
“But some doubted very much I would survive my injuries,” Xander pointed out.
I raised an eyebrow, all my discomfort forgotten. “Did the bull gore you?”
Spiro leaned forward so I could see him as he shook his head. “No, My Lady. The old king, My Lord’s father, beat him quite profusely.”
Xander winced at the memory and rubbed his arm. “I am ashamed to say I deserved as much. In riding the bull I had broken his strict order to stay away from the beast.”
“So you see, My Lady, My Lord is in great need of my counsel to save him from his rash decisions,” Spiros commented.
I snorted. “With friends like you who needs enemies?”
Spiros chuckled. “A very interesting saying, My Lady. I shall have to remember it.”
“And where it as a badge of honor, no doubt,” Xander teased him. He leaned toward his friend and studied him with a sharp eye. “Though on the subject of good advice, I do recall your attempt to fly over the Grand Canal before your wings were softened.”
“Softened?” I asked him.
“The wings of a dragon child are at first very hard and brittle,” he explained to me. “The exposure of the wings to air and exercise softens the muscles and allows them to spread to their full length.”
“If you will recall, My Lord, my father would not allow me to enter knight training until my wings were softened,” Spiros spoke up. “I sought to show him that they had softened, at least far enough to support me.”
Xander chuckled. “They had softened enough for you to fall into the Canal and nearly drowned yourself. If my guard escort had not found to where we had eluded them we would not be having this discussion.”
I looked from Xander to Spiros. “You guys got away from the guards?”
Spiros’s mischievous eyes flickered to his lord. “My Lord was very adept at eluding his keepers.”
Any more conversation was cut off by a sudden worsening of the already-worse weather. The torrential rains fell faster and drowned out more than just the primitive road. I could barely hear myself think much less overhear the conversation between the two old friends. What I did catch, however, was a change in their expressions. They gazed out on the rains with pursed lips and furrowed brows before they glanced at each other with knowing looks. Spiros bowed his head and trotted off to retake his position at the head of the guards.
Cayden filled the empty spot vacated by Spiros, and Stephanie came up on his left side. “What do you make of this weather?” he shouted above the pounding rains.
Xander shook his head. “We cannot journey much farther than the bridge.”
“If the bridge is to be had,” Cayden pointed out.
There was no use talking at the top of our lungs, so the next couple of minutes was devoid of all but the thunderous rains that fell around us. The muddy road opened up ahead of us and revealed a small river. At least, small when there wasn’t a flood warning. As we approached the waters I could hear the roar of the stream as it turned over the rocks in its bed and swept away the trees that lined its banks.
The bridge was a wooden makeup of logs strapped together with heavy rope and sealed with a tar-looking substance. Thick trees as wide as I was tall were the support beams that forced the bridge to curve over the water in a gentle arch. Below the arch were the fast waters of the wild river. I winced every time I heard a tree or rock slam into one of those pillars.
Spiros stopped his guards at the edge of the bridge. Xander trotted forward to stand beside his old friend and I cautiously followed. “I do not like this, My Lord,” the captain shouted above the pounding rain.
Xander pursed his lips as he studied the bridge. The thick logs swayed side to side at each knock of their pillars. “We have little choice. There is no other bridge.”
“Then allow my men and I to cross and test the logs, My Lord,” Spiros pleaded.
Xander shook his head. “There is no time. The bridge may collapse at any moment. We cross now.” He turned his horse so he rode perpendicular to the line and stood on his stirrups so all could see him. “We cross at once! Make two lines at two abreast and follow the rider in front of you!”
The riders grouped themselves into the long lines. I clutched my reigns and tensed my legs against the body of the horse. My steed threw its head back and whinnied.
Xander sidled up to my horse and leaned close to me. “Would you rather ride with me?”
I managed a shaky smile. “And miss all this fun? Not on your life.”
He glanced past me at the roaring water beneath the bridge and frowned. I hardly heard his murmured words. “I pray not.”
That’s when an ear-splitting roar bashed my ears. I whipped my head to the left and upstream of the bridge. A huge tree with a six-foot trunk floated on the currents of the white-water waves.
“Across!” Xander yelled.
Too late. The tree bore down on the bridge, and us. It slammed into the left side and sank deep into the thick timbers. Many of the horses whinnied and reared up. My horse wasn’t an exception. It reared up on both its back legs. One of the two remaining hooves slipped on the thick logs. The horse staggered backward and into the downstream wall. We hit it hard. I couldn’t keep my position on the slick saddle and fell into the roaring abyss of the wild river.