Miriam and Xander’s halcyon days of rest along the shores of Beriadan Lake in Alexandria come to a quick end when the pleas of another dragon lord lead them to the blackened Heavy Mountains. Lord Herod demands their attentions on a pressing matter, and what they find is a pot of trouble boiling over with ancient blood feuds, uneasy alliances, and old stories of treacherous Maidens.
Trouble comes along the winds of a storm, and Miriam finds herself in the middle of it. Now she must prove her innocence against a hefty charge, or face the fatal consequences. The trail leads them to the Coven Caves where witches cast more than their shadows on the walls. One life-attempt after another shows they’re on the right trail, but only if they can stay one step ahead of their mysterious foes. Otherwise, the mountains will be their final adventure.
“Pull, My Lady, pull!”
“I’m pulling! I’m pulling!”
“You nearly have it, Miriam!”
“Give me some room!” I snapped.
There I was on the deck of the royal ship in the middle of the lake. It was three weeks after our adventures in the labyrinth, and I was taking some time to learn the intricacies of the cuisine. Behind me were Magnus and Darda, and in front of me was the wide expanse of waters. I held a fishing pole in my hands and determination on my face.
Magnus and Darda stepped back. I yanked back the fishing pole and spun another few feet of horse-hair line around the hook at the base of the wooden stick. The stick bent over the railing and brushed the waves that rocked the ship. A silver fish broke the surface and sailed over the waves before it splashed back into the water. I gritted my teeth and gave a hard pull of the rod with both hands.
The fish flew out of the water and landed with a hard slap onto the deck of the ship.
It flopped about before Magnus threw a net over the flopping behemoth. Its large silver belly shimmered in the warm afternoon sun.
Magnus stepped up and grinned over my prey. “A nice one, My Lady. A good two pygme, if Ah’m not a daktylos off. The god of the lake smiles on you.”
I blinked at him before I looked to Darda. “Is that good?”
She smiled and nodded. “The measurement is nearly equal to thirty inches.”
I straightened and grinned. “That’s good enough for me.”
Magnus nodded. “Aye, tis a good fish. My Lord and ya will eat well tonight.”
I turned away at the glistening castle set against the hillside. It was a glistening crown to the large white city at my back. The spires cast their long shadows over the rippling waters of the large lake that separated the capital from the residence of its lord, Xander, and its beautiful, majestic lady, namely me.
A soft smile slipped onto my lips. “Let’s see that dragon eat this all by himself.”
The old captain chuckled. “Ah won’t be counting my cargo the ship’s come to port, My Lady.” He looked over his shoulder at the helm. Nimeni, his pale first mate, stood behind the wheel. “Back to the castle!”
Nimeni nodded and aimed the bow to the castle. We sailed over the deep blue waters of Lake Beriadan and toward the long dock of the castle. I set my hands on the railing and looked into the water. My distorted reflection stared back at me, but far below that was a band of blue light that flitted alongside the boat. I grinned and waved. It flicked its tail before it dove into the black depths of the deep lake.
We arrived at the dock, and my catch and I were escorted into the castle. My dragon lord, the annoyingly handsome Xander, met us in the courtyard. His eyes immediately fell on the fish in the arms of the castle guard. “The gods were kind to you this day.”
“I only needed one, and a little skill,” I told him.
He smiled. “An unfortunate combination for the fish. Shall we consume it tonight?”
I grinned. “I was thinking about parading it around a little longer, but-” I pinched my nose shut, “-I think it’s already starting to smell.”
Xander chuckled as he nodded at the guard who left us. “Then we will feast tonight, and enjoy one another’s company later in the evening.”
I sidled up to him and leaned against him. “Are you sure you can make time in your busy kingdom-running schedule for me?” His face fell. I winced. “Bad news?”
He wrapped his arm around my waist and shook his head. “No, something far worse.”
My heart dropped into my stomach as I looked into his crestfallen face. “You’re going away again?”
Xander turned to me and clasped my hands. A smile teased the corners of his lips. “No, my Miriam. Bucephalus and I will not leave your side for a long while yet. What concerns me is the Bestia that attacked you, and the raid on the south.”
I arched an eyebrow. “You think they’re connected?”
He nodded. “I do. The raid led me away from my city when it most needed me, and the Bestia who attacked the south took nothing of value from the poor villages. Thus we may assume they meant for me not to be present during their search for Bucephalus.”
I grinned. “But I was.”
Xander leaned forward and pecked a teasing kiss on my lips. He leaned back and studied my eyes with a true smile. “Yes, and I owe you my city for it.”
“How about just saving me a piece of that fish?” I teased.
Xander straightened and bowed his head. “I will do as you command, and more.”
As it turned out he couldn’t keep his promise, but that wasn’t his fault. The supper hour came, a late one at seven o’clock. Xander and I sat at the long table in the large dining hall with a row of servants standing at the ready should we need another fork or a bib. I was seated on his left and in front of us was a fortune’s worth of silverware. The silver fish was presented to us on a silver platter.
Xander picked up his fork and knife, and smiled at me. “May I offer you a fin, or perhaps the tail?”
I snorted. “You really like to eat like a king here, don’t you?”
He chuckled as he carved a hearty portion from the fish and slid it onto my plate. “It is the company that gives me such an appetite, and the nightly exercise.”
I picked up my own utensils and sliced into the fish. I held up the slice and grinned at him over the piece. “You could say you caught yourself a perfect Maiden.”
Xander placed a large slice on his plate and grinned. “And I have you as proof my victory was not a fish story.”
Our tug-of-war with puns ended with the entrance of Tillit. The sus sauntered into the room and took for himself the chair opposite me. “Good evening, my favorite dragon lord and Maiden.”
Xander arched an eyebrow as he studied our unexpected guest. “You did not bribe the guards to allow you entrance again, did you?”
Tillit grinned as he shook his head. “Nope. I’m actually here on official business.” He reached into his coat and drew out an envelope which he held out to Xander. “I was with Kinos when this came up to the front gate. They were swamped out there-you really need to add another gate-so he asked me to give it to you.”
Xander took the envelope and opened it while Tillit looked at the fish on my plate. “It looks like Beriadan’s still rewarding you for saving his city.”
I frowned and wagged my knife at him. “There was some skill involved, too.”
He chuckled, but the mirth died on his lips when he glanced at Xander’s strained face. “No good news from the Heavy Mountains?”
Xander shook his head as he broached the contents of the letter again. “No. On the contrary, Herod wishes for my assistance, and that I travel to his realm immediately.”
Tillit gave off a piggish snort. “If that’s true it’ll be the first time that prince of darkness asks anyone for help. What’s he want help with, anyway?”
“He does not say.”
The sus wrinkled his flat nose. “Typical. That guy’s more paranoid than any sus I’ve met, and that’s saying something.”
Xander folded the note and slipped it back into the envelope before he looked to me. “I fear this will call me away again.”
My eyebrows crashed down. “Just you?”
“I did promise you rest for at least a month,” he reminded me.
I set my elbow on the table and leaned toward him to look him square in the eyes. “Let’s just get this straight: from now on where you go, I go. If there’s going to be trouble, I can at least scream so you can fly down and rescue your damsel.”
“Can you not whistle?” he wondered.
I snorted. “I can’t even breathe through my nose.”
He pressed his lips together and gave off a melodious sound. “It is easy.”
I leaned back in my chair and folded my arms over my chest. “Not easy enough for me to do it, and I’m kind of hoping I’m not even going to need to scream on this little adventure of ours.”
“I will have to teach you some time,” he replied as he turned to Tillit. “Can we expect the pleasure of your company on this adventure?”
Tillit stood and shook his head. “This is one adventure I’m staying out of. There’s only room enough on that mountain for one sus, and that position’s filled. Besides, I’ve got some business at Bear Bay that might prove lucrative.” He turned away, but paused and looked over his shoulder at us. His expression was tense. “Whatever you do up there on that god-forsaken place, just don’t get lost. I wouldn’t want my best customers bleaching their bones among those stupid rocks.”
Xander smiled and bowed his head. “I swear nothing of the sort will happen.”
Tillit grinned. “Well, that’s better than nothing. Good luck on your trip up that lonely mountain.” He strolled from the room, but a wisp of his voice floated behind him. “You’re gonna need it. . .”
My eyes flickered to Xander and I jerked my head in the direction Tillit had gone. “Are we going to need it?”
Xander took up his knife and fork and sliced into his fish. “Perhaps,” he replied as he took a bite.
My face fell. “That doesn’t exactly give me comfort.”
His eyes looked up from his plate. “Would you rather remain behind?”
I frowned and slumped in my chair. “No, but still-” I couldn’t organize my worried thoughts.
Xander set down his utensils and took one of my hands in his. He gave it a gentle squeeze as he smiled at me. “Have I allowed any harm to come to you?”
I furrowed my brow. “Well, now that you mention it there was that one time at the Portal-”
“You returned to me unscathed.”
“-and the near-death experience at the ruins in the forest-”
“Death did not even part us.”
“-and then you left me to protect the city all by myself-”
Xander leaned forward and pressed a passionate kiss on my lips that heated my body. I groaned into the union and whimpered when he pulled us apart. A mischievous smile slipped onto his lips. “You were saying?”
I glared at him. “I was saying that you play dirty in arguments.”
He leaned back in his chair and smiled gently at me. “However devious my actions, know that my intentions toward you will forever me pure.”
My shoulders slumped and I sighed. “All right, I’ll rehire you as my bodyguard, but don’t expect any bonuses while we’re there.” I furrowed my brow. “And where exactly is ‘there,’ anyway? And who are we helping exactly?”
“Herod is the dragon lord of the Heavy Mountains, a realm located in the northeastern part of the continent.” He looked down at the envelope that lay beside his plate. “It would be a rather long journey on horse, but the urgency of his letter implies we should fly.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Like full-dragon fly?”
He shook his head. “No. Though that form is faster in flight, the distance is fully two days away by air. Any in our entourage who is not a lord would perish from the strain on their bodies.”
I winced. “Only a day? How long would it take you to-well, you know-”
“Two days before my body, too, would give out,” he told me.
“But weren’t you guys dragons before? I mean, you haven’t always been human looking, have you?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No, but the days of flight in our dragon bodies are long past. Those with the greatest strength of dragon form perished long ago in wars against the humans and each other. The lines that remain are too weak to retain the form without certain death.”
My face fell. “Bummer.”
Xander smiled at me. “Do not pity us. We still have our wings, and they grant us enough freedom to travel over the continent without too much difficulty. We should arrive at the border of Herod’s realm within three days.”
“Sounds like the usual terrifying fun. When do we leave?”
“At first light.”