Draknart is the scourge of the countryside, but when the villagers toss another maiden into his cave, he finds Einin fierce, unafraid, and armed for battle.
Determined to slay the dragon, Einin doesn't know that he is under a fairy queen's curse, doomed to transform to man from midnight until dawn. To her surprise, Draknart offers her a bargain, one that might save her village--but at a high cost. With few options and even fewer resources at her command, Einin has no choice but to make a deal with a dragon...
The clamoring had been going on for a while outside his ancient cave by the time the dragon finally opened an eye. Just the one. He wasn’t prone to overreacting.
The villainous noise grew only louder: flasks clanged against walking staffs, boots slapped on stone, children squealed while dogs barked. A priest droned on in that steel-scraping-over-the-whetting-stone tone his kind used to keep their congregations awake during sermons.
Draknart stirred in the back of the cave and drew musty air into his lungs. He shifted his great body on the stone ledge where he slept, then dropped heavily to the ground at last and stretched to full height, his head nearly hitting the stone ceiling.
His cave was small enough so no intruder could be hidden from his sight, yet large enough to maneuver his mountainous body in a fight—the perfect lair for a dragon. Save the neighbors. The two nearby villages seemed to compete over the title of “Biggest Pain in the Dragon’s Arse."
His spiked tail curled and uncurled, rustling the leaves the winds had blown in. As he took a step forward, the dried bones of his past meals crackled beneath his feet, the sound downright music compared to the priest’s bleating.
Draknart blinked the sleep from his eyes, tested his stiff muscles, and then he scraped his talons over the stones for a good sharpening. The sooner he ended the disturbance, the sooner he could reclaim his peace.
He was accursed, but he was not yet vanquished—nor would he be today.
A cheer rose outside, sharp as a toothache. And before Draknart could finish thinking—Here we go again—a soft bundle tumbled down the steep slope of the cave’s entrance.
Another virgin sacrifice. He had half a mind to bat it right back out with his tail. If the villagers must disturb him, couldn’t it have been for a wee fight? At least a hired knight would have provided him with exercise.
He stifled a groan and watched, with a petulance probably unbecoming a dragon his age, as the sacrifice bounced to her feet with the agility of a forest doe and threw off her mud-colored cape. Previous sacrifices had come overwrapped in bothersome folds of skirts. This one wore precious little—all of it skintight.
Draknart narrowed his eyes and huffed, a slim trail of smoke rising from his nostrils. Smoke he hadn’t meant to release. He was old enough to know how to control his fire, dammit.
He blinked as the crown of hair on top of the lass’s head came undone from the tumbling. Her vibrant red braid swung low to a shapely arse. She was as boldly curvaceous as she was scandalously bare.
He cocked his head as he asked, “Have they run out of virgins at the village?"
She reached for her scabbard and drew a sword that suited her not—too large and heavy for a lass her size. Yet her movements were smooth and fluid, and she kept both hands on the hilt as if she meant to use the weapon. Her eyes were the color of amber and filled with fire. She kept her gaze on his, never removing it for a moment.
“They ran out of knights." Her voice rang through the cave, the clear trill of the first bird greeting dawn in the forest.
Draknart had nothing against birds. He liked them just fine for a snack, enjoyed snatching them out of the air, liked how they darted this way and that, providing him with both entertainment and challenge. It’d been a while since he’d had either.
He measured up the heaps of leaves and debris stray winds had blown into the cave and wondered how long he’d been asleep this time. A few years. Not more than a decade. He smelled spring in the air, and the sweet scent of woman. The scent stirred his appetite. He licked his curved fangs. “There’s been a war, then?"
She nodded, grasping the sword hard enough to turn her small knuckles white.
“And drought?" he guessed as a raven called outside.
She shifted her gaze from him briefly to scan the terrain of the cave, much as a fighter would. “Flooding."
Draknart gave a rumbling sigh. ’Twas only when life turned difficult in the valley that the villagers remembered the dragon in the hills. Depending on what new priest they had, they would either try to kill Draknart or appease him, convinced that once they’d done something to the dragon, everything would go back to being well fine.
“What’d be your name, then?" As the question hung in the air between them, he frowned. ’Twasn’t a question he normally asked a sacrifice.
She stalked closer, an odd thing to do for one of her kind. “I’m Einin of Downwood."
Most maidens fainted right off at the sight of the dragon. The ones with sturdier constitutions shrieked a little first before folding. The truly extraordinary even got in a yard or two of running.
Instead, Einin stood tall as the poplar saplings by the river. She stared Draknart down—or tried. Gave it a good effort, in any case.
He shifted to gain a better look, stretching his aching limbs once again. The tip of his great wings dragged on the ground, the scraping sound loud in the cave. She did jump back at that, but only just.
Then again, she ought to be on those long legs.
Draknart especially admired her long, lean thighs. “Has the flood washed away your clothes?"
Her cheeks pinked, but she wouldn’t be distracted enough to put down the sword. “I wear my brother’s clothes. A long skirt with petticoats would get snagged in a fight."
She seemed to have more common sense than all the previous virgins put together, and more courage than most of the hired knights.
Draknart’s stomach rumbled, the sound filling the cave. He measured up the wee maiden.
Yet she’d be something to hold him over until he flew out and found a deer herd large enough to suit his appetite. Aye, she’d take the edge off his hunger just fine. In but a moment. He enjoyed her fire-spark eyes too much to rush.
A long time had passed since he’d been able to converse with anyone. The virgins fainted in short order. The knights charged and died.
“How might you be doing it, then?" he enquired.
Her sword came up, the metal glinting in the cave’s dim light. “Straight through the heart."
He couldn’t find fault with the plan. He waited.
She did not step forward. Instead, her gaze moved over him in a full inspection.
Smart lass. “You know where the heart is on a dragon?"
She blinked at him.
Draknart pointed at the middle of his chest, halfway between the joints where his great wings began.
“Thank you." Einin of Downwood sidled toward him. She was nothing if not polite.
“You had training with the sword?"
“I had nine brothers. All killed in the war." A soft vulnerability crept into her voice. She shook that off quickly enough as she stole another step forward. She now stood close enough to strike.
Draknart shifted into a half-hearted defensive position. He’d done this time and time again with the knights. She would charge, and then he would capture and disarm her.
Instead, the wee lass darted to his side, vaulted onto his knee, then onto his back, ran along his spine as sure-footed as a mountain goat, and went for his eye.
Draknart shook her off with a surprised roar. Yet when she slammed against the rock wall with a most unpleasant thud, he regretted his haste. By the gods, he hadn’t meant to break her so fast. Also, as long as he was breaking bones, he preferred to do it between his teeth. They gave that jolly crack.
To his relief and to her credit, Einin bounced back, holding the sword in front of her, if lower than before, and with a tremble in her arms. Her gaze was only half-focused. The blow had stunned her. But she shook off the tumble, steadied her arms, and, after a moment, she stalked forward again.
Tumble or no, she didn’t lose her courage. Her fine eyes did hold a shadow of discouragement, however. Draknart instantly missed their earlier spark.
“’Twas a good effort. Didn’t see it coming," he consoled her. “You’ll do better on the next try."
He flicked his tail in anticipation. He was willing to stifle his hunger for the sake of a little sport. True entertainment rarely came into his life, and he found the maiden refreshingly unpredictable so far.
On her second attempt, the lass charged for his heart and managed to prick him hard enough to draw blood before he grabbed her, pulled the sword away, then held the wriggling maiden up for closer inspection.
Her round breasts bounced as she struggled, caring naught that he might drop her on the stones.
Bold and brave and wild.
His dragon blood stirred.
He nudged her with his snout. The previous virgins had been scented with lavender water, which always made him sneeze.
“You smell like axle grease." A fine pleasant smell, reminding him of a wagonful of fattened geese he’d taken in the fall.
The noisy batch of fowl had been on their way to market. Draknart had eaten them for an appetizer, the two horses for the main meal, and the man on the seat for dessert. The peasant had that faint smell of axle grease about him. Didn’t affect the flavor none.
Draknart licked his chops and sniffed Einin again.
“Let me go, you great lecherous beast." The wisp of a woman used her bare fists to smack him between the eyes, right on the ridge of his nose, which happened to be a sensitive spot on a dragon.
No call for a punch like that, none at all.
He set her in the nearest corner and breathed a small cloud of smoke as warning.
She stumbled back, over pieces of old, rusty armor, and grabbed a breastplate his talons had fairly ruined. She held it up as a shield, and for a moment, her gaze snapped to the piece of shredded metal. She stilled then, a lump going down her slender throat. Her amber eyes widened. “Is this what happened to all the knights?"
“I ate them. Aye." Not his favorite meal for certain. He always forgot some piece of armor, or a hidden dagger strapped to the thigh, and then he’d have indigestion for a sennight.
Einin flashed a fierce scowl. “You conscienceless bastard."
“They did come to kill me." Not that Draknart had to explain himself to breakfast.
“And the virgins?" she challenged, chin up, before scanning once again the pile of garbage that littered the corner of the cave, mixed with dirt and decomposing leaves. And when she swiftly found an old broadsword, she didn’t bother to hide the flash of triumph in her eyes.
“I swived them, then ate them," he told her. The memories were sweet.
Einin paled, but her chin stayed up, her newfound blade in the air, even if her slender arms struggled with the weight. “They could have done you no harm."
“I couldn’t send them back to the village after I swived them. They were ruined for mortal men. I did them a mercy." He was good that way. Never did cause unnecessary suffering, unless to a well-deserving enemy. Otherwise, his kills were clean and instant. He didn’t pull off limbs one at a time and consider the flailing of his victims entertainment, as some of his kind did.
Yet instead of approval, a flash of red came onto Einin’s soft cheeks, and she did scream then, for the first time, just before she charged. Not a scream of fear, like Draknart was used to from maidens, but a battle cry.
He feinted to the left, then rolled his great dragon body to the right. Blood rushed through his veins at a speed it hadn’t in a long time. Only when Einin nicked the tip of his snout did he knock the sword from her hand with a talon. Not that being disarmed held her back. She bit the tip of his wing. Which happened to be another sensitive spot.
He rolled onto his back, planning to use the momentum to roll over her, but she was fast and on his belly the next moment, climbing up and up.
Aah. Och now. That felt nice.
He stilled. He very nearly sighed.
She skidded to the spot where he’d pointed out his heart earlier and dropped to one knee as if readying to slay him. She didn’t seem to realize that she was unarmed.
Except, of course, she wasn’t. From out of nowhere, the wee lass produced a kitchen knife and plunged the little weapon hard between the dragon’s scales. Only luck saved him, for the blade was too short, the vixen unable to do him real harm.
Draknart wrapped her in his leathery black wings and brought her close to his snout once again, baring his curved fangs.
The sparks were back in her fine amber eyes, defiance blazing from their depths. Her shapely breasts heaved. Her fiery hair had escaped her braid during the fight and now floated around her slim face in a cloud of red silk.
Draknart righted himself without letting her go and regarded her as he gave matters some thought. “You do realize, Einin, that even if you could kill me, floods would still happen, war would still come?"
She held his gaze without flinching. “The village is cursed because of the great devil that lives in the hills."
Draknart had heard that sentiment, or versions of it, enough times. “Says the village priest?"
Yet no village priest had ever been brave enough to come and confront the great devil himself. Draknart had his opinion of the lot. “Rain brings floods. Greed brings wars."
The look of certainty on her face faltered. Her expressive eyes betrayed that she had considered the matter on her own before. Of course she had. She was a smart wee lass.
Draknart set her down. “You don’t believe the curse."
She shrugged narrow shoulders. “What I believe matters not when the whole village listens to the traveling priest."
The dragon raised an eyebrow. “What happened to the old village priest?"
“Died of cholera."
He grinned. “Full of shit, died of the shits. Seems fitting."
Einin glared. Then she gave a soft sigh. “The village has lost too much, and the people’s will is broken. Darkness is strangling their hearts. They need hope. The traveling priest is right about that."
“So because men are weak willed, I should die?"
She looked away. Her slim shoulders sagged.
He disliked seeing her bright spirit flagging. He watched her for a moment, then another and another, puzzled that one of her kind could captivate him so much. His wily dragon mind twisted and turned.
He nudged her with his snout. “What if I was wounded?"
Her gaze snapped to his, hope blooming in her amber eyes. She was just as arresting with her face softened as she’d been with her look of fierce concentration when she charged into battle.
Draknart handed her knife back, his blood on the blade, then rummaged through the dry leaves that covered the ground, tossed aside a couple of old bones until he found the talon he’d torn out when he’d enlarged the cave a century ago.
“You tell them you fought the dragon and injured him. Let them celebrate."
Happy people worked harder. They took risks and tried new ways, which more often than not led to success. In no time, the village would thrive again, and they would leave him alone for another couple of decades. Although, if the old gods saw fit to favor him, Draknart’s firm preference was for the next plague to take the whole village.
As Einin of Downwood reached for the talon he held out for her, her slim fingers brushed against the tip of Draknart’s extended wing, sending warmth skittering over his leathery skin.
Einin’s voice wavered with disbelief as she asked, “You would allow me to leave?"
As a raven called outside, Draknart stilled.
He was dreaded. He was the ancient dragon, the great devil in the hills. He consumed his enemies. He did not return a sacrifice.
For certain, he did not wish to let her go. He shouldn’t. Sooner or later, she would tell someone the truth, then they would think he’d grown old and feeble. Or worse, soft and fond of people.
Next he knew, they’d be asking him to help with bringing in the harvest and raising barns. They’d be up at the cave with one request or another, not leaving him a moment of peace. The thought of all the caterwauling was enough to make him shudder.
He looked her hard in the eyes. “In exchange for the talon, you must swear to return to me, of your own will, in a fortnight. Are you, Einin of Downwood, willing to pay the dragon’s price?"