Princess Morga held her arms straight out at her sides, the silken folds of her white gossamer gown billowing in the night breeze. Seven torches encircled the sacred pool, representing the seven bright stars shining over the human kingdoms of the West.
Her two most loyal handmaidens stood on either side of her. They pushed up the sleeves of her gown and massaged the perfume-scented oil down her arms to her hands and finally to her fingertips. Sharah, her most devoted handmaiden, stepped behind her and unpinned her hair. The heavy mass tumbled over her shoulders and down her back.
It was the last full moon of winter, the hallowed night when every betrothed princess must bathe in the pool of stars to ensure a fertile marriage. Steam hovered over the surface. She dipped a toe into the water, finding the temperature wonderfully warm from the hot magma that roared deep under the earth, stemming from the great Mount Thanatos. It would be a luxurious dip if she actually planned to perform the ritual. But she did not. She planned to never have a child with Prince Kadenstar. Because she planned to never marry him, a man of ruthless cruelty if the rumors were true.
Sharah swept her hair over one shoulder, unbuttoning the top of her gown.
Morga turned, eyeing the five royal guards stationed within the circle of the clearing. All five faced her, but kept their eyes to the ground to give her privacy. All but one. Rolf, the black-eyed favorite of her father who always watched her steps too closely.
Lifting her chin with a confident air, she commanded, “I will perform this rite in privacy. Leave this clearing now.”
Rolf smiled, sending an eerie chill up her spine. “But Your Highness. The king has ordered us to accompany you for your safety.”
“You may guard me from a distance.”
He propped his hand on the hilt of his short sword casually. “Your father wants us to fully observe the rite.”
Heat flushed her bosom with an angry sting. “As of tomorrow, I will be the queen of the most powerful kingdom of the west. And for my wedding gift, I will request your head on a spike outside my door if you do not obey me now.”
He flinched. For he knew that it was true. Prince Kadenstar would one day rule all of the land, and his power could easily extend to grant his bride’s every wish, no matter how grotesque.
“I will order this one last time, then I will take the matter to my betrothed. Leave this clearing. Now.”
The four who had remained obediently averting their eyes swiveled at once and vanished into the shadows of the woods surrounding the pool of stars. Rolf smiled again with a bow that seemed a mockery.
“As you wish, Your Highness.” He spun and marched into the woods where they would surely stake a perimeter to keep guard. The palace was not far. Even now, the golden lights twinkled in the tower that jutted up out of the darkness over the wood.
Morga waited until she was sure all of the guards were a safe distance away before she turned to Sharah. “Now,” she whispered.
The three of them skirted the water’s edge into the brush just beyond the rocky outcropping that crowned the pool. Sharah immediately yanked up the heavy cloak folded on a rock and began helping Morga into it.
“Sit, Your Highness,” said Hannah, her other handmaiden as soon as Morga was buttoned into her cloak.
She did. Hannah and Sharah helped her into the thick, fur-lined boots that laced up to her knees. Sharah then slipped the small pack of food, coin, and a change of clothes onto her back. Hannah tugged the cloak’s hood up over her head. The three of them said not a word as they hugged one another one last time.
With a tight nod and a smile to her servants, and her friends, Morga crept swiftly away through the woods toward the peasant’s path. There she would hurry to the next village where Sharah had arranged for a horse to be saddled and packed and waiting outside the fishermen’s tavern.
Morga’s breath came out in white puffs. Her breathing was labored more from fear than the exertion. She was fortunate there was a cloudless sky tonight for the luminous moon shone brightly through the trees, seeming to light her way. She glanced up at the starry heavens and smiled. A shadow flickered in her periphery, but when she looked toward the north, nothing but stars twinkled.
With a determined step, she moved faster through the dense foliage and nearly cried with joy when she caught sight of the peasant’s path up ahead, the one leading from the village to the palace. The moment she set a foot there, a sudden scream broke the silent night. Sharah. Shouting of men and another scream.
Morga ran, praying they did not harm her handmaidens, wishing her feet would fly faster. As if fate wanted her to escape, the moon shone on the winding lane like a white ribbon leading her to freedom. She ran with all her might, not even daring to look back. For soon, she heard the pounding of boots upon her trail.
“Stop, Princess!” yelled one of the guards.
She refused and pushed her legs harder, knowing good and well she could not outrun the royal guards. But her heart would not relent. She refused to give in.
Out of the shadows to her left leapt Rolf who grabbed her around the waist and picked her off her feet.
“No!” she screamed in fury and protest, flailing and kicking.
Rolf carried her off of the lane into the woods and to the nearest thick tree, the remaining guards gathering around. He planted her on her feet, yanked off her pack and tossed it to one of the guards then backed her against the trunk.
“Now, Your Highness,” he said mockingly, panting, the glint in his black eyes wiping away her anger with a new sensation of dread. “What will your father say when I tell him what you’ve done? That his precious eldest daughter planned to run away and not do his bidding. What will Prince Kadenstar say, I wonder? That his darling bride would rather flee like a criminal in the wild than stay and marry him.”
Morga said nothing, panting out white breaths. She could see the lecherous wheels in his mind turning.
“I say, the least you can do is let us get a peek at what you denied us was our right.”
He ripped open the cloak and yanked it off her shoulders, exposing her in the gossamer gown that was nothing more than fine sheer linen, her body bare beneath.
“You’re a pig,” she spat out. “You have no rights to see me.”
“Oh, but I’m afraid that I do. As part of the ritual, there are always exactly five guards, chosen by the king, to oversee the ritual from beginning to end.” He grinned, his crooked smile turning her stomach. He lifted a lock of her hair. “I’d been looking forward to it for a full month. But you took that away from us and then you ran like a frightened deer.”
Morga slapped him so hard, his head knocked to the side. “You will step away from me and escort me back to the palace. Immediately.”
He gripped her throat and pushed her flush against the tree, the bark scraping her shoulder through the thin material. “Now you listen to me,” he grated out. “You stole our show then forced us to chase you through these bloody woods.” His lusty gaze raked her body. “How about this? We promise not to tell about your little run, and in exchange we get to see what we missed.”
“No,” she whispered, then his fist tightened around her throat so that she couldn’t even speak. She grabbed his wrists, trying to loosen his grip.
He leaned in close to her ear, his breath hot when he whispered, “Better yet—“ he mounded one breast and squeezed on a groan. “I think I deserve a taste for all you put me through. No protest, Your Highness?”
She couldn’t make a sound with the grip he had on her throat, her pulse throbbing in her head as the blood rushed up. She gouged her nails into his wrists, but he had her in an unbreakable vise.
“Rolf, you shouldn’t—”
“Shut up! I’m the senior officer. You four report to the road and do your duty.” He swung his head to the left to the young guard who spoke against him. “I gave an order!”
Morga heard the officers tromping back through the brush, but she could see nothing. Spots hazed her vision. She squeezed her eyes shut, barely able to hold herself upright.
“Oh, yes, Your Highness.” His words slithered as if over a serpent’s tongue. “Now I’ll get what’s owed to me.” He squeezed her breast again then let go to grope between her legs and cupped her sex. She whimpered with only the thin fabric of her gown between his disgusting hand and her body.
A strange swooping sound then a sudden waft of ice-cold wind blew against her. A loud, monstrous roar shattered the night. Rolf let her go and leapt away, unsheathing his sword with a zing of metal on metal. Morga fell to her hands and knees, gasping for air.
Then the earth shook with a powerful crash as if Mount Thanatos had finally awoken and erupted. Century-old trees cracked and fell around the guards on the lane like a mighty storm had snapped them in half. But the guttural growl vibrating so close told her it was not an earthquake, but something far more sinister.
“A dragon,” she whispered, her voice broken.
He was magnificent. Black scales shining silver under the moonlight, the beast’s jaws opened and he roared again. One of the guards attacked like a fool, sword drawn. The dragon swiped a claw and knocked the man into a tree where he fell prostrate to the ground. Two more attacked at once, coming at him from the sides. He opened his great wings and twisted his body, clearing one to the ground with a wing, the other with his mighty tail. The young one who had tried for a brief moment to stop Rolf dropped his sword and ran for his life toward the peasant’s village. The dragon let him go.
“Come on, you devil!” shouted Rolf, sword in the air. “Don’t be a coward. Show us who you really are!”
The dragon swiveled toward him and Morga then slammed a clawed foot down, crushing the brush along the path with a resounding boom. The beast had brilliant blue eyes glinting like silver medallions. His gaze found Morga, still where she’d fallen then he narrowed back on Rolf. His guttural growl resonated in the air, vibrating along her skin, tingling like a lover’s caress. Such a strange visceral response.
“That’s right, devil bastard! Fight me like a man.”
Morga had never seen a dragon. She had never met one of their race nor met another who had. They never strayed from their northern realm. Yet here was one, standing before her, mightier and more lovely than any creature from a fantasy.
The dragon snuffed, then opened his jaws but without any violent movement. With a long, soft huff, he blew out a billowing cloud of smoke. It filled the night air, rolling up to Rolf’s knees. It wrapped around Morga, slipping over her like a cool mist. Her heart leapt with excitement, not fear, as the embrace of dragon’s breath encircled her. She fell back and pushed against the trunk of the tree.
There was a surge of energy charging the air with a soundless snap of power that raised gooseflesh on Morga’s skin. A shimmer of blue light radiated in a halo around the spot where the dragon had stood.
“Where are you, demon!” shouted Rolf, twisting this way and that and swinging his sword.
Out of the cool mist into a pool of moonlight stepped a man of gargantuan proportions—naked and glorious. Fully seven feet tall, bronze skin covered every perfect part of him. His black hair had a silvery sheen much like his scales and wings in dragon form. Unashamed by his nakedness, he stepped closer to Rolf, not as if he approached a threat but perhaps were taking a casual stroll in the gardens.
“From which clan do you hail, beast?” demanded Rolf. “Your kind is not allowed here, and you know it.”
The dragon man stopped before him, out of reach of Rolf’s sword. “I am King Radomis, Dragon King of the North, Descendant of the Great Nightwing Forefathers, and Ruler of all the lands of Drakos.”
Morga gasped, her pulse racing wildly. His deep voice rolled like dark thunder. The hand the king held at his side twitched, as if a response to her soft sound in the quiet night. But he did not look her way.
This was no mere dragon. This was their king, known even in the west for his fearlessness and his fierce ruling of the north in order to keep his dragons in check. Under his reign for the past one hundred years, there had been no raids of human villages in the south or the west. He kept his clans bountiful and satisfied, and he punished the criminals with ruthless swiftness so that no one dared to repeat the crime thereafter. This was what scholars and bards whispered about King Radomis, the Great Dragon King of the North.
He took a step closer to Rolf. “And who are you, little man?”
Rolf’s sword arm shook, but he still held it in a defensive mode even though the king made no threat against him.
“I am the king’s guard,” he said before swallowing hard. “I protect his royal daughter, Princess Morga.”
That was when the king’s head turned in her direction, his piercing blue gaze finding her without fail. Morga did not move as he held her there, entranced. “Princess Morga.” He said her name and she hitched in a breath. She felt his voice reaching through her skin and flesh to her bones, tightening under her ribcage around her heart. With a slight nod, a regal bow of his head, he turned back to Rolf. “Protect her, you say?”
“Yes. I am the senior officer of the king’s guard. I—”
Before Morga could blink, the king had disarmed him with a swift movement and had his large hand around Rolf’s throat. He then lifted him a foot into the air with Rolf kicking and clawing at his captor’s arms, much like Morga had been moments before.
“How does it feel, little man?”
Even from her crouched position in the shadows, Morga could see Rolf’s face purpling and his eyes bulging.
“Can you not speak?” asked the dragon king. “Of course not.” He bent his arm, drawing Rolf closer to him, his legs dangling uselessly. “I would let you go but for what I see in your eyes. A man filled with lust and greed, a twisted soul who will do more harm and little good. And a man who dared to touch her with violence and dark deeds on his mind. Therefore…”
With a swift snap of his wrist, he cracked Rolf’s neck. He then dropped the dead man to the ground and turned toward Morga.
She should be afraid. She should scream. She should run in terror. But none of those emotions or actions compelled her as he walked within the moon shadow of the tree where she crouched. He did nothing to conceal his nudity from her. He seemed unaffected by the cold air or the need for modesty. Morga could not help but let her eyes wander across his broad shoulders, down his firm chest and chiseled abdomen to the V angling toward his manhood. Her pulse raced to realize it was in equal proportion to the rest of him, then she skimmed down his muscled thighs to his feet, which stopped directly in front of her.
He bent over and she crouched farther, thinking he would snatch her to her feet. Instead, he lifted her cloak still strewn on the ground and stood before her.
She dared to look up enough to see him offering his hand. Having survived what she foresaw would be a terrible nightmare with Rolf, her emotions overwhelmed her, spilling over into tears as she stared up at him.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Since she would not rise, he crouched with her. Once again she was caught in ethereal blue. This man radiated with power. No. Not a man, she reminded herself.
“However may I repay you?” she asked. “I owe you my life.”
She waited to be ravaged against her will or to be eaten by his beastly form as she was warned would happen should she ever meet one of the fearful dragons of the north. But he apparently intended neither. With a gentle gesture, he steadied on his knees and wrapped the cloak around her shoulders. This was not the monster she had been told of since she was a little girl.
“You owe me nothing. But I wish you would stop crying,” he said, brushing the back of his index finger down one of her cheeks. “For it breaks my heart.”
His tender touch and gentle words made her ache with longing. He cupped her cheek and she pressed into his palm. A soothing sensation swept through her body, wiping away all anger and fear.
“I am in your debt,” she said.
“You are not. You may take that path.“ He gestured with a nod toward the lane. “And run toward whatever destiny you choose.”
“You saw me earlier?”
“Yes.” He raised his other hand to cup her face gently. “I never fly this far on my night haunts. But something compelled me to go west, an urging of my dragon I could not resist. Then I caught scent of something heavenly, like jasmine blooms in the dawn of spring. I had to discover what hailed me so far from home. I honed in on the scent, finding a beautiful woman fleeing down the moonlit path. I followed on the night-wind, for she was indeed breathtaking. I would have let her go. But then she was caught and my dragon demanded vengeance.”
Morga should regret his killing Rolf, but she could not. Whether her heart had no pity for creatures such as him, she did not know. She only knew that Rolf’s deplorable actions had led this man to her. Whatever fortune led him to her, she was grateful.
His voice dipped even lower. “I would free you from the burden that made you run away.”
She placed her small hand over his against her cheek. He offered more than any man had ever done in her entire life—more than riches or lands or a crown. He offered her freedom.
“Tell me,” she pleaded. “What may I give you in exchange for this gift?”
He stood and offered her his hands. She took them and let him lift her to her feet.
“If I may, I would ask for a small token.”
“Name it, and it is yours.”
He swept a lock of her hair away from her face, trailing his fingers around the nape of her neck, his thumb resting on her collarbone. “A kiss.”
Heartbeat thrumming faster, she licked her lips. “A kiss?”
He nodded, eyes brightening with an otherworldly power.
“Then you shall have it,” she promised, stepping within his strong arms and skating her palms up his bare chest to his shoulders.
Because he was so tall, he wrapped his hands around her waist under her cloak, nearly spanning the entire width, and lifted her off her feet with ease till they were eye level together. He eased in gently, brushing his lips against hers with a light sweep of his tongue over the seam. Morga moaned at the sweet delicacy of his kiss and curled her arms around his neck, pressing her chest to his.
He shifted and banded his arms around her, a growl rumbling in his chest as he opened his mouth against hers and angled deeper. Stroking his tongue inside, he wove her under his spell, kissing her senseless. The electric energy amplified within seconds, then Morga felt a sharp snick inside her chest. Instantly, his kiss became something far more than she had ever dreamed. Like molten honey pouring down her throat, a wave of divine ecstasy shot through her bloodstream straight to her heart. She whimpered and moaned, opening her mouth wider to take whatever he was giving her, this dragon elixir that skated through her veins like lightning. But she knew what it was. She had heard legends of soulfire. It could be nothing else. She felt his pulse beating in tune with her own, their hearts binding to one another. A binding that only death could sever.
She pulled away, touching her forehead to his. “How could this be?”
He opened his piercing eyes, their lips hovering close. He panted lightly. “It has never happened between a dragon and a human.”
“Soulfire. Is it not?”
He nodded gravely.
“Then I know my destiny. And it is you, my king.” She lifted her legs and wrapped them around his waist, his body heat warming every part of her, inside and out. Angling her mouth over his parted lips, she flicked her tongue in teasingly. “I want you inside me,” she whispered against his lips, not caring that it was improper for a virgin princess to speak of such desires. Her passion and yearning for him overrode all such trivial nonsense.
He growled from deep within his gut, and she knew she spoke to the dragon as well as the man.
“I will not take my queen on the cold ground amongst villains and fiends. I will take you in my castle and in our royal bed.”
Their hearts beating as one, she said, “Then take me there.”
At once, he set her on her feet and fastened her cloak with the one button that had not been torn from its stitching. He did not say a word as he walked away toward the lane and faced her, his glorious hard body a sight she would never forget. A crackle of energy like the splintering of a storm wrapped in an orb of blue light vibrated three times before a blinding flash pierced the darkness. Out of the hazy blue mist the black dragon raised his head, growl rumbling in his chest, sounding more like a rough purr along Morga’s skin.
She knew what to do. Stepping lightly toward him, she locked with his mesmerizing eyes and rubbed a hand over his shining scales that were surprisingly soft to the touch. He purred again as she caressed him. Then she scrambled up his leg and between his wings, straddling the flat of his back and gripped one of the horn-sized spines that jutted along his neck.
“I am ready, my king. Take me home.”
With a bellowing growl he stomped the ground then reared up, beating his powerful black wings and lifting them into the night. Morga held her breath as they soared higher, rising above the castle and the peasant village, rising higher still until she was bathed in nothing but moonlight and stars and the fierce beating heart of her dragon king.