The dragons are dying. Now a talented blacksmith and a betrayed prince must find a way to save them...while saving each other.
Bren, a blacksmith in a small town, longs to escape his drunken, abusive father. His world is turned upside down when legendary dragon riders arrive and discover Bren is a chosen one. He's taken to the great mountain fortress to imprint one of the new hatchlings by none other than Kyralian, the dragon prince. After the hatching goes terribly wrong, Bren struggles to recover by losing himself in his metalwork, taking on apprentices, and ignoring all dragons. But he soon realizes that Kyralian, seemingly so powerful, is in real trouble. The prince and his male dragon are treated like property, mated as a prize at the end of a yearly chase. Bren will do anything to keep the prince and his dragon safe...even if it costs him everything.
Kyralian is desperate to save the dragons of his colony. He's searching for answers to the failing dragon lines, but the ruling council only wants to use his dragon for breeding. He can't defy them because he's bound by duty and his love for his people. Yet he's never felt more alone, more caged by his obligations to the colony. Now his growing feelings for the blacksmith have endangered both their freedom and their lives. The prince's dragon is the last male in the fortress, his value beyond price, and there are enemies who will do anything to make the prince submit...
CHAPTER ONEThe sun had not yet risen, soothing darkness still enfolded the small town and held most of its inhabitants within the realm of sleep.All but one…At the very fringe of the village, safely out of earshot, the fires of the forge made the smithy glow red, alternately lighting Bren’s face, then casting it into shadow.Sweat trickled down his large, heavily muscled form, his shirtless body glowing in the flickering light where the thick leather apron did not cover, but he did not notice the all-too-familiar sensation; his attention was utterly focused on his work.With a delicate balance between forcing and coaxing the metal into the shape he envisioned, Bren worked patiently, never rushing. He had learned all too well that indeed, haste made waste. A moment’s inattention, irritation, or a single rash move could lead to the destruction of many hours’ work, and now he was too experienced to let youthful folly influence his actions.Judging the heat with an expert eye, he moved one well-muscled arm to work the bellows. The whoosh of them expanding and contracting was accompanied by the faint roar and crackle as the coals’ temperature rose in conjunction.When Bren was satisfied, he rotated the thin metal with the tongs in his other gloved hand, heating it evenly.With a powerful twist of his thick wrist, Bren plucked the metal free and grasped a heavy hammer as he alternately bent and pounded the piece.When he was done, he held his work up before him, critically examining every angle before grudgingly admitting he could not improve upon it. His own perfectionism was barely appeased.Still, he knew the recipient of this particular work would be overjoyed with its present state, and Bren had run out of time. He needed to get it to Amelia today and install it for her. Not that she knew about the installation part, but…Bren smiled a little at the thought of her pleasure, his white straight teeth gleaming momentarily in the forge’s glow, making him look faintly demonic.He quenched the metal in the linseed oil kept for that purpose, the hiss and rise of steam and flames only adding to his sweat.When at last Bren judged it cool enough, he laid the finished piece upon the nearby metal bench and tugged off the heavy leather gloves that covered him almost to his elbows, before removing the apron and wiping his upper arms and chest with a cloth.There was no time to feel a sense of accomplishment; the dawn was approaching, the horizon above the nearby forest beginning to lighten. He could hear the stirring of the doves in the rafters, their soft noises indicative of the start of each day.After removing the heavy leather apron, Bren passed through the double doors of the smithy into the chill of the early morning, feeling the sweat cool upon his flesh.This was his least favorite time of day, for soon others would rise and his peace would be shattered with their presence. He bent over the horse trough, wetting another rag and attempting to clean himself to respectability, so that at least the whites of his eyes would not gleam out from a face blackened with grime. People seemed to notice him even more if he did not wash, and that attention was something Bren avoided at all costs.He had a lifetime of experience in how to avoid notice. Attention invariably led to unpleasant occurrences, and both his size and birth made him favorite targets of malicious souls within the town. It was easier to remain within the relative safety of the smithy. Here he felt confident and projected it well enough to give those who would harm him pause. Those massive tools were all too ready to his hand…The smithy was his protection, his creative outlet, and his prison. Rarely did he leave it. He had plans of some day moving on, being free of the never-ending prejudice that met him here at every turn. He had no knowledge of the outside world or if it would even be any better than what he endured here. But he was determined to go see for himself.He took a deep breath, shaking the thoughts from him like annoying flies. His gift needed to be delivered and put up personally. Bren wished to get it done before his father woke.The man would curse him relentlessly if he had even the faintest inkling of this gift and who it was intended for. No doubt word would get back to him in time and Bren would pay dearly for it, but at this moment, it was a happiness in Bren’s often bleak life.Bren sluiced off his upper body, ignoring the fact that his pants were dampened by the deluge. They needed washing anyway. He cleaned up as best he could. The layered grime of the forge worked its way into his skin so that he was never completely free of the blackness. It was the mark of good, honest toil as far as Bren was concerned, but others seemed to mind, calling him filthy and disgusting, along with other far more malicious and belittling titles.He shrugged wide shoulders and went into the lean-to that adjoined the smithy, his own little spot in the world. Here his few possessions were grouped alongside the makeshift bed he had cobbled together, since his father had been content with him sleeping on straw. He would never allow Bren in the main house that lay at the back of the smithy, but he would not let him go either. He regarded Bren as his possession, much as a horse or a cow, and held little more regard for him than that.Bren used to be content with his little hovel. It kept him away from the old man and was reasonably dry, if a little cold in the winter, though usually Bren just slept in a corner of the smithy then, nice and warm if a little dirty.For a long while, it had been enough. But now…Bren could not really conceive of more, but he wanted to find out what the outside world had to offer.He shouldered into a shirt before gathering his tools. Bren put them in a leather bag, slinging it over his shoulder and picking up the finished piece of metal.With a last glance toward the house at the back of the smithy, ensuring that his father had not yet woken, unlikely though that may be with drink in his system, Bren headed out into the village.The shopkeepers were only just wakening; he could see lights on in several windows, but they would not open for a good hour yet, hopefully giving Bren enough opportunity to complete his task in peace.He passed silently through the quiet streets to the other side of the town. The lowbrow, undesirable side, familiar and welcome to Bren himself. Here the streets were dirty and littered, but he passed through them with the ease of familiarity and finally reached his destination. The huge house was painted brightly, isolated even as the smithy was, but a haven of cheer in the drabness of the poor quarter.Bren always found himself smiling at the obvious difference, the blatant disregard for convention that characterized Amelia’s tastes. Mind you, no matter how it looked, a brothel would always stand out in people’s minds. Certainly in their prejudices as well, though most of its patrons came from the wealthy side of town, the hotbed of morality.That Amelia refused to let people cow her tastes was simply a sign of her inner strength and general contempt for the small-minded bigotry that so characterized this town. It was the same strength that had enabled her to raise Bren, when his mother, one of Amelia’s “girls,” died of a fever.The local orphanage had wanted him; their children were useful as cheap labor, but Amelia had refused to give him up. He had lived ten very happy years with her and the other residents of the brothel before that terrible day when his father had claimed him.His smile died at the remembrance.There were no memories since then that he wanted to recall.He reached the door of the brothel and pulled the rope that rang a bell inside. He could see someone peering through the small glass peephole, then the various bolts were rasped open one at a time, until finally the door swung inward to reveal a slim, young blonde.“Bren!” she squealed, reaching up on tiptoes to hug his huge frame, pulling him into the haven of the house at the same time.He grinned and hugged her back, easily lifting her off the floor.“Hello to you too, little Helena.”She slapped his shoulder, trying to create a mock frown despite her laughter. “I am not little, Bren!”“Oh no?” his brow arched, grin widening as he lifted her over his head and spun her round like a child.She shrieked and tried to brace herself on his head.“We will have no rowdiness in these halls,” a stern voice interrupted their play.Immediately Bren lowered Helena, his grin widening, and he reached for the newcomer, swinging her up as easily as he had the younger girl.She did not squeal, nothing so undignified, but she smiled down at him, hands on his shoulders.Bren put her down carefully and bent for her kiss on his cheek.“You have been busy, Bren? We have not seen you for quite a while.” Amelia’s voice held the sultry smoothness that had earned her legions of admirers and clients.“Yeah, the old man has me working doing metal repairs for the livery stable.” Bren never used the term “father.” It was his own little rebellion, feeble though it might be. Some day he would have a smithy of his own, and he would no longer have to hold his tongue just so he could continue to do the work he loved.Amelia referred to him as “the old bastard,” so really, Bren had learned from the best.Bren reached down for the bundle he had left by the door, removing the item within, and hefted it for her inspection.“By the Gods, Bren, it is beautiful!” Amelia was not given to undue praise, so Bren knew that her appreciation was genuine and heartfelt.Helena came closer, putting out a small hand to touch the ornate metal. “No one will be able to break this…”Bren nodded. “That is why I made it so heavy. No one is going to be vandalizing this one.”One month earlier, someone had smashed the brothel’s sign, tearing it right off. The new one, with ornate brackets, was solid metal and nothing that could be destroyed…and Bren was going to attach it to the house very well indeed.Amelia gave him another hug, holding him close for long, precious moments before she framed his face in her delicate hands. She smiled for him as she did for few others, her shrewd eyes gentle for once. “You have so much of your mother in you, Bren. She was generous and had such a good heart.”Bren flushed a little, shifting uncomfortably under her steady regard.“It just was not right, the damage,” he muttered, studying his fingers with great intensity.Amelia gave him a kiss on his cheek. “You are going to install it for us?”“Of course,” Bren straightened, comfortable now the topic was not him. He glanced outside. “I have to get it done fast. I have to be back at the forge…”Amelia nodded. Bren did not have to explain that “the old bastard” would wake soon. They knew his habits all too well.She nodded and shooed him out. “Breakfast will be ready to take with you.”He nodded, already drooling in anticipation. It was rare he got a good meal, and Amelia always saw to it that the food he received was delicious and best of all, there was lots of it. It took a lot to fuel his large, heavily muscled body.He whistled to himself as he found a ladder in the back shed and, after tying his tool bag around his waist, shimmied up to begin his work.The sun was rising and the warmth struck his cheek, making him smile a little. He hummed to himself, happy to be away from the stifling imprisonment the old man enforced. The thought that he would be outraged at Bren’s actions only sweetened the pot.As he drove in the last nail, leaning back a little to admire the sign, a deep, accented voice startled him.“You are the smith?”Bren yelped in startlement, not expecting any other being to be up and about at this hour, certainly not expecting a stranger. Strangers were few and far between in this backwater town.Bren made a grab for his hammer after it slipped from his lax fingers and plummeted toward the speaker, only to be snatched out of the air by armored fingers.Armored fingers?Bren gaped downward, knowing he was doing a creditable imitation of a country bumpkin but unable at that moment to do anything else.Two men stood on the walkway, looking up at him, their scaled armor glinting in the morning sun as it rose enough to illuminate the street.Bren felt a chill run through him as he met their eyes, cool and piercing.Dragon riders…Superstition rose within his thoughts and it was all he could do to prevent himself from making a sign of protection. He had heard enough stories of them, but had never had the doubtful pleasure of actually seeing one.It was rather like seeing a legend come to life before his eyes. He glanced around quickly, searching for their dragons, then felt half a fool when he didn’t see them. Of course they wouldn’t bring such huge and majestic creatures into town.The dragon riders did not speak again, only stared at him with fathomless eyes, looking as though they knew full well what he was thinking.Dear gods, did they read minds too? He had never heard that snippet of gossip, but…Finally he gave his head a shake to clear it, chastising himself harshly. He had to stop acting so provincial; he liked to think he had a more open mind than most of the townsfolk, who were opposed to the slightest differences in their own people, much less foreigners.Still, that dragon riders were here at all was chilling. Once every seven years, they scoured the kingdom for what they called “Candidates,” backed by the king’s laws. Once chosen, people were taken away and never seen again, no doubt used for some horrific rite practiced by the reclusive guardians of the realm.Even that seemed a little farfetched to Bren, but what did he know? Little truth seemed to filter down this far into the wilds. Drawing a deep breath into his lungs to steady his scattered thoughts, he slowly descended the ladder to meet the riders face to face…Not quite…To his amazement, they were taller than him, broader than him. In fact, he felt rather small in their shadow, something he was not used to experiencing. It only added to the fear he could not quite suppress, despite his inner scoffing at how true gossip about them could really be.“I am the smith’s son,” he finally managed, annoyed at his own reactions.The two riders looked him up and down, no expression on their cold faces. The one who seemed to be the leader fished in an ornate pouch hanging on his belt and held out an extremely large iron ring. Bren didn’t reach for it, his attention solely upon that intense gaze. Purple eyes—so beautiful that he…“Can you fix this?” The doubt in the tone made Bren stiffen with damaged pride, and he shook off the strange attraction, and frowned as he took the offered object.It had pulled apart, and Bren could see the original weld had been less than expert.“I can fix it, but don’t buy any other from whoever made it. It was ill done, bound to fail.” Bren relaxed into himself once more, secure and confident in his knowledge.The taller rider raised a brow and shared a look with his companion, then back at Bren. “How quickly could you fix it? We have been delayed by its breakage and need to be on our way.”Bren felt a surge of relief. The riders were here by dint of an accident, not any dark purpose of seizing people…“I can do it right away, if you wish. I just have to put the ladder away and tell Amelia I am done.” He silently mourned the meal he would now miss.The men nodded in silence, and Bren handed back the ring before taking the ladder in hand, walking back toward the shed to put it away, his thoughts racing about. Now that he knew that the riders had no nefarious purpose in their presence, he could be safely curious. It was so rare to see any stranger, much less a rider. And for Bren to be the one they spoke to… He shook his head in wonder.Amelia was disappointed when he told her, but she peered around the edge of the door at the riders with great curiosity and not a little fear.“Be careful in their presence, Bren,” she whispered, touching his hand to reinforce the words. “They are not known for their kindness.”Bren nodded, his own fears rising to meet her concerns. Fascinating they might be, but he really wished he did not have to spend time in their presence. They were rather like predators; something better watched from a distance with wary respect.He shook off the introspection with faint annoyance at his own cowardice.They were only men.With dragons…Bren snorted at himself and turned back to the riders, gesturing them to follow as he gathered his tools and headed back down the street toward the forge.He could feel their presence behind him and he looked behind once or twice, realizing that they were utterly silent in their tread. He felt clumsy and unbalanced in comparison and growled at himself to gather his wits. This was simply a job and they were customers, that was all.Upon reaching the forge, he carefully put away the tools he was carrying before turning to the riders and holding out his hand for the ring.They passed it to him in silence, their eyes seeming to take in every detail of the building and its contents. In the familiar surroundings and the light of the forge, he could see that they were at least seven feet tall and proportionately broad. Their faces were long, almost triangular, with slightly slanted eyes that seemed larger than normal. One had dark-blonde hair braided back, that disappeared inside the back of his armor, and the other one was darker, with hair that seemed thicker than the first, but braided in the same fashion. Their famous armor was beautiful in its functionality, made with the shed scales of their own dragon. The blonde’s armor held various hues of red, whilst the darker one wore black, a hint of iridescence in the light of the forge. The dragons themselves had to be creatures of extreme beauty if this is what their mere scales looked like. He wanted to see one, but it was not likely he would lay eyes on a dragon. No doubt they were somewhere on the edges of the town, blending into their surroundings as they were rumored to be capable of.He manned the bellows with firm strokes, the latent fire sluggishly and reluctantly flaring to life in the coals. Donning his heavy leather gloves and apron, he grasped his tongs and placed the ring in their grip. He could feel his face heating from the sullen glow of the coals, but he stood firm, thrusting the tongs and ring into the forge, watching with expert eyes as the metal began to heat.When he judged it ready, he withdrew the ring swiftly while plunging a thin wire of soft metal into the forge with his other hand. Placing the ring upon the anvil, he brought the now dripping wire out and let it flow over the broken edges of the ring. When there was enough, he put aside the wire and used smaller tongs to force the edges together. Laying the ring flat, he then used one of the finer hammers of his collection to beat the ring back into being flat and true before thrusting it back into the forge for a reheating.Three times he adjusted and turned it, reheating and hammering, viewing every side with a judgmental eye, not satisfied until it was perfectly round, perfectly joined. He had completely forgotten his audience as he often did while he was working. The forge was his world, and here, he was ruler. People were of no import whatsoever.He quenched the ring at last, unable to find a fault, and wiped at his forehead with the back of one gloved hand as he watched the steam hiss and billow into the air. It was only then he remembered the riders and turned to face them as he stripped off his gloves. The fire of the forge reflected in their eyes, their gazes intent upon him, and he felt a faint shiver wrack his body. They looked truly demonic in the shifting glow, something to fear.He shook off the fancy.“How much do we owe you then?” the blonde questioned, his voice smooth and clear.Bren shook his head, aware of the old ways, though they were seldom followed in the present.“You are the Guardians. There is no charge. Blessed be your endeavors.” The old saying slipped off his tongue easily, something his grandfather had taught him when he was younger.The riders stilled, watching him with surprise flitting across their cold features for the briefest of moments.The taller, dark haired man’s face became thoughtful, calculating almost, and Bren began to wish he had not spoken. He always seemed to gain trouble when he spoke…Whatever thoughts the dragon rider had, his expression slid into cold blankness once more. He nodded toward the forge. “You are skilled.”“My grandfather taught me.” He refused to mention his father.“I would have you look at several of my saddle fittings. I want more ornate ones, and perhaps you have the skill to create them. If so, you would find many more of my kind as clients. As you can see by the ring, our temporary blacksmith is less than competent.”Bren felt a small stir of pride that this man of legend would think him skilled enough to commission something more artistic than a simple ring. “You have the saddle with you?”“It is in the clearing behind your smithy. Would you be interested?”Bren hesitated, but his wish to create won out over fear of these strangers—and to see a dragon? Something no one else here could claim?Leaving his apron on, he nodded. “Show me.”It was brighter now, the sun rising over the forest and the morning air was fresh and clean with a slight breeze stirring the nearby trees. Bren took a deep breath to clear his lungs, closing his eyes in appreciation.They reached the clearing in moments, and Bren looked around for the saddle, searching with some trepidation for the dragon itself, only to freeze in horror as something in front of him shimmered, then slowly coalesced into solidity. Before him, only inches away, was the massive foreleg of an equally massive dragon.Bren forgot to breathe as his eyes slowly trailed up the black-scaled limb, his heart near stopping as a truly immense head slowly turned to look down at him.Golden eyes, with vertical pupils as large as half Bren’s body, blinked lazily, viewing him with lordly disdain. The head was as large as the smithy, long-snouted, with an almost delicate nose, whose thin nostrils flared to catch his scent. The streamlined skull flared back into bony frills which extended over the neck, while two spiral horns elegantly swept upward, gleaming almost golden in the sun.The body was too large for Bren to fully take in, his eyes were fixed upon the head…and the teeth it contained as the beast yawned before dipping its head closer and drawing a deep breath that tousled Bren’s hair in the updraft.A vibration shook Bren’s chest, and it took a moment before he realized it was a deep rumble from the dragon itself as it inspected him.Bren was too terrified to move, his instincts telling him to be still, to let the beast have its way. His eyes were fixed upon the edges of serrated teeth poking past the dragon’s closed mouth and he could well imagine them slicing through his flesh with ease.He swallowed hard, drawing a trembling breath into lungs too long deprived of air. The dragon sniffed him once more and he caught the edge of sulfur-tainted breath before the creature lifted its head, twisting its sinuous neck as it made an odd sound like a purr/growl and gently butted its snout against the dark-haired dragon rider.The rider smiled then, his face transformed into something more human for long moments as his gloved hands stroked the massive head before him.The blonde rider chuckled, a sound Bren could hardly associate with the grimness that two had shown up to this point. “You are fortunate. Nartalsis approves of few humans.” His eyes sharpened upon Bren.Bren took a step back, suddenly aware that the air had become charged and the two riders were now viewing him with a different eye, as though something beyond his blacksmithing skills had come to light.Bren tried to still his fears, chastising himself for the same superstitions that the townspeople held. He was being foolish, and yet his heart pounded and a primal part of his mind wanted to flee.He fought his fear and straightened, facing them with his chin rising just slightly.“You wanted to show me the saddle fittings. I have to get back soon to open the smithy so…” He kept his tone even, hoping they would not take insult.They stared at him for long moments, something dangerous in their eyes, before the taller, dark-haired one nodded, a faint smile appearing on that grim mouth as though he acknowledged Bren’s bravery in facing them and speaking at all.The rider finally made a move to the side of the massive dragon, reaching up to indicate several metal fittings that although serviceable, seemed painfully uninspiring to Bren.Immediately he stepped forward to see more clearly, his own interest driving out the momentary fear he had experienced. The saddle was far too high for Bren to actually touch, but he could see clearly enough, and his mind whirled with immediate creative inspiration. The sheer size of the fittings themselves would enable Bren to ornament them in ways smaller rings could not show. He murmured to himself, expert eyes tracing the metal, taking approximate measurements without even having to touch.When he finally turned back to the riders, his eyes were unfocussed, lost in his own musings, completely forgetting his earlier fear.“I would need to have exact measurements, but there is much potential in this. Are all saddles approximately the same dimensions?”They nodded in unison. “The girths are different sizes, but for the most part, the saddles are identical until the rider changes the trappings to suit himself.”Bren nodded, fingers fairly itching to start working.“I will make a set of the size you just gave me to begin with and you can see what you think of them…” His voice trailed off as a thought came to him. “Are you going to be coming back this way though…?” He almost felt sick at the thought of missing out on the chance to see his work on the beautiful saddle. It was something so different than his ordinary orders, something so creative that he rarely got to work on.The riders exchanged glances, then the dark one spoke. “We will come…for this. I think it will be worth it.” He held out a gauntleted hand.Bren stared at it blankly for a moment, then shook it, flushing a little at the realization that his hands were once again blackened and filthy in comparison to the pristine metal of the armored glove.The riders said nothing more, and Bren turned away, uncomfortably aware of their piercing stare on his back as he retreated toward the trees and the path that led back to the smithy. He only paused when he heard the heavy beat of wings.Over his shoulder he could see the amazing sight of the dragons lifting skywards, the downdraft from their wing beats making the trees sway dangerously for several moments.Bren watched, breathless at their beauty. What would it feel like to experience that lift? To fly? As the dragons and their riders disappeared above the trees, Bren turned away, a faintly morose feeling washing over him as he returned to his oh-so-ordinary life.