Kill the dragon, or rescue his heart?
Rycard Serod's band of hunters is in dire straits. Deep in the borderlands overrun with plague, starvation, and the brutal Boa Visk armies, the hunters are out of money, out of food, and half a continent away from their winter camp, with storms close on their heels. Their only chance of survival is the bounty Rycard has accepted, the largest they've ever been offered. The downside—they'll be working for the Boa Visk. The other downside—they'll be hunting a dragon. Luckily, they don't have to kill the dragon. Just bring him back alive in all his fire-breathing, magic-wielding glory to the Boa Visk, who want him for their own dark purposes. But when Rycard finally has the dragon in his sights, he begins to question his decision. The dragon's not only a powerful beast, he can transform into a man—a beautiful, wise, honorable man, who makes Rycard's war-weary heart long for the balm of the dragon's touch.
Vorgon Graydalon will do anything to keep the humans of his valley safe, even if it means war with the Boa Visk. But the unexpected arrival of a band of hunters has endangered everything—his freedom, his people, and even his own kind, hidden away on their remote island far from the Boa Visk threat. He can't understand why Rycard, who claims to hunt monsters, would take Boa Visk gold to hunt him, the one creature who protects the humans. But when Rycard forces him to reveal his secret and shift into human form, Vorgon cannot refuse. There is too much at stake. And the way Rycard looks at him makes something wild and primitive awaken in Vorgon's heart. He's not sure if the dragon hunter will be the key to his salvation, or the key to his destruction, and that of all his kind. But after a night in the hunter's embrace, he's powerless to walk away...
CHAPTER ONERycard Serod’s dog moved closer, nearly pressing against his legs as Rycard led his horse down the muddy, churned-up road winding into town. The smoke and ash in the air probably made the dog nervous. Rycard reached down and stroked Charza’s head, trying to reassure him. The dog whined and lapped nervously at his hand.A battle of some kind had raged around Shademere, and not very long ago. Dark smoke billowed from the remains of a large stone structure near the center of the settlement. Some sort of stronghold, most like. The fire was almost out. The smoke cloud was dissipating, but the air still stank of char. Large sections of the hewn logs forming the town’s palisade wall had been smashed or burned. The gates were shattered into scorched splinters. Arrows protruded from the mud of the surrounding fields as if they’d been fired desperately into the air by the hundreds, only to fall back to the earth without finding their target. Boa Visk guards in dark, spiked armor patrolled the charred gaps in the wall, most of them bearing polearms or bows.Gansen trotted over on his destrier and reined up beside Rycard, the horse’s hooves spattering mud on Rycard’s legs. Rycard, who had dismounted to rest his horse and now walked at the pace of their three wagons, ignored it. A little more mud certainly didn’t matter now.“Dragons,” Gansen said in a deep grumble and spat into the mud. “Of course it was dragons. Fire’s always caused by dragons. It’s never something as simple as a lightning strike or a drunken fool with a lamp.” Gansen was a bear of a man with a heavy brow and aggressively bushy beard. He wore odd bits of chainmail and leather armor and carried a two-handed ax nearly as tall as Rycard. “We should never have come here.”“We go where the money is,” Rycard said placidly.Gansen settled his hand around the thick haft of his war ax as if he wanted to strangle something. “Do you really think to collect a bounty on a dragon? There’s no bloody dragons anymore. All I smell is some cowardly garrison commander who got his fortress burned down by rebels. Instead of admitting defeat, he cries dragon.”“It’s the biggest bounty we’ve ever been offered.”“And that alone should tell you something.”Rycard remained silent. Best to let Gansen complain and get it over with. If it wasn’t the dragon, it was the mud, the food, the blood flies, or how often his horse farted.Gansen shaded his eyes as he stared at the distant town. “Besides, it’s hard to stomach working for those Boa Visk bastards.”“We’ve done it before.”Gansen spat again into the mud. “Aye, we’ve done it before. But there’s always a last time. And this might as well be it.”Rycard didn’t bother to reply. He hated the Boa Visk as much as Gansen. Few humans in the land did not. When the Boa Visk had poured across the Drahahn Mountains in an endless tide, none of the human nations had been left standing. The magic of the Boa Visk was strange and powerful, their beasts of war terrifying and difficult to kill. The Boa Visk armies invaded and enslaved, plundering without mercy, until most of the human kingdoms were crushed under their boot heels. Their home, Shomogar, was one of those nations.Gansen urged his horse forward to continue patrolling around their wagons. His horse’s hooves splattered more mud with every step. Rycard let him go. He didn’t want to talk about the bounty. Gansen was right. The size of the bounty should have set alarm bells ringing in his head. But they needed the money. And Rycard needed one last payoff—a big one—and then he could retire from this dirty, wet, thankless work and maybe buy a little cabin on a plot of land by the river somewhere that he could farm until he died from the plague or the boot rot or starvation like everyone else.The town of Shademere was situated on a rise, far enough above the banks of a narrow river to avoid the spring floods when the snow melted in the mountains. Reeds and cattails dotted the riverbanks, and masses of birds flocked from one side of the river to the other, as if they were as agitated as his dog. The distant mountains made a craggy, purple-and-gray wall to the north, with snow dusting the highest slopes and the river winding its way to the flatlands. Fields of wheat, barley, and oats spread out from around the palisade wall as far as the eye could see.Rycard scanned the fields outside the town. No sign of fire damage. That struck him as odd. If a dragon truly were involved, surely it would have blackened the ground for leagues around. The mill on the river had also escaped the flames.He trudged onward toward the smoldering fortress, the mud squelching around his boots as the wagons creaked and groaned beside him. He wanted to ride again but was giving his horse, Redmane, a rest. Earlier, they’d had to use both his and Yero’s horses to help drag one of the wagons out of yet another muddy trench. It had rained most of the way here, compounding everyone’s misery. Their three wagons were loaded with provisions and weapons, making the wheels sink up to the axles in mud at seemingly every turn. The entire journey had been an exhausting, filthy struggle. But they were finally here.Only to find part of the town burned to cinders.They drew up to the shattered town gates beside the burned-out remains of a guard tower. The half dozen Boa Visk sentries at the gate spread out and made their way toward Rycard and his convoy. Beneath their spiked helms, their yellow-green scales looked sinister and snakelike, their orange-and-black eyes watched Rycard and his hunters like predators. They wore brown and black armor, ornamented with spikes and black braided cords that revealed their ranks and battle history. Each carried a carska spear, a weapon with a long haft and three black blades on the end like a W with an elongated center blade.It was probably poisoned. The Boa Visk liked to poison their blades. They also liked to bite their adversaries with their sharp yellow teeth, poisoning with their saliva. They made his skin crawl, especially when they stared at him with those reptilian eyes, as if he were prey to toy with.“What have we here?” one of the Boa Visk growled, narrowing his eyes as he looked them over. He glanced up at the flag that flew from one of their wagons. A red chain and white arrow against a black background. Then he turned to his comrades and grinned, showing his pointed yellow teeth. “Muddy little humans pretending to be warriors? Now that tickles me.”Gansen spurred his horse closer. Timval, one of their mage adepts and their newest and youngest member, dropped his hand to the knife sheathed at his side.Gods be damned, the little fool. Rycard stepped forward and shot him a look heavy with warning. The sandy-haired young man scowled but removed his hand from his knife and sat easy in the saddle again. Rycard wasn’t about to allow a hothead to provoke a fight before they even entered the town.He turned back to the guards and withdrew the parchment with the bounty offer from his saddlebag. He held it up before anything else could go wrong. “I’m Rycard Serod of the Splitchain Hunters.” He gestured toward his companions, the seven hunters and the three wagon drivers who doubled as cooks, tinkers, hedge smiths, and guards. “We’ve been summoned to solve your monster problem.”The gate guard’s expression turned nasty. “You’re vultures, you mean. You come here, sniffing around corpses, searching for gold. Well, you’re too late. We already killed the dragon.”Cold dismay washed through him. If they’d traveled all this way for nothing…They needed that gold. Rycard had staked his leadership of the Splitchain Hunters on this rainy-season journey. Horses had to be fed, supplies purchased, hunters paid, armor repaired—the list was endless. They’d spent much of their profit from the last few bounties fleeing the plague back in Landilar. After the capital had been sealed off, escaping the city had been a nightmare. Bribes had been needed…and food had cost a fortune. Two of his hunters, Dormier and Casten, had died of the bleeding lung.Winter was coming on. They’d have to hole up until spring, and that meant money for three months’ worth of provisions for his men and the animals. This was the last job they’d be able to take before the ice storms hit. As it was, so late in the season, they’d be lucky to get back to their winter camp without freezing to death on the road.If the dragon was dead, there would be no bounty. No monster to hunt, no gold to collect. They might as well have stayed in the plague-ridden Landilar. They’d be just as dead.Rycard met the Boa Visk’s stare. “So the dragon attacked Shademere, and the garrison brought it down?” He kept his tone carefully neutral. Not weak, but not overtly challenging, either.The Boa Visk guard planted his carska spear and leaned on it. “Are you a fool? I said as much, didn’t I? We killed the dragon, protecting this pisshole town. Riddled it with arrows and bolts and seared it with kovohl magic. So run along.”“Strange. I don’t see a dead dragon anywhere,” Dezarie quipped, peering around theatrically from horseback, her short, dark braid sliding over the shoulders of her light armor as she turned her head. Like the rest of them, mud-spatter dotted her legs and her horse’s flanks. The woman was the other of their two mage adepts. Both she and Timval specialized in trap spells, tracking, and control magic, but Timval relied more on his magic and Dezarie more on her sword. “I’d like to at least see the fantastical beast since we came all this way.”The guard slitted his orange eyes as he nudged one of his comrades. “Bad enough the males act as if they can fight. Now they hide behind the skirts of their females.”“I’d be nice to her if I were you,” Gansen warned with a cheery note to his voice. “Unless you want her to hex your head down to the size of an apple.”Rycard held up a hand for peace as the Boa Visk guards edged closer, their expressions darkening. The Boa Visk were always dangerously volatile, and his hunters weren’t exactly helping matters. He’d had about all he could stomach of these guards, but his small band couldn’t survive a fight with the entire garrison.“I have a commission to hunt a dragon from Gardzar Malak Telk,” Rycard said. “I will speak with him in person. If you’ve already killed the dragon, the gardzar will terminate our commission. If not…well, I’m certain the gardzar would not be pleased to learn a mere sentry turned away the hunters he sent for.”The guard gave him one last lingering stare of contempt before spitting again and waving them through. “Go on then, vermin. The gardzar is in his pavilion near what’s left of the fort. But he won’t have any more use for you than I do. No doubt that dragon is as good as bled out by now.”“No doubt,” Rycard agreed, mounting Redmane again and urging her forward. Charza stayed close on his right. He whistled to the wagon drivers and signaled for them to move out. With a clatter of hooves and wagon wheels over the rutted road, their little band started through what remained of the palisade wall as the Boa Visk stood aside and eyed them with clear dislike.