Prince Daron welcomed his father with the courtesy required of the youngest son. The feast he arranged in honor of Arostrath’s death and King Taseth’s return far outshone any previous feasts, so he hoped his father would forgive his stiff bow and absent smile. His friend and advisor Stratus was gone and Daron suspected why; the dragonspawn had warned him that he might not return from the hunt. Daron and Stratus had been exceptionally close and he wished he could mourn his friend’s death openly.
He was eager to hear news from Sean, the only brother he fully trusted. All eight of his brothers had tried to dissuade the King of his fool’s errand, but failed. Now the gates to chaos had been opened. He wondered how long it would take before the first dragon appeared looking for a place to call home. They had been so lucky with Arostrath.
Once, during the Great Famine a century ago, Arostrath had done the unthinkable for a dragon and returned a single piece of treasure each year to sell for food until the earth recovered and the seeds sprouted again. Most villagers preferred Arostrath to King Taseth, but of course Arostrath did nothing to protect them from human invaders. He sat in his mountain and brooded over his gold, emerging only to feed.
In the sky, though, no one was Arostrath’s equal. Many times dragons entered the realm and Arostrath drove them away with a speed and ferocity that belied the image of him sleeping for centuries, dreaming of gold. It happened often enough that Daron had seen it. The smaller dragons were thought to be Arostrath’s mates seeking shelter or sacrifices. Normally Arostrath drove them out, but every century or so, legend said a small dragon would be allowed to stay, and several decades later dragonspawn would appear in the skies, flying to some unknown destination about which Stratus never spoke but wore a look of loss and longing when Daron asked.
His father, as usual, was far too overcome with news of his own successes to pay attention to his son’s dour mood and went straight to the celebration, pausing only briefly to congratulate Daron on keeping the realm together, as if it were no large feat to govern with the limited authority of the youngest son.
Sean was more helpful and gave him news of the realm, word of the people’s mood now that the dragon was slain. The countryside was rife with apprehension; farmers planted less for fear of wandering dragons ravaging fields; easily burned thatched roofs were replaced by tile and construction in wood came to a standstill; women stayed indoors unless protected by knights; all because neighboring dragons would hear of the luxurious realm now unruled and battle for rights. A war of dragons was beyond the realm’s worst nightmares and the people prayed that Arostrath revived to protect them.
The King didn’t care, Daron knew. Killing the dragon meant he ruled the land and sky; it didn’t occur to King Taseth that he was inviting dragons to challenge his authority. He knew nothing of dragons. He hadn’t even faced Arostrath as a Prince. Any Prince who wanted to be King challenged Arostrath to a duel to prove their bravery, bearing the resulting scars and burns with honor the rest of their lives. A few never returned, but Arostrath rarely killed. He respected strength.
But Daron knew that when King Taseth and the dragon came face to face in the crags, Taseth, then a Prince, tried to flee. Instead of killing him, Arostrath picked him up, dropped him back in his camp, and made a sound like laughter as he flew away. No one was supposed to know about it, of course, but Stratus had told Daron to soothe his anger when the King refused to let his youngest son duel. “Fighting Arostrath has nothing to do with being King, Daron,” the dragonspawn had said. “Let me tell you about your father.”
The lords who accompanied the King on the dragon quest filed into the chamber and proceeded to the feast, and then Daron saw a young woman surrounded by his brothers. A healer stood at her side and she swayed slightly. Daron stared at her, captivated by the brilliant fire spilling down from her head, the dark hazel of her skin, the golden eyes that glittered and fixed on his as she drew near. He barely noticed the gold necklace and bracelets she wore, so glued to her eyes was he.
“Prince Daron,” his eldest brother said, “this is Rosa. She escaped the dragon’s lair. Rosa, this is Prince Daron, youngest of King Taseth’s sons.”
Daron kissed her hand as he would the hand of a princess and his brothers chuckled, no doubt thinking him overcome by her beauty. They hadn’t given her a title but she was royalty, he could see it in her eyes.
The healer led her through the procession until she sat beside the King in a place of honor. Daron watched her throughout the feast, concerned by her pallor. Occasionally the healer whispered to the King, but he laughed and ordered more food and wine, running his fingers along her gold bracelet possessively. Daron saw that she wore anklets as well, all the same gold, and when he asked his brothers they explained that it wasn’t jewelry but shackles made by the dragon.
“To be imprisoned in solid gold,” his eldest brother said longingly. “That might be worth her fate.”
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