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Royal Bondage (Ellora's Cave)by Samantha Winston
A gony unlike anything he'd ever felt tore through his body. Everything shook — his hands, his legs, and even his teeth chattered uncontrollably. Darkness crushed him like a physical thing and he tried to push it away, but it pressed down, harder and harder. Confusion followed the shock and pain, and then little bits of memory trickled back. Visions flashed across his mind, bringing with them more terror and pain.
Dragons with dull, iron-gray scales and rusty armor stalking next to hordes of enemy soldiers. The Mouse King, a shapeshifter with a talent for controlling dragons, riding the mightiest dragon, his scepter held aloft. Prince Branagh, in a last, desperate try to stop him, knocking him off the dragon and fighting him in vicious hand-to-hand combat. And he and his brother facing the enraged dragon on their own.
They'd succeeded, killing it when all hope seemed to have fled. But the beast had lashed out one last time, catching his brother across the chest and belly with its razor-sharp claws. Elloran had died in his arms, his pain first washing over Llewellyn then slowly ebbing into cold and darkness.
"No!" An agonized scream echoed in his ears and Llewellyn shot up in his bed, arms outstretched as if to ward off blows. His breathing whistled in his throat as he fought to control his racing heart. Icy sweat trickled down his back and chest. No dragons faced him, no screams assailed his ears, only the silence of the night and his heart pounding in his ears. Slowly he pulled the covers up over his shoulder with hands that still shook from the nightmare.
He wanted to die, for surely death would take away the anguish. He wanted to die, because each day he lived, each minute, every hour, his brother's last minutes came to him as a torture. He rubbed his forehead and a sigh shuddered from him. Elloran had been his twin, and everything he'd felt, Llewellyn had felt, from joy to love...to excruciating death. Sometimes he feared to open his one good eye after the nightmare, sure to find his sheets drenched with blood. His other eye was nothing but a memory, and an ache sometimes when the weather turned. One battle had cost him an eye and his twin. Some days are better not lived.
Llewellyn pushed the covers back and sat up. He wouldn't be getting any more sleep that night, and sweat had soaked his bed. Shivering a bit, though not from cold, he got up and went to the window. Outside, starlight glittered off a sprinkle of new snow. Winter settled its mantle upon the land. In the darkness an owl hooted softly and hoofbeats sounded. He lifted his head and peered into the night. Two riders, from the sound of it. His mouth twitched. It must be Sebring and Merlin, come to tell him about their sister's wedding. And they would be wanting something hot to drink and a warm fire. He pulled a tunic over his head and tossed a handful of tinder into the embers.
The horses and riders came out of the darkness, the horses trotting with a light step, the riders wrapped in warm cloaks and nodding with fatigue. They stopped in the pool of light spilling from his window, and Llewellyn stepped outside to greet his friends. "Sebring, Merlin!" He took the horses' reins and nodded toward the house. "You know where the tea is, and the water should be hot. Let me take your mounts."
"Thanks." Sebring yawned, then he threw his arm over his brother's shoulder and said, "Merlin, you owe me a gold piece, I told you Llewellyn would be awake. See, we didn't drag him out of bed."
Merlin looked at Llewellyn and a shadow seemed to pass over his eyes, but he grinned crookedly and said, "Sorry to arrive at such an ungodly hour, but we have some news we thought you should hear."
Llewellyn felt a prickle of disquiet. Merlin's voice had been matter of fact, but he'd caught an undercurrent of tension. But best not to speak out-of-doors, one never knew whose ears could listen in. He tugged on the horses' reins and led them to the stables. He took off their saddles and bridles, rubbing them down with handfuls of dry straw and then putting warm blankets over them before tying them in their stalls.
As he worked, he thought about what might have brought Merlin and Sebring here so soon after their sister's wedding. No doubt the festivities would be shortened, due to the king's death not long ago. But the wedding had been only three days ago, and it took two days to ride to Hivernia from here. Frowning, he closed the stable door and dropped the latch.
Firelight danced on the walls. Merlin and Sebring had lit the lamps so that his house glowed with light. Llewellyn winced. The light showed him to be a deplorable housekeeper. A pile of dirty dishes in the sink, clothes strewn about, cobwebs everywhere.
"Well, it looks like you haven't found a maid yet." Sebring's eyes twinkled as he poured a glass of hot mulled wine and handed it to Llewellyn. "Here, have a drink. We found some wine in your pantry and warmed it up. You didn't think we'd be content with just tea, did you?"
Llewellyn grimaced. "So you got out my good wine and added honey to it." He took a sip. "Heat, honey, spices and dried orange peel. How to ruin perfectly good wine. And as for a maid, I can't think of any woman who would agree to live in the middle of nowhere."
"You should move nearer the village. We're getting to be quite well known there," said Merlin with a wink.
Llewellyn raised his eyebrows. "In that case I imagine they'll be kicking you out any day. Don't worry, you can always stay here, I haven't rented your rooms out yet."
Merlin rubbed his hand over his eyes. Though tired, he still had his cocky grin. "The years we spent here made us appreciate the hustle and bustle of the city, eh, Sebring?"
"There is such a thing as too much quiet," Sebring agreed.
"I took you in and what do I get?" Llewellyn looked at his empty cup and poured himself some more wine. Had he already finished his glass?
"You'd like the village," continued Merlin, eyeing the pitcher of wine with interest. "They have running water in the houses, and you can get fresh eggs and milk every day. There's even a marketplace."
"Sounds dreadful," said Llewellyn, passing the pitcher to Merlin. "Here, finish this. If I drink any more I'll fall asleep."
"We wouldn't want that, would we?" Merlin yawned but poured the last bit of wine into his glass. "You still have the nightmares, don't you?" His voice was suddenly careful, and Llewellyn felt a chill, like a cold breeze at his back.
"We all do." Sebring rubbed his thumb along the top of his glass, not meeting Llewellyn's eyes. He cleared his throat. "So does Branagh. He says he sees him in his dreams, all crookedlike."
The chill deepened. "Branagh? Sees him?"
Sebring stared at his glass, his thumb resting on a tiny chip in the rim. Then he looked up and said quietly, "No one ever saw his body. Branagh fought until they both nearly died, and then you and Elloran killed the dragon king."
A pang as sharp as an ice sliver shot through him, but Llewellyn kept his face still. "He drew most of his power from that dragon. As soon as it died, a foul wind swept over the battlefield and the Mouse King's army turned and fled. We found the Mouse King's armor — empty but so full of blood we thought he'd surely perished ..." His voice trailed off and he stared at his hands. Scars striped them, scars from sword fights with demons. "We've had so many years of peace." He looked at the two brothers. "Has he come back then?"
"We don't know." Merlin drained his cup and set it down gently. "We came to tell you what we've heard and what we've seen with our own eyes. It started with the ice demon in the cave, the one that nearly killed Prince Branagh. Then, barely a week after Branagh returned to Hivernia, his father died as he rode through a narrow pass. An avalanche, yes, but still...it happened in a place made for treachery. Why he passed that way we'll never know. His path lay to the west. Had he gone astray?" Merlin shook his head. "Branagh became king sooner than he'd ever dreamed and Melle had to wait for her wedding. A year of mourning with Hivernia decked in black."
Llewellyn nodded. "All that I know. Tell me what you discovered recently."
"Rumors from the north," said Sebring. He finished his glass of wine and frowned at it. "Demons getting bolder, and then someone said they spotted a dragon. More people spoke up, and it's been hell trying to verify everything. Branagh has run the legs off our horses ordering us around the kingdom. 'Go here, go there, check out that,' you'd think he'd been king all his life." Sebring gave a wry grin. "We've spied out the entire western territory. There are more ice demons than usual, that we've ascertained. But dragons, none."
"What does Branagh want me to do?" Llewellyn picked up the pitcher then remembered there was no more wine. "No, don't say it. I already know."
"You once spoke to Frostbone, years ago. It shouldn't be impossible to see him again." Merlin's voice had gone soft. A breeze would have been louder.
Llewellyn felt the chill again, and this time it settled in his belly. Frostbone, demon king, leader of the ice demons. Not that demons lived by any rules he understood. But they were bound to a king, and years ago they had been slaves to another king, the Mouse King. Branagh had put an end to that and so had he, and not in a small way.
The hole where his eye had been ached and he rubbed the patch he wore over it. Winter came. He would have to set out immediately if he wanted to breach the high pass before the heavy snows fell.
"All right. I'll go north."
"We're going with you." Sebring yawned and cupped his chin in his hands. "After we get a good night's sleep, that is. Have you any clean sheets in this place?"
Merlin sighed. "Now you're asking too much, Sebring. Come on, let's go. I can't stay awake a second longer. Good night, Llewellyn, we'll see you tomorrow."
Llewellyn watched them go, remembering two smaller, younger boys heading up the same stairs together. After the battle, and after they'd lost everything, as he had, he'd taken them in and raised them. Not that they'd needed much raising, being almost grown. He'd taken them in because their sister had been his brother's wife.
He blinked at the fire. How time flew by. It seemed only a week ago he and his brother had whistled at a pretty girl, and she'd turned...and smiled at his brother. Melle. He'd forgotten to ask about her wedding. He shook his head. He'd seen her first wedding — to his brother. He'd gotten drunk that night, but only to give his brother some semblance of privacy...for their minds and bodies had been linked in a way that enabled them to share things that perhaps they shouldn't have shared, but they couldn't help it.
Elloran had never minded, and Melle had never known, but she'd sensed something, sensed his passion for her, a passion born of Elloran's passion. And so, when Elloran died, she'd fled. To get away from him and to give him a chance to heal. She'd left behind her brothers, Sebring and Merlin. On purpose? Perhaps. At any rate, the boys had helped him more than he'd been able to help them.
A wry smile tugged at his mouth. Melle. Just the thought of her and his body tensed, his cock swelled and his heart...well, it had been broken into so many pieces there wasn't anything left of it, but somehow it managed to go on beating and go on hurting. He pushed his hand against the hard ridge of his cock and sighed. There would be no sleep for him. Dawn colored the sky gray and the dishes needed doing. If he left the cottage this way he'd come home to an army of mice. A violent shiver ran down his spine and he swallowed hard. Something was not right in the world and he could feel it, had felt it for a long time, but had been too caught up in his own pain to see it for what it was.
The Mouse King had returned.
Llewellyn packed his bag in silence and stole out of the cottage. He turned and looked at the peaceful clearing where his cottage and the stables nestled, then he set off toward the north. A forest elf, his feet left no trail and he knew that Sebring and Merlin would not be able to track him. They wouldn't even try. He'd left a note on the table —
I'll go faster by myself, and Frostbone won't tolerate any strangers in his lands. You two will just slow me down and would be in much danger. Go back to Hivernia and tell Branagh I'll see him before winter sets in. If I hurry I'll make it over the pass and back before it's blocked.
PS — clean the cottage for me, will you? You know where the dishes go.
Copyright © 2008 by Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.
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