The screech of a bird swooping low over the island should not have garnered any attention. Seatown was an island located off the coast of the far Southern mainland; birds were plentiful and a familiar sound and sight for the residence.
But this was something all together different. A phoenix straight out of legend, complete with fiery gold wings and knife-like talons was unusual, even for the mage folk of Seatown. It might have even warranted a raising of their significant defenses, except for one thing. They had seen this phoenix before.
That did not mean that the people of Seatown did not stop and marvel at the creature swooping down into their midst. She was, after all, one of a kind.
The youngest female of the dragon House of Fire and Water landed with a whoosh of air that billowed out from her for a good five feet. She transformed even before the wind settled around her, and a slender long-legged female in the common green and brown tunic, trousers and tall boots of the huntsman replaced the fearsome beast of legend. Her long red hair was nearly as fiery as the phoenix plumage she had shed, but it rested in a simple braid down her back. Just beside that long fall of braid was a quiver and arrows strapped down for an easy overhead draw. The sword at her side was smallish but well made and deadly sharp for all of that.
Her green eyes sparkled like emeralds with intelligence and, at the moment, more than a little bit of open challenge. So much so that more than one mage caught those pretty mage eyes with the militant light and turned quickly back to whatever they were doing. She might be just shy of nineteen, and pretty, with soft, pale skin and a deceptively fragile willowiness to her five feet ten-inch frame, but no one was likely to overlook the weapons strapped about her, nor forget she transformed into creatures of legend. Creatures with teeth, claws and an affinity to fire. Or that her adoptive family were dragons.
Clare looked around as she landed and headed for the keep, wondering if someone was going to try and stop her from entering. The last time she had been here there had been a battle about to begin, and all around her she could see the cost of it. Scorch marks and trampled crops were the least of the problems she could see. There was a hardness to the mage residence that had been missing just weeks before. New plantings and rebuilt structures dotted the landscape, denoting the industry of the occupants, but there was a feeling in the air that changed the dynamics of the place for the worse.
The once-idyllic village was coming back but it was doing it slowly, and clearly the scars you could not see were going to take the longest to heal. She had to wonder how much of that was because of Theron. Having a leader who had worn a blood stone of dark power briefly had to rattle any mage.
Seatown had been the one place untouched by the dark blood mage reign across the continent. There had been security in the nearly impassable great sand sea to the North and the ocean to the South. Here the problems that crushed the rest of the world did not seem to reach. Except something of that dark blood magic had brushed them. Theron might have shrugged off the yoke of the evil blood power before it turned him completely, but he had suffered it long enough that, like the battle against the deformed and unnatural beasts, it left its mark on his people.
It had certainly left its mark on her. Thinking back on the sight of twisted and deformed beasts filling the sky with malevolence Clare shuddered, but it was nothing to the memory of Theron, coldly brutal and bloated with dark power, before he wrenched the blood stone from his own chest to save them. To save her.
Knowing that she was his mate and that he would eventually succumb to the dark and claim her, he had done the impossible. Fought back the call of power. He had nearly died for her. Then, after she had watched over his healing sleep for weeks, he had just disappeared. Determined to martyr himself again, he kept his distance.
Well, that did not work for her. And she had grown past the age of coddling. If he thought he could make her choices for her and she would stay where she was put, he did not know her, fated dragon mate or not. And she was going to tell him just that...as soon as she found the stubborn idiot.
The gates of Theron's island fortress rose up before her. Here the white stone showed its own signs of battle, but once she walked through the newly repaired, reinforced steel gates she saw a vast difference from the last time she had flown here. The white stone still spiraled up to impressive heights, but now it bore dark char marks where fire had touched it. She wondered, looking at the black marks across the once pristine stone, if it had been the creatures who burned it, or dragon fire misdirected. The fighting had been brutal, but it had been the dragons who brought the fire, as far as she knew. She had been carted off like a misbehaving child before the battle, so she could not know for sure what the mage and dragon forces had faced. But looking around at the scars she could imagine it had been bad enough.
"You are a long way from home, little girl."
At the familiar booming voice Claire turned and chuffed out a breath, not even trying to keep the exasperation off her face. "What are you doing here?"
Lux, dragon knight, stood with his massive muscled arms crossed over his chest just before the open double doors of Theron’s fortress home. Though how she had missed his approach was a mystery. He was not exactly subtle or stealthy, not with a height of over seven feet, blue hair that shone like liquid sapphires, and eyes of ever-changing ocean blue. The usual dragon knight garb of black leather and long boots looked out of place on a tropical island, but his naked chest crisscrossed with black leather straps to hold his weapons did not show a drop of sweat. But then he was a dragon who breathed fire in his true form; changes in the weather were not likely to concern him overmuch. And this was Lux—as far as she could tell nothing affected him. He seemed to take everything from battle to romance with the same rambunctious humor.
The war axe he favored was strapped to his back with the same ease her light weapons were across hers, never mind that his weighed more than she did. "I like it here," he shrugged, that humor in his eyes doing nothing to disguise the wary ocean blue that regarded her, much the way all the dragon knights regarded her, halfway between a child they needed to watch over, and a woman they needed to steer clear of. "The question is, what is a female of House Fire and Water going so far from the safety of Forsaken? And does your sister know where you are?"
She sighed. It could have been worse, Claire supposed. It could have been one of her sister’s husbands. If it had been Eben Kinkaid, Ladon or, light forbid it, General Solan Fire-eater she would have had a real battle on her hands. "I am no longer a child in my sister’s care." She patiently explained what should have been obvious. "Nor do I answer to you, sir knight. I have business here with Lord Theron. Kindly step aside."
He did not move, but his blue brow did rise in surprise, just before his eyes narrowed. "What business could you have with the wind mage?"
"And dragon lord," she reminded him. "And that is my business."
Lux grimaced, looking unhappy at the reminder. She was not sure which part made him unhappier, that Lord Theron of Seatown was half dragon, or that he had no authority to send her home or question her.
"How about we try that again," Lux said mildly enough, though he had lost his usual spark of humor and was suddenly all serious dragon knight. "What business does a mage female of the House of Fire and Water have with Lord Theron, wind mage, dragon hybrid and all around crazy bloody bastard?"
"Well," Clare said crossing her own arms at her chest and raising her chin, "that escalated quickly." She gave Lux her best effort at a stare down, one she had learned from Eben Kinkaid that always made her want to confess anything just to make him stop looking at her.
Lux waited for her to say more, seemingly unmoved by her attempt to glare him into submission. As far as she was concerned he could wait for eternity. When another few minutes passed, and he still waited, she wondered if it was a good idea to try and out wait a thousand-year-old immortal dragon. Ten minutes went by while the big blue bastard stayed perfectly still. He might as well have turned into a statue. Another ten and Clare was starting to falter. There was an itch on her nose that was killing her, and still the big blue dragon just lurked there, waiting. The silence finally got to her.
"Fine," she said on another loud chuff, throwing her hands up and letting them fall to slap against the supple fabric of her trousers. "If you must know I need to find the crazy bloody bastard because he is my mate." This time she only raised one brow at him, knowing he could see the satisfaction in her face at her pronouncement. Dragons did not interfere with fated mates. It was one of their most sacred laws, and he was a dragon knight, upholder of the laws and warrior of the light. "And he's not crazy," she added as an afterthought. At least she hoped he wasn't. "He wore the blood stone for a time and that made it appear he was unbalanced, but he doesn't anymore."
Lux grunted. "He doesn't anymore because he ripped it out of his bloody chest with his bare hands." He looked even less happy with her. There seemed to be a great deal more thinking than usual behind those ocean tide eyes. "How do you know he's your mate?"
From the tone of his voice she gathered he was not liking where his thoughts were taking him. She sighed again. The dragon knights were overly protective of females, and Lux had stood as her defender when she faced the council after her attack, so he felt it towards her more than most. Not to mention she was a mage ward of a dragon house and had not yet seen her nineteenth year. He was having a hard time reconciling the child he expected to see with the woman she had become. They all did. But her problem right now was not with the big blue dragon knight before her. He was just stubborn enough to ignore the truth and try to protect her regardless.
"It doesn't matter how I know he is my mate," she finally said quietly with as much dignity and sternness as she could infuse in her voice. "Because I can see you know it as well. And the law is clear: you cannot stand between mates, so kindly step aside."
She knew by the tensing of his jaw that he was grinding his teeth, but finally he spoke, or more accurately growled. "He's not here."
That deflated the starch right out of her. "Not here?" She searched Lux's ever-changing blue eyes for the truth and realized he was not trying another ploy to derail her.
"He returned briefly," Lux said grudgingly, giving her more information. "But he was gone before I arrived with a message from his sister, and she sent me nearly on his heels. The battle twins won't say when he will return or where he went, only that he is in seclusion and will not be disturbed."
Clare narrowed her eyes. Now she was really getting angry. She had spent the entire flight from Dracon, over the beleaguered human settlements and the great sand sea, planning exactly what she wanted to say to Lord Theron of Seatown and he did not have the decency to be where she expected him to be?
This time it was Clare grinding her teeth and growling. "Where are the battle twins then?" Battle twins was a term she had not heard before, but she could imagine only two mage that it could refer to. They were not twins but they were brothers with similar tall height and warrior build, both with the dark coloring of the South. They could have passed for twins, and if you ever saw them fight you could well imagine they had been doing it together since the womb. Battle twins described them very well.
Still looking unhappy, Lux finally stepped to the side and waved her toward Theron's white stone fortress. "Doubt you will have any better luck convincing them to tell you where he is when they would not tell the messenger from the dragon seer, who also happens to be his sister."
Lux was not wrong about that. When a seer sent you a message you took it. If they would not tell Lux where Theron was when what he had to say could be life or death, what were the chances they would tell her? Especially when she had a bad feeling that Theron would have told them specifically not to?
Archer and Cree were both in the large gathering room where the main business of the keep was handled. A few mages, none of whom she recognized more than vaguely and in passing, were sprinkled among the warriors gathered there, including one lone female, dressed simply in the colorful sarong favored by the island people. She stood with the mage and stood out among them with her shiny gold hair and hazel eyes, but it was the aura of power that she emanated that had Clare blinking. Whatever magic she practiced, she rivaled even her sister Morgan for sheer power, and that was saying something. Since Clare knew she would have remembered her she wondered if the woman was new to Seatown. One of Theron's rescues? The thought left a prickly taste on Clare's tongue she did not like at all.
She dismissed her after a brief narrow-eyed study to turn her eyes to the rest of the room. Warrior mages ranged the room behind the others, all dressed in various shades of leather and riddled with weapons of all varieties. Mostly blades, but a few carried other things.
One notably hard warrior with ice blue eyes and short blond hair atypical in the southern hemisphere carried a whip wrapped around his torso and over one shoulder. Another had what looked like small throwing axes adorning his armor. Six that she could count from the front, probably more she could not see. That warrior was nearly as tall as the brothers Cree and Archer who stood out, not just in height from the other mages in the room, but in the menace they exuded.
All the mage warriors were hardened fighters, honed down to muscle and bone, but the battle twins? They took it to an entirely new level. It was easy to overlook them when Theron of Seatown was around. He oozed menace and magic and was nearly as tall and intimidating looking as Lux, and she would admit she had a hard time seeing anyone else when he was in the room. But seeing the brothers on their own, surrounded by the elite of Theron's fighting force, she was suddenly grateful to have Lux standing so protectively at her back. At least she was until he spoke in that booming growl of a voice of his and drew every eye in the place to them.
"Lady Clare of the Dragon House Fire and Water." The complete silence that fell while every eye in the place turned their way added nothing to her comfort. And it only got worse from there. "Ward to Eben Kinkaid and Prince Ladon of House Fire and Water, sister in marriage to General Solan Fire-Eater and under the protection of the Dragon Knights of the Light." Then, with a touch of belligerence, he finished her introduction with, "So keep your hands and your eyes to yourself or I will relieve you of them."
Well, Clare thought, torn between closing her eyes in abject humiliation or braining the dragon behind her, that is one way to make a first impression on my new people. She settled for giving Lux one solid glare over her shoulder and then raised her chin and moved toward the occupants of the great room with as much dignity as she could scrape together under the circumstance. She did not realize her hand was clutching the pommel of her sword until Archer's eyes went to it. She relaxed her white-knuckled grip with an inward curse for those hawk eyes of his. He saw every sign of nervousness she tried to hide from them. Scared and unsure was not the image she needed to portray if she was going to get him to tell her where Theron was.
"Lady Clare," Cree said mildly enough from his usual place at his brother’s side. "You are a long way from home."
"Actually," Clare said, meeting Cree's eyes, like his brother’s but without the gold glimmer to bring even the smallest light to their dark brown depths. They were the darkest eyes she had ever seen save one. Theron's eyes were stark, bottomless black, and she had lost herself in them more than once. "Turns out this is my home now."
Behind her Lux cursed roundly, knowing what she was going to say and not liking it. Clare ignored him and met the question in all those mage eyes with a surety she was far from feeling. "Lord Theron acknowledged me as his dragon mate before witnesses. By dragon law that means we are married. I am the Lady of Seatown now." She met Cree’s and then Archer’s eyes as a few gasps could be heard among the mage. The creak of leather and movement betrayed more surprise from the warriors but from the battle twins she read nothing. If they knew she was bluffing and exaggerating mightily they did not show it. She did her best to look authoritative despite her inner shaking. "So tell me," she finished boldly, "where is my husband?"