Tempting a Dragon
Chapter 1: Fire or Rain
As she moved the trees gave her surroundings a sense of familiarity, as though she was passing through the same section of forest in eternal circles. If her eyes weren't adept at finding the subtle differences in the landscape of greens and browns, Alys knew that she would have thought she was lost minutes ago. Her breath was coming quickly, matching the pounding of her heart and the muted slap of her running feet on the mossy, damp earth of the forest floor. She ran as though the hounds of hell were on her tail. Her footing was sure and swift, and as silent as a native creature of the forest. The shadows of the trees lengthened as the sun started to set until the woods became a deep green, and lent the illusion of night-time. Alys dodged a fallen log, crashing through the brush as it opened into a clearing. Here, the sun was still shining, bright and blinding as it fell from the sky and opened the world to unearthly possibilities.
As she emerged from the forest, Alys slowed down to a walk. She shook out her dress and patted down her hair in a search for stray twigs. Once she was sure her appearance was presentable and she was no longer panting like a race-horse, she took a dainty step into the clearing with a smile planted on her face. It wouldn't do to burst out of the forest and alarm the tenants of the surrounding town. Her long dress fell around her ankles, keeping her bare feet from sight. They stung now that she was no longer running. She started walking along the dusty road into town, knowing that it was now dangerous for her to wander freely. She cut in through the property of one of her neighbours, already having permission to take a shortcut through his property to arrive home. She paused when she found him out cultivating his field, trying to prepare some of the fledgling plant buds for the impending storm he insisted was in the air.
"Good evening, Smith. How is your family?" Alys inclined her head to the farmer as he straightened, bracing a hand on his back and wiping sweat from his brow. She paused, making sure her smile was friendly as she spoke, knowing that her attitude was the only thing which separated her from being the enemy.
"Fine, Miss Alys." He shifted awkwardly as though he had something further to say, but wasn't sure how to say it.
"Is there something you wanted to ask me?" She asked gently, used to the townsfolk not being sure how to treat her. She was a stranger here to these people who had grown up knowing their neighbours just as well as they knew themselves. She could understand that, growing up the same way herself.
"We was thinking of sending the children to stay with my wife's sister while the big ta-do was goin' on at the castle. I'm sure his lordship would appreciate them out from under foot."
"He may," Alys conceded with a slight frown. "Do you want them to leave?"
"Remember last Christmas when my oldest lad got into the rum and caught the tree on fire?"
Alys laughed slightly. "I do, indeed. But I don't think it'll be an issue this time."
Smith looked doubtful.
"I'm heading up to the castle now. I can check for you."
"No. No. Don't concern yerself." Though Smith expressed his reluctance for her help, Alys knew he was asking for her speak with the lord of the borough. For one, he wasn't very subtle with the request, and for another she had offered to be a liaison between the castle and the commoners. Thanks to her time living with Selendrile, Alys was less than intimidated by the idea of a lord in a castle.
"It's no trouble," she promised with a quick grin. She inclined her head again and cut through the grassy knoll on her way to the castle. The sky was turning pinks and purples as the sun descended, and Alys could feel the twilight magic on the air. Her body hummed with the recognition of Selendrile coming into his powers, and her stepped quickened. The ground inclined as she approached the castle situated picturesquely atop a hill, looking like one of the fairytale castles from her childhood stories. The only thing missing was a moat, and she knew that one was in the plans. Her cheeks were slightly pinkened from her excursion and when she opened the side door to the castle in order to slip in unnoticed, she couldn't help but turn back and look over the small town with the background of trees. Her eye immediately caught the tallest tree in the forest and she turned away with a secret smile.
The stone floor was chilling beneath her feet, and the bare soles slapped against the tiles so she had to change the way her foot fell in order to keep her steps quiet. She reached for her shoes on the ledge she had hidden them on, sliding the silk over her dirty and sore feet. She took another moment to brush off her gown, checking to make sure there wasn't a stray blade of grass or streak of dirt on the delicate cloth. She couldn't have the majordomo cast his ever critical eye over her and sneer as though she were a fly which deserved to be swatted. Alys knew she was of common origins; she didn't need to be reminded every time she made an appearance in the supper hall.
"Good evening Wolsey," Alys greeted, entering the large dining room. The head butler straightened from where he was flirting with one of the serving girls, pulling on his ordinate vest and raising his head as he looked down at her over his long reed-thin nose. Alys smiled, curling her lip up in derision and secretly reveling at her fortune. It wasn't often she was able to cast aspersions on his character. "If you can take a moment away from 'inspecting the household', I'd like you to send Mrs. Smith to my chambers with a pitcher of cold water."
"Mrs. Smith? If you wish for your supper to be on time, then the cook should be cooking, should she not?"
"Mrs. Smith, Wolsey. If you're worried about supper, take over." Alys turned her back with a smile of smile of self-pleasure. Sometimes, she liked having people to order about, especially if they were ego-centric snobs who believed themselves better than their employers.
"Yes my lady."
Alys hurried up the stairs, holding her skirts at a proper angle so she wasn't showing too much skin, but also so she didn't run the risk of tripping. Being a member of the aristocracy was a difficult strain on her movements and sense of freedom. It seemed to her as though there was a rule for everything, particularly for women. She entered her rooms, closing the door behind her with a sense of relief. She still was not used to the idea of living in a huge castle with so many people underfoot, and though she knew she was supposed to ignore their presence as though they were invisible, she found she couldn't. Being friendly to the servants gave her the reputation of being nice, but sometimes she would far rather be feared like her brother.
There was a tentative knock on the door. "Come in!" Alys called, sitting in a well-padded chair and staring out the window as the sun finished setting with a flourish of hues. Alys turned and accepted the poured glass of water as the cook wordlessly handed Alys the delicate cup. She drank deeply, swallowing quickly in an attempt to hide the underlying metallic bite to the liquid. "Thank you. Mrs. Smith, do you know why I called you in here?"
"I apologize, ma'am. I know Wolsey caught me givin' away bread from yer table, but there is a good explanation and he said he wouldn't mention it if I paid fer it myself."
"Oh?" Alys asked with a raised brow.
"It was an accident, ma'lady. I wasn't thinking proper and left the dough out with no covering. I know his lordship sets store by a clean kitchen, so when I caught the cat nibbling at it I thought it was a waste to throw out good food." Mrs. Smith's words were rushed with her nervousness, and Alys moderated her wish. She didn't enjoy being feared by those who relied on her benediction.
"Stop," Alys said, holding up her hand to pause the cook's words. "I didn't ask you here because of that, and I can assure you that the bread will not be deducted from your pay. I've been speaking with your husband."
"Oh?" the woman asked, finally wisely closing her mouth. Alys mentally sighed, knowing that she would now be subjected to a conversation with one-word sentences as the cook attempted to control the damage her talking had already done.
"He has informed me that you plan to send your children away during the upcoming festivities," Alys said. "His lordship realizes that an inordinate amount of work needs to be done on the grounds, and is offering a halfpenny to the children who are willing to help. I suggest you take this into consideration before making a decision either way." Alys folded her hands across her lap. "Now, you and I need to parley about the kitchen duties. You will be needing additional help, will you not?"
"Yes, Lady Alys."
Alys inclined her head. "I'll leave the decisions in your capable hands. I hear your eldest daughter has gotten to be quite the little chef." The hint was subtle, but she was learning the art of speaking to those under her command, just as they knew how to speak to her. Growing up as a tinsmith's daughter, Alys had never thought she'd become the lady of a castle with people like herself – or at least who she used to be – under her command, not in her wildest dreams. Ok. Maybe her WILDEST dreams. "I'm sure supper will be excellent tonight. I hope I haven't taken you attention away from it for too long."
"It doesn't matter, ma'am," Mrs. Smith murmured as she curtseyed and took her leave. "Supper tonight is a stew."
"Stew?" Alys said to herself as the cook exited the room. She grinned mischievously, thinking of how much Selendrile hated stew. "Excellent." Alys stood, noting from the periphery of her vision that the sun had set. She poured the cool water into a basin, quickly washing herself before changing for supper. When she emerged from her room a few minutes later, she was refreshed and practically bouncing with her happiness and contentment of life. The light material from her fresh dress swished around her shoe-bound ankles as she hurried down the stairs. In the rooms below her, she could hear the murmur of voices.
Alys entered the dinning room, circling around to the side of the table. "Good evening, Selendrile," she greeted in a chipper voice as he rose from his place at the foot of the table and politely held out her chair for her. This part of their evening was for show, where they acted like civilized humans supping together. Selendrile put up with 'the horrid food' as he put it, and Alys put up with the act of gentility. "Thank you," she said, taking her seat.
"How was your day?" He asked conversationally, taking a piece of bread and breaking it in half. He sniffed experimentally, and Alys wondered if Wolsey had forced the cook to feed them the cat-snacked loaves. She wouldn't doubt it.
"It's just bread," she informed him as he offered her a piece slathered in butter as she liked it, honestly hoping that was the case. Though Alys had eaten things far more vile than dough a cat had gotten into, she had an extreme 'don't ask, don't tell' policy when it came to food. She'd rather just not know. Alys accepted the bread from him, sure she would never get used to these rules and would forever be identified as a parvenu by their majordomo. She wasn't sure she really cared, especially once she learned what the word meant from Selendrile.
"I smell stew." Selendrile's nose wrinkled as he sniffed, eyes narrowing apprehensively.
Alys smiled, taking a dainty bite of her bread. "I know how much you love it."
"Aren't fish in season? Or deer?" Selendrile asked, almost petulantly.
"I'm sure it's venison stew," Alys responded, mocking him slightly. "The cook spent the day creating strawberry preserves while the berries are fresh. I asked her to prepare something simple this evening."
"You requested stew, didn't you?" Selendrile inquired suspiciously.
Alys just smiled. "Consider it only one course you have to sit through instead of three or four." They both fell into silence as the serving girl placed the dishes before them. "I arranged for some of the children to clean the castle before the guests arrive. You're paying them, by the way."
Selendrile shrugged. "I'm more concerned by you going back into the forest."
Alys stilled, her spoon hovering over the over-cooked mush in her bowl. "How could you tell?"
"Your right shoulder if stiff from the exertion. And I can smell the evergreens in your hair."
"Can you blame me?" Alys asked defensively, her spine straightening and shoulders squaring for confrontation. She could feel the twinge in the right one, and hated the fact he was right.
"No," Selendrile said softly. "I feel confined here, too."
"Then why-" Alys started, vocalizing the old argument.
"Because we're free, too. The room has ears," he reminded her, winning the discussion for now. "How was it?"
"Unrestrained." Her voice held a current of bitterness before she put it away and reminded herself to be grateful for everything he had given her. It was difficult to do with all the labels circling about. Lord. Lady. Brother. Sister. "It was wonderful, Selendrile. The trees have finally bloomed, and everything is fresh with new life. You can feel it."
Selendrile closed his fey eyes, and Alys could almost see him picturing the scene. She made a mental note to herself not to bring up her discontent again. She could see the effect this life was having on him, as well. At first they had only pretended he was sickly to excuse the day-light hours he spent undisturbed in his chambers, but recently she had begun to notice the pale pallor to his normally golden skin, and the lack of luster in his hair.
"If you can get out tomorrow, you can come with me. We can meet at the tree."
"I'm sorry, but I don't think I'll be up to it."
"Selendrile," Alys said with concern, reaching over and grabbing his hand. "You'd tell me if something was wrong, wouldn't you?"
"I'm fine!" He insisted, taking a bite of his supper with a grimace. Alys knew he was lying to her, but she didn't push.
"I believe Mrs. Smith saved some of those strawberries for dessert," Alys said conversationally to cover the silence which had sprung up between them. Their suppers, despite on occasion being the only time they saw each other in the run of a day, were a mess of hidden context and meaningless filler dialogue. Alys took another bite of her supper, and asked the question which was really bothering her. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"What?" Selendrile looked startled.
"The servants are talking about how our guests are really coming so you can marry me off to the son."
"Nonsense." Selendrile's denial was a tad too forced, which made Alys wonder if he was lying altogether. Sometimes she really hated their supper conversations. "You know Lord Duncan is a friend of our uncle's, and the invitation was extended before we arrived here."
"Yes," Alys said quietly. She knew this was the truth as they had brainstormed to think of a polite way to dismiss the promise, only to finally decide it was in their best interest to ensure that their guest really believed Selendrile was the former lord's heir. "You aren't planning an engagement?"
"Alys," he said with a sigh. "You have to consider that you are of marriageable age."
Alys slammed down her spoon and the sound echoed through the room. She knew she had just drawn the attention of every person within listenable range. "Don't tease me about that," she exclaimed with a forced joviality. Her eyes belied her tone by narrowing dangerously at him. "You won't marry me off," she told him, leaning closer so that only he could hear her words. Her voice was a threatening hiss, and she could feel the bitter coil of anger and fear slither through her despite the confidence in her words. "You consider me one of your most valuable possessions."
Alys left the table and went back to her chambers, knowing that this would be another night where neither were able to finish the meal together. She knew the servants thought they didn't get along, and that was partially true, but sometimes they got along far too well. She sighed as the door closed behind her, finally able to take off the persona she had adopted as she had emerged from the forest earlier. It was getting easier for her to drop into the role of Lady with each passing day, and she knew it was just another aspect of her personality which was changing. Alys stared out the window, taking in the twinkling stars in the sky, and wondered if she wanted to identify her unhappiness as loneliness. Her bed was soft and invited, and when she climbed between the cool sheets it was to escape.
The trees shifted, creating a kaleidoscope of greens as the sun shone through the branches and bounced off the emerald floor. Alys sat beneath the tall tree in the forest, her knife imbedded deep within a knot in the wood above her head. The ground was cool, almost damp, and she could feel it through the material of her ragged dress. The wind whistled throughout the trees, and Alys could hear the song of the ages in the breath of the forest. She listened intently, moisture gathering beneath the palm of her hand until her fingers were deeply emerged in a puddle of clear, cool water. A leaf fell into the pool, chiming and rippling. Everything went quiet.
Then Alys could hear the laughter.
Risa burst through the woods, branches parting before her as she ran with a carefree gait. Giggles emerged from her mouth as she turned behind her, smiling at someone hidden within the trees. "There you are," she said once she spotted Alys lounging against the rough bark and soft moss. "I've been searching for you."
"I'm always here," Alys told her. "It's where I belong." She frowned in confusion, making Risa giggle harder.
"Silly. You don't know where you belong yet."
"I do," Alys insisted.
"He's something else," Risa said with a shake of her head, red curls bouncing. Her face turned fierce, and she grabbed Alys's arm. "He's evil."
"Who? Selendrile?" Alys questioned, alarmed.
"Watch out for Selendrile, Alys."
Alys awoke with a pounding heart to the echo of thunder on the air. She could feel the electric charge of the rain beating against the shutters covering her window. She threw off the blankets, parting the heavy velvet curtains of her canopy, and almost relishing the feel of the cold stone floor beneath her feet. Grabbing her dressing gown, she rushed out of her room, navigating through the darkened corridors towards the doors to the roof. The torches set strategically through the hallways were out, smoke still streaming from one or two, and she imagined that someone had beat her outside. Once she reached the heavy oak doors, she could feel the splashes of wet rain between her toes. The hinges creaked beneath her fingers as the door parted, the wind carrying it forward so that she lost her grip and it cracked against the side of the castle with a loud noise which seemed to become lost in the storm. Alys stood on the threshold, water beating against her skin, and she felt as though she could breathe again. The rain streamed through her hair, pulling it flat against her body, and making her robe cling to her slight form. She took a step into the darkness outside the door, her feet steady against wet-stone. Wind blew at her, but she was as balanced as a willow tree – swaying but firmly rooted.
Alys breathed in the wet air, the wind and balanced intemperance of the storm deafening. She laughed, throwing her arms out and spinning on the battlements. Her feet splashed through the water like a tiny wave in a tsunami. The skirt of her gown twirled around her legs, soft cloth becoming a soaking vise around her. Alys tripped and stumbled, impatiently pulling her skirt off her wet legs once she caught her balance. With the material in one hand and her knees indecently exposed to the night, Alys turned her face up to the heavens and opened her eyes, watching as the rain fell from a smoky grey sky.
Sighing heavily, Alys allowed her problems to wash away, gathering at her toes and then dripping over the side of the castle wall. Lightening struck, and her small town was illuminated in the flash. She stared out over it long after the light had dissipated and felt an extreme sense of ownership. These were her people, Alys decided, and she was the lady of the manor now, even if she and Selendrile had resorted to trickery in order to come here.
Lightening flashed again, and she caught Selendrile out of the corner of her eye. He was dragon-crouched against one of the castle turrets, his naked body gleaming in the cool rain-water. It ran over his hair in a stream, waterfalling over the side of the building and splashing almost unnoticed on the stone below. In that one flash, she was able to see that he was watching her with his sharp fey eyes, the amethyst dark pools of gleaming possessiveness. Risa's warning sparked in her mind like the lightening, and her inner joy at the first thunder storm of the season flickered out like a small flame in the rain. No longer fueled, Alys felt the cold chill creep down her spine, tingling sharply and causing her body to quake. She turned her back on the rain, walking away from that impenetrable gaze and closing the doors behind her.
Review! Tell me what you think about the first chapter!