~~~Chapter 9~~~

Bella…

Brenith's safe hatching was cause for a celebration that lasted three days. We had come so close to losing her, Shosharra and Alice. The people needed to have a reason to sing and dance and just to let the tension loose. Even though there was just a small group of us who actually knew that harm was being planned for a dragon, those that found out afterwards were shocked and appalled that such a thing could have almost happened. They needed the revelry to release the anger that they all felt.

When Brenith shook the shards of her shell from her gleaming black shoulders and called imperiously to Alice, her Bond, the cheers could be heard all the way to Ruthin Castle. I had bet a small token on her color and to my surprise, I was in the winning group. She was black with silver tipped scales.

In the two months since her hatching, we had all been kept busy. Brenith had chosen Tenders from both the North and our local area, including our own Tylen. ShayTan didn't need as many Tenders as she had at first and he had gone with our blessing. It wasn't like we never saw him anyway; Alice and Brenith joined Cathair in his cavern, which was close to our own. Having Tenders from both camps was a good way to blend the factions.

We were all happy that Tanyara and Seamus never forgot the fact that Alice had protected Shosharra and Brenith. It made them look at her with a large measure of respect and they only tried to boss the new pair from time to time. Alice was very good at listening to the experienced couple. She'd think over their advice and discuss it privately with Jasper. If he thought it was sound, then she'd give in to their suggestions. I was always proud of the way she handled the situation with grace and tact. She told me that she learned that from Esme.

They were also letting Edward guide Shay and I and didn't try to mentor us any longer. I was riled on more than one occasion when Tanyara still tried to exert her womanly wiles over Edward. The tension that I'd feel when she would caress his arm usually made Shay bugle loudly in distress from wherever she happened to be. My anxiety would ease when Edward would remove her hand, and himself, from her company.

I'd chide myself privately; I had no hold over him just because our dragons were mated. Although protective and caring, he had never gone beyond the bounds of friendship in our relationship. Again, privately, I wished that he would.

One morning as Shay and I watched Volterra and Edward flying in formation with several other Riders and dragons, she commented on how handsome the pair was. She asked me, with her head cocked coyly to one side as her eyes caressed the form of her mate, if I thought that Edward was handsome, too. I felt a hum of excitement flowing through her as she waited for my answer. Trying to push my overly eager thoughts on the subject to the back of my mind, I agreed with her that they both were very pleasing to look at. I felt her trying to search below my public mind for an answer, but I was very adept at keeping some thoughts to myself and she found nothing. Looking back at the green dragon who led the flight almost out of sight high above us, she changed the subject to her own flights and how we would soon be flying together.

To no one's surprise, Jasper and Alice had announced that they were together just a week after Brenith broke shell. They were bound just as closely as their dragons were. I tried not to feel jealous over the fact that they could be together openly. She was almost nineteen, nearly two years past the age of consent. No one questioned their status because of age. I had heard the whispers of some when Edward and I were working together. He never seemed to notice and I did my best to not hear them. I tried not to let it rankle when older girls would approach him and would try to entice him to meet privately with them. My ire was appeased slightly when he never took them up on their offers while I was around.

I never saw him with any other woman, Rider or not, and he spent every night curled up on Volterra's forearms next to where I slept with ShayTan. I did notice the way he looked at me. It seemed warmer than the glances he gave other woman and I hoped that it meant something. It certainly sent warm shivers down my spine.

Alice had been annoyed when Tanyara had approached Jasper shortly after they made their status known. She never told me what transpired between herself and the Bond of her dragon's dam, but one day she invited Tanyara into Brenith's cavern and closed the door. Fifteen minutes later a red cheeked Tanyara had exited the cavern, mounted her dragon and hadn't come back for hours. I never saw her glance at Jasper in that predatory way again. My guess was that Alice may have displayed some of that magic that had protected the dragons and herself to the pushy Rider.

Even though I was a Rider I wouldn't be considered an adult until I turned seventeen. I wondered if Edward would see me as a woman when I celebrated my birthday in a week.

ShayTan had grown so much in the last two months. We had continued to tip off the stones at the caverns and glide down to the Castle at least once a day. Edward and Volterra said that even that easy exercise was strengthening her wings. Added to that movement, she would take off and land over and over again under Volterra's watchful eyes. She was getting incredibly lithesome and was becoming very elegant in her flight. I'd ride with Edward astride Volterra as she soared and swooped. Volterra told me often that soon his mate would be ready to fly with me. No one told when that would actually happen though.

When I woke on the seventeenth anniversary of my birth, ShayTan and I were alone in our chamber. Volterra and Edward had told us the night before that they were going to be on early patrol and I vaguely remembered hearing them leave before dawn.

Opening my eyes, I was surprised to see that Shay was already awake and peering down at me, her golden eyes swirling in an excited pattern. She loosened her grip on me and I got to my feet as she brought her great head down so that I could rest my forehead against her topaz stone.

My Bella, I am so happy that you were born seventeen years ago. If you hadn't been, I'd never have been Bonded. You are who I needed to find. You're perfect for me, just as I am perfect for you. Thank you for being born!

I chuckled even as I hugged her head tightly to my chest. Shay had grown so much I couldn't get my arms around her anymore. Alice and I had discussed how we both felt blessed that these wondrous creatures, so incredibly self-centered, adored us as much as we adored them. On one level, they knew they were the center of the universe and it was good that each dragon actually had a Bond that felt that way about them, too.

"I'm pretty glad I was born, too, sweetness…so that I can be your Bond. Nothing in the world could make me happier than I am right now."

Nothing? I can think of a couple of things that might make you nearly as happy…ShayTan's voice trailed off as she wrapped her giant brown wings around me. I breathed deeply of the spicy, musky odor that seeped from her hide. Belayna has made you her dried fruit scones and I know that will make you happy. And Volterra and Edward have a surprise for you today, too.

"How do you know that she made the scones?" I asked. "What surprise?"

Edward mentioned the scones to Volterra before they left this morning. Now get up and go eat your treat. Not sure why you'd want to, they aren't nearly as good as a deer that I've caught myself. But your birthing day needs to be celebrated and you do like Belayna's scones! Get ready, eat and meet me outside. I'll warm myself in the sun until you come to me. Shay released me from her hug and left our chamber. I hurried to gather clean clothes on my way to the bathing room as my mind wondered about the surprise Shay had mentioned.

I very privately hoped that we might get permission to fly just a bit more than our usual tip off from the stones to the castle. Surely we would be ready to fly together soon.

Several people greeted me when I entered the dining cavern and I smiled in response to their greetings. Belayna called me to the door of the kitchen when she saw me before she turned and stepped back inside. When I got to the door she met me with a plate filled with scones. The aroma of the warm confections stirred my hunger.

"Here you go, Rider. To break your fast on this special day!" She gave me a careful hug as I held the plate. "Go sit with your friends and I'll bring some cool butter and a pot of your favorite tea."

"Thank you, Belayna," I murmured in response as I hugged her back. "I really do love your scones. Thank you for making them for me. It's a lovely way to start my birth day!" She patted me on the cheek and shooed me off toward the far wall where Rosalie, Emmett, Alice and Jasper sat. Alice was waving at me.

"Bella, are you going to share those with us?" Emmett asked as he eyed the fruit studded treats on the platter.

"I think that's why Belayna gave me so many. She saw you here, Emmett." I served everyone a scone before sitting down beside Rosalie.

Belayna set a large pot of tea on the table, along with a disc of butter and then sat beside Jasper. "Eat before they cool, Riders."

I put a large smear of butter on the sugary crust of my scone and bit deeply. ShayTan laughed in my mind at the sound that I made and I shook my head as she scoffed at how tasty I thought the bread was.

"Is ShayTan giving you a hard time for enjoying your breakfast, Bella?" Alice asked. "Brenith just doesn't see how we could enjoy something like this. She asked for a taste last week and was appalled that I could like it so much."

All of the Riders agreed that their dragons didn't see the appeal of our food. But then, I was pretty sure that none of us would like their raw meat either. Well, Emmett rather liked his meat on the rare side, and even so he didn't want it on the hoof!

Rosalie wiped her fingers on a napkin and gave me a hug. "So, you are seventeen today. A Rider already, and now an adult. Do you feel older?"

Shaking my head, I told her that I really didn't feel older. "A Rider…do you have any idea when I'm actually going to get to ride?" As soon as the words were out of my mouth I felt guilty. I already had so much to be thankful for and I knew that ShayTan and I would soon be soaring alongside my friends.

Before I could apologize for what amounted to whining, a voice interrupted us. "I think today would be a good time to fly. Don't you, Rider Bella?" I spun around in my seat to see Edward, a huge grin on his face, standing behind me. I glanced around at my friends and they were grinning too.

I could hear ShayTan bugling from where she waited for me in the sunshine. A burning joy filled my heart as I leaped to my feet and threw myself into Edward's arms. Tipping my head back, I looked into his shining green eyes.

"Today? We can fly today? Are you sure?" Even as he nodded, I could hear ShayTan, with Volterra's voice in the background of my mind warble a resounding yes. The soft cadence of Kathea's voice assured me that today was the day.

Without thinking I rose up on my tiptoes and kissed Edward on the mouth. Sudden silence filled the area around us as I pulled away, a blush filling my cheeks. Emmett's whoops began and Edward's smile broadened before he pulled me close and hugged me tightly.

"We don't have time for that…now," he whispered in my ear. A shiver ran down my spine, a shiver of anticipation. Out loud he said, "Get your gear and meet us outside. ShayTan is ready to go!"

Alice grabbed my hand and we ran together to my chambers. She got my blue jacket and goggles while I gathered Shay's harness.

"I am so excited for you! Soon it will be Brenith and I getting ready to fly. She's finding it hard to wait. She wants to be grown now. She's a very impatient dragon!" Alice laughed quietly as she talked about her Bond. We could hear her treble bugles rising above Shay's soprano. Volterra and Cathair could be heard as they tried to calm their mates. It was not working. "I keep telling her that she has to continue to grow and that soon it will be us tipping off the stones and then soaring!"

With our arms full of my gear we slipped out of the chamber's door. The sun was shining and the dragons that were gathered there looked like jewels as they spread their wings to catch the warm rays. I was shocked to see that the area we used for take offs and landings was full of people. People who looked at me when I appeared.

A subtle fear filled me, a fear that I'd do something stupid, like putting the harness on ShayTan the wrong way.

Never! You've put my gear on for months as I practiced for this moment! You are my Rider and we are well matched. Now come, I want to show you the sky. You've been riding other dragons long enough. Excitement and confidence were thick in my dragon's voice. I squared my shoulders and strode toward her, knowing that she was right. We had practiced for this day and it was time to fly together!

Joy once again filled my heart as I heard the cheers the Tenders, Riders and Keepers gave when they saw me enter the clearing. As I sorted ShayTan's harness out, they good naturedly told Alice that she needed to watch carefully since she would be flying soon. She assured them that she would do so.

Shay ducked her head for me to slip the straps over and down onto her shoulders. "It's almost time to let these out again, dear one. There are only two holes left before we'll need a larger set." I smoothed my hand beneath the sturdy leather to make sure that the straps lay flat against Shay's deep brown hide. I admired the red and gold tips on her scales as I finished settling the harness on her body.

That's because I am a well grown dragon. Volterra assures me that I will grow several more hands in height before I'm done in a couple of years. The satisfaction in her voice made me smile even wider.

"I'm sure he's right. Although I am glad that you've slowed down just a bit. It was hard keeping up with your appetite for a while there. Edward assures me that you are growing very well, too."

ShayTan curved her neck so that she could look me in the eye as she asked, You were surprised that we could fly today, weren't you?

I flung my arms around her head pressing my cheek to the glowing dragon stone in the middle of her forehead. "Yes, it is a lovely birthing day gift."

He's behind you. He probably wants to go over the rules…again!

"That's because he wants us to be safe. You are his Bond's mate, you know."

And you are…Shay's voice trailed off as I turned to see Edward holding out my blue flying jacket for me.

I slipped my arms into the sleeves and asked, "Do you want to check the harness for me, Rider Edward?"

"Not for you, but with you, Rider Bella." Edward smiled as we smoothed each strap. His nod of approval warmed me. "All the practice that you've done has made this second nature. Even though ShayTan would do everything in her power to keep you safe while in flight, it's always good to make sure that your harness is connected correctly. One wouldn't want a strap to come loose when she turns on a wingtip."

His words filled me with even more excitement. I had flown many hours behind him, Jasper and a few other Riders as we watched Shay practice. The little moments we shared as she tipped from the Cavern's stones were thrilling, but nothing like being in command of my own dragon, flying alone, just the two of us.

"Are you ready, Rider Bella?" Edward asked, continuing the formal address, although he spoke with a huge smile on his face.

"Yes, Rider Edward, I am." I tried to keep my voice steady, but the excitement was certainly evident in the little crack that we both heard at the end.

Shay was right; Edward went over the safety rules once again. It didn't bother me because there was nothing that I wanted more than to have a safe first flight. A first flight that would lead to another and another until we had a lifetime of flights behind us; a very long lifetime of flights. I was seventeen today, but with my Bond's magic we would live beyond my own generation. We could live for almost an eternity if we were safe and careful as we flew.

After pressing my forehead to Shay's stone one more time, I mounted my dragon. She was quivering in excitement, her golden eyes swirling. Everyone had either mounted their own dragons or stepped back to the edges of the clearing, giving us plenty of room. Edward had told me that only a few of the dragons and their Riders would actually be flying with us. The rest would be patrolling away from us, giving us plenty of room to practice.

Volterra roared as Edward leaped up and settled onto his back. His voice, through the filter of ShayTan's mind, gave us the signal to launch. I was prepared for the pressure on my neck that I'd feel when Shay's strong legs propelled us into the sky. Her wings immediately snapped out and down and we were airborne.

An exuberant yell was forced from my throat as we soared higher and higher into the blue sky. ShayTan's wings swept up and down smoothly, lifting us into the clouds and then above them. Volterra and Edward were to our right. Cathair, with Alice behind Jasper, was to our left. Their shouts joined mine as the dragons roared their approval. Brenith's voice followed us from where she waited on the ground with her Tenders near to keep her company.

The wind whipped by my face taking my joyful tears with it. Lifting a hand to the dragon stone nestled beneath my jacket, I pressed it into my skin. "Thank you, Kathea. Thank you for keeping her safe for me."

Thank you, Bella, for being the Bond that she needed, for being here for her. Now, no more tears! Enjoy this flight because the next ones will be more training than pleasure. Kathea shared a memory from her first flight with Alida and her joy was ours.

ShayTan spoke, It will always be pleasure to fly with my Bond! We'll always find time to play!

Volterra directed us in a few easy maneuvers. I knew that I didn't have to worry about ShayTan tiring as her mate was keeping a careful watch on both of us. The first time we drove toward the ground with the sun at our backs, the exhilaration of the stunt made my heart pound. She pulled out of the dive well above the ground but told me that with practice we'd come out of it a lot closer to the treetops.

A few turns on our wingtips and Volterra told us it was time to head back. Shay and I were both a bit rebellious. He assured us that we'd be flying daily from now on and that cheered us both as we turned toward home. Jasper and Alice were flying on to Ruthin Castle with Cathair to pick something up for Belayna, and they waved and cheered us as we parted company.

I was pleased with the gracefulness of our landing and told Shay so as I slid down her side. I was startled to find Edward standing right behind me when I turned away from hugging her. Volterra was crowding close to run his muzzle along his mate's side. He pushed Edward and me closer together and I realized that we were hidden by two large dragons from the people who had gathered to cheer our return.

ShayTan was telling her mate about our flight, as if he hadn't been right there with us. I looked up into Edward's eyes; the intensity there took my breath away. My hands were resting on his chest and he put his on my hips. Another push from Volterra and we were pressed closely together. I slipped my hands up around Edward's neck, never taking my eyes from his. We were surrounded by the aroma of warm, spicy dragon and I breathed deeply. It was the smell of home and what I had come to believe was love. ShayTan loved me and I her. Volterra's constant love for his mate spilled over in the way he treated me.

"Yes, Volterra loves you, too," Edward whispered.

"Too? He loves me, too?" I murmured.

"Yes, he does. Bella, you were born to be a Rider, to be ShayTan's Rider. She was born to be Volterra's mate." He paused as his gaze slipped to my lips and I felt a tingle there as I remembered what it felt like when I had kissed him earlier. "My heart follows my dragon's. I was already half in love with you before I arrived here. You stepped forward and into a life that you had never imagined. You took care of ShayTan without hesitating. As I heard the echo of your thoughts on my way south, I was touched by the wealth of love that I heard in your mental voice."

Edward leaned forward and kissed me gently on the temple as his arms pulled me even closer to his lean body. "I already knew the warmth of your spirit. Once I actually met you as ShayTan hatched, I was swept away by your beauty. As I've come to know you, I can't imagine loving another as much as I love you." His lips were pressing kisses to the side of my face as he spoke, slowly drifting closer to my mouth.

"Rider Bella, Bond of ShayTan, I love you with all my heart and humbly ask to become your mate, just as our dragons are mates, for the rest of our lives." Edward leaned back just a little and gazed into my eyes.

Before I could answer him, my dragon had angled her head down into the space beside us. Her voice was amplified as Volterra made a connection with me.

Edward, we love you, too. She made eye contact with him and gave him her best dragon grin, her sharp teeth on display.

I rolled my eyes at her and then looked back at Edward. His grin was blinding.

"Does she speak the truth, Bella?" he asked as he leaned down and nuzzled my neck, much as his dragon had just done to mine.

Gasping at the feelings that his touch engendered, I nodded, having no air to speak. Taking in several deep breaths, I cupped his face in my hands. "Rider Edward, I love you, too…"

A nudge to my back made me rephrase my words, "We love you, too. Nothing would make me happier than to be your mate, as our dragons are mates, for all time."

Volterra and ShayTan both roared their approval, letting those around us know what had just occurred. With the dragons still protecting us from the onslaught of the good wishes of those humans gathered in the clearing, Edward kissed me. His lips slanted across mine, warming me down to my toes, toes that curled tightly in my riding boots. When he nibbled gently at my bottom lip, I felt like I had when ShayTan and I had flown above the clouds.

With a start I realized that dragon bodies no longer pressed up against us. They had both stepped away and as I opened my eyes I met the smiles and cheers of Riders, Tenders and Keepers who had come to wish us welcome home from our first flight. A blush filled my cheeks and Edward tucked my head beneath his chin. The blush flared hotter when he said, "We'll continue this later, in the privacy of our chamber."

Turning to face those wishing us well, I gave him a nod in agreement. I thought that my life couldn't get better than when ShayTan had Bonded with me. I was wrong. Edward loved me, I loved him and life was better together.

If we had seen the red-haired woman watching us from a nearby bluff, her body nearly obscured by a gray mist, it probably would have dimmed our joy.

~!~!~!~!~


A/N…about time, right? As I said when I started this, I really have no posting schedule…I have to wait until that Dragon Shaped Muse talks to me. I'm going to lasso the next one, an Edward shaped one…He's going to deal with Victoria, because she really needs to be dealt with, the dragons need to be safe from her use of Dark Magic.

And, because u2shay asked so nicely, Edward is going to chat about his thoughts as he waited for Bella to reach the age of adulthood in this world. He, Volterra and ShayTan thought that she was a bit clueless as to his feelings.

There's only one chapter left. Maybe one future shot…I kind of had a tickle in my mind when I wrote that…so, we'll see.

Thank you u2shay and LJ Summers for your beta eyes!

I can't tell you all how much I appreciate your reviews…they make me smile! I'm hoping that I got everyone answered, FFN had some changes that made things weird for a while and I keep finding the notices in my old emails…

I did just post two one shots that are at total opposite ends of the spectrum, one is so fluffy it almost makes your teeth hurt, WHO NEEDS A FAIRY GODMOTHER? It's AH.

The other is very dark. Gasp…I killed someone…! That one is COUPLE IN THE WOODS. It's been called creeptastic…I guess I did my job! I entered it in the MISSED CONNECTIONS contest and it received THIRD PLACE in the public voting and was also chosen THIRD PLACE by the Judges. Thanks, everyone that voted for it, although since it was anonymous, you wouldn't have known it was mine. It's now on my profile page here. Don't be too scared about the death. I think you'll like it.

Thanks, again for reading and reviewing…you are the BEST readers out there!

Kathie