When once the Dragons’ Veil is breached, the magic is doomed to fade away. The self-indulgence of one princess changes the course of existence for two very different worlds.
When Princess Shaila flew her dragon through the magic barrier on her husband-quest, she disturbed the delicate balance that kept the sanctuary safe. After a thousand years protecting peaceful, bountiful Isoladia, the Veil is fading…and the drought and war that plagues the outside world threatens to spread to the island.
Princess Shaila’s self-indulgence has weakened the Veil, but that mistake won’t be her last. She’d wanted handsome Armon Duel, a lordly soldier unlikely to object to a wife of unruly nature, to become her husband. An unfortunate blunder on the part of her dragon instead lands her with Captain Breedyn Sol, a domineering hulk who’s everything Shaila intended to avoid!
Breedyn Sol is horrified at what’s been done to him against his will. Not only did he nearly suffocate inside the dragon’s heaving gullet, but he’s been separated from all that’s important to him–his duty and his men. He’s as determined to leave as Shaila is to send him back. Unfortunately for both of them, there is no turning back…
Home again, with revelations…
“Hang on!” Galvistor warned.
Remembering their last flight through the great barrier Veil, he braced to face a violent slam of icy wind and rain.
This time he entered the whirling mist from the west, over the high mountains that edged the world outside the Veil. Princess Shaila, carried before him inside the cage of his foreclaws, was already shivering.
The vapor enclosed them, snuffing sight and sound. To his surprise and relief, the elements inside what Shaila called the ‘big green cloud’ were less intense than during their original passage. The air was cold and blustery, but not unmanageable.
Thank Gansur! He had anticipated a struggle to keep his claw-tips firmly together while being tossed about like a feather in a gale, and keeping them together was imperative. He did not intend to drop the sole heir to the Kingdom of Ambistron again.
He didn’t recall dropping her before, but drop her he had and that moment of distraction could have ended in disaster. The Princess, however, had not only survived the violent land beyond the Veil without him, but completed the purpose of their ill planned sojourn. She had found her husband-choice, which shouldn’t surprise Galvistor. Shaila was feisty and stubborn. Once focused on a task, she finished it.
Even now a ton of human male lay like a boulder inside his upper gullet. The Princess had wanted a staunch mate, had she not? Nothing could be stauncher than this heft of humanity, whose vicious struggles had bruised his poor interior. The human seemed to be settling at last, accepting his situation. Either that or the man was running out of air, which increased the need for a swift flight home. Galvistor wasn’t going to mention that prospect to Shaila. She had been carried in the same discomfiting manner and knew the difficulties.
No choice for it, though, but to carry the man inside, since Galvistor had been forced to destroy the riding harness that kept Shaila secure on his back when they flew. Getting the near frozen Princess off his back and reanimated after their first encounter with the Veil had required chewing the harness apart. At least the husband-choice was warm, while Shaila, who wore nothing but simple, light clothing, had to suffer the icy wind that sieved through Galvistor’s claws.
Worried about both her and the husband-choice, he increased his speed, grateful his time in the land beyond the Veil had resulted in an inexplicable enhancement in size and strength. Otherwise they would be skimming the topography hidden by the shifting vapors, for in his prior condition the weight of the husband-choice would have held him too low.
Had it been the air in that other land, or the unusual food that added power to his mighty form? A circumstance he intended to give suitable contemplation now that his mental faculties were reengaged. He had only vague memories of a period of less than astute mentality, a condition more unsettling than his physical changes. Strength without reason? Not just a disconcerting thought, but a frightening one.
A dark shadow rushed toward him–whoa! A peak! He swerved, heard Shaila’s frightened gasp as they missed the snowy point by mere feet. They weren’t as high as he had believed. A blood-rush of excitement stiffened his tendrils, the close encounter generating anger and exhilaration. Anger because the haughty rock had threatened him, and exhilaration–he snorted in revelation. It was the danger! He had never enjoyed danger before.
Of course not, fool Dragon, he chided himself. You’ve never known danger before. Not in the safe world of Isoladia.
But beyond the Veil…no, not there, either, he had to admit. Befuddled though his memory was, he recalled delight, annoyance, confusion, perhaps a moment of anxiety before they escaped with the husband-choice, but not once had he felt he was in real danger. Even so, he recognized a new layer inside himself, as if the exposure to those different emotional elements had enhanced his sensings the same way his musculature had been thickened.
“Galvistor!” Shaila called. “Can we avoid the scenic route? That was too close.”
“No cause for alarm,” he assured her. “A minor adjustment is required.”
He barely heard her muttered response–something about covering her eyes and not watching–before the wind swept her voice away.
A few hard wing beats lifted them. It was difficult to orient direction or elevation in the Veil’s murk, and the husband-choice’s added bulk skewed his balance, allowing the wind to knock him about and further distort his senses. Even so, he felt they were making headway.
Rain struck, a freezing sheet that further blurred the situation. He felt Shaila scrunch down. Her cloak wasn’t waterproof and before long she would be wearing a soggy mess of material. At least his wings weren’t freezing over. They felt strong, capable, undeterred by either cold or wind. If they beat fast enough, no ice would encase them as it had before. He wouldn’t allow it. Home lay beyond this unpleasant soup. Home, and his mate and their clutch, hopefully hatched. Fat cows, blue skies, and the peace of an ever quiet land. A warm land.
He plunged on, moving through the miserable Veil as fast as possible.
* * *
Shaila sneezed and trembled. Her pants and shirt had never been intended for these adverse conditions, and the tunic she wore over them was useless against the soaking rain. Still, these were the only items between her and icy air. Not a killing cold like before, but wretched all the same. So different from Isoladia, where rain and wind were gentle and refreshing–she sneezed again. A sniffle. She had never had a sniffle.
A discomfort, but not a worry. Armon was the worry. How was he coping inside the Dragon’s great stomach? She hated traveling in the slime and suffocating closeness of Galvistor’s interior. It had never been pleasant, but with the recent production of fire in the Dragon’s depths, it might be uncomfortably warm as well. Hopefully not too warm. She had confidence the Dragon wouldn’t risk her husband-choice, but the thought of the handsome soldier riding in close proximity to a hot and formidable flame was frightening.
“Armon,” she whispered, picturing his blonde hair and serious blue eyes–another sneeze shattered her focus. She hunched deeper into Galvistor’s claws.
She wished her arms were long enough to allow her to touch the Dragon’s underside, to perhaps feel Armon’s body through the tough exterior and reassure him. He had fought long and hard against confinement, as evidenced by Galvistor’s earlier grunts and winces each time Armon’s struggling limbs struck him. While she hated those struggles, they confirmed he had strength and spirit, traits suited to the man who would assume her father’s throne.
There hadn’t been time to ask if Armon wanted to assume that responsibility, not with the battle going on between the soldiers and the hairy ‘uglies’ as dawn broke in the land beyond the Veil. She’d had no choice but to have Galvistor snatch him from that terrible fight. He might have died otherwise. Besides, the intervention had scattered the combating forces. Calm, reasonable Armon would thank her because her action had saved, not only him, but his friend, Turk, and all the other men who fought under the dark Captain, Breedyn Sol.
Sol. Gansur, what a scowling hulk, as uncalm as the Veil they flew through. Overbearing, stubborn, and as bossy as her father, King Harrimore. The likeness ended there. The Captain was a soldier, battle-scarred and attuned to his world’s violence. Obviously a respected leader, for all that he lacked manners. As much as the man had irked her, she admitted she understood the respect given him. Sol had always stayed to the front of those he led, facing the brunt of whatever danger threatened. An admirable trait. And hadn’t he returned his men’s respect, listening when necessary, advising without rancor or judgment? He was a man of better quality than she wanted to credit him with.
Shaila blinked raindrops from her lashes. Why focus on Captain Sol? She didn’t even like him! Lordly Armon Duel, the only man for her, was a mere few feet away, being carried to his true destiny. Another sniff broke her reverie. Brooding Sol, indeed.
* * *
Dark. Moist. Hot. Smothering.
For all that was holy, how long would he linger in the belly of the beast before it dissolved him?
Breedyn gasped, finding a tiny pocket of air in his helm to sustain him a few minutes more, a gagging breath that smelled of sulfur and digestion. Ganyun–was it his own flesh he smelled, liquefying in the disgusting slime that enveloped him? Perhaps not. He could still feel his limbs, even his fingers and toes, and there was no pain. Why would the creature ingest him if not for food? Why had it taken him whole and not torn him apart before it swallowed?
He was confused, had been confused from the moment he woke from his berserker state and found himself stuck in this reeking, quivering mass of musculature. At first he’d had no idea where he was, had thought he was dead and in the hell his failures destined him for. Only when he heard the noises around him–the grumbling stomach, joints creaking, lungs filling and emptying like gigantic bellows, the steady thumping of a huge heart–had the truth struck. He was inside a living thing! There would be no clean death in having his flesh fuel the workings of its noisy parts.
He had resisted both before and after the rage of his blood-lust dissipated, but other than a few grunts and jerks the creature seemed unaffected. Now, exhausted and near to suffocation, Breedyn didn’t have the strength to protest either the indignity or the injustice.
Clarity was slipping away. He no longer wondered what creature it was or how it had come to swallow him. He remembered only the fight, the blood-song of his sweeping sword, the glory of impending death as he fought alongside his men…his men!
What had become of them? Where were Armon and Turk, Serge Groce and the others? Were they still fighting, or had the panicked Borken overwhelmed them? Damn. Not knowing was the greatest punishment. He wanted answers, wanted to struggle until the beast spit him out into a breathable world where he could confront it and discover if the thing had slaughtered his men while he had fought on in a crazed stupor, unaware of the tragedy. But he was tired, could barely feel his heart beat.
No air. The stinking slime had oozed through his helm slit to claim every orifice. His nose was no longer usable, and if he opened his mouth again the slick mess would fill it.
He gave in to the inevitable. A slow, peaceful end…who would have thought that for Breedyn Sol, the Warlord’s First Captain?
But the Warlord was gone. Now Sol was gone, too. The world would end without him. He sank into oblivion.
* * *
Bright sunlight struck, half blinding Galvistor. He adjusted his eye facets to dim the glare–ha! They were soaring through Isoladia’s brilliant blue sky. Below, the Kingdom of Ambistron spread out emerald and fruitful, edged along its northern border by the indigo depths of Bryteflow River. A clean river, succoring the surrounding land with water so pure it was more a benediction than a channel, a truth he hadn’t considered before seeing how the dirty water outside the Veil tainted everything it touched.
Contrast, he realized, was an important aspect of appreciation.
“Home!” he bellowed, but he didn’t have to inform Shaila. She was pounding his claws.
“The river,” she shouted. “And green, Galvistor! Green everywhere.”
She laughed as he dropped lower to capture a warm current, filling his wings with balmy air that carried them forward in a steady soar. For long minutes he didn’t think at all, just enjoyed the calm sky and the gentle sun on his scales. He could fly like this forever, mindless as a bird, rapt with speed while the welcoming sky held him aloft–Shaila pounded him again, shouting something.
“Armon, Galvistor! We’ve got to get him out of you. He may be out of air by now!”
The husband-choice. He had forgotten. There had been no movement inside for some time, not even when the Veil’s despicable wind tossed them about like an angry sea. Time to regurgitate the man. It wouldn’t do, however, to fly into the courtyard at Ambistron castle and gag up a bulk of humanity onto the cobbled ground; an indecorous spectacle, and undignified. The husband-choice would want to clean up before being introduced to the King.
Where to do the deed unobtrusively? Not in his own cave. Riastor wouldn’t allow such indelicacy in proximity to her young. But where–ah! He angled toward another cave located far north of the castle. The mountain range had numerous pores in its side, caves too shallow or narrow for real habitation, but useful as rest stops or afternoons of quiet contemplation if one needed time alone. He knew the perfect one for this activity, in an isolated area.
Shaila made no protest as he swung off course. She would have reached the same conclusion about the inappropriateness of presenting her husband-choice to her father draped in stomach lining and the blood of battle. Hopefully her intended wouldn’t end up draped in a burial shroud. His utter stillness was disturbing. The Dragon almost wished for another knee in the rib to verify the warrior lived. Worried, he shot across the sky.
* * *
Shaila stood against the cave wall and tried to calm herself. Not needing much covering in Ambistron’s warmth, she had removed the pants and shirt, but kept the already dry tunic. In fact, the air felt warmer than usual; surely just her chilled body re-adjusting.
She watched, anxious, as Galvistor prepared to spit Armon out. The cave was deep but not great in diameter, and with the Dragon’s bulk blocking the entrance there was little light. It was taking him a moment to arrange himself and stretch out the long throat through which Armon had to slide. His gullet was ominously silent, and Shaila couldn’t remember when he had last jerked in response to his passenger’s angry thrashing.
Too long, she thought.
Having been carried this way, herself, she knew one had to stay quiet and take shallow breaths, but she’d had no time to instruct Armon in the etiquette of gullet travel. Either he had figured it out himself or he was no longer capable of struggling.
“Hurry, Galvistor.” The waiting was unbearable.
“Merely selecting a smooth patch for the deposit,” he grumbled.
“For Gansur’s sake, you make him sound like something you’ll squeeze out your other end! Just do it!”
Galvistor’s scaled features didn’t permit a frown, but she heard his disapproval of her crudity in his small sniff.
Air pulled at her as he sucked in. A low whistling came from his throat, a whistle that went on and on because he had a huge girth to fill. Then silence, followed by a great grunt that sounded as if he really was trying to send his load out the other end–she saw a tentative movement at the base of his throat as Armon was forced out of the upper gullet. His body formed an obvious lump in there, a lump that moved too slowly. How could Armon breathe constricted inside that narrow space? The Dragon’s neck had never seemed narrow before, was in fact now of a greater size than ever. Armon was just bulkier than she had thought.
“Faster,” she demanded.
“Tr–er–yuk–ing,” Galvistor groaned. Obviously he couldn’t talk with a man in his throat. His wings lifted into an odd, half-extended posture as he strained.
Why is it so difficult? she wondered. The Dragon could swallow entire cows with no effort, horns and all. This was only one man and he shouldn’t –oh, lord! Armor. Armon’s entire upper body had been enclosed in that hard metal casing the soldiers wore. The hard edges of it must be catching on every protrusion in Galvistor’s throat. She had a horrible thought. What if Armon was stuck there? He would die of suffocation and Galvistor wouldn’t be able to eat. Or breathe too well. She could lose them both!
Unable to stand and watch, she paced forward and laid her hands on the bulge that was Armon, pushing for all she was worth to help ease him forward. Together, she and the Dragon grunted and groaned and pushed.
Birth must be like that, more an assumption on her part than not because she had never been allowed into a birthing chamber. But she knew the process was often long and painful. After an arduous and sluggish trek through the Dragon’s esophagus, Armon made it to the base of Galvistor’s jaws. Shaila stepped back.
The Dragon gagged, coughed, gagged again–a gleaming mass plopped from his mouth to the hard stone floor. His head shot up and he breathed in like an expanding bladder, filling lungs that must be nearly as empty as poor Armon’s.
“Never again,” Galvistor gasped, “will I make light of egg-laying.”
Shaila got on her knees and tugged at Armon’s metal head cover. His wet armor gleamed in the dim light, covered with slime that had been no aid in lubricating his expulsion.
“Please be alive,” she muttered, and suffered an uncomfortable memory. This moment was similar to the one in the cave beyond the Veil, when she had accidentally shoved her husband-choice off the high trail edge. Afterwards she had knelt beside him, afraid she had killed him. Here she was, in that same posture of regret in spite of having pledged to not hurt him again. If he survived her clumsy efforts to lead him to his destiny, he might well be leery of her.
At last, the headpiece slid off. She tossed it aside, reached to lift his limp head–and froze. Even in the poor light she could tell his hair was dark. Very dark. Perhaps it was just damp from Galvistor’s juices. Besides, everything was dark in this shadowed space.
“Is he breathing?” Galvistor lowered his head to peer at the prone figure.
“Oh! I–” shoving aside the niggling sense something wasn’t right, Shaila laid her hand over Armon’s nose. “I can’t tell. This gunk is blocking everything.”
Using the edge of her tunic, she wiped the mess off, clearing out his nose and mouth. The more she exposed his face the stronger her feeling of ‘wrongness’. Her hands could feel what her eyes couldn’t see. These features were rougher, not as refined as she recalled.
“Galvistor, I don’t think this is–”
“No movement,” the Dragon said. “You’ll have to breathe for him or you’ll be attired in widow’s black before you’re even wed.”
“Breathe for him?” She looked up. The Dragon was so close his jaw tendrils almost smacked her in the face.
“Put your mouth over his and share your breath,” Galvistor said.
“Now or never, dear girl. Your husband-choice is turning quite blue.”
Shaila stared at him, then down at the barely visible form of the unconscious man. “I can’t! I don’t think he’s–”
“Well I can’t do it!” Galvistor snapped. “One breath from me would explode him. Tsk, Shaila–you wanted him, you have to save him. Otherwise, why did we make the journey?”
“Why indeed?” she muttered.
Her personal obstinacy and desires, that was why. All consequences lay on her, and whoever this was–she had a rising and unpleasant certainty it wasn’t Armon–he didn’t deserve what had happened to him. He didn’t deserve death because of her mistake. Steeling herself, she bent forward until her mouth was but an inch above those still, blue lips. Not a rumor of breath. Guilt pushed her that last inch.
“Don’t die,” she whispered, and put her lips to his.
They were still warm, thank Gansur, and soft, an alien sensation, yet not unappealing.
“Exhale,” Galvistor said, “slow and steady. You must oxygenate his respiratory system.”
She parted his lips with hers, but his tongue was in the way. She drew back. What was she supposed to do with that? Inserting a finger to hold it aside, she covered his mouth with hers and exhaled. He was so much bigger, she did it three times to be certain enough air would reach his lungs. She placed her ear next to his mouth, listening for a breath.
“Nothing,” she said, now frightened.
“Again!” Galvistor commanded. “Push the air out of him first, then do it again.”
Shaila stuck both hands under his chest armor and found the broad warmth of him–Gansur, his chest was huge!–and used her weight to force out the air she had just blown in. Then she blew into him again, using her tongue instead of her finger to push his tongue out of the way. Half way through the second exhalation he gasped, a sucking response not unlike Galvistor’s. It pulled her down, drawing her mouth tight against his.
Startled, she froze for two heartbeats, feeling his breath, and realized she was blocking his effort. She jerked back, gasping herself because oddly she could barely breathe.
* * *
Darkness. Restful, but he was alone. All of his life he had kept himself apart, but he didn’t like this. Didn’t want to be alone in such darkness. He wanted to find someone, anyone, to stand beside him, only he couldn’t move. Or call out. What could he do without limbs or voice? Drift alone in the darkness…something brushed his lips, a whisper of sensation.
What was it? Who? It pressed against him, into him, swirling down his throat, into his chest. A blessed wind filled him, raised him from darkness. He wasn’t alone–Breedyn gasped.
A warm, soft moistness pressed his mouth, blocking his inhalation. Then it was gone and he managed a great intake of precious air. He coughed, breathed again, and rolled on his side, panting as his lungs adjusted to being used again.
“You’ve done it, dear girl!” a deep voice rumbled.
The sound was muffled. Breedyn shook his head and blinked, clearing his eyes. His vision returned but he still couldn’t see well. Wherever this was, it was deeply shadowed.
“Move, Galvistor. We need more light in here.”
Muted though it was, Breedyn recognized that voice. He couldn’t put a face to it.
“And where am I to move to?” the great voice asked, piqued. “There’s no room.”
“Just squeeze to the side, for Gansur’s sake. Something isn’t right here. I’ve got to see!”
That familiar voice again. A woman’s voice, also piqued.
Breedyn heard rustling, a muttering protest as something quite large moved away–weak light suffused the area. He was facing away from whoever had spoken, so rolled over.
“Oh, scales and fangs!” the woman said. “We’ve made a mess of it, Sir Dragon.”
Breedyn blinked again. “You!” he croaked.
* * *
“Captain Sol.” Shaila was appalled. Anyone but him! He appeared just as appalled, which for some reason insulted her.
“Well,” she said, feigning calmness, “I suppose you expect an explanation?”