Authors: Joely Sue Burkhart
“I won’t weaken myself like that again, not even for you.”
Easing to my side, he stroked a powerful hand up and down my back, combing my hair, soothing muscles coiled for battle. Fighting, always fighting.
She Who Hung the Moon cursed me well indeed, firing my black heart in Her forge. She knew how best to punish me. How to break me.
“I would not break you.” Stroking, soothing, his palm so warm and gentle on my skin. His caress melted my resistance, ate my hatred, cooled my fiery rage.
“Love hurts, but it can be a good hurt, like I hurt for you now.”
Agony clutched my heart in talons sharper than my own. “So you can sacrifice me? Why love only to die?”
Gently, he turned my face to his. He reached out and captured my tears on his fingers, tears I didn’t even know I shed. Water was a rare thing in Keldar, but my tears were rarer yet. I cried them all centuries ago to fill that cursed dry Well.
My breath caught in my throat as he lifted my tears to his mouth and sucked my moisture from his skin.
If you refuse love, then why live at all?”
Choking, I was choking on my shattered dreams, my ruined hopes, my darkest fears. I was a selfish bitch. I would rather kill than surrender. I murdered what I couldn’t have. I hated what refused to love me. Hurt before I could be hurt again; kill before I could love again.
Yet I could not kill this warrior with the stone face and the gentle hands.
He stood and pulled me up with him. I wanted him again, although the tormenting hatred blazing in my heart was calm for now. He truly had subdued my dragon heart.
“I have water. May I come within your tent and take shelter from the sun?”
I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry, I wanted to throw my arms around him and kiss him again. Shyest fragile hope sprouted in the barrens of my heart. “My tent is yours, Jalan tal’Krait, such that it is. Come share water in my shade.”
He graced me with the largest, most genuine smile I’d seen on his face yet.
“Perhaps you’ll share a bath with me.”
Mouth dry, knees trembling, I could only stare at him as he fetched his strewn clothing. A bath.
I felt moistness between my thighs, a new fire roaring to life. “Do you have oil too?”
Smiling, his eyes dark with rising need, he slipped an arm around me and bent close. “Of course. I’ll oil you head to toe.” My legs gave out completely.
Scooping me up to drape me over his shoulder, he trotted up the gravel slope to my lair. “We mustn’t waste a single drop of such precious fluid.”
Sitting on the floor in the center of my cave, I watched him explore my home, my prison all these centuries. I’d never taken food inside my lair. It felt very strange to see another living being here after so long, to watch him trail a hand along the stone walls, the candle stub he held wavering gentle light.
“How did you make the walls shine?”
Only someone who knew him would recognize the tiny hint of wonder in his voice, the barest widening of appreciation in his eyes.
That I already knew him so well made my eyes burn and my heart ache.
“Dragon Fire. I had nothing better to do, and my temper—”
I shrugged, a wry smile twisting my lips. “Once I realized the Well of Tears would never fill, I tried to bring the mountainside down on myself. All I managed to do was melt the rock.”
He followed the crack deeper into the mountain, much further than I could ever go in my dragon body. I don’t know what he thought he might find—a sacred pool, a secret passage—but I was content to sit, breathing our mingled scents in my home, my shade.
Returning, he sat before me and set a flask between us. “My water is yours.”
I had no cup, no food, no utensil, certainly no pot to brew tea for a traditional hospitality ceremony. I had no need for such things when I hadn’t tasted water in... I couldn’t even remember how long. Blood was the only moisture I needed as the White. With shaking hands, I picked up the leather flask, wet my lips, and held it out to him.
“Drink, Chanda. Taste it.”
I took a full mouth of water, held it, the flat warm taste rolling on my tongue.
Something jarred my taste buds, a sharpness, an unfamiliar bitter edge.
“It’s the last Well, our last water.” His voice echoed with sorrow, and his eyes, so dark, so full of misery. “Have you seen the Krait lands in recent years?”
Wordlessly, I shook my head. I rarely left my domain. The Well of Tears was my constant torment. I had no desire to see the inland
Where Somma’s body died, there flowed poisoned acid. Rains ceased across all of Keldar. Agni blasted our lands with fury, with heat, with flaming sun to dry the precious water never replenished.
“Our last Well is tainted. Not enough to kill, not yet, but my tribe’s final days are nigh. Without water, we can’t keep our land, poisoned though it is. Without water, the tribes will slaughter us. Between Somma’s Poison and Yama’s Despair, the Krait will be no more.”
Tormented eyes drilled into mine. His hands remained in his lap, but he leaned slightly toward me, his bond tugging, trying to compel me to believe, to assist him in this bitter, desperate war.
“The Red Dragon Comes to burn us all, but the Krait will be the first decimated. My tribe, my people, we who have lived on the shores of Venom and Despair all these generations—we carry the bulk of Yama’s black blood.”
“What do you want from me?” I didn’t try to keep the sharpness from my voice. My anger returned, and my disappointment. He tantalized me with a bath, when all he truly cared about was gaining my assistance in his war. “I murdered my own tribe, Jalan. Why should I care about yours?”
Pressured, I forced myself to catalog my defenses. His scimitar lay on the floor beside him, but not in his hand. He didn’t reach for it or even look at it, but he knew I realized it was there, almost within my grasp. I felt my accursed dragon rouse, scenting the possibility of blood, of battle. My heartbeat quickened. Every feral instinct I possessed told me to seize that weapon and take his head.
He knew my thoughts, but he didn’t move, didn’t flinch. His muscles didn’t tighten or brace for my attack. Instead, he looked at me with... acceptance.
If I chose to kill him, so be it.
If I commanded his heart to cease beating, he would die without a sound on the gravel floor of my lair.
Such sacrifice. I couldn’t comprehend it. None would dare call Jalan tal’Krait weak. But how could he bear to sit, helpless, accepting, peaceful, while all the world blazed and died?
His chiseled face softened, his white teeth flashing against his sun-baked face, his eyes glowing in the candlelight. The smile was gone in a heartbeat, but I saw. I knew. I felt his pride, his amusement, his affection—
:Not affection. My love.:
—Through his bond.
I blew hard through my nostrils, unable to make as disgusted a grunt in this form.
“Would you care if you knew the Mambas have chained a dragon for warfare?”
I blinked. How could such a feat even be possible? None would chain me.
Other than Jalan, I let no one touch me with blade or iron.
“The tal’Mamba succumbed to his dragon a fortnight ago. Unluckily for him, his
suspected he was close to turning and plotted to capture him in those first weak moments of transformation.”
Horror and rage pulsed in my veins, my dragon clawing with talons to escape, to protect, to fight.
“They bound him in chains and call him the Red Dragon. All know he is not truly Agni, but he is mostly red, mostly Agni’s blood. They use him to further the destruction of the other tribes. As such, he is definitely a forerunner of the Last Days.
He leaned closer and took my hands in his own, forcing me to meet the sorrowed gaze in his stone face. “The warrior I fought at sunset nearly drove me to succumb to my dragon by threatening to take you. To chain you as their Red’s mate. They would breed dragons in captivity for use in warfare. Do you understand? They hope to decimate Yama’s blood to gain some forgiveness before Agni Comes.”
I clutched his hands to keep from grabbing the scimitar. Not to hurt him, necessarily, but my dragon’s urgent sense of self-preservation knotted my muscles. “We all carry Yama’s blood to some degree. The Mambas are just as guilty as the Kraits, as my Adders, as any.”
Jalan nodded. “They hope to atone some of their
by sacrificing those with Black blood, starting with my tribe. I’m the last
the last warrior with enough dragon blood in my veins to fight and risk the Fire within, yet the Mambas have nearly one hundred
plus the chained Red. They will attack our tents this rising. I tracked their progress before returning to you. I have warriors, true, but none with enough dragon blood to hold the Mambas back.”
Awful finality rang in his voice; agony etched his face. Even if he somehow managed to kill the Red Dragon alone, the other warriors would kill his people.
Even if by some miracle he managed to protect his people from the warriors, the last Well would soon be gone, swallowed by Venom and Despair.
His only hope—
Fire blazed on my skin, my dragon rising. His only hope was me. If I killed the Red and helped him drive the Mambas back.
“Don’t think of it,” he whispered, drawing me closer to him. His breath fanned my face, and his scent rolled over me, roasted spices and warrior. “Let us fight the Mambas and the chained Red. That’s all I ask.”
“No. You ask for my heart.” I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the sight of his timeworn face, his dark eyes filled with such miserable love. “You ask me to lay down my life for a tribe not my own.”
His lips brushed my forehead, and I shuddered. That quickly, need rose in me, frantic, desperate, fully aware of how short the hours were until dawn, until the full moon waned, until his fragile human life would end.
“Not for my tribe, but for my love. I will die when you die, Chanda. Lay down your life with me.”
Her heart thundered so loudly he could hear it. Releasing her hands, Jalan took a wooden bowl, a square of linen, and a clay vial of oil from his knapsack.
He tipped the precious flask of water and filled the small bowl. At the sound of trickling waters, she shuddered, her breathing quickening even more.
Dampening the square of cloth, he began the ritual cleansing. He touched the cloth to his lips, his forehead, his heart. “May Somma’s waters cleanse us of our
He took Chanda’s hand and gently wiped her fingers, her palm, the delicate skin of her wrist. Dipping the cloth again, carefully wringing excess drops back into the bowl, he washed her other hand. Then he pressed a kiss into each, deliberately curling her fingers around his gift as he moved his mouth to her wrist. Her pulse beat frantically against his lips, leaping at the deliberate graze of his teeth.
Tugging her hand, he spilled her into his lap. She came to him without complaint, her limbs languorous, her eyes heavy with need. Need to be touched, to feel such tenderness, to have someone care for her, just a little. Silently, he swore to make this bath last as long as possible.
This one time must last them through all eternity.
He stroked her body with the cloth, wiping away dust, dried blood, an eternity of scale and hide. His mark was branded on her shoulder, braided black highlighted with touches of pulsing red in the ring left by his teeth. His dragon twisted and clawed in his gut, burning to bite her again. A fight he relished, a fight that told him he lived, that she was worthy of his heart and blood.
Warm and supple, her skin came alive for him. The barest brush of his fingers tightened her body. The hint of moisture turned her muscles to liquid. Pliant, aching, she lay in his arms, utterly relaxed.
No fight, no rage, no hatred—nothing burned in her but need.
Need for his touch.
Deliberately, he let a drop of water fall on her breast. Dipping his head, he captured the bead, tonguing her skin, the aching tip of her breast, drawing her flesh into his mouth. She buried her hands in his hair, holding him close, her cry echoing in her lair.
“We mustn’t waste a drop, Chanda. Not one precious drop.”