His tail unwound from around his body and he slowly moved to the entrance of his home. He didn't know what to expect and was not sure he even cared, but things were pretty boring right now and this just might prove interesting. Or, at the very least, provide dinner.
The blade entered Annwyl's side, ripping through armor and flesh and tearing through organs. Blood flowed and she knew she was dying. The soldier smiled at her cry of pain, which only brought out the telltale rage Annwyl had become famous for.
She raised her blade and, with a cry of pure bloodcurdling fury, swung it. The steel sang through the air as it swiped through the man, separating his head from his neck. His blood slashed across her face and arm. The other soldiers stopped. They had handily disposed of her small band of warriors without much trouble once they had them backed into this desolate glen. But she never allowed them an easy path to the killing blow. Until now.
Her life's blood drained from her body and she knew her time grew short. Her vision hazy, she felt weaker and lighter. She struggled to breathe. But she'd fight as long as she had breath in her body. Annwyl raised her sword, clasping the handle in both bloody hands, and waited for the next attack.
One of the men stepped forward. She could tell by the look on his face that he wanted to be the one to take her head. Present it to her brother so he could keep it as a trophy and warning to others who would dare question his reign.
She watched him move with assured slowness. Clearly, he also knew she was dying. Knew she couldn't fight much longer.
Her legs shook as her strength fled, and her body ached to lie down for just a few minutes and sleep. Just a little nap....
Annwyl's eyes snapped open and she realized the soldier was that much closer. She swung her sword and he easily parried the blow. He smiled and Annwyl would give her soul for just one last surge of strength to wipe that smug smile off his face.
The soldier looked back at his comrades, making sure they were all watching before he killed her. But he left himself open. And one thing her father always taught her ... never let an obvious opportunity pass by. She ran him through with her blade, slamming the steel into his stomach as his head snapped back around to look at her in horror. For good measure, she twisted her sword in his gut, watching in satisfaction as he opened his mouth to scream but left the world with nothing more than a whimper.
She yanked her blade out of him and he dropped to the ground. She knew that would be her last kill, but she would still die with her blade raised. She turned to the remaining men but they, to her surprise, no longer found her of any interest. They looked past her. Into the cave she now stood in front of.
Annwyl tried to figure out what new trick this could be, but she never took her fading eyes off the men in front of her. Even as the ground shook under her. Even as they backed away from her in obvious horror. Even as the enormous shadow fell across her body, completely blocking out the sun.
It wasn't until the men screamed and began to run that she glanced up to see black scales hovering just above her. When the scales moved, as a large breath was inhaled into even larger lungs, she finally looked back at the fleeing soldiers.
The stream of fire flew across the glen, destroying trees, flowers, and, eventually, men. Using her sword now to prop herself up, she watched as the enemy soldiers were engulfed in flame, their bodies writhing as they desperately fought to put out the fires that covered them.
A small sense of satisfaction rippled through her, even with the knowledge that she would be next. As the screams died away, Annwyl again looked up to find the dragon now looking down at her. He watched her with obvious curiosity and made no move to blast her into oblivion. At least not yet.
"I'd fear you, Lord Dragon," she got out as the little strength left fled her body and she dropped to one knee, her hand still holding her blood-covered sword. "If I weren't already dying." She gave a bitter half-smile. "Sorry to deny you that tasty morsel." She coughed and blood flowed onto her chin and down her burnished steel armor.
Annwyl's body dropped to the ground. And, soon after, she felt herself moving. She didn't know whether her soul had passed over to the land of her ancestors or into the mouth of a beast, but either way she was done with this life.
She forced her eyes open and struggled to focus. She knew that she lay in a proper bed, her naked body covered with animal furs. She could hear the crackle of a pit fire nearby and feel its warmth. Other than that, she had no idea where she was or how by the gods she got here. Last thing she remembered ... she died. But there was a little too much pain for her to be dead.
Her eyes focused and she realized she was in a room. A room with stone walls. She blinked again and attempted to still the rising panic. These were no mere stone walls. But cave walls.
"By the gods," she whispered as she reached out and touched her hand to the cold grey stone.
"Good. You're awake."
Annwyl gulped and prayed the gods were just playing a cruel joke on her. She raised herself on her elbows when that deep, dark voice spoke again, "Careful. You don't want to tear open those stitches."
With utter and almost heart-stopping dread, Annwyl looked over her shoulder and then couldn't turn away. There he was. An enormous black dragon, his wings pressed tight against his body. The light emanating from the pit fire causing his shiny black scales to glisten. His huge horned head rested in the center of one of his claws. He looked so casual. If she didn't know better, she'd swear he smirked at her, his black eyes searing her from across the gulf between them. A magnificent creature. But a creature nonetheless. A monster.
"Dragons can speak, then?" Brilliant, Annwyl. But she really didn't know what else to say.
"Aye." Scales brushed against stone and she bit the inside of her mouth to stop herself from cringing. "My name is Fearghus."
Annwyl frowned. "Fearghus?" She thought for a moment. Then dread settled over her bones, dragging her down to the pits of despair. "Fearghus ... the Destroyer?"
"That's what they call me."
"But you haven't been seen in years. I thought you were a myth." Right now, she silently prayed he was a myth.
"Do I look like a myth?"
Annwyl stared at the enormous beast, marveling at the length and breadth of him. Black scales covered the entire length of his body, two black horns atop his mighty head. And a mane of silky black hair swept across his forehead, down his back, nearly touching the dirt floor. She cleared her throat. "No. You look real enough to my eyes."
"I've heard stories about you. You smote whole villages."
She turned away from that steady gaze as she wondered how the gods could be so cruel. Instead of letting her die in battle as a true warrior, they instead let her end up as dinner for a beast.
"And you are Annwyl of Garbh��n Isle. Annwyl of the Dark Plains. And, last I heard, Annwyl the Bloody." Annwyl did cringe at that. She hated that particular title. "You take the heads of men and bathe in their blood."
"I do not!" She looked back at the dragon. "You take a man's head, there's blood. Spurting blood. But I do not bathe in anything but water."
"If you say so."
His calmness made her feel overly defensive. "And I'm not just taking men's heads. Only the enemies of Dark Plains. My brother's men."
"Ah, yes. Lorcan. The Butcher of Garbh��n Isle. Seems to me if you simply took his head your war would be over."
Annwyl gritted her teeth. And it wasn't from the pain of her wound. "Do you think that I've not thought of that? Do you think that if I could get close enough to the little toerag that I would not kill him if I had the chance?" The dragon didn't answer and her rage snapped right into place.
"Well ... do you?"
The dragon blinked at her sudden outburst. "Do you always get this angry at the mention of your brother?"
"No!" She barked. Then, "Yes!" Annwyl sighed. "Sometimes." The dragon chuckled and she fought the urge to start screaming. And to keep screaming. His laughter wasn't an unpleasant sound, but chatting up a dragon ... well, perhaps she was finally going mad.
The dragon slowly moved from behind her and brought more of his enormous body into the room. He settled to her right, but she could only see half of him without turning her head. The rest remained outside the alcove. She wondered what he looked like in his entirety.
"Why, exactly, am I not ..."
"You would be, if I hadn't found you."
"And why did you save me?"
"I don't know. You ... fascinate me."
Annwyl frowned. "What?" Compared to a dragon, she was nothing. Just human.
"Your bravery. It fascinates me. When you saw me you didn't try to run like those men. You stood your ground."
"I was already dying, what was the point?"
"It doesn't matter. The dragon-fear affects young and old. The dying and the strong. You should have run for your life or dropped to your knees begging for mercy."
"I drop to my knees for no man," she snapped before thinking. He laughed outright. A low, pleasant sound. Like his speaking voice. Shame it belonged to a monster.
"I'll keep that in mind." He chuckled as he carefully turned his big body, his head coming frighteningly close to her, and walked out of the chamber. She watched as his tail swung into the room, its sharp end grazing against the stone walls. She tried not to panic when she realized that his tail alone stretched the length of at least two of the tallest men in her troops. "I will send someone to help you up and get you fed."
"What?" The dragon slammed his large head into the ceiling.
Annwyl lowered herself back on the bed. That had just been a dream. "Nothing. I'm tired."
"Then you best get some sleep."
"Wait!" He stopped and looked over his shoulder at her. Annwyl took in a deep breath. "Thank you. For saving me."
"You're welcome, beautiful one." He started walking again. "But don't get too comfortable," he casually tossed over his shoulder. "Who knows what I'll make you do to repay me my kindness."
Annwyl leaned back against the soft bed and felt a shudder run through her. She just wished she could say that she shuddered from fear or, at the very least, revulsion. What truly worried her was that it felt like neither.
Fearghus rubbed the fresh bump on his head. He'd heard about Annwyl the Bloody's rage, but he had no idea how overwhelming it could be. Her angry bellow was damn near as powerful as a dragon's roar.
No wonder she hadn't defeated her brother yet. He terrified her. He could tell from her overzealous rage at the mere mention of the man.
If she faced Lorcan now, even if her body completely healed, he doubted she would defeat him. Either her anger or her fear would get the best of her.
And for some inexplicable reason that thought worried the hell out of him. When did he start caring about humans? Unlike some of his kin, he didn't hate humans. Yet he didn't live among them either. So his original plans for the human girl were to simply heal her wounds, then dump her near a human village. He didn't like complications. He didn't like anyone around him. He liked peace. He liked quiet. And not much else. But the mere thought of just leaving her somewhere sickened him.
He could already tell this was going to get complicated. And he hated complications.
"Good. You're awake." Annwyl looked up into the face of a woman. A witch, based on the precise, but brutal scar that marred one side of her face. All witches were marked in such a manner on order of her brother. The face behind the scar looked as if it might have been beautiful once. "You must have fallen asleep after he left." She pulled the fur covering off Annwyl's body. "Let's get you up."
Annwyl slowly swung her legs off the bed and, using one arm, pushed herself up.
"Careful now. Don't want to open up that wound again."
Annwyl nodded as she sat quietly, waiting for the nausea that suddenly descended upon her to pass.
"You're very lucky, you know."
"Most other dragons would have made you a meal. Not a guest."
Annwyl nodded slowly, "I know." She looked at the witch again. "I have seen you before."
"Aye. I help at the village when I can."
"The healer. I remember now. I had no idea you befriended the dragons."
"They have my loyalty."
Annwyl looked at the woman's scars. Not surprising she risked life among the dragons rather than of men. "Did my brother do that to you?"
"He ordered it. He is not a friend to the Sisterhood." The woman wrapped a robe around Annwyl's bare shoulders.
Her brother hated all witches. Mostly because they were women. And he absolutely hated all women. "He's always been afraid of that which he does not understand."
"Does that include you?"
Annwyl laughed as she slowly pushed herself off the bed. The laugh sounded bitter even to her own ears. "My brother understands me all too well. That's why both of us have struggled to take any ground."
"I see you did not escape his punishment." The witch motioned to the wounds on the young woman's back. The raised flesh healed but still an angry red.
"That's not from him." Annwyl pulled the robe tight around her body. Velvet and lush, she loved the softness of it against her battle-hardened skin. She wondered what rich baron the dragon took this from as he tore his caravan apart and ate the occupants.
The woman put her arm around Annwyl's waist and helped her to a table laid out with food and wine. "Your name is ... Morfyd. Yes?" Annwyl lowered herself into a sturdy chair.
"Did you help heal me as well?"
"Well, thank you for your help, Morfyd. It is greatly appreciated."
"I did it because the dragon asked. But betray him, lady-"
"Don't threaten me." Annwyl easily cut in without even looking up from the food before her. "I really hate that. And you need not remind me of my blood debt to the dragon." Annwyl sipped wine from a silver chalice and stared at the woman. "I owe him my life. I'll never betray him. And don't call me 'lady.' Annwyl will do."
Carefully placing the chalice on the wood table, she found Morfyd staring at her. "Something wrong?"
"No. I'm just very curious about you."
"Well," Annwyl grinned, "I've been told that I'm fascinating."
Morfyd pulled out the only other chair and sat across from Annwyl. "I have heard much about your brother. It amazes me you still live."
Annwyl began to eat the hearty stew, desperately trying not to think too hard about what kind of meat it contained. "It amazes me as well. Daily."
"But you saved many people. Released many from his dungeons."
Annwyl shrugged silently as she wondered whether that was gristle she currently chewed on.
"No one else would challenge him. No man would step forward to face him," Morfyd pushed.
"Well, he's my brother. He used to set fire to my hair and throw knives at my head. Facing him in combat was inevitable."
"But you lived under his roof until two years ago. We've all heard the stories about life on Garbh��n Isle."
"My brother had other concerns after my father died. He wanted to make sure everyone feared him. He didn't have time to worry about his bastard sister."
"Why didn't he marry you off? He could have forged an alliance with one of the bigger kingdoms."
Annwyl briefly thought of Lord Hamish of Madron Province and how close she came to being his bride. The thought chilled her.
"He tried. But the nobles kept changing their minds."
"And did you help them with that?"
She held up her thumb and forefinger, a little bit apart. "Just a little."
For the first time, Morfyd smiled and Annwyl found herself warming up to the witch a bit.
Annwyl pushed her nearly empty bowl away from her and drank more of the wine. It shocked her how well she ate. Shocked her that she still breathed.
"Make sure you finish off the wine. I have added herbs that will heal you and stave off infection."
Excerpted from Dragon Actuallyby G.A. AIKEN Copyright © 2008 by G.A. Aiken. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.