Zuran had taken the body of the Lord-King and perverted it. It gibbered and drooled, following Marisandra’s movements with milky eyes. She gingerly reached a hand out toward it, its teeth gnashing the air as she jerked away.
“Careful. Starvation is not something to play with.” Zuran laughed, but it was strained.
Marisandra sneered. “Serves you right.” she quipped. “Binding yourself to a Lesser Immortal.”
Zuran growled at her from his dark corner. He was still nursing the wound from his spirit bond, a blow that had knocked him to his knees while the great tree shook and rumbled.
Zuran laughed again. “A Lesser Immortal, perhaps, but with more power than you could ever hope to possess.”
Marisandra bared her teeth in a snarl. “Is she the key to killing you?” she growled, and the tree rumbled again. “Both of you?”
Erinael awoke the next morning still feeling tired and groggy. It had been a late and exhausting night treating the wounded. She could hear soft voices from around the tent, the day had begun, but no one had come to rouse her. There were too many wounded to travel today.
She moved to the Mender first, checking her pulse while placing a hand to her forehead. The sleeping woman’s skin was clammy from pain, but there was no burn from infection. Very gently, Erinael lifted the bandages and the poultices from the wound. There was some slight seepage, but nothing to be overly concerned about. Placing it all back, she then turned to check on Idriss, who surprised her when he blinked at her, a slight smile tugging at his lips.
Tears filled her eyes as she threw her arms around his neck and shoulders. “I thought had been killed!” she sobbed, clinging to him. Idriss grimaced in pain, but made no move to push her off of him. Putting an arm around her, he made shushing noises while stroking her hair.
It all came crashing back to her now. Seeing him laying there in the clearing. The bandit camp where she had been beaten and nearly raped. Racking sobs overtook her as tears spilled from her eyes and down her cheeks. Idriss only growled low in his throat and held her tighter.
She could hear the beat of his heart and feel the pulse in his neck against her forehead. Coupled with the steady rise and fall of his chest it did much to calm her down. Idriss continued to hold her, stroking her hair, before letting the edge of his thumb trace the line of her jaw. When she went to pull away, she caught a glint of gold from his eyes. She blinked, almost sleepily, just as he pulled her face to his and kissed her.
Erinael pushed away from him with a start, her eyes wide. Although pleasant, the kiss was unexpected and unbidden. It was improper given his sworn duty to be her protector, like his mother before him. His mother. If she was no Elf, then what did that make Idriss?
“Excuse me.” she stammered, getting to her feet.
“Erin, please.” he pleaded, reaching for her as she turned and left the tent.
She found Tanis a short time later. He was coming from within the Cursed Woods. His steps were slow and deliberate, and it was obvious to Erinael that he had not yet slept. “I had council with Broga.” He said quietly.
“What news is there?” she asked, wringing her hands.
“They march for the Great Tree.” he answered. “Over the mountains.”
Erinael paled. Even in high summer, the mountains were treacherous. Rock slides were common and the passes steep. Only the most skilled climbers dare attempt it, and only the most experienced deigned not to. For Nolan to lead an army through that way…
“We leave at first light.” Tanis continued. “Those too wounded to travel will stay behind.”
“Understood.” Erinael said quietly.
Tanis pushed past her then, moving to clasp forearms with Dolvar. Erinael hung back as one briefed the other, only approaching Dolvar after Tanis began to make for his tent.
“We lost Balthus during the night.”
“Why did you not come for me?” Erinael demanded.
Dolvar shook his head. “We lost him. Too much of his life-force had been leeched before we could get to him.” he gestured to a still smoldering pyre.
She gently touched his arm. Balthus had been the first to warn of the attack, and had paid dearly. “I’m sorry.”
Dolvar nodded. “Yes, but it was his duty.” He smiled faintly. “Have you eaten?”
Erinael shook her head. “Not yet.”
Dolvar briefed her on the wounded as she ate. He had cleaned and redressed the wounds, even that of the Mender. He delighted in telling that she had not stirred once the entire time he had been in the tent. But Idriss had.
Erinael hung her head, using her hair to hide her flushed cheeks. A knowing smile crossed Dolvar’s lips. He had seen her blush.
“What are they, Dolvar? What is no one telling me?”
Dolvar held his hands up in surrender. “They are of the Dragon Kin.”
“I trusted you!” Erinael hissed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Idriss looked up at her in surprise. He had been speaking in low tones with his mother before Erinael had burst into the tent. “Tell you what?” he asked, voice low and soothing as he tried to calm her.
“That you’re a dragon!” she spat.
“Peace, child.” the Mender urged.
“And you, just who are you?” Erinael demanded, only to promptly change her mind. “Just forget it!” she cried, leaving the tent.
Ignoring pleas for her to stop, Erinael darted into the woods. The Dead Hunters that were following after stopped short at Idriss’ command. When she had gotten just out of sight of the camp, she stopped, and slumping against a tree, sliding to the ground. She then pulled her knees to her chest to hide her face and her tears.
Steps that she knew all too well approached her through the brush. “You shouldn’t be out here.” he said quietly, crouching down in front of her.
“What are you?” she demanded, her brow furrowed, chin jutting out with defiance.
“My mother was once an Elf of the River Clan.” he began softly. “And she met and fell in love with a member of the Dragon-kin.”
His skin began to ripple and grow leathery, adopting a warm bronze color as his fingernails lengthened. The golden glint returned to is eyes as his facial muscles twitched beneath his skin.
He reached a hand out to her, beckoning for her to take it. “I won’t hurt you.” he said softly, his voice having become deep and throaty.
Erinael could only look at him with wide-eyed disbelief, breathing heavily as her heart pounded in her ears. She did not know what to think.
She had seen tapestries, paintings, and scrolls depicting those of the Dragon-kin. Those images were nothing like what was before her now. Stepping back against the tree, she placed a hand against the trunk to steady herself.
Fearing that Erinael may faint, Idriss allowed his form to ripple back to what she had been accustom to. “The full transformation is more impressive.” he said, almost apologetically.
“When were you going to tell me?” she demanded, a fierce anger in her eyes.
“Erin, I’m sorry.” he began.
“Do not be so familiar with me!” she scolded.
“I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t know how you would respond.”
“Did you honestly believe that I thought so little of you?” she asked. Then her expression became hard again. “Or was this just for your amusement? A means to pass the time for a long life.”
Idriss only stood there, looking hurt.
“You lied to me!” she shouted. “You let me think that you were something that you’re not!”
Tears streamed down her face, and she stomped as she paced back and forth. Idriss reached for her then, but she slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me!” she snarled.
He caught her by first one wrist, and then the other, easily wrestling her arms to her sides and holding them there. Erinael struggled against his hold, even as he brought her to his chest and wrapped his arms around. “Calm down.” he commanded. “I don’t want you hurting yourself.”
“Like you care.” she retorted, glaring up at him.
There was a mocking light in his eyes as he leaned down to kiss her again. “Because I love you, you stupid girl.” he murmured.
The kiss was firm, but not forceful, and her mouth felt oddly compliant. When it ended, she licked her lips to take in the taste of him and found herself to be clinging to his shoulders as he rested his forehead to hers. Erinael felt her face grow hot, making Idriss grin. Taking her face in his hands, he kissed both of her eyelids in turn and the tip of her nose before returning to her lips.
Idriss pulled away suddenly, cocking his head to the side as he listened to something that Erinael could not hear. “Come on, it’s time to head back.” he said quietly, taking her hand.
A wind swirled up then, rustling the poisoned foliage about them. Idriss hurried along quicker now, forcing Erinael to trot in order to keep up with his long strides. Something was wrong, but she knew better than to ask why.