A drop of sweat stung my right eye, and I blinked to clear it. I dared not do anything more as I stared at the three men a few paces away. I held my sword in the high guard position, and a drop of blood fell from the tip. The blood’s donor lay near my feet, where he’d collapsed after I’d stabbed him through the throat.
The leader, a burly human, bared his mouthful of rotten teeth at me. “It would have been easier for you if you had just given up. Now, we will make you pay for my friend’s death, and you will pay dearly.” He lifted his war hammer, and his friends raised their weapons, a wickedly curved sword and a war axe. “Take care to not kill her, brothers. There will be time enough for that later.”
I backed up a step, and my heart fell. I was alone against the three of them, and I was fortunate to have killed the fourth one so quickly. He laughed when I, a slip of a girl in his words, drew my sword. He didn’t laugh long, but now it would be their turn.
The road here went through the forest, and the underbrush was too thick for me to run away. I had walked around a turn in the road, only to find myself nearly in their midst. Brigands rarely came this far from the city, so I was not expecting trouble. Now, though, I had more of it than I could handle.
The two men flanking their leader moved away from him and each other, spreading out in front of me. My mouth went dry, and I focused on the leader. If I could slay him, perhaps the others would lose their nerve. Or, they would just club me senseless, and torture me to death later at their leisure. They started to advance, and I tightened my grip on my sword.
“Oh, dear,” a voice said from my right. “Now, this just does not look like a fair fight to me.” The voice was male, and he spoke with an inflection with which I was unfamiliar.
“Off with you,” the leader snarled. “She’s killed my friend, and we mean to have her for it.”
“No, I think you should let bygones be, pick up your friend’s carcass, and be on your way.”
I chanced a glance toward the voice, and I groaned mentally. The man was scarcely taller than me, and his only weapon was a walking stick. Worse, he wore no armor, and he leaned on the stick while he smiled at the men. The man to my left advanced another step, and I shifted my stance to confront him directly.
“You do realize she is a sword maiden, yes? She has had that sword in her hands for longer than you’ve had your prods in yours. Heed me, and leave while you can.”
The man to my right turned toward the stranger and took a step toward him. He rocked to a halt when the stranger smiled even more widely. He glanced at the leader. “Maybe we should leave, Boss.”
We all stared at each other for a few heartbeats, and then the leader relaxed. “Bring him,” he pointed at the corpse. He pointed at me. “We will finish this later, elf bitch.”
“Oh, I think not.” The stranger walked to my side and faced the trio. “She is now my friend, and I take up for my friends.”
I gritted my teeth at the smug bastard’s words, but I held my stance and glared at the leader instead. The brigands picked up their dead companion, and disappeared around the next turn in the road. I wheeled on the man. “Since when are we friends, and since when do I need a protector?!”
“I’d say right about the time I spoke to your worthy opponents.” He smiled at me with even, white teeth. His expression was calm, but with a hint of amusement lurking at the corners of his mouth.
I lowered my sword, wiped it with a rag I took from my belt, and put it away, the crosspiece clicking against the scabbard. “I don’t need a protector,” I said as I picked up my pack from where I’d dropped it on the road. “I am a sword maiden, and I am on an errand for my mistress.”
“And how is Belantha these days?”
“Did she send you to watch me?”
“No, I promise you, she would do no such thing.”
“Good. Then I can be about my business.” I shouldered my pack, and started to walk up the road. The man walked with me, and I stopped after ten strides. “What are you doing?”
“Why, I am traveling with you, of course. Is there not safety in numbers? This is a very dangerous place to be alone.” His expression was admirably grave.
I looked at him more closely. While my skin was fair, his was the color of new leather. His eyes were brown, and his brownish red hair came to just over his ears; an unruly mop that somehow suited him. He smiled slightly, but I detected no arrogance in his manner as he gazed unflinchingly back at me. I was used to men who ran their eyes over my body; who either fawned over me to gain my attention, or dismissed me as a girl instead of a warrior. He did none of that, and I shook my head. “As you wish.”
“Thank you. I wish to keep you company for a while, in case our friends have a change of heart.”
We walked in silence for a league, making it clear of the dense forest by evening. The light was failing, and though I could see well at night, I preferred to set up my camp while some light remained. “We will camp here,” I told the man.
“This is a good place.” He set a small fire while I laid out my bedroll and removed my armor. I could sleep in it, but not well. I would have given all the gold I had for a bath, but there was no stream close by. Dressed in just my tunic, I stepped over to the fire. I found that he had set a pot of water to boil on the fire, and that he had cheese and dried meat set on a trencher.
“Would you share a meal and some tea with me?”
I nodded and squatted down near the fire. “What is your name?”
“I am called Ren, and you?”
“I am Megilar.”
“That is a pretty name,” Ren said as he held out the trencher to me. “Eat as much as you like, there is plenty enough for us both.”
The food was delicious, and I was very hungry, which always happened to me after a fight. I normally did not drink tea, but his was very tasty. After we ate, I sat on a nearby rock and looked at Ren. “So, Ren, what brings you to a lonely road so late in the day?”
“I am a traveler,” Ren said as he tended the fire. “I go about talking with people, and seeing new places. There is so much to see and learn in the world.”
“You are a scholar?”
“I suppose. I wish to learn, so in that way, yes.”
I looked into the fire as I thought for a few moments. “Ren, thank you for helping me back on the road. They would have had their way with me, and then they would have killed me.” I blinked away tears from my eyes.
“I am exceedingly glad I was there,” Ren replied. “What will you do after your time as a sword maiden has ended?”
“My parents will find me a mate, and I will raise a family,” I said in a low voice.
“This is not what you want?”
I shook my head and lowered my eyes. “No.”
“Then, what do you want?”
I looked up at him. “I want to be able to choose my own way. I do not know what I want, but it is not to be only a man’s mate. Not that there is anything wrong with that.” I broke off with a sigh.
“I understand,” he replied solemnly. “The ability to make one’s own choices is the rarest of gifts, Megilar. So many people have little of it.”
“Or none. My family will never hear of anything but what they want for me.”
“Never is a powerful word. Few things are truly never, or always.”
“You are a sage, then.”
He laughed softly. “I am afraid not. If I were, well, I may have taken a different path. That would have been bad, because you would have been hurt.”
I yawned as my body worked on my food. “Eating makes me sleepy, so I will go lie down.”
“I will keep watch,” Ren said. “Go rest.”
I lay down, leaving my tunic on as I pulled my blanket over me. Ren sat by the fire, and I was soon asleep.
The following morning, I found Ren still sitting by the fire, where he had that pot of water boiling again. “Did you not sleep?”
“No, I can last a few days without it, and you needed your sleep. Come have breakfast and coffee.”
The food and coffee was welcome on this cool morning, and I ate quickly. “We should be on our way before we lose too much light.”
Ren and I packed our belongings, and we went together on our way.
A tenday later, Ren and I arrived at my village. He has traveled with me as I completed my errand and returned home. As we went along, he would tell me stories of our ancestors, of great heroes, and of evil villains. He was a wonderful cook, although he seemed to carry much more than his small pack would be able to hold. We passed other people on the road, and we heard that three brigands had been killed along the forest road after we had left them.
“There is my house,” I pointed to a cottage set away from the road. “But I have to go to the hall first.”
“Then we shall,” Ren replied, stepping out ahead of me.
“You know the way?”
“Yes, I do.”
I walked with him, and I was surprised when he held the door and allowed me to precede him into the hall. Belantha stood near the head of the table, and she turned to look as we came in.
“Megilar. You...” She stopped and stared open mouthed. “Ren?! How dare you show your snout here?”
“It is so good to see you, Belantha.” Ren stepped past me and bowed unctuously to my mistress.
“What have you done with my sword maiden?”
“Megilar? I saved her life and fed her several meals. She is a skilled hunter and a good cook in her own right, I should add.”
Belantha glared at Ren, and then she looked at me. “Come here, Megilar.” I complied, stopping a pace in front of her to bow respectfully. “Did this ... thing ... hurt you?”
“No, Mistress. It is as he said.”
“She,” Belantha pointed at me, “has no idea what you are, does she, Ren?”
“It never came up,” he said stiffly. “We talked about other things.” He turned his head slightly. “Perhaps we can discuss this in a more private place?”
“Everyone, please leave us. Megilar, you can stay.” She waited until the three of us were alone in the hall, then, she glared at Ren. “Shall I tell her?”
“Ah, no.” Ren pulled two chairs out from the table. “Shall we sit like civilized people?”
Belantha clenched her jaw, and sat in her chair.
Ren indicated that I should sit, and he sat after I did. He took a breath, and turned to face me. “I was hoping I could find a way to tell you this, but I lost my courage. Belantha,” he glanced at her, “has a, um, different opinion of me, but I truly had no intention to deceive you.”
My heart thudded in my chest, and I licked my lips. “Tell me.”
“I am a dragon, Megilar. I have been a friend to your village since your great great grandfather was a boy.”
“You are a scoundrel!” Belantha hissed. “How many women have you taken from us? Three, ten, a score?”
“I took none of them, Belantha. All of them came willingly.”
I stared at Ren from scarcely a pace away as my heartbeat thudded in my ears. I looked into his eyes, and I could see great sadness in them. He was not a bad man, or dragon. I had not known that he was truly a dragon, that was plain, but he could not hide his heart so easily. “Ask me, Ren,” I told him.
“Don’t you dare,” Belantha shouted. “She is promised to another!”
Ren held my eyes. “Are you?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I never agreed to it, so I am not bound. I am bound as a sword maiden for another two moons.”
“Your service can be bought, as I recall,” Ren said. “Would you agree to that?”
“I won’t,” she grated.
Ren still didn’t glance away from me. “That, my dear, is not yours to decide. I would speak to the council. Should I do that, Megilar?”
“Ask me,” I repeated.
He took a breath. “Megilar, will you come with me?”
I studied his eyes, bringing all of my ability to bear on divining this man, this dragon’s, heart. Beyond the sadness and loneliness, I saw his bright center. “I will.”
“You cannot!” She jerked to her feet.
I turned to her. “I am sorry, Mistress, but I wish to approach the council with Ren and petition them for my freedom.”
She opened her mouth, but Ren cut her off. “I will pay, and you well know I can.”
Belantha sighed and glared at me. “Know this, girl. He will break your heart, and cost you your life. I love you like my own daughter, but you are foolish to follow this creature. Now, go from this place, and do not return.”
“He is your master now, may the gods help you.”
I stood, bowed to her, and turned toward the door. My tears blinded me, and I stumbled against a chair. Then, Ren was there, and he took my hand and brought me outside. He stopped and faced me as I stood there with tears running down my face. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I sniffed and looked at him. “Do you love me?”
He nodded. “Yes, Megilar, I love you. If you need more time, I can go away for a while, and then return later.”
I shook my head. “We have to talk to my parents, and then the council. Of course, they both are on the council.”
“I know them both, Megilar, not well, but I do know them.”
I looked at him in shock. “Do they know, uh...”
“Yes, they do. Come, let’s go see them.” He reached for my hand, and I took it.
We walked together up to the lane leading to my house. As we approached, my parents came into sight on the road, walking toward us from the opposite direction. We stopped at the gate and waited for them.
As they drew close, they looked at me, and then their eyes widened as they recognized Ren. “Hello, Ren,” my father said with a slight bow. “It has been a while since you’ve passed through.”
“Can we go into the house and talk,” I blurted before he could reply.
“Certainly, my daughter.” My father led the way, and my mother followed him without a word. She looked closely at both of us as she passed, but her neutral expression gave no hint of her thoughts.
We sat at our table, and I served everyone tea. “Thank you, Megilar,” my father said. “Please, sit with us.” After I settled into my chair, he spoke again. “Now, what has passed between you?”
I recounted the fight on the road, our travels since then, and the conversation with Belantha. My parents and Ren sat quietly as I talked. “I care for Ren, and I want to go with him,” I concluded.
“You know what he is,” my mother said in a neutral voice. “He is not a bad person, but he is not at all like you in some important ways.” She looked at Ren. “What kind of life can you offer our daughter?”
“She would not want for material things,” he replied, “not that I think her desires would be onerous. My enemies are not as numerous or as powerful as in years past.”
“As I recall, they were the cause of several of your mates’ deaths,” my father observed. “How do you intend to protect Megilar?”
“I will take more precautions, so that my identity is not well known, and I have provided for safe havens should the need arise.”
“Why do you keep doing this, Ren?” My mother asked quietly. “You suffer at each loss, and yet here you are again.” She sighed. “Belantha is very angry, and with good reason, in my eyes.”
“He is lonely, Mother,” I stepped in. “And, he is brave enough to try again and risk fresh heartbreak.”
“That is true,” Ren acknowledged with a glance in my direction.
“What of children,” my father looked at me. “Do you want to have them?”
“I have not thought much of it,” I admitted.
“It is possible for us,” Ren told me, “but it is a dangerous undertaking for you.”
“Which brings us to the fates of two more of your former mates, I think?” My mother leaned toward me. “Consider that carefully, my daughter.”
“Yes,” Ren agreed. “They did not survive the pregnancy. I do not know why.”
“I do not know if I will assay that challenge,” I said, “but, had it not been for Ren, I would not be here at all. Any life I have left is due to him.”
“You do not owe me,” Ren replied heavily, “nor are you bound to me by an oath. Your life is yours alone.”
I nodded. “I know that, and I am choosing my own path.”
My father studied my face, and then he sighed and leaned toward me. “You have always chosen your own path, my daughter.” He glanced at my mother, and she nodded once, the concern clear on her face. “We will give you our blessing; not without reservation, and I admit, more than a little fear for your well-being. Ren,” he looked at my intended, “you know far better the dangers of your union than Megilar. I charge you to care for her, or to bring her back here if you cannot protect her.”
“I accept,” Ren replied.
“As do I,” I agreed.
“Well, then.” My mother sighed. “A celebration is usually called for when a daughter or son is given in marriage. In your case, I think that would be unwise.”
“I apologize for that,” Ren said to me. “I do not wish to take your day from you.”
I shook my head. “That is of no concern to me. I would rather be safe than to announce our intentions to one and all.”
“Stay the night here, then, and you can be on your way in the morning,” my father suggested.
My parents took Ren to the servants’ quarters, and I went to my room for the night. I bathed, and packed my personal things, along with my new boots and a change of clothes. I lay in bed for half the night, it seemed, and then I slept.
The next morning, our parents gave us breakfast, hugged and kissed me, and bid us safe travels. Ren led me out onto the road, and we retraced our steps toward the forest road. The morning passed, and we stopped to eat at noontime.
He reached into his pack, and extracted an entire loaf of bread. “How does that fit in there,” I said with a laugh. “That is not possible.”
“This is a magical bag. It will hold as much as a cart. I can put your pack in here, if you wish.”
“Thank you not telling me this before.”
He bowed to me. “Of course.” He took my pack and dropped it into his pack. As he said, it fit easily. He took out a trencher, and assembled our lunch on it. “You have not asked where we are going,” he commented as he sliced cheese and sausage onto the wooden dish.
“You said you have safe places. We are going to one of those, I’d expect.”
“Yes, that is right. I have houses in several towns and villages. Some are modest indeed, but they all serve their purpose.”
He smiled. “Twenty, perhaps? I do not keep count.”
“Twenty.” My people were not enamored of material wealth, so the idea that one man would own so many houses was not one I had contemplated. “But why?”
“It is safer for me to be in my own home, than at an inn,” he explained. “Most of them have caretakers, and so they are always ready for me, and now, for us.”
We finished our meal, and walked until nightfall. This night, he laid his bed out next to mine. “I hope you do not object.”
“No, it is customary for married couples to sleep together.”
We ate our meal, banked the fire, and lay down together. As was my habit, I wore my light tunic, and he wore something like a loincloth. I rolled onto my side to face him, and we looked at each other from a handspan away. “If you are not comfortable, I can move away,” he said with concern.
“You do not act like an experienced husband and lover,” I replied with a smile. “Are you not supposed to seduce the little virgin, and bend her to your will?”
“At first, I did do that,” he sighed. “It birthed resentment in the lady, and I think that eventually led to her demise.”
“Does it hurt you to remember the others?”
“Sometimes. I would rather live here, in the present with you, rather than in the past.”
I bit my lip, and then I leaned close to kiss him. I had never done that with a man, and I leaned back to look at him. “Was that acceptable?”
“That was wonderful.”
I pressed my lips to his again, holding them there longer. His hand came up to caress my cheek, and I placed my hand on his head as we kissed again. I felt heat in my belly, and I shifted my body to press against his. He wrapped his arm around me and drew me close, and soon we were panting between our kisses.
“How do I ... mate?” I asked.
“The best way is for you to sit on me like you would a horse. But Megilar, you do not have to do this if you are not ready.”
I sat up and pulled my tunic off over my head. “I am ready, now.”
He lifted his hips and pushed his loincloth down to his knees, and then kicked it off. His manhood sprang up, tilting upward toward his belly.
I leaned down to look at it more closely. I had seen naked men and boys, since our village had a communal steam lodge, but I had never seen one stand so proudly. I put out my hand, and grasped him gently. He sighed, and I explored him from root to tip with my fingers. A warm, slippery substance came from the tip, and I rubbed it around with my fingers. Then, I brought it to my nose. There was no smell, and I placed a bit of it on my tongue.
“That helps ease passage,” he said quietly.
“Is it your seed?” I took more of it into my mouth, and then I could both taste and smell his essence. It was ... male and I felt warmth in my own sex in response. I knew how people mated, though I had never experienced it myself. Wives talked, and I had heard many stories, both good and bad.
“No, not yet. Keep that up, and you will see it.”
Remembering some of the stories, I leaned down and licked the end of his manhood. He gasped, but held still and allowed me to do as I wished. More of his essence leaked out, and I took him into my mouth. Some women thought it demeaning to serve a man in such a way, but I felt powerful as I sucked at him. I could see that he took pleasure, and the warmth in my belly spread upward to my heart, and down to my sex.
I could wait no longer, and I sat up and swung my leg over him to sit on his belly. I sat up and tugged out my braid, allowing my hair to cascade down to my waist. He caressed my thighs, and then moved his hands up my flanks to my breasts. I closed my eyes as Ren tugged and pinched my nipples, sending more warmth to my sex.
I opened my eyes to look down at him. “What do I do now?”
“If you are ready, raise up and place me at your opening. Then, you can sit down, but slowly. Don’t try to take all of it at once.”
I leaned forward, bracing one hand on the blanket, and shifted backward. Reaching down my belly, I took him between two fingers and, after some wiggling, nestled the tip into my sex at my opening. I placed both hands on his chest to steady myself, and then I lowered my hips. I could feel my body stretching to accommodate his girth, and then I hissed as he pressed against my maidenhead.
“Easy. Go slowly.” He caressed my thighs with both hands. “I love you, and I don’t want to hurt you.”
I pushed twice more, and blinked away tears. It hurt, and I was growing frustrated. He opened his mouth to speak, and I rose up until the tip was barely in me – and then I sat down firmly. Lights exploded behind my eyes, and I cried out as a sharp pain told me the fate of my maidenhead. That competed with an incredible sense of fullness, that of my husband, my mate, in the place where he belonged.
“I am okay,” I gasped. I rose up, dragging his length nearly out of me, and then I settled down on him, groaning as the pleasure and pain fought each other for dominance. Despite his stature, his prod was larger than any I’d seen, and I drove it into my battered sex. The pleasure was winning, and I lunged down on him again and again.
“Megilar,” he said after a few moments. “Let me pleasure you, my love. Lie down and rest for a moment.”
Exhausted, I rolled off of him and lay down as he rose to his knees. He moved toward my feet, and gently pressed my knees apart. He positioned himself between my thighs, and leaned over me for a kiss. He moved down my body, nipping and kissing at my neck and breasts. I groaned as he suckled and bit at my nipples, and gasped as he kissed his way down to my mound.