He yanked her wrist toward him, intent on seeing her mark. “Unhand me. How dare you touch a royal member of the Valley Mountain Clan!”
Ibor looked at the woman in front of him. When he had first walked into the cell, she seemed meek and afraid. But as soon as she saw him approach she straightened her shoulders. Then he caught sight of her long black hair and vibrant violet eyes. He had never seen eyes like hers. Women in his clan did not possess exotic features such as these. The women of the Dragon Talon Clan had an earthy kind of beauty. This woman’s beauty could only be defined as celestial. If he were a foolish young man, he would have thought she was one of the Gods’ own guardians. Women and men were said to have immeasurable beauty.
For a second, he hesitated but didn’t let go of her hand. He studied her steadfast stance. She did carry herself like royalty, but she didn’t have an escort – a custom that all clans still practiced. Furthermore, the woman had no scarves that represented a royal and her house. The only thing that would prove her words true was a royal mark on the inside of her left wrist, which was presently covered by the softest buttery-leather gloves he had ever handled.
“Take off the garments on your hands.” He demanded.
The woman thrust her chin up and folded her arms over her chest. “I will do no such thing! It is freezing in this damn cave you have thrown me in.”
“If you do not remove your gloves, I will remove them myself. Heed my warning, for it will not be given twice.”
She inhaled deeply. Now, what would she do? Those gloves were her last protection. Without her scarves and no one to back up her claim, she was doomed. Their complex society dictated that every female carry a mark. Erin eyed the man standing in front of her with his imposing form. He had shoulder-length brown hair with streaks of light and dark. Eyes as intense as burning embers in a fire. At the same time, those eyes looked like golden liquid orbs. She was stupefied. The man standing before her was a magnificent specimen of masculinity and for a moment she forgot exactly what was happening.
He gave her another minute. When he saw that she was making no attempt at following his orders, he simply ripped the garment off her. There it was – no mark. He didn’t know who was more shocked, this sharped-tongue Hellcat or him. He looked into her eyes with disbelief. Then, he yanked the other glove off. No mark. Still in disbelief, he went close to her face and, with a menacing voice, said, “A royal, you say? Not only do you, my fair maiden, not have a royal mark, you do not have the mark of a house slave of a royal family. Now, cease your lies and tell me, once and for all, who you are. Why are you here? Has someone sent you to spy on my clan and me?”
Erin snapped out of her trance. His clan? This could not be. Father said that the Chieftain of this clan was even older than he and father was, at least three scores last his birth was celebrated. “I have spoken the truth. I am Erindale of the Valley Mountain Clan. It is you, sir, who lies!”
“Do not continue to try me. You have no proof of what you say.” He was a fair man, but he did not tolerate untruths. Even from beautiful, alluring young women.
“I tell the truth. On my father’s life that hangs in the balance, I swear I am who I say,” Erin replied defiantly, frustration clearly in her almost transparent violet eyes. Again she strengthened her back. She was shorter than him, but she was not going to let his size intimidate her. She would not be distracted again from her purpose by this man’s features. Her father and clan were counting on her. She was their only hope. “My father sent me here with an urgent message for Larod Chieftain of the Dragon Talon Clan of the North.”
“Even if you are who you say, you cannot see Larod. You may give me the urgent message you say you carry,” he replied dryly, not very amused that she still refused to tell him the truth about her identity. One thing he could not help was to be drawn to her. Her delicate elegant way of carrying herself made him smile inwardly. Ibor wondered if she was truly not afraid of him.
“By all the demons of hell, you brute, you will take me to Larod or be prepared for my wrath and that of my father and our people. By delaying me, you do not know the danger you are putting my clan in!” she said in anger.
He studied her once more. She had a lot of fire in her, that he was sure of. It was laughable that a petite girl would continue to defy him. When he discovered she bore no mark, he was somehow relieved. He did not know how it was possible that a female was not marked. She was very pleasing to the eye and, since she had no mark, he could claim her for himself. She must know this. For her own protection, he would claim her and no other in his clan would dare question his decision.
“Maiden, may it be the last time you raise your voice at me.” He told her in an even icy voice. “You will not see Larod this day or any other.”
“You bastard! How dare you deny me an audience with your Chieftain?” Erin hissed between her teeth, her face flushed with frustration.
“If you would encase your sharp tongue you would know why.”
At that, Erin stared at him impatiently.
Good, at least that quieted her. “Chieftain Larod of the Dragon Talon Clan has lain dead for the past two fortnights,” he said without emotion.
She drew in her breath in shock. “By the Gods.” With that, she sat down in the only chair in the cell. “I had not expected this.” She paused. Her clan’s future and its very survival depended on her finding Larod.
He could see a new idea already brewing in her. Her thoughts and emotions seemed almost transparent to him. She would not be able to fool him.
Regaining her composure, she said, “Well then, I wish to speak to the new chieftain. For surely he will listen to a message from another chief.” She crossed her arms and waited.
“You may proceed with your message Erindale of Valley Mountain Clan”, he said, folding his thick arms over his wide chest.
Was he now mocking her? “You? No, I need to see the new Chieftain!” She insisted.
“You are looking at him, fair maiden. I am Ibor Angus, firstborn of the late Chieftain Larod of the Dragon Talon Clan.” He explained with a smirk.
Crimson flooded her face anew. She thought to herself. By the Gods, how am I going to fix this now? Why didn’t he just say so before? “I see.” She cleared her throat. “Well then... why didn’t you say so instead of wasting my valuable time?”
“Now you know. I grow tired of your speech. Tell me at once what it is you say you have been sent to deliver. Or were you buying some time to see how you could lie your way out of this cell?”
“How dare you?” Something inside of her snapped. She was tired, hungry, and worried sick. How dare he still continue to mock her. She stood and threw herself at him, striking him with small closed fists. “Chieftain or not, I will not be humiliated.” She would not let this man offend her. She was the daughter of a clan chief, mark or no mark, she was still royal.
“I could have you skinned for striking me. Or better yet, I could throw you to my army – men that would devour a little thing such as you.”
“You would not dare,” she said calmly, trying to conceal her racing pulse.
“Do not tempt me further. This is your last chance. Speak now and quickly. My patience is almost gone.”
“Fine. My father wanted Chieftain Larod’s help. The Limrick Dragon escaped or awakened, we are not sure which. It descended on our village about two fortnights ago. At first, it was picking off farmers and no one knew how people were vanishing. Then, it transformed into a beautiful woman and lured two of my father’s warriors. The next day, a farmer came into our hall carrying the swords of the warriors. He looked as though he had seen a ghost. He went on to say that a woman walked out of the woods and dropped the swords at his feet. He said that the woman wanted my father to meet her at the edge of the woods or our entire village would burn to the ground. Then, the woman said to tell the Chieftain that her name was the Limrick. She transformed into her dragon form right before his eyes. My father sent his warriors to the edge of the woods, but they were all killed. Two weeks passed and he decided to face the dragon. He sent me with two escorts but death fell upon those men before I found my way here. I was lucky to make it here alive. My father said that only Chieftain Larod could help us. He said that your father and grandfather captured the Limrick Dragon many lunar years ago. Now, with the news that your father is gone, I’m not sure what my people’s fate will be.” She held her head in her hands.
Ibor stood and turned his back to her. Certainly, everyone knew of his father’s and grandfather’s victory over the Limrick Dragon. Making her claim that the shape-shifting dragon was back and reawakened was a severe one. The dragon should not have been able to escape. What if her tale was a lie and her clan was trying to lure him into a trap? It would not be the first time since he became Chieftain. It seems that he constantly had to prove his power.
He turned and gave her a stern look. “I will send investigators to your village. I hope you aren’t wasting my time or costing me the lives of warriors. Know this – if any of my men walk into a trap and are killed, it will cost you your life.”
“Thank you, Chieftain Ibor.” She had no choice but to humble herself in front of this man if her father and clan had any chance of survival.
He did not reply. Instead, he walked out of the cell slamming the door behind him. “Make sure this cell is locked.” He told the man outside.
What was he going to do with the woman in the cell? He knew he would claim her sooner rather than later. He wanted to make sure all knew she was off limits. Ibor could not explain why he had this inexplicable need to protect her. Even though he showed his annoyance with her, he was taken by her beauty. Her hair as black as the black pearls of the Vumar Oceans, with its iridescent beauty every time she moved her head one way and then another. Her perky slightly turned up nose and her rosebud mouth. A feisty mouth at that which didn’t make her any less beautiful he had to admit. It was her eyes that seemed to cut to his core. Two violet gems staring back at him like a frightened doe in the middle of a meadow right before a hunter shot off his hunting weapon. She tried to mask that fear but the hues of white, pink, and violet in her eyes betrayed her and showed her true emotions. Good, she should be wary. It would give him the upper hand. Something else about her pulled him in. He just had not been able to name what that was – yet. It was undeniable that he wanted to see if that fire in her eyes would still be there when he made her his. First, he needed to investigate her claim. He needed to send men to Valley Mountain Clan and find out what exactly was going on.
He walked into the great hall and ordered Segart, his best friend and General of his army, to send a score of men to Valley Mountain.
Then he called for Alona, a royal servant that had been with his family since before his birth, to enter upon the room. When she entered, he commanded. “I want you to prepare the maiden Erindale for this evening. She will be claimed this eve. Retrieve her from her cell and dress her appropriately.”
“Yes, Chieftain.” She bowed and left his presence.
At hearing this, his lifelong friend asked, “Who is claiming the maiden?”
“I am, Segart,” Ibor answered.
“You are claiming her? As your mate? Is that why she is here?”
“No, that is not why she is here. I would not throw a woman sent to be my mate into a cell. I am ruthless but I do have my limits. She said her clan sent her to request our help. But she has no mark.”
“You are claiming a hataah? Has she agreed to enter into service?” his friend asked in surprise. “I have never known you to claim a hataah.”
A beautiful and exotic woman who had no family wealth and no chances of making a good match had the freewill and choice to go into servitude as a hataah to the royal family. As a hataah, she was expected to be a sexual server. They were treated with fairness and dignity and because of this they performed their duties very well. Ibor had not had a need of a hataah’s services in many years. “I’m not claiming a woman for my physical pleasure. We have plenty of hataahs at the keep. If I wanted one, I would just visit their rooms. I’m claiming Erindale for her protection. If the men hear she has no mark and is unclaimed only the Gods know what nonsense would ensue.”
“Right?! And this is your only interest? I heard that she is beautiful and fearless. At least according to the men who found her outside the keep’s walls,” Segart said with a knowing smile.
“Make it clear to the warrior class they are not to spread gossip. Furthermore, make sure they know she is off limits. Is that clear?”
“Put away your talons, Ibor. The men will not interfere with your hataah,” his General said with a chuckle.
“She is not my... never mind. Just make it so.” He gave Segart a look that dared him to defy.
“Yes, Chieftain.” He bowed and left with a smirk as he turned to leave.
Ibor went outside to the training field. He needed to spar with the men. It would help clear his mind and not think of Erindale of Valley Mountain Clan. He just hoped he didn’t have to get rid of her. It was clear that she was lying – she had to be. Royal female children were given their family’s mark soon after their births. And what of her message? If it was true, then they were all in danger. The Limrick Dragon would devour clan after clan.
Erin paced back and forth in the cell. Ibor would regret treating her like a criminal. If it were not for her father and clan needing Chieftain Ibor, she would have spat in his face. His smug, arrogant, handsome face. Damn him!
Why did he have to have those piercing eyes? Eyes that drew her in so far that she was afraid she would be lost in them. Why couldn’t he have looked like an ogre? No, he had to look like a God! A God with hair past his shoulders and as brown as a tree trunk with sunlight running through it. With a superior profile, outlined with a strong jaw and a straight nose. His eyes were the hardest to look upon. Not because they were hideous. No! But they pulled her in like a fly into a trap. Every time his temper would flare she could have sworn that his eyes glowed like honey-amber colored flames on a torch.
How long would he have her locked up in this awful cell? She did not wait long for an answer. The cell door opened and in walked a beautiful woman. “I am Alona, servant to the royal family of the Dragon Talon Clan. The Chieftain has sent me to prepare you for tonight.”
“Prepare me for what?”
“The Chieftain said that you ought to be claimed this eve.”
“He said what? The nerve of that man! I will do no such thing. He has no right. When a husband is chosen for me only he and his clan will claim me. A husband has not been set for me by my father. I will not be claimed to a stranger.”
Alona ignored her rant and escorted her to a room above inside the keep. “All will be well Erindale of Valley Mountain. Our Chieftain is a fair man.”
“Your Chieftain is arrogant and pigheaded.”
“Please do not speak ill of our Chieftain. Many would take offense, including myself. The Chieftain has asked that I retrieve you from this cell and take you to a more comfortable place to prepare you.” After that, Alona remained silent and went about her task. The Chieftain was their leader and this young maiden was better off understanding early on.
Alona dressed Erin in a clean white garment, made of several scarves and her hair was arranged in an appealing style. Once done and pleased with her work, Alona took a look at Erin. “You look beautiful. The Chieftain will be satisfied. When it’s time for the ceremony, I will be back to retrieve you. Drink this.” She handed Erin a cup with a thick red liquid. “It will help relax you for the claiming and marking.”
“What is this? Giita juice?”
“Yes. Trust me. It will be better if you drink this.”
She knew what Giita juice was. It was used to numb resistance in a maiden getting marked with her chosen mate’s mark. Maidens that were marked and claimed sometimes experienced great pain at the time of marking. Only when maidens were claimed by their destined life mate was there no pain. Souls that knew each other in other lives accepted and rejoiced at the claiming ceremony. Although destined life souls were hard to find. In an effort to preserve the five clans of their world, women accepted markings from men that were not their destined life mates. It was for the greater good. Most of those claimings were out of love. Women endured pain for the men they loved. But their flesh tried to reject the markings, and so they discovered that Giita juice subsided the body’s defense against non-life mate markings. Unfortunately for women, the markings were the only way a woman could be considered claimed.
The entire ceremony was eons old. The man claiming would have to get the blood of the clan’s Chieftain, his own blood and that of the woman. A spell would be recited. Once the spell has been spoken the mark would be placed on the left wrist of the woman. In unions of love or soul mates, the men would opt to get an identical mark. Men were not marked because they were born with the clan’s mark on their backs. Those determined to be Chieftains were born with their marks on their chest. For royal newborn females, the process was completely painless. Royal marks were placed a few days after birth when the soul was not completely aware it had been reborn. Even though their society was an evolved one the markings of females were still necessary to prevent abuse and even warfare.
Erin wondered who the Chieftain would bound her to. When she came to this place, she had not thought this outcome possible. Her escorts would have protected her and backed up her claims of being royalty. Back home her father had barely begun the process of finding a suitable partner for her. Ewen was a young man who was courting her barely two sun cycles. He was courting her in earnest. She thought that if things went well with Ewen that she would spend the rest of her life with him. What would happen now? If she was bound to another the only way to break that bond was by death. Even though for life mates, not even death could break the bond of the marking. She would not find her life partner here, she was certain. Erin had no choice but to drink every drop of the Giita juice. She was now in the hands of Ibor Chieftain of the Dragon Talon Clan. She only hoped that their God of Upper Creation, the great Ectar would have mercy on her.
Erin sat and waited and finally succumbed to sleep. She didn’t know how many hours had passed. All she was aware of now was a pair of slender hands shaking her awake.
“Maiden Erindale, it is time. All wait for your presence in the great hall.” Alona could see the clouds of worry in Erin’s eyes. “All will be well. What I say you must believe. By the great God Ectar and our Chieftain, I know this to be certain.”
“I hope you are right, Alona. I do this only because your chief has ordered it so. I do not dare try to go against him because the fate of my people is in his hands.” With no choice, Erin stood, straightened her shoulders, and followed the other woman out the door.
They walked down several corridors. Each looked more opulent than the last. The closer they got to the great hall the more elaborate the furnishings became.
“This way, Erindale.” Alona ushered her through two great Oakage doors. Oakage was a precious material in their world. She knew that this must have cost a fortune.
Upon entering Erin lifted her chest and squared her shoulders, she would not show fear or weakness. The people in attendance were men and a few women here and there. Most likely these were the heads of all the families in the Dragon Talon Clan. Her father would call all the heads of the families when claiming of women would happen. Most of those claimings were happy occasions. On this occasion, she stood as if glued to the ground.
“Fair maiden, Erindale, who claims to be of the Valley Mountain Clan step forward.” A booming voice was heard.
Without a doubt, she knew the voice. It was the Chieftain Ibor.
Somehow her feet carried her forward, and she could feel droplets of sweat running down her spine. She wanted to run and hide but she could not. The ceremony was happening, and she was powerless. Whatever Ibor decided her fate to be it would be binding and not even her father could undo it.
“Why are you doing this? I have just arrived. Give me an opportunity to prove my identity.” She pleaded in a hushed tone between her teeth. The last thing she wanted to do was offend the clan’s chief in front of so many.
“I have already made my decision. There is no time. If I left an unmarked female in my keep any longer I would have dozens of my warriors trying to get to you. I already have enough trouble with you being here as it is,” Ibor replied in an accusatory tone.
“Lock me in the cell again. No one will get to me.”
She did not give up. He wondered if all the women in her clan were inclined to challenge authority. “If I did that and a warrior still got to you, I would be forced to fight that man to the death or just sentence him to death for defying me. Either way one of my warriors would die, and I will not take that chance. The matter is closed.” Ibor shut her down and turned away from her to address everyone else.
“Hear me all this day. I, Ibor Angus Chieftain of Dragon Talon Clan, claim the fair maiden Erindale to my royal house. In so doing, I place the royal mark upon her wrist thus binding her in blood to our clan. Let it be known that she is now under the jurisdiction of this royal house and only this house. No other member of this or any other clan may stake a claim on this maiden from this day forth.”
What was he saying? What would be her role in this new clan? Was he taking her into the royal house so she could be a slave for his sexual needs? No?! She would not lower herself. She still knew her station. Ibor had made no mention of her being mated to any man only that she would receive the mark of the royal family.
Before she could ponder things further a ceremonial knife appeared in his hand. Ibor took the knife and sliced his palm. He pulled her toward him, took her left hand and carefully made a small wound in her palm as well. Then he began to recite the binding spell in their ancient tongue. He placed his palm on hers, and instantly they both felt a tremor pass between their hands. Whatever it was it was making Erin lightheaded.
“May this symbol upon your flesh seal this claiming to my royal family.” With their hands still touching, he placed the instrument that would inflict the pain of the marking on her wrist.
To her surprise, there was no pain whatsoever. In that instant, her mind expanded and exploded into hundreds of visions carrying her back in time. Memories. Her pupils became pin needles, and her eyelids widened. Images of past lives raced into her consciousness, centuries of rebirths and in every vision, there was Ibor. His essence and soul were in every memory and every vision. They were still holding hands and through the haze of images, she could also see his face in the present time. The shock was evident in his features too. Was he also seeing the visions?
The super speed of past lives flashed all around and then everything slowed down, and memories of their last rebirth manifested. She could feel her pain – and his. She heard her own voice. “I will always find you no matter space or time. It could be centuries before I find you again but not even death will take you away from me.” She looked down, and he was covered in blood, dying slowly in her arms. “I swear we will be together again. My soul will not stop searching for yours.” She promised. With his last breath, he kissed her, and then he was gone.
Erin’s conscience exploded into a million pieces of bright hues of light that flooded her pupils and dilated them bringing her back to the present. She stiffened. “Ibor,” she whispered through dry lips and then collapsed.
He held her body up as it gave out in his arms. Puzzled over what had just occurred he supported her body. “Erin,” he whispered against her temple. “How can this be?” Ibor knew not what compelled him to use a pet name for her. In that instant, something inside of him changed. His brain was still processing all the information he received from her visions.
He had found his destined life mate. He saw all her visions. He knew without a doubt who she was. Then he realized I have not found her, she has found me. Just as she had promised. My Erin. Even in his thoughts, it felt so right.
All in the great hall did not know what to make of this claiming ceremony. Everyone was aware that this had not been an ordinary event.
“Alona, help me take her to my royal room.” Ibor ordered.
Alona seemed surprised – the royal rooms were reserved for members of the royal family only. “Yes, Chieftain,” she said and bowed her head. She knew that the royal room he referred to were his own.
“House leaders, thank you for coming tonight. I bid you excuse me. Please stay and enjoy the meal. You are all welcomed guests.” He announced. A murmur fell across the hall.
As he left the great hall with Erin in his arms, he spotted Segart. “You. Follow me.” He ordered. He spoke over his shoulder to his friend. “Segart, get me the Seer. NOW. Send her to my royal room.”
“Ibor, what is the matter? What just happened?” his friend asked with genuine concern.
“I’m not sure, Segart,” he replied as he rushed to his room. “I need the Seer. Maybe she can explain what has happened. Segart, during the claiming, I saw visions,” he said, his voice dripping with internal turmoil.
“Visions you say? What visions, Ibor? Do you think Erindale is some sort of sorceress?”
“No, Segart. Erin is no such thing.” With his foot, he pushed open the door to his room. “Now make haste. I need answers.”
Moments later he laid Erin down. “Alona, please get the royal healer. I have some matters to attend to with the Seer. I will be back as soon as I can. Do not leave her side. Any other duties you have in the keep are suspended. I expect you here with her even when the healer is examining her. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Chieftain, it will be as you wish,” Alona replied.
“Did Erindale say anything to you before the claiming ceremony?”
“She was upset. She did not want to be claimed. I tried to calm her,” Alona replied.
“Thank you, Alona. You staying with her will give me much relief. I know she will be in good hands.”
He walked to the adjoining door in the room and lightly closed it behind him. He was not surprised to find the Seer when he turned. He had not heard her walk in but often that was her way. She would come and go in a blink of an eye without as much as a sound.
Every clan had members that yielded magic and were clairvoyant. The Seer had come from a long line of royal advisors and sorcerers. Having been the only child of their last Seer and a very powerful sorceress, she inherited powers from both her parents and was a source of knowledge and an advisor to the clan.
“Seer. I am relieved to see you. I have much I need to know.”
“What is it you wish to know, Chieftain?” she replied.
“Seer, you have known me since birth. Please call me by my given name.” He motioned to a chair. “Sit. I must sit also. The events that have unfolded today have been very unexpected.”
“I see. What troubles you, Ibor?”
“The woman lying unconscious in the next room is my destined life mate.” He then paused still trying to come to terms with having found his life mate. “I claimed and marked her this day. But finding her was quite a surprise. I have seen the book of life paths.” Ibor had dealt with magical objects during his adulthood and especially the book of life. “She was not mentioned there. How can it be that she is not mentioned? I was resigned to the idea of not finding her in this rebirth. But here she is.”
“Ibor, you will soon learn that destiny has its ways. Sometimes it plays unforeseen jokes on its pawns. Not all is in that book, do not rely on it too heavily. You still have to write your own story in this rebirth. Sure the book mentions events that which you will come across, but it leaves out so much more. These mysteries are the ones that you must master on your own.”
“Seer, I’ve treated her poorly. I don’t even know if she speaks the truth. I don’t know if I can trust my destined life mate,” he said, feeling unsure of himself for the first time since his brother departed from the clan.
“Whatever has happened thus far, she will forgive. After all, her soul has promised to find yours through space and time. Has it not?”
“Yes. How do you know my life mate made that promise?” he asked, incredulously.
The Seer let out a hearty laugh. “Ibor, do not forget that I am the Seer. I see a great many things. Chief, this I know for sure, real and powerful life mates will always reunite. Space nor time will keep them apart for long. It is one of the reasons you did not find mention of your life mate in the book of life paths. Things will work in the end.” She paused. “Now tell me this, Chieftain, is this the only reason you have summoned me?”
Ibor rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m afraid not.”
“The maiden Erindale, my life mate, claims she is from Valley Mountain Clan sent here by her father. She claims that the Limrick has awakened.”
“Ahhh this all makes sense now.”
“What makes sense, Seer?”
“The reason your life mate is here. She is here now to make you whole. Like your grandfather and father were made whole because of their destined life mates. You will need to be whole to fight the Limrick Dragon. When you complete the claiming of your woman, your auras will unite, and you will be nearly invincible. It is then that you will be able to defeat the Limrick.” She stroked her hair subconsciously. “There is one more thing, Ibor. You will need the help of your brother. It will take two to defeat the dragon. Two of the same lineage. That’s how your father and your grandfather were able to beat the dragon before. One will recite, and one will fight.”
“You joke. And what does one will recite, and one will fight mean?”
He looked back at the spot where the Seer had been standing, but she was gone – disappeared into thin air. He had answers, but now he had more questions.