The icy air cut through the layers I was wearing and penetrated my skin like a chilling dagger. Every hair on my body stood at attention, puffing itself up to face the coming challenge. I was scared. I don’t mean nervous, though I’m sure those feelings were scrambled in there too. Scared! Fear had wound its grip around me and held tight.
Across the field a tall form stood in dark contrast against the bright North Pole white. I didn’t need to see clearly to know that it was Ian. I felt Hue grip my shoulder to reassure me but I could feel the fear and anxiety that had him knotted up as well. “Are you ready?” he asked in a voice that sounded sure and confident.
“No, I could train a thousand years and I wouldn’t be ready for this.” Even as I said the words they sounded disembodied and I couldn’t feel my own lips speaking them.
Hue’s attention shifted as a long string of shadows approached the field. Among the faceless forms mere my mother Lady Jura, Briar, Chieftain Cariss, Marthailain, Justin Kringle, and Dani. “Oliver will be here shortly once the sun finishes setting. Do you have the vial Ian gave you?”
I opened my hand and looked down at the tiny vial of Ian’s blood. “I’ve already marked him, what will this do? Is it going to boost my senses or something?”
Shaking his head Hue leaned closely. “As much as I dislike it, it will strengthen your bond with him. I cannot say more than that.”
I narrowed my eyes to turn and glare at him. “I’m in a life or death situation and you can’t give me more info than that?”
“No, because it was hard enough convincing everyone over there that I be allowed to come over here and walk you onto the field. I assure you it is only due to your tender age that I was granted that much.” With those final words he placed a hand on my lower back and guided me towards the center of the field.
I’m scared. I reached out with my mind.
I know. I am too. Focus all your fear on me. Let me carry the burden of it during the duel. Our connection is a tool that is yours naturally, carry it into battle. Pull whatever you need from me. Use everything at your disposal. His silent coaching did lighten my nerves and the closer we got to center field the more I felt him pull on my fear. In a quick motion I lifted the vial to my lips and consumed the metallic tasting liquid within it. It burned down my throat.
Hue, in case I don’t make it through you should know…
I know, and you are forever in my heart as well.
As we approached the group and the sun finally set Oliver appeared at Dani’s side. He nodded silently in my direction. A large man with long dark hair, highlighted with streaks of white stepped forward. It was like looking into the future of Ian’s face. Cariss was handsome but his eyes lacked the kindness that Ian’s always held. This was a man who was a hardened warrior. His eyes raked over me as Hue stepped beside Lady Jura, taking her hands.
“You’re the Halfling whelp that has caused all this trouble? My son’s kindness and compassion attest that he would agree to a battle that doesn’t have to end in death. I wasn’t sure why the Dragon Lords wouldn’t discipline you for your interference, but now I understand. Lord Hudraer is as in love with you as my son is. You will not find Ian as weak.” His words were firm but not forceful. They were merely matter-of-fact and cold. Nobody there thought I stood a chance at winning this duel.
I squared my shoulders back and looked from Hue to Ian, then back to Cariss. “I’m sorry you find love weakness but make no mistake, I don’t regret my interference and no amount of duels would. I care about your son and the fact that you would allow any of your clan to face me on the battlefield shows your politics are dated.”
Everyone’s jaws dropped open at my statement except for Dani who nodded her encouragement for me. “You dare?!”
“Obviously, I do.” I gave Cariss one last glare before turning to face Ian. “Shall we.”
Ian considered me. “Don’t hold back because I won’t be either.” Even though his words were filled with warning they were filled with encouragement.
Marthailain stepped forward and gave the orders. “Duelists, face away.” We both turned, standing back to back. “Count your paces.” I began counting out my twenty-five paces from center field. Then came the words I was dreading. “Ready!” and in the split second before the last call came I forced out a breath and all my fear with it. “Begin!”
I flung myself around to face Ian. He was shifting as he crossed the field, effortlessly rushing towards me. Reaching with all my strength down through my toes I pulled on the earth in front of me, lifting a wall of dirt and stone between us. I heard a small gasp go up in the crowd. I forced my legs to start putting distance down the length of the wall between myself and Ian. The wall did little to slow him down as he found away up and over it.
I could feel his breath on my heels as I turned to venture a glance over my shoulder. He lunged at me, knocking me to the ground with his force and weight. Cariss cheered loudly from where he stood as the air rushed from my lungs with the impact of it. I desperately pulled my knees up between us as Ian’s teeth snapped at me, nearly catching me in the cheek. With all of my strength I kicked him with both feet, knocking him off of me.
We both scrambled to our feet and now stood facing each other in what felt like a staredown. He lunged at me me again and this time I jumped, pushing off the ground and connecting with the air. I felt something with in me shift and my skin tingled and the ground slipped effortlessly beneath me. I suddenly understood what Vallen and Geren had been trying to teach me with my flying lessons. My heart and body felt lighter but something within me told me I was more solid than before. My feet touched down just before Ian tackled me again.
As he connected with me he shifted, pinning me again, but I was ready for him this time. I twisted my hips and rolled him under me. shoving at his shoulders. He looked me in the eyes and shuddered for a moment before forcing me off. I flew back, hitting the ground on my backside hard. He recovered before me and charged again.
Focusing on my connection to fire I flung my arm forward, pulling a flaming ball of anger from the air and hurling it his direction. It caught him square in the chest. I managed to make it to my feet as he recovered. The smell of burned hair hung in the air. When he looked me in the eyes this time his stare was red and intense. Before I could pull another fireball from the air he threw back his head with a howl that pierced the night. My knees went weak and the pain was mind numbing. I clasped my hands over my ears as I sank to my knees. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed several of the watchers doing the same.
This time when he charged at me I had no defense and his teeth sank deep into the arm that I threw in front of me to prevent him from connecting with my throat. Against all odds and intense pain I ripped my arm free of his iron jaws. My blood splattered across the pure white snow. The moonlight seemed to glisten off my skin and cause me to glow with its silvery reflection.
Ian began circling me. Not giving myself any time to second guess, I dug deep. “Blessed fire protect me…” I whispered into the frozen air and pulled on every ounce of magic I could feel pulsating within me. Flames rippled over my skin and I felt the familiar burn as my clothes were consumed by flame and replaced with white armor. With a flash and gust of icy wind I pulled my sword and shield from the air.
A gasp went up from everyone watching but Hue. His eyes were level and calm. Cariss swore under his breath and mumbled about weapons and unfair advantage. Ian grinned, allowing his body to shift into a monstrous form somewhere between man and beast. He towered over me by at least two feet now and had claws that gleamed, revealing their razor sharp danger.
He swung at me while letting loose a deadly growl. I raised my shield to knock away his blow. As it connected I stepped in with my sword, turning under his arm and drawing the blade across his ribs. The blade caught hold and opened a gash along his side. He whirled around and returned my blow, drawing his claws up across my thigh, ripping through my armor and cutting deep. My leg buckled under me causing me to stumble.
I recovered just in time to pull the shield up in front of me as his claw connected with it. The force caused my blood to gush from my earlier bite. “I commend you, Lady Alizeyah, for your bravery,” called Cariss. I could barely hear him over the thundering of my heart in my chest. “But it is time for you to surrender before your blood loss becomes something you cannot survive.”
I felt myself weakening as I deflected blow after blow. Ian’s next attack knocked the shield in such a way it flew free of my hand and skittered across the icy snow-covered battlefield to rest in front of Lady Jura. Cariss looked at me with glee flooding his eyes. Ian stepped in to deliver a final blow but I dropped my shoulder, stepped into his side and drove my elbow with all my weight behind it into his gut. I allowed momentum and instinct to guide me. I grabbed with my weakened arm, pressing my sword’s shoulder into him and turned, pulling him down. He flowed over my shoulder, his own weight slamming him to the ground with the sound of a crunch. He struggled to get to his feet but from nowhere I dragged a silver scaled talon down his bare chest, opening the flesh wide and adding his scarlet blood to the pale cold ground. His wound hissed and steamed angrily and he staggered back in pain.
Knowing in my heart that if I didn’t push this to the end he would, I lunged at him, knocking him flat onto his back. I buried my taloned fingertips into his open chest wounds and he howled in agonizing pain. I laid my sword across his throat, drawing a hairline string of blood and continuing to apply pressure.
“HOLD! He surrenders!” called Cariss’s panicked voice behind me. I heard footsteps crunch furiously across the frozen ground to us. “Lady Alizeyah, we accept your victory.” Cariss’s hand clutched my shoulder, causing me to glare up and him and growl. A man who does not scare easily snatched his hand away as if I were made of fire.
Hue’s arms closed around me, pulling me to my feet and whispering calming words into my ear. I stood watching as Oliver and Cariss pulled Ian to his feet, already making preparations to get him immediate medical attention. Cariss turned to face me where I clung to Hue doing my best to appear strong. Marthailain and Justin assisted Oliver with Ian’s now unconscious form.
“I didn’t think you would kill him. I didn’t think you had it in yourself to kill someone you love.” Cariss said as he eyed me from head to toe.
“You threatened my nest, my clan and my honor. I love your son but make no mistake, I swore I would win.” I was shaking with anger because it should have been him being carted off for emergency care.
“Ian never said you were a warrior. In fact, he led us all to believe that you were weak and needed his protection. Quite the neat little bag of tricks you have there, using your Elven powers to commune with all the elements thus making your Tempest abilities all the stronger.” He paused, considering his words. “However seeing you shift partially into your Dragon form was awe-inspiring. I was told half Dragons never gained any of the forms but you, my dear, have most of them.”
I lifted my chin and held the Chieftain’s gaze. “Per the terms of our contract Ian will be surrendered to myself and my clan. We will decide what the appropriate punishment is. Thanks to you, your son broke my trust and my heart. While I understand your desire to see heirs, this entire fiasco was not my fault, it was yours. Your blood should be paying the price, not his.”
The old Were started to say something but instead gave a small bow and turned to follow the others with his son.
Dani and Lady Jura approached us. Jura looked at me with vindicated pride in her eyes while Dani stared at me in shock. I looked at my closest friend. “I’m sorry if that was scary,” I apologized to her, wondering how her perception of me had changed.
Dani shook her head. “Kat, I understand why you did what you did and could only hope I could find the same strength to do it if I were in your shoes. Do you know what you look like?” she blurted out.
Hue, not waiting for me to process her words, swept me up into his arms, flattening me against his chest. He crossed the snowy terrain quickly and came to stand beside a frozen lake. I gazed at the creature whose reflection stood before Hue.
Her skin glittered with the slightest twinkle of silver scales in the moonlight. Long taloned fingers hung from her hand, ending in tips that looked like steel points. Eyes as black as night with glowing violet irises dominated her face. A mouth with a set of deadly sharp teeth grinned back at me. Small but sharply pointed Elf ears pointed towards heaven and then there behind me were two beautiful, leathery silver Dragons wings. I let out a shaky breath as I realized the reflection of “her” was in fact me.
“Your Dragon form. You’ve completed your awakening,” Hue whispered softly against my ear. My breath caught in my throat and the armor slid away in a puff of smoke. My features and eyes shifted in front of me, returning to the way I normally was, only now with pointed ears. The gashes on my leg and arm were still bleeding. A dozen little cuts and two dozen bruises adorned my body. I stood naked in the cold staring at myself. Hue pulled off his long black coat and slid it around me before gathering me back up in his arms to return to our rooms.
Dani and Lady Jura walked alongside us all the way.