Author's Notes: This was written for an LJ community I participate in called Snail Mail Porn. Little light on the porn (despite my best efforts), but heavy on the number of words. I intended when I started this to write another chapter completely from Pace's POV. Then I looked at the word/page count and cried. So that idea is on hold, though I may start the second part of this story some day. Finally, the bawdy lyrics are courtesy of the SCA and there really are something like 100 different verses to that song.
Ransom was sick and tired of dragon hunters trekking through the mountains and coming into his valley.
He was standing on a ledge of granite, watching the latest batch of idiots with more greed than sense run back to the nearest village as quick as they could. Ransom hissed at their back sides. And take your dead with you! I don't need any more garbage cluttering up my valley.
At this distance, there was no way four men could have heard him. It still seemed to Ransom that they moved just a little bit faster through the last of the season's first snow. That made him happy.
It was the only thing about this whole mess that did make him happy.
His hiss deepened into a full fledged growl as he took to flight. Three beats of his powerful wings, and Ransom was able to catch a rising thermal. The sun was pleasantly warm against his back despite the bitter cold of the early winter winds. Even that wasn't enough to improve his mood.
That's the fifth group just this month. What is going on? Val and her prince should be better at keeping these twits away by now.
When he was high enough, Ransom folded his wings and dove. The wind tore by him with a high pitched whine and beneath him the blue waters of a lake rushed up to greet him. A flick of his tail adjusted the angle of his descent. He did not slow down one bit.
The water broke around him in a riot of foam. Ransom kept his wings pinned to his side and used his feet to paddle towards the entrance of his cave. No one but Val and her prince knew where his lair was. That was fine by him. It made it easier to terrorize the dragon hunters while not getting caught.
He pushed himself through the hole that was the lake entrance to his lair, paddled upwards, and broke the surface. Dragons could deal with little oxygen for long periods of time. That fact came in handy when Ransom was diving through the lake.
I need to talk to Val. She might know what's going on. And if she doesn't, she'll find out. As a rule, Ransom disliked humans. Val was an exception. Her prince was also an exception because Val would be upset if he ate him.
As he climbed out of the water, Ransom shook himself to get the excess water off. The floor to his cave was stone tile, meaning that he could dig his claws in without worrying about churning up any mud. At one point it had been a temple of some sort. Now it was his.
Normally, Ransom would take a moment to admire the marble floors. It was as white as his scales, though not nearly as pretty. The marble looked like the moon or newly fallen snow. His scales were pale, but they were also iridescent with all sorts of colors: blues and golds and silvers.
On the other side of a small pond that was currently filled with loose sapphires, amethysts, and emeralds was a set of chests. Ransom nudged one open and huffed at the pearls inside. He loved pearls, especially white ones, but they weren't what he was looking for.
Stupid, stupid dragon hunters. I can't even appreciate my hoard because of them. The second chest had some cloth in it and a large glass ball. I knew I'd put it into one of these chests. It always pleased him when he remembered where he had stashed part of his hoard.
Ransom carefully picked up the glass ball in his mouth and walked over to where a four foot high pillar stood. There was a depression in the top that would prevent the glass ball from rolling around. It wasn't a perfect fit – the pillar had been designed to hold something sacred that had long been lost – but it was good enough. Once it was settled into place, Ransom sat down and concentrated on the glass.
He didn't have to wait long.
The center of the glass ball went from clear to cloudy. When the clouds cleared, Ransom could see the inside of Val's workroom. She was in the middle of decanting potions from a large jar into smaller vials that were then sealed with wax. It was obvious that she was so engrossed in her work that she didn't notice Ransom.
Do I startle her and watch the resulting fireworks as she drops the potion or do I be polite and get on her good side? Decisions, decisions. I am asking her to help me with a problem. But it would be so much fun to watch the explosion.
"I know what you're thinking, Ransom. If you don't wait till I'm done with this, I swear I'll turn every single one of your pearls into frogs. Again."
:You have no sense of humor.: His tone was accusatory.
Ransom knew he could still startle Val, but it wouldn't be as much fun now. She knew he was there. She knew what he was capable of. She also knew where he lived and how to mess with his hoard. No, it would be better to wait at this point.
Just as Ransom was beginning to fidget, Val finished with whatever potion she was working with. "Okay. Done now. What do you want Ransom?"
:There are dragon hunters coming up to my valley and trying to kill me.: Any good mood he had from thinking about startling Val instantly disappeared. He growled low in his throat. :I thought you and your Prince were going to take care of this problem?:
Val sighed. "Damn. I knew things had gotten too quiet lately. They must have convinced Baron Gosse to open his lands and let them through. We kept refusing them passage."
:Well can't you do something about it?: This was not what he wanted to hear.
"No. Access to most of the passes requires going through our land, but there's a small pass just beyond our northern border in Baron Gosse's lands. We can't do anything about it." Val pushed the strands of blonde hair that had come loose from her braid out of her face.
:Why can't you just take control of the other pass as well?: Ransom lowered himself, wings impressively spread open, until he was glaring into the crystal ball.
"It would be the equivalent of trying to take another dragon's hoard, that's why."
Ransom drew back as if he'd been smacked. :Oh.: That put everything in perspective. :Why are they so determined to kill me all of a sudden?: Val flinched at that. :You know something, don't you?:
"They don't want you dead. They just want one of your scales," Val replied. "And before you get all huffy, I just found out about this today."
:One of my scales?: Ransom hissed folding his wings until they lat against his body. :They can't have my scales. They're mine. What kind of fool would try and take them from me?:
"The kind of fool that is trying to impress a princess, that's who. Princess Celene has said that she will only marry someone who can bring her the scale of a dragon the color of the moon. Which, by the way, is what people refer to you as," Val said. Ransom took a moment to preen, even if he was much prettier than the moon. "The Dragon of the Moon. Anyway, Princess Celene's father is very rich and very powerful, so he's decided to go along with this whole idea."
:This is ridiculous.:
"I know. You have no idea how many idiots Aiden and I had to send packing before they started going through Baron Gosse's land. Every single one of them wanted nothing more than money, power and land. Not a single one had even seen Princess Celene, much less knew her."
:Hopeless romantic.: Ransom watched as Val blushed at the accusation. It was half the reason he knew her at all. :Is there anyway to make them stop?:
"Let them take one of your scales?" Val sighed as Ransom growled at the notion. "Fine, fine. I didn't think you'd take that suggestion well. Next best thing is for you to lay low for awhile until this whole thing blows over."
:I'm just supposed to let these idiots tromp through my valley?: Ransom was not pleased by this suggestion either.
"It's not like they will find your horde. It's too well hidden for that."
No dragon was immune to flattery, especially when it was true. :I see your point.: Ransom clicked his claws against the marble floor - tick tick tick - as he thought. :It can't be that hard to avoid those idiots.:
"And it is almost winter. Snow will soon discourage all but the most determined from going into the mountains." Val bit her lip, thinking. "I think this is a good plan. It should hold until at least spring, and by then hopefully all this fuss will have died down."
Ransom snorted. :One should hope.: Then he turned his head to the side, giving the glass ball a sly look. :So when are you and your Prince going to have hatchlings?:
The problem with staying out of sight and ignoring the less than steady stream of idiots that stumbled across his valley was that it was very boring. At least before there was something Ransom could do. Terrorizing fools at least made him feel productive.
Now all he could do was watch. It wasn't very entertaining.
At least Val was right. The snows have cut down on the numbers.
It still looked like autumn in the lower reaches. Ransom had flown down out of curiosity to look at the leaves of crimson and auburn still on the trees. In the mountains though, winter was well on its way to covering the world in white. There was at least three inches of snow on the ground now, and it no longer melted completely between each storm.
All this snow does make it easier to hide. Four days ago, he'd laid down in a snowbank during a brief snow shower. The dragon hunters had come within feet of him and never noticed. When they left, Ransom had almost hurt himself laughing.
It would have been more fun to surprise them and watch them run.
Ransom's head came up at the challenge. He knew that voice. There was only one dragon hunter with the balls to blithely charge into his valley and announce himself to the world. The only dragon hunter Ransom had any respect for. The only dragon hunter to ever have beaten him.
With a low growl, Ransom slid off the ledge he was laying on and began to slowly pick ways way down the cliff. He couldn't see Pace or the thrice damned horse the dragon hunter rode, but that didn't mean anything. If I can't see them, then I know that he can't see me.
The dragon was grateful for the snow as he moved low to the ground. Not only did it help him blend into the landscape – really, there was no hiding his white scales when everything was green – but it also muffled the sound of his steps. Dragons could move with deceptive quietness, but every little bit helped when it came to facing Pace.
"Don't tell me some one else managed to take you out, dragon. I will be very put out if I came all this way only to find out that you are already dead." Ransom snarled in fury. That arrogant bastard!
Half way down the mountain, Ransom changed his mind about where he was going. Pace's voice was coming from the entrance of his valley, which was a narrow pass with steep sides. The small stream that fed his lake had carved it, and later someone had put in a wide path. If Ransom could come up behind the dragon hunter, it would be the perfect place for an ambush.
Imagining the look on Pace's face when he turned to find Ransom attacking from behind almost made up for the fact that he couldn't respond to the dragon hunter's comments. Almost.
"I guess that the stupid dragon did get himself killed. It was only a matter of time really." The fool was talking to his horse like it could understand him. Ransom bared his teeth and continued to slink towards the valley entrance. The words were getting easier to understand as he got closer. "Humans are obviously superior."
Oh that is it.
He launched himself forward, his wings going down and back in one powerful stroke for extra speed. Ransom cleared the edge and dove into the pass. His eyes scanned the snow looking for the smallest speck of color.
I swear I heard his voice come from this direction. Pace should have stood out against the paleness of the snow. Ransom back winged hard to slow his descent, and the wind from his wings churned the snow. It was only once he'd landed that it dawned on him that he should have paid attention to the tracks leading into the valley.
There goes the element of surprise.
Ransom growled and paced, ignoring the cold bite of the snow under his feet. Trees grew right next to the stream and bordered the path, and the brush was thicker here because there was more light. The dragon hunter could be anywhere. Why can't I see him? There's snow on the ground and one of his colors is red.
The thing about snow was it not only muffled the sounds he made, but it also muffled the sounds of other. Ransom didn't hear the charge until the dragon hunter was almost on him. He whirled around and had just enough time to grab the lance with his teeth before it dug into his shoulder. The dragon jerked the lance hard, hoping to unseat the dragon hunter.
Pace was too smart for the move to work. He immediately let go of the lance. His horse, a blue roan, turned neatly to put distance between them and Ransom. The dragon took a swipe at them but knew they were too far away.
"Took you long enough, Dragon. I was getting bored," Pace said. He was dressed mostly in gray and white with only a strip of red high on his left arm. Ransom tossed the lance into the trees and hissed.
:Tricky bastard. What happened to all that red you deck yourself out in?: Ransom didn't bother circling. There wasn't enough room. Instead he tried to make sure he wouldn't be pinned if Pace mounted another charge. :You go on and on about being honorable, and then you go and change the rules.:
"You slander me, foul beast, and I will not stand for it. I am honorable." Pace drew his sword. "Only a fool would ride into battle in the middle of winter wearing red, and I am no fool."
He expected the attack, could see it in the sudden tenseness of the horse Pace rode, but the ferocity was unexpected. Ransom was immediately put on the defensive. The dragon tried to graze the dragon hunter, their battles were always till first blood, but every time the sword was in the way.
It's the damn trees. Ransom couldn't use his wings for counter balance under the trees.He has the advantage as long as we're under them.
It wasn't much of an advantage. Pace had to be careful not to get his sword caught in any branches when he swung. But the dragon hunter had obviously battled in such conditions before. Ransom was usually smart enough to make sure he was in an open area.
My temper is going to get me killed one of these days. I guess even perfect beings must have flaws.
Ransom crouched low against the ground, letting the swing go over his head, and then lunged for the horse. It tried to back up, but the ground was slippery. The horse's back feet slipped. He took advantage of that and knocked the roan sideways. Pace was too busy attempting to keep his seat to attack, but he watched Ransom like a hawk.
He didn't press his advantage. Instead, Ransom turned and ran. Dragons were never as graceful on the ground as they were in the air, but they were still fast. The dragon could hear Pace's shouts of outrage.
The trees open up some farther ahead. If I can get there, I should be fine. If I can get a little further down to where the meadow is, even better. Ransom bared his teeth, winding between trunks of trees.
Some sixth sense warned him of danger. Ransom turned quickly, his claws skittering against ice crusted snow, to snap. Pace's horse reared and lashed at him. He managed to dodge, but it was a near thing.
"Coward," Pace yelled at him.
:Only a fool continues to fight on ground where he is at a disadvantage, and I am no fool.: Ransom deliberately used the same wording and inflection Pace had used before. The dragon hunter gritted his teeth and renewed his attacks.
In the end, it was random bad luck which caused Ransom to lose. He was preparing to attack when his back foot broke through the thin layer of ice on a small pond covered in snow. Pond was too generous a word though. Puddle would be more accurate.
He'd shrieked when he went down, scrambling to get purchase. Pace had taken the opportunity to score him right across his nose with his sword. The shallow wound stung. Ransom hissed.
"First blood. Do you yield?" Pace shouted. He always drew back, as if this would be the time that Ransom attacked rather than honor his word.
:I yield.: Ransom growled. He was never a good loser. :What is your boon?:
Because really, that's what this whole thing was about. Whoever won would demand that the other obtain something for them. Ransom had come up with the idea when he wanted something from the village below. He couldn't very well go down and get it while a dragon, and he'd be damned if he was going to put up with people's stupid rules by assuming another form.
It had seemed like the perfect solution. Ransom had approached the first reasonable dragon hunter he'd found and challenged him. Winner asked the loser for a boon. Pace had stipulated that it was only to first blood. Then they had fought.
If I knew I would actually lose to him, I never would have approached Pace.
"The Princess Celene has requested that someone bring her a scale from the dragon the color of the moon," Pace said. "Since I am the only one capable of such a thing, I have taken upon myself to complete the quest."
For a long moment, Ransom could only stare at the dragon hunter. Then he shrieked in rage. :That's what this is about? You want to give my scale to a spoiled brat of a princess who uses others for her own purposes? That is the boon you seek?:
Without taking a second to actually think about what he was doing, Ransom reared back on his hind legs, sank his teeth into his chest scale, and yanked one out. It let go with a bright burst of pain. The edge of it was still bloody as he tossed it into the snow.
:There is your scale: Ransom's blood was bright crimson against the snow. Pace's face had paled, his eyes wide with surprise. :Now get out of my valley.:
He didn't wait for a response. Instead Ransom turned and left. The dragon hunter had his boon.
In retrospect, pulling a scale from his underbelly was a bad idea. Nearly two weeks later and it still twinged if Ransom moved wrong. It also left a gap in his scales. His beautiful, beautiful scales.
He'd tried whining to Val about it, but she was absolutely no help at all. Instead of being properly sympathetic, she kept questioning him about Pace's involvement. "Pace? As in Sir Pace of Raeburn? What is he doing trying to court Princess Celene?"
:I don't know and I don't care. I gave him my scale and now he's giving it to a whiny Princess. It's not fair.:
"Wait. You just gave him one of your scales?"
:It's part of our agreement.: Then because Val still looked absolutely baffled. :This is not the first time we've fought. It's something of a regular occurrence.:
Then Ransom had had to admit that not only did he fight a dragon hunter as a sort of hobby, but that he also lost to him. Repeatedly. It was humiliating. He wouldn't even bare his belly scales to Val's prince, but he would to some random dragon hunter he'd made a bargain with that had lasted for over two years.
"That still doesn't explain why he is going after Princess Celene. Pace is one of the most sought after knights there is. Princess Celene is wealthy and powerful, but she's not the wealthiest or most powerful that has courted him. Why is he pursuing her over the rest?"
Ransom had cut the spell off after that and thrown the glass ball into a trunk. He'd first challenged Pace because he didn't want to deal with the strange intricacies of human life. He definitely didn't want to hear about them. And of course, there goes my only source of pity.
No wonder he'd been in a foul mood for the last two weeks.
Snow fell more often and drifts over a foot thick gathered in the shadowed nooks. It wasn't snowing now, but it was a close thing. Every once in awhile small flakes would drift downward. Ransom couldn't tell if they were dislodged from the trees by the wind or if they came from the sky.
The cold had never bothered him before, but it did now, burning at the place where his scale was missing like fire. It made Ransom snappish. He would retreat to his lair and his horde, but the snow dulled the worst of the ache from his missing scale. So really, it was just trading one gnawing pain for another.
"At the Gathering o' the Knights, back in years of yore
I watched two ladies get together, doin' it on the floor.
The Queen was in the parlor, eatin' bread and honey
The King was in the chambermaid, and she was in the money.
Four and twenty virgins came down to Ivaness
And when the Gathering was over, there were four and twenty less.
Singin' balls to your partner
Arse against th' wall!
If you canna' get laid on Feasting night
You canna' get laid at all!"
For one brief moment, Ransom refused to believe what he was hearing. It sounded like Pace's voice, but there was no way the knight was singing a bawdy song like that. Off key even. Things like that just did not happen.
The sound of Pace's voice was very loud and seemed to be coming from very near where Ransom had been laying. He didn't bother going airborne. Instead, the dragon walked towards the sound.
Ransom didn't have to walk far. Pace was flat on his back in the middle of the snowy meadow, one foot still caught in the stirrup. His horse was standing still and showing remarkable patience as far as Ransom was concerned. He would have long ago dumped the dragon hunter into a snow bank.
Drunk. He's got to be drunk. There is no other explanation for what I am seeing.
The dragon hunter was laughing at something only someone three sheets to the wind would find funny. Ransom noticed he seemed to be wearing his colors again: a white shirt with a red belt, a heavy cloak with a red wool lining. Pace's pants, cloak, and boots were all black. As he approached, Pace started to sing a few more verses off-key.
"The village carpenter he was there, with his prick of wood
He made it when he lost his own, and it worked just as good!
There was doin's on the porches, and doin's on the stones
You couldna' hear the music for the loud and joyful moans.
Sir Hugh he was there, with his favorite toys:
A dozen beautiful women, and a dozen beautiful..."
The singing died as Ransom came to stand right over the dragon hunter. Glazed blue eyes, almost purple in color, looked up at him. The blue roan snorted and stomped, but didn't move.
"Greetings, Dragon," Pace said. One hand was firmly wrapped around a wineskin and the other reached up towards Ransom. The dragon hunter made grabbing motions. "Come 'ere so I can pet you."
:You smell like a brewery.:
"I'm not drunk," Pace yelled. Ransom forced himself not to rear back. I really wish my nose wasn't as sensitive as it is. How long has he been drinking to smell like that?
:I never said you were drunk. I said you smelled. There's a difference.: Ransom took another step closer, but Pace's horse shied away. Since the dragon hunter's foot was still in the stirrup, he was dragged a few inches. Stupid mule is not going to let me get any closer. Lovely.
"I could see it in your eyes." The dragon hunter regarded him from his vantage point with all the concentration of someone who was well beyond plowed. "You have pretty eyes. Like sapphires surrounded by pearl."
Ransom ducked his head, flattered and flustered and angry at himself for feeling that way. Stop acting like a youngling being courted for the first time! He took a deep breath, and then another. Then Ransom concentrated on trying to figure out a way to get Pace unhooked for his horse. The dragon hunter began humming under his breath.
:Why are you drunk?: Keeping Pace talking would at least keep him from singing. The last thing Ransom wanted to hear was all 101 raunchy verses to the "The Gathering o' the Knights."
"Do you know why the Princess Celene wanted one of your scales?" Pace asked.
:Because she wanted to marry?:
"Because she wanted to marry." Ransom counted backwards from twenty. Patience. He's drunk.
:I never would have guessed.:
"I've had Princesses wanting to marry me before. I was very polite when I turned them down." Pace threw his arm over his eyes and made a sound. It was very much like a sob. Ransom could only stare. "My liege ordered me to finish what I started. A quest is not completed until I claim my reward. He wants me to marry her."
:Truly a fate worse that death.: Ransom knew if he had to marry a Princess, he'd be pretty upset to. Maybe not upset enough to drink himself to death, which was what it smelled like Pace was trying to do. The dragon crooned at Pace's horse, but it was not working. I don't want to eat you. I just want you to stand still long enough for me to dislodge your idiot rider.
It wasn't working. That left Ransom with two choices. He could leave Pace out in the snow and hope someone came looking for the dragon hunter. Sure. And how many are going to risk my wrath or the snows on the off chance he came here?
Or he could go to his horde, find his therion stone, and assume his other form.
I really, really hate being human.
Ten minutes later, Ransom returned. Around his neck was a thin silver chain and hanging from the chain was clear quartz crystal with a sing hole drilled through it. Pace was still in the snow, foot still stuck in the stirrup, only now he was bemoaning his fate to the leaden sky. Wonderful.
It was always strange when Ransom changed. He never liked it. Going from something that was essentially perfect to something that was so very not perfect went against his nature. Power rippled around him until the air shimmered. Then it surged. When the sparkles faded from his eyes, Ransom found himself standing in the snow as a human.
Oh good. I was wearing winter weight clothes last time I changed. And shoes. Thank goodness for the shoes. The shoes in question were thin soled, but they were still better than frostbitten toes. Ransom was dressed in pants, shirt, and a long padded jacket that fell to his knees and was split up the side. Everything had a vaguely Eastern cut to it. He preferred their style of clothing to anything from his native country.
Therion stones were a must for those who could shapeshift. They took whatever their wearer was wearing at the time of the shift and held it within suspended animation until they shifted back. Without them, Ransom would be spending a lot of time destroying clothing and running around naked.
Frostbite in uncomfortable places. Awful. I don't know how werewolves and their kin do it.
Pace didn't seem to notice the change. He didn't notice his horse dragging him either. In fact, he didn't seem to notice anything except the wine skin he was still draining and the litany of sorrows he felt the world had inflicted upon him. Ransom rolled his eyes.
The blue roan noticed though. Ransom watched as the horse's ears came forward and then went immediately back. It stamped its foot and shook its head in warning. The horse was not fooled at all.
You're shy now. Wait till you see what I have in my pockets.
Horses did not like dragons. Even when Ransom, or really any of his kind, assumed a human form they knew something was different. It made them nervous. So Ransom used an age old technique to get the horse to trust him long enough for him to accomplish his goals.
"See?" His voice rasped slightly from disuse and Ransom coughed a few times to clear his throat. He hated the way he sounded as a human. "I have dried apples. It's winter. When was the last time you had apples? At the very least come sniff them."
It didn't take long before the horse was persuaded. While the blue roan ate the apples, Ransom stroked its neck, careful to keep his claw-like fingernails from scratching. When he could, Ransom unhooked Pace's foot from the stirrup. It hit the snow with a soft "whump."
"Oh." It seemed that Pace had finally noticed him. "Who are you? Where's the dragon?"
"He got tired of your whining and sent me to come get you out of the snow," Ransom snapped. The horse jerked at the sound, but he kept a good grip on its reins. "Now get up."
"He never told me he had a friend," Pace said. He gave Ransom a look that the dragon had only seen once before when he'd accidentally eaten a little girl's pony. It made him feel vaguely guilty for no good reason.
"I don't. I'm the dragon, you idiot."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure! I should have just left you to die in the snow. But I didn't. Do you know why? Because I didn't want to have to deal with your smelly corpse in the spring. So get up out of the snow and get back on your damn mule." As if to emphasize his point, Ransom stalked over to where Pace lay, grabbed him by the front of his shirt, and hauled him to his feet.
It was so incredibly unfair that the dragon hunter was taller than him. Why am I so short in this form? Ransom looked up through his white bangs, he really needed to get them cut, and glared. Pace looked down at him in confusion. Then he smiled.
"It really is you. Hello dragon." Then the dragon hunter petted him on the head, like he was a small dog. "You have pretty hair."
I am going to drop lots of loud, clangy things while he has a hangover. Yes. Think of that. Torture instead of simply reaching out an strangling him. "Yes, yes I do. Now get on the horse."
"I don't want to go back," Pace said. Ransom looked up into his eyes and sighed. He was an idiot. A great big idiot who could not just sit there and let someone be miserable.
"I won't take you back. I'll take you to my lair. Now can you please get onto the horse?" That seemed to mollify the dragon hunter. Somehow he managed to get back in the saddle without launching himself completely over the horse. Ransom helped by holding the blue roan's reins, and keeping the horse from turning around and biting its idiot master.
When Pace seemed like he would remain more or less seated, Ransom began to lead the horse towards the lake. Snow began to come down more heavily, and Ransom could hear the steady hiss of it as it fell. It wasn't blinding yet.
Even though Ransom usually entered through the lake, there was another entrance to his lair. He led Pace's horse to it. To anyone else it looked like icy rock dusted with snow. Just another cliff in a valley full of them.
Ransom knew better. He raised the hand that wasn't currently holding the reins, palm facing the stone. Blue runes flared to life. Seconds later, the rock golem got to its feet and took three steps to the right. Then it settled back down until it looked like nothing more than a large, oddly shaped boulder.
Inside the floor was slick with mud. Ransom hissed at the mess. If he'd known it was this bad, he would have cleaned. The dragon never took this way into his lair. It was embarrassing. Hopefully, Pace will be too drunk to remember this.
Before too long, his pants were muddy and he'd almost fallen more than once. The horse was also having a hard time keeping its balance. Pace managed to stay in the saddle. At this point, Ransom was counting that as a minor miracle.
By the time they got to his horde, Pace had passed out. Ransom opened up one of the chambers that had the bed Val had used when she stayed with him. He manhandled Pace into bed, took off his boots and cloak, and made him drink some water. Which he promptly threw up. Growling, Ransom made him drink some more. Thankfully, Pace kept it down this time.
When Ransom lead Pace's horse back outside, the snow had let up again. He worried at his lip. There was no way he could take care of the horse. There was no hay, no grain, and he didn't even know how to take care of the horse in any way, shape or form. It could not stay here.
Dragon hunters were awfully proud of their horses though. A blizzard had been threatening all day, and while it was not snowing hard now, the passes wouldn't stay open for much longer. Winter was here to stay.
Pace isn't going to be pleased. Oh well. He shouldn't have gotten drunk and come into my valley if he didn't want me making decisions for him. Ransom hooked the stirrups so that they wouldn't get caught on anything, loosened the bit, and let the horse go. It looked at him expectantly.
"Go home. They have food for you and don't see you as a meal on hooves," Ransom told it. The blue roan looked at him for a long moment. When no food was forthcoming, it turned around and headed towards the valley entrance.
Now all he had to worry about was what to do with a cranky dragon hunter in his lair. Luckily, that could wait till morning. Ransom was going to bed.
The first thing Ransom did in the morning was get out of bed – an actual wooden bed – and put his feet on the floor. The next thing Ransom did was jerk his feet back up, snarl a curse, lean over the bed, and activate the runes that would heat the floor. Several minutes later, when he was sure the stone floors would be actually warm, Ransom got out of bed.
He hated being human.
Unfortunately, turning back from one shape to another drained him and he had a dragon hunter in his lair. Not that Ransom really thought Pace would do anything. He was disgustingly moralistic that way.
Still, instincts were powerful things and they insisted that he not be weak. So he wasn't going to be. That meant wandering around as a human. Perhaps it wasn't too bad a situation. Although he could fit into the passage way when he was in his true form, it was much easier to clean as a human.
I forgot to get the rock golem to move back. Ransom growled at his own forgetfulness. That mud is going to be icy cold now. And snow! There will be snow in my lair.
After pulling on old clothing and old shoes, Ransom took a moment to open the trunk at the end of the bed. Wrapped in cloth was a mirror. Val had given it to him as a present. He'd asked if there were perhaps a way to find a mirror big enough for him to look at while in dragon form, but she'd told him she'd never heard of one so large. Ransom had looked for months, but hadn't been able to find one either. Instead, he could only admire himself when he was human.
His hair was white. That was to be expected given that his scales were white. It didn't shine with colors. In fact it was just a flat white. Boring. A poor substitute for his scales.
His skin was much paler than most people's and never turned any darker. Ransom couldn't judge human beauty, but he'd been told he had beautiful features. It all looked the same to him. Except for his eyes. His eyes were a dark, clear blue just like when he was a dragon. Like sapphires surrounded by pearl.
Flustered, Ransom put the mirror back in the trunk and slammed the lid. He couldn't just admire himself all day long. He had work to do.
Ransom threw open the door to his room and made a noise of frustration. It was freezing. Even the warming floor wasn't going to do much against the cold like this. That's what happens when I forget to put the rock golem back. It gets cold down here. No one to blame but myself, no matter how tempting it is to blame Pace.
First order of business was to get the rock golem back in place. Ransom walked up the tunnel towards the second entrance. He had been right. The mud had a thin rind of ice on it. As he got closer to the entrance, Ransom noticed first frost and then snow. It was only when he was at the entrance that he realized he had a problem on his hands.
Snow had started to form a drift inside the tunnel. Outside, it was several feet deep with more falling. A sharp wind curled around Ransom's ankles. The rock golem was an indistinct shape.
Blizzard. Ransom closed his eyes and sighed. He didn't even need to go look to know that the passes were now closed. Pace was trapped in his valley.
He should not feel so damn pleased about that.
After a few minutes of coaxing, Ransom had the rock golem back in place. That cut off the cold air. He walked back down to his lair, found some rags and a bucket, and walked back up to the tunnel. Then he got down on his hands and knees and cleaned.
Two hours later Ransom was dirty, sore, and tired. But the tunnel was finally clean. He was heading back to his room to change clothes when he came upon Pace. The dragon hunter was kneeling on the floor, his palm pressed to the marble tile.
"It's warm," Pace said when he noticed Ransom. The dragon snorted.
"Yes. If I have to walk around as a human, I'm at least going to do it comfortably." As Ransom spoke he pulled off his shoes. He stretched his toes, ignoring the way Pace stared at the wicked claw on each of his big toes. All dragons that could shift forms had them. It marked them as being dragons the same way the damp edge on clothing marked sirens or a scaled back marked a demon.
"Then is was not just the alcohol. You can take the shape of a person."
"I can." Ransom watched as Pace slowly stood. "I just don't like to unless it's absolutely necessary." And as long as I beat you in our fights and you do my errands like a good little lackey, it's not necessary.
"I... I apologize for my behavior yesterday," Pace said as he took a few steps towards him. Ransom noticed that he moved with the deliberate care of someone nursing a pounding headache. He sketched a small bow. "I was not myself and I appreciate your help."
"Apology accepted," Ransom said graciously. Then, because this was Pace and he was a dragon, "I take it the Princess liked her gift."
Pace winced and then winced again as the gesture upset his head. Ransom couldn't help the vicious smirk on his face. "Yes. Princess Celene was most appreciative." He watched as Pace fiddled with his belt. "I believe I have imposed upon your hospitality enough as it is. If you would show me to my horse, I will make my way out of your valley."
Uh-oh. "You can't leave."
"I have to leave." He was speaking in the deliberate voice. Ransom hated that tone of voice. It meant that the dragon hunter was hiding what he really felt. "The wedding is to be performed at the Winter Solstice. That is only a month away. There are preparations that need to be made and I must attend to them."
"Well you can't." Ransom crossed his arms, suddenly feeling defensive. "Your horse isn't here. I sent it back to... wherever it is you live. Besides which, there's a blizzard going on outside. Even if your mule was here, you wouldn't be leaving."
"You sent my horse back without me?" Pace asked. The clenching of his fists was the only indication that he was not as in control of his emotions as he appeared. "Do you know what people are going to think?"
"That I kidnapped you. Which is true, when you think about it." Ransom smiled. "You were just too drunk to put up much of a fight."
Pace took three steps forward until he was inches from the dragon, forcing Ransom to tilt his head up to meet his eyes. Short. That's another reason I hate this form. Ransom refused to be intimidated. "You can fly me?"
"Do I look like a horse?" Really, being this close to Pace was fascinating. He could practically feel the anger, the heat rolling off of him. Pace's eyes had darkened until they were the exact shade of the darkest amethyst he owned. "I am not taking you any where."
"I will not leave Princess Celene standing at the altar. I will not dishonor her like that. I am leaving."
"By all means, I'm not going to stop you." Ransom spread his hands benevolently. "Have fun with that. And if you manage, which I don't think you will, have fun being miserable with a Princess you don't even want to marry."
Ransom didn't wait for a reply. He turned around and stalked to his room. Idiot should be thanking me, not yelling at me.
He made very, very sure not to wonder why that upset him as much as it did.
The first two weeks were filled with tension. Pace stalked around Ransom's lair. He yelled. He threatened. He made demands. More than once Ransom found himself out in the snow for no other reason than if he spent another moment with the dragon hunter he was going to eat him. And not in the way that dragons often joked about amongst themselves.
By the third week, Pace began to mellow. His demands lessened, as did his threats of violence. They began to actually talk. Ransom was particularly charmed by the fact that Pace asked before he touched anything. He was respectful whenever he handled anything of Ransom's. By the end of the week, Ransom let Pace at his prize possessions: his books.
The fourth week came and it was obvious to both that Pace would not be attending any wedding ceremony. Pace seemed to have accepted this. It still bothered him – more than once Ransom had caught him brooding – but he no longer pushed Ransom to get him out of the lair.
So after months of knowing him, Ransom finally felt comfortable in giving the dragon hunter his name.
"Ransom," Ransom said one evening. He had spent the last two weeks in dragon form catching deer for them to eat, and had only recently switched back to human. Pace was hemming a new pair of pants he'd made from some black cloth Ransom had lying around.
"What's that?" Pace said as he carefully sewed. The last pair had been two sizes too big, but this pair seemed to be closer to normal.
"My name. Ransom. You always call me Dragon, but my name is actually Ransom."
"I didn't know you had a name," Pace said. The pants were forgotten as Pace looked at him with those strange almost purple eyes. "My apologies."
Ransom waved away his apologies. "I didn't tell it to you when you introduced yourself. Dragons don't often get human names, so we don't give them out often. We hoard them. Like treasure."
"You don't often get human names?" Pace asked. "So Ransom isn't the name your mother gave you?"
The dragon snorted at that. "No. My mother gave me a name in our own tongue." Ransom paused for a second, then gave a piercing whistle that rose, fell and then transformed into a low thrum of sound. "That's my name in dragon. Or at least as close as a human mouth can make it. It's prettier when actually sung by a dragon."
"Is Ransom a translation of your dragon name then?"
"No." Ransom realized he was going to have to tell the story. What are the chances he hasn't heard that damn ballad? Slim to none. My own fault for even mentioning my name. "Val is the one who gave me my name."
"Val? I did not realize that anyone else visited this valley. Who is he?" Pace asked. There was a tension in his voice that Ransom didn't recognize.
"She's a friend. I helped her find and marry her Prince. They live in lands that border the mountains now." Ransom sighed. "Neither of them visits much in the winter, but come spring they visit here a lot."
Usually to frolic like bunnies in my meadows and make me paranoid about actually seeing two humans naked and doing things.
Ransom knew the moment Pace made the connection. The frown of concentration disappeared to be replaced by surprise. "The lands that border the mountains? You're talking about Lady Valorie and her husband, Prince Aiden. That would make you the white dragon from the Lady Wizard."
"If you want to live dangerously, bring up that song around Val. If you think that dragons are blood thirsty, ask her what she plans to do should she ever find the minstrel who wrote it," Ransom said. His smile was all teeth. "After she's done, I get to play with whatever is left of him."
"Scary." Pace started working on his pants again. "So she gave you the name Ransom? Why?"
"I was supposed to kidnap the daughter of Val's patron and hold her for ransom. Then, the Prince was to rescue the girl and marry her. Val was the one sent to make the deal with me and needed something to call me." Ransom's smile turned more pleased. "Things didn't work out the way Val planned. I kidnapped her instead because she secretly loved the Prince. Val's Prince rescued her and fell in love in return. They are happy."
I got several large sapphires in return and a promise that they would keep the dragon hunters invading my valley down to a minimum. And it worked until Princess Celene just had to have one of my scales. Spoiled brat.
"I would have never guessed that the song was true," Pace said. "I've heard it a dozen times, but thought it was an exaggeration." Suddenly, he looked up from his work. "Ransom." He said the word as if he was tasting it on his tongue. "It fits."
Aren't you the least bit upset that you're missing this wedding that you threw a two week fit over? Ransom wanted to ask, but didn't. Instead, all he said was, "Thank you."
Mid-winter and the new year came close together and were usually celebrated as one. They were also a big gift giving time. Ransom usually flew down to the lowlands the day after the celebration to give Val her gift and then returned to his valley. This year he showed up a week early.
"Why are you here so early this year?" Val asked once Ransom had landed in the courtyard. It was nice not being shot at. The guards had a habit of stationing the newest recruits on the battlements when he was expected. "Not that I'm not glad to see you. You've been quiet these last several weeks."
:I have business in town.: Ransom offered his gift, protected by a simple wooden box, to Val and she gently took it from him.
"Ransom, you hate going into town." Val drew her fur lined cloak closer around her. Snow fell in clumps from the sky and there was a bitter wind. "Change and come inside. I know it doesn't bother you, but its cold out here."
:I can't. I have someone waiting for me.: Ransom pretended not to notice his friend's surprise and sudden interest. :I just came to give you your gift. I will explain later, I promise, but I have to go.:
He'd taken off right after, leaving Val to shout questions after him. The truth was, Ransom didn't know how to explain to her what he was doing. He didn't understand it himself. I don't have to give him anything. He's not expecting it. And there's no reason why it has to be something out of my horde.
All the reasoning in the world didn't change the urge to give Pace something. Now it was Mid-Winter's Day. It was time to see if his gift would be well received. Ransom was doing his best to appear nonchalant.
He was failing miserably.
"Dragon, what is wrong with you?" Pace asked when Ransom had slammed the lid of a chest closed for the third time. Ransom growled. Normally, he would talk to Val about this but then he'd have to explain. I don't even know why I'm giving him part of my horde.
:Nothing.: Ransom could tell Pace was annoyed. Nowadays he only called him "dragon" when he was annoyed with Ransom.
"Nothing?" Pace approached him, not at all intimidated by the fact that in dragon form Ransom was bigger than the dragon hunter. He also had teeth and claws, while Pace lacked a sword and armor. "Is this the same nothing that caused you to do nothing but eat and sleep for the last two days?"
:Maybe.: He made a sound in the back of his throat, and was slightly appalled when it came out more whine than growl. :I don't want to talk about it.:
"I do not care." He startled a bit when Pace reached up, wrapped his hands around his nose, and pulled down. Ransom yielded to the pressure until he was staring into Pace's eyes. The dragon hunter's hands were surprisingly gentle. "Out with it. What is bothering you?"
:It was...: Ransom took a deep breath, until all he could smell was Pace. :I was going to wait until tonight. I understand that's traditional.:
"What are you talking about?" The dragon hunter didn't protest when Ransom pulled out of hold and headed towards the back of his horde. Hidden under some ragged rugs Ransom really needed to get rid of was a velvet pouch. Ransom picked it up in his mouth, walked over to Pace, and dropped it into his hands.
"I... I didn't get you anything."
For a long, long moment Ransom wondered if he had violated some obscure human custom somehow. Pace held the pouch in his hand for far longer that the dragon thought necessary. Did I offend him? Was I supposed to let him know? I thought these things were a surprise! If Val has let me play the fool for all these years...
"I am sorry. I have nothing to give you in return." Pace smiled, but it was a mocking thing. "Even if I was drunk when I came here..."
:Don't apologize. You haven't even opened it yet.:
"It doesn't matter what it is. You still went through the trouble to get me something," Pace replied. Still, he opened the pouch and let the contents fall into his waiting palm. It was a ring.
:Do you like it?: He'd spent days sorting through his horde, grouping gems first by color and then by size. Amethysts seemed the most likely candidates, purple to match the color Pace's eyes sometimes seemed to be. Not violet, purple. Ransom's collection of amethysts was not as large as he would have liked and he hadn't found one that suited his tastes.
Next had been rubies. Pace's colors were red and white, so a ruby made sense. A pure red one, a pigeon's blood ruby, with none of the hints of orange or blue that so many rubies possessed. Ransom had found three possibilities before he realized that a ruby was too flashy for Pace. He's not the kind to wear a small fortune around.
After that Ransom had looked through his spinels, but those had problems of both the amethysts and the rubies. I don't have many spinels and people can't distinguish them from rubies most times. I know the difference, but humans are just stupid about it.
Ransom was just about to move on to another color, when he remembered that he had some garnets. They were usually smaller stones, suitable for a ring or small broach. Most of them were green since Ransom had a fondness for green and blue. There were a few red. Three were too orange, and six others were too purple. But among them the dragon found a small cabochon.
The overtones in it were darker than Ransom would like: too much black. In the light, though, the garnet was blood red. The dragon had debated finding some diamond chips to add around it, but decided that simple was better. It was more to Pace's taste.
"It's beautiful," Pace said. He turned it in the light that always glowed in the abandoned temple. "There's writing on the inside of the band. I don't recognize what it says." The dragon hunter didn't ask so much as imply the question.
Ransom had gone into town specifically to have the garnet set into a ring with a spell engraved into the band. It looked like a simple silver ring with a red stone, but when Ransom touched it he could feel the power in the sigils he'd had carved into the band. The ring was part of the gift, the spell the other.
:Follow me.: Pace didn't ask any questions. He just followed. If only he was so obedient all the time.
On the far side of his lair was a flat wall. Ransom stopped before it. Pace stopped as well, giving Ransom a look that clearly stated he was waiting for the dragon to do something. :Put the ring on and then press your hand to the wall, palm first.:
Pace slid the ring on and laid his palm against the wall. Blue sigils on the stone flared to life. Ransom fidgeted, extraordinarily pleased with himself. It wasn't easy to set a spell to work for someone who couldn't use magic, but he'd managed.
Slowly, the entire wall slid upwards. Colder air rushed into his lair, but Ransom didn't mind. Pace shivered slightly though. :You may want to put your cloak on. It doesn't bother me, but the cold will bother you.:
"Where does it go?"
:Follow it and find out. Do the same thing to the wall at the other end. The door will close after a few minutes.: Pace looked suitably impressed.
"You aren't coming with me?" Pace asked.
:Can't. I'm too big to fit down that tunnel as a dragon. It's designed for humans.: Pace still hesitated so Ransom gently nudged him with his nose. :Go get your cloak. I'll meet you outside.:
He was already heading for where the lake lapped against the edge of his lair. Ransom plunged into the water. The lake never froze over in the winter. It was too deep and slightly too warm for that.
Ransom burst out of the surface of the lake and immediately felt the water clinging to him freeze. He flapped his wings hard to dislodge the ice. The cold only hurt where his scale was missing. I can't believe that still hurts. It should be healed by now.
Once he'd gained enough altitude, Ransom banked sharply to the left. Amazingly, it wasn't snowing. Instead the sun was shining through a few high clouds. Everything was covered with a layer of ice and snow. It glittered in the sun.
The forest covering the mountains was only partially composed of evergreens. Every thing else was bare branches or buried in snow. During the summer, even Ransom had problem spotting the cabin hidden in the forest. In the winter, it was easy to spot from the air.
There wasn't much of a clearing around the cabin, but Ransom had landed in tighter spaces before. It helped that there was almost no tree canopy. Leaves and branches always getting in my way. Once he was on the ground, Ransom folded his wings and settled down to wait.
The dragon didn't have to wait long.
Pace opened the door, looking around him. He didn't seem surprised to see Ransom standing outside. Ransom watched as the dragon hunter carefully closed the door behind him before stepping out to meet him. "Why?"
The question caught Ransom off guard. :I am not the easiest to get along with.: He turned his head to one side, studying a low hanging branch. :It seemed unfair that I could leave whenever I wanted, but you were trapped in my lair. This gives you the option of going somewhere else to be alone for awhile.:
"You would trust me with a way into your lair?" Pace was looking at him like he had lost his mind, but Ransom didn't even need to think about his answer.
:Yes.: It didn't make any sense, but it was true.
Suddenly, Pace was kneeling in front of him, seemingly oblivious to the snow. "I hope that I am worthy of such trust. It is an honor." :Idiot.: Ransom snorted. Pace got back to his feet and held out both hands. The dragon lowered his head until Pace could stroke the scales just above his eyes. It gave him warm, shivery feelings.
"Thank you, Ransom. It is a wonderful gift."
:I am glad you like it.:
I am glad it makes you happy.
Pace was the one who suggested that they fight in the snow. Ransom had pointed out that the dragon hunter lacked a sword and he wasn't playing with any of Ransom's blades in the snow. He'd given the dragon a long look before gathering up snow with his hands and hurling it at Ransom.
Once he'd shaken the snow out of his eyes, Ransom had caught on. They'd spent well over two hours in the snow. Pace would pelt him with snowballs and Ransom would use his coloration to his advantage, sneak up and push the dragon hunter into the snow. It was fun.
I can't remember the last time I acted like a hatchling. It took a lot of concentration for Ransom to push, but not push too hard. He didn't want to hurt Pace.
Falling snow finally ended their play. Pace's cheeks were bright red when he entered the cabin to journey back to Ransom's lair. The dragon paused long enough to listen to the howl of the ice wolves along the peaks. They didn't sing of any danger. Then he waded into his lake and swam down to his lair.
The dragon hunter was waiting for him. Ransom found it nice to come into a lair with someone already there. It's like coming home when you know that you have a new, shiny bit of treasure to look at. Only more so. I think I like it.
Ransom took two steps onto the marble floor when he stumbled in pain. It flared outward from the spot where his scale was missing. The air tasted of magic, of power that was not his or the temple's. The dragon hissed. Before he could send his own power out, the spell was gone.
"What ails you?" Pace asked. Ransom didn't respond for a long moment. "Is it from where you pulled the scale out?"
:Yes.: He didn't mention the magic.
"Still? You said you had some salve for minor wounds. Haven't you put any on it to help it heal?" Ransom snorted.
:How?: Ransom extended one paw, showing off sharp black claws. :Besides, I can't even reach where the scale is missing. It's a bad angle.:
"Come here then," Pace said. "Sit. Stay." That got him a growl. I am not a dog!
Pace returned with the pot of salve. He walked until he was directly in front of Ransom and then frowned. "This is going to be difficult. Do you think you can roll over so I can get to your stomach?"
The dragon stared at him. He actually expects me to roll over and expose my throat and belly to a dragon hunter? Is he nuts? Does he know what he's asking? His wings flared half open in shock. Pace just continued to look at him.
Then again, Ransom had given him access to his horde. Is this really any different? Cautiously, he laid down on the marble floor and rolled over. His whole body tensed, not sure what to expect.
"Easy. I'm getting ready to put salve on the area."
Even with the warning, Ransom flinched slightly. The salve was cool and he wasn't expecting that. Pace's fingers were gentle against the place where his scale was missing. "The wound is still a little raw. You should have been more careful."
:I was angry.:
Pace had been with him for over four months, and Ransom knew deep down that it couldn't last. Winter was slowly giving way to spring. When the passes finally opened up, the dragon knew that the dragon hunter was going to have to return to his life. He knew this.
Still doesn't make it any easier.
Right now, though, Ransom had bigger worries. He'd finally found the source of all the mud. During the melts, water seeped in through a crack. It hit the dirt floor and turned it into a morass of mud. Ransom was in dragon form, carving spells into the stone to block the water.
He had just finished the rune for "water" when the pain hit. Ever since Pace started putting salve on the place where his scale was missing, it had been getting better. Now it was like nothing had ever been done. Ransom hunched over, panting.
Magic! Someone is using my scale for magic again. It's close. Pace! Ransom knew the dragon hunter was supposed to be near the cabin. The place where his scale was missing throbbed as he turned and stumbled towards the water. If they have done anything to Pace, I am going to eat them no matter how bad they might taste.
The cold water did nothing to ease the pain. Ransom didn't try to take to the air because using his wings would only pull where the scale was missing. He didn't want to make it worse. Instead, he paddled to shore.
Ransom immediately knew something was wrong. The animals in his valley were still. The birds were silent. He pulled himself onto the shore, head held high, senses reaching outwards. The pain had receded to a dull ache.
"Sir Pace of Raeburn! I command you to show yourself. You have dishonored myself and my father and I will not stand for it."
He didn't recognize the voice. It was definitely a feminine voice. Ransom sifted through the possibilities rather quickly and decided that this was probably the infamous Princess Celene. Who had his scale. Who was using it to do magic.
"Princess Celene? What are you doing here?" Ransom did, unfortunately, recognize that voice. You idiot. What are you doing confronting her? Oh I know. You humans always think females are weak. We dragons know better. They're lulling you into a false sense of security until they have your balls in their teeth.
Snow still clung to the shadows and the hollows, but it was getting less and less each day. All the trees except the evergreens were still bare. Still, Ransom did his best to circle around without being noticed. He listened to the conversation while he did.
"You never showed for our wedding. Your horse showed up still in its tack. I came up here as soon as the passes melted not knowing whether you were alive or dead. I see that you are very much alive."
"My apologies, Princess Celene. With the passes closed I could not get word to you and I could not travel out of the valley." There was a long pause. "Yet even if I could have, I would not have showed for the wedding."
"You completed the quest. Why would you do such a thing if you had no plans to marry me?"
"I had my reasons."
The dragon hissed. Even I know that is not a good answer. Why do I even keep you around?
"You were ordered by your lord to marry me. Have you no honor?"
Enough was enough as far as Ransom was concerned. He'd circled around from the back using their conversation as an indicator of where Pace and the brat Princess were. Ransom gathered himself, flattening his wings to his side and growling softly in the back of his throat. When he attacked, Ransom screamed a challenge.
As he cleared the trees, Ransom realized that the Princess – who had to be the one sitting on a horse – was wearing armor. Of course. Only an idiot would come wandering into a dragon's valley without protection. Not that it will do her much good.
Pace saw Ransom first. "Stop!"
There was a command in his voice. For a second the dragon thought about ignoring it. Just a second. Then he opened his wings, rearing up and digging his back claws into the ground in order to stop himself. Even then it was a near thing.
The horse the Princess rode, a heavy-set bay, was obviously smarter than the brat who rode it. It bolted. Somehow Princess Celene kept her seat. Ransom snapped at the horse's haunches. Suddenly Pace was right there beside him, using his shoulder to push him back.
"Stop it, Dragon. You are not to hurt her."
:Why not?: Ransom demanded. He ignored the gasp of surprise from the Princess. She had turned her horse around and was cautiously watching them. :She's rude, obnoxious, and spoiled. She's the reason dragon hunters kept coming into my valley trying to kill me to get one of my scales.:
"It talks," the Princess said. Her horse snorted. Ransom glanced over at her. Her blonde hair had obviously been hacked off just above the shoulders. There was a smudge of dirt across one high cheek bone.
"Princess, the dragon is a he, not an it," Pace corrected. "I have been staying with him over the winter. He is the dragon from which the scale came."
:Oh? You wreck my life and all you can say is that?: Ransom growled, baring teeth. :Give me one reason why I shouldn't...:
"That's enough." Pace reached up and turned Ransom's head with his hands until he could look into one blue eye. "She didn't know. I was the one to take your scale, not her."
"Enough," Pace repeated. He stroked one hand down Ransom's nose. "Let me handle this."
The dragon huffed, but didn't argue. :Fine.:
Pace turned back towards Princess Celene. "I am sorry that you came all this way and that you worried about me. I should have found a way to send some sort of message. I am afraid..."
"No." Ransom gave the Princess a sharp look. There was a strange, strangled quality to her voice. Pace laid a hand against his nose as a warning and Princess Celene made a small noise. "I understand. The rumors about you were true and I was too... my apologies."
"Rumors?" Pace seemed genuinely confused. "Princess Celene..."
"I have to go. Again, my apologies. I didn't realize..." Whatever else she was going to say was lost as Princess Celene spurred her horse. It danced to one side, around Ransom, and then galloped as hard as it could away from the dragon. They watched her go.
"I don't know what she is talking about," Pace admitted. He shook his head. "Thank you for listening to me and not attacking her."
:You're welcome.: Then, Ransom asked the question that had been bothering him for months. :Are you going to leave?:
"There's no reason to. I think I would like to stay here. That is, if you would let me."
:Stay.: It was not quite a command.