Feel the Burn Page 93

“Also,” Aidan went on, “if you truly expect any help from them, plan to barter. There’s always a price to pay in my father’s territories.”

“These are the Dragon Queen’s territories,” Brannie reminded him.

“You keep thinking that and see where it gets you, Captain.”

Kachka didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at Aidan the Divine’s home. She’d never come this far before because Salebiri’s fanatics had stayed far away from this area. Now that they neared the lands, she understood why.

The territorial lines that divided Annwyl’s lands from that of the Western Horse Riders went from soft grasslands covered in rushing rivers and peaceful lakes to harsh marshlands in the blink of an eye.

No wonder Annwyl didn’t try to claim any of this territory as her own. If it weren’t for the slaves the Western Riders insisted upon having—and selling—Kachka doubted that the queen would bother with anyone in this region unless she was specifically called upon.

It wasn’t that it was ugly land. It wasn’t. But it was dark and foreboding. The air thick, the land soft, the vegetation overwhelming.

This would be a harsh place to fight any war.

Their horses, unused to such muddy terrain, were miserable before they’d traveled more than a few hours, but Aidan brought their party to a stable where they could leave their horses until they were ready to return.

Once their horses were tended to, they set off on foot. But it was difficult going. So difficult, even Zoya stayed silent, focusing on where she stepped and how deep she might sink in.

Aidan was more surefooted, and they followed him, finally forming a single line rather than spreading out.

It was nearing suns-down when Aidan finally said, “Up here.”

They followed him up a very small hill and when they reached the top, Kachka had to admit her surprise at what she saw.

They’d reached the very edge of the Western Mountains and jutting from them was a beautiful castle made entirely from mountain rock.

“My great grandfather and a few dragon stonemasons built this right from the mountain. Took them several years but well worth it.”

“I can’t believe you left,” Brannie said.

Aidan chuckled and began his descent down the hill. “When you meet my family, Branwen the Awful, you’ll understand that I had very little choice in the matter.”

The armor gleamed. The soldiers stood ready. Dragons in human form guarded the front. Dragons in their natural form, but still in full armor, flew around the castle walls.

A swampy moat circled the front of the building, and Gaius was sure that there was something in there ready to eat whatever was thrown in.

The drawbridge was already down, but a line of guards stood ready on both sides.

“Very well protected,” Gaius murmured to Aidan.

“My father,” he replied, “is very . . . concerned with the safety of his lands.”

“Does he fear attack from Sovereigns?”

“From everyone.”

They moved through the lines of dragons, each soldier dropping to his knees as Aidan passed.

“They treat you like a king,” Brannie noted.

“No. They treat me like a prince. My father they treat like a king.”

Gaius knew that would be something that truly bothered Rhiannon. It wasn’t just loyalty she relied on, but the respect that went along with being a born queen. She didn’t take it for granted, and she wouldn’t ignore someone else being treated like the ruler of her lands.

But Gaius would have to figure out how to give her that information at a later date.

They passed through the gateway, over a bridge, and when Gaius glanced over the side, he saw something sliding through the murky water beneath. They moved through the courtyard, filled with still more soldiers, and to the castle proper.

As they entered, even Gaius had to admit he was impressed. He’d thought nothing could parallel the palaces and villas of his home, but this place did manage to rival them. Everything, save for the wood furniture, was cut from the stone mountain. The walls, the floors, the balconies, the rooms, the stairs and banisters. But nothing was plain. No, intricate depictions of battles of old were cut into the stone. And after one passed the large front hall, it was all deep passages and caverns for dragons in their natural form to disappear into.

The whole thing was astounding, and Gaius admired the work that must have gone into it.

“Wait here,” Aidan ordered before disappearing deep into the caverns.

While they stood, waiting, Gaius noticed that the only one who had a hand on her weapon was Brannie. He had to admit, he found that odd. The House of Foulkes de chuid Fennah was still part of Rhiannon’s queendom, and Aidan’s father would risk much by losing that connection. Not only would he have to deal with the Cadwaladrs coming here and crushing his forces in the queen’s name, but then he’d have to worry about Gaius and his sister sending a few legions to help out. Even if Gaius and Rhiannon weren’t allies, it was still a dangerous game to play because neither of them would allow the Foulkes de chuid Fennahs to keep these lands as their own. It was too important a territory for that.

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