(I've lost track of how long I'd been gone, so I'm starting over.)
Rath and I healed back to normal within two days of arriving at Lady Graethe's. We're both back where we were before the whole fiasco. I'm still stronger than I ever was, but Rath heals like a superhero and I only do if he's touching me. He shared his gift with me, but it's not an equal split. Figures, I'm still his sidekick. Ha ha. But when we do touch, the gift is so much stronger, I feel like there's nothing we can't do.
I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the changes since the Queen died. (I'm just going to call her the Queen, there's no way I could spell her real name.) She really was the cork in the magic bottle. Now that it's out, nothing is the same.
All the spells that bound the underground caverns got a reboot and are functioning at full capacity, so to speak. Instead of perpetual sunset, the ambient light shifts from dark to full daylight as the hours pass. (Word has it, the religious sect responsible for time keeping is a little pissed.) The craggy ceiling is only visible during the evening, with flickers of light twinkling off the crystals above into a makeshift starry night. During the day, apparently as intended, clouds roll along a magical blue sky. Everything seems more vibrant and intense from the foliage on trees to the merchants in the marketplace. It's more beautiful than any place I'd seen above ground. It's a fairy tale come true.
The external change in the city charged the morale of the people as well. Add those differences to the widespread knowledge of the death of the dragon and the Queen, and the atmosphere is something I wouldn't expect. It seemed to give them a greater rebound than I would have expected given the casualties inflicted by Kenrick and the Queen. The return of the magic appears to have given a gift of inspiration back to Garadur. I wonder how far reaching the effect is?
We're staying at Lady Graethe's, much to Maertagh's offense, while the work to repair the keep and undo the damage to the city continues. It's happening a lot faster than I'm used to. In the city, construction workers always looked like they were on break. I guess that's what happens when you have a motivated group not bound by union politics and the workers who abuse them.
We did manage to take time out for Verath's funeral. The entire population of Garadur must have been present to say farewell as the pyre was lit. I stood by Rath's side during the ceremony and my hand never left his. I owed the King for my mate's life, it was the very least I could do. Rath watched the flames until they dwindled to ash the next day without saying a word or showing a sign of emotion, but I could feel his grief through our bond and gave him somewhere to vent it privately.
It's so unfair. Rath and his father looked like they may have found some kind of resolution to their differences before he died. Who knows what their future would have brought if he'd survived? I wish I could forget the sight of how he died; it still haunts me.
The first time I saw Rath nearly shed a tear was when we finally had the chance to see Sethus. They embraced each other so hard and for so long, I might have been jealous if I couldn't read Rath's true feelings. That lucky goblin shouldn't be alive at all, and I'm with Maertagh on this one. It's a fucking miracle.
Rath is being hailed a hero for slaying the dragon and his official coronation is planned to happen after the city cleanup. Until then, he is in charge by everyone deferring to the king's son. The mutterings and snide whispers about the “half-breed prince” are more fleeting than they once were. Scoffers have become respectful after Rath's deeds. Let's hope that lasts. The people are ready to follow his lead and he told me how he plans to not let their faith in him down. He told me how his father was dropped into the throne and he wants to honor Verath's memory. I couldn't be prouder of the way he's handled falling into his role.
With the magic restored, Tolemus has been put in charge of training new disciples. Stories of townspeople kissed with magic overnight keep popping up and we can't have the fear of another rogue mage incident turning into something violent. Tolemus is heading a new mage's guild to manage the new talent and direct them to defend Garadur.
The people have also been hailing me as the Queen Slayer. It's very unnerving. My station has risen to the future king's consort; I am no longer seen as a pet. I'm a sudden celebrity and I'm not sure how to take it. The people thank me at every opportunity, but I make a point not to take advantage.
Killing the Queen was the scariest thing I'd ever done and I take no pride whatsoever in it. I killed a woman as I stared into her eyes, but really what choice did I have? I know it was self-defense, but that doesn't make the act any easier. The blood on my hands is darker than I ever expected. I don't like owning my blade as much as when Rath gave it to me. I still have nightmares about her; I guess that's to be expected. Thank god Rath's touch always makes them smaller and farther away.
It's strange how acts of horror can galvanize you. The night of Kenrick's arrival may have shaken me, but there hasn't been a single moment of doubt of where I belong. I don't have the slightest interest in going above again; there's nothing there to keep me anymore. Even the LGBT center will survive without me.
Even with all the insanity, I still feel that having to fill Rath in on Haythen's schemes was the most difficult of all. I didn't want to tarnish his memory, but Rath wouldn't leave the subject alone. At first he wanted to know how Haythen died, and then why he was in the keep after he ushered others out. The more he backtracked, the more uncomfortable I became and Rath could feel it. He pushed and pushed until I told him everything.
Rath was so hurt. Haythen had helped raise him and his first instinct was to think I was lying but I think Rath could feel I wasn't. The part Haythen played in all our lives and his family history troubled Rath visibly. In the end, after much rage and many ales, he distilled it all down into one positive thing: it brought me into his life. At some point we may have to tell Maertagh about it all, but I can wait. There's been enough heartache and sorrow to last us all for a while.
I have to admit, I'm having a hard time setting aside the guilt of bringing Kenrick to Garadur. I played into the hands of more than one person manipulating the scenes and nearly got all of us killed. So much damage in such a short order, I suppose I should be grateful that he and the Queen didn't have more time.
Rath holds me at night and whispers words that tell me I'm not at fault, that I couldn't have known. He tells me over and over how my actions prevented the Queen from taking so many more lives. Perhaps someday I'll believe it enough to wash away the images of the mangled dead that littered the streets. Until then, I will do what I can to help out and try in some small way to repent for what's been done.
* * * *
“Dannish! Where are you, farmer?” Rath cried out.
Shawn rolled his eyes. “Christ, you could try knocking on his front door.”
“Far too easy.”
Following Rath around the corner of Dannish's home, Shawn viewed the farmer's land. The area they cleared the last time they were here was filled with bushes thick with ripe berries. The crops were thriving in short order since the daylight returned and Dannish had to be working hard to keep up.
Near the house Shawn couldn't stop looking at the spot where the farmer's beast, Tessa, attacked him as if some evidence could still be found after so many months. A soft chill iced his neck at the memory that he tried to suppress. A warm hand that could only belong to his mate gently gripped his shoulder for comfort; Rath must have felt his unease. It was one of those moments where Shawn was eternally grateful for the bond they shared.
“Rath! Puppy! How have you been!?” Dannish shouted. The fit, older troll came around a makeshift shed with a giant grin on his face. His simple clothing bore the marks of soil and work and his skin glistened with sweat. Dannish nearly broke into a run to get the chance to clasp both of their hands in excitement; his exuberance was refreshing.
“Please, Dannish. My future consort's name is Shawn. Only Sethus still calls him Puppy.”
“That's because Sethus wants to be a dick.”
Dannish's laughter was rich and playful. “Shawn it is then. It's so good to see you both. And seein' you strong and hardy, boy, makes me happy. I'm still right sorry fer what Tessa did to you.”
“It wasn't your fault, or Tessa's,” Shawn said.
Rath's large hand grazed the smooth side of Shawn's scalp. “It also bonded us in the end and for that I will be forever grateful.”
“I suppose I'll be callin' you, My Lord soon, won't I? Speaking of...” Dannish looked the pair over. “Aren't you two supposed to be at the keep? I thought the coronation and yer wedding was goin' to be in a few hours. You'll get yer fine clothes a mess out here on the farm.”
The espresso leather robes with the king's icons draped smartly over Rath's shoulders matched up with fine breeches of the same materials. A single strap crossed the bare expanse of his chest, holding Lakuus's sword against his back. Shawn's breath drew short each time he caught sight of the future king in his finery. The dark leather gave Rath a stronger dominant look than usual, making Shawn hope his new clothing was sturdy enough to hide his errant moments of arousal.
A new kilt made of matching leather hung from Shawn's waist that barely skimmed the knee-high boots he loved so much. His mohawk had gained some additional length and lay down in a thick length that brushed the new leather collar he wore engraved with Rath's symbols, marking him as the future king's consort. A matching pair of wristbands finished his outfit, and by the heated rushes he kept receiving through the empathic bond they shared, Rath approved – with great vigor.
“You're right, the ceremonies are happening soon, but we snuck out to finish an errand.”
“What could you possibly have to do tonight of all nights?”
Smiling, Rath looked around the lush fields. “We can see the farm is doing well. Your crops are flourishing.”
“That they are. I almost can't keep up, it's been so good.”
“Then I'd say I timed this pretty well.”
Shawn motioned for the farmer to follow back around to the front of the house. The firm touch of Rath's hand on his shoulder and the glow of satisfaction coming from his mate confirmed the upcoming surprise would be worth it.
“What is this?” Dannish asked.
Nibbling on the grass was some variation of a buffalo, with cloven feet, shaggy brown and white pelt and a barrel-shaped torso. With its snub-nosed head and the same hair around its neck and chin, it could have been Tessa's littermate, they were so similar. Dannish's eyes lit up as he carefully approached the beast and began ruffling behind her ear. The animal's eyelids lowered a touch before it shifted and licked all the way up the inside of his arm. Dannish couldn't have been more pleased.
“Aren't you a precious little girl?” Dannish cooed. “What's her name?”
“Whatever you want it to be.”
The farmer looked between the royal pair with a confused stare. “How's that?”
“The word was out your crops were doing well and you'd yet to replace Tessa to help. It was the least we could do.”
Dannish shook his head. “No, sir. I can't accept that. It's too much.”
“You're without your beast because of our presence that day. If you fall behind on your farm without her to pull your cart, we'd never forgive ourselves.”
“Please, Dannish. You're the best person to care for her.”
“Well...she is a right fine beast. It still doesn't seem right somehow.”
“She's old enough to work and young enough for you to train. She's sturdy and good natured. She just needs a good home with a good farmer.”
“Consider taking her in as a wedding gift, Dannish.” Shawn wrapped his arms around the docile beast's neck, aiming both of their heads to stare at Dannish with as wide eyes as he could muster. “How can you say no to this face?”
The farmer snorted. “Ah, that's right wicked of you, Shawn. All right. I accept.” Dannish turned to Rath. “Did you teach him to do that?”
“No. Shawn can tame a savage beast all on his own,” Rath said as he palmed his groin.
Eyes wide and smiling, Shawn spun and swatted Rath's stomach with the back of his hand. With a lurid grin, the future king's abdominals rippled under the mock assault, his lusty thoughts bringing a bright flush to Shawn's skin. Even somewhat embarrassed, Shawn couldn't help but laugh. In reality he liked it, even if after all this time, Rath's blunt manner still surprised him.
“Would you stop saying things like that in front of people?” Shawn chuckled. Pretending to ignore his fiancé, Shawn switched his attention back to the farmer. “What will you call her?”
“I think we'll name her Precious. It just seems right.”
“A fine choice, Dannish.”
“Come on, Precious. Let’s take you around to the apple tree and sort out yer grazin' area. Do you two have time fer a drop of wine as a thank you?”
“I wish we did, Dannish. The ceremonies are not that far away and I'd like to spend a small amount of time with my future consort before the nobles descend upon us.”
“That's fair, My Lord. I hope you'll come visit from time to time and see how Precious is farin'.”
“You can count on it, Dannish.”
Rath reached out and Shawn took his offered hand, never ceasing to be amazed at how the alabaster hand dwarfed his own yet never crushed it. It took very little for Rath to lead the way; Shawn had no intention of doing anything less than follow along. They were barely a few steps away, before Dannish called after them.
“If this is a small taste at how you'll be treatin' the people, you'll do yer father's memory proud.”
Rath stopped and turned back to the happy farmer. His back straightened, causing the shelf of his chest to swell, a restrained smile gracing the future king as he bowed his head in respect. The pride radiating from Shawn's mate was unmistakable.
“Thank you, Dannish.”
Shawn felt the rise of emotion within Rath and the pair graciously walked away before it could crest, honor and happiness heavily intertwined.
With barely a word, Rath walked hand in hand with his mate, his grip gentle yet firm, basking in the glow of each other's company. Slowly they made their way to the edge of Garadur and worked their way into the beginning of the forested lands. The foliage was brighter and livelier with the return of the magic and the little chirps and sounds of the wildlife weaving between the trees. But the beauty of the moment was gradually being lost on Shawn. A tickle of anxiety was building as their time drew shorter.
“What's wrong, Shawn?”
“Nothing. I'm fine.” Shawn's brow flattened as he tried to shake away the feelings. Apparently he was unsuccessful, because Rath planted his feet, causing Shawn to turn and face him. He didn't need to see the look of concern on the larger male's face; Shawn could sense it like a beacon.
“You can't hide it from me. I can feel it growing. I want to know what's wrong.”
“Really it's nothing.”
“I'll hold you here in the forest until you tell me.” Rath dropped Shawn's hand and crossed his arms over his ample chest.
“Rath...” Shawn hated that it sounded as if he'd been reduced to whining.
“I can wait all night...”
Shawn sighed as he examined the grass under their feet with a heavy crease between his eyes. “Are you sure about all of this?”
“Sure about what?”
A gentle finger raised Shawn's chin to meet his mate's eyes. “Are you having doubts?”
“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little freaked out.” Shawn took a deep breath for strength. “This is huge. We fought the dragon, I'm marrying the prince. I'm living a fucking fairy tale. This doesn't happen where I come from.”
“I don't have to keep reminding you, you're not 'where you come from' anymore.”
A frustrated exhale issued out of Shawn. “I know.”
“I've read your journals, Shawn. I know you don't expect happiness to fall in your life. You're looking for the impending disaster because you're not believing it can be true. We're very alike in this; I've felt the same in the past. I was always told there weren't true mates for those of mixed blood. The nobles drove that idea into me from an early age and I believed it. There was to be no storybook ending in my life, no true happiness, but that has changed. I have you now. With everything we've faced and conquered, I can't see what could change that.”
“You're probably right; I just can't shake my nerves.”
Shawn knew Rath was right, and it shamed him. If only the nagging sensation would calm itself, he could stop listening to it. Why did the idea of the wedding frighten him so much? After Kenrick and Damhsaedroma, you wouldn't think his turn at the altar would be so nerve-wracking.
“Do you not wish to be my consort?” Rath's words were small and laced with potential sadness.
Shawn gripped Rath's lapel as his eyes shot wide open. “God, Rath. Of course I do! Please don't think that for one second! I just...I just don't want you to feel like you have to.”
“I don't understand.”
Now that he had verbalized it, there was no taking it back. Shawn's pulse began to race as he steeled himself to order his thoughts out loud. He needed to say this right and not confuse the matter with errant rambling.
“I love you so much, Rath, it hurts. But it would kill me to think you're with me out of obligation or just because we became mates. I want you to love me because you love me, not because we have some magic link between us. I don't want you to wake up one day and regret anything or wish it had all been different.”
Shawn could feel the wetness that lined the edges of his eyes and the understanding that dawned in Rath's. The powerful male placed a tender hand along Shawn's head, its caress a welcome balm. Warmth and strength flowed between the contact.
“Shawn, I have been drawn to you from the moment I set eyes on you. If I hadn't, I never would have slain your assailants and brought you home. I would have simply walked away.” Rath pulled Shawn close and surrounded him with his massive arms, continuing to speak along the crest of his head. “I may have denied my attraction because I made you my pet, but I think it's always been there. The night you kissed me after Glarick's attack changed everything. It forced me to admit my need for you and you alone. From that point on, there have been no others. No one else is worthy of my attention but you. I don't know if you have always been my mate and your lack of magic hid that, or if the ritual made it happen, but I don't care. I have never been happier than after we bonded.”
Rath shifted back to lock onto Shawn's eyes. “No, Shawn. You are all that matters. I would give up everything, my throne, my power, my long life if that was required to make you stay with me forever. The collar you wear with my marks makes me so proud. I want everyone to know you're mine, if they don't know already. The ceremony is only to give me the chance to shout it out to the world. To make every male, female, and child to share in my joy. I want you by my side for the rest of my life.”
Rath nodded. “I have no regrets. Nor will I ever where you're concerned.”
The smile that tore free from Shawn almost came with tears. His smaller hands found his mate’s and threaded their fingers together. He could almost feel the wild magic once again between them. This was right. Rath was right. Shawn just needed to hear the words out loud. And the look on Rath's face confirmed it.
Although, that look was drifting from blissful love to a stalking leer. Shawn found himself steeping backwards as his mate prowled closer; the heat of his alabaster skin was beginning to rise.
“Being near you makes me alive,” Rath husked as he backed Shawn against a tree, crowding the smaller man with him with his size. Shawn's breathing hitched as large fingertips grazed his chest hair before following a line of graphics down his tattooed arms. “I dress you the way I do because I love the sight of the hair on your chest and stomach and the markings on your flesh. I want to put you on display so I can show the world what they can't have. Sometimes you move just the right way and it makes me want to mount you in the middle of the marketplace.”
“I don't want you to shout it out like that.” Shawn couldn’t help but joke. The sensation of being hunted was strong as Rath closed in, his breath ghosting along Shawn's head and ear. The power exuding from his huge mate made his own need to submit begin to rise. With a smaller hand, Shawn explored the muscles in one of Rath's arms, the hills and valleys of sinew causing rushes to burn throughout his body.
Rath's words were deep and rasping. “Your touch, your scent arouses me to near madness at times. Do you see what you do to me?”
With Shawn's full attention, Rath leaned back and wrenched open his leathers with one hand. It was impossible for Shawn not to follow the thick slabs of Rath's chest, down the ridges of his stomach to the creases at his hips that drew an inexorable line to the veined column of flesh standing rigid and proud, aimed for its one and only target. A tiny drop was already glistening at the tip of the fat glans, threatening to run down the unwavering length.
“It would end my life if I could no longer see you.”
The intense stare of the colossal male singed its way over Shawn's body. The runes covering Rath's chest began to swell and fall like bellows as a wolfish smirk curled the edges of his mouth. Shawn swore he could feel the heat trail across his arms and chest, half-breed eyes following the ritual runes that disappeared under the waist of his kilt.
“If I could no longer touch you.”
Rath knelt as he roughly pressed Shawn against the tree, holding him in place as he possessively kneaded the sturdy human. Royal hands explored Shawn's torso and legs, snaking under his kilt until a firm grip dipped into the crease between his haunches. A deft hand loosened the belt at Shawn's waist and his kilt found the forest floor. Rath growled in pleasure at the indecent sight of his mate being clad only in leather collar, bracelets and boots; his lust radiated like a torch scant moments from an inferno.
“If I could no longer taste you.”
Shawn gasped as Rath's tongue laved up his thigh, inhaling deep as he buried his face into the crease of Shawn's hip. Powerful hands held Shawn still as the wet muscle slicked his swollen sex before swallowing him whole. Needy whimpers floated through the forest as the future king suckled his future consort. Shawn's hands could only perch on Rath's head even as he pulled back leaving Shawn's cock slick and shiny, Rath's hungry vision only for his mate.
“If I could no longer breed you.”
Hooking his arms under Shawn's legs, Rath stood tall forcing Shawn to hold onto Rath's neck even as his back slid up the tree. Supported between two immovable objects, Shawn found the heated end of Rath's cock nudging at his tender backside but refusing to enter. The wild need to conquer sang at Shawn through their bond as the blunt head smeared its arousal across the sensitive ring of muscle. With the position Rath held him, Shawn was at the larger male's mercy.
“You bring out the beast in me, Shawn. I need you to tame it as only you can.”
Shawn nodded in desperation. “Oh, God yes.”
As Rath shifted his arms, Shawn locked his legs around the alabaster hips, trying to shift the rigid column inside to ease the growing itch. Shawn held on tight as Rath spit into his hand and greased his shaft. As the thick head breached him, their eyes fixated on one another, mirroring the ecstasy with expression and shared emotion. Slowly Rath pushed forward as Shawn rolled his hips until Rath's member was completely buried.
They both stayed perfectly still; Shawn could feel how close Rath was to the brink from entry alone. His chest still heaved and his giant body quaked as Rath fought to prolong the event. Beads of perspiration began to wet the dense hairs on Shawn's torso. Resisting the urge to ride his mate was straining his own limits.
As Rath found his center, his forehead found Shawn's. “The collar may mark you as mine, but you own my heart as well. Never forget that. I love you, Shawn.”
“I love you too, Rath,” Shawn gasped. “Now please. Move.”
With each of his large hands gripping Shawn's buttocks, Rath shifted back, before snapping his hips, impaling his mate upon himself again. Shawn's heels dug into Rath's ass even as the fierce hold around his neck urged the half-breed on. They worked as one, meeting each other in the middle, their bodies and minds working themselves into a grunting frenzy while Rath erased all doubts from Shawn's mind of their future.
Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed! A special thanks to Never Surrender for coming up with the idea/demand for Precious. Thank you Layla and MJ85 for all their hard work at helping me finish my largest work so far. I can't thank them all enough.