Melangell is a Lifebringer, a dragon-maiden learning to protect one of the land’s most ancient mysteries, y Ddraig.
She expects to pass her years as have a score of teachers before her—hidden away, safeguarding an egg that barely moves from year to year, barely using the deadly and secret skills she’s been taught. But the King’s relentless pursuit of this most holy of relics throws her into the middle of war, and a not-yet-adept Melangell enters captivity with the egg to defend the sleeping dragonling within.
PIKE-BOYS. SIX OF THEM. Tossed like the spewings of a water-serpent across the banks of the mountain lake gutted with the very pikes they’d carved for their noble lords. Around them stood a half-moon of weary warriors—dark, furious—and around them, a three-deep circle of armsmen—tanners, trappers and mongers in ill-fitting leathers and carrying anything with which to defend themselves.
Artwr’s glorious legion.
Melangell dropped to torn knees amongst her sisters the moment her gore-matted hair was released from grip, but returned her eyes immediately to the man at the heart of the horde. His head was shorn bare, worsening his already fearsome aspect. As furred of face and clubbed of fist as a giant, but with none of their compassion. His ridged body seemed hewn from the very mountain around them and gave him the strength that was his by legend. Given what this warrior must have seen and done in his life, it seemed impossible that Cai ap Cynyr—Chieftain of Ylfael, and brother to the King—could have enough grief left in him to be at all touched by the slaughter of a few boys, no matter their youth. Yet, a deadly kind of fury added its stain to the spatter of Mathrafal blood on his face and, when hollow eyes swung their way, her huddled group of women shied back like a stripling horse.
‘Kill them all,’ he roared in their direction.
The word burbled up from the earth, through Melangell’s feet and across her lips while she still had air to utter it, halting the rough hands that would haul her throat back for the blade. Better it had come out lower, stronger, and not the breathless terror of a girl, but the word was now a pledge.
And she’d made it in the oldwords.
She sucked in a lungful of the sharp, mountain air and spoke again in his language. ‘I offer myself in sacrifice, Cai ap Cynyr.’
Furious eyes narrowed in on her. ‘You understand Ylfael customs, child?’
She was no child. Once, perhaps…
‘All the land is a-whisper at the barbarism of your customs.’ Artwr’s customs, in truth. But here in these mountains, Cai ap Cynyr was his brother’s sword-arm.
‘Yet you invoke the blood-debt,’ the sword spoke. ‘Knowing what that means?’
‘I would have peace for the people of Mathrafal. No matter the cost.’
‘Peace?’ he spat. ‘In the middle of war?’
‘Your war is not with us.’
Cruel eyes slid to the disembowelled boys. ‘It is now.’
‘Our defenders crept out of the rocks behind your force,’ she urged. ‘They could have swallowed it whole, yet they left you but a warning before—’
‘They were but children!’ he roared. ‘And you dare call Artwr barbarous.’
‘Children best left attached to their mothers’ breast, then, Son of Ylfael. You brought them here. To carve your pikes and fill your skins.’
Loathing wasted his eyes. He tossed his head at someone and the harsh claws in her hair returned, yanking her up and out of the terrified huddle of women and dragging her to the centre of the half-moon of wolves to face him. Alone.
‘You watched them come?’ He murmured low, despite the fierce heat of his gaze. ‘These mighty scouts of Mathrafal?’
She wavered on her feet. ‘I did.’
‘And you watched them leave again absent their own daughters?’
Her stomach turned at the memory of the Mathrafal defenders’ downcast eyes as they left without releasing their women, but Artwr’s army had to be turned back before they drew any closer to the Creil.
It came before all other. Else they would not have killed the boys.
She straightened as best she could. ‘Yes.’
His grey eyes pierced her with angry curiosity.
‘The men of Mathrafal should be shamed that their young have more courage and honour than they do,’ the warrior snorted, loud so his own could hear. ‘Yet you will buy with your life what they would not with theirs?’
No. What she bought them was time.
Offrymu was a formal rite—and formalities took time. Much longer than this vengeful horde would take to kill sixteen unarmed, exhausted women. Every moment they milled here, arguing, was a moment longer she could offer the Mathrafal defenders to disappear inside the mountains with their ancient burden. Cai ap Cynyr had no idea how close they all stood to the place her people crouched, disguised in the rocks. He was but a short climb from what he’d sought so violently for so long.
She straightened past the abuses of hours in bondage. Invoked her teacher, Betrys. ‘My death will stand for theirs.’
Somewhere behind him, a man-at-arms snorted.
‘You are a girl and a heathen,’ the warrior chief reminded her. ‘Your death stands for nothing, Daughter of Mathrafal.’
‘And do your laws stand for nothing? A life freely given for six un-freely taken.’
A man with hair the colour of the cloud-thickened sky stepped up behind him and murmured briefly in the chieftain’s blood-spattered ear. But the giant didn’t take his eyes off Melangell.
‘You offer me one bedraggled Mathrafal girl in exchange for six boys in training. Future soldiers. Hardly just value—’
‘I am descended of Annwfn!’ she urged. ‘Who better to shepherd your lost boys on the path to the Otherworld than one of its own?’
Artwr’s faithful may have abandoned the old ways in favour of their new god, but even they could still feel the old majesty of Annwfn. ‘It is a fair offering.’
Angry eyes fell shut as she twisted Cai ap Cynyr’s bristle hairs within the fist of her ancient lineage.
‘Returning a daughter of the Otherworld to its watery depths seems like scant ransom,’ he challenged. Then he glanced beyond her, his gaze grown thoughtful. ‘Staying their deaths, though, would at least serve some useful purpose for my men. If it’s sacrifice you’re after then re-join your sisters.’
‘Fulfil your pledge, Son of Ylfael.’ She addressed him formally and loud enough for all those assembled to hear, struggling to keep the panic from her voice. ‘Or be named for it.’
Powerful legs surged him toward her but she held fast. He glared down on her and spoke low and hard. ‘Killing a child will make me no better than your Mathrafal filth.’
‘This country is maggoted with the dead children of Artwr’s pride,’ she gritted. ‘Who do you imagine feeds them when he slaughters their fathers and drags away their mothers?’
He masked the slightest of flinches well.
‘Better to die swiftly, with honour, than starve or freeze in the valleys of Cymry as many children presently do,’ she said.
Though, perishing on a sword wasn’t the fate she’d had pressed into her mind at her teacher’s knee. She’d expected her life to be as long and tedious as Betrys’, not brutally ended before she’d even finished her learning.
Perhaps they’d all misunderstood the foretelling…
‘Swiftly?’ Ice blazed and his nostrils flared. ‘It appears you don’t know Ylfael customs, after all.’
Melangell blinked. There was nothing she could do to this man, herself, that wouldn’t be avenged by his entire force the moment she tried. On her. On her sisters.
He stepped closer and hauled her off the ground to breathe his threat against her ear. ‘This will not be a fast death, Daughter of Mathrafal. It will be an age of agony. Before we are done, the waterfalls of Eryri will run red with the blood fleeing your dying body.’
Uncertainty betrayed her in the sudden buckle of her legs as he set her down. Still, every moment Ylfael was here—killing her—was a moment longer the Mathrafal could be clambering down deeper inside the mountain, spiriting the Creil further from Artwr’s reach.
She smiled as if he were offering her something precious. ‘I accept.’
Behind her, someone sobbed.
Urgency coloured Ylfael’s brutal whisper. ‘You do your sisters no favours, girl. Can you imagine what awaits them if not retribution here?’
Gut juices rasped her throat. Did he think this wasn’t difficult enough for her?
‘I die for honour, Son of Ylfael, because that is my right.’ And, apparently, her purpose. The earth was never mistaken. ‘Let me shape it as I will. I give myself as blood-price for your boys, so that my sisters might live.’
And so that the Creil might flee.
Heavy shoulders sagged then he turned with a flourish and addressed the angry horde at volume.
‘Offrymu is invoked.’ An enormous hand gripped her upper arm and rattled her as a forgeman might an unborn sword. ‘This child of Mathrafal sacrifices herself in the name of our kin.’
The men roared, deprived of their vengeance, now, as well as their sons.
‘I stand ready, lord,’ one shouted, furious tears scarring the filth on his face. ‘I will dispatch her.’
Ylfael crossed to the dead little corpses. ‘These lads were here at my behest,’ he vowed. ‘I will take their blood in hers.’
The horde muttered, and Melangell swallowed her fear. She’d been counting on the undisciplined grief of his armsmen to render her quickly unconscious. Cai ap Cynyr’s hands—though enormous—looked like they were grown for precision. And vengeance.
‘And what of them?’ someone called, spitting toward the fifteen women. ‘If they do not die here today?’
Melangell refused to look back lest her companions see the tears gathering in her eyes. Women in peril had always invoked the daughters of the Otherworld for strength. She would not disappoint them now. Instead, she splayed her fingers wide and turned both her palms to them, offering them all ten points of goddess Arianrhod for courage.
They would need much more to live than she would to die.
Ylfael stared at her, offering a final, silent chance to save herself, ignoring the tears she didn’t bother hiding from him. Resignation flooded his features before he spun away from her, crudely grabbing at himself and roared out.
‘Let them die on our cocks!’