Transformation is a painful process, but usually a quick one, the pain passing as the dragon emerges from the smaller, frailer shell of the body.
But during the bonding ritual, the form is held part way through the shift, the body caught in an in between stage, and the pain endures as the mind struggles against the body, willing it to hold this unnatural form, to stand on the precipice without tipping too far in either direction.
Electricity crackles from the ground, summoned by the mental energy expended by the dragon pair as they halt their transformation, enduring the pain as they will their bodies to stop mid-shift.
The bonding ritual has always been a test for fledgling dragons as they prepare to leave the nests of their birth, and the marks they add to their skins during this process are the proof of the control they exert over their own flesh. A female will go through for each mate she takes, much as she will have to endure the pain of childbirth multiple times, and it is she who marks herself first before marking her mate's flesh, claiming his body and will to herself. Males are only required to be so tested once in their immortal lives, but many seek to prove their strength by undergoing self-marking after they've been mated, choosing their own marks as a sign of their own identity and will.
Though they had remained unmated, both Morvyn and Talfryn had undergone self-markings just prove themselves as mature adults, for only juveniles bear no marks on their bodies at all. Kelyn, too, had taken her own marks without having marked a mate, for much the same reason.
The self-marking proves a dragon's strength and self-mastery. A bonding ritual is that and more, normally a sign of submission of the male to the female as he takes her mark and swears himself to her nest, to protect her children.
Kelyn twines herself around her mate, and he covers her hands with his own.
"Are you ready?" she asks, her voice low, growling almost, forcing herself to use words during a rite normally endured in silence.
"I am," Morvyn answers.
Together, they mark each other with the signs they'd chosen, neither of them taking dominance or submission, both acting together as a unit.
And when the ritual is done, they can let go of the struggle, letting their bodies relax back into the natural state, forever marked with the proof of their endurance and of their enduring bond.
"Do you think your mother would like a dagger?" Kelyn asks breathlessly as she slips down to the ground beneath him.
"Why are we talking about my mother, now?" Morvyn asks with a laugh.
"It's the traditional gift, where I'm from. But you don't arm yourselves here as we do..." she answers, "If not a dagger, I'm not sure what to offer her."
"My mother has long given up hope that I'd ever settle down and join a nest," Morvyn answers, "I don't think she'd care at this point about what sort of gift, if any, you thought to offer."
"'If any?'" Kelyn laughs, "You can't just take someone's son out of her nest and not offer the traditional recompense. So, I have a lovely dagger the Alfar gave me, with a hilt carved of ivory..."
Morvyn quiets his mate with his tongue, kissing Kelyn deeply as he takes her breast in his hand.
Reinier mutters something incomprehensible as he fumbles with his pants, conscious of his audience as he undresses. He should, he knows, be thankful for the many the many blessings bestowed on him. His marriage is a political alliance, but his bride is not only pretty enough to please the tastes of any man, she's also educated and clever enough to satisfy his own tastes for a woman he can share more than just his bed with. And above all, she's clearly inclined to make their marriage an affectionate one, no matter that it was forged of an alliance between his father and hers.
She giggles nervously when he finally wins his battle with his trousers, and for a moment he thinks she's mocking him, until he notices the pink blush spreading over her pale cheeks. "I've never seen...a man..." before giggles again, gesturing in his direction before covering her mouth with her hand, shaking with laughter.
"I don't suppose you would have," Reinier manages to say. And of course he knew she was a maiden, he'd expect no less of the girl sold to him in marriage. Still, it's not something he relishes. He's been with many women since he came of age, and not one he'd had the duty of deflowering himself; the dissatisfied wives of his father's bannermen, whores he'd paid for pleasure of their company, and Sterren, no man's wife and certainly no whore, just a woman who chose to take her pleasures where she would...Reinier bites his lip as Sterren's image intrudes on his wedding night. He would have given anything to her her in his marital bed, but she turned him down, and now has no place in it, not even in his thoughts.
"I am ready, my husband," Agneta whispers, rolling onto her back, her chest rising and falling as she breathes, in and out, trying to will herself into a state of calm, as her mother had taught her to do.
"You are nervous," Reinier observes, lying beside her, stroking hr cheek gently as she trembles beneath his touch, "But you shouldn't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid," she whispers, the tremor in her voice belying her words.
"Agneta, I want you to promise me something," he says.
"Anything, my lord."
"Reinier," he says, "In our bed, at least, call me by my name. Outside this chamber, I am your lord husband, and you are an obedient wife. But here, when we are alone...I want your honesty, at all times. Tell me truthfully what you think and feel, even if you know it is not what I want to hear."
Agenta bites her lip, nervous. What he's offering her is more than she ever hoped for in marriage. "I've never been so open with anyone, never had a friend I could trust so intimately," she whispers, wondering to herself if she will be able to do as he asks, or if he even means it. What man truly wishes to know what his wife is thinking? "I am afraid, a little," she admits, givinghim the honesty he asks of her now, her hands trembling as she speaks, "I fear what it will mean for me if I do not please you."
Reinier lifts her to seated position, straddling her as he lifts her toward him. "That isn't something you need to be afraid of," he promises with a whisper, his lips meeting hers in a gentle kiss. His tongue tastes faintly of the wine they drank at their wedding feast. But he is not drunk, she notes, and remembers how sparingly he partook of both food and drink during the long night of celebration. Though she's known him only a short time, Agneta has observed him well, and has already made out the sort of man her father gave her in marriage, a man who does everything with deliberation, a man who does not hurry. That temperance shows even now in the way he kisses her, letting his tongue explore her mouth, as his hands caress her back and her neck.
The slow caresses and tender kisses work some magic over her racing heart, stilling her fears, calming her nerves, and with a whimpering sigh her body relaxes, her hands unlocking from the tense grip they held on the bedclothes.
Reinier notes the change in her attitude, the way she's begun to respond to his kisses and to his touch, and moves his fingers to the laces of her bodice. "May I remove this?" he asks, breathing huskily into her ear, teasing her earlobe with his tongue.
She giggles, nervous again, trembling a little as she nods her assent, her hair caressing his chest. "Yes," she whispers, "Yes."
Her gasp of surprise as he reaches a hand between her legs is followed by a moan of pleasure. "Is that...is this how it's done?" she asks in a tiny voice.
"You sweet innocent," Reinier answers with a chuckle, "This is only how we begin." Holding her against him, he continues working her sex with his fingers until she shudders in his arms, a gush of wetness pouring out from her.
She rests her head against his shoulder, "I am so sorry," she sobs, embarrassed by her body's involuntary response, her face flush with a pleasure she hadn't known was possible, "I didn't mean..."
"Sssh," he whispers, trying not to laugh at her innocence, "Don't be sorry. All is as it should be."
She's as ready now as she ever will be, so Reinier lays her back down on the bed beneath him. "This will hurt," he murmurs a warning, not sure what, if anything, she's been taught, "But I will be gentle as I can. After this first time, it will be only pleasure, I promise."
Agneta's mother had spoken only of grim duty to be endured for the sake of getting children, her brother Victor's wife never spoke at all of the privacy of her marital bed, but the bruises she's sometimes bore told of cruelties she would not put into words, but from the whispers of the maids as they went about their business, Agneta heard another story, one of the pleasures to be had from a man. So she came to her marriage bed without expectation, fear and hope intermixed in equal measure. Already now she's tasted the pleasure at his hands, and as her husband thrusts himself inside her, she has a taste of the pain, tempered by the soothing caress of his lips against her her neck, his hands on her hips as he guides her in their dance. A relieved sigh passes through her lips as she silently thanks her Watcher for her fate.
"Reinier," she whispers his name, enjoying the feel of it on her tongue, and the intimacy the use of it infers, "Am I pregnant, now?"
His arms tighten around her shoulders, squeezing her affectionately, "We won't know that right away. But don't be so concerned about getting an heir so soon. You are so young, Agneta, and there is more than enough time."
She lays against his chest, listening to the beating of his heart, feeling the rhythm of his breathing. "I don't like that another woman will have your child before I do," she says, trying out the honesty he asked of her again. "Reinier?" she calls his name again when he makes no response, and discovers that he's fallen asleep.
He comes awake at the sound of his name. "Sterren?' he gasps, "You shouldn't be here."
"Do you want me to leave?" she asks, teasing him with her smile as she runs her fingers over his lips.
"Never," he answers, sitting up to grasp her around the waist, "Never leave me, Sterren."
"Never?" she asks, pushing him back down on the bed, straddling him, "How can you have me when you belong to another?"
"We belong together, Sterren. You know this, in your heart, though you persist in denying it."
"You could have had me," she reminds him, "You had only to give up everything you have to be with me."
"I couldn't do that, Sterren. What you ask of me is too much..."
"And so you can't have me," she answers with a laugh, and moves away from him as though she intends to leave.
"No," he says, pulling her back down onto the bed, "Don't leave me, not again."
She laughs as she wraps her legs around his neck, lifting her hips to meet his cock as he enters her. "Marry me, Sterren," he says, "Stay with me. I will give you everything I have, and our children will rule the world."
"I don't need the world," she says, her voice husky with passion,"All I ever wanted was you."
They fall back together in a satisfied embrace. "I have missed you," she whispers, nuzzling againt his neck. "I cannot bear to leave you again."
Reinier squeezes her close, and she clings to him, twining her leg over him. Holding her again was more than he dared hope for, and now that she is his finally and forever, his happiness is complete.
When he wakes in the early hours of morning, Reinier doesn't have to open his eyes to know the woman he holds is not he one he dreamed of. The feel of her skin, the scent of her hair, is not Sterren's but Agneta's. It would be unmanly for him to cry over a dream, so he forces back the tears that strain to free themselves, and presses his lips together to keep a sob from escaping.
"Come away," Treveur warns, "You're too close to the fire."
Gaelle doesn't heed him, instead reaching her hand into the flames, yelping in pain as her fingers close around a coal.
Treveur grabs her, pulling her away from the fire before she harms herself, taking the hand that reached for the coal ad kissing it where it blisters. "Beloved," he sighs, "What were you trying to do?"
"I wanted...I thought if I ate a coal, it would quench this burning in my womb," she answers with a sob, knowing as the speaks the words how foolish it sounds.
"By the Lady!" Treveur gasps t her intention, "If I had not been here to stop you..." Kissing her hand one more time, he called for servant to fetch Sterren and another he charged with keeping an eye on his wife at all times. lest she try something like this again.
Sterren came to the Brannon farm as soon as she was called for, and like Treveur, she is aghast when they tell her what Gaelle tried to do.
"I can't explain it, exactly," Gaelle sighs and sobs, "I just felt, somehow, that eating a coal would make this burning end. The child wants the flames, I feel it."
"That would kill the child as well as yourself, you know this, Gaelle," Sterren says, but secretly, she wonders, more and more convinced that the babe Gaelle carries is no mere human, that the wilder who fathered it is...what, exactly, Sterren cannot say. But she guesses, it is something to do with dragons. And perhaps it does want the fire...but would the mother survive eating a hot coal? Sterren doubts that very much.
"I've put a servant to watch over her, every moment," Treveur tells her, "To stop her from acting on such compulsions. But, please, Sterren, you must find a way to help her."
"I'm doing what I can," is all the healer can promise, knowing she's exhausted all but the most desperate routes.
At home, she stands before the ancient, ruined image of the Lady that has stood here since her family has kept written records of this place. It is just stone, Sterren thinks, just an image to contemplate, like the stories of the Lady are just that, stories, ideas to consider when making decision, examples of what has been done before. Sterren remembers the story she told to Reinier, the night they first made love, one of the most popular stories, of how the servant girl rescued the fairy prince and became his consort, leaving this world to join him in eternity, becoming the Lady who watches over them all. And yet in many other tales, the Lady was no abused servant in life, but a powerful healer who lived among her people much as Sterren herself does, a woman with the gift of magic, but still, just a woman, who did what she could to better her kind. As much as Sterren enjoys telling the more fabulous tales, when she contemplates on the Lady's image, it is the living healer she thinks of, who is her example in life.
"How would you help Gaelle?" she asks the stone image, expecting no answer, no divine revelation. And then she remembers, the morning she prayed for Elara, and was given the power to heal her. She remembers calling for the Lady's aid when Reinier tried to force her into marriage, and she was answered not by the Lady, but by her consort, the Prince of the Fairies. "Auberon?" she whispers his name, hope and doubt in equal measure. She waits long minutes in silence, but this time there is no magical dust, no response at all.
"I fear that my only recourse now is to find the child's father among the wilders and ask him what to do," Sterren sighs, after telling Taran of Gaelle's latest misadventure.
Taran wraps his arm across her chest, holding er close as tough she meant to run off into the wilds this very moment, "Do you think that's wise?" he asks.
"No," Sterren laughs, "I think it is very foolish. I just don't know how else to help Gaelle."
"Maybe...she cannot be helped," Taran suggests gently, knowing his wife will not want to hear this simple truth.
"I cannot give up so soon," Sterren says, turning in his embrace to lay a kiss on his lips, "But don't fear. I will not endanger myself needlessly."
"Just remember, I need you more than Gaelle does," Taran reminds her.
"Tomorrow, my love, tomorrow you will be my wife," Reinier says, his hand closing around her wrist as the other pulls her in close to him.
Sterren struggles out of his grasp, but his hands close around her arms, holding her back. "You promised,:" she accuses,"You said you would let me go!"
"Never," he answers, "You belong to me."
Her heart racing in desperate fear, Sterren wrenches he hand away, feels the magic building up inside her, preparing to release a spell on him that would give her time to escape. But he's too fast for her, grabbing her hand before she can weave a spell.
"You are mine," he insists, pushing her down to the floor, forcing himself on her, "Mine forever."
Their plan failed and Sterren was caught trying to fear his prisoner. Now she will share hi fate, locked up in the tower with the wilder.
"There is no escape," Reinier reminds her, throwing her to the ground.
"You have no right!" she shouts at him, "Release us now!"
Reinier is deaf to her pleas and demands, and leaves her locked up in the tower, alone with the wilder.
Using the key Ico gave her, Sterren unlocks his shackles. "It won't do us much good, though," she mutter, "The door remains locked."
"We don't need a door," the wilder says, looking out the window.
"It's too far to fall," Sterren tells him.
"So we must fly," he answers, and jumps out into the night.
"Wait!" she calls out to him, "I cannot fly!"
But he does not answer her as he soars up into the sky, transforming into a great dragon in mid-flight, flying away. "I have something to tell you," she calls, even though he is long out of hearing, "I need your help, for your child, the one Gaelle carries..."
Alone in her prison, Sterren sinks to the ground in despair. Even Reinier has no need or desire for her now, and she is no use to anyone, if she cannot even free herself.
"Be not afraid, daughter. I am with you always," Auberon says, lifting her chin in his hand, coming to her rescue yet again.
He brings her to the stone circle that the ancients say marks the tomb of their Lady.
"But how can it be a tomb, if she lives with you?" Sterren asks, "And why do you call me daughter?"
"You have so many questions, child," the fairy prince says, "I have answers, but your mind may not be able to withstand so many contradictions. What is, what is not, and what is both at the same time..."
"I don't understand," Sterren says.
"Nor would you remember everything I could tell you, if I chose to make you understand," Auberon says, "So I will answer only the question that presses on you immediately. You seek aid for a woman whose unborn child calls to the fire. These fruits," Auberon gestures at the bright glowing plants growing around the stones, their light brightening the circle, "Will satisfy her craving."
"And now, you must heed this warning, daughter," he continues, looking her directly in the eye, making sure she will remember, "Do not seek out the...wilders? as you call them. It is best for your kind that he not know of the child he fathered. His kind do not allow such...intermingling...and the punishments against her and perhaps all your kind would be grave. And more importantly, they must never discover the child you carry bears the blood of the one they call dragonslayer. That will not go well for you. Do you understand?"
Sterren nods, suddenly afraid.
"Remember what I have said," Auberon says, touching her forehead before taking his leave.
Though she's wearing her finest dress, Sterren kneels in the dirt to harvest the fruits Auberon showed her, so that she might bring them Gaelle.
She's never seen their like before, and marvels at the way they glow, and the heat they emit as she plucks them. Curious, she pops one in her mouth, and wonders as it burns her stomach, if this is what it is like to swallow a coal, and if the dragonslayer's child would enjoy such a meal.
Sterren startles awake, the spicy hot taste of the flaming fruit still on her tongue.
"You were tossing about all night," Taran says as her head jerks up from the pillow, "Briec used to have terrible nightmares, too, when she was pregnant. Many apparently involved her wreaking some sort of vengeance on me for putting her in that condition," he finishes with a fond smile, and then frowns when Sterren's face twists into a grimace, remembering her own dream. "I suppose you wouldn't dream about me in that way, then," he guesses.
"I did have a terrible nightmare," Sterren says, "He tried to hold me captive. He put me in his prison," she says, not needing to say Reinier's name. "But that's not the important bit. I was rescued, by a fairy. And he told me how to help Gaelle."
The plants that had grown around the stones in her dream had never been there before in life, and Sterren is not entirely surprised to find that they still do not grow there after she dreamed of them. But Auberon's message had seemed so real, so important, she had to look, at least.
A bucket resting beside one of the standing stones, very close to where Auberon had stood in her dream, catches her eye.
Crouching down close to it, she sees it full of the flaming fruits she had dreamed of the night before, left here for her by Auberon, she's sure of it.