Caught by the dragon mai.., p.4
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       Caught By the Dragon, p.4

           Mac Flynn
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The door opened wider and a hooded figure stepped inside. Her silk cloak shimmered in the dim light of the three lanterns. In her hand she held a more elegant, silver-edged lamp. She threw off her hood and revealed herself as a woman of seventy. Her long silver hair trailed down her back in a long braid, and her wrinkles perfectly suited her firm demeanor. She stood between the stalls and held her lamp up to look at us.

  The woman frowned and her eyes flickered to Blake. "You have been warned before not to treat the girls poorly."

  Blake smiled and shrugged. "This was out of our control. Some of the women tried to escape."

  She nodded at the manacles on my feet. "Remove those."

  He frowned and shook his head. "I refuse. If these girls escape it'll be my head that's on the block, not yours. If you have a problem with it then take it up with your master, but I'll hear no more of it."

  The old woman pursed her lips, but turned her attention to us. "You must all be very frightened and confused. I tell you there is no need. You have been chosen to be trained as Maidens to the Dragon Lords, the rulers of this realm. They will chose one of you to be their confidante."

  Olivia snorted. "You're joking, right?"

  The old woman's steady gaze fell on her. She shrank beneath those old eyes, and the woman continued. "One of you will have the honor of being Maiden to the Grand Dragon Lord himself. If the Dragon Lords who chooses you finds you a worthy mate you will be made his wife and never want for anything till the end of your days."

  "But I just want to go home," Stephanie insisted.

  Blake took a step toward her and curled his lips back. "I told you you can't go back, now-" The woman raised her hand. He snapped his mouth shut and sullenly retreated to the background.

  The woman knelt in front of Stephanie. "Once you have crossed into these realms and been Marked you can never go back. That is not a rule, but a law of nature. To go back to your world means death to you."

  Stephanie burst into tears. Alex wiggled up beside her and smiled. "It'll be okay."

  The woman stood and looked over us. "You shall be chosen this night. May the gods grant you the future you wish." She bowed to us and strode from the stables.

  Blake stepped forward and swept his arm over us. "Get them up!"

  We were yanked to our feet and positioned in two columns shoulder-to-shoulder with one of our fellow captives. I had Stephanie beside me. She hung her head and sniffled.

  I nudged her shoulder with mine and smiled when she looked up at me. "It'll be all right. We'll think of-"

  "March!" Blake barked.

  They led us out the wide door at the end and into a small courtyard that separated the stables from a side door in the castle. The front gate stood to our far right, and people and carriages loitered within the walls in a larger courtyard. The people wore simple leather and cloth clothes like they were from the Middle Ages. Men in armor with lances in their hands guarded either side of the gate. Their helmets were tipped with leather-looking wings. On some of their chest plates was a side view of a green wing superimposed over a blue circle. Others had single bands of colors of gold, brown, black, and white.

  One of the henchmen shoved me forward. "Stop gawking and get moving."

  We were marched through the tight door and into a narrow passage. The floor and walls were made of stone smoothed over the ages by foot traffic and shoulder brushing. Our shoulders bumped into each other as Blake led the way down the hall and past several open doorways. I caught a glimpse of more hallways and a large kitchen with a billowing wood stove. A dozen women in white aprons scurried to and fro baking and stirring. Their chatter soothed my ears. It was a glimpse of the familiar in an unfamiliar place.

  We reached the end of the hall. A winding staircase of stone led around a column to the higher levels of the castle. We marched up the long steps. My chains rattled against the hard stone. I stumbled and knocked my shoulder into the column to my right.

  The henchman behind me grabbed my bruised shoulder and shoved me back onto my feet. "Get on now! Get on!"

  The long walk led us past one archway and to the third floor of the huge castle. We stepped off onto a wide passage. Burning torches hung from their cages along the walls and lit the dark spaces. Wide, thick wood doors stood on either side of the hall. A sound of laughing and stringed instruments echoed down the hall from a pair of open doors.

  It was to them that Blake led us. He entered a feasting hall to loud cheers and applause. The sound came from dozens of men who sat on wood benches arranged in three long rows. Women adorned in white aprons served them with drink and food. They wore rough cloaks and furs, and many sported beards.

  The noise became deafening when we were marched in behind him. Many of them stood and raised their large mugs to us.

  Others raised a toast to the five men at the front of the room to our left. They were seated behind a long table set up on a wooden podium above the stone floor. Their chairs had high backs upon which were draped five different colors of clothes. They ranged in age from twenty to sixty, and their silk clothes were the same color as the cloths on their chairs. The oldest sported white hair, and some of the others sported no hair at all. A thin man of forty with a dark complexion leered at us.

  The man who sat in the center of the was about thirty with short, spiked dirty-blond hair and green eyes. He sat at attention with one hand over his lips. His eyes studied each of us with a firm, steady gaze that didn't betray his emotions. Behind him was draped a cloth of blue and green. It was the only one with more than one color.

  We were arranged singe-file before the five men and faced them. Blake scurried over to the table and bowed low before the men. "My Lords, I present to you my most recent offering, and the likes of which have not been seen in a hundred years."

  "That's for us to decide," one of the men, a burly man with a brown beard, countered. His cloth color was a dull brown.

  Blake smiled and nodded. "Indeed, My Lords, and decide you shall." He stepped to the side and swept his arm over our little group. "All of them are strong, healthy females willing and able to please you in all the ways of the world." A great laugh arose from the heathens behind us.

  One of the men leaned over the table and studied us. "They look a little skinny this year. Is that world not feeding their women?"

  Blake bowed to him. "I chose those who would most please you, My Lord."

  "Are they truly Maidens?" one of the men, a young lad of maybe twenty-one, wondered.

  His wide eyes bespoke his youth as true as his wrinkle-free face and golden, curly locks. Behind him hung a golden cloth. His attention was almost solely on Stephanie, who though the youngest of us was one of the prettiest.

  Blake chuckled. "I stake my reputation on knowing them by their smell, My Lord. They are each capable of becoming a-"

  "Why are two of them still bound?" The speaker was the man in the center. He nodded at Alex and me. "Why have they not been freed of their chains?"

  Blake turned to where the lord nodded and sneered at us. "The restrains were necessary, My Lord. They are an unruly pair, perhaps too high-spirited to make much use of besides as horse tamers." The men behind us guffawed.

  The brown-bearded one glanced at the center lord. "Well, Grand Dragon Lord, will you not begin this so we may have our fun with them?"

  The man addressed as Dragon Lord dropped his hand and sat at attention. A thin man of fifty scurried from the sidelines of the podium to stand before the men. He wore a blue gown-like suit with green hems. His attire brushed the floor and his long, bell-like sleeves constantly banged against his thin body.

  He bowed his head to the leader of the five. "Allow me to assist you, My Lord, in choosing your Maiden."

  The Dragon Lord nodded. "As you wish, Renner."

  The old man turned to us and furrowed his brow. He walked the whole line scrutinizing us with his eyes and wrinkled hands. The man lifte
d our arms and pulled on our hair.

  "Ouch!" I yelped when he touched my bruised shoulder.

  He frowned at me. "This one appears rather weak, My Lord."

  "Get me out of these chains and I'll show you weak," I snapped. The men behind me laughed uproariously.

  Renner's bushy eyebrows crashed down and he shook his head. "A very bad choice. Much too high-spirited." He moved on to Stephanie who stood to my right. A smile slipped onto his dry lips. He spun around and stepped to the side so he could gesture to her before his lord. "I believe this one will be a suitable Maiden, My Lord. She is both beautiful, and delicate."

  The Dragon Lord raised an eyebrow. "She also quivers like a leaf in a storm."

  "Ah, but the beauty of this one cannot be compared!" Renner grasped Stephanie's chin and raised her head so she looked at the lord. Her body shook more violently. "And she will grow into self-confidence, My Lord," he added.

  My heart pounded. It wasn't hard to judge the youngest of the lords. His soft eyes were captured by her beauty. He only needed his turn to choose her.

  The lord pursed his lips, but nodded his head. "Very well. Take her to-"

  "Wait!" I spoke up. All eyes turned to me. I stumbled forward. My chains rattled harshly against the stone floor. "Use her as the spare! I'll go in her place!"

  The adviser derisively snorted. "What a stupid idea. The Lord has already-"

  "A moment, Renner," the Dragon Lord spoke up. He stood and walked around the table to stand in front of me. I met his red eyes without blinking. "You would take her place? For what design?"

  My eyes involuntarily flickered to the youngest of the lords. The Dragon Lord didn't follow my gaze, but he smiled. "Very well then, I choose you as my Maiden."

  "B-but my lord!" the adviser blustered. He scurried forward and waved a hand at me. "She is not the prettiest, and certainly the least controlled!"

  The Dragon Lord half-turned to him. "Then she will suit me." His eyes flickered to Blake. "Unchain my Maiden."

  Blake nodded his head like a bobble-doll and stumbled forward. "Of course, My Lord." He fumbled for the keys in his pocket as he knelt in front of me. In a thrice the chains were off.

  The Lord turned to his adviser. "Have her taken to her new quarters."

  Renner's shriveled shoulders slumped. He sighed and bowed his head. "As you wish, My Lord." He clapped his hands. A pair of guards against the wall hurried forward. He nodded at me. "Take her away."


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