Smoking, the mixture Rubina had been working on for the better part of an hour hissed angrily when she dropped in the shimmering silver scale. Although Pryanna was busily chopping the marnie berries for a tart, she was paying more attention to the spell the witch was weaving. Earlier, she had taken some of Pryanna's own blood and dropped it in the cauldron. It had hissed angrily then, too.
A day had passed since Slyvern had told Rubina to make a ward. Last night, he'd dumped piles of book in the lair and left them alone again. Rubina had spent all night reading while Pryanna tried to take a , but she couldn't understand a single word on any of the pages.
This morning, Rubina was exhausted but clearly ready to get to work. Pryanna, on the other hand, struggled to keep busy so she didn't bother the witch with the hundreds of questions rushing through her head.
"I can see that you're planning on making enough pies for the whole town, but I don't think I can carry that many," Rubina said dryly.
Looking up in confusion, Pryanna cringed when she saw the amount of berries she'd chopped. Normally the size of her fists, they were a blue pulp now, oozing all over her cutting board.
None of it was usable. "When Cecily and Athena come by for Yule , I always make a marnie berry pie, but I never know how sweet my harvest is, so I make a trial one first. Seems silly now since there will be no Yule feast this year."
Sighing, she wiped her hand on the kitchen cloth and surveyed the damage. "I don't suppose you have a spell to clean this up?"
"I'm afraid magic is rarely so easy or useful."
"Just as well. It's not like I have anything better to do." She started for the bucket when Rubina joined her.
"A god scale takes time to break down, so I can help." The witch snagged another cloth. "I get the feeling that missing Yule isn't the only thing bothering you."
Guilt washed over her. "Two months is a long time to be without company. You're company, of course, and I'm grateful..."
"You're lonely." Rubina cracked a smile. "And starting to look forward to Slyvern's company. I know what that's like."
Red with embarrassment, Pryanna scrubbed until her cloth was blue before she dipped it in the bucket. "It's more than that. I ache for him, even before this mark, but since feeling the pleasure when he branded me, I crave him. It's getting harder and harder to resist."
"So don't, and don't feel any shame. He's a god, and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. The sex is good, believe me."
"And yet you found someone else." Three someone else's.
"That is because Slyvern may be good at the mechanics, but his heart is never there. I, like many of Slyvern's women, confused good sex with love early on. With the brothers, I learned the difference. None of the others were that lucky which is why I told you to guard your heart, but not your loins! You're here for six cold months. No need to pass up good sex."
When they had no useable water to finish cleaning, they walked out to the nearby stream to refill the buckets. Although snow covered the ground and bushes, the stream still flowed freely. "It feels strange to talk with you about this, but I guess you didn't have anyone."
"True. There is no advice book on being a god's lover."
"Did you have a choice in the matter?"
The witch shook her head. "No. At the time I went with him, Slyvern accepted sacrifices. I was an orphan from an early age, so there was no one to stand up for me when it came time to choose. I honestly thought I was going to die. That's what we all thought. No one knew what Slyvern really wanted, and I suppose that was intentional. When he's done with us, he doesn't send up back to the same town. I didn't grow up in Holinite Village."
"I don't understand. Why wouldn't he return you to your families?"
With arched eyebrows, she just stared at Pryanna until Pryanna understood.
"Because he didn't want them to know what he was doing with you. Or what he wasn't doing...that you survived. But why did it matter?"
"This was during a time when the gods still walked among us and ruled with fear. For all I know, other gods did make good on their sacrificial demands."
Pryanna shuddered. That was horrible. Rubina may not have had a family, but Pryanna couldn't imagine what it was like for those that did. If Althena or Cecily had disappeared, Pryanna would do whatever it took to try and get them back.
"I suppose I should be happy that he gave me a choice," she said miserably.
"Although it didn't seem like much of one at the time."
"He's trying to change, but not hard enough," Rubina chuckled before her head snapped up and her eyes narrowed. "We need to head back."
Shivering, Pryanna froze, but it was not the cold. The cloaks, gloves, boots, and hats that Slyvern had for her were lined with the thicket of wool and feathers to keep her warm. It was fear that had immobilized her. "What is it?"
"We're being watched. Slyvern should have strengthened his barriers by now, but I don't like that someone can see you. Come on, but try not to look alarmed."
Try not to look alarmed? Pryanna swallowed hard but tried to follow Rubina's lead. It wasn't easy to remain calm, but they walked casually to the lair with their water sloshing around in the buckets. Rubina chattered on about something, but
Pryanna couldn't pay attention. As soon as they were inside, a dark figure appeared at the mouth with a rush of air.
The dragon quickly melted back into the man. "What is it? I could feel your fear."
"You can feel my fear," Pryanna echoed. Was that supposed to make her feel better?
"Among other things."
The heated look he gave her nearly stopped her heart. Of course he already knew of her desire. It was the mark. He could sense everything.
"We went out to the stream, and I could feel eyes on us," Rubina explained, interrupting their staring contest.
Wings sprouted from his back, and Slyvern was gone with a whoosh. Rubina went to check on her concoction. "Do you think it was Lucinda?"
"Doubtful. I'm sure she's busy reporting what she's already learned. But like I've said, there are plenty of gods circling."
A minute later, Slyvern returned." A golem. It started disintegrating before I could question it. Krahn frequently sends them out to stay informed when he is sleeping."
"Krahn? He only sends them out when he's about to awaken. You're telling me that he's waking up now? It's only been fifty years!"
The alarm in Rubina's voice caught her attention. Who was Krahn and why was Rubina in such a panic? "Am I in danger? I'm no witch or goddess. I need to know what's going on and if I'm in danger."
Slyvern ignored her. Nothing new. "When will the protection ward on the lair be done?"
"It will take another twenty-four hours for the scale to dissolve and probably twice that before the blood will mix. There's a reason potions with god ingredients take time," Rubina said softly.
"Tell the brothers they are back on duty until the potion is complete, and if even one of them touches her... "
"How dare you threaten them!" Rubina hissed.
"You may trust them, but you're guided by your heart for reasons that I cannot fathom, and the four of you belong to me, so I suggest you just do as I say so I don't have to threaten you," Slyvern said coldly.
How could he not see his own cruelty? Rubina looked like she was about to do something she might regret later, and Pryanna didn't want anything to happen to her new friend. She also wanted Slyvern to understand just what he was doing.
His anger pulsed somewhere deep inside her, but there was also something she understood well.
Unfortunately, she had no idea why he was scared. No one seemed to be threatening him.
"I do not belong to you, and I do have something to say," Pryanna interrupted as she stepped between them and planted her hands on her hips.
Slyvern growled. "You think you don't belong to me?"
"I think I'm here voluntarily. You gave the brothers six months off, so there will be no ordering them back. We're already taking up Rubina's precious time. If you think I'm vulnerable, then maybe you should be around more, at least during the next few days." Her face warmed when she realized what she was asking. "For protection, of course."
His gaze sharpened, and a slow wicked smile spread over his face. "Of course," he echoed. "Rubina, will you please ask your lovers if they will help. I still need to do my patrols early in the evening and at dawn."
There was a flicker of surprise in Rubina's eyes, and she nodded. "I will ask. Thank you."
"Is there anything left for you to do here today?" he asked.
"No." She placed the lid on the cauldron. "Make sure nothing touches this, but you'll want to check on it throughout the day and night. If it turns green, summon me. It it turns black, you need to burn it as soon as possible. Likely you'll smell it before that happens."
Pryanna grimaced. "Will it explode?"
"Not if Slyvern burns it," the witch said almost cheerfully and then she waved her hands. "All right. Send me back."
"Do you have something pressing to do?"
"Three somethings, actually." She waved her hands again impatiently, and Slyvern sent her off in a puff of smoke. Then he turned to Pryanna. "So you want me around more?"
"I want to not be watched by golems or taunted by goddesses," she snapped.
"Like how my life used to be."
He stepped closer to her and heat radiated from him. It wrapped around her, but not in a threatening manner. "So you want to go home?"
No. Surprisingly, that was the answer that popped into her head. It was obvious from the growing darkness she felt himself inside him that he needed someone.
From what Rubina told her, Cecily and Althena were happy. They didn't need her anymore. But he did. She didn't owe him anything, didn't want to care about him, but something was pulling them together, something she couldn't just keep ignoring forever.
"What do you want from me?" Her whisper was hoarse, and she licked her lips.
He took another step. "I told you. Just your company."
"But that's not what you wanted from your other... women." It surprised her how acidic the words tasted in her mouth. Was that jealousy? She and Rubina spoke freely about the witch's time with Slyvern, and she didn't feel jealous. Maybe because she knew where Rubina's heart belonged.
Ridiculous. What did she care about Slyvern's lovers or his heart?
"No. The other women spent their time trying to please me," he said, his gaze never leaving hers.
"But failed? Is that why you don't want me to spread my legs for you?"
"Oh, believe me, I definitely want that." He was close now. Only inches from her, and her whole body ached for his touch. There was no doubt that he knew it, too.
Slowly, he reached out and played with a strand of her hair. "But, the last women risked my wrath for a single night with someone else."
"I believe it was three someone else's." Her attempt at a joke did nothing to ease the tension simmering between them.
He grimaced. "Must we bring up that detail?"
"If you're worried that I'm questioning your talents..."
Before she could finish that sentence, his mouth covered hers, and she moaned. There was no hesitation as she wrapped her arms around him and clung to him.
Slyvern was more than aware of her desires. Why bother trying to hide it? As Rubina said, there was nothing wrong with her enjoying good sex.
His kiss was just as hot as the rest of him, and although she didn't have much of a baseline for comparison, it was turning her head. His tongue stroked hers and set her body on fire.
Sliding her hands through his dark hair, she arched closer to him, rubbing herself against every inch of hard body that she could reach. Helpless against the needs that clawed inside her, she wanted everything from that kiss that she could get.
How long had it been since someone had kissed her? Certainly, it had never been like this. The taste of him was addicting from the very first touch of his tongue, and she feared she would crave it long after he was gone. Was this what it was like being touched by a god? It felt like dangling from a cliff only she felt she would be more than happy to be dropped.
His fingers dug into her hips and slowly drew up her skirts until cold air touched her legs. On instinct, she ran her hands over his legs and willed him to pick her up so she could wrap herself around him and feel him at the very pulsing and heated core of her.
Instead, he abruptly released her. Dazed, she had a hard time letting go of his neck. His hands were still firmly on her waist. "That is the last time I want you questioning my talents," he said, his voice a little hoarse.
"Stop. I swear, Pryanna, if you open your mouth while looking at me like that, I'm going to have to kiss you again."
"I'm not stopping you."
To her shock, he dropped his hands and stepped away. "You are not them," he said gruffly.
"You wanted to know why I'm not treating you like them. It's because you're not them. I haven't figured it out yet, but you're different. I don't know why yet, but I will."
Her instincts were to reach for him, but she balled her hands in a fist and backed up. If he could so easily dismiss her, set her aside from his other lovers because she was not as easy or not as desirable, she wouldn't be throwing herself at him again. "What happens after you figure me out?"
"I suppose that depends on what I find." With that same wicked smile, he stroked her cheek. "I have one thing that I need to do today. It won't take long, and I'll have one of the brothers..."
"If they agree."
He growled. "...keep an eye on the lair."
"Maybe while you're figuring me out, I'll figure you out." It seemed a ridiculous thing to say. He was a god, but more than that, he was surrounded by impenetrable walls. She never knew what he was thinking, and only knew what he was feeling because she could sometimes sense it deep inside her.
It was like a fish trying to get to know a bird. The only reason she was even here was because the bird had brought her, like food to the nest.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and smoke rose around them. In that strange moment, she didn't feel any fear from the smoke. Instead, it felt warm and welcoming. When it dissipated, a half naked man stood stoically in the middle of the cave. Handsome with dark hair and brilliant blue eyes, he had a strong body and a hint of annoyance in his eyes. Something familiar tugged at her. Not only was his mark the same as Dashiel's, the demon who'd been sent by the spell, but his dark looks were similar.
Slyvern growled. "Why are you not dressed?"
"It's not in my control when you summon me." The man's eyes never left hers, but there was no lust. Only curiosity.
Aware of the tension, Pryanna stepped forward. "Hello. Please don't listen to
Slyvern's growls. My name is Pryanna, and if you don't want to be here, Slyvern will send you home because he understands what this time with Rubina means to you."
"I'm Damien," he said as he openly appraised her. "And it will be my honor to guard you."
"Outside. No touching." Slyvern growled. "If you let anyone get by you..."
"We will be fine." The last thing Pryanna wanted was for Slyvern to finish that threat. "Go do whatever it is you need to do."
After a dark scowl, he disappeared, and Damien relaxed and grinned. "Now that we're alone, I've been wanting to talk to you."
* * *
"I don't understand. Why is it so important who Pryanna was with, if she was with anyone, before Slyvern?" Althena demanded. Behind her, Malcolm put a steadying hand on her shoulder, but she was pissed. She didn't like speculating about Pryanna's love life when she wasn't there. So her friend wasn't a virgin. No one in the room was a virgin.
Only two of the three brothers were present, and they exchanged an uneasy look with Rubina. "Slyvern only takes maidens," Rubina said finally. "For some reason, I don't believe he knows that Pryanna is not a maiden."
Fear coursed through her when she realized what the witch was saying. "Are you telling me that Pryanna is in danger? Will he kill her if he discovers the truth?" Standing, she whirled around and stared starkly at Cecily. "We need to get her. Right now!"
"Althena." Malcolm reached out, snagged her hand, and curled his fingers around hers. The move was meant to soothe her, and it did. If there was one thing she'd learned about her soul mate in the last few weeks, it was that he balanced her. "If Rubina thought Pryanna's life was in danger, she would have done something before now."
"Slyvern won't kill her," Rubina assured her. "He's never killed any of the sacrifices, but I don't know what will happen if he finds out. The bones tell me it's important that he connect with her before Yuletide, but what happens after that, I won't know."
"By connect, you mean bed?" Althena blew out her breath. "Maybe he won't know."
"It's possible," Dagon said thoughtfully and then shook his head. "But that's not our biggest problem. Your description of the stranger who spent the night with Pryanna bothers us. Can you tell us what Pryanna was like afterward?"
Althena looked at Cecily and shrugged. "To be honest, she acted like it never happened," Cecily admitted. "We just assumed that meant that she didn't want to talk about it."
"Is it possible that he wiped her memory?" Dashiel asked as he leaned forward.
"Men can't just wipe a woman's memory."
There was a pregnant silence, and Althena let Malcolm pull her back into his lap. His warmth surrounded her, but she was still ice cold. "You don't think it was a man," she whispered as she read the faces of the two men sitting on either side of Rubina.
"The gold tattoo is a mark of a god," Rubina finally admitted. "We think it's possible that a god saw Pryanna and recognized, somehow, that she belonged to Slyvern. He may have had her first, maybe out of spite or maybe to make sure Slyvern would never trust her."
Cecily held up her hand. "What do you mean that Pryanna belongs to Slyvern? I understand that her dreams led her to him, but she's still her own woman."
"I mean they're mated," Rubina said quietly. The two brother inhaled sharply and straightened. "The gods mate, rarely, to each other when they fall in love. It normally takes time, centuries sometimes, and it provides an unimaginable strength to the gods. It hasn't happened in a long time."
"Pryanna is not a god," Althena pointed out. "And they have certainly not known each other for centuries."
"The mating bond snapped into place instantly. Slyvern is trying to understand why, as am I. He won't kill his mate, but if he learns another god has had her, it will start a war."
There was something that Rubina wasn't saying. "What happens if war breaks out between gods?"
"Utter destruction," Dashiel told her. "If it happened, we hope to figure out which god it was, although there are a number of shape shifting ones."
"Yes, but Slyvern shares equal power with his dragon. Some shapeshifters have a dominant form, and it is not always human. There are some gods who had been in animal form for centuries. It is impossible to tell unless Pryanna remembers what happened."
She and Cecily looked at each other, and Cecily bit her lower lip. "I remember that we were walking away from Pryanna's house when the stranger passed us. We turned back to check on her."