Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chapter 1 of THE FIRE LORD'S LOVER

The Fire Lord's Lover
Book One of The Elven Lords
Copyright @ 2010 by Kathryne Kennedy

     The link between the world of man and Elfhame had sundered long ago, the elven people and their magic fading to legend. Tall beings of extraordinary beauty, the fae preferred a world of peace. But seven elves—considered mad by their own people—longed for power and war. They stole sacred magical scepters, created their dragon-steeds, and opened the gate to the realm of man again and flew through.
      Each elf carved a sovereign land within England, replacing the baronies that had so recently been formed by William the Conqueror. They acquired willing and unwilling slaves to serve in their palaces and till their lands. And fight their wars. Like mythical gods they set armies of humans against each other, battling for the right to win the king, who'd become nothing more than a trophy. They bred with their human slaves, producing children to become champions of their war games.
      The elven lords maintained a unified pact, using the scepters in a united will to place a barrier around England, with only a few guarded borders open to commerce. Elven magic provided unique goods and the world turned a blind eye to the plight of the people, persuaded by greed to leave England to its own, as long as the elven did not seek to expand their rule into neighboring lands.
     But many of the English people formed a secret rebellion to fight their oppressors. Some of the elven's children considered themselves human despite their foreign blood and joined the cause. And over the centuries these half-breeds became their only hope.

London, England, 1724
      The people lining the streets of London cheered while General Dominic Raikes rode to his doom. Not that they had any idea what awaited him at Firehame palace, and if they did, he doubted they would care. He resembled the elven lord too much for that. Yet he had won the final battle and they hailed him as their champion despite his elven white hair and pointed ears.
      Young women threw flowers from upper-story windows, the petals flickering through the air like snow and coating the dusty streets with color. Gray skies covered the sun and in some places the buildings nearly met above the streets, further shadowing the rider's passage with gloom. The glass-fronted shops had been locked up as their owners joined the throng in the streets: painted harlots, street urchins, costermongers, servants, and the occasional prosperous Cit, distinguishable by his white wig. The fishy smell of the Thames overlay the stench of the streets as his troops approached Westminster Bridge.
      Over the murky waters the flaming turrets of Firehame palace beckoned Dominic onward.
      He shook back his war braids and straightened his spine and glanced back at his men. They had cleaned their red woolen coats as best they could, and lacking wigs, had powdered their hair to resemble the elven silver white. They had polished their boots and buttons, brushed their cocked hats. Despite their stern faces, Dominic could see the glitter of pride in their eyes and nodded his approval at them. They returned his gesture with wary respect.
      Dominic turned and sighed. They were brave, good men, every one. Some he owed his victory and life to. He would like to oversee their promotions himself but it would be too dangerous. He didn't know the personal life of a single man, nor did they know of his. Dominic had grown used to his solitary existence, yet sometimes he regretted the necessity of it.
      The hooves of his horse met the road at the end of the bridge with a crunch of pebbles. The noise of the crowd faded as they neared the open gates of Firehame palace. Red flame jutted from the top of the stone pillars flanking the entrance, danced along the outlying curtain walls.
      Dominic halted his mount for the span of a breath, studying his home with the unfamiliar gaze of one after a long absence. Elven magic had tinted the stone walls a glossy, brilliant red. Warm yellow flame slithered up the stone, whorled over the buttresses, making the entire structure shimmer in his sight. The towers soared above the three-storied palace and Dominic's black eyes quickly sought out the tallest, looking for a flicker of wing, a jet of red fire. But he could see no sign of the dragon and so flicked his reins, urging his horse into the courtyard.
      Dominic wanted nothing more than a bath and then the quiet of his garden or the sanctuary of the dragon's tower. He knew he wouldn't manage any of his comforts until he'd been tested in fire.
      He thrust away the memory of pain and dismounted, feeling his face turn to stone, his body conform to rigid military posture as he crossed the paved courtyard and ascended the steps into the opulence of Firehame palace. Several of his officers followed, although many decided to forgo the privilege of coming to the attention of the Imperial Lord of the sovereignty of Firehame.
      The back hallways they marched through displayed the magic and wealth of the elven lord. Delicate tapestries that rewove their pictures every few minutes covered the walls, and thick rugs of rippling ponds and bottomless chasms carpeted the floors. Dominic breathed in the scent of candle wax, perfume, and elfweed, ignoring the portraits framed in gold with their moving eyes that followed their passage. At the end of summer the air in the corridor still felt chill against his cheeks. His ears rang from the silence.
      Then Dominic opened the door leading to the great room and the thunder of applause broke that brief moment of quiet. He paused, waiting for his men to compose themselves, then started down the middle of the enormous room through the crowd of gentry that awaited them.
      Fluted columns lined the sides of the hall, capped with ornately carved capitals that supported archways even more ornately carved with golems, gremlins, and gargoyles. Courtiers milled between the stone supports, a riot of colorful silk skirts and gold-trimmed coats. Full court wigs of powdered white sparkled with the addition of the ground stone the nobles used to imitate the silver luster of elven hair. Buckled shoes flashed with diamonds; ceremonial swords sparkled with ruby and jet.
      The smell of perfume became overwhelming and Dominic suppressed the urge to sneeze. He kept his gaze fixed on his goal, the dais of gold where the elven lord Mor'ded waited, but he caught the faces of the courtiers from the corners of his eyes. The lustful gazes of women—and more than a few men—followed his every movement. Despite their fear of the elven, humans could not resist their beauty, and Dominic had inherited more elven allure than his half blood warranted.
      When he reached the Imperial Lord's throne, Dominic stared at Mor'ded for longer than he intended. Silvery white hair cascaded past broad shoulders in a river broken only by the tips of the elven lord's pointed ears. Black, fathomless eyes stared coldly into Dominic's own, the expression robbing them of their almost crystalline brilliance. Smooth, pale skin glistened like the finest porcelain over high cheekbones and strong chin. A full mouth, straight nose, high brow.
      When Dominic looked at the Imperial Lord, he might as well have been gazing into a mirror of his future, for although his father must be over seven hundred years old, he did not look a day over five-and-thirty. And despite the thickness of his elven blood, Dominic aged at a normal human pace. In ten years, Dominic would look like the man before him.
      Dominic dropped to one knee and bowed his head, war braids dangling beside his cheeks and eyes fixed on the marble floor. A wave of silence rolled across the room until he could hear nothing but the breathing of his men and the rustle of the ladies' silk skirts. "I have won the king, my lord."
      At his words, the room erupted in applause again and Dominic stood, gazing at his father, hoping to see a glimmer of pride in those cold black eyes. He had fought for years to achieve such acknowledgement.
      Imperial Lord Mor'ded smiled, revealing even white teeth, and cut his hand through the air, signaling the court to silence. He stood with a grace no human could possess and stepped down from the dais, one hand wrapped around the black scepter that enhanced his magic. Dominic's eyes flicked to the rod, the runes carved upon it swirling momentarily in his sight before he quickly looked away.
      As a child he'd been constantly hungry. He'd been stealing food off the sideboard in the grand dining room when his father and court had entered. He'd hidden under the table and his father had sat, the triangular-shaped head of the scepter jutting beneath the crisp white linen. Dominic didn't know what made him reach out and stroke the forbidden talisman, for everyone knew only one of true elven blood could hold it without being flamed to ash. But he hadn't tried to wield it, had only touched it, and since then he couldn't look at it without feeling strange. As if the thing possessed a conscious awareness of him. It bothered him that he had such a fanciful thought.
      Mor'ded reached his side and placed his other hand on Dominic's shoulder. The chill of his long fingers penetrated the heavy wool of Dominic's coat. "After a hundred years the king will finally be returned to his rightful place. Thanks to my son, the champion of all Firehame."
      Applause thundered again. The elven lord's words echoed in Dominic's ears. His father had publicly acknowledged him as his son. Fierce pleasure rose in Dominic's chest and he had to force himself to concentrate on Mor'ded's next words.
      "General Raikes has defeated Imperial Lord Breden's forces and we have won the ultimate trophy—King George and his royal court. London will again be the center of taste and fashion. The sovereignty of Firehame will house the man who decides what color breeches you wear."
      A ripple of excited pleasure ran through the courtiers and Dominic stared coldly at the assemblage. Did they not hear the disdain in his father's voice? Did they not understand the mockery toward the king who should be their rightful ruler?
      Mor'ded's fingers tightened on Dominic's shoulder, and the elven lord's magic shivered through his spine. Dominic forced himself to relax under the painful grip. It did not matter if the ton understood or not. They could do nothing about it, anyway.
      "Tonight we will feast in my son's honor."
      His fingers gave Dominic one last painful squeeze before he released his grip and climbed back up on his dais. With a flourish of his scepter, Mor'ded filled the long great room with sparkling white fire, the flames harmlessly bouncing off the wigs of the men and the silk skirts of the ladies. The courtiers laughed and wove their bodies through the magic, and Dominic watched them with hooded eyes until his father grew tired of amusing his playthings.
      When Mor'ded swept the skirts of his red silk coat through the door behind the throne, Dominic followed, resisting the sudden urge to draw his sword and run it through his father's back.
      He'd tried it once. It had cost him the life of his best friend.
      His father lit their way through the gloomy passage with white fire that slithered on the ceiling above them. Dominic knew most of the passageways behind the walls of the palace. He'd spent hours as a youth exploring them. This particular one led from the throne to Mor'ded's private chambers, and branched off only once by means of a tunnel that his father told him twisted far beneath the palace, finally opening onto an entrance to the fabled land of Elfhame. Of course, only a chosen one could pass into that land, and Dominic had still failed to prove worthy. They both ignored the heavily warded door blocking the tunnel as they continued on to the end of the passage.
      Mor'ded opened the door to his chamber and Dominic followed him into the room and suppressed a shudder. Very few people were allowed into the Imperial Lord's private chamber, and he didn't count himself lucky to be one of them. The walls glowed with iridescent color, a copy, Mor'ded had once told him, of the truly living walls of his old rooms in his homeland of fabled Elfhame. Plants grew in the corners of the room, pale pink pods that occasionally liked to dine on warm meat through some corrosive process Dominic didn't want to understand. A striated crystal sat next to the double doors that led out onto a balcony broad enough for a dragon to land. The stone picked up the color of the gray skies and threw it into the room. Large enough for a table, and yet shaped like a cone, the crystal held a hole in the top of it that Mor'ded often slipped his scepter into.
      Chairs that resembled flower petals, a bed that could be some sort of deformed swan, and a desk that snapped closed like the jaws of some great beast completed the room.
      Dominic always felt displaced here, as if a part of his mind rejected the surroundings. But then again, he'd become quite skilled at projecting his mind out of his body. It was the only way he'd survived the trials with his sanity intact.
      Mor'ded slid into one of his petal-chairs, the scepter carelessly laid across his lap. He liked to play with Dominic a bit before he began, taunting him to display any human weakness.
      "You used magic to gain your victory."
      Dominic clasped his hands behind his back and widened his stance. No use in denying it. He'd seen the shadow of the dragon hovering over the battlefield, his father atop the great beast, enjoying the sight of the games. "I used it to save the lives of my men."
      That handsome mouth crooked, so like Dominic's own. "It looked to be quite a firestorm."
      Dominic shrugged.
      Mor'ded shifted, the swish of his silk coats loud in the silent room. "Breden is furious, of course. He says we should not allow any of our bastards to play in the games. Indeed, that we should cull any of those possessing the slightest degree of power."
      Dominic kept his face impassive. He did not doubt that the elven lords would destroy all their offspring on a whim, for he knew of their madness better than anyone. "One of Breden's bastards tried to quench my fire with a wave of water from the Bristol Channel."
      "Which I pointed out to Breden," replied Mor'ded. He waved a graceful hand. "It matters not what he says. His pride has been injured by the loss of the king. He had become complacent, and we elven must never succumb to that human weakness, eh, Dominic?"
      "Never, my lord."
      "Aah, but it makes me wonder. Have I allowed myself to become complacent?" Mor'ded leaned forward, his glittering eyes intent on his son's face, baiting him with the agony of anticipation.
      Dominic clenched his teeth.
      Mor'ded collapsed back in his chair, the petal swaying with his laughter, a ringing song emanating from the depths of the flower. "You were one of my greatest mistakes, and yet a most amusing one. We elven procreate with you animals so rarely, and yet a brief rut with a common kitchen maid produced a bastard with enough of my blood to bear a marked resemblance to me. And sometimes I swear your heart is all elven." He shook his head, pale locks winking with silver. "Still, who knew that when I saw you fighting with the other kitchen boys and threw you into the game you would rise to claim the king one day? Not I."
      "You've taught me well, Father."
      "Indeed. And now we must again test your worthiness. You know what has to come, do you not?"
      Dominic lifted his chin.
      His father stood, the scepter held before him with both hands, calling on the additional power the talisman gave him. "There is no other way to be sure of your power. Defend yourself, boy." And he unleashed the black flame.
      It engulfed Dominic with a hiss and a scream, licking at his feet, shivering down his arms. His clothes appeared unaffected by the flame, and yet he felt them melting into his flesh, fusing into him. His skin still looked whole, and yet he felt it searing into ash. The black flame only burned in the mind, but ah, even the worse for that. He gritted his teeth and vowed that this time, he would not fall. His own little game he always played against his father.
      Dominic held up his hands, his own magic instinctively responding to the assault. White, blue, gray—he could call the entire spectrum of fire magic except for the black, but only the red fire did any damage, and his father easily squelched the blaze before it could sizzle the tiny fibrous hairs off his monstrous plants.
      "Come on, lad. You can do better than that," said Mor'ded. And increased the magic twofold.
      Dominic gasped for breath. The blackness slid down his throat and into his lungs, charring them until he could not breathe. The pain he could withstand, but the suffocation always defeated him. He dropped to one knee. His magic flared again and he imagined he felt the power of the black fire within him, the flame that burned only in the mind. Dominic tried to call it forth, but as always, nothing happened.
      He always forgot how bad the pain could be. How could he forget?
      Dominic had been wounded in battle many times. His men whispered that his elven blood made him impervious to pain. They did not know his mind had been tempered in fire, that the cut of a sword or sting of a bullet seemed a minor ache compared to the agony of his father's magic.
      And Dominic knew he couldn't possess the power of black fire, as much as he wished for it. The gift would have been revealed when he reached puberty, when any elven powers first appeared, and he would have been sent to Elfhame with the rest of the chosen children. Only those with small magics stayed in the human world.
      Yet his father continued to test him again and again, as if he suspected his son held stronger power as well. Or perhaps Mor'ded just enjoyed torturing him.
      Dominic's lungs began to falter, his breath reduced to no more than a strangled wheeze of agony. His other knee collapsed and he fell to all fours, cursing his weakness. Cursing his father.
      And suddenly the burning fire ceased.
      Blessedly cool air caressed his cheeks and he sucked in a deep breath. Dominic resisted the urge to run his hands over his face, his hair--to reassure himself that he stood unharmed as he'd done the first time he'd endured one of his father's trials. Mor'ded had laughed at him and Dominic had vowed never to give the man the satisfaction of that pleasure again.
      Dominic rose with elven grace.
      Mor'ded studied him with narrowed eyes. "No elf could withstand such pain and not instinctively call forth his own magic in defense. Again you've proven how truly weak you are…and yet…"
      Dominic let out a tired sigh. He did not bother using the blue healing fire. His body might be whole, but it always took some time for his mind to heal from the memory of the pain. And he rarely used so much of his power; he felt tired unto death. "Either destroy me completely or allow me to leave. I'm half human, you know."
      "Indeed, indeed." Mor'ded chuckled, lifted his scepter and the door of his chamber flew open with a breath of fire. "You look so elven I forget you're half animal. Go lick your wounds, then. I want you rested for the feast tonight, and of course, your marriage tomorrow."
      Dominic halted in midstep. He had forgotten the date. Easy to do, since he'd almost forgotten what his intended looked like. He'd met Lady Cassandra a few times and could only recall a plain wisp of a girl with brownish hair and eyes. "Is it tomorrow, then? I suppose it's best to get it over with."
      Mor'ded rolled the scepter between his palms, his black eyes glittering. "It will make the humans happy, seeing my son wed to one of their finest aristocrats. And who knows? Perhaps you will breed true and produce another champion."
      Dominic sighed. Fatigue shrouded him and it took all of his will to pick up his feet and put one before the other again. He had realized years ago that it would be pointless to fight the destiny his father had forced upon him. If Mor'ded wanted him to take a wife and breed champions, so be it.
      It mattered only that Dominic never allowed them to be used against him.
      When he left Mor'ded's room his feet took him to the tower stairs and not his own chambers. Halfway up the curving staircase a wave of nausea overtook him and he allowed himself a brief moment of weakness. In the dark, where none could see. He felt again the searing of his flesh and the constriction of his lungs. Sweat broke out on his forehead while his body trembled in wave upon wave of remembered pain. But he gritted his teeth against the sobs that threatened to rise from his chest and for a brief moment pictured his father's slim neck between his battle-hardened hands.
      He thrust the futile image away and began to climb again. The elven lord could level London if he so chose. Dominic's strength would never be a match against Mor'ded's and he'd been forced to accept that.
      But he had won a victory today. He'd made his father proud enough to call him son before the entire court. Dominic would grasp that slender victory, as he'd grasped even smaller accomplishments over the years.
      He shoved open the wooden door and stepped out onto the flat roof of the tower. Humid air caressed his skin; a light breeze swept his silver hair against his cheeks. The metallic smell of the dragon teased his nose and he glanced across the rooftop at the huge beast.
      Ador raised his black-scaled head and blinked at Dominic, his red eyes glowing even in the overcast day. Strange eyes, with elongated pupils with black lines radiating from them, separating the red color like pieces of a pie. The dragon's leatherlike wings lay tucked against his sides, appearing deceptively small against his long, sinuous body.
      Dominic removed his woolen coat and spread it out in his usual place at the base of a merlon and sat, his back against the stone. He leaned his head against the hard surface and closed his eyes with a sigh of utter weariness.
      The dragon shifted. Dominic heard it in the slide of scale on stone, felt it in the tremble of the floor beneath his feet. It had once frightened him, the sheer size of the beast. But no more. He'd gotten used to the beast and Ador…well, the dragon had finally managed to tolerate him.
      "Do you remember the first time I came up here, Ador?" Dominic didn't wait for the dragon to answer. He rarely received a response to his musings. But for Dominic it was enough that someone listened. "Father had tested my magic by burning Mongrel to ashes. He was a good dog and a loyal friend. I didn't think I'd ever forgive myself for not having enough magic to protect him."
      The pungent smell of the Thames swept across the tower, even at this height, and for a moment, Dominic thought he could hear the muffled sounds of the city below them.
      "It was the first time I realized I could no longer allow myself to care for anyone. Man nor beast. For Father would always use them to test my magic." Dominic blocked the images of those who had suffered because of him. He'd found it much easier to bear the pain himself. "But my human weakness for companionship made me think of you. All alone, atop your tower. And then I realized Father would never harm his dragon-steed. That I could care for you, at least. Even if you couldn't return the sentiment." Dominic cracked a hopeful eye. But Ador appeared to have fallen back to sleep, his lungs like a great bellows pumping beneath those black, shiny scales.
      Dominic sighed and allowed the solitude of their high perch to settle over him. The world seemed very far away up here. The wars, the court, his father, all dwindled to minute specks of matter. One final small tremor shook him, dispelling the last memory of pain. And when he spoke again his voice held the coldly rigid control it always did.
      "I have done well, in most respects, to be like my father. Remote and untouchable, concerned only with my own pleasure. But you know the truth of me, don't you, Ador? Whether you willed it or not, you've been forced to hear my true thoughts over the years." Dominic scrubbed a weary hand across his brow. "This elven face of mine is deceiving, for I've been cursed with an all-too-human heart."
      Ador snorted and his wing twitched, his only reaction to Dominic's damning statement. Ah, well. Dominic should consider that a remarkable response. Usually the dragon resembled nothing more than a still lump of shiny black coal.
      Dominic rose and arched his back, wincing at a stab of pain. Just an ordinary pain, though, from an old bullet wound in battle. He smiled with relief that it held none of the taint of black fire magic. "Are you aware I'm to be married on the morrow? A dangerous proposition, for one such as I. I almost feel sorry for the girl…but the aristocracy are used to being breeding stock, are they not?"
      He picked up his coat and slung it over his back. His mind felt settled again, the memory of the burning fading to a manageable degree. Dominic couldn't be sure if the dragon's quiet presence soothed him or if the release of his thoughts brought him peace. He knew only that he always healed faster atop the tower.
      He'd taken a few steps toward the door when the dragon's rumbling words stopped him.
      "I smell a change in the wind."
      Dominic turned and stared into those red eyes. "What do you mean?"
      Ador, of course, did not answer. He closed his eyes again and huffed a small stream of smoke through his nostrils.
      Dominic considered the implications of the dragon's words. Ador had once told him Father was mad. An obvious statement, it seemed, and yet those words had allowed Dominic to deal with his father time and again. So he did not think the dragon referred to something as simple as the coming of the king. Yet no matter how he twisted the statement around in his head, he could not fathom it.
      Ah, well. How could Dominic know the turnings of a dragon's mind? It would become clear in time…or until Ador chose to make it clear.
***
To meet Dominic's future bride, you can read chapter two at: http://www.kathrynekennedy.com

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