heartily relieved at being able to use a title, Charles smiled and said, “Yes, Captain.” Once he’d cleaned off the area, he returned her feet to their proper place.

“There you go, Captain.” He turned back to Bram. “I’ll gather all you require, my Lord.” “Excellent.”

Ghleanna waited until Charles had rushed off before she asked, “Does he know then? What we are?” “He knows what I am — and I’m sure he’s guessed about you. I simply don’t have time to run around hiding that particular fact from my assistant.” Bram leaned against the table and asked Ghleanna, “Now, what about your battalion?” “What about them?”

“Can’t a few of them accompany us?” “Are we here again? My brothers do not hate you,” she insisted.

“They don’t exactly respect me either.” “They don’t respect anyone but our mother.” “Well, I understand that. Your mother’s amazing.” “I know.” Amazing and smart enough not to be taken as a fool by any male. She’d made Ailean work for her love, and work he did. “And I’m nothing like her.” “You have her freckles.” “You mean these bloody dots on my face?” She swiped at her face with her hands.

“You can’t rub them off, Ghleanna,” Bram told her with a laugh.

“I know. I know. I just hate having them.” “I like them.” And he smiled a little. Was he laughing at her?

“Yeah. . well. .” She lowered her hands, forcing herself not to act so self-conscious. “You don’t have to live with them.” He continued to stare at her, making her nervous, when he finally observed, “You’re letting your hair grow out.” “What? Oh.” She refused to run her hands through her hair. “Haven’t had much call lately to keep it short.” She shrugged and pulled out one of the blades she kept in her boot. “Guess I can do that now.” He caught hold of her hand. “What are you planning to do with that?” “Cut my hair. You were the one complaining about it.” “I didn’t complain.”

“Then you dislike my hair when it’s short?” “That isn’t what I meant either.” She threw up her hands. “Then what the bloody hells did you mean?” The royal’s blue eyes briefly flared before he closed them and let out a breath. “You do wear the scales off my hide.” She knew that — enjoyed doing it, too. And that was wrong, wasn’t it?

“Charles!” he suddenly bellowed, and the human charged back into the hall a few moments later.

“Yes, my Lord. . Bram. . my Lord Bram. . Lord—” “Please take the Captain to one of the rooms so that she can freshen up.” He wrestled the blade from her hand, making Ghleanna laugh. She hadn’t laughed so in ages. It felt nice. “Perhaps you can also cut her hair. She prefers it short.” He handed the blade to poor, confused Charles.

“Of course, my Lord. . uh. .” “Do we have time for all that?” Ghleanna demanded.

“We do now.” The royal turned his back on her, tossing over his shoulder, “I’ll be in my study. Get me when she’s done.” Ghleanna waited until the dragon was out of earshot. “Is he always so short of temper and patience?” she asked the servant.

“No, Captain. In fact, Lord Bram is considered the most patient and caring of beings in all the Southlands.” “Huh. . must be me then.” Instead of trying to convince her that that was inaccurate, Charles pointed to an alcove that would lead to the tower. “This way, Captain.”

Bram had nearly all he needed and was searching for some notes that he’d taken at the last Elder meeting he attended. A few additional codicils they wanted to add to the final alliance.

When he couldn’t find them, Bram called out, “Charles!” and turned, only to come face to face with Ghleanna. How long she’d been standing behind him, Bram had no idea. But at least this was the Ghleanna he knew so well. Her chainmail had been cleaned and polished, a dark blue surcoat over that with her sword tied to her waist and her two battle axes strapped to her back. Her leather boots had been cleaned and buffed and her black hair cut back to its usual length right below her ears. She had her arms folded across her chest and her legs braced apart.

This. . this was the Dragonwarrior he knew. The Decimator. Bram didn’t realize how much he’d missed her until she’d been gone.

“That was quick,” Bram said when he realized he was gazing at her like a lovesick schoolboy.

She blinked. “Quick? It’s been four hours. Maybe a little more.” “Oh? Really?”

“Yeah. Really.”

“Hadn’t noticed,” he muttered and walked around her to return to his desk. “We can go in a few minutes.” “If we leave now we won’t get very far.” Bram sighed. “So we’ve already lost a day of travel?” “You were the one who didn’t want to be seen with me and my unruly hair.” “I never said that! And I don’t see why we can’t at least get started. I just need to find the blasted. . Charles!” Charles rushed in. “My Lord?” “My notes from the last Elder meeting? I can’t find them any—” Charles pulled the scrolls out from the pile on the desk and held them out to Bram.

Bram took the scrolls and shoved them into his travel bag. “Thank you.” “Of course, my Lord. . Lord Bram. . uh. .” “I shouldn’t be gone too long on this trip,” he went on.

“But if I am, don’t worry. My sister will be checking in quite often.” “Very good sir.”

Pulling the strap of his bag across his shoulder, Bram walked out of his study and headed for the front door.

“Don’t forget,” he informed Charles, “to pull together the research on the pirate attacks at the ports going up the coast. I’m supposed to meet with Duke Picton regarding that soon.” “I’ve already started, my Lord.” “Good. I’ll need to deal with that when I get back.” He stopped at the doorway leading to his small and very unkempt courtyard. He’d really have to get someone to clean it. He couldn’t ask Charles to do it himself. Bram needed him on more important matters at the moment — and didn’t he have a much bigger staff who handled these sorts of things? Maybe not. .

Bram glanced around, then demanded, “Blast! Where is that female?” “Right in front of you.” Bram nearly jumped out of his frail human skin when he realized that Ghleanna had gotten around him somehow.

“Don’t do that.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Sneak around.”

“Do you mean walk around? Because that’s what I actually did. I usually crouch more when I sneak — and then I kill someone.” Deciding not to argue with her, Bram bid Charles farewell and left the castle.

“I guess we still have to pick up your brothers.” “We do.”

“Where are they?”

“The Battle of Fychan.”

“And how far away is that?” he asked Ghleanna. “Is it a long flight? Will we make it there tonight?” They now stood outside his castle walls and Ghleanna gazed at him.

“What?” he asked, beginning to run out of patience.

Staring at him strangely, she said, “They’re at the Bolver Fields. You know. . the Battle of Fychan.” “Right. Right. You already said that. And I asked how far off is that?” Her gaze narrowed a bit. “Really?” “Really what?”

She took hold of his arm and headed west.

“Where are we going?” he asked. “We’re not going to fly? Won’t walking to a battlefield be a bit dangerous?” At least for him.

He asked questions but Ghleanna didn’t answer. But when they were about a half-mile from his castle, she led him up a ridge that overlooked the valley beneath.

A valley filled with the dead and dying of what appeared to be a long-running battle.

“Right outside your door,” she told him, staring at him with what could be either awe, pity, or disgust. “The Battle of Fychan has been outside your door for at least eight months. Everyone else in the nearby town as well as your servants, have abandoned the area except for you and poor Charles, who didn’t want to leave your precious books and papers unattended. I do hope you pay that lad well.” “You know. .” Bram gazed out over the battlefield. “Thought I heard some screams. . a few times. But I’ve been so busy.” She released his arm and, while shaking her head, walked off down the hill and to the field below.

“Come on, peacemaker. Let’s get my brothers. We can debate when we need to start later.” Morbidly embarrassed but not willing to admit it, Bram followed Ghleanna onto the battlefield.

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