Heart of the Dragon
The greatest thief captures an unexpected prize.
Madfall is the greatest thief in the kingdom, stealing crowns off the very heads of kings. His hoard is legendary. Simply put, he’s a dragon through and through. So, when he steals a basket of “gold” from the king’s castle but finds a baby inside, he’s at a loss. What’s a dragon to do?
Seventeen years later, inexperienced knight Richard of Benfro sets out to slay the dragon, expecting death or glory. Not the most awkward meet-cute in history when he’s captured by the dragon’s human—and handsome—son.
Oenyn has been content living with Madfall, enjoying the fierce and protective love of his adopted father. But he’s always been curious about humanity. When Richard blunders into the home he shares with Madfall, Oenyn grabs the chance to learn all he can about people, castle life, sex . . . and maybe love. At least until Richard makes a startling discovery.
Caught between a potential future in the human world and his old life, Oenyn is faced with an impossible choice. Luckily, being raised by a dragon has left him plenty stubborn. He won’t give up his father, or his human family, without a fight.
(Note: This is a revised second edition, originally published elsewhere.)
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), acceptance, adoption, duty, enemies to lovers, family, first love, first time, found family, isolation, kids, legends, pining / UST, protection, reunion, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
Part One: Madfall
Madfall crept low on his belly, pressing close to the ground to avoid being seen. He narrowed his eyes. He had been watching the castle for days from his position outside the royal treasury. A single chink in the wall, where a stone had been carefully pried out months before, revealed the corridor outside the heavily guarded room. The sentinels moved in rotations; there was never a moment when there wasn’t at least one armed guard outside the heavy, metal-laced door.
But Madfall wasn’t the greatest thief in the land for nothing. Hadn’t he stolen the Eye of Brahma right off the raj’s head? Hadn’t the central bank’s vault been plundered two times this calendar year already?
Madfall wriggled closer. No, a few dozen guards weren’t enough to deter him.
A young woman with a sweet face and an ample bosom approached the door, a large bread basket dangling from her round arm. If Madfall didn’t know better, he would have sworn she was nothing more than an assistant baker, delivering bread throughout the castle. But Madfall had been watching. Under her servant’s skirts were four glistening, dangerously sharp knives—two strapped to her waist and one in each dainty boot she wore. A small axe, its blade curved and gleaming, rested at the bottom of the basket. Her sweet smile hid the deadly precision with which she could wield the weapons. The baker’s assistant wasn’t there for bread; she was there for gold.
It had taken Madfall weeks to work out, but his careful surveillance of the castle had finally paid off. Every Friday the girl lined her basket with gold, covered it with bread to muffle the sound of the coins, and then strolled into the town center to deliver it to the king’s agent. Merchants would line up at the office door in the afternoon to collect payments for that week’s goods—the vast amount of flour, meat, cloth, and other items the castle used in a seven-day period.
Over the years there had been ample speculation in the country’s underbelly about how the money was delivered to the king’s agent. Highwaymen lined the roads into town, stopping every coach and carriage that bore the royal crest—and most of those that didn’t. But the girl with the bread didn’t ride in a cart or carriage. She rambled in the morning sun with a number of other palace servants, none of them holding anything larger than a basket—and the highwaymen were confident that a single woman would not be able to lift the amount of gold that was needed by the king’s agent every week. The women were allowed to pass unharassed—save for some unsavory comments that brought red to their cheeks.
None of the other thieves in the kingdom had figured out the secret of the bread basket—but Madfall had. He watched through narrowed eyes as the girl entered the treasury with a flirty smile at the guard. A few minutes later she strolled out again, her face never belying the added weight that hung over her arm. She wiggled her fingers in the guard’s direction and turned down the hall.
It was time. Madfall took one last look at the treasury door, the iron bolts in place again, and slithered away from the lookout. The castle perched precariously on a bed of stone, the rough crags overhanging the raging sea. Except for the long bridge that connected the spit of rock to the mainland, the castle was impenetrable.
For a human, anyway.
Madfall’s claws dug easily into the dense rock. His long, sinuous body curled over the promontory, his tail hanging down over the five-hundred-foot drop into the sea. He backed up, lowering his body over the side of the cliff face until he was out of sight of the castle, and then let himself drop. Sea air rushed up to meet him as he tumbled backward. He closed his eyes and let his wings unfurl. They caught the air with a sharp snick, jerking him upward. He twisted gracefully and wheeled round the sea cliffs that encircled the castle. It took the girl precisely eleven minutes to reach the inner courtyard. There, she would wait by the castle door until the rest of the young women walking into town had assembled. While still inside the castle walls, the girls were off their guard.
Madfall chuckled as his wings beat the air, lifting him up to the level of the castle, and then over the high castle wall. A man stationed on the battlement called out, “Dragon!” But the warning was too late. Madfall spotted a dot of a figure in the courtyard, a large basket at its feet. He swooped while the alarm was still being sounded and grabbed the basket in his hind claws. The young woman screamed.
Madfall smirked as he sped upward at breakneck speed, bursting through the cloud cover that hung low in the sky. The idiots on the wall hadn’t even had time to put an arrow to their bows. He’d been in sight for less than thirty seconds.
Turning in the air, he winged his way home. Today he swept over the large, dark forest that curved around the southern border of the capital city. He dipped low, until the tips of his foreclaws almost brushed the topmost branches, leaves ruffling in the wake of his beating wings. From the lookout towers of the castle, his black scales would be hard to make out against the inky forest.
After a few miles, he dropped into the forest itself, the bulk of his long body winding sinuously between the trees. He tucked his wings in and awkwardly moved the basket of gold to a front foot. He crept along the land, moving to the east. When he was sure his trail from the sky would be cold, Madfall took to the air again.
Every time he attacked a human settlement, Madfall made sure to approach his home from a new angle. As far as he knew, the humans still had no idea where he kept his hoard—and he planned to keep it that way. There were a thousand young men in the country who would gladly take the chance to storm his lair, their heads turned by the promise of wealth and valor.
Knights had searched every crack and crevice of the country’s mountains and forests, but they had yet to think of the caves that the tumultuous sea had carved out of the coastline. Eons of beating water had opened the rock enough to make Madfall quite comfortable inside, and just like the ancient kings who had built the castle, Madfall knew there was no better protection than the raging sea to keep out unwanted visitors.
Madfall carefully flew above the cloud cover until he was sure of a clear descent, and then he plummeted down to the sea. Ocean spray hit his snout as he drew up sharply just above the water, letting his tail dip into the icy-cold waters. His smirk grew into a wide smile and he closed his eyes, dipping lower until the sound of the waves rushed up to his ears and the salt coated his scales.
Keeping close to the cliff walls, Madfall made his way home. The cave didn’t look like much from the outside—and a good thing, too. He had to squeeze his impressive bulk between the jagged rocks into nearly impenetrable darkness. Inside, the sea had smoothed the walls, pushing the rock back to form a large, dry cavern. Madfall stretched his wings, shaking the sea spray from the thin membrane. He turned to his treasure.
The basket was large and oblong, with a heavy blanket tucked over the treasure inside. He took a deep breath to savor the moment, and then flicked the blanket aside with a sharp, curved claw.
The baby inside took one look at him and started to wail.
Madfall leapt back with a curse, the shrill noise ringing in his ears.
“What in the ever living . . .” he gasped, creeping forward again.
Another peek into the basket presented the same picture as before: one human baby, fists bunched and face red, screaming at the top of its tiny lungs. For such a small person, it could make an awful lot of noise.
“Shhhh!” Madfall hissed, tiny wisps of smoke curling out of his nostrils as he hovered over the basket.
The baby screamed louder.
“Okay, okay,” he said, desperately wriggling backward. “No shushing. Fine.”
His voice rumbled through the cave. The pitch of the baby’s wail reached the level of bats’ screams in the night.
“Right,” Madfall whispered in despair. “Quieter. I got it.”
He held his breath, crouched low to the floor, and waited.
The baby kept crying.
“Come on!” he huffed, craning forward to peer into the basket again. “I can’t even hear myself think!”
The baby’s face was crumpled in on itself, nothing but a mouth stretched wide.
“Quiet!” Madfall raged, a burst of flame shooting out of his mouth. The baby’s eyes widened, and the noise stopped.
“Guh?” the baby asked.
“Huh?” Madfall said.
He slithered closer. The baby’s eyes were darting around the room and his forehead was starting to crease again.
“Oh!” Madfall gasped. “Right. Human eyes. Darkness. Ugh. You people are so useless.”
He turned and shot a column of flames at a nearby lantern, stolen for its intricate metalwork, rather than its ability to provide light. Still, it blazed to life, casting an orange glow through the cavern. The baby’s big blue eyes shone in the light, latching onto him once again.
In the moment’s peace, the circumstances of the last five minutes managed to penetrate Madfall’s brain. He sat back on his haunches, truly astonished for what felt like the first time in a century. The baby made an inquisitive noise, and Madfall’s eyes narrowed. He stalked forward, peering angrily into the basket.
“Where’s my gold?” he demanded.
“Guh?” The baby’s head cocked, and one little hand reached up toward him.
“You are not treasure!” he said, making his voice stern.
The baby gurgled.
Madfall plopped back on his haunches and frowned. He had seen the girl take the basket from the treasury . . . he had grabbed the basket in the courtyard. With a deepening frown, he peered at the basket again. When he had seen it in the hands of the female guard, had it always been so . . . oblong? And surely when he had watched the girl disguise the treasure, he had seen some loaves of bread covering the gold beneath.
“Are you kidding me?” Madfall thundered, making the whole cave system shake.
The baby started to whimper again.
“Oh! No, no, no, no, no,” he said urgently, leaning close. “Madfall was just being an idiot. Don’t cry, little human.” He squeezed one eye shut, trying to think. “What made you stop before? Fire?” He snorted a tiny stream of orange-and-blue flame out into the low light of the cave.
The whimpering stopped.
Madfall did it again. And then the strangest sound reverberated off of the smooth stone walls.
He leaned closer, peering into the baby’s basket. Its little eyes were scrunched up in mirth, and another giggle escaped into the gloomy cave.
“Huh,” Madfall said. “Most humans are afraid of fire, you know.”
The baby just laughed again.
Madfall tipped his head back, staring up at the cave roof, the light of the lantern flickering orange over the stone. He took a deep breath and then let it whistle out through his nose, sending two tendrils of smoke curling toward the ceiling. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment,” he said to the infant with steely calm.
Keeping his movements slow and measured, he made his way to the mouth of the cave, wriggling out into the growing twilight. He took flight, banking along the cliffs until he reached a dry spit of land covered with a small copse of trees.
He squeezed his eyes shut and burned it all. Trees, grass, shrubs, probably some woodland animals: they all went up in a vicious blaze that poured so hot from his mouth the flames flickered blue.
He grabbed a burning tree, wrenched it out of the ground, roots and all, and shredded it to sawdust for good measure. Smoke rose in a thick, black column from the inferno and the smell of ash filled the air.
Madfall landed heavily. He took a deep breath.
“Shit, shit, fucking shit,” he growled, digging his claws so far into the dirt beneath him that he probably hit a mole or two.
“I saw the basket,” he muttered, flopping onto the ground like an oversized cat. “I took the basket.” He rolled onto his back, staring up at the gray haze of smoke that hung heavily over the fire. “Why isn’t the basket full of gold?” he moaned.
He wanted that gold. He needed that gold. He deserved that gold. He had planned the perfect heist. He should be alone with his hoard, gloating.
Instead he was lying on his back in the middle of a forest fire, with no more gold now than he had possessed the day before.
Everything was terrible.
And to top it all off, there was a baby in his house.
“Why me?” Madfall groaned pathetically.
The violent conflagration that surrounded him was at least soothing. The flames licked at his thick scales, and the scent of burning and destruction wisped reassuringly into his nostrils. He tried to think the situation through logically.
Obviously, he’d gotten the wrong basket.
It was a mistake anyone could make, he assured himself. And yes, it was frustrating, since he had spent weeks surveilling the castle, weeks trying to figure out the secret of the money drop, weeks planning, and waiting, and hoping . . .
Madfall reached out blindly and grabbed another tree, the thick trunk shattering in the grip of one claw. Tiny splinters rained down on top of him.
He huffed and flung the remnants away from him. The question now was what to do. What he wanted to do was take the baby straight back to the castle. But that wasn’t a very dragonish thing to do. The dumb humans might think he was being kind instead of simply trying to get the crying thing as far away from him as possible. Knowing his luck, they’d decide he wasn’t such a threat after all. They’d try to make friends.
Madfall’s lips curled back from his gleaming teeth in a sneer. No, that wouldn’t do. Dragons were the terrifying scourge of humanity. That was the way it had always been. He had to do this the right way.
Maybe he could hold the infant for ransom? In the blaze of the fire, Madfall’s eyes began to gleam. Yes, that could work. He would exchange the infant for gold. No sane person would prefer the crying thing to solid, reassuring, quiet gold, but humans were odd and sentimental. If the servant mother couldn’t pay, the king would. He couldn’t let children be snatched from his very castle, after all. The populace would riot.
It was perfect. Madfall would be rid of the child and have his gold. He believed that was what they called a win-win situation.
Rolling over onto his belly, Madfall pushed to his feet and gave himself a shake, throwing the burning embers and ash off his skin. He just had to make it through the night with the child, and then he could take his demands to the castle in the morning.
Madfall spread his wings and took to the sky, feeling much better. In fact, he was in such good spirits that he decided to treat himself. Swooping down low over a farmer’s field, he snatched a cow up in his talons. The animal lowed anxiously in his grip, and he smirked as he heard angry human voices calling out. Yes, he would glut himself tonight, and in the morning everything would be fine. A quick flex of his claws ended the pitiful cries of the animal, and Madfall happily turned his wings toward home.
Inside the cave, the child was whimpering. Madfall froze, wondering briefly if he could get away with crawling back out of the cave and leaving it for the night.
But the sound—a soft, plaintive noise—was far too pathetic to ignore. Sucking in a deep breath, he stalked to the basket and peered down at the infant. “What’s the matter?” he demanded, remembering at the last moment not to make his voice too loud.
The child blinked up at him, and then started to cry more earnestly.
“Oh, good grief,” Madfall groaned. “What, what is it? You’ve got your . . . basket. And that blanket. There’s light. What more do you want?”
The baby cried harder, reaching out with grubby hands.
“Unless?” Madfall glanced back over his shoulder at the cow slowly bleeding out on the cave floor. “You’re hungry?”
His own stomach was rumbling, after all. And he didn’t know when the humans had last fed the child. Knowing them, they probably let it go too long. The thing had probably been neglected.
“Here,” he said quickly. He wrenched a haunch off the cow and offered it to the baby.
A splash of blood landed on the infant’s face as it looked quizzically up at the leg of meat.
“Go on,” Madfall encouraged.
The baby’s forehead wrinkled.
“Come on! You just . . .” He mimed gnawing at the flesh, sharp teeth glinting in the low light.
The baby’s eyebrows furrowed further.
“Food?” Madfall said, waving the severed limb. “Yum yum?”
The child still wasn’t reaching for the meat, though. And actually, now that he came to think of it, Madfall was pretty sure he had only seen one or two teeth in the tiny mouth when it opened wide to wail. He narrowed his eyes, leaning closer to peer into the child’s face.
A grubby hand landed on his snout, feeling over his rough scales. Madfall froze, unsure of what to do. The baby’s eyes widened as tiny fingers groped their way around his nose. They made their way to one large nostril, and then plunged inside.
“Hey!” he gasped.
For a split second the baby looked surprised, and then it dissolved into laughter. Madfall watched, hesitant. The small thing’s whole body shook with its mirth, little eyes crinkled, mouth opened wide, hiccupping on its own joy.
That confirmed it, then: not enough teeth to eat cattle. Madfall would have shaken his head, except the child was still holding him still. Humans were so underprepared for the world.
He let the leg of meat drop to the floor with a wet thwack, and tried to think. Sensible animals ate meat. His sources of meat ate grass or leaves, but the child didn’t look capable of grinding fibrous greens down, either. So what did human children survive on?
Madfall wrinkled his heavy brow, and the child stopped giggling and copied the gesture, a quizzical look on its small face.
Sometimes when he was stealing a sheep to eat, he noticed the baby animals drinking milk from their mothers. He always made sure not to kill those ones. It was important for the herd to grow, to keep feeding him. He peered down at the child through narrowed eyes. He supposed it didn’t seem so different from a lamb: the same soft exterior, the same wide eyes, the same defenselessness. Perhaps a baby human could drink the way a baby sheep did?
He pursed his leathery lips. It couldn’t hurt to try, anyway.
Gently, he backed away from the baby’s questing hands. The child’s mouth curved downward, and Madfall quickly tried to shush it. “I’m going to get food.” He looked over at the bleeding cow. “Different food,” he amended. “Maybe something you’ll like? Just . . . don’t cry. I’ll be right back.”
He slowly shuffled backward, keeping an eye on the child as he did so. Miraculously, it didn’t start to scream. He paused long enough to scoop the forgotten cow’s leg up in his jaws—he had to eat, after all—and then he surged back out into the night.
One sheep, coming up.
There were a number of farms on the southern reaches of the kingdom that Madfall often frequented for food, their rolling fields rich in livestock. But he was conscious of how long the child had been in his keeping, how long it might have gone without food.
He wouldn’t get nearly as much ransom for a starved infant, after all.
So he winged his way to a farm that he usually passed over, deeming it too close to his home to risk stealing from. It was tiny compared to the ones in the richer land of the south, with their dark soil and rolling green hills. Only a few sheep grazed contentedly in the small pasture that adjoined a cozy homestead. Madfall had flown over frequently enough to know that at least two of the creatures had recently lambed, however.
Swooping low, he squinted into the darkening night, searching for the small shape of the lambs. Finally he spotted one, crouched on its front knees beneath its mother, drinking hungrily. Its long tail wagged excitedly in the warm night air as it nursed. Madfall held his wings still, gliding down over the field; his black shadow eclipsed the field, blocking the light of the moon from the herd beneath him. The animals froze. He could smell their fear on the breeze.
He inhaled deeply and dived.
In one quick motion he swept the ewe into his talons, leaving the lamb alone on the ground below. The tiny creature wailed and the animal in his grasp bleated back, the sound surprisingly desperate to his ears. Normally his prey would be dead already, one sharp claw through the neck to preserve the quality of the meat. Madfall didn’t usually have to listen to their cries for long.
Behind him a door burst open. As he took to the clouds, he could hear the farmer, running into the field where the infant sheep still cried, screaming his curses out after the dark shape in the sky.
Madfall was more concerned about the cries that might be ahead of him—human cries that could alert anyone in the vicinity to the location of his home. He beat his wings harder.
As he neared the cave in the side of the cliffs, the sheep began to thrash further in his grasp, twisting and turning within the delicate cage of his claws. Madfall tensed. Any wrong move and the creature would impale itself—and he’d have to go out hunting again. “We are almost there!” he snapped. “So calm down!”
The sheep, of course, did nothing of the sort. Madfall was used to dragging a corpse behind him as he entered the narrow passage to his lair; he was not used to trying to push a live animal in ahead of him.
“Come on,” Madfall snarled, bracing his front feet against the fluffy wool of the sheep as he tried to wedge her in between the rocks. The ewe struggled harder, her small—but surprisingly hard—hooves goring into the flesh of his legs.
“Stop wriggling!” he commanded sternly. She wriggled harder, twisting desperately in his grasp.
“You’ll fall,” he warned—or threatened. He was trying to herd her gently, to keep the prick of his claws from her tender sides. But she wouldn’t. Stop. Moving. It was like she wanted to be gored alive.
He closed his eyes briefly and wished for serenity. It was a sad, sad day when a dragon felt a hint of respect for a sheepdog, but he was beginning to understand how difficult a job the canines had.
The ewe bleated again, louder than ever, and Madfall’s eyes snapped open. He leaned closer, letting tendrils of smoke curl ominously out of his nostrils. His eyes, he knew, glowed with the heat of the flames that burned deep in his belly. “You will get inside,” he hissed, “or I will eat you.”
He wasn’t sure the sheep understood him—she was just a dumb animal after all—but she was frightened enough to turn tail and run into the dark crevasse of the cave entrance.
“Idiot,” Madfall grumbled, stalking in after her.