The third day of searching the hunting grounds on the mainland had still shown the dragons of the fire eyrie no trace of the missing Aymeri, and Terhanis’ patience had reached its limits.
“This is pointless,” she growls in response to Anaia’s declaration that they would search the hunting grounds again the next morning, “No dragon could ever get lost in the hunting grounds. If Aymeri were there, if he were injured and waiting for rescue, we would have found him two days ago. It is past time we extended our search beyond the terrain we know.”
“I will not risk any of your lives in a vain hunt through the enchanted forests,” Anaia, the Daughter of Fire and leader of their clan, says. Though her expression remains calm and unperturbed, her annoyance is evident in her clipped tone.
“Fae magic is treacherous. You should know that, daughter,” Tyrrhen adds in a more soothing, gentle voice.
Lyallen nods in agreement, “If Aymeri has fallen to their enchantments, there would be nothing we could do for him, anyway.”
“You don’t know that!” Terhanis growls, muscles tensing, preparing to lunge, held back only by Seryn’s firm but gentle hand on her shoulder.
“Sssh, beloved,” he whispers in her, “Fighting her will only make her more obstinate.”
Anger burns like a fire inside her, but she hears the truth of her mate’s words. Anaia never backs down from a confrontation, standing fast to whatever she believes is best. Only her mates have ever succeeded in changing her course, and that only comes through a long campaign of gentle persuasion. “We don’t have time to wait for her to see reason,” Terhanis complains, her voice pitched low for Seryn’s ears alone. His arm tightens around her waist, squeezing her in reassurance, asking for her trust.
“I don’t like leaving one of our own to the mercies of the fae,” Emryllen adds his support to Terhanis’ plea, “This feels too much like giving up.”
Lyannis, nestled against his chest, turns toward her sister, “What about the valley beyond the forest? Could Aymeri have strayed away from the hunting grounds and got lost there?”
“That seems as a good a direction as any to expand our search,” fiery haired Natis quickly agrees with her.
“We know as little about the valley as we do about the enchanted forests,” Merrin says, “In either direction , we face unknown dangers. We should go where Aymeri most likely would have wandered.” He does not have to say aloud what they all know, that Aymeri’s long fascination with the mysteries of the fae-enchanted spots that lie within the dragons’ traditional hunting grounds provides the best clue to his whereabouts.
Anaia puts an end to the discussion with a firm refusal. “No one is to enter the enchanted forests,” she warns, “When dawn breaks, we will begin flying over the valley, to see what we can find.”
Anaia’s word was final, leaving Terhanis no choice but to retreat to her nest for the night. After putting her young son Tearhen into his crib, she turns to Seryn in frustration.
“How many days will we waste flying over the valley?” she groans, “Anaia seems determined that we search wherever Aymeri cannot be.”
“Allowing us to go into the valley is a great concession on her part,” Seryn reasons, “Who knows what such an exploration might find…”
“I don’t care what we find, if it’s not Aymeri,” she snarls, “She only agreed to this plan to silence me.”
“And even when this search fails, she will still refuse to allow us to enter the enchanted forests,” Seryn agrees, “Her fear of the unknown is stronger than her love for one of our own.”
“So we should just give up on Aymeri?” Terhanis asks, her jaw set hard with rage.
“Never that, my beloved,” Seryn says, holding her face in his hands “Anaia won’t grant us permission, so we must go without it.”
“Fly off before dawn without anyone knowing,” Terhanis says, understanding Seryn’s plan, “And go look for Aymeri on our own.”
“As soon as we’re sure everyone is asleep…” Seryn drops off mid-sentence, hearing the sound of dragon wings above the eyrie, “It’s him!”
Welcomed into the warm embrace of his clutch, Aymeri feels the loss of the three days he’d experienced as a mere hour in the Undersea, their relief at seeing him alive and well telling him of the fear and pain they’d suffered while he was away. “It’s good to be home,” he sighs, vowing to himself to never put them through such torment again.
“But where have you been?” Terhanis asks, “What happened that you stayed away for three days?”
“So you’ve returned,” Anaia’s anger slices like a cold wind through their warm embrace. “Your absence has put the whole eyrie on edge, and we have wasted days in searching for you. What reason could you have for such irresponsible behavior?”
Deep in his memory, Aymeri recalls the tender affection of his mother, Maurrean of the earth eyrie. He had lived with her for only the first five years of his life, and spent the rest under the direction of the Daughter of Fire, who brooked no disobedience. Though he was now centuries old and a father himself, he feels as green and inexperienced as a juvenile standing under her disapproving gaze.
“I was lost in the enchanted forest,” he tells her, admitting only as much of the truth as was necessary to explain his long absence. There will be no avoiding her wrath, but telling her that he’d met with a fae in a realm beyond their own world would be beyond foolish. “I woke early and could not fall back to sleep, so I hoped to tire myself with a flight to the mainland and back. When I landed, I saw a fine buck, and gave chase. And before I realized it, I found myself in an unfamiliar place. It was days before I found my way out again.”
“Three days,” Anaia says, her eyes narrow and hard, her voice a snarling rasp, “Three days in the enchanted forest, and no fae creature attempted to take you?”
Aymeri shakes his head, “There were voices, chattering in the undergrowth, and I felt eyes ever on me, but I saw no person, or creature along the strange, twisted paths I followed.”
Standing at his side, Terhanis and Seryn listen to his words and hear the lie in the tremble of his voice, but they say nothing.
“I’ve warned you countless times of the dangers of flying to the mainland alone. Yet you persist,” Anaia says, “You are lucky to be alive, and we are lucky that none of were lost in searching for you. From now on, if you mean to leave this eyrie, you will ask my permission first, and you will never go alone. If you do, it will be the for last time, for I will not allow you to return. Understand?”
“Yes, Daughter of Fire,” Aymeri mutters, having no choice but to assent to her decree.
The threat of banishment was a harsher punishment than he’d expected, but it would have been far worse if she knew the full truth, and Aymeri was grateful that Anaia responded quickly and decisively to what she was saw on the surface, without delving any deeper into the issue. His mates, however, waited only until they were alone in their nest to question him further, picking apart his story to find out the truth he’d tried to hide.
As much as longs to tell them about his adventure into the Undersea, his encounter with Icovellauna and what he’d learned about his connection to the water, Aymeri knows he cannot share this secret with them. If they knew what he’d done and where he’d been, they would be complicit in his guilt, and should Anaia ever discover it, they would face the same punishment as he.
But they would not be satisfied with the same lies that would assuage the Daughter of Fire, so he must give them something to distract from his true crime.
“I would never have found my way out of that forest on my own,” he tells them, “It was Riannyn who came to my rescue.” Outside of the cautionary tales told to juveniles, the subject of the exiled dragon was largely taboo, but there was no danger in Terhanis and Seryn knowing this secret.
“He still lives?” Terhanis gasps in wonder, “How does one survive so long without his clutch?”
“Was he as beautiful as the stories say?” Seryn asks, “I never believed the part about his hair.”
“The stories were right, brother,” Aymeri says, a sad smile playing on his lips. They trust him so readily, believing what he confides as the whole truth, and his betrayal stings him, knowing he holds a secret that they can never share. “His hair did shine bright as sunlight.”