Sky and Storm – Alina Popescu

SKY’S HEART FLUTTERED when he first spied the five riders making their way downhill. They looked like ants crawling in his general direction, but Sky knew they were men on horseback heading straight to his family’s manor. A smile tugged at his lips as his long fingers gripped the cold, white stone balustrade. Sky loved his chambers. Private, spacious, opening into the most beautiful balcony the manor had, treating him to a breathtaking view of the hills and valleys of his homeland. It provided the best vantage point than the towers on either side of the gated front wall if he wanted to spot visitors. Nothing thrilled Sky like having guests, even if they were only his parents’ elderly friends. Talking with them made him happy beyond belief. There was always something to learn from those visiting. News, ideas, life experiences he lacked. As the riders approached, Sky recognized their banners. His heart sank. His mouth dried up, his breathing became labored and he felt tears threatening to break the barrier of his eyes. He shook his head, leaning on the railing and trying to steady himself. No, this couldn’t be.

It had to be a mistake. The Dragon had no business sending his riders to Sky. He took a few clumsy steps back and fell onto the oversized sitting pillows he’d piled up on the balcony. He looked up, watching fluffy, milky-white clouds running away from the riders. Even they knew they should fear the envoys of the Dragon. Sky closed his eyes, a tear falling down the side of his face, over his earlobe and down his neck, tickling him and making him shiver. He wanted to wipe it away but found he couldn’t move. The fear was paralyzing. No, it can’t be. He gripped his long blond locks with both his hands.

He pulled as hard as he could and pain fired up his body. Word of the Dragon’s decision to marry had reached them weeks earlier. Rumor had it the Dragon and the King would discuss it, then send riders carrying the flaming red banners to fetch the lucky young male the Dragon had decided on and bestow numerous honors upon his family. Sky had never for one second thought he’d be the Dragon’s choice. Even now, as the battle cries of the riders were close enough to be heard, he still tried to convince himself they were there for a different reason. A summon to a ball or some business with his father, surely. Yet he knew they wouldn’t use those scary red fighters for such small matters. It can’t be me. My family is not important enough. Sky sighed, covering his quivering lips with his hand.

He had made a snide comment about marrying the Dragon being a curse during the last feast his parents had organized. Who would want to marry that beast? The one thing that didn’t surprise Sky was that the Dragon had chosen a man. He’d probably break a woman in two on their wedding night. It was said the Dragon was huge. A mass of muscle moving about, spreading promises of pain and bloodshed. Sky squeezed his eyes, covered his ears and yelled, but when he stopped, the shouts of the riders as they passed through the gate were proof enough he wasn’t dreaming. This was real. They had come to fetch him. Or maybe his sister? The flicker of hope was gone before really sinking in. She was twelve, hardly ready for marital life.

He snorted, imagining that scared little kid facing the mountain that was the Dragon. Sky heard the rapping of the hoofs on the stone paving the alley to their front door. He heard his father’s name being called and let out the breath he was holding, allowing himself to hope this was a whole other matter. Sky rolled to his belly, covering his head with one of the pillows and only came up for air when his survival instincts took over. Judging by his mother’s excited squeals, this wasn’t going to be good news. He heard his sister running up the stairs. She stopped in front of his room, knocked and called his name. Sky took a few deep breaths and walked to his door, yanking it open. His sister stumbled in, then caught herself and wrapped her skinny arms around his waist. “No, they can’t have you,” she yelled, hot tears staining his white shirt.

Sky smiled at the sudden show of affection that replaced her usual snorts and hisses and her awful habit of sticking out her tongue. “It’s all right, honey.” He unclutched her arms from around his waist and scooped her up. She immediately hid her face in the crook of his neck and his long blond locks, crying even harder than before. Sky dragged his feet across the dark corridor and then down the stairs, rubbing her back all the while and whispering comforting words in her ear. “They say he’s a brute. What will he do to you?” she whispered, caressing Sky’s long neck. “He won’t do anything to me, he’ll marry me and become my husband.” Sky forced out a chuckle. He wondered, though, in how many pieces he’d be broken by the end of their wedding night.

Cruel, addicted to inflicting pain, harsh, violent, taking baths in fresh human blood … those were the rumors flying around their kingdom. Or was it an empire now? The gods knew the Dragon had been running around, conquering other kingdoms left and right. The Dragon had won his first battle shortly after turning sixteen. It turned into his first won war, his first subdued nation, and later into a spree of bloodshed and head after head bowing to him. Six long years of battles and young lives lost to his thirst for conquering the world. After expanding this territory tenfold and Vis becoming the richest country known to man, the Dragon had come back to his parents and announced his wedding. The entire kingdom had been waiting since then, most pitying the poor soul he’d choose. A curse: marrying him was a curse. Yet impressionable young maids and adventurous bachelors had been throwing themselves at the Dragon ever since his return. The Dragon had refused them all.

He apparently had someone in mind. And that someone was… me? Why? Taking one more deep breath and kissing his sister’s cheek, Sky turned left on the main corridor on the ground floor and came upon the main entrance where seven of the Dragon’s elite warriors were waiting for him. “Sky Moonborn,” their leader started in a booming voice that made Sky cringe, “You are hereby summoned to the royal castle by his highness, Storm Thunderborn, the Prince of Vis, known throughout as the Dragon. You will be wed on the next full moon and become next consort in line to rule the land with your royal spouse.” All hope had been crushed. Sky sighed deeply and nodded his consent. Not that it was needed, they would have dragged him there by force anyway. Sky turned to look at his parents. His mother stood tall and proud, a half-smile wrinkling the side of her face. A lone tear ran down the cheek of his father, yet the man did nothing, looking all dignified.

No one was going to stand in the way of the Dragon. “When should I be there?” Sky asked, arching an eyebrow and tightening his grip on his little sister. “Please gather what treasured possessions you might have, my lord. Everything else can be replaced. We leave at once.” The commander turned to leave. His soldiers followed, lining up and waiting outside. Sky kissed his sister one more time and placed the sobbing child in his father’s arms. His mother was already scolding her for not acting like a lady. He made his way back into his room.

He expected some sort of fallout. Tears, running to hide and yelling. Instead, Sky was numb. He entered his bedchamber and looked around, then walked into his study and finally out on his beloved balcony. There was nothing he wanted to take with him. He wanted this entire place, his life, his freedom, his family. Sky picked up a small pouch and stuffed all his journals inside, then returned downstairs. He embraced his father and sister, nodded to his mother and was out the door and into the bright light of the midday sun. A horse had already been prepared for him, but a high court servant came, bowed deeply and motioned to the chariot that was apparently part of his summoning squad. Sky looked at the commander, but the man shrugged and had one of his warriors pick up the reins of the horse and take it away.

Sky reckoned the journey would be more pleasant that way, so he stepped inside. A young lady with moist eyes smiled brightly at him. “Sky,” she yelped and threw herself in his arm. He stiffened in her embrace, so she moved back. “I’m sorry, you obviously don’t recognize me. Sit, please,” she said giggling, then proceeded to follow him on the velvet covered bench and took his hand in hers. The lady scrunched her nose and tucked one of her dark brown locks behind her ear, and Sky immediately recognized her. “Cloud? It can’t be!” Just his luck, Sky supposed. He’d have to start making nice about his impending doom right away. “Yes, of course it is.

” She chuckled and hid her blush, placing her hand over her mouth and nose. “It’s so good to see you again, Sky. I’ve missed you.” Sky swallowed hard and gave her a weak smile. Storm had sent his sister to fetch Sky. The sickly little girl had grown into a beautiful woman, but that cruel look was still vividly painted on her face. He could see it in her cold stare and the disgruntled twitch of her lips. “They’re making you marry that brute. I cried for days, but father has decided. Storm agreed.

He’s taken what I love once more.” She pressed her lips together, her eyes narrowing. “Gods only know what he’ll do to you, he’s always been jealous of how close we were.” Sky’s eyes widened, his hands growing cold. Close? Had they been close? Yes, he had been one of Storm’s companions in his childhood. Cloud was nothing but a nuisance. Sky would smile at her, pat her head, and give her little tasks to do to keep her occupied. He supposed she could have considered his sneakiness a sort of affection. “I can’t believe you’re forced to keep him company again,” she hissed, interrupting his thoughts. “It appears I’ll be spending the rest of my life with your brother,” Sky said in an even voice.

“My poor, poor Sky,” Cloud said, fake compassion painted on her face. “I can’t stop this, but I’ll always be your friend. I’m on your side, don’t you ever forget that.” Was it a test? Was that warm glow in her eyes a trick? It went away as quickly as it came. “Thank you, Cloud. I appreciate you worrying for me. You have nothing to concern yourself with. I am to marry our future king.” Sky was surprised by how steady his voice was. No cracks, no tears, no desperate calls for help.

Maybe his mother’s lessons were finally paying off. They stopped at a small inn for the night. The warriors bearing the Dragon’s seal had the top floor cleared for him and the princess. The best food, the best wine, the constant, overbearing company of Cloud, Sky was about ready to jump through the nearest window. He smiled instead and chatted with the princess, watching as the land’s warmongering elite ate, but skipped on the drinking. Sky smiled to himself, remembering Storm’s plans of never allowing his warriors to drink themselves silly while on missions. How could a twenty-two-year-old have such power over these hardened soldiers? When Sky was finally able to escape Cloud’s grip and retire for the night, he crashed on the bed, face first, a feeling of dread gripping him and holding him prisoner for the night. The one benefit of his terror-filled slumber was being too exhausted to mind Cloud’s constant complaints. *** It was almost dusk when they spotted the terrible shape of the castle in the distance. Four black towers marked the cardinal points on the huge walls.

The gray Royal Keep, huge and overpowering, had guards posted on every ledge. Sky felt dizzy and sick, the panic muffling Cloud’s voice. Sky was separated from the princess the moment he stepped out of the carriage. Servants took him through a side entrance and up to the fifth and uppermost floor of the castle. A maid told him the entire floor and most of the one below it belonged to the Dragon and his private guard. So this will be my prison, Sky thought. The servants had Sky bathed and dressed in fine leathers and colorful silks. They brushed and perfumed his hair, pulled his boots on and attached a beautiful sword to his hip. When they finally left, Sky sighed, feeling the sting of tears behind his lids. He sat on the edge of the bed, struggling not to shake, not to scream, not to run.

He jumped at the sound of his door hitting the wall and a strangled cry that sounded a lot like his name. Sky turned to see a tall man, and he felt minuscule, although Sky was a good height himself. The man was all muscle and power, his long curly black locks framing his unexpectedly warm and beautiful face. He had strong, manly features, but his dark blue eyes with incredibly long lashes and his bright red, full lips gave him a certain softness. Storm was indeed stunning, and somewhere deep down, Sky could find, if he really struggled, the traces of the boy he’d once known. The man was smiling brightly and seemed out of breath. Strands of hair stuck to his face and Sky could see the small beads of sweat on his forehead. Had Storm ran here? Why would the Dragon do that? Sky’s eyes fell on his long, heavy sword and he remembered. This gorgeous man before him had painted the skies red in his hunger to possess other lands. The Devil might never be as breathtaking as Storm, but no demon could ever match him in cruelty either.

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