Capture by Annabelle Jacobs
Capture is the first book in my trilogy, Torsere. It follows the lives of Ryneq, the King of Torsere, and Nykin–a dragon rider in the king’s army. They are an unlikely pairing from the beginning, with Nykin admiring the king from afar but knowing that nothing will ever come of it, and Ryneq refusing to acknowledge he feels anything other than duty and loyalty for one of his men.
Circumstances force them together, and suddenly rank and position no longer matter.
Over two hundred years ago, when dragons were hunted for their blood, the King of Torsere offered them sanctuary. In return, the dragons bestowed a magical gift on the King’s people, allowing those born with the mark to become dragon riders and forge a mental connection between dragon and rider.
King Ryneq of Torsere is undeniably attracted to Nykin, a young dragon rider. Ryneq’s sister, Cerylea, encourages him to pursue the relationship. But with the stresses of ruling Torsere, a romantic attachment is low on Ryneq’s list of priorities. Nykin admires the king from afar, but wants more than to warm his bed for a night or two.
Torsere remains under threat from the lowland armies of Rodeth and Athisi. To protect their kingdom, Ryneq and Cerylea intend to form an alliance with the elves through Cerylea’s marriage to elf prince Morkryn. On the road to the wedding, the lowland army attacks the party. Cerylea escapes, but Ryneq is captured and taken to the impenetrable Risvery Castle. In the aftermath, Nykin volunteers for a perilous mission, endangering the lives of him and his dragon. The odds are against him, but Nykin will risk everything for his duty and his king.
“ARE YOU sure about this, Cerylea?” Ryneq handed the proposal back to his sister and watched her carefully tuck it into the pocket of her cloak. Her long blonde hair fell forward slightly, obscuring her face, but Ryneq still caught the resigned look.
Cerylea shivered against the chill and pulled the heavy fabric tighter around her shoulders. She stepped up to join him at the window and laid her hand on his arm. “A union with the Hervathian elves is the only way.”
“Father would never have wanted this.”
Cerylea snatched her hand back and glared at her brother. “Our parents are dead, Ryneq. Or have you forgotten?”
“No, I’ve not forgotten.” With a heavy sigh, he let his head rest against the thick glass and looked down at the lands below. The view was breathtaking. KalethTor sat high in the mountains. Built by the first king of Torsere, and named after his young wife. The thick walls had weathered over the years and blended easily with the surrounding mountains—so much so, that most people now referred to it as the Stone Palace.
From here one could see past the villages in the south of Torsere, all the way down to the Nalvaq Sea. The dark-blue water shimmered in the distance as the early-morning sun danced off its surface. “I’m sorry.” Ryneq reached out and took Cerylea’s hand to pull her against his side. “I just don’t want you to leave.”
She laid her head on his shoulder, and he realized with a sudden jolt just how much he was going to miss her. They’d ruled Torsere together for the last two years, ever since the king and queen had been brutally murdered during a Rodethian raid. Neither of them had been ready to rule a kingdom, but Ryneq had dutifully stepped up to take his father’s place as king, with Cerylea at his side.
“It’s not as bad as you seem to think,” Cerylea said eventually. She tilted her chin to look up at him; her deep-blue eyes were so like their mother’s that his breath caught in his chest. “I actually like Morkryn.” She smiled softly, and the tight feeling in Ryneq’s lungs eased just a little.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Is that so?”
“Yes. He’s intelligent, kind, and has a wicked sense of humor.” She nudged Ryneq in the ribs with her elbow. “Besides, you’ve seen him.” Her voice had a teasing edge to it, pulling them out of the somber mood. “He’s very easy on the eye.”
“Hmm….” Ryneq had to agree with her there—the elven heir was incredibly beautiful. He had thick dark hair—which was short by elven standards—large chocolate eyes, and high cheekbones. Morkryn was a little too feminine for Ryneq’s taste, but he couldn’t deny the prince was indeed very easy on the eye. “I suppose, if you like the pointy-eared look.”
He grinned down at his sister, laughing at her shocked expression as she slapped him on the arm in retaliation.
Cerylea narrowed her eyes. “I hope you show him a bit more respect when he arrives in two days’ time.”
“Of course, Sister.” He offered her an exaggerated bow. “I will be on my best behavior.”
“Thank you.” She shook her head at his antics but then turned serious again. “I know you think Father would never have made an alliance with Hervath this way, but I believe he would have done the same thing to ensure the safety of Torsere.” She moved away from the window and headed toward the fireplace on the far side of the room. It used to be their father’s study, but had since become their war room—the sturdy old desk replaced by a long oval table and strong, upright chairs. Ryneq followed her, and they both took a seat in front of the roaring flames.
“You know they’ll never stop,” she whispered, and Ryneq knew exactly who she meant without her having to say the names.
He leaned forward and let his elbows rest on his knees. “I know.”
Since the death of their parents, the Rodethian army had made several attempts to break through Torsere’s borders again, but Ryneq had shored up their defenses and doubled the dragon rider patrols. Although they had good trade relations with the cluster of small lands west of Torsere, none of them were large enough to offer any assistance against the lowland armies.
Cerylea’s voice was still quiet when she spoke again, her gaze focused back out through the window. “So far, their attempts have failed, but with Rodeth’s new alliance with Athisi, it’s only a matter of time before they manage to find a way through.”
The leaders of the lowland provinces had joined forces six months ago, their mutual distrust for one another temporarily put aside in order to fight their common enemy—Torsere. Although Torsere had never attacked either Rodeth or Athisi, it had something both of them were prepared to kill for.
Cerylea pulled her knees up onto the chair, looking all at once like the little sister Ryneq used to tease before they were suddenly thrust into adulthood. “The treaty with the elves is the only way.”
NYKIN STRETCHED over the back of his dragon and unstrapped the thick leather harness that held the saddle in place. He could just about reach when Fimor settled low on the ground—the top of Fimor’s back coming an inch or two above Nykin’s shoulder. “There. Is that better, Fimor?” They’d just come off border patrol, with a little detour out over the sea that hadn’t gone exactly as planned. He stroked his gloved hand over the rust-colored scales on the dragon’s flank, then jumped back, cursing when Fimor huffed a small jet of fire in Nykin’s direction. “Hey! You know it wasn’t my fault.”
Fimor swung his head around to regard Nykin with large obsidian-colored eyes, and Nykin immediately felt the pulse of the connection being made. The triangular-shaped fire mark on the inside of Nykin’s left wrist glowed brightly with magic. The intricate mark swirled with thick interwoven strands in the center, the burnt orange twisting outward to form three defined peaks. Nykin closed his eyes and focused on the dull throb under his skin as Fimor’s voice sounded in his head.
“You must be more careful, Nykin.”
Nykin sighed and leaned against the hard wall of Fimor’s cave. “I know. But—”
“It’s not just your life at stake! You know this. I would have survived the fall, but you would not. And while I might not die if your heart stops beating, it would certainly take me many years to recover. You cannot afford to be so reckless.”
“Okay, I admit that maybe I misjudged it slightly—”
Fimor’s long barbed tail snapped from side to side. “Slightly? You almost crashed us into the rocks.”
Nykin sighed and stepped closer, smiling softly as Fimor obligingly lowered his head. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.” He ran his fingers over the hard ridges along either side of Fimor’s jaw. “I thought I knew better, and I was wrong.”
“We are bonded, Nykin, and as such, I am bound to follow your commands. You must learn to trust in me and know that I would never put you in harm’s way. Ever.”
The mark flared briefly before settling back down, and the connection between them fell away. Nykin watched as Fimor shuffled back away and turned toward the mouth of the cave. He flexed his wings, the very tips brushing the walls on either side, before launching into the sky beyond. Nykin continued to follow his progress. The sight of a dragon in flight never failed to take his breath away. He was a dragon rider, marked from birth and born to ride in the sky, but a dragon flying on its own was a sight to behold.
Soon Fimor disappeared up into the mountains above and out of sight. The landing caves—huge areas in the rock that opened out into the sky—were built into the east side of Mount Tors. They were connected to the main rooms of the Eyrie by a series of winding tunnels. Nykin hauled the leather harness and saddle onto his shoulder and carried it down toward the main storeroom.
“I thought I heard you fly in.”
Nykin looked up to see Selene already stowing her harness on one of the waiting racks. Her long hair, the trademark of a rider, trailed down her back in a thick black braid. “Yes, just a moment ago.”
“And you’re down here already?” she asked, turning to give him a curious look. A dragon and rider usually spent time together after a ride, before the dragon retired to its lair farther up the mountain. “Is everything okay, Nykin?”
Nykin hefted his gear onto the empty rack and leaned against it. “No. I made a mistake.” He scrubbed a hand over his eyes and sighed. “We were flying out over the sea. Fimor told me the angle was too steep and the wind too strong, but I ordered him into the dive anyway.”
“What happened?” Selene’s voice had an edge to it all of a sudden. Rider and dragon always worked together—they were taught that as soon as they’d bonded.
“We nearly crashed onto the rocks,” Nykin continued, wincing at the scowl on Selene’s face.
“Nykin, you sh—”
He held up his hand to cut her off before she could chastise him further. He didn’t need anyone else telling him how badly he’d messed up. “I know, Selene. I know.”
She looked like she was ready to say more on the subject, but the sudden appearance of Jaken saved Nykin. He came skidding into the storeroom, out of breath, and it took him a few seconds of gulping in air before he could talk.
Selene raised an expectant eyebrow, still clearly in a pissy mood, and Nykin shook his head when Jaken glanced over at him as if to ask what’s her problem?
“Ryneq has requested all dragon riders come to the great hall,” Jaken managed eventually.
Nykin felt the familiar prickle of heat, low in his belly, at the mention of the king’s name, but he resolutely pushed it away. “Now?”
“Yes.” Jaken was already trying to usher them out the door. “Everyone else is there already. We’re just waiting on you and Selene.”
Nykin frowned and looked down at himself. It had been a hard ride earlier, and he was covered in sweat and salty spray from the sea. He didn’t need a mirror to know that his dark-blond hair, thankfully not anywhere near as long as Selene’s, hung limp and matted around his shoulders. He looked a mess and had no intention of going to see the king without at least changing his clothes.
“I’ll meet you there.” He gestured at himself with a wave of his hand and grinned. “I just need to get cleaned up first.”
“Oh.” Jaken scrunched up his nose in distaste as if only just noticing the dire state of Nykin’s attire. “Yes, okay.” He shooed Selene through the door before casting one last glance over at Nykin. “You need to hurry, though, Nykin. You know Ryneq hates to be kept waiting.”
As soon as they’d left, Nykin hurried through the storeroom to the large changing areas at the back. The Eyrie itself was connected to the palace by a steep set of steps cut into the rock. It was a long walk to the lower town, where most of the dragon riders lived, so each rider kept a few spare sets of clothes and other essentials at the Eyrie. The room behind the storeroom split into two just after the entrance, since there were more or less equal numbers of male and female riders, and Nykin veered off to the right.
He sighed and quickly peeled off his filthy clothes, only shivering a little in the cool air. The wash areas basically consisted of a continuous stream of water, coming from high up in the mountain. It flowed in through the roof and fell in four long showers before disappearing back into the ground and away again. The dragons’ lairs lay all around the source of the water, and more often than not, they would heat the water with their fiery breath so their riders wouldn’t have to bathe in the cold.
But judging by the way Fimor had left so abruptly, Nykin doubted very much that he’d be getting any help from the dragons today. He rubbed his thumb over his mark and concentrated. The burnt-orange flames of the fire triangle glowed brightly, warmth flaring over Nykin’s skin as the telepathic connection was made.
“Fimor?” Nykin tried, only to be met by silence. He waited a moment before trying again. “Fimor?”
“I know you can hear me, Fimor.” Nykin shivered again. “And I know you’re mad at me.” He heard an annoyed huff in his head. “With good reason,” he added quickly. “But I need to go meet Ryneq, and I’m in a bit of a state. A little hot water would be much appreciated.”
He felt the connection break without an answer and resigned himself to a very fast and very cold wash. At least he’d be quick this way. He was already taking longer than he should, and he didn’t want to provoke Ryneq’s temper. Nykin took a deep breath and braced himself for the inevitable shock as he stepped fully under the water.
The water felt… warm. Okay, so not piping hot like it would have been if Fimor wasn’t upset with him, but not the freezing cold he’d expected either. He smiled to himself and proceeded to scrub at the dirt in his hair and on his body as quickly as was humanly possible.
THE SOFT black leather of a dragon rider’s uniform hugged the body like a second skin, and Nykin wriggled into the pants as fast as his damp legs would allow. He quickly tied the laces at the front before pulling on a cotton undershirt and then the matching jacket. His dirty clothes lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, and he hastily shoved them out of sight and tugged on his boots. Nykin cast a quick glance in the mirror and straightened out his uniform. His hair still hung around his shoulders, but at least it was clean now.
It took Nykin longer than he would have liked to reach the entrance to the palace. He imagined Ryneq’s annoyed face as he paced up and down, waiting for Nykin to arrive. When Nykin finally reached the great hall, he pulled open the heavy doors and slipped inside.
The doors opened silently enough, and Nykin managed to enter relatively unnoticed, but as he turned to push them closed, a horribly loud creak echoed around the large room. Everyone turned to stare at him—all his fellow dragon riders, a handful of soldiers from the Torserian army, an amused-looking Princess Cerylea, and a not-so-amused-looking King Ryneq.
The king glared at him for several long moments—Nykin tried hard not to blush or squirm under the intensity of it—before turning to address the lead rider. “As I was saying….” Nykin slunk to the back of the dragon riders and slid into line beside Selene and Jaken. Neither paid him any attention as the king carried on speaking. “Prince Morkryn and a contingent of his elven guard will arrive tomorrow to discuss the terms of our proposed treaty.”
Ryneq walked back over to stand beside his sister, pausing a moment to smile softly at her. He didn’t often openly show affection in front of his subjects, and it transformed his usually handsome but cold face into something warm and wonderful. Nykin felt his stomach flutter.
But when Ryneq looked back over at the people assembled before him, the hard edge was back. “Nysad and I, along with thirty of the guard, will meet them at the edge of the Forest of Hervath and provide an escort to the palace.” He leaned in to talk quietly with Nysad—the captain of the guard, and Ryneq’s second-in-command. Nysad nodded quickly before saluting and leading his men out of the room. “The armies of Rodeth and Athisi have been quiet of late, and our scouts report no movement near our borders.” Ryneq paced in front of the gathered riders, looking over them as he spoke. “This treaty is of paramount importance and we can’t afford to take any chances.”
The king’s gaze landed on Nykin, and his eyes narrowed for just the barest of moments before sweeping over to Selene beside him. Nykin watched his every move. Ryneq cut a formidable figure—taller than almost all his guard, with short, dark hair and broad shoulders. Nykin wished for the hundredth time that he would be noticed in return. The dragon riders were held in high regard by the people of Torsere, but to the king, he was just another member of the royal army, and nothing more.
“Eldin.” The lead rider snapped to attention as Ryneq spoke his name. “Take ten of your best riders and follow Prince Morkryn’s escort from the sky. I want you to watch for any signs of trouble from the lowlands.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“We leave the castle early. Have your riders ready to depart after breakfast.” Ryneq nodded once and turned toward Princess Cerylea, effectively dismissing everyone else.
“So,” Selene whispered as they filed out. “Do you think we’ll get to go?” She smiled, her eyes shining with excitement, and Nykin couldn’t help but return it.
“Maybe, if we’re lucky.” He really hoped they’d be chosen.
They all made their way back up to the Eyrie, since Eldin would no doubt want to go through the plans for tomorrow and pick out his riders. To be chosen for the king’s escort was a great honor, and it also meant Nykin would be able to get back out on Fimor. He needed to prove that he trusted his dragon, and the best way to do that would be to ride him. Nykin very much doubted Fimor would come now if he summoned him. It’d be at least a few days before he deigned to answer Nykin’s call. But if the order came from the king, then Fimor would be much more likely to respond.
They followed the rest of the riders up the steep stone steps and into the wide entrance to the Eyrie itself. Once inside, Eldin stopped and turned to face them all.
“It takes roughly a day and a half to reach the Forest of Hervath on horseback, so we’ll take turns to patrol and return to the Eyrie to rest. I’ll be the lead rider tomorrow, so that leaves nine places to fill. If I call your name, make your way to the storeroom and wait for me there.” Silence fell over the group of anxious riders as everyone waited to hear the list of names. “Selene,”—Nykin winced when she squealed in his ear before leaving for the storeroom—“Chaiss, Tirak, Hidor, Korad, Leyer, Nalec, Rakar, and…” He held his breath as he waited for Eldin to say the last name. Please. Please. Please. “… Nykin.”
“Yes!” Nykin hissed and headed for the storeroom to join the others.
THE PLAN for escorting the elven delegation was simple—circle the area and watch for signs of a possible attack from the lowlands. They had orders from Ryneq to deal with any incursions as they saw fit.
“Is everyone clear?” Eldin asked, looking around at the nine riders in front of him. A chorus of yeses replied. “Good. I suggest you connect with your dragons and then turn in for the night. We all need to be alert tomorrow.”
They filed out and made their way through to the landing caves. Nykin entered the same one he’d been in earlier that day and pulled back the sleeve on his jacket. He closed his eyes and rubbed his thumb over the mark in slow, measured circles. He didn’t actually need to touch his rider’s sigil, but the steady contact helped him focus his mind.
Just as Nykin expected, he didn’t get an answer straightaway.
“I know you’re still upset with me, but I need to talk to you. We’re to be part of the escort tomorrow when Ryneq goes to meet the elven delegation.” Nykin knew that Fimor would never refuse an order from the king, especially where Ryneq’s safety was concerned. But he still made Nykin wait.
Finally, Nykin felt the fire triangle pulse, and his skin tingled with the warmth of their connection.
“Congratulations, Nykin. It is a great honor to be chosen to escort Prince Morkryn.”
“Yes, I know.”
“What are our orders?”
Nykin told him, word for word, what Eldin had said.
“Hmmm…. We will need to be vigilant in the skies and protect the king and his guests to the best of our ability. You know what I’m saying, Nykin, don’t you?”
Nykin sighed and leaned back against the wall of the cave. “Yes. I need to trust you.”
“And I, you. You are my rider, bonded by blood, and I will do as you ask. But you must listen when I speak, for it will always be the truth. If I cannot trust you to do that, then our bond will be greatly weakened.”
“Really?” Nykin stroked his mark, looking down at his wrist. The bond between rider and dragon was forged by blood and magic. It was how they worked so well together. To ride without it would be dangerous for both of them. “I didn’t realize.”
“Magic can only do so much. My blood can heal you if you’re injured, Nykin, but only if our bond is strong. And to keep it strong, we must trust each other without hesitation.”
Dragon’s blood was part of the reason the lowland armies attacked Torsere. Dragons were magical creatures, and their blood was believed by some to cure all illness and disease and in some cases even prolong life. As far as Nykin was aware, a dragon’s blood would only heal its rider, and even then, he didn’t think it could bring anyone back from the dead.
“I will do better this time,” Nykin said at last. “I promise.”
“Very well. Good night, Nykin.”
The connection ended, and Nykin rubbed at his eyes. It had been a long day, and he was tired. As he made the long walk back to his home, Fimor’s words sat uncomfortably under his skin. He hated the thought of their bond being weakened, especially through his own doing. Nykin trusted Fimor, of course he did. He just had a hard time accepting the fact that he could be wrong sometimes.
Nykin readily accepted it was as arrogant as it sounded, and something he really needed to work on. If Eldin found out they couldn’t trust one another, he would have every right to replace Nykin as Fimor’s rider. A person only got one chance as a dragon rider—once the bond was broken, that was it. The very idea of losing his connection with Fimor made Nykin feel physically sick, and he resolved to keep his word. He would do better.
BREAKFAST WAS served early in the palace next day, so the five riders accompanying Ryneq out first were up even earlier than usual. It took a decent amount of time to get the dragons down from the mountain and harnessed, and they needed to be ready by the time Ryneq and the palace guards were set to leave.
Nykin, having being named in the first patrol, collected his harness from the storeroom and made his way to the landing caves. Once there, he placed the harness carefully against the wall, walked to the edge of the cave, and called for Fimor. He could see for miles from here, all the way out to the Nalvaq Sea. It was a long way down to the ground below, but Nykin had never been afraid of heights—which was just as well, considering what he was about to do. The connection hummed, getting stronger and stronger until he heard the familiar sound of wings.
Nykin looked up, squinting in the early-morning sun, just as Fimor came into view. The sunlight caught the red scales covering Fimor’s body, setting him aglow. He looked like he was on fire, and Nykin was still awed that this magnificent beast allowed him to ride on his back.
“Good morning, Nykin.”
Nykin moved farther back into the cave so Fimor could fly in and land. “Fimor.” He grinned and reached out to run his hands over the tips of Fimor’s wings as the dragon settled into position. “Are you ready?”
“Always, Nykin. Are you?”
“Yes, I am.” He turned to grab the harness, and Fimor dipped his neck so Nykin could strap it around him. “Have you eaten?”
“Yes, Kalesh and I flew out over the sea earlier—the fish were abundant, if a little on the small side”
“Maybe later you can have some beef when we return to the castle.” Although the Stone Palace was built high in the mountains, the surrounding flat lands were full of rich soil—perfect for growing crops and keeping livestock. The dragon’s main diet was fish, but they often supplemented that with cows from the king’s stock.
“Yes, perhaps I will.”
Nykin double-checked all the fastenings before hoisting his body up into the saddle. There were thigh straps on either side—dragons had a tendency to roll during battles, and this ensured their riders remained seated. Nykin hated these though, and only wore them in extreme circumstances. “Let’s fly.”
“As you command.”
Fimor turned around to face the cave entrance and spread his wings wide as they neared the edge. Nykin felt his heart pound, adrenaline coursing through his veins as they got closer. Flying always affected him like this, the slight rush of fear as they prepared to leap out into the air, and Nykin would never tire of it. He gripped the leather harness tight in his fists and yelled out his delight as they dived off the ledge and into the sky.