Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hiatus

You may have noticed that I have not had an update in quite a while.  The Lyonbrary is on temporary hiatus as I work on rewriting my novel: The Book of Iden, Part One: The Traveler.  I am currently about 10% of the way through my rewrites.  Not very far for how long I've been off short stories, I know, but this involved a lot of planning.  I may decide to put some rewritten chapters of the book up for people's enjoyment and to help you get a feel for the improvements I am making, but for now I'm just working as best I can.  I'll keep my progress updated for anyone interested in following.  Thanks for your past interest and I hope that you will someday read and enjoy the changes I'm making to my book.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Queen on the Throne Unconquered

           Mira was a maiden of sixteen years when she ascended the throne of Ardimar.  Two generations removed from the exile of Ardim from Canimar, her rule saw the last of those who could recall life in the cradle of the Karna Geihn.  However, there was not a soul in the realm who did not know the tragedy of Ardim and the treachery of his brother Generath.  Ardim was the younger son of King Canit of Canimar, but he was a brave and brilliant warrior.  He won many a battle against overwhelming odds and it was under his command that the Half-people were finally pushed out of the cradle of the Karna Geihn entirely. 
            Ardim’s victory made him the most respected man in the land.  His return to the capital at Borrowain drew thousands of peasants into the streets.  The people clamored to see him.  Lords and common folk alike called for him to be named heir, even though Generath was the older brother.  Their calls did not go unheard.  King Canit knew that Generath would be enraged by this decision, but he also saw the great quality of his younger son Ardim.  The king’s heart was heavy, but in the end, he called his sons to him and told them that Ardim would become king when he died.  Generath was furious as his father had expected, but the king would not yield.  He informed them that he would tell the multitudes to following morning.
            None but the two brothers ever knew of his decision.  The king passed away in the middle of the night.  The kingdom fell into chaos.  Every man, woman, and child knew that some treachery was afoot, but no one was sure who was to blame.  Generath proclaimed that his brother had murdered the king in an attempt to steal the crown from its rightful heir.  Ardim claimed that the king had declared him heir.  He was backed by his army, but Generath held the city and the allegiance of many lords who saw Ardim’s rise as a threat to their traditional concepts of succession.  Battle lines were drawn and both sides vowed to fight to the last man for their chosen king.
            On the morning battle was expected to commence, however, Ardim had a change of heart.  He thought of the people in the city; his people, and the horrors of war.  Though the throne was his by decree, he could not bear the thought of inflicting such misery on the masses.  Instead, he took those who were loyal to him and moved southeast past the windy bay, over the mountains of Ghar and into the wide peninsula now known as Ardimar.  There they settled and built a kingdom to rival that of Canimar.  They built the capital city of Ardiwain on the east coast near the mouth of the river Cal and intermingled with the scattered tribes who had lived there since the Creation War.  The tribes were sparse and isolated, but the followers of Ardim affectionately called them the Caloren, which means ‘gracious hosts’ in the old tongue. 
            So it was that the realm of Ardimar came into being.  Ardim ruled for two score years before passing the crown on to his son, who shared his name.  Ardim II, took a queen on the twentieth anniversary of his birth.  Together they ruled the realm fairly and justly and the people of Ardimar loved them dearly.  Though Ardim was the ruler by blood, he saw his queen as his equal partner, for she was wise and gave great counsel.  The only duty in which they fell short was providing the realm with a future ruler.  Many years into their rule together, the king and queen had still not conceived a child.  It was not until the queen had nearly reached the end of her child bearing years when her belly finally swelled.  After nine months, she gave birth to a girl.  Many of the common folk were dismayed that they had not produced a male to inherit the throne, but Ardim and his queen were elated.  They called their daughter Mira and decreed that one day she would rule the land of Ardimar.
****
            “And why, pray tell, do I need a king in the first place?” Mira said sharply.  “I have reigned a year now and needed no council that my own family could not provide.”  Her aunt Lane sighed deeply and patted her on the shoulder. 
            “The people will not long stand for an heirless monarch; much less kneel for one.  The people wish to feel safe and part of that safety comes from a sure line of succession.”
            “If that is all,” she replied, “then why should I not simply name an heir?  Your daughter Arena is growing into a wise young girl.”  Lane smiled and shook her head.
            “Thank you, I am quite proud of her.  However, you are of the royal line and she is not.  Should you pass without an heir, succession would be tumultuous.  Most likely a cousin would ascend the throne, but which one?  Aunt Maura and Uncle Canit both have sons and both are ambitious.  Maura is older but Canit is a man and you are the first queen in our people’s history.  Dating back to the Northern Kingdom, a male has always ruled the Sons of Cane.”
            “Are you saying a woman cannot rule?” Mira asked, her eyes narrowing.  Lane met her stare with a loving smile.
            “Of course not, Your Grace.  I am saying an unwed monarch is a great burden on the realm.  Your father saw the value of a close partner and confidant.  He and your mother deliberated on nearly everything together.  Someday I will pass from this world; as will Canit and Maura.  You will find new councilors who may not always have your best interest in mind.  Do not underestimate the value of having a partner you trust by your side.  Your father knew this and chose his queen wisely.”  Mira nodded, though still vexed. 
            “And how will I know what man I can trust?  It seems to me that the lords of this land desire only greater power for themselves.”
            “Aye,” Lane said softly.  “High born lords and ladies are always seeking ways to climb higher.  You must look past the ambition and see the deeper intentions.  You are the ruler of this land and the man you choose should have ambitions to further your devices.  I am not asking you to hand over your kingdom, Mira; just a piece of your heart.”  Mira turned away from her aunt and examined herself in the mirror.  Her garments were red satin with a blue knit shawl hung over her shoulders.  On her head sat a heavy gold crown adorned with rubies and sapphires.  Placed prominently on the front was a curious symbol.  Enclosed in a golden oval was a silver chevron separating a yellow orb above and a red ruby below, carved in the shape of a flame.  She had been told when she was young that it was the symbol of a secret held in this land, but she did not fully understand.  When she ascended the throne, she told her Aunt Lane that she did not want the symbol on her crown, but her Aunt had insisted that lord and peasant alike would think it sacrilege.  She begrudgingly acquiesced.  Now, the symbol reminded her of her father and inspired follow boldly in his footsteps. 
            “When must I choose?” she said, her tone flat and official.  Her aunt smiled and took her hand.
            “The queen has many suitors, but I have done my best to pick out those would best suit Her Royal Highness.  You will meet with each of them in turn, but first you must hold court.”
****
            Of all her royal duties, Mira found holding court to be the most fulfilling.  When she was little, she would watch her father dole out the king’s justice.  From his massive bronze throne, he punished the wicked and gave recompense to the righteous.  When he gave a decree, the whole realm listened intently.  His air was ever regal and his hand of justice strong and sure.  When he sat on his throne, he had been the picture of kingly might.  Mira, on the other hand, felt dwarfed by the massive chair.  On the day she first held court, she had felt absurd scrambling onto the throne and sitting awkwardly in the middle of the wide seat.  She was a slender young girl out of place in the grand court.  She had quivered nervously on that day, but her Aunt Lane had urged her to be brave.  When she first entered the court, the room fell silent and every eye watched her closely as she walked slowly to the throne and sat.  There was a brief moment where she had thought everyone would remain deathly silent until she spoke some grand pronouncement.  She had glanced around nervously, trying to hold a serious expression as she began to sweat.  Mercifully, her Uncle Canit came to her rescue, stepping forward and proclaiming:
            “All hail Mira, Queen of Ardimar, Grand Duchess of the East Sea, Lady Protectress of the Ardimarine!”  All the court had fallen to one knee and bowed their heads low.  This had given her the confidence she needed to rise from her throne and declare her court to be in session.  Still, hers was a difficult task.  Lords and peasants alike could come and lay their grievances before her and she would try her best to satisfy all those who sought her help.  This was difficult, but nothing compared to the satisfaction of following in her father’s grand footsteps.
            Court started that day just as it always did.  Her uncle declared her presence and all those in attendance fell to one knee.  Mira noticed that the room was much more crowded than usual.  Many high-born men lined the walls to her right and left.  Some she recognized: Marlon, Duke of Frenia and keeper of the Pass, Lord Heron of Delth, and the dashing young Count Kalhn, Admiral of the Royal Navy.  There were others whose faces seemed vaguely familiar to her, but she could not place a name.  Still others she was certain she had never seen before.  She shifted nervously on the thrown when she thought of choosing one of them to be her king, but resolved to focus on the task at hand.   
            Her first audience was a familiar face; her cousin Arnaer, son of Canit.  He bowed low as he approached and kneeled at the bottom of the staircase that led to her throne.  She beckoned for him to rise and he did so with a broad, gentlemanly smile on his face.
            “My dear cousin and Queen,” he said affectionately.  “I come on business of the utmost importance for the survival of the realm.
            “Speak, cousin.”
            “As master farmer, it is my duty to find and procure new lands for our crops to meet the needs of our expanding population.  The last two seasons have seen bumper crops, but that is unsustainable.  I have found a suitable place for new farmland near where the Western Houg meets the Arda Geihn and have come to ask the throne’s permission to begin preparing the land.”  Mira listened intently to his discourse.  When he finished, she gave him a queer look.
            “The Master Farmer has standing permission to requisition any uninhabited land he desires.  There would be no need to ask.  Who lives there, Arnaer?”  Her cousin shifted his feet nervously for a moment as though he had wished she would not ask.
            “Er, it is nothing really; just a small Caloren village at the meeting of the waters.                                                                                                                                                                                                          There could be no more than twenty families…”  Mira’s expression grew stern.
            “You mean to request that we uproot the village of Salna for your farms when the Planes of Lita lay largely untouched?  My grandmother’s namesake should be made to bear fruit rather than stand a near barren expanse.”
            “But my Queen, the planes are sparsely populated.  Where would we find the people to man the fields?  The land under Salna is rich and begging to provide its fruit!”
            “The land under Salna is the property of the people of Salna,” she replied, keeping a calm appearance though her temper was rising.  “The peasants of Litawain to the north of the planes are among the poorest in the realm.  I am certain they would be happy to work in your fields for a fair wage.”  Her cousin’s face was beginning to redden.  She could tell that he too was biting back his anger.
            “But your grace, the logistics of transporting the food from the western end of your kingdom to the eastern cities would be staggering.”
            “You take food west, do you not?  If anything, new fields on the planes will ease your supply routes.”  Arnaer grew so angry that his face began to shake.
            “I did not know you held your own blood in such low regard.  Do you think that at your age you know better than the Master Farmer?  I have done this job for five years and my father held the post before me!” 
            “I did not know you held me in such low regard, to stand in my court and hurl contempt at decrees.  Do you think at your station that you know better than the queen?  It is my duty to protect the interests of my people and it is your duty to plant seeds where I bloody well tell you to.  You will find your fertile grounds in the planes of Lita.  Good day to you, Cousin.”  Arnaer’s face froze in a shocked expression.  He bowed quickly and hurried out of the court.  She sat back in her chair and looked over at her aunt Lane who nodded and smiled.  She had done the right thing, Mira was certain of this.  Though she regretted losing her temper at her cousin, she felt refreshed by the justice she had done. 
            Her next few audiences were largely uneventful.  Two brothers both laid claim to their deceased third brother’s holdings.  The lands were split evenly.  A lord accused of stealing cattle from a neighboring manor came to plead his case.  Mira stripped him of his lands, but ruled that he be made first mate of a ship built with funds seized from his former estate.  He would serve in the Royal Navy until his death and his sons would be wards to Lord Canit.  If he remained loyal and they served well, they would be made knights in the queen’s service. 
             As she was listening to the case of a pig farmer whose daughter had run off with a hedge knight, she noticed a strange looking man waiting his turn.  He was garbed in worn brown robes and leather sandals.  In his right hand he held a stunted, gnarled cane.  He struggled to stay upright as he waited his turn, and his apparent plight moved Mira.  After she ruled that the hedge knight and the pig farmer’s daughter would stay married, but that they forfeited any rights to dowry or inheritance, she pointed to the man and called out to him.
            “You there in the brown robes.  I should hate to see you suffer waiting in line any longer.  Come forward and be seated before me.”  She gestured to one of her servants who hurried over and placed a chair in the center of the court.  The man smiled gratefully and bowed as low as he could before sitting. 
            “Thank you, your grace.  You are as generous as you are lovely.”  Mira gritted her teeth at the last words, but chose to say nothing.  The man looked as though he had traveled a long, difficult way and she could forgive him the unabashed flattery.  She forced a smile and gave a shallow nod.
            “What is your name and purpose here, good sir?” she asked maintaining a courtly air. 
            “I am Shelleck,” the man replied.  “And I come with tidings from the west.”  A murmur ran through the assembly as high borns and commoners alike whispered excitedly.  Mira was shrouded her interest with a stern expression.
            “Speak then, Shelleck,” she said in an even tone.
            “Thank you, your grace,” he answered humbly.  “The realm of Canimar has been prosperous since the expulsion of your people and their army is mighty.  However, a new threat to its stability has arisen.  King Orsna, first of his name, has passed away suddenly leaving twin sons.  The son who passed out of the womb first was given his father’s namesake and so has declared himself King Orsna II.  The Gharans and many other high houses have declared fealty to him, but his brother Ortho is challenging his claim.  Ortho is well loved by the common folk as well as several of the most powerful lords in the realm.  He has declared himself king and sits for the time being in the court of Shara Kohl in Nordangola.  There they say he is consorting with witches and bandits from Lorthimar in the far west.  The kingdom of Canimar will soon fall into civil war.” 
            The murmurs grew louder as he finished.  Even some of the Queen’s advisors were beginning to whisper urgently to one another.  To her left, her Uncle Canit licked his lips hungrily.  To her right, her Aunt Lane looked deeply disturbed.  All around her, the chatter was growing to a crescendo.  Without a word, she raised her hand and the room fell silent. 
            “If what you say is true, what is that to me?” Mira replied bluntly.  Shelleck looked surprised.
            “Canimar will be in disarray no matter who wins the war.  They will be nearly defenseless.  You must prepare your armies to march if you ever wish to return home.”
            “This is my home, Master Shelleck.  Would you have me march my people north to make war and leave this land behind?  We have made a powerful and prosperous kingdom of our own here.  Why should I risk conquering those who do not desire my rule?  The people of Canimar would see our return as a foreign occupation.”  Selleck was greatly perturbed by her response, but he pressed further.
            “You could rule both kingdoms from here if you wished.  The people will welcome you as a bringer of peace.  The realm will be torn to pieces by civil war and you will put it back together.  Once again, all the descendents of Cane will live under one crown.  You have the opportunity to win justice for your ancestors.”  Mira could hear the murmurs returning amongst the crowd, but she was unmoved.
            “Half a century ago, my grandfather chose exile over war.  He too could have worn the crown of Canimar, but he refused to bring death and destruction to his own brothers and sisters.  The people of Canimar are still our brothers and sisters, even though they view us with contempt.  I will not make war on my own kin.  Their deaths would be no true justice.”  She looked over at her uncle.  He stood stiffly and she could tell he was fighting the urge to speak.  She knew what he would say and had no interest in hearing it.  Her uncle’s ambitions were well known amongst her council members.  Long had he wished to return to Canimar in force and take back his father’s rightful throne.  He had been good enough to keep his opinion inside the council chambers, but Mira knew it pained him to stay silent.  The best course of action would be to dismiss this visitor quickly and put it out of her mind and the minds of her advisors. 
            “If that is all, I would kindly ask that you leave my chambers.”  Selleck’s face grew red and he bared his teeth wickedly.
            “Stupid, stupid girl,” he hissed.  “You will regret the day you ignored my council.  Mark my words; your foolishness will be the end of your kingdom.  You and your people will be plunged into darkness.”
            “Enough of this evil council,” Mira growled.  “Be gone from my sight, you wretched creature.”  Shelleck pounded his cane on the ground and launched himself out of his chair.  Surging forward, he uttered a guttural snarl. 
            “We shall see who is wretched when your kingdom is beset on all sides by the creatures of night.  You will rue this day, filthy-” A guard stepped forward and silenced him with a sharp blow to the stomach.  He coughed and fell to his knees as another guard smacked him across the chin with the butt of his spear. 
            “Stay your spears,” Mira shouted, rising from her throne.  “This is not how we treat guests in my court; even unwanted ones.  Show him out and see that he does not return.”  The guards lifted Shelleck to his feet and dragged him towards the door. 
            “All you have is forfeit, you foolish, stupid girl,” he shouted as they carried him out.  He said no more, but his words left Mira greatly disturbed. 
            “That will be all for today,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Find sufficient quarters for those who have come from outside the city.  I will hear the rest on the morrow.”  As she turned to leave, her aunt hurried forward and grasped her shoulder.
            “My queen, the suitors…”
            “…shall wait until tomorrow as well.  I’ll hear no more today.”  With that, she departed from the court and returned to her chambers, leaving the assembly in dumbfounded silence.
****
            Arnaer paced the hall outside his chambers muttering furiously to himself.  He was still hot from the fight with the queen and had little interest in carrying out her decree.  The very thought of setting up a farming operation on the far side of the kingdom made him sick.  The logistics of it would be a nightmare. 
            “Why so intent on Salna, Master Farmer?”  Arnaer started and whirled around to see a worn looking man in brown robes standing behind him.  He had not heard him approach.
            “Who are you?  How long have you been standing there?” he demanded.
            “My name is Shelleck,” the man said with a smile.  “I am coming from an audience with the queen, just as you are.  I was sent out in much the same way as a matter of fact.  Curious how she treats those who offer her sound council.”  Arnaer eyed the man with suspicion, but he was glad to have a sympathetic ear. 
            “Reclaiming land on the Planes of Lita will be a long, difficult process.  The fields must be cleared and tilled.  That means moving all manner of equipment across the kingdom well past where the rivers reach.  The land under Salna is already cleared and ready to be planted.  Moving the Caloren would be difficult, yes, but nothing compared what must be done in Lita.  The Caloren can find other homes; the can even work the farms if they wish.”
            “It sounds as though you have this well thought out.  It is a shame the queen would not hear your reasoning.” 
            “The queen hears nothing but here own misguided sense of justice,” Arnaer said gruffly.  “What does she know of the inner workings of the kingdom?  She’s barely out of the nursery.” 
            “You needn’t tell me twice, my lord,” Shelleck replied glumly.  “I came offering glad tidings from the west and an opportunity to expand the glory of the realm.  What do I get for my troubles?  My words were barely considered and I was treated like a fool.  When I warned her of the dangers of inaction, she spat in my face and expelled me from her court.  Such a terrible way to treat a herald such as myself.” 
            “What tidings from the west have you brought, good sir?” Arnaer asked in an excited whisper.  Shelleck looked at him as though confused for a moment.  Arnaer feared him senile until a bright look flashed across his face as though he suddenly understood.
            “Oh yes, the tidings,” he said with a shrug.  “Just that civil war has broken out in Canimar.  The realm is in danger of tearing itself apart.”  A hungry look shot across Arnaer’s face.  Shelleck had seen the same look moments before on the face of the queen’s uncle. 
            “Why, that would be a great opportunity indeed,” Arnaer said with a far off look.  “A weakened Canimar would be ripe for the conquering.  My grandfather would finally be avenged.”
            “Aye, that was my very suggestion, but the queen would hear none of it.  Would that your father had been born first and you stood next in succession.  I sense that you are a man who is willing to do all that is necessary for the prosperity of his people and the honor of his house.  I fear that the queen cares only for her own throne and her misguided idea of justice.  Is it justice, what happened to your grandfather?”
            “Most certainly not,” Arnaer hissed.  “How can she sit in her chambers and ignore this golden opportunity?  How can she not see our revenge ripe for the taking?” 
            “Inaction is, at times, the wicked betrayal of all,” Shelleck said thoughtfully.
            “You have the right in that, master Shelleck; but how can I make her see reason?  She cannot sit back and let this moment pass.  It would border on treason to her realm.”  Shelleck frowned and turned away.  He paced for a few moments as though deep in thought.
            “It may be that she will never see reason no matter what you say,” he replied.  “But perhaps you can appeal to others on her council.  If they could see her failure in leadership, then they may be amicable to a change of royal policy.”  Shelleck fell silent, letting his words echo in Arnaer’s mind.  The Master Farmer paced uneasily as he considered the stranger’s words.
            “But how,” he muttered to himself.  “What could sway the council to defy their queen?”
            “My lord, if I may,” Shelleck said with a shallow bow.  “It is in times of crisis that leaders are either proved worthy or found wanting.  Perhaps a test of sorts will show her true character.”
            “What sort of test?” Arnaer asked with a suspicious glare. 
            “I have heard rumor that the black Goblins of Ghar grow restless.  Should they enter the Pass of Frenia, the kingdom would undoubtedly have its hands full in turning them back.”
            “You speak madness,” Arnaer hissed.  “The Goblins have never been seen south of the mountains.” 
            “Perhaps they could be persuaded to venture across your borders if they thought the throne too weak to repel them,” Shelleck retorted slyly.  Sweat broke on Arnaer’s brow as he processed the strange man’s words. 
            “This talk is treason,” he said nervously. 
            “Your cousin’s inaction is treason,” Shelleck replied.  Arnaer turned away and ran a shaky hand over his moistened brow.  His mind raced.
            “It is a difficult choice, I know, but you must think of your people.  Once the council has declared the queen unfit to rule, they will turn to you.”
            “Unfit to rule?” Arnaer muttered uneasily.  “This is dark business.  It will be a victory won by the blood of my own people.”
            “Blood is grease on the wheels of time, my friend, and time will reveal you to be the rightful ruler; not just of the children of Cane, but of the entire land of Iden.  Give me leave and I will make you the most powerful man this land has ever seen.”  He paused for a moment, before adding absentmindedly: “for the good of the people, of course.”
            Arnaer barely heard him.  His mind was racing with visions of power and glory.  He saw himself on a beautiful gilded throne, the lords of Canimar and Ardimar kneeling before him.  He saw the masses cheering his name in the streets.  The desire proved too much for him.  He turned to face the worn man in the brown robes and acquiesced with a silent nod.  A thin smile spread across Shelleck’s face and he turned away without a word.
****
            The following morning, the worn man’s words still clouded Mira’s thoughts, but her aunt insisted that the suitors could wait no longer.  Lane had chosen three that she thought most suitable for the queen.  Two she knew.  Duke Marlon of Frenia had been a close friend of the royal family for as long as she could remember.  As the guardian of the pass that led through the nearly impassable mountains of Ghar, his loyalty was of utmost importance to the realm.  Count Kalhn was of lower birth than the Duke, but high in the esteem of the realm.  He had earned his title and lands in battle at a young age and many saw him and his family as rising stars in Ardimar.  A union with Count Kalhn would insure the allegiance of a house growing in power.       The third man, Lord Ponas of Bour, she had only heard of through royal correspondences.  His lands lay on the southern coasts of Ardimar and he was constantly requesting the aid of the throne.  If it was not an increase of food shipments for his people, it was a demand that more troops be added to his garrison.  He was a willful man, strong of arm and fierce of spirit, but much older than the other two.  Mira admired his conviction, but found his demeanor distasteful.
            “Bour is our southernmost outpost and the most active port in the realm besides the capital,” he said, gesturing resolutely to a map he had laid out in front of her.  “There are no major fortifications between Bour and the capital, only small towns.  If Bour falls, an enemy could move freely towards Ardiwain on both land and sea.  Few strongholds can boast of greater importance to your throne.”
            “Few indeed,” Marlon interjected.  “But none can boast greater importance than Frenia.  Who knows what horrors might enter our realm were the pass unguarded.”  There was a brief pause before he added: “I do, of course, but few others.”
            “The importance of Frenia has been recognized time and again,” Ponas replied.  “Your lands are granted five times the garrison Bour has received.  The common folk of my lands doubt your resolve to protect them, my liege.” 
            “Surely you do not mean to question our fair queen’s devotion to these lands?” Marlon retorted.  Ponas’ face grew a deep red in his embarrassment.
            “Forgive me your grace,” he said, bowing furiously.  “I only meant to highlight the wisdom in uniting our houses.”  Mira had listened to the exchange with disinterest.  She found neither man terribly enticing, though her familiarity with Duke Marlon made her favor him marginally.
            “Of course, of course,” she said distantly.  “I would never suspect anything but loyalty from the Lord of Bour.  But what of you, Lord Admiral?  What have you to say in your favor?”  Count Kalhn had remained strangely quiet throughout the audience.  Mira reasoned that he may have felt out of place amongst such high born men.  To be fair, his sharp features were argument enough, but Mira was too wise to be swayed by looks alone.  The Lord Admiral smiled meekly and made a low bow.
            “My queen, I fear I have no grand statement.  All that I have I already owe the throne.  I am from no great house, nor do I hold lands key to the kingdom’s safety.  I can say only that it would be my deepest honor to wed your grace.  Since I first beheld you at your coronation, I have thought you the fairest woman to ever grace this land.”
            “Your flattery is well articulated,” Mira replied.  “Your manner is less coarse than your competitors, but I fear their arguments are strong.  I must deliberate.  Please leave my chambers; I will speak with the three of you individually at a later time.  Thank you.”  Ponas and Marlon gave each other hostile looks, but Kalhn bowed quickly and left.  The other two followed suit, though unhappily.  As the door closed behind them, Lane opened her mouth, but Mira cut her off.
            “Marlon is most likely the best choice.  We are closer in age and the Frenia is the most important fortification in the empire.  Honestly, I am surprised our houses have not already been unified.” 
            “Marlon would be a wise choice,” Aunt Lane replied.  “Ponas makes a fair point, but his age calls his ability to fulfill his duties into question and he has not always been the most loyal supporter of the throne.  He likens himself lord of his own domain.  What about young Count Kalhn?”
            “What about him?” Mira asked idly.  “His house has little to offer the throne at this time.”
            “He is handsome though,” Lane said with a sly smile.  Mira rolled her eyes.
            “What is that to me?”
            “The royal couple must make an heir, dear niece.  A fine-looking man like the Count would make that duty easier.  Besides, there is no question who rules this land.  What need does the throne have of a tactical marriage?” 
            “That is fair,” Mira said thoughtfully.  “He is a striking young man, but why waste an opportunity to ensure the loyalty of a powerful house?”
            “The Dukes of Frenia have ever been the throne’s most ardent supporters.  I do not think you need to worry about them.  The house of Kalhn, however, is new and largely unknown.  Count Kalhn is wise in the ways of war.  He would make a fine advisor when your uncle passes.”
            “That is a grim thought.”
            “But a frank one,” Lane replied.  “Marlon is a wise choice, but consider Count Kalhn.” 
            “Very well.  I shall make my decision tomorrow after my meeting with the council.”
****
            Mira could hear her uncle shouting from down the corridor as she approached the council chamber.  She entered, unnoticed at first, and listened intently.
            “This is outrageous!” Canit cried.  “It is impossible!”
            “I assure you it is quite possible,” Marlon replied.  “My heralds bring no lies.  I do agree, however, that it is outrageous.”
            “What is so outrageous?” Mira asked.  The room fell silent and Canit gave a quick bow.
            “A messenger from Frenia arrived this morning, your grace.  Goblins have been seen in the pass.  They attacked and plundered a small food shipment.”  Mira’s stomach turned at the words.  She crept forward uneasily and took her place around the council table.  Her advisors looked at her in silence.  Marlon tapped nervously on the table while Baris, the Lord General, ran his hands over a map of Frenia.  Her uncle began to pace anxiously and Arnaer’s face slowly turned a sickly pale.  Her aunt Lane had a blank, distant expression.  Wise as they were, they were all waiting for her to speak. 
            “How long can the fortifications at Frenia hold out?” she asked calmly.
            “That is difficult to assess,” Marlon replied.  “We have no way of knowing how many they are.  I strongly doubt that any force could overcome my garrison in less than four days.” 
            “Very good.  Lord General?”
            “Yes, your grace?” Baris looked up from his map only long enough to hear her orders.
            “You will need to bring reinforcements from your standing army to Frenia within a week’s time.”
            “Of course, your grace,” his gaze returning to his map.  “I am already planning our moves.”
            “You are dismissed then,” Mira said sternly.  “Send a member of your staff to consult in your place.  We will need to raise replacement troops for the ones you are taking north.”  Baris looked up with a look of mild shock.
            “Dismissed?”
            “Aye, I want your forces in Frenia in five days.  I’ll take no chances with my people’s protection.”  Baris rose uneasily and bowed before hurrying out of the chamber.  Mira watched him go and waited until the door was closed to continue.
            “Now that provisions have been made to deal with this problem, how is it we find ourselves in this situation?  I was under the impression the Goblins never left the mountains.”
            “We have run across them below Ghar from time to time,” Marlon replied.  “They always move in small raiding parties if ever.  Something has them riled up, but we have no way of knowing what it is.  The party my scouts spotted in the pass was over five hundred strong and it looked as though they were making camp.  If they’re waiting in the pass, they’re probably waiting for more.” 
            “I see.  Any indication of their motivation?” Mira asked.  Marlon shrugged.
            “The destruction of our people?  What more motivation does a goblin need?” 
            “I think it unwise to settle for so simple an answer,” Mira said sternly.  “If they attacked a food shipment perhaps they are hungry.  There is ground to grow on in the mountains and raiding to the north is perilous.”
            “Are you suggesting we feed invaders in our land?” Canit said half in horror. 
            “My hope is that if we attack the reason for their unrest, we might yet avoid bloodshed.  They were looking for food, after all.”
            “This is folly,” Canit cried, his face growing red.  “They were looking for blood, not food.  If we supply them, they’ll field an army twice as large!  We’ll…”  Canit continued, but Mira barely heard.  A strange misgiving nibbled at the back of her mind.  Something about the attack did not make sense.  She turned to Arnaer with a quizzical look.
            “What was a food caravan doing inside the pass in the first place?” she asked over the still raised voice of her uncle.  Her cousin turned to her with a startled look.
            “Eh, er…what’s that?”  Mira’s eyes narrowed.
            “I was told a food caravan was raided in the pass, but where was it headed?”  Arnaer shifted nervously in his seat.
            “Well,” he said, pausing to clear his throat.  “I would have to check my records…”
            “Then do it,” Mira said crossly.  Arnaer nodded furiously, but stayed put.  He shifted some papers around in front of him.
            “A little more quickly than that,” Mira hissed.  Arnaer hopped out of his seat and hurried towards the door.  When he had left, she turned her attention to the Duke of Frenia.
            “Marlon, I think it would be best if you returned to your lands and lead the defensive.”  Marlon nodded and rose, but paused by his chair.
            “Your grace,” he said.  “I would ask you a favor, if you would permit it.”
            “Speak.”
            “My force is strong, but I would not take chances our people’s safety.  Grant me a portion of your garrison and galleys for transport that I might reinforce my lands immediately.”
            “And weaken our defenses on both land and sea?” Canit growled.  “That is madness.”  Mira raised her hands to stay her uncle.  She did not relish the idea of weakening the city, but she saw the wisdom in sending her soldiers to the greatest threat. 
            “Very well, you may take half the garrison.”  Canit looked as though he would faint, but Mira ignored him.  “Now go, quickly.  Waste no more time.”  Marlon bowed quickly and hurried out the door, leaving only Mira and her aunt and uncle.  Canit sat down in a huff and shook his head. 
            “That was a foolish move,” he said.  “It will end poorly for us.”
            “It just may, but we have another pressing matter to attend to.  The brown clad man warned us that darkness would spill into the kingdom.”
            “You think he may have a hand in this,” Lane said.  Canit pounded a clenched fist on the table.
            “He’ll hang for this treachery!” he shouted.
            “I fear there is a greater treachery afoot,” Mira replied calmly.  Canit looked confused, but a sudden realization sprang upon Lane’s face.
            “Visitors to the court must be sponsored by a Lord in good standing with the court,” she said with a gasp. “One of our own is working with him.” 
            “I fear things will only grow worse if we do not find out who.”  Canit rose to his feet quickly.
            “Of course,” he said.  “I shall have my people investigate.”
            “Only people you trust deeply, Uncle.”  Canit bowed and left the chamber.  Mira sat back in her chair with a sigh.
            “These are dark days that I fear will only grow darker,” she whispered.  Lane placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. 
            “Fear not the darkness, Mira.  Your ancestors have always stayed strong in the face of great darkness, but we have thus far remained unconquered.”


The Queen on the Throne Unconquered can be found in its entirety as a Kindle download on Amazon.com

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Dragon Catchers

This is another story from Iden, the land I created for my book series, The Book of Iden.  Just a reminder, if you are confused at all about any locations, you can click on the page titled 'The Northern Kingdom' for a map.  This one shouldn't need any extra explanation like the last one, so please enjoy!




            In the cradle of the Kharna Geihn, the House of Gharan has long been the tip of the spear for the King.  None outside the royal family are held in higher esteem, but that was not always so.  Since the days of the Northern Peninsula, the Gharans had lived in the northern mountains, separated from the rest of humans.  They were part of Cane’s tribe, but most considered them to be outsiders, for they had little contact with the other Houses.  Many other members of the tribe were suspicious of the Gharans because of their isolation.  Others thought them to be arrogant in their view of those outside their own house.  Either way, few facts were known about the mysterious Gharans.
            The stories that were told amongst the Sons of Cane about the Gharan tribe ranged from viciously slanderous to fantastically unbelievable.  One of the most popular stories spread was that the first Gharans had been deserters from the Creation War.  They were a band of cowards who fled to the mountains in an attempt to hide from the wrath of the Divine Lord Adonesha.  As punishment for their cowardice, Adonesha banished the dragons of Solgerunth to those same mountains.  Since then, the Gharans have fought the dragons for dominion over the mountains. 
            Few truly believe this tale.  The idea of a band of cowards keeping a host of dragons at bay is preposterous.  However, the few facts known about the Gharans are startling.  They lived in the mountains, making their homes in great caves hewn into the rock, and they undoubtedly battled dragons.  On the rare occasions in which they ventured down from the mountains, the Gharans brought with them dragon bones and teeth for trading.  When asked of their origin, they answered with silence and moved on to the next merchant willing to trade.  It was this that made many of Cane’s tribe hold them in fear and awe.  Any time they came into a town, anxious eyes followed them and breathless voices whispered: Dragon Catchers.  This is the tale of how they came to be the sword hand of the King.
****
            In the days after Cane’s death, when the flight from the Peninsula was merely a distant memory in the minds of the very old and Cane II had sat on his father’s throne for thirty years, the Northern Kingdom was flourishing.  The fields around Murtland and Bard’s Hallow overflowed with wheat and barley and the orchards of Glowen provided the whole land with fresh fruits.  The people of the kingdom were fruitful as well.  Cane II saw the size of his tribe triple since he ascended to the throne.  The King himself had seen his family grow, fathering two sons: Cane, the elder and heir to the throne and Collen, the younger.  Cane III was much like his father and his father’s father before him.  He was broad of chest and of a sturdy build.  He was single minded in his love of power and unspoken fear of foreign domination.  The expulsion had left a dark mark in the mind of the Northern Kings.  Cane II told his son stories of the Peninsula and the harsh treatment his people had received their, passing his father’s bitterness down to his heir.  When Cane left that land, he vowed that never again would his people suffer any rule but their own, and he meant to keep that vow by spilling the blood of any who might oppose him.  He would ride out to war in an instant at the slightest inkling of a threat and battle relentlessly without care for carnage on either side.  His son had inherited this fierce love of battle, as had his elder grandson.
            Collen, however, was not so eager to shed blood as his brethren.  When he looked at the lands of the north, he saw not a kingdom surviving only by the sword, but a vast fruitful land with everything necessary to support his father’s tribe.  He saw no need for brash wars of expansion against beings that had made no threatening gestures aside from existing.  Collen never felt the same bitterness when his father told stories of the far north, for he cared little about the way things had been.  In his mind, the Northern Kingdom was a paradise far beyond anything the Peninsula could have been.  Collen was slow to anger and wise in his council, but Collen was not the heir.
            Still, life in the Northern Kingdom had grown calm in the latter days of Cane II’s rule.  Though in his heart he wished for war, he often heeded his younger son’s council; a fact that often angered his heir.  Cane III preferred the old days, when he would ride out to battle beside his father to the blare of trumpets.  He had known bloodshed since he could remember and the idea of peace left him uncomfortable.  He resented his brother for the sway he held in the court and he resented his father for what he thought was cowardice.  Cane II had once been a bold warrior, but all that his son saw now was a craven old shell of a king. 
            What his son did not know, was that the king was not long for the land of Iden.  It was a secret held by a small number of his closest advisors, for he did not wish to appear weak to the outside world, but the fact could not be denied.  The king was dying.  This knowledge had brought to light many of the things that Collen saw and softened the heart of the old man.  Alone in his chambers, he made a secret vow to himself that the realm would not make war again while he still sat on the throne.  For five years, he kept that promise and the kingdom prospered, until a messenger from the northern farmlands appeared in his court and uttered the last word anyone wanted to hear: dragons.
****
            Prince Cane jumped from his seat by his father’s side.
            “Dragons?” he said with a mixture of excitement and astonishment.  “I shall lead a host out at once to turn them back!”  The Prince turned to leave but was frozen in place by a raise of his father’s hand. 
            “Let us not be so rash, my son,” he said in a thin, weak voice.  “The northern fringes have long been plagued by rogue dragons.  Let the messenger continue.”  The king nodded to the courier.
            “Thank you, my lord.  As I said, the northern farmlands are beset upon by dragons.  They burn our fields and devour our flocks.  We cannot turn them back for there are too many.  Never have so many invaded our lands at once.”  The king’s face grew severe. 
            “What of Lord Bard and the North Guard?  They are tasked with defense of those lands.  What are they doing to stop this tide?”  The messenger shook his head sadly.
            “That is even graver news.  When the attacks started, Lord Bard led his knights out in battle against them.  He and his men were brave and fought valiantly, but none survived.  The dragons were too great in number.”
            “Not one survived?” the Prince shouted incredulously.
            “My word, Lord Bard dead?” the king whispered in disbelief.  Prince Cane rose from his chair and turned to his father.
            “You see now we have no choice.  Let me raise an army to push these beasts back into the mountains!”  The king did not seem to hear.
            “My dear friend Lord Bard…dead without an heir,” he said in a cold voice.  The Prince began to grow impatient.
            “This is not the time to dwell on losses, father.  Give me leave to build my army,” he said more forcefully than anyone had heard him speak to the king.  His father looked deep in thought, his eyes darting back and forth.
            “Perhaps…perhaps…” he whispered.  The Prince would wait no longer.
            “We have no choice,” he said, standing erect by his father’s chair as though it were his.  “We must build the army.  Heralds, inform the Lord General that…
            “Ah-hem,” came a polite yet loud interruption.   Prince Cane turned angrily to see his younger brother standing patiently in the wings.  He walked forward briskly, but not in undue haste, carrying with him an air of calm precaution.  His older brother curled his lip in disgust as he approached, but Collen paid him little heed.
            “I do not believe our father gave any such order, dear brother, nor would he intend to so brashly.  Besides, there may be another course of action that would lead to less bloodshed,” Collen finished with a smile. His appearance was flawless, but behind the mask of calm, his mind raced.  He knew open war against the dragons could be disastrous, but he also knew the folly of defying his older brother.  Collen did his best to fight his brother sparingly.  It did not do to have a future king on ones bad side.
            “This is foolishness.  The longer we delay, the longer…” he was again silenced by a raise of his father’s hand.
            “Sit, my heir.  Never reject good council.”  He nodded to his younger son as Prince Cane grumbled.
            “Good council,” he snorted.  “More like the craven wallowing of a coward.”
            “Be that as it may, brother,” Collen said with forced confidence, “The council of those who fear death may prove to prevent it, while those who welcome death get just that.  I should think our objective in this matter would be to avoid further death.” 
            “What do you propose, my son?” his father said as Prince Cane sat down in anger.  Collen shifted uncomfortable and cleared his throat once more.
            “Our soldiers are strong and brave fighters, indeed, but they are trained to fight the wild tribes and the half people.  Dragons are a different challenge entirely, especially at such a large number.  If the North Guard could not turn them back, what number of knights do you suppose could?”  The king’s eyes narrowed.
            “Enough riddles son, say what you mean,” he said calmly. 
            “Well, perhaps we need a force with more…er, specialized skills,” Collen continued, his voice wavering slightly.  His father and brother gave him hard looks, but silence prevailed.  He felt a cold sweat on his brow and he wrung his hands nervously.
            “Perhaps the Gharan tribe could be of service.”  The response was immediate and outraged.
            “The Gharans?” his father replied in shock.
            “The cursed recluses of the mountains?” shouted his brother.
            “They are outcasts,” continued his father.
            “Cowardly traitors,” added Prince Cane.
            “Dragon catchers,” Collen said sternly.  “Every year they come to the villages of the north with dragon bones, teeth and hides.  They live in the very mountains where the dragons roost.  Surely they must know secrets that we do not.  They could aid us in the protection of our lands.” 
            “Perhaps,” the king said stiffly, “but I have no wish to offer up our defense to outside protectors.  Protectors soon become overlords and those they protect are soon banished from the lands they once held.  I will not hand over my kingdom to the House of Gharan.
            “They would not be protectors, Father, simply soldiers at your command.  Perhaps we could offer the head of their house lordship in exchange for his services.”
            “Invest that den of vipers?” shouted his outraged brother.  “What do we truly know about these so called ‘dragon catchers?’ 
            “That is true,” the king interjected.  “We do know very little about the House of Gharan.  Perhaps this is our chance to learn more about them.”  Prince Cane’s face grew red, but he kept his mouth shut.  Prince Collen nodded graciously.
            “Very good, father.  I shall assemble an envoy to send immediately.  I feel that Lord Hartly would be the best choice to lead.”
            “Oh no,” the king said sternly.  “This may well be a dangerous mission with little hope of success.  That being said, it is also a very important mission.  You shall go yourself.”  Collen choked on a lump that popped into his throat.
            “Myself?  Surely you jest, father,” he said, startled.  His father shook his head.
            “I am most definitely serious, my son.  And what’s more, I have further instructions.  While you are of begging favors of exiles, I want you to learn all you can about them.  I wish to know all there is to know about our would-be saviors.  That is my decree.”  Collen opened his mouth to object, but his father turned away and rose from his throne.  Without looking back, he made his way slowly out of the court and into his chambers, leaving Collen and his brother behind.  Prince Cane eyed Collen angrily.
            “Mark my words, brother.  I will not wait forever on your fool’s errand.  You have a fortnight to sway these mountain lords and then I will make my war.”  He turned abruptly on his heels and left the court.  Collen sat down with a heavy sigh.  Brilliant, he thought.  A fine way to get myself killed.  We don’t even know where to find them.  Collen sat back in his chair and pondered the journey ahead of him.  Next time I have an idea I’ll just keep it to myself…
****
            The cold mountain air blew across Andricor’s face as he kept watch from the within the crags of Mount Habitroth.  High above him, a bird cried out mournfully as it circled the peak of the mountain.  It was an awesome sight to see, the great birds of the mountains soaring up above, but not the sight for which he kept his vigil.  He shifted uncomfortably, sucked in the thin air and cursed his father’s harsh discipline.  It did not do for a man of his birth to be subjected to sentry duty.  The Gharan tribe had many lower families from which sentries could be gleaned, but his father insisted that his sons take active roles in the defense of the valley his people called home.  Andricor had assumed that would mean taking charge of a hunting party.  In fact, he had been so certain this was the case that he immediately assembled and equipped his own expedition. 
            How furious his father had been when he’d heard of this.  Traditionally, only the head of the tribe could organize hunting parties, and his behavior was a direct challenge to his father’s authority.  Andricor had intended no such offense, but when his father confronted him, he had responded defiantly.  His father, ever the level-headed leader, informed his son that, should he wish to form his own tribe, he would be more than welcome to take those who would follow into the mountains on their own.  Those who left would not be allowed to return, including Andricor.  He had watched silently as those around him slowly moved away from his side.  Seeing he that had no choice, he had fallen to one knee and begged his father’s forgiveness.  The gracious head of the Gharan tribe granted it and ordered his son to take up the mountain watch.
            Andricor shivered against the wind and pulled his cloak more tightly around himself.  Leaning back against a rocky outcropping, he continued to brood in silence.  Mists still covered the peaks of the mountains of the west, but to the east he could just make out a shoreline in the distance, and the mountains turned to hills and sloped down to the sea.  He had never seen the waters up close.  When he was younger, he had dreamed of one day visiting the ocean and braving the waves.  Such thoughts seemed foolish to him now.  The Gharans were the lords of the sky and they made their homes high above the waters and the fields.  He belonged in the mountains and he was fiercely proud of his heritage.  Andricor was born in the mists of the northern range and he was certain he would die there as well.
            A cry from high above him broke Andricor from his contemplation.  He looked up and saw the great bird wheel midair; turning towards the south.  Andricor followed its trajectory downward until he saw two small figures near the narrow trail that ran around the mountain.  The smaller of the two appeared to be a man huddled against a rock swatting blindly upward at the other figure, which was hovering just out of his reach.
            “Dragon,” he whispered and sprung into action.  Scrambling down from his vantage point to another rocky outcropping just below, he picked up a large horn and blew.  The sound echoed off the mountains, filling the area from peak to valley with sound.  Dropping the horn, he hurried to the end of the outcropping.  Leaping outward into space, he plunged ten feet and landed on the slanted side of the mountain.  He slid another ten feet until he reached the path and then took off running at full speed.
            By the time he reached the scene it was already over.  The dragon lay dead on the rocky slope beside the trail with the bird perched a few feet away, preening its feathers.  It eyed him suspiciously as he approached and he wisely chose to keep his distance.  Damnation, he thought, cursing his slowness.  Another chance missed.
            Heaving a heavy sigh, he looked around for the unknown traveler.  He found him huddled between two boulders just off the path.  When the man heard him coming, he looked up startled.  There was something familiar about the look of him, but Andricor could not quite place it.  The thought gnawed at him a bit, but there was a more pressing matter at hand.
            “Who are you and what business do you have in these lands?” he asked, donning his most severe tone.  The stranger peered out from behind the boulders nervously.
            “I-is it dead?” he stuttered.  Andricor shrugged and looked back at the creature.
            “Seems to be,” he replied nonchalantly.  The man slowly made his way out from his hiding place.
            “That’s a dragon,” he said in disbelief.  Andricor sighed.
            “It was, yes,” he replied impatiently.
            “It’s so big and…scaly…” the stranger continued.
            “Indeed,” Andricor answered curtly.  “It’s a dragon.”
            “I’ve never seen one in person before.  It’s so…big…”  Andricor turned back to the dragon and looked it over.  From tip to tail it was about the size of two full grown men.  A yearling, he thought, laughing to himself.  He turned back to the young man huddled behind him and shook his head.
            “Now, who are you and what business do you have in this realm?”  Andricor’s official tone seemed to bring the young man back to his senses and he rose to his feet.  He gave a shallow bow and then stood as erect as possible.
            “I am an envoy from the king of the north.  I wish to speak to the Chieftain of the Gharan.”  At once, Andricor realized why the young man had seemed so familiar: the rusty brown hair, the pale blue eyes, the proud protruding nose.  He had seen a similar likeness in the books kept by his father’s scribes.
            “You are of the House of Cane, are you not?”  The young man responded with a smile.
            “Indeed I am.  My father is King Cane II,” he said proudly.  Andricor frowned.
            “Odd that a man of your father’s stature would send his own heir into such a hazardous land.  He must care very little for your safety,” he said, without a trace of humor.  The young man chuckled nervously.
            “Er, no.  I am his younger son.  Collen is my name.”  Andricor looked him over, clearly unimpressed.
            “Ah, that would be why.”  Collen frowned.  He was fairly certain that his father cared greatly for him, though the situation did seem to point rather conclusively to the contrary.  The thought was disconcerting, but he tried to put it behind him and focus on the task at hand.  He cleared his throat meekly and continued.
            “Yes, but as I said, I wish to speak to the Chieftain of your clan.” 
            “Why would our chieftain want to hear what you have to say?” Andricor asked. 
            “I was sent by the king,” Collen answered, assuming that would suffice.  Andricor laughed derisively. 
            “There is no king in these lands,” he replied, his voice thinly layered with scorn.  “Gharel of the Gharan rules these lands and suffers no outsider’s law.  Take your royal decrees elsewhere.”  Collen was taken aback.  He knew he would not be welcomed with open arms, but he had expected the word of the king to carry at least some weight. 
            “Well,” he said, trying to think diplomatically.  “That being the case, would it not be best if he were the one to decide which envoys to receive and which to reject?”
            “Are you suggesting that I am ignorant of his wishes?”  Collen stared at him, perplexed for a moment.
            “Forgive me when I say this; I mean no disrespect, but you are just a sentry, are you not?  Surely Gharel does not share his mind with all those in his tribe.”  Andricor’s first reaction was anger, but he quickly realized there was no way a man from the kingdom would know his identity.  Still, it stung his pride to be unknown in the very lands he would someday rule. 
            “I am Andricor, son of Gharel and heir of Gharan, no lowly sentry,” he said bitterly. 
            “I see,” Collen replied, taken aback for a moment.  Then, as he remembered his own situation, it did not seem so odd. 
            “Gharel expects much of his sons.  Our fathers have that in common.”
            “Our fathers have nothing in common,” Andricor snapped.  Collen tried to remain diplomatic, but the young heir’s attitude was beginning to irritate him.
            “Well, be that as it may, as the son of a leader of men myself, I can say with great certainty that your father would not appreciate you usurping his position while he still lives.”  Andricor donned a hard look, but behind his resistant fa├žade, he knew Collen was right.  His father would be furious to hear that Andricor had presumed to speak for him.  He relented, but kept his prickly demeanor.
            “Very well,” he said, subconsciously trying to appear taller.  “I shall take you to see my father, but I doubt he will be happy to see you.  The Gharans deplore uninvited guests.” 
            “I shall keep that in mind,” Collen replied with a hint of defiance.  Andricor turned away from Collen and headed north along the path.  He whistled at the large bird still perched a few feet away and it pounced on the dragon corpse with a pleasured caw.  Collen started a bit at the sudden flurry of feathers and the sound of tearing dragon scales.
            “Was that bird waiting for you?” he asked in disbelief.  His question went unanswered as Andricor decided he would say no more to the king’s son.  Collen was annoyed, but he decided it was for the best.  They continued in silence until they reached home of the Gharan tribe. 
            Such a home it was that Collen gasped when he saw it.  The sight came about quite unexpectedly.  There had been little to see along the path that led north into the mountains save rock and a few spare brushes.  As they traveled, the mountain to the east began to bear in towards them.  After a while, it came in so close that it rose up like a wall to their right.  The path narrowed even more, nearly to the point where both sides came together when it suddenly and unexpectedly opened into a vast green valley surrounded by mountains on all sides.  Collen could never have conceived of such a sight when he had first spotted the northern range. 
            The valley was not lush by normal standards.  Trees and other vegetation grew sparsely, mostly around a thin blue lake that snaked its way from one side to the other.  Livestock dotted a large green field on the far side of the river and a handful of small cottages rose up out of the meadows.  Most of the population seemed to reside on the near side of the river.  Small huts on the eastern edge of the valley gave way to larger and larger buildings as his eyes swept west.  The structures flowed across the land and up the slopes on the western end, culminating in an enormous fortress that rose out of the mountainside.  Collen stood awestruck by the scene before him, so much so that he had not noticed Andricor continuing down the path and out of sight.  When he realized he was alone, he started a bit and hurried off after his guide.
            The trek across the valley to the lower parts of the palace took the better part of an hour.  The streets were not so densely populated as his home in Canniwain, but otherwise the little city reminded Collen very much of home.  He could hear blacksmiths and cobblers hard at work in their shops, while other citizens walked the streets trading their goods for services.  Andricor strode proudly ahead of him to a chorus of salutations.
            “Good day, m’lord,” a woman said with a bow.  “Great health to the son of Gharel!” another shouted.  Andricor acknowledged them both with a smile.  Collen followed close behind, but the crowds paid him little heed.  A stranger in their land was not simply unwelcome, but wholly uninteresting.  The Gharan clan simply did not care about the outside world.  While not always the focus of attention, Collen was used to a certain level of esteem and recognition.   In the valley of Gharan, he was nothing. 
            When they reached the palace, the gates opened without so much as a gesture and Andricor led him inside.  The palace interior was quite a sight.  While not gilded and ornate like the king’s palace, it was decorated with elaborate stone carvings and vibrant tapestries.  Collen was overcome with the urge to stop and examine them, but Andricor did not break stride.  He marched briskly through the entrance hall and disappeared through a doorway at the far end.  Collen hurried off after him.  The door led to a hallway which turned left and right and left again before winding about so much that Collen could no longer tell which direction he was headed until he nearly collided with Adricor who was waiting impatiently by a large oak door.  Collen smiled nervously as he turned away and pushed open the doors.  As he opened the door, he called out in a loud voice:
            “Andricor, son of Gharel.  I bring to the Chieftain a herald from the king in the south.”  He gestured for Collen to follow him and he entered the hall, donning his most regal policies.  In the center of the room, Gharel of the Gharan sat in a large wooden chair. The lord of the mountains cut a fearsome sight dressed in a dragon scale tunic, a dragon bone scepter lying across his lap.  He eyed them both suspiciously, but his first words were for his son.
            “Strange that you appear here when your shift on the mountain top does not end until the evening,” he said in a booming voice befitting a leader of men.  Andricor lowered his head.
            “I am sorry, my lord.  I saw this traveler being harassed by a young dragon and hurried to his aid.  When he told me of his charge, I thought it best to bring him to you immediately.”  This version of the events from the morning did not sound entirely correct to Collen, but he decided to keep this to himself.  He had no wish to shame Andricor in his father’s court.  Gharel seemed angry enough already.
            “The duty of a sentry is to keep the watch, not collect heralds,” Gharel replied contemptuously.  “Abandoning your post to see to this stranger has put the lives of my people in danger.”  Andricor’s face flushed red.
            “I am sorry father,” he said as he fell to one knee.  “I shall return at once to my p-”
            “Enough,” Gharel interrupted.  “Char has already been sent to replace you.  Stand aside for now.  I shall deal with you later.”  Andricor rose and gave a deep bow.  He hurried off to the far side of the hall, but not before giving Collen an angry look.  No doubt Andricor blamed him for this admonishment.  If his father had half the distaste for outsiders that he had, Collen was certain this mission was destined for failure.  When Gharel turned to face him, Collen’s insides turned and his hands began to shake.  He put them behind his back and bowed politely, doing his best to look like a courtly gentleman.  Gharel’s eyes narrowed for a moment and Collen thought he could sense his anger.  He was about to take a step backward when Gharel’s rough face cracked into a broad smile.
            “Welcome to my hall, messenger of the southern king!  I am Gharel, son of Ghareth and lord of the Gharan.”  Collen let out a sigh of relief, but quickly caught himself. 
            “I am Collen, son of-”
            “My word,” Gharel said, rising from his chair.  “The king has sent his message carried by his own blood?  This must be dire indeed.” 
            “Y-you know who I am?” Collen asked, glancing over at Andricor.  He had not expected recognition in these halls after his rather cold welcome.  Gharel let out a deep, rumbling laugh.
            “One does not easily hide the blood of Cane.  You’ll be the younger then?”
            “Indeed I am.  My father sends his regards.” 
            “His regards and what else?” Gharel replied snootily.
            “I beg your pardon?” Collen said nervously.  His host chuckled and shook his head.
            “What is the meaning of your visit, young Prince?  Certainly his grace did not send you all this way with only salutations.”
            “Ah, yes,” Collen said with a shaky voice.  “My father requests the expertise of the Gharan tribe with a certain problem.”
            “I see,” Gharel replied almost gleefully.  “And what kind of problem is that?”  Collen swallowed uncomfortable and cleared his throat.
            “Dragons.” 
            “A dragon, eh,” Gharel answered with a wily smile.  “I suppose that would be a problem for you lowland folk.  You have come here to ask us to rid you of this pest?  It seems to me a small show of force would push the offending creature out.”
            “Er, begging your pardon, sir; not a dragon.  Several dragons.  The field hands reported four score at last count, but you know how unreliable country folk can be when it comes to such stories.”  Gharel looked at him open mouth.
            “Eighty dragons you say?  Impossible!  In all my years amongst these mountains I have never seen them travel in groups of more than three or four.  It simply does not happen!” 
            “Our field hands in the north would beg to differ; as would our burnt crops and devoured livestock.  The whole of the kingdom is in crisis.”  Gharel shook his head, the jovial look melting from his face.
            “This would explain much,” he said gravely.  “For three seasons now our sentries have seen little activity apart from the odd yearling looking for a new roost.  Before then, we would often fend off five or six groups of them every year.  It would seem that they have learned their lesson.  Perhaps our ancient enemies are searching for greener pastures.”
            “Aye,” Collen replied.  “And they have found them in the kingdom.”  Gharel’s eyes narrowed.  Collen could tell he was deep in thought.  For a few moments, the entire hall fell silent.  Finally, the lord of the Gharan spoke.
            “Tell me, Collen, why should my people risk their lives for this cause?  The dragons that attack you no longer attack us.  What does your father offer in exchange for our aide?”  Collen nodded and drew a parchment from his cloak.
            “In exchange for his aide in the matter, King Cane II, Lord of the Tribe of Cane, offers Gharel of the Gharan lordship and land in the Kingdom of Cane.”  As he finished, Andricor shouted from the wings.
            “Aye, lands and our solemn oath of fealty to the king.  He offers nothing but empty words in exchange for the lives of our people.”  Gharel turned and silenced him with a cold stare. 
            “My son speaks the truth,” he said, turning his gaze back to Collen, “though in doing so he forgets himself.  Tell me, Collen; did your father think I could be so easily bought?  Did he think the Gharan a tribe of homeless beggars desperate for a home?”  Collen’s mind sprung into panic mode.  He had not expected Gharel to take the offer as an insult.
            “No, of course not, m’lord; he simply wished to offer as great a gift as could be given.  If there is more you require I am certain my father would accept your terms.”
            “Enough,” Gharel growled.  An anger began to grow in him and he fought hard to hold it back.  He held up his hand for a moment and breathed deeply, fighting the fire in his belly.  The temper of his ancestors was legendary, but he had strived all his life to rise above it. 
            “The Gharan do not seek the luxuries of the south,” he said in a calm voice.  “We cannot be bought by your riches.”  Collen had not expected such a response.  He respected Gharel for this, but the Chieftain’s restraint was his people’s death sentence.  When he thought of the destruction he had seen on his trek through the north, it filled him with a deep sadness.
            “Please, my lord,” he said falling humbly to one knee.  “This invasion has left my people near ruin.  Our fields in the north are desolate wastes.  Every day, refugees from the burnt lands stream into Canniwain.  They are poor and starving and we cannot feed them all.  My father has even broken into the castle stores to feed them, but with each attack, the dragons burn more and more land.  They are destroying everything.  If you do not help us, thousands will starve.”  Collen finished nearly in tears as he thought about crowds of poor displaced farmers moving south to the city.  These dragon catchers were his people’s last hope.
            Gharel’s face grew grave as he listened.  Though his look never softened, his heart burned for his brothers and sisters to the south.  It was not so long ago that his own people felt the terror of the dragon’s flame.
            “You speak well,” Gharel said in a soft voice.  “It would be cruel for those of us with the means to help you to sit and do nothing.”  Andricor was shocked.
            “Father, surely you don’t mean to bow to this ‘king’s’ wishes!”  Gharel ignored his son’s protests.
            “The Gharan tribe shall aide you in this matter.”  Collen was ecstatic.  He nearly whooped for joy, but contained himself to a broad, if foolish smile. 
            “There is one small thing I require in exchange.”  Collen nodded.
            “Of course,” he said.  “Anything.”
            “I want the north,” Gharel said with a grim smile.  “My fief shall extend from the great lake to the shore and from the mountains to the forest above Bard’s Hallow.”  Collen was taken aback.  That was quite a bit of land, but he did not want to risk losing the dragon catchers.
            “It is done.  You have my word.”  Gharel nodded happily.  “Good,” Collen continued.  “The king requests your warriors to assemble just north of Murtland.”
            “Warriors?” Gharel said, amused.  “My word no.  You’ll get no such thing.  One does not ride into battle without knowing why.”  Collen was bemused.
            “We know why, my lord.  The dragons are pillaging our fields.”
            “Aye,” Gharel said with a smile.  “But why have they left their northern roosts.  That is what we must find out.”  He turned away from Collen and shouted to his son.
            “You boy, since you seem so eager to fight dragons, I will send you with Prince Collen to investigate the meaning of this sudden exodus.”  Now it was Andricor’s turn to be bemused, though Collen was not much happier.
            “Send me with him?” Andricor said with disgust.
            “Send me with him?” Collen said in terror. 
            “That is my way,” Gharel said flatly.  “When one of my tribe makes a request and I see fit to grant it, it is up to he who made the request to carry it out.  It would not be right to ask another.”
            “That is all well and good, Father, but why must I be subjected to this madness?”  His father eyed him coldly at first, but his expression quickly softened.
            “First of all, it would be foolish to send this man into the mountains on his own.  Secondly, something so important should be attended to by someone I know well and trust.  Who better than my own son?  The king and I see eye to eye in that respect,” he said, turning to Collen.  “You shall each take a bird, though Andricor will have to instruct you on handling them.  Once the two of you have discovered the reason behind these attacks you shall report back to me and we shall decide on the best course of action.  Those are my last words on the matter until you return.”  Collen made as if to reply but Andricor caught his eye and shook his head.  He beckoned for the Prince to follow him.  Collen found the bird handling comment strange, but did as he was bid and following him out the back of the hall.
            “This does not mean I am happy about this arrangement,” Andricor said sourly as soon as they were out of his father’s hall.  “However, my father is right.  You would not last long on your own in our mountains.”  Collen’s first instinct was to protest, but he could not honestly disagree.  He had almost been killed on his journey north by what was apparently a juvenile.  If he was going to have to go on this mission himself, it would be best to stick close to Andricor. 
            The two left the palace in silence by the rear exit.  A crude staircase was carved into the mountainside ascending into the clouds above.  Andricor began to climb with Collen following closely.  The flight followed a steep course straight up the side of the mountain.  Collen huffed and puffed as he tried to keep up with Andricor, who seemed to glide effortlessly from step to step.
            “Where is it we are going?” Collen asked between deep breaths.
            “To the roost,” Andricor replied.  “It would not do to venture into dragon country without birds.”
            “I don’t understand,” Collen said, puzzled.
            “You will,” Andricor answered curtly and continued up without another word.  They traveled upward for the better part of two hours before they broke through the clouds, revealing a bright, sunny day above.  At the crest of the mountain stood a building with a high caged roof.  Andricor made directly for it without a care for the awesome scene surrounding them.  The layer of clouds stretched out as far as Collen could see, dotted with the craggy peaks of other mountains rising high and higher as his eyes were drawn west.  It was something to behold, but there was no time for sightseeing now. 
            Collen followed Andricor inside where they were met by a grizzled looking man in a dragon scale cloak. 
            “Gharel requests two birds to accompany us on a mission of highest importance.”  The man eyed Collen and frowned.
            “A bird for this one?” he said as he curled is upper lip.  “Where did m’lord find him?”
            “Think of it as giving two birds to me,” Andricor answered impatiently.  “This one is just a little extra baggage.”  The man chuckled and patted Andricor on the back.
            “With the progress you’ve made in the hunt, I’d imagine most men would be to you.  You’ll be wanting Tullus, naturally.  Might I suggest Farnor for your second?  The two get along better than any other pair so you shan’t have any issue taking them both.”  Andricor nodded judiciously and smiled.
            “They will do quite well, thank you.  We shall meet you around back.”  The man bowed humbly to Andricor and gave Collen a hard look before turning away and disappearing into the back of the building.  Collen followed Andricor outside and around the back of the building to the huge cage that sat behind it. 
            “I don’t understand,” Collen said as they came to the stop beside the cage.  “What kind of bird?”
            “What kind of bird do you think?” Andricor answered wryly.  “Have you not seen them already?”
            “You don’t mean…that thing from…” Collen paused, shaking his head in confusion.  As if on cue, a shutter shot open on the side of the cage and there was a flutter of feathers.  Two enormous birds shot into the sky with an ear splitting cry that nearly knocked Collen off his feet.  They wheeled around in wide arcs before tucking in their wings and diving toward the ground.  As they neared the stony mountainside, they unfolded their wings and landed in a rush of wind. 
            Collen was in awe.  The birds stood twice his height from the tip of their hooked beaks to their dagger like talons.  Their feet looked big enough to grasp a full grown man at his widest point.  Their chests were a brilliant red with blue and yellow feathers trimming the underside of their wings, but their backs were jet black.  When they folded their wings, they looked like little more than a shadow.
            “What are they?” Collen gasped, taking a step back.  Andricor took a step forward and held out his hand, allowing the larger of the two birds to brush it with its beak. 
            “In the south you call us Dragon Catchers,” Andricor replied.  “That is the one instance in which you overestimate us.  This, Prince Collen, is a Dragon Catcher.”  Collen braved a step forward and the smaller of the birds cocked its head sideways at him.
            “That is Farnor, and this great beast is Tullus,” Andricor continued.  “We train these great birds to aid us in defense against the dragons.  It is said that they have been our companions since before the War of Creation.  They are natural predators of dragons, but they only hunt the young.  We have trained them to take down the larger ones, but it takes a warrior of the Gharan to finish them off.  It is a dangerous job for both bird and handler, but one that is relished amongst my people.”  He finished with a great satisfaction and a swelling in his chest.  Collen smiled understandingly.
            “You take great pride in being one of the Gharan,” he said.  Collen hoped to find some connection with Andricor.  After all, they both came from well known families, though Collen’s was held in quite higher esteem.  However, his words only served to bring Andricor back to his previous self.
            “And why shouldn’t I?” he snapped defensively.  “The Gharans are masters of the mountains.  What family in the south could say as much?” 
            “Perhaps you forget that I am a descendent of Cane,” Collen said with a sly smile.  “We are the family of kings.
            “Aye,” Andricor spat contemptuously.  “Soft kings on a soft throne.  Let your king try living off bare rock and see if he is worth such high esteem.  This land makes mountains of men.” 
            “If I remember correctly,” Collen replied with growing agitation, “you and your people live off small orchards, farms and fresh flowing water.  The only bare rocks I saw were those that we climbed.”  Andricor glared at him and kicked the ground crossly, but he had no retort.  Rather, he waved his hands demonstratively and the Dragon Catchers shot into the air.
            “We’ve no more time for foolish prattle,” he said and stormed away in a huff, with Collen following as quickly as he could.   
            Collen could see that Andricor knew the northern mountains well.  They made astonishing progress at the outset of their journey, because the area was well traveled.  Before long, they had moved out of sight of the mountains that bordered the Gharan valley.  By evening fall, Collen estimated that they had traveled three leagues over rocky terrain.  They made camp in a rocky grove at the base of an immense mountain.
            “Travel will not be so easy on the morrow,” Andricor said gruffly.  “We have stayed to the valleys so far, but if we wish to see anything, we must climb the mountains.”  Not another word was shared between them that evening or the following day.  They conducted their search in silence with Andricor in the lead and the two great birds circling above.  Every so often, Tullus or Farnor would spot something in the distance and speed off to investigate, but rarely did they return with any evidence of dragons apart from the odd juvenile straying too far from its roost.  Andricor paid them little heed.  After all, it was not stray dragons they sought. 
            The sun continued to rise and set as their fruitless search continued.  Collen had nearly given up hope until one night he awoke to a strange sound filling the sky.  It was not loud, nor was it harsh or grating; just an odd rippling coming through the darkness.  Collen sat up slowly and saw that Andricor was already on the move, crawling up the side of the mountain on which they were camped.  He followed silently.  Staying low, he looked around for the Dragon Catchers, but the black-backed birds were invisible in the darkness.  The sound continued, and as Collen’s eyes began to clear, he saw large shadows gliding over head.  Above him, Andricor stopped and pressed himself tightly against the top of a rocky outcropping.  Collen slid up beside him and whispered:
            “Dragons?”  Andricor nodded.  The two sat deathly still and watched as the black cloud of creatures drifted over them.  Collen grew more uneasy with each passing minute.  How many could there possibly be? he thought.  What could we possibly do against such odds?
            When they finally passed, Collen let out a heavy sigh.
            “There were so many,” his said in an awed voice.
            “More than three hundred I would say; headed south east.”  Collen pondered the course for a moment and an icy fear gripped his heart.
            “South west?” he said in horror.  “They’re headed toward Murtland!  They’ll never be able to hold off such an attack.  I must warn them!”
            “And how do you intend to beat the dragons to your city?” Andricor said coolly.  “Can you fly?”
            “No,” Collen said in a panicked voice.  “Perhaps the birds-”
            “We do not ride the Dragon Catchers,” Andricor interrupted in a steady voice.  “What hope could two birds have against three hundred full grown dragons?”
            “How can you be so calm?” Collen hissed.  “Have you no regard for human life outside your tribe?  My people will be slaughtered.  I am their prince.  I must help them…”  Andricor shook his head and donned a hard look.
            “Think clearly, prince.  There are times when loyalty requires you to turn away from your home and bravery means parting from your brothers in arms.  Your people’s hope does not lie in Murtland.  It lies in these mountains and it lies in you.”  He fell silent for a moment, and then cringed as though regretting his own words. 
            “Thank you,” Collen said gratefully, but Andricor shook his head.
            “No, no,” he said.  “Don’t do that.  I meant me.  Hope lies only in me, because you are useless in these lands.”  Collen looked at him and smiled.
            “Of course,” he said with a knowing grin.  Andricor replied with an icy glare.  The two sat in silence for a few minutes.  The night air was thin and cool and Collen found it pleasant despite the dire events of the evening.  He still could not help but think of his people, however, and his thoughts soon turned gloomy.
            “My mother was born in Murtland,” he said glumly.  “So many mothers…”
            “There will still be mothers in Murtland come morning,” Andricor replied flatly. 
            “She was a fine woman, strong of heart and mind.  Very kind…” Collen continued.
            “Please do not describe your mother to me.  Perhaps it is time to return to the camp,” he suggested.
            “Do you have a mother?” Collen asked, looking for a certain common ground.
            “No,” Andricor said flatly as he rose to his feet.
            “I’m sorry,” Collen replied sheepishly.  “Has she passed?”
            “No,” he repeated and began to move away.
            “I don’t understand…”
            “No, we’re not talking about this,” Andricor said sternly.
            “Oh come now, Andricor,” Collen said in a chipper voice.  “We are comrades in arms now; what other friends do we have?”
            “What?” Andricor said, baffled.  “Fre…what are you talking about?  I’ve no interest in any such thing.”
            “No interest in friends?” Collen chuckled.
            “Not if you are my only option.”  Collen frowned and shrugged.  They returned to the camp in silence and went back to sleep. 
            In the morning, Andricor was cold as ever.  They broke camp without a word and moved double speed through the mountains.  Collen struggled to keep up, cursing himself for pressing so far the night before.  He doubted Andricor would ever warm to his presence and felt it best to focus his attention on the task at hand.  Thoughts of the people of Murtland inspired him to keep the blistering pace.  He owed it to the kingdom to find the cause of these attacks.  As Andricor had said, they were the kingdoms last hope.
            An hour before noon, Andricor froze and held up his hand to signal stop.  Collen could not tell what was wrong until he looked up above them.
            “Where did the birds…” he started, but was cut off by a rush of air as Farnor and Tullus landed beside them.  Collen nearly jumped out of his boots in surprise.  Andricor turned to him with a grim look.
            “They are trained to return only if there is a dragon or dragons they cannot defeat on their own.  There must be a large one over that ridge,” he said, pointing to the north.  “Or possibly many.”  Collen felt like a lead ball had dropped into his lower intestines, but he knew what they must do.
            “We have to investigate, don’t we?”  Andricor nodded and tightened his sword belt.  Collen did the same and, crouching low, they made their way to the top of the ridge.  At first, Collen saw nothing, until Andricor directed his gaze to the valley below.  Amidst the dust and stones of the valley, stood a man in a dark cloak with four dragons in a circle around him.  It seemed quite a peculiar sight to Collen, but Andricor did not hesitate.  He gestured for the birds and they rose high into the sky.
            “As soon as they go into their dive, we must begin our descent,” he whispered.  “We must be quick.”
            “Wait,” Collen said, grabbing his arm.  “Something is wrong.  They’re not attacking him.”
            “Not yet,” Andricor said as he drew his long sword.  Sometimes they just like to play games.  If we move quickly we can end their little game and save that man’s life.  You are interested in saving lives, are you not?”  Collen yielded with a nod and drew his sword.  Two harsh cries from above signaled the dragon catchers’ dive and he leapt over the ridge and charged down the other side. 
            The valley sprang to life in an instant.  All four dragons lifted off the ground in a rush of leathery wings, but two barely made it into the hair before they were driven back into the rocks by the dragon catchers.  Dragon and bird grappled in the dusty valley.  Collen ran as fast as he could, but it was no use.  In an instant, the other two dragons descended on the catchers.  Andricor let out a primal bellow and threw himself at the nearest dragon, striking it hard on the side and causing it to tumble off of Tullus.  Collen summoned all his courage and tried to do the same.  Leaping off a boulder, he sailed through the air and landed square on the creature’s back.  It roared and threw its head backward, snapping at him as he tried to stay on top.  Fire sprang from its mouth, setting his clothes ablaze and singeing his hair.  He tumbled off the beast and onto the dust, attempting to roll as far as he could as it chased after him.  He sprang up just as the dragon buried a claw in the ground where he had been lying not a moment earlier.  Scrambling behind a rock, he avoided another spray of fire. 
            A harsh gurgling sound across the valley told Collen that Andricor must have struck a heavy blow to one of the dragons.  The more pressing issue for him, however, was the monster just behind him.  He crouched behind the rock and tried to think, but was distracted by a long spiked tail that whipped around the rock and crashed down right beside him.  Without a second thought, he lashed out with his sword and heard the dragon bellow.  It’ll be good and angry now, he thought.  Forcing himself out from behind the rock, he sprang forward and rolled, narrowly sliding under another jet of flame.  He stabbed upward as he jumped to his feet and wounded the dragon in the belly.  It roared and smacked him with a clawed paw, sending him flying several feet.  The rocks knocked the wind out of him and he gasped for air.  The dragon sputtered a bit and clutched at its stomach wound.  It was rearing its head back to roast him alive when Farnor zoomed into its side and sunk its talons into the creature’s throat.  Liquid fire leaked from the dragon’s throat as it groaned and collapsed on the ground. 
            Collen let out a sigh of relief, but he only paused for a moment.  He scrambled to his feet to see Andricor narrowly dodging a blast of fire.  Collen rushed to his aid with Farnor streaking off ahead of him.  When Andricor saw him approaching he waved Collen off.
            “Tullus!” he shouted.  “Help Tullus!”  Collen wheeled around to see Tullus grappling with another dragon.  The bird had it pinned, but the dragon was giving him hell.  Collen sprinted towards them with his sword raised over his head.  Just before he arrived, the dragon wrenched its neck free and sunk its teeth into Tullus’ wing.  The bird let out an anguished cry.  Collen threw all is strength into the blow as he swung his sword down hard onto the dragon’s head and split its skull in two.  Behind him, Farnor flipped the last dragon on its back and Andricor dispatched it with a slice to the throat. 
            As the last dragon finished its death throes, Collen sat down hard on the stones.  In a flash, Andricor was by Tulles’ side, examining the bird’s wounds.
            “They’ll heal,” he announced.  “But it would be a grave risk for him to continue on this mission.” 
            Across the valley, the man in the black robes was hurrying towards them with his arms outstretched.  He was a tall man, not well built, with thinning white hair.  When he reached Collen and Andricor, he fell to one knee.
            “Thank you so much, sirs.  You brave knights have saved my life.”
            “We’re not knights,” Andricor said gruffly.
            “I am, actually,” Collen interjected.  “It is tradition the sons of the king who will not assume the throne be knighted.  Did you see me kill that dragon?”
            “Sorry, I must have been distracted,” Andricor replied bluntly.
            “You were both most brilliant,” the old man said, still down on one knee.
            “Alright, get up old man,” Andricor growled.  The old man obliged, but insisted on bowing frequently.  “What are you doing out here alone?” 
            “Oh, why, I live here, good sirs.  My family has lived in these mountains for years, only…I fear I am the only one left.”
            “Impossible,” Andricor said stiffly.  “My people would have noticed others living in our mountains.” 
            “Ah,” the old man said with a wily smile.  “You’ll be one of the Gharans.  Perhaps you have never seen us because these are not your mountains.  They are ours.”
            “Excuse me?” Andricor replied, a hot anger rising behind his face.  Collen saw this and quickly intervened.
            “So if you live in these mountains, you must have noticed the strange movements of the dragons.  They are all moving south into the open lands.”
            “It would seem not all,” the old man said as he gestured to the four dead dragons.
            “Well, yes, that is certainly true,” Collen replied.  “But there is no doubt that a large number of dragons have begun striking further south than ever before.”
            “Hm, yes, yes,” the old man murmured.  “I seemed to remember a great flock of dragons moving south not long ago.  It would sound to me like a new Dragon Lord has arisen.”
            “A Dragon Lord?” Andricor scoffed.  “What on earth is that?”  The old man chuckled.
            “The great Gharan know nothing of the Dragon Lords?  This is quite amusing.  Very well, I shall tell you.  It is said that every half century or so, one dragon grows so powerful that it commands the allegiance of all others.  Dragon Lords of the past have used their power to cover the whole of Iden in fire.  There is no stopping them until the old Dragon Lord is dead and none has grown strong enough to rule in its place.  Really, I would say the title says it all.”
            “This is preposterous,” Andricor growled.  “There is no such thing.”
            “Aye,” the old man said with a smile.  “And dragons never travel in packs larger than four, but…it would seem that is not so…”  Andricor looked deeply troubled, but still not ready to believe. 
            “It seems unlikely,” he said, his voice heavy with uncertainty.
            “Believe what you will,” the old man replied.  “It sounds like a Dragon Lord to me and if you want to stop it, you’ll have to kill it.  That is, if you know how to find it.  Now I must be going back to my home.  Thank you kindly good sirs.  I bid you good day.”  The old man turned abruptly and walked away toward the far end of the dusty valley.  Andricor had a queer look on his face as though the old man’s words had disturbed him deeply.  Collen, on the other hand, thought this excellent news.
            “Finally a break in our search for answers.  If what this man says is true, we need only find this Dragon Lord to put this matter to rest.” 
            “Strange,” was all Andricor said in reply.  They sat in silence in the valley for a long time while Andricor pondered the words of the old man and the birds rested from the battle.  The sun was low in the sky Andricor finally spoke again.
            “We must return to my father now,” he said with a blank look on his face.  “Tullus can go no further and I must discuss this new information with him.” 

The Dragon Catchers can be found in its entirety as a Kindle download on Amazon.com