Returner’s Wealth (Excerpt)

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Check out Returner’s Wealth, the first book in Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s Wyrmeweald trilogy, available now as an ebook original from Open Road Media. Enter here to win this and seven other ebooks from Open Road Media as part of their Dragon Week celebration! Sweepstakes ends September 7th.

The wyrmeweald is a hostile place, an arid wasteland where man is both hunter and hunted, and where the dragon-like wyrmes reign supreme.  Seventeen-year-old Micah enters the wyrmeweald intent on stealing a wyrme egg to sell for a bounty. With the riches such an egg will bring—returner’s wealth—Micah can go home to a life of luxury, and win the hand of the girl he loves. But the wyrmeweald is a treacherous place, and Micah quickly finds himself in mortal danger. When a tracker named Eli rescues him, Micah is forced to prove his worth, and together he and Eli defend a rare wyrme hatchling from kith bandits intent on stealing and selling wyrme eggs.  

 

 

One

The eyes would be the first to go once the scavengers landed. Already, sharp-eyed, keen-nosed carrionwyrmes with cropscythe claws and teeth like hackdaggers were circling overhead.

Micah stared down at the corpse. It was lying on its front, face down on the blistered rock. One hand was reaching out, its grasping fingers dustblown and stiff.

The youth prodded the body tentatively with the tip of his boot. His toes, poking up through split bootleather, grazed the hard nubbed ribs of the dead man’s side. He shoved a boot-toe into the shadowed hollow of the stomach, braced his legs and rolled the body over. A cluster of broken teeth remained on the rock where the face had lain. They were pitted and smokeweed-yellow, their roots set now in a small patch of red stained sand. The head whiplashed back then forward again, and the body came to rest on its back with a soft thump and a puff of dust.

Micah crouched down beside the body, his hands on his hips. There was congealed blood around the crushed nose and at the corners of the dust-encrusted mouth. The face was hollow, puckered with lack of water, and dark desperate eyes stared blindly up at him.

The dead man wore the clothes of a seasoned traveller. Birdhooks and arrowheads were carefully tucked into the band of a leather hat which was creased and worn and sweat-stained at the brim. His jacket, a sturdy hacketon of buckhide, was worn thin at the elbows and frayed at the cuffs, while his breeches bore the evidence of years of patching and mending. His backpack lay beside him, turned half inside out and empty of supplies, while the watergourd next to it was unstoppered and bone-dry. But the boots—they were mighty fine. Tooled leather, soft and well-oiled, with sturdy hobnailed soles and iron-tipped toes. But fine as the dead traveller’s boots were, they hadn’t helped him when his water ran out.

Micah reached out and pulled off the right boot. The foot appeared from inside, blue-grey like moulded metal, puffy round the toes, as though it had been wading through water, and the skin as smooth and blister-free as Micah had known it would be. The smell, though, sour and acrid like rancid curds, he had not foreseen.

Suddenly, from far above his head, he heard keening cries, and he squinted up to see the black shapes against the high sun, wheeling round in the sky. He turned his attention to the second boot, awkward fingers fumbling with the lace, and tugging hard. Glancing up as it came free, he could make out the jagged wings of the carrionwyrmes now as they wheeled round lower, their rapier claws and hackdagger teeth glinting. Kicking his own boots hurriedly aside, he pulled the new ones onto his feet, first one, then the other, and knotted them tightly, then jumped to his feet—just as the first of the carrionwyrmes landed, head cocked and screeching with indignation.

Micah backed away. He reached down for his heavy walking stick. Two more of the creatures landed, blood-red eyes and ridged skulls gleaming. They shrieked discordantly as they hopped towards him. Screaming back at them furiously, Micah swung the heavy wood at them, driving them back—then abruptly turned and ran.

Behind him, the creatures squealed and jabbered in a frenzy of vicious squabbling. He glanced back. None were giving chase. Instead, they were clustered round the dead body, which had disappeared in the midst of the writhing mass of flapping wings, scratching claws and snapping teeth…

The next moment, the air filled with a gutwrenching stench as the carrionwyrmes slashed the stomach open. Micah retched and stumbled on.

Only when the raucous frenzy of the feeding creatures had faded away completely did he look round a second time. The bloody scene had disappeared behind a low ridge, though far in the distance, he thought he could make out the shape of the jagged wings flapping back into the sky. He came to a halt and bent double, panting hard as he stared at his fine new boots.

His own watergourd, he knew, was almost empty.

 

Two

Life had been so different, three short months ago, back on the plains…

“Concentrate on your work, Micah,” Caleb bellowed, “or you’ll feel my whip on your back!”

Micah lowered his head and gripped the parallel staves as tight as his blistered fingers would allow, and as the ox plodded forward, he endeavoured to keep the heavy plough moving as even as he could. He watched the blade bite into the hard ground, and the black earth fold over onto itself as he continued the line.

He looked up and stared into the hazy distance once more; over the fields, through the shimmering heat of the dusty plains, and away towards the far-off horizon.

Somewhere beyond the flat featureless plains lay the mountains of the high country—a land of impossibly high crags and deep verdant valleys, of thundering waterfalls and crystal-clear lakes; a land of bitter cold winters and furnace-hot summers, of driving rain and great swirling duststorms; of precious metals and priceless gemstones. And of wyrmes.

Micah’s eyes lit up. Wyrmes!

He had never seen one, not down here on the plains, though he’d heard stories enough. Many left for the high country, and though few ever returned, those who did brought riches back with them—returner’s wealth—and the stories of the strange and terrifying creatures they’d encountered there…

“Micah!”

Micah flinched as the voice bellowed in his ear, and the heavy open hand that followed struck him so hard on the side of his head that he was knocked away from the plough and ended up sprawling over the fresh-turned mud. He looked up.

“Didn’t I warn you?” his brother Caleb demanded. His face was flushed red; his neck, cabled. “Didn’t I tell you to drive a straight line?”

Micah swallowed, and nodded. “You did,” he said meekly.

“And this is what you give me,” Caleb roared, his hand wiggling like a swimming fish as he indicated the furrow Micah had ploughed. “I ain’t going to have you holding me back, boy. Y’understand me. The master has charged me with getting the fields ploughed good.” He nodded ahead. “And this is not good.” He aimed a muddy boot at Micah’s chest. “Too busy daydreaming ’bout the master’s daughter, I’ll wager,” he said, and sneered. “I swear, one smile from her and you’re as lovesick as a stable donkey, and about as useless!”

Caleb grabbed Micah by the hair and hauled him roughly to his feet.

“Now get on with your work!”

Micah stepped between the curved staves of the plough once more and gripped them with renewed determination. The ox turned and surveyed him with doleful brown eyes. Micah twitched the reins and the ox turned away and trudged on.

This time he was careful to keep his gaze on the line between the creature’s swaying rump and stout horns, and to ensure that the furrow he cut maintained the same line. He tried to empty his mind—to concentrate on his ploughing.

But it was no good. Thanks to Caleb, Micah’s thoughts were now full of the master’s daughter, Seraphita.

 

Three

“No way back,” Micah breathed.

He clung to the rockface with bandaged hands, and gulped at the scorched air. Sweat ran down his cheeks and plashed onto the rock, dark grey circles that shrank and disappeared in moments.  Below him, the clatter and grind of the rockfall he’d triggered petered out.

Don’t even consider looking down, he told himself, then did just that. He groaned, feeling sick and vertiginous.

One slip would send him plunging to certain death on the jagged boulders far below. A rock, tardier than the rest, gathered speed then dropped, and Micah counted fully to ten before the sharp crack signifying its landing echoed back to him.

He craned his neck. Some way above, the grey rock gave way to brown rock. He had a notion it would be more dependable than the stratified shatterrock he was clinging to, which frost and sun had crazed and loosened. Even from this distance, the brown rock looked hard, and there seemed to be hollows where he might pause to allow his body the rest it craved.

One step at a time, he counselled. One goddamn step at a time…

He inched upward and prised his fingertips into a narrow fissure; then, taking good care not to kick off with excess vigour, brought first one leg higher, then the other. His breathing came in short gasps. His pale eyes scrunched up. It was like climbing the shattered tiles of a lofty pitched roof.

He paused, reached up and grasped the brim of his hat, and tugged it forward. A slice of welcome shade slipped down over his face.

Hunched over, he reached for a likely handhold—then cried out with shock and fearfulness as the snarling head of a bearded rockwyrme sprang up from the very same crevice. He started back, his arm flailing. His boots slipped. The rockwyrme, no bigger than a jackrabbit, scrabbled out of the rock with a screech and skittered away on its back legs, tail raised and scaly wings erect.

Suddenly, everything else was in hectic motion too. The grey rock was shifting; slabs, large and small, slid and fell away all around him. Micah scrabbled desperately with his hands and his feet, seeking out purchase on the shifting rockface. His fingertips were grazed raw; his chin got cut. The thud and grind of the tumbling rocks echoed around the high mountain crags.

At that very moment, the toe of his boot found a crack, where it lodged, jarring his leg painfully at the hip but holding firm. He closed his eyes, pressed a cheek to the hot rock and raised a shaking arm above his head in the hope it might protect him from the rocks that were slipping and slewing by him in such a rush, and waited for the rockfall to cease.

When it did, he opened his eyes once more.

He arched his back and raised his head. The crazed and cracked grey rock had fallen away to reveal a layer beneath, as yet untouched by the elements, that gleamed like the skin of a fresh-sloughed wyrme. It was rougher to the touch and, when Micah finally summoned the courage to proceed, proved somewhat easier to climb than the weathered rock it had replaced. Yet the ascent was still hard going, what with the ache in his leg and his throbbing fingers that left blood marks where they touched, and he grunted with relief when he climbed the last stretch of shatterrock.

Now that he could see it close up, the brown rock was a disappointment. It wasn’t hard at all, but pitted and crumbly, though the veins of white granite that ran through it offered a more reliable, if slippery, hold for his boots. Red dust rose as he clambered over its surface. He came to the first of the hollows he’d seen and slipped into the shallow indentation, twisting round and setting himself down, back to the cliff-face, his legs stuck out over the edge.

He fumbled for the calfskin gourd that hung at his side, tooth-tugged the stopper, tipped back his head and hurried the open top to his flaking lips. Water that was warm and tasted of stewed meat dribbled into his mouth, and then it was gone, every last drop. He let his arm fall into his lap, and a look of resignation settled upon his features.

He needed to find water. If he didn’t, he would die. That was the plain fact of the matter.

He started to climb, his cloak crowtattered and his sweatlick feet hot and sore inside his simmering boots. He grunted and groaned up a narrow chimney in the brown rock, taking care to trust his weight only to the granite striations. Pausing for a moment, he wiped the back of his bandaged hand across his cracked lips and was fascinated by the saltiness that found its way to his tongue. He breathed in the searing air.

Water. He needed water.

At the top of the chimney at last, he came to a sheer rockface. Beneath their bindings, his blistered fingers throbbed. He had to go on. He blew on his fingers tenderly, easing the pain before wedging them into a narrow crevice. He found a foothold at knee height, kicked up and reached higher. Sweat gathered in his frownlines and overflowed. A single drop ran down the bridge of his nose, hesitated, then fell from the tip. He caught it on the end of his tongue. It was as salty as the sweat-drenched bandages.

What wouldn’t he give for a sip of cool clear deepdrawn wellwater…

With a grunt, Micah heaved himself up over a jutting crag and onto a narrow ledge, and froze. Close by, faint but unmistakeable, was the soft, bell-like sound of water trickling into a pool. He cocked his head and listened, his thirst more acute than ever now there was a chance it might at last be slaked.

The sound was coming from the far end of the ledge, where the rockface was undulated like a drawn curtain. Micah inched towards it, face turned to one side and arms spread­eagled against the burning rock. His boots scraped along the ledge, dislodging shards that clicked and clattered as they tumbled down the cliff-face below. He came to a crack in the folds of rock. It was narrow and dark and chill, and echoed with the tantalizing sound of running water.

Micah hesitated, his eyes blanched with anxiety as he peered into the crevice. Red dust, wet with sweat, emphasized the lines that scored his brow. The muscles in his jaw and temples twitched with indecision. Ahead of him, the water trickled and plashed with thirst-quenching promise, yet the unknown blackness filled him with dread.

But he could not turn back. No, not having come so far.

Unable to stop himself, Micah eased his body through the narrow fissure and towards the sound of water. Inky black darkness wrapped itself around him.

 


Returner’s Wealth © Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, 2010

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