Once a member of the King’s personal guard, Guillot dal Villevauvais spends most days drinking and mourning his wife and child. He’s astonished—and wary—when the Prince Bishop orders him to find and destroy a dragon. He and the Prince Bishop have never exactly been friends and Gill left the capital in disgrace five years ago. So why him? And, more importantly, how is there a dragon to fight when the beasts were hunted to extinction centuries ago by the ancient Chevaliers of the Silver Circle?
On the way to the capitol city, Gill rescues Solène, a young barmaid, who is about to be burned as a witch. He believes her innocent…but she soon proves that she has plenty of raw, untrained power, a problem in this land, where magic is forbidden. Yet the Prince Bishop believes magic will be the key to both destroying the dragon and replacing the young, untried King he pretends to serve with a more pliable figurehead.
Between Gill’s rusty swordsmanship and Solene’s unstable magic, what could go wrong?
Duncan M. Hamilton’s Dragonslayer is the first book in a fast-moving trilogy—a dangerous tale of lost magics, unlikely heroes, and reawakened dragons. Dragonslayer publishes July 2nd with Tor Books, but you can read the first three chapters below!
Brother Poncet crouched on the scree-covered mountain slope clutching his cream robe about himself, and watched his comrade, Brother Ambrose, inch into the pitch-dark cavern before them. He remained a few paces behind, still out in the sunlight, although at that altitude it did little to warm him. Up that high, it was always cold, even in summer.
Brother Ambrose lifted his small magelamp up to the darkness. The glowing sphere was caged in a mirrored housing, so all of its power shone into the blackness before him. The light reached in, but not far enough to fall on any surface.
“See anything?” Poncet said, his breath misting on the air. Poncet hated the cold, and counted the moments until he could get back to the campfire and his bedroll. Going home would be even better, but that wasn’t likely anytime soon. He had thought himself lucky when the Order had recruited him several years before. Now, he wasn’t so sure. Crouching in the cold on the side of a mountain was very far removed from the adventures he had imagined back then.
“Nothing,” Ambrose said, scratching his thick black hair. “Just darkness. Hellloooooooo!”
The sound of his voice bounced around in the abyss, repeated time after time.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Poncet said. This was his first mission, and he was determined not to see it go wrong through foolishness. Ambrose didn’t seem to have the same concern.
“You never know what’s in there.”
Ambrose laughed. “Afraid we’ll get savaged by a mountain goat?”
“No.” He thought for a moment and realised his comment was born from a fear of the dark, the unknown. Something only children were supposed to be afraid of—not a brother of the Order of the Golden Spur. Finally, he came up with something worthy. “A belek, perhaps.”
“It’s summer. Even up this high, it isn’t cold enough for them. They stay where the snow is. Commander Leverre told us so.”
Poncet noticed that all the mirth had left Ambrose’s voice, even if he still sounded confident. Only a fool took belek for granted. Even if Brother-Commander Felix Leverre told them to the contrary and swore it on his mother’s grave. “Ever seen one?”
“Once, when I was young,” Ambrose said. “The Duke of Trelain used to hunt them every winter. Sometimes the king would travel west to join him. They rarely found any, but I remember one year when they did, and killed it. Not before it had killed half a dozen huntsmen and the Count of Dreville, though. They paraded its body through the streets of Trelain. Like a cat, it was, but the size of a bear. A big bear. Fur the colour of steel and fangs as long as your forearm.”
Even with all of his training, Poncet didn’t like the idea of meeting such a creature. He wondered if that made him a coward, or if experience would ease his fear of such things—if each mission he did would bring him closer to the calm confidence of Commander Leverre.
“We’ll have to go in for a closer look,” Poncet said.
“It’s probably just another dead end.”
“Probably, but Brother-Commander Leverre said it’s close. We need to search every corner.”
Ambrose sighed. “We could search these mountains for a lifetime, and not find anything. We don’t even know what we’re looking for.”
“The commander does. It’s not for us to question our superiors. We simply do what we’re told. I want to be back by the fire as much as you do.”
“What we’re told,” Ambrose said. “We’ll need more light for starters. The cavern looks big; we’ll be quicker if we send back to camp for the others.”
“Should we bother them?”
“You said yourself that Commander Leverre thinks we’re close. Every hole we look into now might be the spot. Need to be thorough.”
Poncet nodded. “I suppose I have to go?”
“It’s your turn.”
Poncet bundled his robe up around his knees and started down the rocky slope, careful not to get his sword tangled between his legs. The mountains were littered with caves, but few were big enough to provide good shelter from the elements or to require much manpower for a proper search. Ambrose’s description of the belek planted enough of a seed in Poncet’s mind for his imagination to do the rest. As hard as the scramble up and down the mountainside was, he was glad they would have strength in numbers for the search. Gladder still that Commander Leverre would take charge, freeing Poncet from any difficult decisions.
Brother-Commander Leverre stared into the cavern’s pitch-black maw, giving his eyes time to adjust in the hope of being able to make out something. However, the darkness was complete, and no amount of time would allow him a glimpse of what lay within. Darkness in such a remote, wild place was always unsettling, but he could do something about it.
He closed his useless eyes and held out his hand. Ignoring the shuffling and muttering of his subordinates, he focussed his mind entirely on his task. A tingle started on the skin of his hand and spread over his entire body. Leverre smiled at the familiar and welcome sensation, then smiled even wider when he felt something else—a dense concentration of magical energy. The Fount, and far more intense than he had ever encountered before. It was just as the Prince Bishop had described. This had to be what he was looking for. When he opened his eyes, he could see the bare skin of his hand glow with an ethereal blue light for a moment. He wondered if the feeling of exhilaration he experienced every time he used magic would ever leave him. Considering how long he had been at it, he doubted it.
“I don’t know if we’ve found it,” he said, “but there’s definitely something here.” He could see the look of relief in the faces of his people. They had been searching the mountains for weeks, and it had taken its toll on them all. Their Order was still ostensibly a secret—while their existence was not concealed, their purpose and true nature were, on pain of death. That meant they couldn’t take advantage of the few comforts that could be found in these remote areas, instead having to stay away from any hint of civilisation and make their beds wherever they could find a dry, sheltered spot. The thought that their search might be over excited even him—not just the prospect of going home, but what success in his task would mean for his career.
He pointed his finger into the cavern, and focussed. A stone’s throw away, a glowing orb formed, casting light on rock that had likely never felt its touch before. He repeated the process a half-dozen times until all parts of the cavern in view were illuminated. He admired his handiwork and enjoyed the impressed sounds his people made. Creating a magical light was a simple enough thing, but to cast it at a distance, many times in a row, spoke to the skill of the caster, and none of the others were nearly powerful enough to achieve such a feat. Nonetheless, he could feel the strain it had placed on his body, and knew he needed a few moments to recuperate.
“Begin the search,” he said, concealing the fatigue that gripped him, so as to maintain his aura of power. He remained still as the dozen sergeants, corporals, brothers, and sisters made their way past him and into the cavern.
Only the two sergeants were able to wield magic with any strength. The rest could detect the object they were looking for if they got close enough, but most would need another five or six years of training and experience before they could do anything useful. Despite that, they were among the best the Order had. They would improve, but it was the next generation from whom the true rewards would be reaped. Such a slow process was frustrating, but even if the progress was slow, the gains were always worthwhile. Leverre’s own had been few and far between recently, and he suspected he had reached the plateau of ability his late start had imposed upon him. In a few years, the younger acolytes would surpass him. Until then, though, he would enjoy the awe with which his people viewed him.
Alpheratz opened one of his eyes and shut it immediately. The light cut through him like a lance and startled his already befuddled mind. It took him a moment to gain control of his thoughts, to place them in order and make sense of them. He tried to open both eyes, slowly this time, controlling the amount of light until he had grown accustomed to it.
He was careful to remain perfectly still. That part of his mind that sought survival over all else was in control, and it screamed danger. When Alpheratz could finally open his eyes completely, he could see there was something odd about the light. It was not how he remembered light to be—an intricate tapestry woven of infinite colours. This illumination was flatter, less interesting. There was no depth or beauty to it. It was then he realised he was not alone. He took a deep breath and listened. The sound of water dripping into a pool somewhere echoed through the chambers of the cave. It was joined by scratching, shuffling, and another sound—the voices of men.
That caused his heart to quicken, though his mind was still befuddled. How long had he slept? What had woken him? Might it only have been moments? He fought through the confusion, trying to remember what had gone before his sleep. There had been men then, too. Might these be the same ones? Warmth began to return to his limbs. Alpheratz knew he had to have slept a long time—an unsettling thought.
There was energy in the cavern, energy spilling from clumsy, unskilled magic. It was not as satiating as a proper meal, but enough to invigorate his stiff muscles. He took another deep breath and stretched his limbs. His sinews popped with each movement and he feared that he would be heard. He paused and listened once more. There did not seem to be any reaction. He could pick out pieces of conversation—they were looking for something, but it did not seem to be him. That was odd. Were they not there to kill him? How long have I slept? Weeks? Months? Longer?
He stood, wavering. The magic in the cavern could only do so much to restore him, and his muscles refused to obey commands. Alpheratz felt weak, weaker than he had ever known. If the men were here for him, he feared they might be able to best him. The thought of hiding in the hope that they might not notice him was tempting, but an orb of light appeared in the alcove where he had slept. His decision had been forced. He shook his head in distaste at the clumsiness of the magic used to make it and concluded that the person who had cast it was not powerful. They were unlikely to trouble him too much. The orb liberally spilled energy into its surrounds. Enough that Alpheratz was able to heat his flame glands.
Brother Ambrose carefully navigated the rocky outcrop. Its edges were sharp, the cavern floor uneven, and everything was damp and cold. A slip and fall could easily result in a cracked skull, and not even Commander Leverre had the power to mend that. Ambrose reached out with his mind to survey the area before him for the object. He felt frustrated by how little he had been told about it—an object, magical, you’ll know it when you find it. He felt certain that even using magic, having a more detailed description would make the process easier. How do you find something when you don’t know what it is? However, as he constantly heard from his instructors, it was not his to question why. Accept, have faith, open your mind—these were the only answers they ever gave him.
His heart jumped when he felt something. It was unlike anything he had sensed before; it was even different from the first time he had opened his mind to the Fount and felt its boundless energy all around him. He brushed his misgivings aside, filled with the excitement at the prospect that he might have found what the Prince Bishop so desperately wanted.
He stumbled forward, toward the edge of the light provided by Commander Leverre’s magic. Two great, glassy orbs appeared before him, their brilliant emerald green reflecting the meagre light. It took Ambrose a moment to realise that this could not be what he sought, and another to realise that the orbs were far too large to be a belek’s eyes. By the time he screamed, the first tendrils of flame were already rushing toward him.
There was little left of the man by the time Alpheratz drew back his breath, but enough to momentarily quell the rumbling in his stomach. Unlike some dragons, he had never developed a taste for humankind. Too stringy, too bitter, but in a bind it would do, and Alpheratz could not remember having ever been so hungry. He could feel the effect of the warm meal in his stomach immediately. He rolled his shoulders and gently ruffled his wings as some of his strength returned. He needed a proper feed to be fully restored, and unless his ears deceived him, there were several more people between him and something he would actually like to eat. They would have to do for now.
Alpheratz stood again, his legs protesting at the movement, and started forward. Familiar features told him he was in his cavern, though it looked sadly neglected. Glancing at himself, he saw that he, too, looked worse for wear. His once lustrous scales were covered in moss, mildew, and grime. It worried him to think of how long he must have slept, and he wondered what the others thought had happened to him.
He rounded an outcrop that led out to the front chamber. A man stood before him, staring, frozen in terror. Men had always feared dragons, but Alpheratz had never seen a reaction so pronounced. He chuckled as he squirted a jet of flame at the man, turning him into a pillar of fire long enough to burn off his cream robes and any other extraneous parts; then Alpheratz swallowed him whole.
More were dotted around the cavern, shuffling about in the dark spots as though looking for something. They had always been vicious little pests, and Alpheratz didn’t hesitate in slaughtering them. Their frailty came as a surprise—the last humans he had faced had been formidable indeed. He could remember, now, returning to his cavern, badly wounded. He had crawled to the back of the cave and collapsed, exhausted. The question of how long ago still bothered him.
He killed the last of the humans and forced them down, his stomach now protesting at the excess of food rather than the lack of it. He lay down in the cavern’s mouth, looking out over the land before him. Farther down the slope, he could see one of the little cream-robed vermin running and tumbling downhill, trying to get away. Alpheratz considered going after him, but didn’t think it worth the effort. He had cleared the vermin from his home and had eaten more than enough. He needed to rest and digest, then visit the other peaks and find his kin.
Pillowing his head on the cavern lip, he surveyed what was once his domain and wondered if it might be still, or if another young dragon had come and claimed it during Alpheratz’s slumber. It looked little different, but it felt a great deal so. He could taste the magic on the air as he breathed. It was so strong—stronger than he had ever experienced. Mankind had sucked so much of it out of the world with their brutish efforts to use it, but now it had returned in full blossom. As he drifted off to sleep, he dwelled on that comforting thought to keep away all the disturbing ones that threatened to keep him awake.
Guillot sat at his usual spot at the end of the small bar in the only tavern in Villerauvais. It was quiet, as usual at that time of day—everyone else from the village and the surrounds still toiled, either in the fields or in the village’s few, small businesses.
His spot afforded him the succour of the back wall of the pokey little room when he became too drunk to sit upright any longer, which occurred at some point most evenings. Usually the tavern keeper, Jeanne—former wife of the long-deceased previous owner—let him be, only interacting with Guillot to refill his glass. Today, however, she had remained absent from the bar since his arrival.
He cleared his throat and rapped a knuckle on the bar. He was without doubt her best customer—often her only customer—and seeing as he always paid his way, he expected more attention. That was not even taking into account that he was seigneur of the village and the lands surrounding. Surely that had to count for something too.
He heard approaching footsteps, then the creak of the door behind the bar.
“What do you want?” Jeanne said.
Guillot shrugged. Was the answer not obvious? Nonetheless, her tone bothered him.
She looked at his empty glass. “We’re out of wine.”
Guillot chuckled, but when the stern expression on her face didn’t change, he stopped.
“How can you be out of wine?” he said. “We make it in the village.”
“Tax, Gill. Tax.”
He wondered if he would ever be referred to as “my Lord.” He supposed his father had been the last “Lord Villerauvais.” He had always been “Gill,” and it seemed he always would be. “Tax?” he said. “I don’t collect taxes.”
Jeanne continued to glare at him as though he had done something bad to her. Had he? He searched through the cloud of booze and hangovers that shrouded his memory and came up with nothing.
“Lord Montpareil,” she said.
“What of him?”
“He’s collecting taxes here now.”
Guillot’s mind was too dulled by the hangover from the previous night’s drinking to rouse much anger. Insulting though it was, to have a neighbouring lord exert authority in his demesne, he felt greater concern over how to get his glass filled. He shrugged again.
“It all ends up with the king,” Guillot said. “It’s as well Montpareil collects it as I do. Which I don’t.”
The look of contempt on Jeanne’s face was likewise of less concern to him than getting his glass filled. He gave her his most charming smile but she was unmoved.
“Five years, Gill. We were all happy to have you home, but you’ve been rotting here for five years. The village and all the lands are rotting with you. You’d break your poor mother’s heart if she still lived, gods bless her soul. Don’t think for a second that Lord Montpareil has authority to collect taxes here, or that a single penny of it’s getting to the king. Anyhow, some of that tax money should have been spent here in the village. In case you haven’t noticed, we need it. It’s your job. Him collecting them is an insult to you and an injury to us.”
Gill spread his hands in a beseeching gesture. He’d never expected to hear a complaint about not collecting taxes.
“Something needs to change, Gill. You’re dragging us all down with you.”
There were demesnes in Mirabaya where a vassal could be flogged and hanged for speaking to their nobleman like that. He was glad she felt free enough to say what she thought, but what she said wasn’t to his liking at all. Who was she to say how he lived his life? He knew of plenty of others who were far more decadent than he, taxing their vassals to the bone, then pissing it up against a wall. He only pissed away his own family money.
Jeanne sighed and shrugged. “Maybe we’d be better off with Lord Montpareil. Anyhow, there’s no wine today. No reason for you to stay.” She turned, and with a creak of the door, left Gill alone. He swore, then stood and shambled out.
Gill sat on his porch the following morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, and watched the lone horseman ride toward the village. His once fine, but now ramshackle, townhouse on the edge of the cluster of buildings that formed Villerauvais afforded him a clear view of anyone approaching, which was a rare occurrence. He drew on his pipe, hoping this person had not come to see him. He hadn’t been able to find any wine in the house and his mood had soured as a result—not that he was ever particularly welcoming to visitors. Their only saving grace was that they were rare in Villerauvais. It was a village at the end of the road. There was nowhere to pass through to.
This person was either lost, or going to make a bad day worse. Gill hadn’t had a drink since Jeanne had cut him off the previous day, hadn’t slept well, and was now approaching his longest period of sobriety in memory. He was in no mood to receive a guest.
The horseman was well dressed in what Gill felt confident in assuming was the latest fashion in Mirabay, and had a colourful feather in his wide-brimmed hat. He didn’t look like a dandy, though. His clothes, fitted and cut to allow movement, were the type worn by men who made their living with a sword. It was hard to imagine what a man like that wanted here—there wasn’t much call for professional swordsmen.
The rider drew up by Gill’s porch and doffed his hat. He looked at Gill as though they knew one another, but Gill couldn’t place him. That wasn’t to say they hadn’t met, however. There were plenty of blank spaces in his memory of life in Mirabay. Even more since then.
“It’s been a long time, Lord Villerauvais,” the newcomer said. “You look . . . well.”
Gill remained lounging on his rocking chair, his feet resting on the low railing surrounding the porch. His dusty, scruffy boots—including the hole in the left sole—were displayed to anyone who cared to look.
“I look ill and hungover,” Gill said, “which is true on both counts. But I’m afraid you have the advantage of me.”
“Of course.” The rider slipped down from his saddle. “Banneret of the White Nicholas dal Sason at your service.”
“There’s no reason for you to remember me,” dal Sason said. “I was a boy when we met at court. Before I started at the Academy.”
Not knowing how to respond, Gill shrugged again.
“To business, then. The king requests that you return to Mirabay.”
“Ah,” Gill said, stroking his moustache. He had a response to that, but kept it to himself. If the shrug had seemed unfriendly to dal Sason, this answer would scandalise him. “I must admit that comes as something of a surprise,” Gill said. “I rather thought that old Boudain had forgotten about me.”
“He had. He’s dead. I bring his son’s command. King Boudain the Tenth.”
“I hadn’t heard. It can take news some time to reach us out here. When?”
“About six months now.”
Gill nodded. He wondered if the news had truly not reached Villerauvais, or if he was the only one that it had passed by. The latter struck him as far more likely. First Montpareil encroaching on his rights, now this. Jeanne was right, loath though he was to admit it.
“I can’t imagine you were thrilled by the prospect of coming all the way out here.”
Dal Sason shrugged now. “It’s the king’s command, and it’s my duty to obey. As it is yours.”
“The king’s word?”
“The new king is his own man,” dal Sason said. “He’s cut from very different cloth than his father.”
“So he’s forced the Prince Bishop to retire to his estates?” Gill said, his voice pregnant with irony. Prince Bishop Amaury’s cold corpse would have to be prised from his throne when the happy day of his death finally arrived.
Dal Sason blushed. “He’s still at court.”
Gill felt his temper flare. “Let me guess. On this occasion—as with all occasions in my experience—the king’s command reached you via the Prince Bishop’s lips.”
Dal Sason was silent a moment, then sighed. “The king’s word is the king’s word. Orders under his seal are orders under his seal regardless of who hands them to you. You of all people should know that.”
Guillot’s eyes flashed with anger. If there had been a sword within reach, he would have grabbed it.
“I apologise,” dal Sason said, raising his hands and taking a step back. “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“You may tell the Prince Bishop that I politely decline the king’s summons. I am no longer a courtier and am needed here to manage my estate. Should the Prince Bishop choose to take issue with this, you may tell him to charge me with whatever he pleases, and I shall kill whoever the king’s champion is at my trial. As I did the last time.” Guillot’s gaze followed dal Sason’s to his gut, which strained against the button that held his trousers closed, then to the hand that gripped the arm of his chair to keep from shaking. In his heart he knew that a child with a stick could likely get the better of him now. “I apologise for your wasted journey.”
He started to gently rock his chair, took another long draw on his pipe and allowed his gaze to drift out to nothing in particular. Despite his effort to effect nonchalance, his curiosity was piqued. What could possibly convince the Prince Bishop to seek him out after all that had passed between them?
Dal Sason remained where he was, his mouth opening every so often, then closing again without a word. He had barely had time to dismount and had already failed his mission. Guillot sighed, feeling a pang of guilt.
“There aren’t any inns here, but Jeanne the Taverner has a back room she can let you sleep in if you want to rest before returning to the city. Go to the end of the lane and turn left. You can’t miss it. The food’s good too. Everything’s fresh. A benefit of country life. Probably best not to mention you’re an acquaintance of mine.”
“The benefits of country life are clear to be seen,” dal Sason said with a hard edge to his voice. “I’m sorry for having bothered you, my Lord, and wish you good day.” He mounted, doffed his hat, and rode on.
Guillot watched him go. He thought of dal Sason’s parting words and looked himself over. His clothes were old, his gut more prominent than it had been the last time he had paid it any attention, and it was several days since he had last shaved. Four, he thought. Perhaps five. Nonetheless, he had the irritating feeling he had not heard the last of the matter. The Prince Bishop was not a man to refuse in the old days. Gill doubted the years had mellowed him.
Still, what use might Gill be now, considering how long it was since he had held a sword or gone to sleep sober? Perhaps Jeanne was right. Perhaps he had allowed too many things to get away from him. Then again, how fastidious did a man need to be about himself to oversee lands that produced artichokes and unremarkable grapes? In a place like Villerauvais, there was little to do but drink to the sun as it passed through the sky.
Realising his pipe had gone out, he had set about refilling it when a shrill voice broke the renewed quiet.
Gill groaned. He seemed destined not to have any peace that day.
“Gill! Gill!” repeated the voice.
He wondered if his first step in taking firmer control of Villerauvais should be to demand that his vassals address him with the proper formality. It seemed likely the window of opportunity for that had long since passed. No one would have dared to call his father by his given name—not even Gill had done that.
“You have to come, Gill!”
The voice belonged to one of the village boys—Jacques—who was no more than seven or eight years old. Judging by his ruddy face, he had run the whole way from the small farm he lived on with his family.
“Father says you have to come,” he said, between gasps, as though adding the authority of his father—a tenant farmer working a small patch of Gill’s land—would lend the request sufficient weight to assure it was acceded to.
“What is it?” Gill said, trying not to be overly harsh on the boy, who was likely only following his father’s instructions.
“Father wouldn’t tell me. He said to bring your sword.”
This caught Guillot’s attention. There wasn’t much that could go wrong in Villerauvais that needed a sword to put right, and Guillot was well enough acquainted with the boy’s father to know he was not an alarmist. His first thought was that Montpareil might have taken to more aggressive tactics to collect taxes that weren’t his to collect. That could indeed mean a fight, and one Gill thought likely to see him bleeding out on a patch of artichokes before the day was done. It had been a long time since Guillot had strapped a sword belt around his waist. If he was being honest, he had not thought the cause would ever arise again—the region was too poor for bandits, he was no longer an officer in the king’s army, and most would agree that he had no honour left to impugn. He glanced at the straining button at his belly and feared his sword belt might not fit.
“Tell him I’ll be along directly,” Guillot said, getting to his feet and grimacing at the creaking in his knees. Inside his house, he opened the chest in the hall by the door. The hinges protested, reminding him of how long it had been since he last opened it. A purpose-built compartment contained three rapier and dagger sets, each blade glistening with preservative oil.
Few men could claim to own three Telastrian steel swords—the rarest and finest metal from which a blade could be made. Possibly he was the only one. Two he had won, the third he had inherited. Many young men dreamed of winning the Sword of Honour at the Academy in Mirabay. Only one did each year, as he had. The medium-width blade was a jack-of-all-trades, supposed to serve the wielder equally well on the battlefield or in a duel. Whatever career a young graduate might embark upon.
The second was something few even at the Academy dared dream of, with a narrower, lighter blade, more suited to duelling than anything else. The annual Competition drew the finest swordsmen from around the Middle Sea— usually masters or graduate students from each country’s Academy of Swordsmanship—and that second Telastrian sword was Gill’s prize for winning it. It seemed like half a lifetime ago. He supposed it almost was. The smile the memory brought him soured quickly.
The final blade was old and named, with an indecipherable etching in old Imperial along its fuller. It was called “Mourning,” although Guillot had no idea why—perhaps something to do with all the men it had killed. The hilt was unfashionable and plainer than the others, but its dark Telastrian steel, swirling with blue accents, had a quality that the others did not—a quality that said “great deeds and heroic feats have been done with me.” Its origin was so shrouded by the mist of time that it was almost legend. Its first owner—a distant ancestor of Guillot’s—was one of the founding Chevaliers of the Order of the Silver Circle, a famed dragonslayer, champion of the king, and all-round overachiever. Difficult shoes to fill, he thought. Guillot had once been a member, though the Silver Circle was but a shadow of its former self by the time of his induction, little more than a gentlemen’s club with drinking, gambling, and whoring as its aims, with the occasional duel thrown in.
His hand hovered over the named blade for a moment, but to touch it felt as though it would sully it. It deserved better than he. To use it for lesser feats such as those he might accomplish was to shame it, and to display it on his waist was an appalling concession to vanity. Guillot snatched the Sword of Honour and its matching dagger from their felt-lined resting places and put them in their scabbards. A deep breath got the buckle secured at the last hole on the belt and he was ready to go. He almost felt like a swordsman again.
Jacques was still waiting outside, impatiently shifting his weight from foot to foot. As soon as he set eyes on Gill, he tore off in the direction of his home. Gill followed, albeit with far less energy.
Alpheratz woke again, this time comfortable in the knowledge that he had slept for no more than a few days—he could still feel the bulk of his meal straining against his belly. A meal of that size would take him nearly a month to completely digest. He drank in the view that never failed to capture his imagination; great limestone peaks covered in snow soaring over verdant valleys. It was the domain of dragonkind, given to them by the gods in gratitude for their fidelity. He remembered the different peaks not by the names man had given them, but by the names of the great dragons who had called them home. His gaze lingered on Nashira as he wondered if she still lived, or if she had been killed during his slumber. The thought made his stomach twist in despair.
His memory was better now. He could recall how mankind had taken it upon themselves to hunt down and exterminate dragons. There was great wealth in those mountains—metals and minerals that they coveted. At first trade had kept them satisfied. They had farmed cattle and sheep and bartered them with the dragons for access to the mountains. Letting them in had been a mistake. They had learned too many secrets.
There were special places, sacred places. Wells of energy where the very essence of the world bubbled to the surface. Places where the gods had walked when dragonkind was young and mankind were few. Men had learned of them—sometimes with the guidance and help of dragonkind who wished to help mankind. Humanity’s magicians were never satisfied. They were always hungry for more power to fuel their wasteful efforts in shaping magic. They sought out the secret places. Coveted them. They tried to murder dragons by trading diseased and poisoned meat. Their outrages continued and increased, until dragonkind would take no more. Conflict followed.
Alpheratz’s thoughts drifted to Nashira. The remembered sight of her soaring around her peak still made his heart race. His battles with Pharadon to win her affection had been ferocious. Pride swelled in his heart to think that he had prevailed in the end. He still wasn’t sure how. With his greater size and lustrous red scales, everyone had thought Pharadon would be the one she chose, but it had not happened that way.
He wanted desperately to see her again. It was not unheard of for males to retreat deep into the mountains for decades—even centuries—after mating, but it would have been uncharacteristic for him. The question of why she had not come to look for him, to wake him from his slumber, popped into his mind, but he dismissed it quickly.
He scanned the sky for any sign of dragonkind, but saw none. On such a magnificent day it seemed impossible that none would be soaring around their peaks, revelling in the beauty of the world. Might they be hiding? Their absence was cause for concern, but he stopped short of hasty speculation.
He stretched his wings, then hesitated. He still felt weak. The Fount had strengthened him somewhat, the meal more so, but he was still feebler than he had been as a hatchling, hiding in the folds of his mother’s wings. He needed to know what was going on, and there was no way he could walk all the way to Nashira’s peak.
Alpheratz breathed deeply. The Fount tingled along his teeth, down his windpipe, and deep into his lungs. He tensed his shoulders and walked forward. Extending his wings as far as they would go, he threw himself from the mountainside. At first he fell, and something that had once been second nature felt like an unknown skill. He strained, willing his wings to grip the air, feeling its cold touch as it whistled past him at ever greater speed. His heart raced as he tried to remember the movements that had once come without thought. Finally he felt his wings catch and it all came back to him.
Soaring up, he rejoiced in the sensation. The air was rich with the Fount, like fertile soil, and it tingled against his flesh where he was not covered in scales. He allowed himself a moment to revel in it—he looped and rolled and dived between peaks until his muscles and lungs reminded him that he had slumbered for a long time. He climbed high, turned toward Nashira’s peak, and allowed himself to glide with the wind.
“Nashira!” It was rude to enter another dragon’s cave without permission, even if she was his aerie-mate. Alpheratz called again, but there was no answer. If
she were sleeping, he would apologise for waking her, but he could wait no longer. Her cave was dark and damp. She had never been the tidiest, but it was unkempt even for her.
“Nashira!” Alpheratz said again. Still no answer.
He continued moving deeper into the cave. Entering her sleeping chamber without invitation was insult enough to fight over. Nashira would be within her rights to kill Alpheratz for such presumptuousness. He called out one last time, then walked into her sleeping chamber.
She was there. A wave of despair washed over him. What was left of her was there. Alpheratz coughed in anguish. Her once beautiful golden scales were gone. The metal contained within them was considered even more valuable than that mined from the ground by the menfolk. Their mages used it in their magics. Nashira’s horns and fangs had been pulled from her skull; more ingredients for human potions. Bones were all that remained of her.
Alpheratz thought he would be sick. There were scorch marks on the ceiling, all around. Hers and theirs. She had put up a hard fight. She would have. It was her character, and part of what he loved about her so much. His heart filled with rage and grief. She was the most beautiful of spirits, the most gentle of souls, and they had killed her.
Her character was not the only reason she would have fought so hard. Half a dozen eggs were nestled in a nook at the back of the cave—all split open. One still had the handle of an axe sticking out of it. The pain felt like it would crush Alpheratz. His rage grew until he could find no clarity of thought. The eggs were destroyed. The eggs they had created together with so much love and care. All of their brood, murdered before they had the chance to crack the shells of their eggs.
Alpheratz stumbled outside, overcome with grief. He was flying back to his cave before he knew what he was doing. He headed toward his deepest chamber, far within the mountain. It was the place where he hatched, where he could always find comfort. He thought back to what he remembered of the wars, trying to work out what might have happened.
The first violence had occurred far to the south. A sacred place was violated, and the dragon tasked with its custody reacted in the only way he could. He slew the men who had done it.
The men should have understood. They had broken the agreements and deserved the consequences. Events escalated from there. Men in shining armour travelled to the mountains to earn fame by slaying dragons. There had been glory in those battles, and Alpheratz had come to respect some of those men, brave despite the impossibility of the task they had set for themselves. Some were so skilled they had even managed to kill a dragon. It was honest battle, bravely fought. Little different than when two dragons came to blows.
Then the mages came. They changed things. They always attacked in large numbers. They drew so hard on the Fount they could completely drain it, leaving the grass brown, the plants wilted, and any dragon unfortunate enough to be close severely weakened. They brought a different type of warrior with them: men touched by magic. Men who could do things, survive things, that no ordinary man should have been able to. That was when the tide had turned against dragonkind.
When a dragon was weakened by magic, the new warriors could corner it and kill it. This was not a battle; it was slaughter. Murder. The men had been unlucky with Alpheratz, however. His mountain was one of the sacred places. It housed one of the ancient stones, the wells, where the Fount was so strong it could be seen with the naked eye. The mages had drawn on it so hard they had extinguished its ethereal blue glow. Even now, it remained shrouded in darkness. Draining it was something Alpheratz had not thought possible, and in his moment of distraction, the men had dealt him a great blow.
The mages and their warriors had thought he was finished, and grew over-confident. What little Fount remained had restored enough of his strength for one more act. He had allowed them near enough to touch him. One had laid his hand flat on Alpheratz’s snout and told his comrades a joke. They had not laughed however—the punch line had coincided with the brazen one being swallowed by flame, something the others experienced moments later. The memory made Alpheratz smile, but did little to quell the sorrow in his heart or the rage boiling his blood.
Perched on a rocky outcrop, Alpheratz watched the valley intently. He had never paid much attention to men until they started hunting and killing dragonkind. Then he had done his best to stay away from them. Fighting had never interested him much—except to win Nashira’s affections—but now he could think of nothing else. They had murdered her. Murdered his young.
A cluster of small buildings straddled a stream some way down the hill. Stone chimneys surrounded by golden thatch puffed smoke into the air. People had been wandering about earlier, but all seemed to be inside now. Contained. It would make what he planned all the easier.
His muscles were still wasted and his flame glands were shrivelled. He didn’t have the strength to chase them or to blast flame about with abandon. In their tiny houses, they would be easy prey. He waited for the light to fade a little more, giving him greater advantage with his superior eyes, then stretched his wings, allowing them to bite into the air and carry him down to the village below.
As he glided close, he squeezed his flame glands. At first, nothing happened. He worried that he had over-taxed them in the cavern. It took time for the glands to fill the bladders, but he had heard of those who had over-stressed their glands, damaging them beyond use. They had not lived long. There were only so many peaks where a dragon could dwell, and if you couldn’t defend yours, your life would be short.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he felt the glands compress and tasted the welcome flavour of the fluids as they sprayed from his mouth and ignited on contact with the air. The thatched roofs were dry and caught quickly. In his first pass, he set light to every building in that small hamlet. The smell of the smoke and the sensation of the heat as he passed over a second time were a joy. The screams that followed were music to his ears. The screams had stopped by his third pass, but still he revelled in the flight, the flames, the fury. When finally he stopped spraying the hamlet with flame, little remained. The fire was so intense that the village burned to ash in only a few minutes.
He landed to take a closer look at his work. It satisfied him deeply to see how easily man could be erased from the face of the land. In a single growing season, there would be nothing left to suggest people had lived here. Though it had been easier than he had expected, it had left him tired again. In his eagerness, he had reduced the animal pens to dust, and there was no nourishment to be had.
He needed to rebuild his strength, to feed regularly. He took to the air once more, looking for food this time, rather than vengeance, though the latter was never far from his mind. Menfolk had ventured too far into dragon country. They had killed his aerie-mate and their brood. Men would ever be his enemy. They would suffer. They would burn. They would learn their place in the world and never dare to test their betters again. He would drive them back to their little island in the middle of the great sea with such prejudice that they would never dare set foot in these hallowed lands again.
Alpheratz spotted a larger village in the distance, one with outlying farm buildings that would provide plenty to eat. He needed to be careful, though. A larger settlement might mean soldiers—perhaps magicians and their special warriors—and he was not yet ready to deal with that. He looked around again and saw a farm a distance away. Better. His target picked—a large barn that he hoped was filled with cattle or something else to sate his appetite—he swooped.
Excerpted from Dragonslayer, copyright © 2019 by Duncan M. Hamilton