Read A Dragon at Worlds' End Online

Authors: Christopher Rowley

A Dragon at Worlds' End

A Dragon at World's End by Christopher Rowley
Prologue

It was a wet day, and cold due to an incessant wind off the sound. The crowd was heavy, all the way up Tower Street, despite the rain. Folk from all the provinces had come to stand there. Aubinan grain farmers, fishermen from Seant, and sheepmen from Blue Stone, they were all cheek by jowl with the natives of the white city under a mass of dark gray umbrellas, come to welcome the army home.

In fact, the Legion had landed two weeks before, but this was the official welcome and march of remembrance, to consecrate the memorial to the dead that was to be built on Tower Hill. It was an opportunity for the common people of Marneri to show their support for the men and dragons that had been sent so far—halfway around the world, in fact—and asked to risk their lives for the greater good of all mankind.

Up the hill, to the tap of the drum, came the dark columns. Serried spear points packed the wide street and the ranks that went by were filled with the trained, professional soldiery of the Empire of the Rose. The hearts of the people could not fail to be uplifted at the sight. No better troops existed in all the world. But of the units that had gone to Eigo, the ranks were thin and the uniforms under the blue capes and freecoats were tattered. With this sight came the rendings of heartbreak, for there was scarcely a village without loss from this mission.

The regiments came on steadily through the expectant hush, long files of men followed by squadrons of dragons, each with his dragonboy marching alongside. The dragons loomed in the rain like terrifying apparitions, true monsters of war, with their enormous swords riding on their shoulders, their helmets glistening in the rain. In their lumbering, steady progression they seemed to embody the Argonath's determination and strength. With heavy-footed, swaying tread they passed, and men from villages far and wide were left grieving at the losses among the dragons, too.

Folk from the village of Quosh, in Bluestone, a dragon village with a long record of service, had come up to pay their respects. Farmer Pigget and his family were there, as were most of the other leading men, like Avil Benarbo and Tomas Birch. When the 109th Dragon Squadron hoved up, following at the rear of the 8th Regiment, Second Legion, their eyes fixed sadly on the empty space left for the Broketail dragon. There were sobs from a few. The dragon, originally known as Bazil of Quosh, had been the proudest issue of their line of Legion wyverns. He would never be equaled.

Also noted was the absence of dragonboy Relkin, the village's most honored son, even though he was a bastard with no known father or mother. Raised for dragon service since birth, he had gone on to win the Legion Star and become the youngest recipient ever of the highest award in the Legions. Farmer Pigget and the others grieved for Relkin as well as the dragon. Quosh had lost part of its identity with the deaths of the Broketail dragon and his boy. Their hearts were heavy as they joined the crowd walking up the hill behind the regiments.

"A sad day for us, Tomas," said Pigget to Birch.

"Aye, Shon Pigget, that it is. Broketail dragon won the village tax exemption three years straight."

"He was the best we've ever hatched."

"The boy was a rascal, but never malevolent, as I recall."

"Yes, Tomas, as usual you fit the cap on it very tight."

At the top of the hill they found places in the crowd that filled up the rear of the parade ground laid out in front of the Tower of Guard.

At a balcony on the fifth floor of the tower, old General Kesepton, now retired, stood watching the regiments come on up the hill. With him was General Hanth, newly appointed to the Legion Supply Office in Marneri. Kesepton noted with pride that there were no visible puddles on the wide expanse of the parade ground. Not on his watch, he thought. Then he remembered that his watch was over. It was someone else's problem now.

"A damned fine sight," he said.

Hanth sighed. "Dearly bought, General, very dearly bought."

"Indeed, but the witches say they won a victory."

"So they do. It is hard to know anything for certain, so little information was made available, but we are assured that one of the Five was destroyed."

"Yes, they have made a big fuss about that. Everything else, though…"

"Is secret, I know. So much secrecy, damned witches are everywhere, no one will talk."

"They also serve, General Hanth."

Hanth shrugged. "Oh, I suppose you're right. It all just seems like hocus-pocus to me sometimes. We needed such myths as witches and magical power once, but surely we're beyond that now."

"Ah!" Kesepton bit his tongue. "Well, if you say so, General, if you say so." Kesepton looked down with a trace of a smile on his lips, but the smile was tinged with sorrow.

The casualties from the Eigo disaster were still being digested around the Argonath. They were terrible, thousands of men dead, lost, swallowed up in the heart of the dark continent. The stories told by the survivors were met with disbelief. Monsters, plagues, savage warriors who thought nothing of death, great empires of black peoples, and ultimately a battle in which stone eggs were hurled from the sky by terrible birds. So many fantastic tales, in fact, that folk hardly knew what to believe, but the casualties were very real, whatever else was true.

Thanks to the Goddess, thought Kesepton, his grandson Hollein had been spared. The young Kesepton had been sent to Eigo, but had been detached and sent on a diplomatic mission before the Legions marched west into the unknown interior. He had returned from Eigo a month or so before the rest, coming on a frigate with a message from the kings of Og Bogon and Puji. Real peace could take hold in the whole region. General Kesepton recalled the immense relief he'd felt when he saw Hollein once more, alive and unharmed, standing in the door of his apartment in the tower. Old Kesepton had known from the outset that a mission such as that sent to Eigo would suffer stupendous casualties.

Kesepton also recalled how Marian Baxander had broken and wept at the news of her husband's death. Such a battle the Legions had fought that it had killed both generals in command, along with forty percent of the officers. If this was victory, it was victory with the bloody costs of defeat, and it brought anger in its wake because the mission had been cloaked in such secrecy. Most people couldn't really comprehend the distances involved, nor imagine what threat the witches had found so far away that required such a sacrifice in blood. But, so the witches insisted, it had to be this way.

Out on the wide plaza below the Tower of Guard the regiments measured themselves out in crisp parade-ground array. At the command they dressed to the right, regiment by regiment, each with dragon squads at the rear. In their place behind the Eighth Regiment stood the 109th Marneri. There were wide gaps in the formation, but still they stood there with pride in every ounce of their massive selves.

Out in front was Dragon Leader Wiliger, still, but he was greatly changed. Something had gone out of his eyes since the last battle with Heruta, on the volcano isle. Nowadays he hardly spoke and was often found staring vacantly into space. It was rumored that he had applied for a compassionate discharge from service.

Behind him stood the dragons and dragonboys. At the right front there was the leatherback Vlok, with Swane beside him, then came pale green Alsebra and little Jak. The rest of the front row was empty. In the second rank stood Roquil, with dragonboy Endi, then old Chektor with Mono, and the enormous bulk of the Purple Green of Hook Mountain and dragonboy Manuel. The rest were gone, from Aulay to the big brasshides Finwey and Oxard. Dragonboys were missing, too: little Roos, decapitated at Tog Urbek, and Schutz, whose body was broken to pieces there. And, of course, there was the empty space for Bazil Broketail of Quosh, lost with his dragonboy in the volcanic doom of Heruta.

The Legion was all present and ready. General Wegan nodded and the cornets sounded to bring the Legion with a crash to attention.

There was a long moment of silence. The queen was helped up the steps to the top of the reviewing stand overlooking the wide parade ground. On the stand were several generals: Admiral Cranx, and representatives of the great institutions of the citystate, Fi-ice the Witch of Standing, and Ewilra of the temple.

Their faces were set in rigid masks of disapproval. The queen was drunk. She had been drinking heavily for a year now and any stressful occasion was likely to send her to the brandy bottle. Standing there on the reviewing stand, General Wegan of the Second Legion could barely restrain his anger. Wegan had been on the frontier in Kenor for most of his career.

"You don't know how things are in the city," whispered his friend Major Looth, who headed the Legion Staff Office in Marneri.

"You're right, I don't, and from what I can see, I don't want to find out."

The queen lurched to her place and did her best to stand tall. Behind her stood her current "companion," a handsome cavalry officer from the Talion Light Horse assigned to Marneri. Whenever she wobbled too obviously, he steadied her.

In a shaky voice Queen Besita read out the proclamation of the establishment of the memorial to the fallen. When she'd finished, someone shouted, "The queen is a slut!" And another voice called out, "No more blood for the witches!"

Tension hung in the air for a long shocked second. The wind snapped at the pennons and guidons, but no more insults came. Many men stared around themselves, hot-eyed, gripped by vague, unfocused rage. As much as they hated what the queen had become, they could not accept any insults thrown at the crown of Marneri. The crowd murmured. Besita was oblivious. She never heard the insulting words. She was thinking of nothing except escape from this place and this gloomy business. When she'd finished reading the proclamation, she stood back and would have retreated to her carriage prematurely if her cavalry officer had not held her firmly in place.

Watching this with a degree of horror in her heart was Lagdalen of the Tarcho, former assistant to the Great Witch Lessis and former adviser to the queen. With Lessis's restraining influence on the queen removed, so was any moral suasion possessed by young Lagdalen. The queen had new advisers, smooth young men from Aubinas and Arneis, men who talked of money and fresh markets for Marneri grain.

Thus, Lagdalen did not watch from the reviewing stand, but from the stand occupied by the noble families of the guard, which included the Tarcho clan. Lagdalen's role in the addictive drama of power had been reduced. She was now just a crown attorney, in charge of the endless case against Porteous Glaves, the grain magnate. She was also a mother and hoping for a second child. Her husband, Captain Hollein Kesepton, was also present, and was currently stationed in the city, attached to the Diplomatic Corps. He'd been to Eigo with the Legion and survived, and for this Lagdalen was supremely thankful, although Hollein was torn by odd feelings of guilt. He had been detached on a diplomatic mission and missed Tog Utbek.

Lagdalen, of course, had seen the battle at the field of Broken Stone firsthand and would never forget it. Much had been lost there, including the sure knowledge that an Argonath army was unbeatable in the field. So many had died that day. She was simply glad in her heart that Hollein had lived. She consoled herself with his presence when the dreams were bad and she woke up terrified and sweating.

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