Authors: James Maxey
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Epic, #Fantasy, #Fantasy fiction, #Imaginary places, #Imaginary wars and battles, #Dragons
Book Three of the Bitterwood Trilogy
Copyright 2009 James Maxey
The author welcomes all comments and may be contacted via email at [email protected]
For Simon and Veronica
…I shall appoint over you terror,
consumption, and the burning fever,
that shall consume the eyes,
and cause sorrow of heart:
and ye shall sow your seed in vain,
for your enemies shall eat it.
HOPE OF THE SLAVE
CLOUDS THE COLOR
of bruises stained the winter sunset. Shay hoped that the yellow-brown sky meant they were near the foundries of Dragon Forge. He wasn’t certain Hemming would make it if their journey lasted another day. Shay, Hemming, and Terpin were at the edge of a pine forest on a steep hill leading down to a slow muddy river. On the other side of the water a broad, flat field had been trampled to muck. Shay wondered if this was evidence of the retreat of Shandrazel’s army. Thousands of earth-dragons had fled on foot. The ground would surely bear witness.
“I don’t think I can go on,” Hemming whined as he slid down the bank, landing on a bed of gravel beside the river. Hemming was the oldest of the three slaves, a stooped, white-haired man in his late sixties. In a perfect world, Hemming’s age and experience would have endowed him with wisdom and toughness, but in actuality it had left only a fragile shell of a man with an unceasing passion for complaint. “My blisters have popped,” Hemming moaned. “My boots are filled with blood.”
“All the more reason to keep moving,” said Terpin, sliding down beside him. Unlike Hemming, a house slave, Terpin had worked the grounds of the College of Spires. He was a short man, but heavily muscled. His wispy hair clung in a band around his ears, as white as Hemming’s more ample mane, though he was at least twenty years younger. Terpin’s face was a mass of wrinkles and he only had teeth on the left side of his jaw. His voice was authoritative and gruff as he said, “Walk while you still can, old man. If you can’t go on, we’re not going to carry you.”
Hemming’s lower lip quivered. “Y-you’d leave me behind? After we’ve come this far together?”
Shay cleared his throat. He still clung to a skinny tree on the steep slope. The last ten feet down to the river looked particularly treacherous. He couldn’t get the memory of the horse’s broken leg out of his mind. He announced, “We’re not leaving anyone behind. I’ll drag you both if I have to.” He was the youngest of the slaves, only twenty-two. He was lanky, tall despite his hunched posture, with a thick head of orange hair bright as the scales of a sun-dragon. Unlike the drab, threadbare outfits of the older men, Shay was dressed in a long red coat with shiny brass buttons. His black boots were scuffed and muddied from walking, but the upper parts still showed their former polish.
Shay had led a more privileged life than either of the older slaves. He’d been the personal attendant to Chapelion, the sky-dragon scholar who oversaw the College of Spires. Few humans knew how to read, but Shay’s precociousness had been recognized at an early age and encouraged by Chapelion, who’d seen advantages in having a literate slave. Chapelion had thought that his bright-eyed favorite had been smart enough to recognize the benefits of life in his service. Instead Shay’s relatively easy life in the face of the hardships of his fellow men had only made his status all the more intolerable. Not that his life had been easy—as a slave, he’d been subject to beatings for minor mistakes. His back bore scars from the bite of whips. When news of a human rebellion at Dragon Forge had reached the College of Spires, Shay instantly knew that he belonged there. He’d persuaded Terpin to accompany him, because he liked Terpin and hoped that the tough, worldly slave knew a thing or two about survival. They’d taken Hemming because he’d eavesdropped on their plans and asked to come, and they’d both been certain he would betray them if left behind.
“Hemming, I’m as tired as you,” Shay said. “I want nothing more than to stretch out on the ground and drift to sleep. But look at those clouds. That has to be the smoke from Dragon Forge. I’ve heard the sky above it is always tinted this way at sunset. We’re close.”
“It’s Terpin’s fault we don’t have horses,” Hemming grumbled.
Shay sighed to hear this argument brought up again.
“Oh lord,” Terpin groaned, throwing his hands up.
“If you’d listened to me, we’d be there already,” Hemming said.
This was arguably true, but Shay didn’t think it mattered. They’d left with two horses, with Hemming and Shay sharing a mount. On their first day out, they’d pushed too far. Terpin had assured them the horses could go another mile, then another, and he’d beaten the horses with branches to keep them moving. After hours of rough treatment the horse that carried the two of them fell dead, its heart burst. The next morning, they’d taken turns with the last horse, and as Terpin rode down a ravine the horse had stumbled and broken its leg. Shay knew they had made mistakes that cost them dearly, but he couldn’t see any advantage in dwelling on them, not when they were so close to freedom.
“What’s past is past,” said Shay. “We’re all cold and hungry. Dragon Forge will have fireplaces, and food to fill our bellies, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s whiskey as well. It’s worth another hour of walking, even in the dark.”
“Whisky gives me heartburn,” Hemming grumbled. “And you think they’re just giving out food? You think they’re going to welcome three runaway slaves with open arms?”
“It’s a rebellion. They need soldiers, and workers, and cooks, and any other talents we can bring,” said Shay. “They’ll feed us. Especially once they see what I’m carrying.”
He tapped the leather pack slung over his shoulder. It had been a heavy burden to tote all this way, but he thought the contents were the most precious thing in the world. He held onto the faith that Dragon Forge would welcome them with the same certainty that dawn would follow the night. Hemming didn’t look convinced.
“You youngsters think you’re immortal,” Hemming said. “But if we’re stumbling around out here in the dark with numb feet, we’re likely to break our legs. You remember the horse, don’t you? You remember the way that bone jutted through the hide, the way that blood shot out in a fountain?”
Shay did remember this. Any time he closed his eyes, he could see it. This was one reason he was still clinging to the tree instead of jumping down to the gravel.
Perhaps sensing he was touching Shay’s fears, Hemming went on: “None of us can see worth a damn in the dark, but the slavecatchers can. They’ll find us while we’re lying there in the open field with broken legs. Those bastards have eyes like cats.”
“Our ears are rather sharp as well,” said a voice overhead.
Shay looked up, his heart in his throat. Perched in the gnarled branches of a towering pine, he spotted a pair of golden eyes glowing in the last rays of the sun. The blue wings of a sky-dragon unfurled against the dark sky as the beast rose and glided down to the gravel bed, landing ten feet away from Hemming. The old man trembled. A high pitched cry erupted from his lips, a sound like a rabbit shrieking in the jaws of a hound.
The slavecatchers were frequent visitors to Chapelion’s chambers, and Shay recognized this one as Galath, a fairly young and inexperienced member of the trade. Perhaps they still had a chance. Hope faded as a second sky-dragon glided down to join Galath. This was Enozan, a much older and more experienced slavecatcher. Still, it was two against three; not all hope was lost. In the air, sky-dragons were much larger than men, with their twenty-foot wingspans and long whip-like tails. On the ground, however, standing on their hind-legs like oversized blue-jays, the two slavecatchers were no taller than Hemming. Perhaps this gave Terpin courage, because as Hemming fell to his knees to beg for mercy, Terpin grabbed a fallen tree branch and wielded it like a club.
“Stay back!” he shouted. “Or I’ll knock your brains out!”
There was a rustling in the tree behind Shay. A third dragon had landed in the branches. Shay recognized him immediately—Zernex, one of the most feared slavecatchers employed by the College of Spires, second in cruelty and cunning only to Vulpine, the infamous Slavecatcher General.
Zernex spread his wings wide and stretched his neck as he stood on the swaying branch, perhaps for balance, perhaps to emphasize his size. While sky-dragons were small compared to sun-dragons, they were still fearsome beasts. Their heads were the size of a large ram’s, with jaws that could open wide enough to close around a human throat and sink into it with gleaming rows of saw-like teeth. Their talons may have been little larger than a man’s hand, but they were tipped with sharp-hooked claws that could slice through flesh with ease. Zernex raised the fringe of long feather-scales that ran along the back of his neck as he snarled at Terpin. “Drop the branch, slave! I’m paid the same whether I bring you back alive or dead. I won’t hesitate to gut you.”
Shay shouted at Zernex. “If you don’t care if we’re alive or dead, why bring us back at all? Leave us alone! The College of Spires won’t miss three slaves!”
Zernex glared at Shay. “Do you think we’re fools, boy? You’re running off to join the rebellion. You think we’re going to let you go get armed with a bow and arrow so you can kill dragons? Besides, we both know you aren’t merely escaped slaves… you’re thieves as well.” His eyes fixed on Shay’s leather backpack.
Despair welled up within Shay like a black fog. He looked at Hemming, groveling on the damp gravel, his hands clasped behind his head. A small hard knot formed in Shay’s belly. He’d never been in a fight in his life. He’d never even thrown a punch. But he’d been running away to become a rebel, hadn’t he? He spotted another fallen branch on the slope below him. He let go of the tree and slipped the leather pack from his shoulders. He jumped down to the gravel, grabbing the branch. He stood back to back with Terpin and shouted, “You’ll never take us alive!”
“Take me alive, please,” whimpered Hemming.
The branch that Shay had grabbed was damp and half-rotten. He cast his eyes about for another weapon, but it was too late. Apparently emboldened by Shay’s defiance, Terpin lunged, hacking out with his more sturdy club. It was a powerful swing, but easily anticipated. Galath, the target of the blow, flapped his wings once and darted backward as the club passed through the air where he’d stood.
Terpin, off balance, didn’t show a similar talent for evasion. Enozan’s toothy jaws shot toward him in a serpentine strike, clamping onto the bald man’s windpipe. Terpin unleashed a gurgling yelp as the dragon shook his head back and forth. Enozan kicked out with a hind-talon, sinking his hawk-like claws deep into the man’s belly. In seconds the fight was over, as the dragon dropped Terpin’s lifeless body from his jaws.
Shay fought to keep from dropping to his knees as the older man fell.
“Oh god oh god oh god,” prayed Hemming, his head pressed into the gravel.
Galath hopped forward and opened his reptilian jaws wide. He snapped them shut on Hemming’s skull with a horrible
. Hemming’s whimpers suddenly went silent.
“Why?” Shay shouted, dropping his useless branch, clenching his fists. “Why’d you kill him? He wasn’t fighting you!”
From the branch above, Zernex answered. “It’s a long way back to the College of Spires. It’s easier to carry just the heads.”
Zernex dropped from the branches onto the bank, grabbing the leather pack Shay had dropped. He held it up, his eyes fixed on it hungrily as if he appreciated the importance of its contents. “This is what Chapelion cared about most. And while I won’t hesitate to kill you, Shay, I think your master would prefer to see you alive. I imagine he’d like the satisfaction of watching you flayed. Honestly, you’ve known Chapelion your whole life. Did you truly think he’d let you get away with even a single book from his private library?”
“I know the truth about those books!” Shay protested. “They were written by men! For men! In a time before the Dragon Age! They shouldn’t be part of a dragon’s library!”
“If dragons can own men, why can’t they own their books as well?” Zernex asked in a condescending tone.
“You can’t own us!” Shay shouted, reaching down and grabbing a smooth river stone the size of his fist. “You can only enslave us!”
Shay hurled the stone with all his strength at the hated slavecatcher. Zernex lifted the leather bag in his fore-talons, blocking the stone before it collided with his chest. Shay knew he had no chance in a fight. He turned toward the river. He didn’t know how deep it was. Could he dive and swim downstream? Lose his pursuers in the dark? Or would he only freeze to death in the icy water? What choice did he have? Better to drown a free man than ever to face the lash again. He darted toward the water.
Behind him, there was a hiss as a dozen feet of leather sliced the air. His charge was brought to a sudden halt as the tip of a whip curled around his neck like a noose. His feet flew out from under him and he slammed to the ground on his back.