Authors: J. Keller Ford
Tags: #magic, #fantasy, #dragons, #sword and sorcery, #action, #adventure
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The author makes no claims to, but instead acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the word marks mentioned in this work of fiction.
Copyright © 2015 by J. KELLER FORD
IN THE SHADOW OF THE DRAGON KING by J. Keller Ford
All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America by Month9Books, LLC.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Published by Month9Books, LLC.
Cover design by Deranged Doctor Designs
Cover Copyright © 2015 Month9Books
To Diane ~
my best and dearest friend.
You will remain forever in my heart and memory
“War is a necessary evil. There is not a day or time when each of us does not battle some sort of enemy within or around us. The true test of our character lies in the instant when we choose to either ignore or defeat that which seeks to destroy us. It is the same in our kingdom. Hirth has seen its share of battles, and this great province has ridden the wings of freedom for many an age; however, there will come a day when an evil so immense will seek to threaten our very existence. It is then the knights of Gyllen Castle will rise to the aid of Hirth and defend all that is dear—our families, our land, and our right to survive. When such a time comes, I will fight with honor and for glory and give my life, if my forfeiture of it will allow Hirth the chance to endure in peace. And while I know that the enemy may prevail, and my life be extinguished from this body, my death will not be in vain, for what is more honorable than giving one’s life for love of family, country … and freedom.”
Sir Trogsdill Domnall.
Had Eric known what daylight would bring after the nightmares ended, he would have remained in bed, the covers pulled over his head.
Instead, he waded through the puddles of the castle’s upper courtyard, each gong from the clock tower coiling his stomach into tighter knots. Sloshing beside him along the aisle of topiaries and statues was his best friend, a devilish lad with unkempt hair the color of dirt and a cockeyed grin.
“I don’t know why you’re in such a hurry,” Sestian said, polishing an apple on his sleeve. “Weapons class began fifteen minutes ago. Master Mafi won’t allow us in.” The apple crunched in his teeth.
“You don’t understand, Ses. I have to try.” Eric swatted at the spindly arms of a willow tree. “This will be the third day in a row I’ve missed. If I don’t go, word will get back to Trog, and he’ll flog me. You know how he gets.”
“You worry too much. He’d never physically hurt you. However, I do have to admit, he is quite an odd fellow. I saw him make another midnight trek to the fountain last night. He sat there all hunched over like he’d lost his best friend, and then he stood, dropped a rose in the water, and left.”
Eric’s muscles bunched under his light shirt, his brow pinched. “That is bizarre, even for him.”
“Want to hear something even more bizarre?” Sestian paused, took another bite of the apple and buried the core in a potted plant. “I overheard Trog and my headache of a master talking this morning. I believe the exact words out of Farnsworth’s mouth were, ‘Fallhollow is under attack.’”
Eric came to a stop, his eyes wide. “Attack? From who?”
Sestian shrugged. “Don’t know, but members of the Senate and the Mages’ High Council arrived an hour ago, including the Supreme Master himself. They’re meeting with the Order as we speak.”
“What?” Eric’s pulse quickened. “Jared’s here? You saw him?”
The grand mage of all magical beings never involved himself in the affairs of men. Ever.
“No, but I plan to change that.” An impish twinkle glistened in Sestian’s eyes. “Are you game?”
“What? You want to—you mean—you’re joking, right?”
The puckish grin on Sestian’s face answered his question.
Eric shook his head. “Oh, no. There is no way you’re going to get me to eavesdrop on a secret council meeting. I’d rather get hit by lightning than suffer punishment from anyone sitting in that room.”
“Aww, come on, Eric. Must you always be so dull? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”
“That sort of curiosity will land us in the pillory at best.” Eric pushed past his friend through the carved citadel doors. Sestian darted in front of him and stopped.
“My point is that I value my life.”
“And what of Fallhollow? Don’t you value our home?”
“Of course I do, but—”
“Then what are you waiting for?” Sestian punched Eric’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“Ses, no!” Eric’s protest fell on empty ears. His friend was gone.
Eric brushed past the lapis columns of the marble vestibule into the Great Hall, a wide-open space topped by a domed ceiling so high its ornate detail became lost in the darkness. Nobles and servants milled about, coming and going out of the many rooms, laughter echoing off the walls speckled with massive tapestries and oil paintings. A flock of girls dressed in aristocratic finery stood upon the majestic staircase, twittering like excited canaries. One of them, Lady Emelia, a startling girl with red hair and striking features, waved at him and winked. Eric rolled his eyes and scurried down the hall past the stairs. The last thing he wanted or needed was a flighty girl choking his freedom.
He passed several lavish rooms before spotting his friend at the far end of the music room, leaning on a harp.
“What took you so long?” Sestian grinned, then pushed aside a wall tapestry and vanished through a secret door.
“Drat you, Ses. How do you find these things?” Eric glanced over his shoulder and followed.
Inside, Sestian struck a wooden match against the stone wall and lit a torch he plucked from an iron sconce. They climbed a set of narrow steps. The guttering flame of Sestian’s torch cast shadows on the walls. More than once the passageway twisted and turned as they ascended.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Eric asked.
Sestian laughed. “We’re in the heart of the castle, and you’re going to ask that question now?”
They continued upward. After what seemed an eternity, the steps emptied onto the landing of a dark corridor filled with cobwebs. Sestian stopped and thrust the torch at Eric.
“Hold this.” He spun a wall sconce in a combination of left and right turns until a latch popped, and a hidden door opened inward, exposing a small room filled with wooden crates.
“What the—?” Eric stepped inside, his mouth open.
Sestian placed his finger to his lips and motioned to a jagged hole the size of a man’s fist in the wall.
Curious, Eric squatted and peered through a banner of delicate silk hanging on the other side.
“Dragon’s breath,” he whispered. “That’s the king’s arbitration room!” He flicked a sideways glance at Sestian. “How did you find this?”
“I don’t sleep much, remember?”
“Dragon’s breath, you
A chair scraped across the wood floor below. Four mages, recognizable by their golden skin, turquoise eyes, and sapphire–blue garments sat on one side of an immense oval table. Four senators clad in similar garments of purple and gold sat across from them. At one head of the table sat Trog and Farnsworth. At the other, a sojourner shrouded in black with silver rings on his fingers and tattoos etched upon his hands. And at one of the five arched windows stood the sorceress, Slavandria, her thick lavender hair plaited in a single braid to the floor.
“Jared,” Eric said under his breath, offering Sestian a view.
“Yep,” Sestian said. “That’d be my guess.” He sat against the wall, his knees to his chest.
Below, Trog leaned forward, his massive hands clasped together, and addressed the cloaked figure opposite him. “We will heed your warnings, Master Jared, and dispatch a legion to Their Majesties. Latest word is they have left the kingdom of Banning and should arrive in Gyllen by tomorrow evening. I also think it wise to notify our neighbors to the north of the encroaching threat. If this enemy’s intentions are to see Hirth fall, he will attack our allies first to render our kingdom helpless.”
“Agreed.” Jared’s voice resonated deep within the chambers, and into Eric’s core. “Master Camden, see to it the kingdoms of Trent and Banning are informed of the possible threat. Also, instruct the shime to dispatch regiments and secure the borders of Hirth.”
“Do you feel that necessary?” replied a bald man clad in blue. “There is no proof the kingdom of Hirth or the realm of Fallhollow, for that matter, is under attack. There have only been a few isolated incidents of bloodshed, nothing that could be construed as acts of war.”
“Master Camden,” Jared said, “several families of barbegazis, a herd of nine unicorns, and over a hundred humans are dead, all in the course of four days. This morning, patrols rescued a herd of pixies from a crow’s cage in the Elmwithian Marsh. They were swathed in dragon’s blood. Might I remind you, a single act of brutality, especially one steeped in black magic as these incidences are, is one violation too many. Our job is to protect this world, and more so this kingdom, from any dark sorcery that may threaten it. If this directive is in any way unclear, I will be more than happy to personally instruct you on the importance of upholding your defensive role.”
A chill crept up Eric’s spine.
“Oh, come on. Instruct him,” Sestian said quietly, a grin stretched across his face.
A palpable silence fell over the room. Master Camden shifted in his seat and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. “Personal instruction is not necessary, Supreme Master.”
“I find that to be a wise decision.”
Yes, so do I
Jared stood and pulled the hood of his cloak forward. “Since we are in agreement, I believe we can disperse. Sir Trogsdill, if I may, I’d like to speak with my daughter alone.”