Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Dragon-Bound
In the world of the dragon-bound: Twelve years ago, Dax, rightful king of West Landly fled into exile. Now he is an expert warrior for hire. After years of commanding mercenaries in a series of regional skirmishes with his friend Scarlet, Dax is looking for something new. Commandant Renshau has just the thing—an assignment as a political advisor to East Landly. Dax relished the new challenge, but being a political advisor proved more dangerous than he had thought—much more dangerous!
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Start reading: Chapter 1
The Mencadi raiders were arrayed in battle order at the top of the ridge. Although their clothing was as raggedy as their line, their shields were sturdy, and their swords were sharp. Dax surveyed the troop of Endellan soldiers he commanded. They stood at the bottom of the ridge, awaiting Dax’s order to advance. To get to the Mencadi, they faced a long uphill climb through brush only tentatively rooted in sandy soil. At the very end, they would have a steep scramble up the last few feet to the top—where the Mencadi stood jeering and taunting. When Dax gave the order to advance, it would mean blood and pain.
The center part of the ridge had the easiest slope. That was where Dax had assigned B and C squads. They were the weakest and would move the slowest. He had given squad A the western slope. It was steepest, but he knew squad A’s hard-charging tre would get them to the top just about the time the other squads converged on the steep-sided barrier. At that point, the Endellan attack would come to a halt, and the Mencadi would start to chop them to pieces from above.
Dax took another look at the sun and hoped Scarlet was on schedule. He looked up and down the line. His Endellans were in place. Time to roll the bones. He signaled the guidon to wave the red and green troop colors. He blew his carved wooden whistle as loud as he could, and the shrill note carried through the wind. His soldiers responded the way they had been trained; they screamed at the top of their lungs, hoisted their shields, and waved their weapons. Finally they beat their swords on their shields three times. After the display, they put their weapons away and began the long, slow slog through the tussocky grass at the bottom of the hill.
The Mencadi roared back in response, shouting more insults and encouraging the oncoming soldiers toward their line. Several heaved rocks down the hill, which rolled and bounced toward the Endellan lines. Most ricocheted overhead, but Dax saw one strike a man and knock him back down the hill. The Mencadi had no archers, and there were too few stones. The force on top of the ridge could not damage his ranks until they climbed up to meet them. The Endellans kept climbing.
He let his men get only a short way up the hill before he blew his whistle again. The other squad leaders echoed his command. The Endellan troops stopped their advance and went through the ritual of beating their swords and axes against their shields—three times, slowly, just like they had rehearsed. After the three beats, they started up the ridge again.
The Mencadi were puzzled, but once his men resumed their advance, they hooted, jeered, and tossed a few more rocks. One particularly bold individual bared his buttocks to them. Dax wished for one good archer.
As they mounted the ridge, Dax repeated the procedure six more times. His troops followed the same ritual. The Mencadi stood atop the slope and hooted with amusement. They kept up a constant stream of taunts and abuse. Dax smiled. The Mencadi were not thinking of the regular pauses as a chance for his men to rest their legs. The Endellan noisemaking created distracting theatrics. Trudging up the slope along with his men, his own calves burned from the effort of climbing with weapons and armor. As well-conditioned as his troops were, the brief rests were welcome.
Where was Scarlet? Eyeing the slope ahead, he figured about two more stops before they would be forced to scramble up the dirt embankment right to the feet of the Mencadi. Dax blew his whistle one more time. After their by now familiar ostentatious performance, his men had just started back up the hill when one of the Mencadi warriors turned around with a start. More heads turned to look, and the raucous howling of the Mencadi died away. A faint thump, thump, thump sounded from over the crest of the hill. Dax smiled. Undisciplined, the Mencadi all turned and rushed back to meet the new threat from behind—a small detachment of Endellans led by Scarlet. Although too few to seriously challenge the Mencadi troops for possession of the ridge, the Mencadi now found themselves between two forces. They were confused.
It was time. Dax blew four short, sharp whistles. His men bolted into action, swarming up the remaining distance to the crest of the ridge and over. A few Mencadi recognized what was happening behind them. They turned back to contest the top—too late. A few of his men fell, but most made it to the top of the ridge. Once on flat ground, they quickly joined shields and faced the enemy. Protected in an armored line, Dax’s Endellans closed with the Mencadi. The killing began.
Dax joined a line of six Endellans. They drove into a disorganized group of raiders being pushed toward them by another line of Endellans. The Mencadi turned and crashed into their line, attempting to break it. A big brute of a fighter with the black circle of Mencadi surrounding his own clan colors swung his axe at Dax. Dax deflected the blow with his shield and chopped at the man’s exposed ribs. The man went down, but suddenly the Endellan protecting Dax’s right side was no longer there.
His line of Endellan warriors had stalled against the desperate Mencadi. Dax took a small step to his left to tighten up and defend his end of the line against two oncoming fighters. The two Mencadi swung at the same time. Dax blocked forward into the man on the right, using his shield to force him left into his companion. In the tangle of arms and legs, the Endellan on Dax’s left chopped down one of the Mencadi. Dax took the other in the groin. The man collapsed, and Dax kicked the sword from his hand before he moved on. Dax closed up with his line, and they moved forward again.
The Mencadi fought bravely but individually. They were no match for the Endellans’ organized fighting units. The Endellans wielded their short swords from behind their shield wall. The Endellans’ strong line forced the Mencadi back, step by step. Finally the remaining raiders broke and ran. After the Mencadi took to their heels, the Endellan soldiers gave three rousing cheers. They slapped each other on the back and congratulated each other on their victory. They celebrated being alive.
Dax wiped his sword and put in the scabbard. He took off his helmet and swiped the sweat off his brow. He surveyed the battleground. Blood and pain. Finally he spotted Scarlet’s small form in the middle of a group of Endellans and went to congratulate him.
“Nice timing on your part.” Dax nodded and clapped Scarlet on the shoulder. Adrenaline from the fight had ebbed away. His legs were heavy from the climb up the hill.
“I had to hurry them along some at the end.” Scarlet smiled. “I could hear your whistle and knew you were almost to the top.”
Dax nodded. “Any trouble?”
Scarlet shook his head. His face glistened with sweat, but he was breathing normally. “None to speak of. By the way, we found their horses in a gully behind the ridge.”
The younger man gave Dax an impish grin. “Well, with only two men to guard them, I didn’t think you would mind if we took a moment to make sure they all had to walk home.” He toyed for a moment with the bright-red sash he wore around his waist. “What do you think? Should we try to hunt the rest down before they get too much of a start?”
Dax looked around at the battleground. His men moved through the fallen to separate the dead from the wounded. He knew that at least six of his men were down, and more were injured but walking. He saw maybe three dozen Mencadi bodies, about half their force. “It wouldn’t hurt to send a squad to harry them back across the border . . . just to make sure they can find the way.”
Scarlet turned and gave several quick orders. When he turned back, Dax asked, “What’s this make now? The sixth or seventh band we’ve rousted out of Endel Hom? Do you suppose Linnab has lost enough men to want to end the raids?”
Raising his eyebrows, Scarlet asked, “You think it’s time to recommend to King Ponnel that he approach the Mencadi again about a border agreement?”
Dax nodded. “That, and I’ve talked with him a few times about opening a livestock market in northern Endel. One close enough to the border that the Mencadi might want to take advantage of it.”
“Get them buying and selling cattle instead of stealing them?”
“Give them a way to make money without taking a chance on getting killed.” Dax nodded. “It’s worked before.”
Scarlet shook his head. “Always looking to avoid trouble. Why not just declare war and have done?”
“There’s no ‘have done’ in war. It always hurts both sides—even the winner. Why not try to find a way to live together?”
“Ah, but where’s the glory in that?” The younger man smiled. “You’re doing diplomacy again. Renshau seems to like that prattle, and he encourages you.”
Dax gestured at the bodies sprawled in the indignity of death. “Wasn’t this enough glory for one day?”
Scarlet ignored his commander’s somber mood and grinned. “Oh, I got my share of glory today, but it doesn’t match all those marvelously grand stories of the old legions of Landly building a kingdom from a wilderness.”
“And those old tales of glory are just that—old tales.” Their argument was of long standing. Dax made an effort to match Scarlet’s mood and smiled at him. “Keep talking like that and I’ll promote you up to captain and give you the glory of command.” Scarlet might be small in stature, but he was a fearsome fighter. He was one of the best with a blade there had ever been at Iron Moor Academy—Commandant Renshau had said so himself. Scarlet craved recognition as a warrior, and he had already achieved great renown even at his young age.
Scarlet hitched up his sash and put a swagger into his next three steps. “And I’d get all fat and grumpy like you. Worried about strategy and tactics, supply and logistics. Gee, I can’t wait, boss. Sign me up!”
They walked as they talked. Dax took the butcher’s bill from the tre in charge of cleanup. He gave a grunt of recognition. “Tolver went down. Sorry to see that.”
“He was a good one,” Scarlet agreed. “Hate to be the one to tell his girl.”
Dax sighed. Another burden of command that Scarlet would cheerfully avoid. Blood and pain—and sorrow.
He stood there thinking. How many battles? He had lost count now. He had led a score of fights against gangs of robbers, bands of marauders, and troops of rebels. Some were more costly than others, but in the end they all were the same. No, there was no glory here, just the hard, bloody work of building a civil society in the barbaric outlands. Someone had to keep the peace. Kingdoms like West Landly and East Landly had their own military to keep order within their borders. Surrounding realms were smaller and much less organized. Renshau called them brush duchies, and they provided a steady market for Iron Moor’s superbly trained warriors. Many academy graduates made more money training the soldiers in these territories than they could earn as actual mercenary fighters.
Iron Moor produced outstanding leaders as well as fighters. Dax was a leader and had been since birth. Years earlier, before he had taken refuge at the academy, Dax had been Darius Ambergriff X, rightful king of West Landly. He had never taken the throne in his own right. His father had died when Dax was only ten. His stepmother, Mathilde, had ruled as regent, but Dax had discovered she had poisoned his father and was attempting to poison him. Dax had fled the castle and the capital city of Tazzelton, throwing Mathilde’s plans into turmoil. Mathilde? Well, she had been forced to flee as well. His mentor, Orin Herne, had put a knife into her handpicked usurper, ending the plot.
Dax smiled tightly at the memory. Some of the pain had faded with time, but only some. He had undertaken a long and perilous journey to get to Iron Moor Academy, where Commandant Renshau had taken him in. There was a new king in West Landly now. He had Ambergriff blood, so he ruled as King Darius Ambergriff XI. He was a king selected by the Assembly of Nobles. Most importantly he was not Mathilde’s lapdog. The young King Darius Ambergriff X was now a tale from the past. Minstrels sang romanticized ballads about the lost boy king. If they had known the truth, instead of songs of loss and wistful memory, the songs would have been a rousing saga of peril, dragons, and adventure. It was a hard story. Dax had lived it.
In the twelve years since he had taken his destiny into his own hands, Dax had made a life at Iron Moor using the name Gard Daxdendraig, the name given to him by Commandant Renshau. Dax was now a veteran soldier and commander of men. Although he had been good with weapons at the academy, there were always one or two who were better. However, Renshau had a discerning eye. He had early noted Dax’s understanding of the tactics and strategy of warfare. Renshau had groomed Dax for command.
“Camp here tonight?” Scarlet’s question roused Dax from his memories. “There’s water just down the hill back there.”
Dax took another look around. “I think so. Let’s set up back down the ridge there under the trees.” He nodded toward a small grove dominated by a huge beech tree just coming into leaf. “We need to give the scavengers room to work.” He took another look around the field of battle. “Tell your squad to chase the Mencadi until nightfall, then head back. We’ll wait for them here and start back west toward Marret Town tomorrow afternoon.”
“We’re done then?”
“Near enough. We’ve bloodied Mencadi noses enough times they will look elsewhere for easier pickings. Besides, it’s time for them to go home and work their own fields. King Ponnel will have the summer to work something out before they get restless again after the fall harvest.”
“So you’re going to head back to Iron Moor?”
“Yes.” Dax nodded. “I need to catch up with news of the dragon-bound, and we’re too far north to go back through Newham to see Bindle Treyhorn. Maybe I’ll head down that way after I spend some time at the academy.” He looked at Scarlet. “How about you?”
The younger man shrugged. “I’m headed past the academy on my way to Timberlake, so I guess I’ll travel with you across East Landly. If it’s all right with you, that is.”
“Couldn’t think of anyone better.” Dax smiled. Not only did they fight together, the men were friends and traveling companions of long standing.
“Well, since you’re dragon-bound, I guess I’ll just have to believe that, won’t I?” Scarlet knew that being dragon-bound meant Dax could not tell a lie. He particularly enjoyed putting Dax on the spot whenever there were ladies around. Dax, for his part, found it amusing, if occasionally uncomfortable, to watch Scarlet scheme. “Say, when is Kahshect coming to visit again?” Scarlet asked. “I enjoy the old boy’s sense of humor.”
“You’d enjoy it a lot more if you could hear all he says.” Dax was bound to the dragon Kahshect, and they shared their thoughts and feelings through that bond. Kahshect understood Common speech perfectly well, but he depended on Dax to convey his thoughts to other humans. Dax took some liberties in toning down the dragon’s irreverent observations, but Kahshect enjoyed physical humor as well. There was no hiding that.
Scarlet had met Kahshect when he had first met Dax, and Scarlet appreciated the dragon’s sense of fun. Kahshect enjoyed tripping or poking people with his tail, then feigning great umbrage at their complaints. And dragon umbrage was impressive. The dragon found it hysterically funny to silently approach unsuspecting humans, lurk behind them, and watch their starts of fright when they turned to see the dragon’s large head just inches away. One poor girl had fainted dead away after the dragon had snorted down the back of her gown.
“You know,” Scarlet ventured, “we could save a lot of time and energy if you’d get your dragon to swoop down and burn those Mencadi where they stand.”
Dax smiled at his friend. “Now where would the glory be in that?” he retorted. “Besides, you know dragons will not get involved in human wars. They have to stay strictly away from our squabbles.”
“Bah. So what good is it to be dragon-bound if you can’t get your dragon to make a little mayhem for you?”
“Well, don’t try to make your fight personal with me or any of the dragon-bound.” Dax thought back to the way Kahshect and Treyhorn’s dragon, Namkafnir, had handled Zodas and his gang of villains when he and Treyhorn had been brutally kidnapped in Timberlake years ago. Dax nodded. “You don’t want to threaten a dragon’s bondmate.”
Zodas had escaped that confrontation with Namkafnir, but three of his men had not. Namkafnir had incinerated two with dragon fire. Dax had never heard for sure what had happened to the third man, but he assumed it was just as decisive. As for Zodas himself, Dax had lived in fear for several years. The man knew Dax’s secret. He had intended to sell Dax to the Tharans—or to the highest bidder. Three years later, Treyhorn had sent word to Iron Moor that Zodas had been found dead in Bington, his throat cut. A fitting end, but Dax would rather have been the one to have done it.
“So how do you get off fighting in all these battles?” Scarlet asked.
The question brought Dax back to the moment, but he had lost the train of the conversation. He looked at his friend, trying to recall what they had been talking about.
Scarlet sighed. “It certainly doesn’t take long for you to travel a hundred miles away. Kahshect,” he repeated. “If dragons are so protective of their bondmates . . .”
“Oh, sorry,” Dax broke in. Now he remembered, but he did not like the question. He looked at the ground. “He hates it, but that’s what I do, so he lives with it. I think that’s one of the reasons he stays away so long at a time. He can feel my danger, but if he’s at a distance, I guess it’s easier to bear.” Dax was feeling pensive to the point of getting maudlin. He looked up at Scarlet. “Besides, as leader, I don’t take that many chances.”
“Leading from behind, huh?” Scarlet’s eyes twinkled as he said it. He knew Dax fought alongside his men and usually took on more than his share of the combat.
Dax snorted. “Otherwise people start complaining there’s not enough glory to go around.” He tried to match his words with a carefree grin, but knew he did not fool Scarlet.
Their route led across the Verda Plains of East Landly just south of the Gemmick Hills. The region was sparsely populated, the terrain was easy, and they made good time. Other than idle conversation, neither man said much as they traveled. Dax’s pensive mood lingered. He thought about the commands he had overseen in his six years as a mercenary leader. He had led successful campaigns, but what had he accomplished other than earning a tidy sum of money? Blood and pain. He was very good at that.
He was no longer king of West Landly. Years ago he had vowed to retake the throne, but so far he had done nothing to complete that goal. Oh, he was a seasoned leader and a good fighter in his own right, but another sat on the throne in his place. He had given up his kingdom as a boy. Was this the time to do . . . something?
Scarlet’s horse stepped close enough to cause Dax’s horse to step away. “I said, do you want to camp for the night over by those trees? There looks to be water over there.”
“Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.” He smiled sheepishly.
“Something’s on your mind.”
“I want to talk to Renshau about something.” Dax shrugged.
“The battles are all starting to look the same, aren’t they?”
Dax was not surprised the other man had sensed at least part of his disquiet. “Other than the money, what are we accomplishing?”
“Other than the money?” Scarlet smiled. “As someone who grew up without any, I think that’s something.”
Was this the choice for Dax? A mercenary’s earnings or a kingdom to rule?
They rode into the small town of Dinwiddie on the shores of the Circular Sea in the late afternoon. The entrance road to Iron Moor had beckoned, but they passed by and went on into the town instead. Although they were both welcome at the academy, Scarlet planned to take a room at Feedle’s Inn just off the main square. He wanted to get an early start on the road to Timberlake in the morning. An early start would have been difficult if he had rejoined the social milieu of the academy.
Dax was not eager to be alone with his thoughts, so he joined his partner for supper. No one from the academy was there that night, and neither man knew any of the local citizens at the inn that evening. They ate a leisurely meal and lingered over a pint of ale. Finally Dax bade his friend a safe journey and took his leave.
It was still early, and on impulse Dax stopped at the Temple of the Goddess before heading back to Iron Moor. He needed to think, and he had found temples good places to do it. A long time ago, when he was living on the streets of Tazzelton, he had received . . . what had he received? Was it a message from the Goddess herself? Was it a prophecy? The Great Mother of the Great Temple in Tazzelton had set his feet on the convoluted path that had led him safely to Iron Moor. Ever since, when he had wanted to think about his future, a temple had been a comfortable and appropriate setting to do it.
Although Dinwiddie’s temple had walls of stone, they were unworked field stones. The lectern where the priestesses spoke was carved with leaves and scrollwork, but the rest of the woodwork was plain. No one was in sight, which suited Dax’s mood. He sighed, and the familiar peace of the sanctuary calmed him. He took a seat toward the back.
The colored glass above the rostra gleamed with dazzling reds in the last light of the sun. Blood red. Blood and pain. Now he deliberately asked himself the question that troubled him. Could he win back his throne? Did he want to win back his throne? What would it do to West Landly? He had lived as an outsider even as he lived within the kingdom. Iron Moor was far from the seat of power, and his mercenary jobs had taken him even farther afield. Dax knew many mercenaries, most of them graduates of the academy, but how strong a force could he assemble? He had some money, but raising a force to take the throne . . .
But would he use force to take the throne? West Landly had a king who ruled capably. What would be the reaction if the boy who could not hold the throne a dozen years ago showed up in Tazzelton and demanded his crown back? Even if his demand was backed by a substantial army, there would almost certainly be blood and pain. People would be killed—people who were loyal subjects of the current king and only wanted to live in peace.
He heard a noise and looked up. Someone had come into the sanctuary through the small door at the front. A priestess wearing a long brown robe approached him. She had the hood up in the early evening chill. Dax left his thoughts in place and nodded in recognition. A priestess always approached people in the sanctuary to see to their needs. “Good evening, Sister. I thank you for your attention, but I am here for a quiet place to think.”
Unexpectedly the woman motioned for him to move over, and she sat down next to him. She said, “This is a fine place to think, but tonight you need to talk.” Reaching up, she flipped back the hood over her head. The multicolored braid of the Great Mother lay on her brow.
Startled, Dax slid off the bench and knelt before her. “Great Mother, I am honored.”
She reached out, put her hand on his head, and gave the ritual blessing. Afterward she tipped his face up toward her and smiled. “It is my honor to speak with you again, Gard Daxdendraig.” She smiled as she said his name. “Please,” she patted the seat beside her, “sit with me. We have things to discuss.”
Dax’s thoughts were a jumble. She knew his name and wanted to speak with him again? Dinwiddie was far to the north of Tazzelton, yet the Great Mother was here? He looked at her closely. Her hair was gray, but he knew her face. “Sister Hennet?”
She smiled. “You have grown.”
He took a seat beside her, but for a time he said nothing. She was silent as well, so Dax finally offered, “I guess I should thank you. Your help years ago put me on the path that led me to Iron Moor and safety.”
“You are still on that path.” She looked at him intently. “But it does not lead to safety.”
The path. His path? Perhaps tonight he could get some answers. “The Great Mother”—he gestured with his hand—“the previous Great Mother, I mean. She said there was trouble coming. At the time, I thought she meant for me and the trouble Mathilde would cause.” He looked at her intently. “There’s more, isn’t there?”
Sister Hennet nodded sadly. “Great troubles.”
“The Goddess in her Divinatory Aspect has revealed this to you?” Although there were many aspects of the Goddess, the Divinatory Aspect was never mentioned outside the church hierarchy—except to him. “So I am destined to stop these troubles?”
“Destined?” She repeated his word as a question. “What is destiny?”
“You knew I would be here tonight, and you traveled all the way from Tazzelton. You knew it was my destiny to be here tonight?”
She shrugged. “Destiny? Foresight? The Goddess’s hand moving us together?” She shook her head. “Answer me this. What is free will? If the Goddess in her Divinatory Aspect has seen this meeting, knows of our conversation . . .” She shrugged. “What decisions are there for us to make?” She looked solemn for a moment, but then she smiled. “I should not burden you with the philosophical debates of our order.”
The Great Mother was not here by chance. Dax wanted to get to the point. “So why are you here tonight? What message do you bring?”
“Your path is at a turning point.”
True enough. That was exactly what he had come here to consider. If the Great Mother was here to talk about his destiny, evidently all cards were on the table—face up. “The throne of West Landly.” He looked her directly in the eye. That was what had been on his mind. Was that the turning point?
She arched her eyebrows skeptically. “A throne attained through force of arms is a precarious perch.”
“Orin Herne told me that once.”
“He made a noble sacrifice.” She looked solemn and nodded. “It was not in vain.”
When she did not offer anything more, Dax asked, “So we play a guessing game?”
“You are not guessing. You already know in your heart the way you will take.”
Did he? He had already decided he did not want to continue the life of a mercenary. “I had planned to talk about my career with Commandant Renshau while I visited the academy.” He sighed. “I trust his advice.”
“How do you sharpen a sword?” she asked.
Dax blinked, surprised by the sudden turn in the conversation. “A sword?” he pondered aloud to give himself time to think. The Great Mother was not asking for herself. None of the members of any of the aspects of the Goddess used swords. This was a metaphor. “You grind the edge on a sharpening stone.” She said nothing, so he continued, “Then you take the fine stone to it to hone the edge. Finally you strop it to polish it to a keen edge. A good sword, well prepared, will cut paper with a whisper and no snags.” He paused. “So, I am to be a sword now?”
“One that needs a good stropping.” She smiled, and her eyes twinkled with amusement.
“And Renshau will see to my stropping,” Dax concluded.
She nodded. “And if you spend any more time thinking about taking the West Landly throne, I may take you outside and strop you myself.” She chucked a little and sighed. “You should have seen your eyes when I said that.”
Now that her mood had turned more lighthearted, Dax asked her for news. She nodded and patted his hand reassuringly. “The kingdom is in good hands, and the people are happy.”
What more could he wish for the kingdom he once ruled? He smiled in return. “I’m glad.”
She sighed and frowned, serious again. “But great trouble is coming. You will face great peril, but you will bring hope.”
He felt suspended in midair. Trouble? Peril? Hope? Confused, he asked, “My path?”
She nodded. “Talk to Commandant Renshau.” She smiled and patted his hand again. “Get away from the life of a mercenary and rediscover who you are. Your path lies to the east.”
Dax raised his eyebrows. She said nothing more and stood up. The conversation was over. He stood also and watched as the woman flipped her hood up over her head and walked out of the sanctuary.
To the east? He had just come from the east, but other than tribal unrest, nothing was stirring in the east. She spoke as if she—or the Goddess?—had been watching his every move. Destiny? Choice? Whichever, her message was clear. He had to talk to Renshau.