The release of Dragonshade, my next epic fantasy, draws ever close. So it's time to reveal a few chapters...
Click here to read Chapter 1
Dragonshade (The Secret Chronicles of Lost Magic)
Eleventh year of Khanassa Bera’s reign
5,847 years ago…
Danael’s breath came hard and fast, and far too loud as he followed Petar and the others up the mountain-goat trail in the deep of night. He resisted stealing another glance behind. Danael had committed to this wild notion of Petar’s, in full breach of his mother’s command that he should remain. There was no going back to the safety of their encampment until this reckless job was done… or all eight of them died in the process.
Petar had stopped; he also breathed hard. The pale features of his face, and the dark blur of his short-cropped beard were just visible in the starlight. “We’re at the peak,” Petar hissed. “It’s all downhill from here. Mind your footing.”
“Aye,” they whispered back.
Danael’s free hand went to the hilt of his sword, while the other gripped the unlit torch tight. “Let’s go.”
The vegetation was thicker on the north side of the range and branches swished in their faces as they ran. Danael held low tree limbs as he passed, to prevent them from slapping at Ilyag who followed close behind.
Danael’s nostrils flared as the image of the spearwife ‒ naked in her furs with Tornel by her side ‒ flashed in his mind. Ilyag’s laughter when she’d spotted him enter her tent cut him as deep as any sword. “Care to join us?” she’d asked, her golden braids hanging damp and limp over her breasts. Betrayal and hurt bit deep, and he felt every bit the young fool she must think him to be. The night before, it had been Danael in her furs. They’d fallen into each other’s arms, still bloodied from a hard day of battle, and both high on bloodlust.
Danael grimaced as he rushed down the mountain. He was daft to think he alone owned Ilyag’s affections. He’d wanted to flee from the humiliation of that scene, especially when Tornel turned to him with a sweaty face, his stupid grin inviting. But Danael swallowed his humiliation and remained to persuade Ilyag to accompany them on the secret mission. They needed a spear, and she was the best. She jumped at the chance. So had Tornel. The big Uthalian grabbed his battleaxe before he’d even dressed.
Another branch slapped Danael’s face and he let this one go rather than hold it.
“Ow,” Ilyag uttered behind him.
“Be quiet,” he whispered back, allowing himself a satisfying smirk, but soon regretting his jealousy. Their parents had not yet formally arranged their marriage. Ilyag was free to tup with whoever she chose. Even if she bedded a dense oaf like Tornel, it was no concern of his.
He had other worries. Survival for one. And outright defiance another. His mother, khanassa of their clan, had forbidden him to partake in this quest. Danael had gone warring every summer since he could walk. He’d been permitted to kill stragglers ever since he could wield a sword. But this summer’s warring marked his first as a man, and a warrior proper – his maiden battle. His mother didn’t want to risk her only child, but Danael convinced Petar to take him anyway, behind his mother’s back. The fear of missing the battle glory if they succeeded without him was too much to bear. After all, it was Danael who’d spied the enemy camp.
He had every right to join them. If he survived, Danael would face his mother’s wrath, but then, if they survived they would have driven the Halkan’s out. His mother wouldn’t be angry for long.
The terrain grew less steep, the trail broadened and they increased their pace. Petar led them. The two swords strapped on his back glinted now and then. Danael followed Petar, while Ilyag, Tornel, Jimroh, Darnag, Krastan and Oryn brought up the rear. Eight warriors. Eight was a fortunate number, and Danael hoped they’d be enough.
After a time, the sound of crashing waves came to them, and a flickering light. Petar called a halt.
“Danael,” Petar whispered, as they huddled in a tight circle. “Tell us again.”
Danael stepped forward and spoke as quietly as possible. “There’s well less than a hundred of them, by my count, possibly no more than fifty. Two-score tents. In the middle stands one large white tent with the Halkan red flag flying from its peak.” The Halkan’s habit of flying their flag usually made a Drakian’s blood hot with anger. The Halkan horde had taken Kania Isht, Drakia’s northern most isle three summer’s past, and now a big red flag with a black eye in the centre flew from the Kane’s longhus – an ugly mark of Halkan dominance. “That tent’s where their chieftain sleeps. I saw him at dusk.”
“I will deal with the leader,” Petar said, his voice hard as rock. “When I’m done I’ll light the whole tent aflame. Then you lot act quickly, kill as many in the other tents as you dare, light them, and fall back. If things go amiss, flee without me. Understood?”
“Aye,” they whispered in response.
“Ilyag,” Petar said next. “You’re to watch our approach and pick off any guards with your spears.”
“Understood,” Ilyag said.
“Let’s go. Stay low,” Petar gave his final instructions and they made their way to the camp.
The tents had been pitched in a circular formation. The middle tent being the chieftain’s, the one Petar headed for. Danael wondered again why this group of Halkans had camped here at all. There were too few of them to pose a threat to the large Drakian force who’d driven the Halkan horde from Uthalia’s village four days past. Only one war-boat had been beached, and sat beyond by the water. What were they here for?
Danael had first spied the camp that afternoon when he’d walked up to Uthalia’s old beacon. The tower had crumbled in too many places, as had most of the beacons on Drakia’s other isles. He circled the ancient structure and that was when he’d spotted the smoke from the west. A thin trail of it, almost invisible, strung in the sky like a strand of hair, but his sharp eyes recognised it for what it was. A quick trek over the mountain pass and he spotted their camp. That red flag, an unmistakeable symbol of the enemy.
Petar was in Danael’s mother’s tent when Danael returned and told them the news. It was Petar’s idea to pay a visit in the middle of the night. Danael’s mother didn’t like it, and she knew Khanassa Bera would never accept such a plan, but she was swayed by Petar’s argument. They could avoid more bloodshed on the Drakian side, and perhaps the strange witchery that had troubled them in battle could also be avoided. A witchery that had upturned boats, and paralysed experienced warriors in the midst of battle. And so, she didn’t tell Khanassa Bera, or the other clan leaders, but gave Petar her assent to go ahead with the quest.
And here they were, crouched a stone’s throw from the camp. The central campfire was nothing but coals, but a score of braziers still held flames and would provide the spark they needed to light each of the torches they’d brought with them. If the Halkans had set a watch, their guards weren’t active. Loud snoring, typical of too much ale, filled the space. The camp slept soundly. Danael held his breath as he withdrew his sword and tested the blade with a finger. They had to be quick. Everything rested on that.
His mouth went utterly dry as Petar picked his way through the camp to the middle tent. The slight warrior looked around, and in the next breath he disappeared under the flap.
Danael licked dry lips and counted every heartbeat that thrummed in his ears, waiting for Petar to reappear and set the tent alight.
Someone lurched forward, perhaps Tornel, and Ilyag hissed at him to get back and wait.
Finally Petar reemerged. His swords were sheathed on his back and he held the torch to a nearby brazier. It flared to life and he put it to the tent as Danael and the others moved swiftly forward.
The chieftain’s tent caught in an instant. The fat used to waterproof it ignited with a soft woosh. Danael climbed into a nearby tent. Two bodies snored. He moved silently to the nearest Halkan, placing one hand on the enemy’s mouth and slicing his neck with the sword in his other hand. Hot blood made his grip slick, but he held the enemy tight as he thrashed in his furs. Then Danael crawled to the other man, still snoring loudly, and repeated the act. Outside, more tents were alight, and a yellowy glow filtered through the tent’s wall. The two Halkans he’d just killed had red hair, just like Danael’s. Their braids turned redder with the flow of blood.
A shout pierced the air, and Danael moved to leave the tent and set it alight with the others, but something caught his eye, causing him to stall. Between the two now dead bodies sat a wooden chest. It was opened and filled with silver and bronze trinkets. One of them a silver chalice and the distinct design of an oak leaf decorated it’s side. The oak was a Drakian symbol, entirely out of place in a Halkan camp. A chill stabbed through Danael’s spine. He had a mind to take the chalice with him but more shouts filled the night. He had to move.
He crawled out and, grabbing his torch, lit it and ignited the tent. Nearly every tent was aflame now and smoke mingled with an acrid stench. A group of Halkans ran for the shore, shouting.
Danael rushed forward but a hand grabbed his arm and spun him round. Ilyag’s golden braids swung before him. “What are you doing? It is done, we must flee,” she hissed.
Danael snatched his arm back. “There’s so few.” He turned and sprinted toward the retreating Halkans who fled for their longboat. He could take them all if he approached right. He was young, but he’d been swinging the sword for years, and many said he was the best among them. If anyone could take them all, it was Danael. He picked up speed and shouted a warcry to Raemona, goddess of terror.
The Halkans made it to the boat and began pushing it out. Two of them were in it now. But one turned and faced Danael. He was taller than the others, impossibly tall and wore some kind of helm on his head with two horns that thrust upwards. The others had pushed the boat out fully and yelled something at the tall man.
Danael moved forward, his sword at the ready, but the giant warrior threw an arm forward and uttered something foreign, his voice harsh and gravelly, and Danael fell back onto the wet pebbles as though pushed.
Danael gasped as he lifted his head. The tall man stared at him and it seemed as though his eyes glowed red. Perhaps it was a trick of the flaming camp. But in the next breath the man was gone, and in the longboat that moved out to sea.