Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dragon Lord -- Chapter 1

 Here is a project I started a year or two ago, but had to set aside to write a book that was on contract. Should I go back to Dragon Lord and finish? What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'll post three chapters. (Pls. keep in mind that it's still a draft. Please don't share anywhere. Thank you!)

Chapter One

The clamoring had been going on for awhile outside his ancient cave by the time the dragon finally opened an eye. Just the one. He wasn’t prone to overreacting.
Half a village had to be out there, judging by the villainous noise. Flasks clanged against walking staffs. Boots slapped on stone. Children squealed and dogs barked. Yet over that, the dragon could still hear as some priest droned on, in that steel-scraping-over-the-whetting-stone voice they used to keep the congregation from falling asleep during the sermons.
Draknart stirred in the back of the cave and drew a deep breath, filling his lungs with musty air. As he shifted on the ledge of stone where he slept, the dried bones of his past meals crackled beneath his great body. He hopped to the ground and stretched to his full height. His tail uncurled and rustled the pile of leaves blown in by the autumn winds many months ago.
He tested his stiff muscles. Then he scraped his talons over the stones for a good sharpening. He was accursed, but he was not yet vanquished, nor would he be today. The sooner he ended the disturbance, the sooner he could return to sleep.
His cave was a dank space, small enough so no intruder could be hidden from his sight, yet large enough to maneuver his great body in a fight—the perfect lair for a dragon. Save the neighbors. The two nearby villages seemed to compete over the title of: Biggest Pain in the Dragon’s Arse.
A cheer rose outside.
And before Draknart could finish thinking, What now?, a soft bundle tumbled down the steep slope of the cave’s entrance, bringing swift disappointment.
Another virgin sacrifice.
The dragon plopped back onto the hard stone and rustling old bones with a grunt. He would have preferred a good fight. At least a knight would provide him with a brief exercise.
He watched, with a petulance probably unbecoming of a dragon of his age, as the sacrifice bounced to her feet with the agility of a forest doe, and threw off her cape. The crown of hair on top of her head had come undone from the tumbling. Her reddish braid swung low to a shapely arse.
This one looked different from the others. She wore precious little, and all of it was skin tight. Draknart narrowed his eyes. The light illuminated her from behind, so he could see little beyond her shape, which was boldly curvaceous and scandalously bare.
He cleared his throat. “Have they run out of virgins at the village?”
She didn’t cower at his rumbling voice. Instead, she reached for her scabbard and drew a longsword that suited her not—too large and heavy for a maiden that size. Yet her movements were smooth and fluid-like, both hands on the handle as if she meant to use the weapon.
“They ran out of knights.” Her voice rang clear, not altogether unpleasant.
He wondered how long he’d been asleep this time. He smelled spring in the air, and her—the sweet scent of woman. The scent stirred his appetite. “There’s been a war then?”
She nodded, grasping the sword hard.
“And drought?” he guessed.
She shifted her gaze from him briefly to scan the terrain, much like a fighter would. “Flooding.”
Draknart gave a rumbling sigh. ‘Twas only when things went badly in the valley that the villagers remembered the dragon in the hills. Depending on what new priest they had, they would either try to kill him or appease him, convinced that once they’d done something to him, everything would go back to being well fine.
He didn’t ask for her name—it would mean nothing to him—but she gave it anyway, with a slight uptilt of her delicate chin. “I’m Einin of Downwood.”
She stalked closer, an odd thing to do for one of her kind.
Most maidens fainted right away at the sight of him. The ones with sturdier constitutions shrieked a little first before folding. The truly extraordinary even got in a yard or two of running.
Instead, this one stood tall and appeared to be staring him down. He shifted to get a better look, stretching his stiff limbs, the tip of his great wings dragging on the ground. She did jump back at that, but only just.
She ought to be on those long legs. He especially admired her lean, shapely thighs.
“The flood washed away your clothes then?” he inquired.
Her cheeks pinked, but she wouldn’t be distracted enough to put down the sword. “I wear my brother’s clothes. A long skirt with petticoats would get snagged in a fight.”
Practical. She seemed to have more common sense than all the previous virgins put together, and more courage than most of the knights.
His stomach rumbled, the sound echoing through the cave. Dragons woke ravenous after a long sleep. He measured up the wee maiden, something to hold him over until he flew out and found a deer herd large enough to suit his appetite. Aye, she’d take the edge off his hunger just fine. Yet he felt disinclined to rush.
A long time had passed since he’d been able to converse with anyone. The virgins fainted in short order. The knights charged and died.
“How might you be doing it then?” he enquired.
Her sword came up, the metal glinting in the cave’s dim light. “Straight through the heart.” But she didn’t move forward.
“You know where the heart is in a dragon?”
She blinked at him with her fiery eyes, the color of dark amber—a fine maiden, to be certain.
He pointed at the middle of his chest, halfway between the joints where his great wings began.
She sidled forward. “Thank you.” She was nothing if not polite.
“You had training with the sword?”
“Some. I had nine brothers. All killed in the war.” A soft vulnerability crept into her voice. She shook that off fast enough as she stole another step toward him. She now stood close enough to strike.
He shifted into a half-hearted defensive position. He’d done this time and time again with the knights. She would charge forward, at which point he would capture and disarm her.
But instead, the wee lass charged to his side, vaulted onto his knee, then onto his back, ran along his spine as sure-footed as a mountain goat, and went for his eye.
He shook her off with a surprised roar, regretting his haste when she slammed against the rock with a most unpleasant thud. He hadn’t meant to break her so fast. He gave an angry grunt.
Yet, to his relief and to her credit, she bounced back, holding the sword in front of her. After a moment, she stalked forward again, but he caught a discouraged look shadowing her fine eyes. Instantly, he missed their earlier spark.
“’Twas a good effort. Didn’t see it coming,” he consoled her. “You’ll do better on the next try.”
He flicked his tail in anticipation. He was willing to stifle his need to feed for the sake of a little sport. True entertainment rarely came into his life, and so far he found the maiden refreshingly unpredictable.
She charged for the heart this time, and managed to prick him hard enough to draw blood before he grabbed her, pulled the sword away, and held her up for closer inspection.
Her round breasts bounced as she struggled, caring naught that he might drop her on the stone. Bold and brave and wild. His dragon blood stirred.
He nudged her with his snout. The previous virgins had been scented with lavender water. “You smell like axle grease.”
A fine pleasant smell, reminding him of a wagonful of fattened geese he’d stolen in his youth. They’d been on their way to market. He’d eaten them for an appetizer, the two horses for the main meal, and the man on the seat for dessert. That man had the same faint smell of axle grease about him. Didn’t affect the flavor none. Draknart remembered the meal fondly, and licked his lips.
He sniffed Einin again.
“Let me go, ye great lecherous beast.” The wisp of a woman used her bare fists to smack him between the eyes, right on the ridge of his nose, which happened to be a sensitive spot on a dragon.
He set her in the nearest corner and breathed a small cloud of smoke as warning.
She stumbled back, over some old, rusty armor, and grabbed up a breastplate his talons had fairly ruined. Her gaze snapped to the piece of metal. She stilled then, and swallowed hard, a lump going down her slender throat. Her eyes widened. “Is this what happened to all the knights?”
“I ate them.” Not his favorite meal for certain. He always forgot some piece of armor, or a hidden dagger strapped to the thigh, that gave him indigestion for a fortnight.
She flashed a fierce scowl. “Ye conscienceless bastard.”
“They came to kill me.” Not that he had to explain himself to breakfast.
“And the virgins?” she challenged even as she scanned the pile of garbage that littered the corner of the cave. She swiftly pulled an old blade.
“I swived them then ate them.” Those memories were sweeter.
She paled, but her chin stayed up, her newfound broadsword in the air, even if her slender arms trembled under the weight. “They could have done ye no harm.”
“I couldn’t send them back to the village after I swived them. They were ruined for mortal men. I’ve done them a mercy.” He was good that way. “Never did cause unnecessary suffering, unless to an enemy that deserved it.” Otherwise, his kills were clean and instant. He looked at her, not without a little pride.
But instead of approval, a flash of red came onto her soft cheeks, and she did scream then, for the first time, just before she charged. Not a scream of fear, like the others, but a battle cry.
He feinted to the left, then rolled his great dragon body to the right, feeling blood rush through his veins at a speed it hadn’t in a long time. Only when she nicked the tip of his snout, did he knock the sword from her hand with a talon. Not that being disarmed held her back. She bit the tip of his wing. Which happened to be another sensitive spot.
He rolled onto his back, planning to use the momentum to roll right back and over her, but she was fast and on his belly the next moment, climbing up and up.
He stilled.
That felt nice. He very nearly sighed.
She skidded to the spot where he’d pointed out his heart, and she kneeled. She didn’t seem to realize that she was unarmed.
But, of course, she wasn’t. From out of nowhere, she produced a kitchen knife and plunged it hard between his scales. Only luck saved him, for the blade was too short, and the ornery vixen was unable to do him real harm.
He wrapped her in his wings and brought her close to his snout once again, baring his fangs. The sparks were back in her fine amber eyes, defiance blazing, breasts heaving. Her hair had escaped her braid during the fight and now floated around her slim face in a cloud of red silk.
He righted himself without letting her go, and regarded her as he gave matters some thought. “You do realize, Einin, that even if you could kill me, floods would still happen, war would still come?”
She held his gaze without flinching. “The village is cursed because of the great devil that lives in the hills.”
He’d heard that, or versions of it, enough times. “Says the village priest?”
Yet no village priest had ever been brave enough to come and confront the great devil himself. Draknart had his opinion of the lot. “Too much rain makes a flood. Too much human greed makes wars.”
She faltered. And in her eyes, he could see that she had considered that on her own before. Of course, she had. She was a smart wee lass.
He set her down. “You don’t believe the curse.”
She shrugged. “It matters not when the whole village does.” She gave a soft sigh. “They have lost too much. Their will is broken. The darkness is strangling their hearts. The people need hope. The priest is right about that.”
“And for the sake of this foolish sentiment I should die?”
She looked away, forlorn for the first time. Her slim shoulders sagged. And he found that he disliked seeing her with her spirits flagging. He watched her for some time, puzzled that one of her kind could captivate him so much.
“What if I was wounded?” he asked on the spur of the moment, his good sense still clearly half asleep.
She glanced up with surprise, hope blooming in her eyes. She was as comely with her face softened as she’d been with her look of fierce concentration when she’d charged into battle.
He handed her knife back, with his blood on the blade, then rummaged through the dry leaves that covered the floor, tossed aside a couple of old bones, until he found the talon he’d torn out when he’d enlarged the back of the cave a century or so ago.
“You tell them you fought the dragon and injured him. Let them celebrate. Let them gain confidence.”
Happy people worked harder. They took risks and tried new things, which more often than not led to success. In no time, the village would thrive again and they would leave him alone for another couple of decades. Although, if the old gods really saw fit to favor him, the whole village would be taken by the next plague.
As Einin of Downwood reached for the talon, her slim fingers brushed against the tip of Draknart’s extended wing, sending a warm sensation skittering down his spine.
Her voice wavered as she asked, “Ye would let me leave?”
He stilled. Blinked his great dragon eyes.
He was dreaded. He was the ancient dragon, the great devil in the hills. He consumed his enemies. He did not return a sacrifice.
He certainly did not wish to let her go. Nor could he afford to, he thought now. Sooner or later, she would tell someone the truth, then they would think he’d grown old and feeble. Or worse, soft and fond of people. They’d be up at the cave with one request or another, not leaving him a moment of peace.
Next he knew, they’d be asking him to help with bringing in the harvest and sit at the feasts. He flinched at the thought of all the caterwauling.
And yet.
“In exchange for the talon, you must swear to return to me, of your own will, in a fortnight.” He looked her hard in the eyes. “Are you, Einin of Downwood, willing to pay the dragon’s price?”

Chapter 2

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