Welcome, old friends and new explorers! Below, you'll find the first chapter of Valor's Worth, the next book in The Windrider Saga, for your preview. Please bear in mind, this is a draft of the chapter, subject to change once my editor gets his mitts on it. For now, I hope you enjoy it. And if you do, consider picking up copies of the stories preceding this one: Divine Summons and A Greater Strength. Both these ebooks can be yours for less than $7--which is less expensive than a single book from a big press.
So, without further ado...
We sailed high over the dense pine forests of northeastern Kelmirith, our only companions winging birds, clouds, and wind. The westering sun warmed my cheeks, although its dip below the horizon would soon usher in the frosty chill of a mid-autumn night. Far below, the winding river Nuruhain flashed, a strip of amber glass set alight by the sun’s inevitable demise.
The rhythmic whoosh of Majestrin’s silver wings thrust us forward with both ease and speed, and I grinned. His lithe neck pumped in a slow rhythm with each wing beat, and the topaz glow of the sun played off the reflective surface of his scales. Astride this beast, I became part of both breeze and setting sun.
Our smaller companions, a griffin and a winged lion, flew slightly behind Majestrin and out to his sides, taking full advantage of the path he cut through the force of the headwind. Even so, he drifted almost lazily along, while the griffon and the lion flapped with focus. I called back to their riders.
“This seems as good a region as any to make camp tonight, agreed?”
From the griffon’s back, the dark-skinned
North Deklian rider,
Hridayesh, leaned around the elf who guided the mount and shouted back. “Can’t
you find a village with a decent bed? You’d think elves preferred sleeping on
pine needles and moss to a civilized mattress.”
I guffawed. “I find there are fewer bugs on the ground than in the beds of most inns.”
Behind me, my passenger shuddered. “What a disgusting observation.”
“True, nonetheless. I would think of any of us, you would have the deepest objection to sharing your sleeping quarters with fleas, Veranna.”
Veranna sighed. “But now that you’ve brought it up, I’ll spend the whole night imagining phantom legs crawling all over me.”
“Is an over-active imagination a typical half-elven trait?” I asked.
Veranna stuck her nose in the air.
Insufferable, squeamish prophetess. I dismissed my irritation. “Major Galdurith, Sergeant Althoron,” I yelled to the soldiers guiding the lion and griffon. “We shall make our descent.”
A shiver seized Veranna. “It’s growing cold quickly. A fire would be best, don’t you think, Galdurith?”
I twisted in my saddle and frowned at prophetess. “It is not worth the time to search for terrain that will shelter a fire enough to mask it.”
Galdurith huffed. “With all due respect, sir . . . we’re in the middle of nowhere.” He threw an arm out to his side. “Can we loosen up on your obsession the fire be invisible?” He raked his fingers through his thick shock of blond locks.
I scowled. Though he had opened his remark in a manner befitting an elf of subordinate rank, his tone hardly carried it through. “You can be warm when we have made it safely inside Delsinon’s walls.”
We circled and wove down to the forest floor, where birds chattered in their raucous end-of-day conversations. The aromas of sap, rich earth, and mouldering leaf litter hung thick in the woodland air. When Majestrin settled to a stop, I cast my glance around the canopy. Only a small gap in the towering sentinels left a view of the pale blue sky.
A streak of fire lanced across it.
I started. “What was that?”
Galdurith swung down from his saddle and quirked an eyebrow at me. “What was what?”
“None of you saw it? Something just streaked across the sky. In flames.”
He stepped to Veranna’s side and grasped her hands, upon which she slid from behind me to the ground. She and Galdurith exchanged a glance, a sigh, and a shake of the head.
I gritted my teeth. “I have had just about enough of the two of you and your shared looks of ‘crazy Vinyanel.’”
“Then cease your jumping at shadows,” Veranna replied. She smoothed the rumpled layers of her tiered skirt, setting the bells a-jingle. “You’re due for furlough soon, correct? I may need to insist Lerendir grant your leave early so you can get your head straight.”
I sucked a long breath through my nose. “You would not dare—”
A flash just beyond my peripheral vision cut my words short. I twisted in my saddle.
“You see? She’s right,” Galdurith said.
“One moment,” Majestrin rumbled, his voice vibrating through my legs. “I just saw something too. An orange light between the trees.”
At least I had one advocate amidst of a passel of doubters. “Thank you, my friend.” In a silent maneuver, I pulled my shield from my back and loosened my sword in its scabbard.
Hridayesh dismounted and landed in a crouch. He scanned the woods where I directed my attention. Althoron followed suit, sliding twin blades from the scabbards on his back and holding them at guard. He licked his lips.
The flash zipped between trees again, now in an erratic zigzag none could deny. It closed the distance between ourselves and it, and once it had drawn within a hundred paces, Galdurith pulled his crossbow from his back.
I dismounted and landed with a creak of armor plates. My gaze fixed on the fireball.
The bright bolt hesitated, hovered, and pulsed with crackling flames. How could a soldier defend against a fireball, even a small one like this? It lanced straight for me, and I threw my shield up in front of my face. A waft of heat swelled over me, but no impact rocked my shield. No flames licked around it. I peered from behind the barrier.
The fireball stopped about six paces from me, then lowered to the ground. Just when I worried it would kindle the mulch covering the forest floor, the flames darkened to deep red. They took form. A long neck sprouted from the fiery center, topped by a small round head and the point of a petite beak. A trail of long feathers grew at the anomaly’s posterior. Spindly legs with clawed toes emerged beneath it all.
The last of the flames dimmed until only a smoldering remnant clung along the tips of the creature’s cascading tail and on plumage that crowned its head. Within a curl of smoke at the creature’s chest, a scroll tube attached to a cord around the fowl’s neck coalesced. The fire-turned-bird angled one golden eye to me. After seeming to study me for a moment, it bobbed its way up to my feet in a high-stepping strut. The glow that retreated from its body revealed an array of copper, orange, and vermillion feathers.
“Adramalech’s nails!” Hridayesh whispered. “What’s this about?”
The bird bent its head to the ground and shimmied its shoulders until the scroll slid from its neck and landed on the ground. It pushed the tube toward me.
With a slow, deliberate motion, I crouched and placed my hand on the tube. It was cool enough to cause no warming to my gauntleted hand, much to my surprise. I closed my fingers around it and eased my way upright again.
The bird watched me while I claimed the item, but once I grasped the scroll, it meandered away and pecked at the ground around it.
I weighed the scroll in my hand. The tube’s caps were bronze and pictured a bird in flight, wreathed in flame. I narrowed my eyes and dredged what knowledge of heraldry I possessed.
Veranna eased to my side. “What do you make of it, Vinyanel?”
“Peculiar.” I scratched my cheek. “Unless some other group has adopted the image, I would say the scroll comes from the Elgadrim.”
Althoron’s eyes widened, and he marched straight to my side. “May I?” He extended a hand to me. I placed the case in his palm. After furrowing his brow at the item for a short moment, the light of recognition kindled in his eyes. “From their knighthood—the protectors of their king. But that only makes it more peculiar, since they have no king and there’s been no true knighthood in six hundred years.”
“That we know of,” I said.
I took the alabaster cylinder back from Althoron, twisted one of the caps from it, and tipped it. A roll of vellum slid out. After handing the tube to Althoron, I unrolled the vellum, and my glance lit upon cleanly-penned calligraphy.
“‘To the great and enduring Delsin, a missive from a remnant of the Elgadrim, whom Creo has preserved,’” I read aloud.
While I read, the bird hopped a few more strides away from the group. With a great thrust of its wings, it leapt into the air, and after only a half-dozen wing beats, erupted into sudden ball of flame that streaked away to the south.
Hridayesh frowned. “And here I was hoping I wouldn’t have to bother with the flint and tinder to get a fire going.”
I shook my head, but continued to read silently.
“Well?” Galdurith tugged his tooled leather breastplate to straighten it. “Does it seem authentic? That the Elgadrim still exist?”
“It would appear the Elgadrim still exist, Major, if only in pockets. And one such pocket has invited the dragon-kin’s ire.” I replied. “They request aid from our people.”
A realization struck my insides with palpable force. If the dragon-kin were harassing Elgadrim, that must have meant the beasts still lingered on the mainland. The time I had spent hunting the elven talismans of passage, lost due to their mischief, had not granted them sufficient time to retreat to the Isle of Desolation. Unless their aim was never to make that return journey. My mind began to churn from one thought to the next. My pulse quickened.
“Then we best get this message back home and present it to the Ambassador’s Council,” Galdurith said. “They can decide if there is any call to heed it.”
I shook my head. “We are only a few days’ flight from the rendezvous point the Elgadrim have requested. I can see no reason to tie this up in a bureaucratic debate while there is a threat so close that we should investigate. The message came to us—it makes perfect sense for us to gather all the information we can. That, we can present to the council and save weeks, at least.”
“I would not snap to a decision to embroil ourselves in a human conflict.” Galdurith folded his arms.
Veranna narrowed her eyes. “The Elgadrim have historically been the Delsin’s staunchest allies. I thought your attitude toward humankind was less . . .well . . . elven, Galdurith.”
Galdurith straightened his back. “That is not exactly what I meant. I meant on a personal scale. Our party. And besides, those alliances are so old that not even the most aged of our people recall a time when they were in effect. It seems a fluke to me that this message came to us at all.”
“I do not believe in flukes, Major,” I replied. “It is a mistake to place so low a priority on this. We would be fools to harbor the delusion the storm does not already amass upon the horizon, and what hammer hits the Elgadrim will likely deflect into the elf as well. Clearly, the dragon-kin are already making moves. What we need now is decisive action, not debate.”
“I seriously doubt the dragon-kin have the numbers to make a noteworthy attack against us, which does not appear to be their aim.”
“Who can tell how it appears—with all the years we as a people have spent behind our walls and our illusions?” I wrenched my pack down from Majestrin’s back. “If nothing else, wisdom demands we at least investigate the threat, if not help a noble but vulnerable people. No workable tactics were ever devised from behind a blindfold.”
Galdurith clenched and unclenched his black-gloved fists. “With all due respect, sir, I worry that you assume too much authority on the matter.”
I took a firm step toward Galdurith, my eyes narrowed. “Just because you lead with protocol does not give you license to spout whatever you want afterward.”
Althoron took a halting step forward. “Begging your pardon, sir, but surely you intend to rest the mounts for the night, no matter what you deem our next step to be, correct? Eyrnir is weary, as is Llewethan.” He lashed his tangle of chestnut waves into a tail at the base of his neck and tightened his jaw against a yawn.
I shot a frustrated glare around the group. But Althoron was correct. The griffon and the lion’s shoulders hung heavy upon their frames, and their half-lidded eyes rumored they lingered on the threshold of dozing. “You are correct that the smaller mounts do require the sleep. Unsaddle them and set up camp. I will inform you all what we are doing in the morning.”
At dawn’s first blush, Galdurith emerged from his tent and cut a straight path to where I stood on the edge of the camp. He stopped beside me and rubbed his arms. His breath steamed from his lips in crystalline clouds.
“Another six days’ flight will place us at Delsinon’s gate, correct? Perhaps five if we press harder?” he said.
“I know what you are thinking.” I stared straight ahead. “Still too long. The soonest I could hope to reach the Elgadrim emissary would be three weeks, and that is only if the council decided quickly to allow me to return. ‘Quickly’ does not fit their history.”
“This is the job of an ambassador.” Galdurith shook his head. “Something you are definitely not.”
“The information that needs gathering is military. One might even venture intelligence, which would make you a fair candidate to come along.”
“We have one mission incomplete already.”
I drew a deep breath. “I will send you and Althoron back to Delsinon to deliver the talismans.”
Galdurith snorted. “What, and have you miss the accolades for saving the world again?”
I turned a frown upon the major. “Let them throw the parade for you. I have no need of the pomp. There are far more important issues that I will give my attention.”
Rustling and soft words drifted from behind us as the rest of our group began their day. Veranna drew near. She pulled a wool mantle tight around her shoulders.
“It looks to me as though you two have started the day on a sour note,” she said. “Such curdled expressions.”
Galdurith turned his chin toward her but kept his eyes trained on me. “The lieutenant commander proposes we divide the group so that he can go play envoy while the rest of us tie up his loose ends.”
I wheeled on him. “Care to rephrase that, Major?”
Our gazes locked in icy contention.
“I will learn of this Elgadrim remnant what they require of us, and I will glean from them what movements of the dragon-kin army they can report. All that information, I shall report to Council. Yes, our detachment has a duty to ‘tie up loose ends.’ What remains hardly requires all of us to do so. I assign that task to the Major and Sergeant Althoron.”
Althoron shouldered his backpack. “Sir, what of the civilians? One is still technically a prisoner of the crown.” He eyed Hridayesh.
“I assume responsibility for him,” I said. “As for Veranna, she is under no compulsion to do anything other than her own will.”
Hridayesh yawned. “Do you intend to drag me all over the continent until I weary of it so that I beg you to put me back in jail?”
“If I send you back now, a decision about your fate might be made before I can return and make my testimony on your behalf. If you want to leave that to chance . . .” I shrugged.
Veranna sighed. “You and Hridayesh cannot meet with the Elgadrim by yourselves.”
“Yes,” Galdurith said. “Listen to your mentor for once. Let us all stop wasting time, since that is your chief worry, and—”
Slender palm raised, Veranna arrested Galdurith’s thought. “What I was implying is that I will accompany the young Windrider and make sure he doesn’t miss any of the subtext the humans he meets with convey.”
“You’re supporting him in this?” Galdurith coughed.
“It’s more a matter of offering to work as a potential buffer between Creo’s Chosen among men and Creo’s rough-edged servant. In this, my having some human parentage is a small advantage.” She stepped up to Galdurith, took the strap of his backpack in one hand and smoothed his hair away from his face with the other. “It will be good for the Blackwatch to have the primary hand in returning the talismans. And better for you if many people are not reminded of me when you are standing in public sight.” Her eyes lowered.
Galdurith clenched his teeth. “What I choose in my personal life will not impact my career as a soldier. Why can you not trust me in that?”
Sorrow creased Veranna’s brow, and she cast her gaze to the earth. “Even though it is your province to know much, you do not hear everything . . .” She allowed her dark curling hair to fall alongside her downcast face in curtain, masking her expression from me.
I left Veranna’s conversation with the major to continue unobserved. After collapsing and stowing my tent, I approached Majestrin with the bundle. “Say, friend, how familiar are you with the location of Bilearne’s ruins?”
“It’s no secret, though I have not flown that way in several years,” the silver dragon replied. “It doesn’t bother you that your subordinates think you wayward to head there?”
“No, I will not heed the Major’s complaint this time. I am prepared to face whatever consequences that invites when I return to Delsinon. Dalliance has created the very situation I mean to investigate.”
“And what situation is that?” Majestrin asked. “Your urgency betrays the idea that the Elgadrim’s safety is your primary concern. There’s something closer to your heart you’re after.”
Leave it to Majestrin to sense the cry of my inmost thoughts. I glanced about the camp. None of my squadron stood within earshot, if I was careful. “The matter of the Chalice of Gherag-Tal being lost to us again has gone unmanaged long enough,” I said in the lowest voice I expected Majestrin to be able to hear.
The dragon sighed. “As your ordained mount, I am at your service, Lieutenant Commander. But as your friend, I implore that you weigh Veranna’s point of view on the excursion.”
I draped an arm over Majestrin’s neck, between two of his dorsal plates. “You strike a hard bargain, but very well.”
In less than an hour, we all sat mounted, Hridayesh upon Eyrnir, the griffon, Veranna behind me on Majestrin, Galdurith and Althoron upon Llewethan.
“Fly safe, officers, and convey the talismans to the chancellor. I thank you for your service on this endeavor, and wish you Creo’s speed and protection as you journey homeward.”
Veranna pulled a jade ring from her finger and reached over to hand it to Galdurith. “Convey this to Lerendir as well, and tell him to place it in the Basin of Seeing.”
Galdurith raised a brow. “The basin of what?”
“Seeing. Lerendir will know what I mean,” she replied.
“Very well.” Galdurith clasped her fingers when she passed the ring into his keeping. “Be safe. Don’t allow any insanity.” He narrowed his eyes at me.
My lips tightened. “Officers, move out.”
Llewethan leapt forward, and after a few long, sinuous strides, thrust his deep chestnut wings. He sped skyward, southward, and beyond sight.
I drew a long breath. “Majestrin, on to Bilearne. May we discover what pieces of the puzzle the Elgadrim hold. Whether we can help them or not may be a little more complicated to sort.”