The Emerald Dragon

While I’m editing The Four Stars, here’s how Gavin met Adaliz. Enjoy!

————-

“Found you!”

Gavin jumped slightly in surprise when the face of a dark-headed girl appeared upside down in front of him. He jumped again when the head of a large silver canine appeared right next to the girl a moment later.

“No fair, Rayne!” Gavin protested, his arms stiffening at his sides. “You shouldn’t be allowed to use Kadin all the time!”

“Kadin’s a part of me, so he counts,” the girl responded, flashing the boy a wicked grin. “But I didn’t need his help this time. Ever since you started growing taller, it’s been easier to find you, since there aren’t as many places for you to hide. And besides, I already know all your hiding spots.”

“Grrr,” Gavin growled in response. “Well, we’re too old to be playing hide-and-seek anyway! Why are we still even playing this stupid game?!”

With a huff, the boy closed his bright blue eyes before pulling himself out of the nook in the stone overhang that he had been hiding in, crossing his arms over his chest and pouting. It wasn’t fair. Eryn hadn’t grown that much, so he could still hide just fine. Gavin, on the other hand, was finding it increasingly difficult to hide his ever-broadening frame.

“Aw, don’t pout,” Rayne giggled, dropping down from the overhang she had been laying on. Her silver wolf companion, Kadin, followed suit a moment later. “Even if you are a sore loser. If it makes you feel any better, though, I still found Eryn before I found you.”

Gavin frowned at the girl doubtfully as he looked at her out of the corner of his eye.

“Really?”

“You know Eryn,” Rayne shrugged with a grin. “He couldn’t stay quiet if his life depended on it.”

“You’re one to talk.”

The girl flashed him a mischievous smile before stretching and trotting off toward a massive oak tree out on the far horizon.

“Anyway, now that I’ve found you, all I have left is Razi.”

Gavin sighed as he watched his friend walk off, then grudgingly set off after her. As he walked, the boy glanced around at his surroundings, at the rich green grass playing at his bare feet, at the various trees, bushes, and flowers that dotted the landscape around him, at the high, sheltering walls of the cliffs that surrounded the valley in which he lived, and at the bright azure sky arching above him.

Seven years… It had been seven years since he had first come to live in this quiet little valley, along with his three friends – Razi, Rayne, and Eryn – and their foster mother, Aunt Effie. Not much had changed in those seven years. They were still playing the same games, hiding in the same places, doing the same things. About the only thing that had changed was how tall they all were, and even that was relative. Eryn was still as short as ever.

Another sigh escaped Gavin’s lips. He was already 13. Eryn was just a year behind him, and the girls were already 15. Why was he still playing these silly games? The thought was crossing his mind when the sound of three familiar voices caught his ears.

“Aw, you found me.”

Gavin glanced up ahead of him toward a sturdy lean-to set up off to the side of the giant tree that he and his friends also called home. Rayne was currently leaning over an open barrel, laughing as a thin, lithe girl with messy red hair crawled out. Eryn, a boy with even more unruly brown hair and honey brown eyes leaned against Rayne’s back while complaining about always being the first one to be found out. Gavin chuckled as he shook his head. Well, that was why…

“You knew all along where she was, didn’t you?” Eryn pouted, crossing his arms over his chest as he and Rayne stepped back in order to let Razi pull herself out of the barrel.

“Maybe,” Rayne responded, flashing the boy one of her signature wicked grins. “But even if I did, I’m not telling.”

She put one finger in front of her mouth for good effect.

“Besides, you were the one with your butt hanging out of a tree. What kind of a hiding spot was that, anyway?”

“I didn’t mean to be hanging out of a tree! You wouldn’t have seen me if I hadn’t gotten stuck.”

“You’d still be there if I hadn’t seen you.”

“Okay, okay, you two,” Razi sighed, placing one hand on Rayne’s shoulder and one on Eryn’s. “It is what it is. Anyway, whose turn is it?”

“Yours,” Gavin, Rayne, and Eryn all responded in unison.

The redhead’s face paled slightly.

“Why me?” the girl pouted. “You guys never play fair when I’m it!”

“We play completely fair,” Rayne grinned back. Now it was Razi’s turn to be at the receiving end of the other girl’s wicked grin. “You’re the one who’s afraid of heights.”

“Playing here is no fun anymore,” Eryn protested suddenly, crossing his arms over his chest. “We already know each other’s hiding spots. We should find somewhere else to play for a change.”

“Like where?” Razi inquired, frowning doubtfully.

“Like a part of the valley we’ve never seen before, of course!”

Instantly Rayne’s eyes brightened at the suggestion.

“Right! Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Why, indeed…” Gavin sighed. “Usually you’re the first one to cause mischief.”

“This isn’t mischief,” Rayne grinned over her shoulder, setting off back the way she and Gavin had come. “It’s just being adventurous.”

“But Rayne, maybe we should ask Aunt Effie first,” Razi protested, shifting nervously.

“Nah, she won’t mind. It’s not like we’re leaving the valley anyway. Come on Razi, or I’ll just have to get lost without you!”

***

“One…two…three…”

Gavin could hear Razi’s voice echoing down through the valley as he trotted off in search of a good hiding spot. Now, where to go…

Gavin glanced around at his surroundings as he searched. He had been fairly far north before, but never here and certainly never without Aunt Effie telling everyone not to wander off. Here the trees were even thicker than where he had grown up, broad, ancient branches spreading a canopy out over the landscape and hugging the cliff walls on either side of the valley. The land was raw and wild, as though it had remained untouched by mortal hands for centuries. Gavin chuckled to himself at the thought. Well, maybe Rayne and Eryn had been smart after all. This looked like a great place to hide!

A broad grin crept over the boy’s face as he glanced back and forth. A great place indeed. With so many hiding places high above the ground, there were any number of spots where a person could hide from Razi. The girl was, after all, decidedly terrified of heights.

Gavin chuckled to himself when he spotted a high ledge jutting out from the cliff nearby, and quickly he trotted towards it. It was a good thing he had been training with his broadsword for the past year. Otherwise, climbing might have been difficult.

“Fifty!” Razi’s faint voice echoed between the broad tree trunks. “Ready or not, here I come!”

Hastily, Gavin free-climbed up the cliff face and onto the ledge above. Good. Razi shouldn’t be able to…

Instantly the boy froze when he found himself staring into the dark yawning mouth of a very large cave.

That…is a really big hole…

Gavin’s grin broadened at this. Well, now. Even if, by some odd chance, Razi were to gain the courage to come looking for him up here, he still had the whole cave to hide in. He was definitely going to win this time!

Quickly the boy slipped into the shadows of the cave before him, glancing over his shoulder every once in a while to make sure he could still see the light of the exit as he carefully navigated further into the darkness. He was so busy concentrating on not losing the exit that he didn’t even notice the large object lying at his feet.

“Wha-oof!”

His toe caught on something solid and bulky, and the next thing Gavin knew, he felt himself go tumbling face-first into the ground.

“Oww…”

The boy groaned as he pushed himself up into a sitting position, rubbing the sore spot where his forehead had come in contact with the stone floor.

“What did I just trip…over…?”

A chill ran down Gavin’s spine and his words caught in his throat as the thing he had tripped over – a long, tubular object the width of a small tree – began to slide across the floor, making a hissing, scraping noise as it went. At the same time, a low, grumbling growl echoed off the cave walls as an enormous mass began to move in front of him. And then, out of nowhere, a pair of glowing amber eyes split through the darkness, slitted pupils focusing in on Gavin.

“Who are you?” a low, feminine voice growled.

The voice had a slight rumble to it, but the words were still clear and precise.

A great shadow shifted in the darkness before the boy, growing bigger and bigger as the ground beneath his feet began to tremble. There was a sniffing sound, then another, more audible growl.

“G-G-Gavin, s-son of Cael…ma’am?”

Gavin wasn’t sure what this creature was, but if being polite meant avoiding being eaten or ripped to shreds, it was worth a shot.

“Human. You must be a very brazen hunter to come at me without a weapon.”

The voice was menacing, and the amber eyes narrowed with another growl, tongues of flame licking out between dagger-sharp teeth and dancing across glossy emerald scales. Gavin’s breath caught in his throat at the sight. He had seen this form before, never in real life but often in the books Razi and Rayne read at the Great Oak where Aunt Effie had raised them or in the royal library the few times they had travelled to the capital city. But if this was what he had seen, then… No way! Was this…a dragon?!

It had been a long time since Gavin had wet himself. A really, really long time. Now, though? Now he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to wet himself, pass out, run away, or all of the above. What he did know, though, was that he was fairly certain he had never felt so frightened in his life. Or, at least, not since the day he had lost his parents.

“I’m not a hunter!” Gavin exclaimed, backing away as the dragon moved her head towards him.

Instantly the thing he had tripped over – Gavin now realized it was the creature’s tail – moved up to block his escape, and he could feel rock-hard scales press into his back as the dragon let out a puff of searing, sulfuric air from her nostrils. Gavin could feel himself trembling as though he had been walking naked in a blizzard. The dragon’s head alone was as long as the body of a grown man, and he only became more aware of the deadliness of the monster before him as her head drew closer.

“Please.” He could hear his voice crack as he pressed himself against the tail behind him. “I was just playing hide-and-seek with my friends. I had no idea you were here. You have to believe me!”

A low, warning growl rumbled up from the dragon’s throat as she stared at him.

“Your hands are not the hands of a child,” the dragon growled, amber eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Those are the callouses of a swordsman.”

Gavin was surprised the dragon could see so much in the consuming darkness, and that realization made him even more frightened than he was before, if that were even possible.

“Yes, I’m a swordsman,” the boy gulped.

He could feel cold sweat dribbling down the side of his face.

“I’ve been practicing with the broadsword. But I’m not a hunter. See. I can’t hurt you.” He held out his hands imploringly. “Please…”

The creature sniffed slightly, her glowing eyes portraying a sense of doubt.

“If you are not a hunter, what business would a human child like you have with a sword?”

Gavin blinked back at the dragon in confusion. Why would he? Why wouldn’t he?

“I don’t know,” the boy responded, casting his sharp blue eyes to the dark stone floor on which he sat. “Just because, really. Maybe because my friends do it? Or, maybe to be a hero? I never thought about it before.”

Another rumbling growl.

“You train with a weapon and you do not know why?”

There was suspicion and disbelief in the dragon’s voice.

Quickly Gavin turned back to the creature as she pressed her face forward even more. He held his breath as the dragon came almost nose to nose with him.

No! Please! I don’t want to die! Not like this!

There were so many thoughts whirling through the boy’s mind as he stared what seemed to be death incarnate straight in the face. Just when he thought the dragon was going to eat him, however, a piercing scream echoed through the cave from the outside. Gavin’s blood ran cold at the sound as his head quickly whipped back in the direction of the cave exit.

“Razi!”

He would know that scream anywhere.

Suddenly forgetting the dragon still breathing fire down his neck, Gavin made to rush out, but quickly the creature before him wrapped its talons around him, preventing his escape.

“Don’t you dare think to fool me!” the creature growled as she arched her neck, the tongues of fire glowing blue with the ferocity of the heat that poured from the dragon’s mouth. “It doesn’t matter your trickery. You will not escape my wrath, hunter!”

Gavin could feel the blood drain out of his face as he stared wide-eyed at the beast before him. In the light of the growing flames, the boy could see a charred human skeleton lying in a heap against a nearby wall. Bones and partly-crushed skulls, as well as broken bows, shattered shields, and swords and spears broken in half like twigs all lay scattered about the cave floor, and singe marks and sword cuts marred the cave wall. This creature certainly was nothing to trifle with.

Another scream, followed by the frantic shouts of Rayne and Eryn, caught Gavin’s ears, and quickly he turned back to look at the dragon.

“Please!” he exclaimed. “If you have to keep me prisoner or…kill me…or whatever, at least let me make sure my friends are all right!”

The dragon looked doubtful, but the panicked sounds from outside the cave seemed to have caught her attention, and slowly her sturdy tail uncoiled from behind him as her talons tightened around his body.

“Let us see whether your words have truth in them,” the creature growled deeply.

Gavin could feel his head snap forward, a whirlwind of air churning his hair in an artificial gale as the dragon spread her broad, leathery wings and launched herself out of the cave opening with the force of a tornado. The next thing the boy knew, the trees of Great Oak Valley spread out before him like a dark green blanket, his feet dangling helplessly in midair. All the dragon had to do was loosen her talons a fraction of an inch and he would go tumbling to the distant ground below. It was enough to make Gavin’s head spin.

For a moment, the boy thought he was going to pass out from the sheer fright of it all, but the next moment, his eyes spotted a trio of familiar forms below as they moved out into a clearing.

From where he dangled, Gavin could see Razi pinned up against the smooth surface of a cliff wall. She was all but climbing air as she grasped for something, anything, to pull herself up. Behind her charged an enormous bear, the like of which Gavin had never seen, and behind that came Rayne, Kadin, and Eryn.

“Hey! Over here, pig-face!” Eryn shouted at the bear, picking up rocks and hurling them in the general vicinity of the bear as he ran.

Instantly, Rayne darted forward, a thick tree branch in hand.

“Take that!” the girl roared.

Then, with one powerful swing, she brought the branch in contact with the bear’s hind quarters. The creature bellowed in rage as it swung around to face her, and even from this distance Gavin could tell that the girl’s face had paled considerably as she bolted back toward Eryn.

“Get it! Get it!” she shrieked.

A look of horror swept across Eryn’s countenance.

“Don’t bring it over here!”

“But didn’t you just tell it to come over here?!”

“Figure of speech!”

Instantly, Gavin spun his gaze back to the dragon who still held him. For a moment he blinked as the creature’s scales glittered like gems in the daylight. Now there was a magnificent being, if ever he had seen one. But now was not the time to be admiring the very creature that had been about to roast him a moment before.

“Dragon!” Gavin shouted, trying to make sure the creature could hear him above the roar of the wind that whipped against him. “Please, I beg of you! If you will only save my friends, you may do whatever you wish to me.”

“Is that so?” the dragon responded, turning a burning amber eye on the boy clutched in her talons.

“Yes.”

Gavin could hear his own voice shaking. He didn’t want to say that. If there had been any other way, any other hope for saving his own skin and his friends at the same time, he would have taken that chance then. But there was no other way. Or, at least, he couldn’t see one. What else was he supposed to do?

For a moment, the dragon watched him. Then, suddenly, she turned her head and let out a deafening roar that seemed to cause even the trees on the ground below to shudder. Then, all at once, Gavin could feel himself pelting to earth, and he couldn’t help but yelp frantically at the sudden surge. Another roar blasted the landscape, and out of the corner of his eye, Gavin could see Razi and the others darting out of the way as a river of flames scorched the spot where the bear stood. Gavin sucked in a quick, surprised breath as the searing heat of the dragon’s flames scorched the back of his neck, and he clenched his teeth as the creature landed jarringly on the ground. There came a series of growls and snappings from behind, then the dragon grunted in satisfaction, and the boy turned to see the dead, scorched bear lying in a pool of red not far away. And for a moment, he dared to sigh in relief.

“Gavin!”

Razi, Rayne, Eryn, and Kadin all rounded on Gavin and the dragon then, their wary gazes shifting from the dragon to the boy held tightly in her talons and then back again.

“Are you guys all right?” Gavin inquired, craning his neck to see his friends.

“We’re fine, but…” Rayne responded, glaring daggers at the dragon. “I hope this isn’t what it looks like.”

Gavin grimaced at this. Of any of them, Rayne was likely to throw herself into another fight if she even perceived danger or offense.

A rumbling chuckle escaped the dragon’s throat, and then, all of a sudden, her grip on him eased, and a moment later, Gavin felt himself standing free before her. Instinct told him he really should run away now that he had a chance, but shakily Gavin steeled himself as he stared up at the massive creature before him.

“Thank you, dragon,” he said, trying to contain the tremor in his voice. “You saved my friends. I am grateful.”

“Adaliz,” the creature responded suddenly.

“Huh?”

The dragon lowered her head so that she was within eye-level of the boy standing before her.

“Adaliz,” she repeated. “My name is Adaliz. You are a strange band, aren’t you?”

“Strange how?” Eryn inquired, sidling up behind Gavin and peeking cautiously around the older boy.

“I honestly have never seen anyone take on a bear with a stick and a handful of pebbles, nor have I even met a man who would offer up his life if only I would rescue his friends. You are all either very brave or very stupid. I have not decided which.”

“Well, they do say there’s a fine line between the two,” Razi said suddenly, stepping forward and bowing to the emerald dragon. “Either way, I am immeasurably grateful for your help. Even if I am…still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I am speaking to a dragon.”

Gavin glanced around at his friends. Even though they were all speaking, he could still see the shock on their faces. He wouldn’t have been surprised if they had told him he looked the same.

Slowly the boy turned back to look at Adaliz. The dragon didn’t look quite so intimidating as she first had. Regal was the better way to describe her now.

“So…Adaliz, was it?” Gavin spoke slowly. “You have done what I asked. Now what will you do with me?”

If dragons could smile, this one certainly did then, and another rumbling chuckle echoed up from deep inside her.

“At first, I truly thought you were a hunter trying to deceive me, but now…? I think I like you. I have never met such interesting creatures before. I’ll let you go.”

Instantly the creature launched herself into the air, hovering just above their heads as her massive wings beat a gale around them.

“From now on, you may call me your ally, Gavin, son of Cael. If ever you need me, you know where to find me. I’ll be watching for you.”

Then with that, the dragon turned, sailing skyward before disappearing over the rising treetops. And in an instant, all was silent.

For several moments, the four young friends stood in stunned silence. Then, slowly, the other three turned to look at Gavin.

“Um…Gavin…?” Razi began, her face scrunching up as though she had a question she didn’t even begin to know how to ask.

Quickly the boy held up his hand as his head began to spin.

“I don’t…even know…” he responded, tottering slightly.

It was as though the stress of the past hour had collapsed on him like an avalanche. And then, without warning, Gavin passed out. Now there was an experience he never wanted to have again.

The Four Stars – On its way!

2nd edition book cover front

It’s almost here!

Finally finished the initial formatting and sent off for the print proof today. Once that gets here, I’ll check for errors, edit, and prepare for launch!

Keep checking back for updates. In the mean time, anyone interested in helping proofread? ;)

Next Step: Advertising

Prism World Insert

Among the many challenges of self-publishing, I think advertising is my greatest weakness. I’ve never been good at the self-promotion thing. Double that when it comes to selling stuff. However, unlike with an author who publishes through traditional means, as a self-publisher, the bulk of my success rides on my own shoulders. Now don’t get me wrong. Even people who publish traditionally have to do a lot of the promotional work. It’s just that, as a self-publisher, I don’t really have anything other than friends and family acting as support.

Speaking of family and friends, though, I can’t forget them, either. I honestly don’t think I would have come this far as a writer if it weren’t for my family and friends and, to be honest, I think they have done a better job of promoting my work than I have. A good example is the quote I have on the Prism World insert I put together to go in my upcoming book, The Four Stars. A while back, my friend, Sarah, who is one of the people I dedicated Prism World to, started playing an MMORPG (“Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game” for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term) with me, and eventually we both joined a guild. There was one girl in particular who my friend and I liked to talk to and, though I didn’t know about it until later, my friend told our guildmate about Prism World. Before I knew it, that guildmate was not only telling other people in chat about the book, but she left that glowing review on Amazon for me, too. It entertained and thrilled me greatly that there was someone else who liked my work so much, and I had my friend, not myself, to thank for that. So yeah. You really can’t forget the blessing of friend-fans either. ;)

So here I am, putting together ads in my attempt to promote my books a little more. I think my Prism World ad turned out pretty good, but of course I’m always open to feedback. And I think it’s probably safe in saying you’ll be seeing quite a few updates over the course of the next few weeks. With each task completed, I get more excited about getting The Four Stars out for others to read.

Four Stars Cover Art: Feedback?

Version 3 and 4 Comparison

So I’ve been messing around with some various design options. Here are the two primary ones I’ve been looking at. Anyone feel like giving me their feedback?

The Four Stars – Cover Art

2nd edition book cover version 1

***

If I were to write about all of the positives and negatives of self-publishing, I’d probably have to write another novel. There are a lot of things about self-publishing that are rewarding, but I’d have to say that despite all the headache of fighting with editors and agents, traditional publishing is still much easier.

A couple months ago, I finished the rough draft of the rewrite for The Four Stars, and since then I’ve been working on everything that’s required to put the book together. Every time I do this, I’m reminded that, in the end, writing the 112,000 words for the story is the easy part.

As a self-publishing author, I am the writer, the editor, the proofreader, the formatter, the cover artist, the advertiser, everything. “Intimidating” is putting it mildly.

For personal reasons, the process is taking longer than I had originally thought, but just so no one thinks I’ve quit, given my inactivity on the blog, I’ve posted the draft for the cover art here. And yes, I did this myself, too, since, unlike with Prism World, there is currently no money to pay a professional. Ah, the joys of being a self-publisher.

Anyway, keep an eye out for updates. I can’t wait to show you the finished product!

Rewrite Complete! One Down, Three to Go!

Four Stars Second Edition Word Count Goal

Aaaaaannnnnddddd…..it’s official! The rewrite for The Four Stars is (finally!) complete. Yay! So excited. So…a 47,000-word book just turned into a 112,000-word book, but hey, it was so worth it. I had a blast going back into the world I created back when I was 16. There were moments when I was like, “Man, I was brilliant! Awesome line, right there, if I do say so myself.” And…then there were moments when I was like, “…did I really write that? Oh. My. Goodness. Teenage girl melodrama!”

Yeah…

Anyway, after my 112k marathon from the tail end of November to now, I think I’m gonna take a nice long vacation before I pick the story back up and polish it up for publication. I’m looking at an end of March, beginning of April release, depending on how long it takes me to recover. >.<

In the mean time, happy writing!

The Four Stars – Chapter 25: The Knight Rallier

 

Introducing…Cloony! This is actually the third chapter told from the perspective of Cloony, but I chose to share this one because it also introduces my favorite character in the trilogy: Sir Adrian. Adrian isn’t actually named in this chapter, but if you want to get a feel for his character, as well as the characters of Ceallach and Fogarta, this, I think, is a good one. Happy reading, and I hope you enjoy!

——

“Ranks! Center! Victory or death!”

Cloony stood impassively as he watched a wave of weapons spear the air beneath a roar that made the ground at his feet tremble. The Gaulian commanders had practically worked the army into a battle frenzy. With morale as high as it was, the soldiers really would fight to the death. It was the greatest strength of the Gauls when it came to battle. Once they got worked up, there was no bringing them back down.

“Are you sure you don’t want to ride your pegasus?” Ceallach questioned, though it was more of a rhetorical question than anything. His tone was practically dripping with mockery.

“I prefer not to be seen,” Cloony replied, mounting the chestnut horse he had been standing next to and adjusting the reins. “Raghnall would attract too much attention.”

“Of course, of course,” the Gaul king laughed. “Best not to distract the enemy from what’s important.”

Fogarta, on the king’s right, snorted at this.

“How much longer are we going to keep up this little charade?” the prince inquired bitterly, looking out across the mass of soldiers crowded into the pass. “We should have crushed the Livanian army days ago.”

“I must admit, I grow weary of it myself,” Ceallach nodded. “I lose interest when the toy refuses to break.”

“They are certainly holding on well,” Cloony said softly. “They’ve managed to fortify their position despite the circumstances. They may be pinned in there in that pass offshoot, but at least we no longer have them surrounded. King Dorrian is doing well despite not having the Stars at his side.”

“You sound as though you’re praising him,” Fogarta frowned.

“I was merely stating fact.”

“Is that so,” King Ceallach mused, staring off at the ranks of soldiers before him. Then he glanced over at Cloony. “Speaking of Stars, how goes your work?”

Cloony felt a chill run down his spine, and he turned away from the king.

“I have found a link between Altis and Eldel. One of my spies managed to come back alive, and he delivered a copy of the Star spell to me, so we should not need to try and get the whole army past the mountain guardians. However, unlocking the spell is proving to be difficult, as it contains elements of an elvish I do not know.”

“You are worthless, aren’t you,” Fogarta sneered.

Ceallach shrugged, then turned his horse toward a steady incline off to one side of the canyon wall.

“In any event,” he said, “we have the spell now. We can crush these pests and worry about unlocking the spell as we begin settling the lands of Livania.”

Fogarta snorted in disgust, then shot one more menacing glare at Cloony before turning his horse and following after the king.

Cloony sighed as he urged his horse forward. Right. Now that he had obtained the spell, his job had become of a secondary importance. Ceallach didn’t really believe he needed the Star power. After all, it was he who had brought the Stars to their demise. At this point in time, his interest in the Star power was merely because it was power, not because he thought he needed it to succeed in battle. And even taking Livania was not really all that important to him. No, Ceallach’s true interest was in destroying the ones who had made him look weak. Weakness was something the king hated, and he wanted those who made him feel that way to understand just how much he hated it. It was pride, and it was hatred, and it was ambition, all mixed into one and magnified in his protege, Fogarta.

“Forward!”

The command echoed up from the pass below and Cloony watched the movement of the troops as he listened to the sound of marching feet. He didn’t bother trying to direct his horse. He knew it would instinctively follow Ceallach and Fogarta’s horses anyway.

Cloony glanced up when his horse turned a bend in the path and came to a stop. From here he could see the nook in which King Dorrian and his allied armies were camped. The opposing army had managed to pull together a makeshift wall of stones and dirt to put some distance between themselves and the Gaulian forces, but even Cloony knew that the wall wouldn’t last long against the massive number of soldiers at Ceallach’s disposal. The sound of a horn split the air and the gate to the Livanian army’s camp, probably nothing more than shields and spears laced together, swung open. Instantly mounted knights began pouring through the aperture, followed closely by mounted elves and footsoldiers of all races. A line of archers rushed to the top of the earthen wall in preparation to do what they could from where they were. Another horn sounded through the pass, then, in a moment, there was chaos as the two opposing armies clashed.

The Livanian knights leveled their spears as they led the way into the fray, their heavy warhorses toppling the lighter infantry troops in front of them. From where he sat, Cloony could see the whole of the chaos, the black uniforms of the Gaul forces ebbing and flowing against a bulwark of the red and silver uniforms of Ardenia and the forest greens and earthen browns of Alfedan. Here a space cleared as a Gaul spearman unhorsed a knight and drove his weapon into him, there another space cleared as an elvin horseman sent a group of Gaul infantrymen darting out of the way of pounding hooves. The warriors were all so mixed in now that it was difficult for Cloony to tell which side had the upper hand.

For a moment, the Livanian soldiers fell back toward their encampment, and it almost looked like they might be retreating all together when, all of a sudden, a knight on a dapple grey war horse burst forward, sword raised high as he shouted, “Don’t let the dogs cow us down! Forward, men! For freedom!”

The Ardenian knights whirled their horses around and followed after the rider on the dapple grey, pushing the wall of black back a ways before retreating again. Again the knight on the grey horse shouted an encouragement, and again the knights pushed forward, swarming around him as they shouted his words back to him. A rallier. That’s what he was. A knight rallier. It was an important position in the Ardenian cavalry, a position that began with Sir Lance, the Star, in the last battle of the Second Gaulian War over 20 years before. And this one…this rallier seemed to Cloony to be as encouraging as the legendary knight himself. Perhaps Livania really would win with this knight in the lead.

Quietly Cloony glanced to the side. King Ceallach and Fogarta were both staring down at the scene with narrowed eyes and obvious scowls. They weren’t liking what they were seeing. To them, it wasn’t any fun if they were on the losing side.

Cloony was about to turn back to the scene before him when he noticed Ceallach practically snarl.

“Cloony,” the king said sharply.

“Sir?”

“That knight. Kill him.”

The hooded man swallowed hard as he turned back to the battle beyond. Then, with a nod, he whirled his horse around, charging down the incline and into the pass below.

Swords flickered in the sunlight, singing past him left and right as Cloony charged into the fray. Most of the soldiers were too distracted by the enemy soldiers to notice a lone rider in a hooded robe, and the ones who did notice him dove out of the way of his charging mount as he plowed through the masses toward the knight on the dappled horse.

The thundering of hooves against stone echoed in Cloony’s ears as he leaned down, yanking a spear out of the side of a dead warhorse as he sped past, and with a powerful swing, he knocked the knight from his horse. The knight landed on the ground with a heavy thud, metal armor clanking together in protest, and he rolled several feet before coming to a stop.

Instantly Cloony spun his horse around and launched the spear at the knight as he struggled to get up, but the knight quickly rolled to the side and the spear impaled the ground instead. At that, Cloony swung from his saddle and drew his sword. The knight had already pulled his helmet off his head by this point, no doubt to give himself a wider range of vision, and he brandished his sword as he turned to meet his attacker.

He was a young man, Cloony noted, hardly old enough to be a knight, with blond hair and blue eyes that had a good humor about them despite the circumstances.

“Hey, now,” the knight grinned slightly as he wiped blood from his busted lip, “waylaying people from behind isn’t nice, you know.”

“I highly doubt battle is a place to play nice,” Cloony replied, circling around the knight as he looked for an opening.

“Have you Gauls never heard of a thing called ‘chivalry’?”

With a frown, Cloony darted forward, slicing his sword downward at the knight. Instantly the young man brought his sword up, the clash of steel ringing in their ears before both darted away again.

“Chivalry is a fantasy,” Cloony responded, slicing outward at the knight.

The young man swerved out of the way, attempting to bring his sword down on the older warrior’s neck, but Cloony was too fast and he blocked and spun before the blond could react. The young knight was lucky, though, as Cloony’s blade came in contact with his metal chestpiece and glanced off harmlessly.

“Ah, you’re one of those pessimist types, aren’t you?” the knight laughed as he blocked another one of Cloony’s attacks.

The older man’s frown deepened. Impressive. Not many could keep up with him. This young knight was actually very skilled, despite his age and light-hearted personality. It was shame he had to die.

“Pessimism,” Cloony responded, launching a series of quick strokes at the knight, “is merely seeing the world as it is.”

“Or seeing its ugly half,” the knight responded, blocking each of the attacks.

Sweat was pouring down his face and he was breathing heavily. It was obvious that he was worn out from all the fighting he had been doing over the course of the past few weeks.

“Which, by the way,” the young man added, “seems to comprise a good half of your army. Is there some sort of religious edict against trimming beards where you come from?”

Cloony thrust his sword forward, striking the chestplate of the knight’s armor and knocking the young man back onto the ground.

“Looks,” the older man said, driving his sword downward. “Are unimportant in battle.”

His blade pierced the ground as the knight rolled off to the side and brought his own sword up at Cloony’s unguarded side. Instantly Cloony brought his sword around, blocking the attack and bounding backward out of the knight’s reach.

“You’re pretty good for an old man,” the knight panted as he stumbled back onto his feet again.

“You are a fine warrior yourself,” Cloony said softly. “I wish I did not have to kill you.”

The knight blinked at him in surprise.

“Well, I would appreciate it if you didn’t,” the blond responded.

Cloony sighed mournfully, then went in for another attack. His sword struck against the knight’s sword and the young man stumbled backward with the force. He was a good warrior, this knight, but he was worn out. He didn’t have much left to fight with.

“I am afraid,” Cloony replied, striking out and slicing a gash in the knight’s left arm, “that disobeying King Ceallach is impossible.”

“Oh, come now,” the knight laughed slightly as he dodged another of Cloony’s attacks and countered. “What, does he have a control spell on you or something? Anyone can disobey if they want to.”

The young man fell back against a large boulder behind him. He was wheezing slightly, with one eye closed due either to the pain or the exhaustion. Possibly both. He braced himself again, sword held at the ready, but Cloony could tell that the knight was trembling.

“Unfortunately,” Cloony responded, leveling his sword for another forward attack, “one does not always have that choice.”

Instantly Cloony darted forward, his sword slicing through the young knight’s side, but the blond had dodged in time to avoid any particularly deadly wound. The older man turned toward his opponent, who was bent over slightly in pain. Blood ran down the knight’s side, staining his armor, but he did not falter as he faced Cloony again.

“I would much prefer not to have to wound you unnecessarily,” Cloony said, brandishing his sword. “If you submit, I will make this quick.”

“Oh, yes, lie down and die. That sounds peachy,” the knight laughed sarcastically. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it was always that simple.”

The young man bit his lip as he straightened himself again. He grimaced at the pain, but seemed to be doing an admirably good job of ignoring it as he stood up straight and held his sword out defensively again.

“I don’t care who you are,” the knight stated boldly, his expression becoming more serious as he stared firmly at Cloony. “Sir Lance believed in me, and I owe it to him to be the man he believed I could be. I will gladly suffer a thousand deaths before I surrender like a coward.”

Sir Lance…

Cloony swallowed hard at the name, and he hesitated. So this boy was one of that knight’s proteges. No wonder he was so relentless yet good-humored in battle. Yes, if this boy’s goal had been to emulate that famous knight, he was doing a marvelously good job at it.

“Indeed,” Cloony answered softly. “Sir Lance would be very proud of you.”

A look of surprise crossed the young knight’s face at this, and he looked like he wanted to ask something, but just then the sound of horns blasted through the pass, and both warriors glanced in the direction of the sound. Apparently, without their rallier, the Livanian warriors had retreated back into their make-shift fortress, and the Gaulian soldiers had backed off, too, uncertain how far Ceallach actually wanted them to go.

With the knight momentarily distracted, Cloony found his opening, and instantly he reached out, striking the young man on the back of the neck and knocking him unconscious. The knight crumpled at the strike, but Cloony reached out and caught him, lowering him to the ground so as to prevent any unnecessary injury.

Just then the sound of hoofbeats caught Cloony’s ear, and the man turned to see Ceallach and Fogarta draw their horses to a halt behind him.

“Is he dead?” Ceallach inquired, frowning down at the body of the knight lying on the ground.

Cloony clenched and unclenched his jaw at the question.

“Merely unconscious,” he replied bluntly.

“Are you an idiot?” Fogarta spat. “Do you not know the meaning of ‘kill’? Fine, I’ll do it myself.”

The prince swung from the back of his horse, but Cloony stepped in the way.

“Cloony?” Ceallach inquired. His tone was as much warning as it was hesitant.

“The boy is a knight rallier,” Cloony said, swallowing hard as he watched Fogarta’s grip tighten around the hilt of his sword. He wasn’t convinced that the prince would kill him without Ceallach’s permission, but Fogarta was the sort to act first and ask permission later.

“And?” Fogarta snarled. “Out with it.”

“The rallier is an important position within the knight ranks. He keeps the morale of his fellows high. To kill him would be a blow to their morale, yes, but to make a display of killing him in front of the entire camp would be twice as effective, don’t you think?”

Fogarta looked both confused and doubtful as he glanced over at Ceallach. The Gaul king pursed his lips in thought, then nodded slightly.

“I see…” he mused. “So what exactly is it that you suggest?”

“Wait until you are ready to make the final attack. Then, bring the rallier in front of their encampment, call their attention to him, and kill him in front of his fellows. The Livanian army is already discouraged and worn down, and they lost their heroes years ago. It will not take much more to destroy what little morale they have left. Until then, keep the boy alive.”

A menacing grin crossed Fogarta’s face.

“I like that idea,” the prince chuckled, sheathing his sword.

Ceallach glanced over at his heir, then shrugged and turned his horse back in the direction of the Gaulian army.

“Very well,” he sighed. “I was growing tired of all this anyway. We will launch our final attack in two days. Send them a messenger and tell them as much. Perhaps if they surrender then, I won’t kill them all.” The king paused, then laughed slightly. “Perhaps.”

Fogarta chuckled with him as he swung back up into his saddle, and Cloony watched as the pair rode off into the ranks. Then he looked down at the unconscious knight nearby. Two days. He had two days to decide what to do. The man cringed slightly at the thought. There was no way Dorrian’s army would be able to win at this rate, no way for them to come and rescue the knight he had captured. No, most likely, he would have to do what he must. The thought of it made him shiver.

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