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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dragon's Curse: Character Profile-Martin

This is one of my 30 Days of Dragons posts in preparation for the release of my book Dragon's Curse.

Sir Martin Mathewson

While Martin is not a knight in the traditional sense of the word, it is customary for scholars to claim a title as a way of showing they of the pen have equality with those of the sword. Within the Academy "Scholar" is considered a lofty enough position, but it is common for the homelands of individual scholars to grant honorary knighthood for those who complete Academy  training.

Sir Martin's father held a position of importance in the Regonian court as both an adviser to King Ernest and the tutor for the two princes, Ewan and Edmond. In his adolescence Martin went through a mildly rebellious stage and informed his father he would rather be a knight and a soldier than a scholar, but his father, Sir Mathew, wisely allowed him to pursue this dream. Several months into training a broken ankle forced him to spend a long period off his feet, at which point gentle prodding from his father and having nothing to do but read rekindled his love of learning and set him firmly on the path to the Academy.

Shortly after Martin's seventeenth birthday his father passed away, causing the young man to delay officially entering the Academy so he could care for his ailing mother. He served the Regonian king in a clerical capacity until his mother's death two years later. However, his father's reputation and his on the job training under the Regonian king caused him to rise swiftly through the ranks once he fully immersed himself in the Academy culture.

In his third year he was assigned a first year student named Shannon MacCaulay as his research assistant and they swiftly developed a close friendship  and mutual respect.

Martin is loyal and logical with a healthy dose of ambition. He possesses a single-minded approach to problems and sees the world as a series of puzzles to solve and papers to write.



Monday, December 30, 2013

New Cover Art: Ordinary Knight and the Invisible Princess

If any of you have been paying attention, you know that I did my own cover "art" for The Ordinary Knight and the Invisible Princess: A Tale in Two Parts. I recently got into a discussion on my author page about how to boost eBook sales, and a suggestion was better cover art. Out of no where a friend of a friend who runs design business volunteered to give me a hand! YAY!

You can check out Naomi's work here on her Facebook page for NLS Designs.

Her first draft was almost perfect, but  lacked a crucial element I felt was essential for the story, the blanket rope coming out of the tower. At first I didn't want to ask her to change it, because, after all, she wasn't asking for money, this was all out of the goodness of her heart, but the story is focused on self-rescuing princesses, so  I went ahead and asked. The following image is what she came up with.

I spent some time fiddling around with Create Space's cover creator.  None of the formats were perfect, but I chose the following:

Front and back of new cover
I really love the transparent version of the picture on the back and the font choices. I'm not so crazy about  how much of the picture the title text covers up (in all fairness, it is an absolutely huge title). Ideally the text would be on a transparent background. Eventually I am going to learn to do my own cover design (but today is not that day!).

the front alone



Willamette Valley Wonder Woman
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The Chicken Chick


Dragon's Curse: Character Profile-Shannon

This is one of my 30 Days of Dragons posts in preparation for the release of my book Dragon's Curse.

Shannon Macaulay

Shannon hails from humble but pleasant beginnings, having grown up on a mid-sized farm an hour's walk from the Academy of Magic and Sciences. Her father was a well-off farmer which allowed her to pursue her interests in such things as reading, botany, and essay writings. Often solitary by choice, Shannon spent most of her youth cloistered with a book or writing notes on subjects of interest. She would often travel on her own to the Academy to attend open lectures or explore their libraries.

When she officially enrolled at the age of nineteen, her alchemy professor noted her knack for thinking outside the box and conveying ideas in unconventional but understandable ways. He assigned her to work with a former student, Sir Martin. Sir Martin had agreed to lengthen his essays on Magic Warding: Modern Scientific Methods for Dispelling the Ill-Effects of Spells into a full sized book but had expressed frustration with the workload. Shannon became his research assistant as well as the unofficial copy-editor. She once claimed his idea of a paragraph was one lengthy sentence broken up by copious amounts of commas. 

Shannon's ability to aid Martin allowed her to learn on her feet rather than in the classroom though for the first three years she never left the Academy. When promoted to Junior Scholar she found herself often under-estimated by those around her. 

Though she is of peasant blood and possesses no official title, Sir Martin chose to introduce her around the Academy as "Lady Shannon," a title she cannot officially claim but which became unofficially accepted. The title does cause her some anxiety and when she introduces herself she chooses to use her first and last name only. 

Shannon is timid around strangers but tends to over speak once she becomes comfortable. Smart but occasionally scatterbrained, she usually has multiple projects going on at any given time. While she likes people in small doses she prefers to avoid large groups or formal gatherings. Happy, hopeful, and persistent, she loves the unexplained and the mysterious and sees life as a book she can't wait to keep reading. 












Willamette Valley Wonder Woman

Sunday, December 29, 2013

30 Days of Dragons-Day 2 : Virtual Launch Party Prizes

30 Days of Dragons: Day Two

Virtual Launch Party Prize Announcement


The Dragon's Curse Virtual Launch Party will be on the release date (January 27th, 2014) from 4-7pm est. You can sign up on Facebook here.

Throughout the party I will be sharing Dragon's Curse links and announcements and encouraging people to share them on their social media channels. Every share will result in your name being placed in a drawing for one of several prizes (one share per link per social media, one entry for each share, for instance if I post a copy to the book on Amazon and you share it on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest you receive three entries. If you just spam the same link three times on Facebook, you get one entry.).

I plan to use a very scientific winner selection method involving tiny pieces of paper and an empty oatmeal carton.

Prizes will range from gift certificates to "hard copies" of my book to random things I think fit with the draconic theme. I will announce various prizes in the upcoming posts in this series, but for my first big reveal I chose my favorite prize: this crocheted dragon from Critters for Coryn.


This handmade beauty has an approximate value of $20 and is a fun toy for kids or a fun household decor item for dragon enthusiasts.

 He's a larger toy with all the appropriate dragon parts (four legs, two wings, and a tail) and he wants to come home with you!


Isn't he adorable? Don't you want to take him home?

Remember, throughout the 30 Days of Dragons event you can submit images of your dragon themed arts and activities and receive free pdf copies of my eBook.

As always check out the first two chapters  of  Dragon's Curse here and be on the look out for more Dragon's Curse announcements.




For those who will not be participating in the Facebook event I will have a Rafflecopter giveaway on my blog allowing people to enter to win other prizes.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

30 DAYS OF DRAGONS! Day One, Dragon's Curse


Welcome to Day  1 of 

30 DAYS OF DRAGONS!

The most epic new novel promotion EVER! Why? BECAUSE DRAGONS!!! Leading up to the release of my next novel Dragon's Curse I will be releasing a blog post with a teaser or a treat. 

Also, anyone who shares an original piece of dragon artwork, poetry, or interpretive dance will receive a free pdf copy of Dragon's Curse. Share these items on my author Facebook  or on Twitter with the hash tag "#30daysofdragons" and "#dragonscurse." I will be checking hash tags, but if you think I missed yours, please shoot me an email. If you do not have a Facebook or Twitter account you can also email me your dragon entries. 



Dragon's Curse official cover

Dragon's Curse

Coming January 27th 2014

On her first assignment out of the Academy,  young healer and scholar, Shannon Macaulay is summoned to the struggling kingdom of Regone to see to the wounds of a young but crippled king. When the unwanted attentions of an aggressive knight and the sudden appearance of a hated dragon turn her world upside down, she decides to take matters into her own hands even if doing so proves dangerous.


Finding herself strangely drawn to the company of the dragon, Gnaw, Shannon must force herself out of her safe world of books and botany to come to the aid of her unexpected ally in a strange kingdom, cursed by a fateful encounter with a dragon and the loss of a beloved prince. Can she learn to put aside her fears, and perhaps sacrifice her deepest desires, to help a friend and restore a family?

Check out the first two chapters HERE.












Friday, December 27, 2013

Merry Late-Christmas

I didn't post much about Christmas this year because, well, Christmas! (and Dragon's but that's a whole other story)

So I thought I'd post a few videos of my girls with their "show stopper" gifts, the ones I didn't bother to wrap because I thought they'd make the biggest impression.

For Claire this was a two foot tall stuffed dog. For Coryn it was a LaLaLoopsy doll (she got two, one from me and one from her grandmother. I decided to wrap one and keep one out for the Christmas morning surprise.).

Coryn changes what she wants frequently, and almost every year she drops a last minute, "I hope I get . . ." that makes me scratch my head and wonder if it is too late to run out to get one more present. This year the LaLaLoopsy doll request stayed pretty constant but on Christmas Eve she did say she wanted a remote control car and "something to build with" both of which she didn't get because she never mentioned them leading up to Christmas.

Claire is a little less verbal but you can still tell she loves her new doggy.

If you are envious of Claire's giant stuffed dog or Coryn's doll (which she specifically requested because it has button eyes like the Other Mother from Coraline which is creepy) here are links to the items on Amazon.




Monday, December 23, 2013

Announcing 30 DAYS OF DRAGONS!!!




In honor of the launch of my second book Dragon's Curse I am hosting a virtual launch party on the release date, January 27th, 2014. If you are interested in participating you can sign up for the event on Facebook here.

The event will include sneak peeks of the book, online content, and chances to win prizes. What will those prizes be? Well, that's my second announcement!

I'm hosting, starting December 28th a very special 30 Days of Dragons event. During this time I will be sharing multiple Dragon and Writing related links and pictures, previewing prizes that will be given away at the launch party. 

Also, everyone who shares an original piece of dragon art with me will receive a free advance pdf copy of Dragon's Curse. What? You don't think you have the chops to create an original piece of dragon art? Well, check out this awesome beauty provided by my (soon to be) six-year-old!




This is an awesome rainbow dragon, in a lightning storm no less. She challenges you to create and share your own dragons!
Not into art? Is dragon haiku more your thing? Dragon interpretive dance? Do you horde gold beneath your mattress and long to play riddle games with burglars? Then it possible you are a dragon! Just send us a selfie!!!

Be sure to tweet about the event using the hash-tags #30daysofdragons and #dragonscurse. Please also RSVP to the Facebook event. If you don't have Facebook, never fear! I  will also be posting a rafflecopter on my blog around the same time, which should allow you a chance at winning at least one awesome dragon related pride.

May Santa Dragon bring you all a piece of his horde and not turn any of you into coal.





















Willamette Valley Wonder Woman

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Me and My Beta Readers

I've talked about Scribophile on multiple occasions and it has been an essential part of the Dragon's Curse process. The other writers on this site have provided me with tips and trick and in critiquing their work I've learned what to look for in my own writing. However, the chapter by chapter critiquing format does have some weaknesses.

One major difficulty is, since it takes time to earn the karma needed to post a chapter, most people end up putting them up VERY slowly. Books that I would normally read in a few days, have been critiquing for MONTHS, maybe one chapter a week. Also, the spotlight system sometimes prompts people to pop in mid work and critique the fifth, sixth, or even last chapter of a book without any idea what has happened in previous chapters.

So while you can get some awesome feed back about sentence structure and clarity, often things like plot and character development or overall pacing are swept aside because it is hard to judge when you are looking at a segment rather than the whole. For that you kind of need someone willing and able to read from "Once upon a time" to "The End."

Now, you can ask friends and sometimes they will say yes, but because they may want to keep getting your awesome annual Christmas card, they may be afraid to give it to you straight.

image credit: http://hunterofavalar.deviantart.com/art/He-sees-you-200990778
What do you do? Well, you can hire it out. There are professional Beta Readers, Proofreaders, Copy Editors, etc. and if you have some funds and are not exceedingly confident in your piece, then it may be worth it to you. I'm still not breaking even in my writing, financially speaking, though I am definitely enjoying it. I've spent more in postage sending out copies, paying for proofs, and paying for my Scribophile subscription than I have earned.

So if you are like me on a limited budget, somewhat confident in your prose overall, and just wanting an idea if your piece is readable cover to cover, you can try Goodreads.

I recently joined a Beta Readers group on Goodreads (check it out here). I was happy to hear from two Beta readers within twenty-four hours and one got back to me, having read the entire book, within twenty-four hours after that! I was so excited. The other is still working on it but sent me an email three chapters in with some awesome advice.

In between the advice between the two of them I sat down and wrote and wrote and edited and wrote some more. I now have completely new chapter two and a tighter chapter one. You can read them both here.

I'm still accepting Beta readers. The more input I get the better, so if you are interested, feel free to contact me.

The Chicken Chick

Reading List: Cozy Reading Spot

Another Goodreads Give Away: Dragon's Curse

I'm working so hard to get Dragon's Curse available and as perfect as possible in time for it's January 27th release. I'm so excited to announce I am starting a give away on Goodreads for it. The giveaway starts now and continues until the release date. Please enter and share with your friends.



You can check out the first two chapters here.

Also, watch my book trailer!  
And sign up for my author updates:










   
   







 
 


    Goodreads Book Giveaway
 

   

        Dragon's Curse by H.L. Burke
   

   

     


          Dragon's Curse
     
     


          by H.L. Burke
     

     

         
            Giveaway ends January 26, 2014.
         
         
            See the giveaway details
            at Goodreads.
         
     
   
   


      Enter to win



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What I've been up to . . .

If any of you have been following along, it is possible you've noticed a distinct lack of activity from me as of late. I didn't even take the time to make a Wordless Wednesday post which is a relatively easy post to do.

And no, it isn't Christmas. I don't get stressed out over Christmas. We have no family in the area so there is no one to cook for and I like shopping early, in fact, I'm kind of obsessive about it. I've been done since Halloween or so except for the few people I know are getting gift certificates. I wait until last minute to order those.

This is all about my writing.

I'm putting together a to do list with things like "prep a virtual launch party" and "seek out reviewers."

I signed up for "MailChimp" and added an email subscription option to my author website and my Facebook.

Oh, and I crocheted a dragon.

 Yes, crocheting isn't typically on an official author to do list, but I've never been typical. I'm planning a promotion called "30 Days of Dragons" to count down to my (newly chosen) January 27th release date.

Look out for the announcement, subscribe to my email list, and you might be on the fast track to winning your own special dragon pet!











   
   




Saturday, December 14, 2013

Map!!! Making a map for your fantasy land

A friend of mine offered to draw a map for my book and asked for just a quick drawing of where everything was, so I made this (see above). Fancy, huh?

I made it in Paint. I noticed at least one typo afterwards, but it is nearly impossible to edit text in Paint. It's not like anyone is going to see this (except for you and you won't tell, right?).

I'm not sure about scale at all. I think it is important to have a general idea of the layout of your fantasy land as you write, just to avoid confusion and contradiction, and mapping it out helps you remember which direction things are in. When I was younger I would make fairly detailed maps and I found the filling in the blank spots sometimes led to new ideas as I suddenly wanted to include the lake that I added in just because there was a big empty area of the map in the story.

Mapping out your world is an awesome way to plan and preserve your ideas. You don't need artistic ability (as proven by my map), you just need an idea of where everything is. If you need inspiration, you can look at maps made in a similar time period to the one you intend to write in to see what to include.

Oh, dang, I just realized I forgot to add a compass rose. Better tell my friend which way is north.



The Chicken Chick

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sometimes there is no right answer in writing

Writing is an art form not a science. Like many art forms it has basic rules. You can learn perspective for painting and theory for music and you can also learn to recognize many guidelines in writing, things that most professional writers simply don't do--or do do as the case may be. However, again like most art forms, it is going to come down to taste and there are extreme versions of different things that make good art. You  can't really compare Pollock to Da Vinci, but no matter how much one appeals to you more than another, that doesn't make the one art and the other not. It's personal preference, pure and simple.

You can debate which one takes more skill or talent or which one has more meaning, but at the end of the day, how can you really judge something so subjective?

I have written again and again about how you need the opinions of others to improve your writing. No matter how awesome your work may seem to you or how many times you think you have gone over it, a second opinion--followed by a third and a fourth, etc--is invaluable.

At first there should be plenty to change without worrying too much about differing in put. It's when you are getting down to the polishing stage it can be frustrating. That's when you will probably find people pulling your book in multiple directions as to what they think it should be.

The main reason I'm showing you this segment of a critique is the line "I'd like to see a little more description for my taste."

This person wants more explanation, more description, more clarification.

But then I get. . .
"You tend to over describe or put them in the wrong places."

These critiques were literally back to back on the same chapter. (You can check out the chapter for yourself here and see what you think if you are really curious.). The inline (the critiques done in the text themselves where they referenced specific areas) were even more confusing. One person was complimenting every description then asking for more details on the areas in between. The other was cutting out every section the first dude was complimenting.

I sat there panicking. Who was right? What was I supposed to do? Which way should I go?

One school of thinking is that if half the people in the room are telling you it is too hot and the other half are telling you it is too cold, you probably have the thermostat set as close to perfect as you are going to get, but I don't think writing really works that way. You aren't trying to provide a happy medium where everyone is happy with you. You are trying to make your best work which will appeal to readers of your sort of writing. So if you have one group of people requesting a refrigerator and the others a sauna, go ahead and pick one. Those will be your fans. Ignore the rest of them!

So how did I choose? After agonizing about it for a day or two, I sat down and made two versions of chapter one (the chapter in question). I left version one basically as is, made a few small descriptive tweaks, but nothing extreme. Version two I cut EVERYTHING extra. Long descriptions. Boom. Gone. Extra world building details, set them aside for later.

Thankfully I was able to get a hold of a friend on short notice who reads within my genre and asked her to look over both and see which she preferred. Her answer. Version one was  the winner but it could use a little more description to immerse people in the world.

Ta Da! Answer!

So I spent this afternoon adding in some more description and clarifying a few points, and I'm feeling pretty good.

Until the next critique I'm sure.
Wish me luck!



Reading List: Cozy Reading Spot

First Chapter Preview: Dragon's Curse

Dragon's Curse is coming! You can watch the book trailer here. Or just scroll down to read the first chapter!
(Edit: I've done it again and seriously edited the first two chapters. Check out the new versions here.)

Chapter One
The Scholar and the Dragon



           Shannon held her breath against the acrid stench of the cavern, her back scrunched flat against the rough, unnaturally warm stone.
        Just press forward. She desperately pushed back her fear. One way or another this will all be over. You just have to keep pressing forward.
But her feet wouldn't move. She forced her eyes open and could make out the vague outline of the beast–like a great, leather cloak draped over bumpy furniture only about a thousand times bigger. His sides rose and fell gently but steadily as he slumbered. If she turned back now perhaps she could survive but that meant going back to everything that had driven her to this insanity in the first place.
        As she timidly moved one foot forward, she recited from the Wizards' Practical Guide to Dragons under her breath, “Dragons like puzzles. Dragons love gold. Dragons can be swayed by flattery and bought with presents.”
        She touched the strap of her knapsack and prayed her offering would be enough. Another step, her stride stronger now, one way or the other this was going to end.
The dragon moved. She swallowed a scream as her legs gave out underneath her.
Oh why, oh why did I ever come to Regone? Why didn't I listen to Martin?
        Three months before:
        Shannon hurried down the corridor her skin crisscrossed by the shadows the sun cast through the diamond panes of the clouded glass windows. Her fine, dark blonde hair slipped out of the hastily plaited braid and into her face. Frustrated, she pushed it back and sniffed.
She knew she looked like a child, especially when flustered. Her brown eyes were too big for her round face, her hands too small for her arms, and her hair and garments always disheveled. People underestimated her, which often lead to be being passed over, but this was Martin. If anyone should know better, Martin should. They had worked together on numerous projects and though, as the older more experienced scholar, he had always been her superior, she had thought she had proven herself to him. Numerous times.
Now, a few months into his promotion to Headmaster's Assistant, he had apparently forgotten her. Worse than forgotten, ignored, for she had written him two notes which he had either disregarded or flat out not read. She had assumed he had been simply taking his time, but then a chance encounter with a fellow junior scholar had revealed to her the full extent of the betrayal and left her livid.
She hated confrontation, but Martin needed to know he was making a mistake. Shannon assured herself of this as she stormed through the Academy's echoing halls. Her boots slapped out a rhythm of it's unfair; he should've come to me first. It's unfair. He should've. It's unfair.
She wasn’t good at being angry; it simply didn’t come naturally to her, and if she was going to assume an air of righteous indignation she would need to work herself up and keep herself there. If she was incensed enough he’d have to listen. He'd have to see how serious she was.
        She threw open the door to his study. Martin sat behind his heavy wooden desk, hunched over some papers, quill in hand. He looked up, eyebrows raised, when she barged in.
        “Shannon? Is something wrong?” he asked, his clear blue eyes widening.
        “Yes, something is wrong!” she burst out. Her voice squeaked. She swallowed and considered adjusting it. Even she couldn’t take that voice seriously.
I sound like a six-year-old.
She cleared her throat and began again. “I just talked to Henri in the library. He told me you put him on the shortlist for the assignment in Regone. I didn’t know you were even interviewing candidates yet, and Henri has already had two interviews. I’m twice as qualified as Henri, Martin! This is because I’m a woman, isn’t it? I know the headmaster is old fashioned, but the choice is yours, not his.”
        “No, that’s not it. Dame Allison is on the short list too.” He stuck the quill into the inkwell and leaned back in his seat.
She couldn’t help it. She gaped. Allison knew her alchemy. The woman was like a walking reference library, but she had no imagination, no ambition. When it came to thinking out of the box, Shannon knew she could run circles around her.
        “That only makes it worse, Martin.” She managed to control the pitch of her voice. “I’m a better alchemist than Allison and I know more botany than Henri. Why are they both on the list when you never even interviewed me?”
        “Do you even know what this assignment involves?” Martin's wide mouth scowled at her.
        “I saw the letter they sent to the headmaster.” She nodded doing her best to come across as firm rather than shrill. “The Regonian steward wants a scholar versed in alchemy, botany, and apothecary healing, and I was top of my class in all three. You know I want to leave the Academy. I need to leave. Why didn’t I make the list? I should’ve been the list.”
        “Because it’s Regone!” he said, sounding unaccountably exasperated.
She blinked at him.
He drew a deep breath. “You don’t know what that means, do you?”
She shook her head.
“Regone is cursed, Shan.”
        Shannon's brow crinkled. She could never tell when Martin was joking but this had to be a joke. She’d heard of cursed objects, cursed people, even an occasional cursed castle, but an entire kingdom? The amount of magic it would take to curse an entire kingdom was unfathomable. His eyes were placid, though, no twinkle.
        “How so?” she asked. He adjusted himself in his chair as if preparing to sit for a good length of time.
        “Edmond, the current king of Regone, is the second son of the previous king, Ernest. The first son, the Crown Prince Ewan, was killed about five years ago by a dragon,” he explained.
        “Unfortunate, but hardly in the realm of the supernatural.” Shannon shrugged. “Men are always trying to prove themselves against dragons and it rarely ends well.”
        “I’m not finished. Upon hearing of his brother’s fate, Edmond swore vengeance upon the entire race of dragons and, along with the majority of the knights from the Regonian court, began hunting them down one by one from one end of the Continent to the other. Rumor is he and his entourage killed at least half a dozen of the great wyrms before they encountered an entire nest of them. Outnumbered by the beasts, they were roasted and rent.”
        “Again, sad but the inevitable consequence of tangling with dragons.” she interrupted.
        “Again, not finished.” Martin’s scowl returned, a little deeper this time. “Miraculously a handful of the knights survived, Edmond being one of them, though he didn’t escape unharmed. He was grievously wounded. When Ernest saw them bring back his only remaining son clinging to life by a thread, his heart gave out and he died within the hour. Edmond, of course, did live, but he is severely maimed and in constant pain from the dragon venom, which is why they need a scholar, someone to help alleviate his symptoms.
“Nothing has gone right for the royal family since Prince Ewan’s death. The kingdom is nearly bankrupt. Many of the nobles have left or are simply refusing to pay taxes because they know King Edmond does not have the manpower to force them to do so. I grew up in Regone. When I was a boy it was thriving. Ernest was a good king, and Ewan had potential to be an even better one. He wasn’t an idiot. When I’d heard a dragon had got the drop on him, I couldn’t believe it. You don’t need to be entangled in that mess, not on your first trip out of the Academy.” Martin stood and motioned towards the door. He was not a particularly tall man and Shannon could gaze directly into his eyes without effort. He reached up and rubbed his already unruly dust brown hair.
        “But I’d be perfect for the appointment,” she persisted. “I know I’ll be fine, Martin. I can handle myself, and I promise I won’t go anywhere near dragons. It won't be hard. They are scarcely seen outside of the Wilderlands nowadays. The chances of being killed in an unprovoked dragon attack must be comparable to the odds of being struck by lightening, after all. The prince's fate is tragic but statistically improbable.”
“Which is exactly the sort of thing one shouldn't say in front of anyone who has lost a loved one to a dragon–for instance the king you are so set on healing.” Martin's eyes flashed and she drew a deep breath.
“Oh, you aren't afraid for my safety. You are afraid I'm going to say something stupid and embarrass you.”
“No, of course not, I just, well, yes, honestly, a little bit. You tend to speak your mind, Shan. It's endearing after one becomes accustomed to it, but you will be dealing with a king, not a professor. An offended professor will mark down your paper. Upset a king, and much worse might befall you.”
She frowned and narrowed her eyes at him. “But did King Edmond request a politician or a healer?”
“A healer, of course.”
“And do you think that any of those other applicants would be a better healer than me?”
“They are all capable.”
“As capable as me?” She could see him wavering. “Martin, when you received your last promotion, you told me one of the benefits would be the ability to aid those who had helped you in your climb. You also said I was the best research assistant you had ever had. Did you really believe that?”
“I did then and do now. “ He lowered himself down and sighed loudly. “Are you sure this is the assignment you want?”
“It is a good fit.”
“All right. I will write the king and tell him I've found his healer then. If you change your mind, however, I was ready to send Henri and he will be willing to go in your place.”
҉
It didn't take Shannon long to prepare for her journey. The next day, Martin came to help her carry her bags from her room.
“It isn’t too late for me to send Henri, you know,” Martin said.
“You do realize that the caravan to Regone is waiting for me as we speak,” Shannon frowned at him, wrapping old rags around the glass bottles that held her most prized essential oils and placing them gently in her leather carrying case.
“Aye, but there will be another going through Regone in a few days, and we could send him along with that. It won’t kill King Edmond to wait another day or two.”
She knew this was true. While Regone was not currently prosperous, her research into the country had shown that during Ernest’s reign they had been one of the only sources in the western half of the Continent for silver marble, a rare stone prized for its strength and beauty. Though work in the quarries had come to a screeching halt after Ernest’s death, trade caravans still kept to their traditional route through Regone when going to more easterly kingdoms; places Shannon had only seen on maps.
Of course, Shannon had only seen most places on the map. She could point to the farm she grew up on from the window of her Academy apartment. When she was younger, just leaving the farm to study had seemed like the biggest adventure she could imagine. Now she was ready for something new and exciting.
She carefully closed the case she was packing and buckled the leather straps, binding it securely in place.
“You know it will be almost impossible to extract you without causing an international incident,” Martin continued to harp. “Its proximity to the Academy has given Regone influence beyond what its size and wealth would normally garner. At least three headmasters have come from there.”
Shannon paused. She was well versed in Academy history and that number was off.
“Antonius, Gregory, and who else?”
“Martin,” he grinned mischievously. “In about ten years, of course.”
She shook her head ruefully at him and shouldered her pack.
“That is the last of it. Are you too peeved at me to see me off?”
“I’m not peeved. I’m concerned.” He offered to take her baggage and she accepted, keeping only the case with the delicate, glass vials so that she could ensure its safety. They left her tiny apartment and headed down the stairs towards the Merchant’s Courtyard where the caravan awaited.
As they passed the door to one of the classrooms a cluster of men in dark robes, each with a golden crescent amulet upon his chest, emerged. Martin tensed. The leader nodded with a pleasant smile to the pair before guiding his flock back down the hall. Shannon laughed quietly.
“With all your experience, I can’t believe you still let Abel and his band unnerve you like that,” she teased. “He is really a pleasant fellow, when he isn’t in a trance.”
“Diviners,” Martin scoffed. “They take science and turn it into a guessing game.”
Shannon didn't often admit it, but she envied Abel and his ilk. While it was well accepted that a scholar could be successful without magical abilities, she had always longed to possess even the slightest hint of the natural ability needed to devote herself to the flashier “Magic” side of the Academy. In her first several months as a student she had undergone test after test, trying to light a candle with her mind, levitate objects, or invoke visions of the future. All had come to naught. Magic required a natural gifting, generally hereditary, which both she and Martin lacked.
Martin had always assured her that being a scholar, a true scholar, was more about using one's brains than one's magical aptitude, and there were certain aspects of magic–warding, spell protection, good luck charms, spell reversals–that could be taught. Martin managed to be successful through hard work and intelligence and often expressed an opinion that those who relied on magic lacked both. However, this contempt did not stop him from acting like a nervous cat whenever the diviners were in a room.
“Abel is sweet,” she persisted. “You can tell he only practices the good sorts of spells.”
Martin snorted loudly.
“I have already defeated you in this debate once,” he said. “There aren’t good and bad sorts of magic. Magic, like science, is a purely secular business.”
“You didn't defeat me. That debate was clearly a draw,” she protested. “And if there aren’t good sorts and bad sorts, why are certain practices allowed while things like Necromancy, Mesmerization, and Bee Charming are forbidden?”
“Because while no magic is evil, some sorts are definitely dangerous,” he answered.
“Bee Charming? Really?” she laughed.
“You try waking up one morning with a swarm of angry bees buzzing around your bedchamber,” he said sourly. Something in his voice suggested experience, and she thought it wise to drop the matter.
They entered the courtyard. Several vendors had set up new stands against the wall. Any other day she would’ve been pouring through their offerings looking for exotic herbs and oils, shiny objects, or just news of the outside world, no matter how fantastic and fabricated it might sound. Today, however, she had her own chance to see places outside of the Academy and Freeman's Valley.
“Last chance,” he said.
She hugged him quickly.
“You know I can handle this, Martin,” she soothed.
He sighed but nodded.
“I suppose you can,” he said. “But after the death of his brother Edmond became moody: darker, angrier, difficult to be around. I can’t imagine the death of his father did anything to lighten his burden, and while you are bright, you have always had a strange way of looking at the world. Please, be careful, Shannon. Kings aren’t like scholars. A good scholar appreciates being questioned for it allows him to test his preconceived notions and learn about the world through another’s eyes. A king expects to be obeyed, no matter how ridiculous his commands may be, and acquiescing to authority has never been one of your strengths.”
She nodded.
“I will be careful. After all, I am only there to heal him. I won’t have a reason to cross him.”
҉
The journey between the Academy and the Regonian court only took two days. She spent most of that time pouring over the caravan leader’s maps as she sat beside him in the lead wagon and listened to his stories of travels through wilder lands.
The merchant, a middle-aged man had a massive, oily beard and a physique that looked barrel chested when he stood but collapsed like a sack of wheat when he was sitting.
“There isn’t much to Regone,” he said. “The land there is fertile, but it takes less than a day to cross the breadth of it, and that’s on foot. Most of the folk there are farmers now that the quarries are closed and they can no longer trade stone for wheat. Many used to work in the quarries and purchased all their food stuffs from the farms in Freeman’s Valley.”
Freeman’s Valley was the official name of the rich floodplain that surrounded the Academy. No king held sway there, and with no noblemen taking their cut, they always had extra grain to trade for other things they needed. They were able to maintain this state of liberty due to the protection of the Academy, which age old treaty equired to stay on neutral ground so the healers and advisers it sent forth could be trusted by all monarchs. This made the Academy a fecund melting pot filled with scholars from all over the Continent and of all walks of life, and led to the general prosperity of the Freeman’s Valley farmers.
“It seems to be surrounded by larger neighbors,” she said, indicating the kingdoms of Grassel and Westshire which touched upon Regone’s northeastern and southeastern borders.
“Aye, but you see those wee green triangles?” He switched the reins into his other hand and pointed to the borders she had been indicating. “Those represent trees and those trees make up the thickest forest on the Continent, called simply ‘The Wilderlands.’ Those trees provide Regone some shelter from its more aggressive neighbors.”
“I imagine the Middland Range also does its part,” she eyed the sprawling mountain chain that branched into the foothills of Regone and Westshire. “Aren’t they supposedly impassable?”
“Aye, and filled with dangerous, wild beasts. In fact, that is one of the few places on the Continent you can reliably locate dragons. It was in the Range that King Edmond and his men searched out the great wyrms for slaying and it was there that they  were outnumbered and bested by the scaly beasts.
“It is rare for dragons to leave the shelter of the uninhabited lands now,” he claimed. “The one who killed the king’s brother was a fluke, and when on his mission of revenge, King Edmond had to travel far into the uncharted areas in order to find his prey. It is a miracle he made it out alive.”
And foolish of him to attempt the hunt in the first place.
But remembering Martin's advice, Shannon held her tongue.
“He seems a fair king, however,” the man went on. “Since his wounds have forced him to remain in Regone, he has been slowly picking up the remnants of his father’s kingdom. Soon I hope to see him reopen the quarries. I would love to get my foot in the door early for a piece of that pie.”
Shannon almost said something about the badly mixed metaphor but thought better of it. Would working with royalty often mean not saying what really ought to be said? Well, she could handle that. She wasn’t a fool.
“I see the peak of Mount Regone,” he pointed to a great cinder cone that loomed on the horizon towering above the smaller hills around it. “It’s old name was Dragon’s Roost, but no one calls it that any more, out of respect for the royal family.”
“A shame, Dragon’s Roost sounds more poetic than Mount Regone.”
“Aye, well, dragons are out of fashion in Regone right now,” he sniffed.
“I suppose that is good. I promised a friend that I would stay away from dragons.”
҉
Her first few weeks in Regone passed uneventfully, so much so that she wrote a mocking letter to Martin informing him that his “cursed kingdom” offered her no challenge whatsoever unless she feared dying of boredom. Shannon spent some time pleasantly gathering local herbs from the hillsides and forests, enjoying the balmy spring weather.
Under her watch, King Edmond began a regimen of sleeping potions and extracts she knew promoted healing and blood flow. She kept to herself for the majority of the time and enjoyed the freedom the laid back assignment offered her.
Other than a small staff of perhaps twenty servants, guards, and stable hands, there weren't many people in the palace. Edmond did keep a handful of knights fed and housed, presumably for palace defense, though they did nothing but loiter about and train. The leader of these, Sir Roderick, had been one of the few survivors of Edmond's band of dragon hunters, making him the only experienced fighter in the lot. Roderick was of average height and slightly more than average build, a fact he liked to show off with tailored tunics and by occasionally parading around the training ground shirtless. He had well-coiffed, butter pale hair and gray eyes. There was also a cleft in his chin and a constant look of self-satisfaction on his face that always irked her.
Shannon wasn't quite sure when she first noticed Roderick, but she was certain when she noticed him noticing her. She had been in the library that morning, a small collection of books compared to the Academy's compilation, but impressive for a kingdom the size of Regone.
She was reading, perched in a high backed chair, for some time before she felt his eyes on her. Looking up she swallowed uncomfortably for he was leaning against the nearest bookshelf, his face weirdly contorted into a half grin with his eyebrows raised. He gave the impression he had been standing that way for quite some time waiting for her to admire him.
“Hello,” she said slowly. “Roderick, isn't it?”
She almost said Richard, and in hindsight she wished she had allowed herself to make that mistake. Perhaps that would've been discouragement enough to for him to leave.
“Aye, and you are Shannon. Strange name for a woman, almost masculine,” he said, coming closer. He sat on the arm of her chair, on top of her hand which had been resting there.
“It can be a boys name as well.” Shannon quickly extricated her fingers from under his thigh and stood. His weight almost tipped the chair over, but he managed to hop up, steadying it and himself.
“I would have named you Rose or Ruby, something beautiful and precious.”
Not completely immune to compliments, she blushed. He smiled confidently.
“We should go for a walk. This room smells funny.”
Shannon, who had always dreamed of finding a perfume that smelled of old books, frowned at this.
“I like it here,” she said simply. She crossed over to a different chair and sat down. He walked away and for a moment she thought she was rid of him, but then his head popped up from over the back of her chair. She shrank back into the upholstery and put her book over her mouth barely in time to block an unwanted kiss.
҉
Over the next several weeks, every time she left her quarters or finished her duties, he was waiting. He left presents on her doorstep, which she redistributed among the castle staff, and as much as she disliked confrontation she was finally forced to simply tell him she did not appreciate his presence and wished to be left alone.
“Don't be silly,” he said. “You must be at least twenty, so you have less than a decade of eligibility left. If you think you are going to find better than me in that time, you are simply delusional.”
She almost slapped him, but having learned how twisted his thought process was, she feared he might see that as encouragement and simply ran away. She sent Martin another letter to ask whether he knew of any anti-love potions.
҉
Shannon went into a prolonged period of hiding – a period that might have lasted indefinitely if not for the appearance of the hated dragon.
That day she had finished early with the king's treatments. He had slept through the night for the first time since her arrival, and this small victory had left him uncharacteristically chipper.
Edmond was handsome in his own way, tall and lean with brown hair and sad gray eyes. The dragon mauling had left him with serious burns primarily on the left side of his neck and chest. His shield arm had been shattered in the fight and while the bones had long ago healed, the limb still hung limp against his body.
The loss of his arm and the scarring paled, however, in comparison to the the dragon bite that had left venom coursing through his bloodstream, scorching and sizzling. Poison like that would leave the system slowly and some days Edmond could scarcely stand due to the pain. It gave his face a weathered, old look and it was easy to forget his youth. Like his palace and kingdom, he seemed cold, empty, and lifeless.
Now, however, feeling rested for the first time in over a year, he had even smiled at her once and given her a backhanded compliment about being more competent than her manner suggested. The session had passed quickly, pleasantly, and productively. Even better he mentioned that the knights had scheduled a sparring contest for that morning which meant Roderick would not be pestering her for at least a few hours.
Shannon decided to take some of her free time and explore the empty halls that lay beyond the royal wing and servants’ quarters.
       She had been told that the Regonian royal residence was small as palaces went, but considering how empty it was, it seemed cavernous. She spent a good two hours wandering the silent, sepulchral halls, often getting lost in areas that had not seen human habitation in many years.
After several twists and turns, she found a door leading to open air and emerged onto a parapet on the western wall of the palace.  A lone guard leaned pensively against the door frame. He stood at attention when she approached.
“Milady,” he said tilting his head respectfully.
She acknowledged him with a nod and a smile then rested her arms atop the chest-high wall to gaze across the Regonian countryside. There was Mount Regone, or Dragon’s Roost as she preferred to think of it, a small peak but still dwarfing the gentle green hills around it. About  midway up she spied a dark spot that might have been a large cavern. Perhaps she could hike there some afternoon and explore. While botany interested her more than mineralogy, she knew some minerals held potent healing powers and caves were the perfect place to seek such things.
A dark silhouette rose from the mountain’s shadow and whirled into the sky. She frowned in bewilderment.
“Is that an eagle? I’ve never seen one quite that large before.”
The guard left his post and came over to stand at her side. He squinted, then placed his hand above his eyes and shook his head.
“That is far too big to be any sort of bird,” he answered.
“Well, what is it, then? It is too dark to be a cloud,” she shook her head in turn.
The form grew closer and for a moment turned so that its full profile stood in stark contrast to the clear, blue sky: swan’s neck; bat’s wings; serpent's tail.
  “By the king's line!” the guard breathed. “That is a dragon!”
By now other folk had sighted the beast. She looked behind her into the courtyard and saw the frantic bustle of guards and servants, some running for cover, some coming out from under cover to stare at the sky and the approaching monster. Uncertain if simply seeing a dragon violated her promise to Martin, Shannon contemplated the size of the creature as well as the speed and grace with which it cut through the air. It seldom beat its wings but glided silently like a massive bird of prey.
“It is coming right towards us,” the guard hissed. “What I wouldn’t give for a long bow!” He pushed her back towards the door, but too curious to be frightened, Shannon chose not to flee.
The dragon swept lower and circled the palace. A few archers spent their quivers but all shots fell short. The sun glistened on slate gray scales as the winged beast turned and made one more low pass over the palace. Shannon ducked instinctively as it whooshed less than ten feet over her head, the speed of its flight stirring her hair and her heart.
The dragon rose into the sky once more and she watched as it slowly glided back into the shadow of Mount Regone and disappeared.
“I wouldn’t want to be in the room when King Edmond hears about this,” the guard whistled.
Remembering how King Ernest had died due to a great shock and knowing that a weak heart could be hereditary, Shannon blanched and hurried back into the palace.
Though Edmond preferred to conduct most of his business within the peace of his private quarters, there was an official throne room for holding court and addressing large groups. From what she could see, every palace inhabitant–counselors, knights, and even the staff–had rushed there, craning necks towards the throne where Edmond sat, his face reddened and his mouth pinched sourly. Roderick was there, near the front, so she took advantage of the crowd and hid in the back behind the wall of onlookers.
“Did anyone see where it roosted?” the king barked.
A knight stood forth, not one whose name she knew but one of Roderick’s lazy companions whom she had seen loitering about the kitchens and training grounds. “I believe it landed on Mount Regone, your highness. Some of my friends have started out to see if they can get a better look. They should be back shortly with more news.”
“I hope they are cautious. The kingdom cannot afford to lose any more men,” Edmond said, his eyes clouding slightly.
“We need a champion! One who can best the beast one on one!” the knight shouted eagerly.
“Unless you are referring to yourself, that does me no good,” Edmond said.
The fellow fell silent and hung his head.
“I thought not,” Edmond continued. “Fighting a dragon takes skill, cunning, and strength and even then anything can go wrong. They have fire and venom and sinews of steel. Knights with the credentials needed for such a task do not work for a mere pittance and I cannot afford to offer any great bounty at this time. That wyrm may as well be unreachable.”
This was the most she had heard the normally sullen Edmond speak in one sitting. Intrigued, she stepped forward a few steps. Roderick looked up at that very moment and their eyes met. He grinned and revulsion rippled through her.
Now he strode boldly onto the dais. Edmond stared at him questioningly. Roderick’s face seemed to ooze, so unctuous was his simper.
“I, your highness, will slay the beast!” he said, sticking out his chest. “I will bring you back its head and I desire no financial recompense. All I ask is that the Lady Shannon grant me her fair, frail hand in wedded bliss.”
Shannon’s jaw dropped. He was pointing at her, a leer on his smug, stupid face. Everyone else was grinning at her. She could guess what they were thinking: she was the damsel in distress and he the hero in this romantic tale. He would slay the dragon, win her hand, and there would be peace and happiness in the kingdom of Regone. She squirmed under their scrutiny.
“Lady Shannon, I was not aware you and Sir Roderick had an understanding,” Edmond’s level voice broke the spell.
“We do not!” Shannon shrieked. She flushed. Her heart pounded. She wanted to melt into the floor.
Edmond smiled slightly, then cleared his throat and frowned at Roderick.
“Unfortunately, Sir Roderick, Lady Shannon is a native of Freeman's Valley. Therefore not my subject, and I cannot command her to wed you.”
Roderick stiffened. Shannon exhaled.
“However, if she does choose to accept your offer and you do choose to act upon your promise, I will be exceedingly grateful to the both of you and willing to oversee any ceremony,” Edmond said.
Her heart faltered again and before anyone else could address her she fled from the room and hid in her quarters for the rest of the day.

It took all her strength to face the king over the next few days. While he had not broached the subject again, she could feel the weight of it sitting on her head like an unfortunate bonnet. After a bit, she decided she would either have to leave, admitting to Martin her failure in her first assignment, or accept Roderick and pray that the dragon ate him, or do something even more drastic and unexpected, something that might very well cause her to be the one devoured.


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