Dragon's Debt: Chapter One Preview
It's time to tease the first chapter of Dragon's Debt.
You can buy the first book in the series through the link below.
A Monster in the Sky
From a distance the dugout cottage looked like nothing more than a pile of stones leaning against the embankment. Prince Ryan of Westshire regarded it as they came up the road from Crossings, the nearest village. An overgrown garden cluttered the yard and in a corner lay a stack of bones topped by a rack of antlers, probably poached. Still, the owner of the local tavern had sworn this was the place. Ryan started up the faintly marked path, stepping around a scraggly pair of chickens.
Ryan glanced down at his gray, hunting tunic. He had dressed to avoid calling attention to himself, and while most folk could recognize the prince, he hoped here, away from the castle, he might pass as a commoner. He'd even ordered his escort, Captain Brandon, the chief of his father's guard, to forgo his uniform.
Brandon coughed loudly. The older man reached out and put his hand on the prince’s shoulder. “Let me go first, sire.”
Ryan chuckled. “Not everything is a trap, Brandon.” He then grew grave. “These people have lost their daughter. The least we can do is show them some faith.”
“Still, nothing good ever came out of these back country hovels. Perhaps King Riley is right. If the beast is targeting folk in such blighted regions, it probably isn’t worth our pursuing.”
Ryan’s frown deepened. “They’re my subjects. I’m not going to let them be hunted down like rabbits. Besides, they won't know who I am.”
“Little chance of that. You look too much like your father, and his face is stamped on every coin in the realm.”
Ryan grimaced. He did have the same high cheek bones and gray eyes as his father, though his brown curls were still thankfully free of the white that had overtaken his father's head. He glanced about at the rundown yard and the ramshackle home. “Do you really think these folk see many coins?”
Brandon shook his head but followed as Ryan knocked on the crooked door. It creaked open and an unkempt woman peeked out.
“My husband is gone,” she snapped. “Whoever you are you have no business here.”
“I just want to ask about your daughter and the creature that took her.”
She drew back with a hissing breath. “Don’t speak of it. You’ll draw it to us again!” She moved to close the door, but Ryan put his foot out and stopped her.
“I am trying to help. Your daughter is not the only victim. The monster has taken almost a dozen girls over these last several months, from all over my father’s kingdom.”
The woman’s eyes widened, and she fell to her knees. “My prince, forgive me, I did not know you. Please, please, forgive me.”
Ryan winced, cursing himself for letting his tongue slip. “No, there is no need. Please, I only want to find out what you know of the beast. When did it steal her? Was it daylight? Dusk?”
“Broad daylight, even as now, right there.” She extended a shaking finger towards the yard. “It came from the sky, swooping down like a hawk stealing a chicken. She screamed . . . I saw a flash of gray, such terrible wings, then gone, just gone.” A scuffling noise sounded from the house, and she ducked her head. “I have no more to say. Please, leave us.”
Ryan rubbed the back of his neck. The reports from all over the kingdom were similarly vague. He had one small comfort to offer.
“Several girls have been returned,” he said.
The woman stiffened. She drew the door back against her chest and peered around the edge.
He cleared his throat. “They appear as suddenly as they are taken, alive, unharmed, but . . . the beast does something to their minds.”
A whimpering came from behind the woman. She thrust the door shut. Brandon reached out and pulled it back ajar. The woman cowered.
Ryan bit his bottom lip. “She has been returned, hasn't she? Your daughter?”
She covered her eyes. “Leave, please leave. If the village found out they . . . she is so strange now. Who knows what they will do?”
“I will tell no one,” Ryan said. “Please, let me speak with her. Maybe she will remember something of where she was held.”
The woman eyed both men then gazed at the sword sheathed at Brandon's side. Her shoulder shook.
“I will not force my way into your home,” Ryan continued. “All I ask is a moment of her time. Please, this creature is still out there.”
The woman nodded and opened the door.
Ryan had to stoop to avoid the low dirt ceiling. A small, rough skylight, little more than a hole in the roof, allowed a beam of light to cut through the gloom. Curled in the small patch of sun, lay a girl, thin and dirty.
“When did she reappear?”
“This morning,” said the mother. “I heard her crying and found her cowering in the yard. It took me hours just to coax her indoors. She hasn't moved since.”
Ryan knelt at the child's side. He touched her bony shoulder. A wave of numbing cold washed up his arm. It slapped into his neck like an icy hand. He recoiled. The girl flinched and cried out. Her fingers raked across Ryan's throat, leaving stinging, red welts. She stared, wide eyed, trembling, her ribcage rising and falling like a smith's bellows.
“Tess, calm down. He won't hurt you. He's here to help.” Her mother hurried to her side. The girl shrieked and struck out, slapping the woman. She scrambled on her hands and knees into a darkened corner and huddled there, sobbing. Her mother sank to the floor. “She doesn't know me. She doesn't even know her name! What did they do to her? Sire, what has happened to my child?”
“I don't know,” Ryan whispered. “I am so sorry.” The cold imprint faded from his skin, and his heart returned to its normal pace.
He offered the woman a coin, which she took, and said a quick farewell.
“Well, this has been a waste of an afternoon,” Brandon muttered as the door to the cottage shut behind them.
Ryan glanced up at the sky. “I’d like to stay a bit longer. If the creature is returning the girls near to where they are taken there is a chance . . .”
“I promised the king I would have you back at the palace by nightfall. There’s a feast tonight, remember?”
“I'm trying to forget.” Ryan rolled his eyes.
“If we are late, I will be the one the king blames for it, sire. Besides, if your father gets some drink into him, the fact that those around him are his guests won’t stop him from starting a row.”
“So I should be there as his preferential target, to take the blows?” Ryan grimaced, but Brandon was right. “I just want to talk to the tavern keeper one more time. He seemed to have an ear to local gossip.”
“You mean he has an ear to drunken slurring and the occasional brawl.”
Ryan scoffed. Usually he was the skeptical one, but his desperation had reached the point where he’d listen to any prattle. He had to stop this monster.
I can't let it hurt another girl.
The men mounted the horses they’d left tethered at the edge of the road.
Crossings lay just over the border between Westshire and the smaller, neighboring kingdom of Regone. The main road between the two kingdoms ran nearby, and the journey to the capital, Kell, would only take Ryan a few hours. He could afford to linger .
A small crowd streamed out of their homes and shops to watch the prince pass.
So much for traveling incognito.
“Have you seen the beast?” a man called out from the throng.
“Will it return? I have children! Will it take my children?” a woman wailed. Ryan's heart ached. This should not be happening in his kingdom.
An elderly man with a shock of white beard, bent wire rim spectacles, and a sage green scholar’s tunic stepped in front of the horses. “Your highness!”
Ryan pulled rein. Brandon slipped from his horse and stepped between the scholar and the prince.
Ryan snorted. “I’m not helpless, Brandon. Let the man speak.”
The man cleared his throat, wrung his hands, and looked first up then down. He bowed. “May I ask, your highness, what has brought you to this humble town?”
“I am tracking the monster who has been seen in these parts. I would speak to anyone who has seen it or heard rumor of where it might nest.”
“I have seen the monster, sire.” The old man lowered his head. “I would not speak of it among so many ears.”
Ryan nodded to Brandon, dismounted, and led the stranger to a side street. Brandon waved the remaining villagers away and took up his post at the entry to the alley. His bulky frame blocked them from prying eyes.
“My name is Isaiah. I am from Mattinghill, where the beast first struck.”
“You are a scholar?”
“Retired, sire. When the beast struck a second and third time, I began researching, even as you are. I was in Mattinghill the day it returned the first girl it stole. The creature appeared to be a gremlin or gargoyle, large and gray, a fearsome creature of a forgotten time. It is far too fast for man to track. Far too strong for man to hunt. I fear it's a supernatural omen. A sign from the heavens. For your own safety and the safety of those you love, please, do not seek it.”
“And let it continue to prey upon young girls? The oldest was 15. They are children, Sir Isaiah.”
“They are peasants, sire, inconsequential.”
Heat flooded Ryan’s chest. He forced himself to exhale slowly. “I am afraid I do not agree. Thank you for your concern, but I will handle this in my own way.”
Isaiah’s face darkened. He narrowed his eyes. “Well, I wish you well, then. I hope you do not come to regret this.”
“I’m sure I won’t. Good day, Isaiah.”
Ryan strode past Brandon, glad to be out of the scholar’s presence. Scholar? How could a man with such benighted views be a scholar?
The remainder of the allowed hour proved fruitless, and Ryan had to admit he was relieved to take to the road.
The two men rounded a bend, and found themselves a few wagons length behind a slightly larger group of riders. Three of the men carried forest green standards and wore similarly colored tunics. Realizing from the standard that this was the Regonian king and his retinue, Ryan spurred his horse to catch up with them, out pacing Brandon. Perhaps the beast had been sighted in Regone as well.
The three guards spun their horses around and lowered their spears at Ryan’s approach.
The prince held up a hand and stopped a few paces away.
A young, brown haired man with a red rippling scar across the left side of his face and neck called to the soldiers, “Hold on. I know him. Let him by.”
Ryan carefully walked his horse forward, followed by Brandon.
“Prince Ryan, I can’t say I was expecting an escort.” Edmond smiled.
Ryan forced a chuckle. “Nay, I’m afraid this is mere coincidence. I was . . . hunting, in the area.”
He noted a young man with slightly ruffled, dusty brown hair and a familiar style of green tunic. “Who is your companion?”
“This is Sir Martin Mathewson, a long time friend and well respected scholar from the Academy of Magic and Sciences. He agreed to accompany me to the tournament.”
Sir Martin rolled his eyes. “Only because you begged like a toddler wanting a new toy.”
Ryan started. Scholars were, he admitted, normally pampered members of a court, used to being listened to and respected. Still, if anyone addressed Ryan’s father like that, King Riley would have him flogged. Edmond certainly ruled his court with a lighter touch.
“A scholar? I recently had an encounter with one of your order. Do you know a Sir Isaiah?”
“Isaiah?” Martin raised his eyebrows. “I met him once. He retired after a personal tragedy.”
“Was he held in high regard at the time?”
Martin smiled wryly. “You might say that. He held the Headmaster’s chair for nearly a decade. You can’t achieve much higher standing than that. I am surprised to hear he settled in Westshire. I believe he was originally from Grassel.”
“We should go, your highness,” Brandon said. “It is getting late.”
“If you would like to ride with us, I would be happy for the company,” Edmond said.
“No, thank you but I intend to take a slight detour, to check on some things,” Ryan replied, knowing the excuse sounded as phony as it was. “I shall see you at dinner tonight.”
Ryan snapped his reins and rode past the Regonian procession, quickly outpacing them.
Martin slid off his horse and handed the reins to one of King Edmond's bodyguards. He gazed up at the grand castle, easily triple the size of the royal residence in Regone. From the amount of bustle in the courtyard alone, Martin imagined the servants on staff might equal the entire population of his homeland. Though Edmond of Regone was supposedly an important ally of Riley of Westshire, the king had not bothered to greet the young monarch and his escort. Edmond's face remained stoic, however.
He motioned towards the gate. “We can see ourselves in. I know the way.” He rubbed his left arm. Several years ago, Edmond had been on the losing side of a battle with a dragon. The beast's venom left him with permanent damage to his arm and shoulder and scarring on his face and neck. Sometimes his injuries made him appear older than his twenty-four years, especially after he exerted himself.
Watching his friend and king suffer through a long trip, only to be ignored at an ally's door, irked Martin. He assumed their trip had a political motive, but Riley snubbed them, and Edmond did not react. Something else must have brought them here.
Martin frowned at his king. “Why are we here?”
“I told you,” Edmond said. “For the tournament.”
Martin shook his head. “May I be frank?”
“Since when do you ask my permission before blurting out your opinion?” Edmond rolled of his eyes.
Martin ignored the barb. “I like a good tournament as much as the next man, but you don’t.”
“What do you mean? I have always enjoyed tournaments.”
“No, you enjoyed competing. You are in no shape to joust or spar now. You have always been a participant, not a spectator, Edmond. Sitting on the benches with old men and ladies will drive you insane. Why are we really here?”
“The treaty with Westshire is important to Regone’s future.” Edmond glanced away from his friend. “Now come. My guards will see that our horses are looked after.”
Martin shrugged and followed Edmond through the jumble of servants hurrying back and forth. They entered the palace through a side door and into a dimly lit hallway.
The passageway opened into a great foyer with sweeping staircases on either side. A round stained glass window in the ceiling flooded the area with purple light.
“Impressive,” Martin said.
“Edmond!” a feminine voice with a lilting accent called out.
A regal maiden of perhaps sixteen years flew down the left stairs, her auburn curls bouncing behind her. She had pale skin, a delicious figure, and wore a scarlet silk gown that suggested a status too high to flirt with a scholar. Martin still pasted on his best smile.
She glided past him, took Edmond’s hand, and pressed it against her cheek. Green eyes gazed up at the young king, and suddenly the reason for their visit became perfectly clear to Martin. He swallowed a grin as Edmond mooned down at the young woman.
Edmond cleared his throat. “Martin, this is Princess Brighid, King Riley’s daughter. Brighid, this is Martin. He is a scholar and a boyhood friend of mine. I brought him along for moral support.”
“Unfortunately, you will likely need it,” Brighid said, wrinkling her nose. “Father has been absolutely wretched since last time you were here, Edmond. I want to tell him about you, about us.” She blushed and dropped her gaze. “However, every time I approach him, he is cranky about something. He needs to be in the right mood for such news.”
“It is my responsibility to talk to him, not yours,” Edmond said, kissing her fingers. “What about your brother? Does he suspect anything?”
She shook her head. “Ryan? No, he’s been away a good deal. There is some rumor of a monster attacking peasants in the far reaches of the kingdom. Father thinks it isn’t worth our worry, but Ryan is concerned about it and has been trying to discern what exactly the creature is.”
“A monster?” Martin’s ears perked up. Now this was interesting. “What sort? A dragon?” Martin had an affinity for dragons.
She shrugged. “We aren’t sure. Father thinks it is just panicky peasants seeing large buzzards, but Ryan says that isn’t likely. They have been arguing a good deal about whether or not such things are appropriate matters for a prince to meddle in.” She drew closer to Edmond. “I have missed you greatly.”
Martin cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose I can find my own way to our quarters.”
Brighid glanced at him then around the foyer. “Father shouldn't catch us together, so I can’t show you the rooms.”
Edmond nodded. “I will see you at dinner.”
“We should be able to slip away afterward. Father locks himself in with awful old men and argues politics with Ryan after dinner, and he never cares what I’m up to.” She squeezed the king’s arm then hurried back up the stairs. Edmond watched her leave, a slight smile on his face.
Martin snickered. “Oh yes, we are definitely here for the tournament, no other reason.” He took a step towards the staircase.
“Martin,” Edmond said earnestly.
Something in his voice made Martin’s smile fade, and he shut his mouth.
“I need you to promise not to speak of this. I haven’t had a chance to ingratiate myself with Riley, and he rules his family with an iron fist. Without his approval, I will never be able to wed Brighid.”
“Of course, Edmond, you can trust me,” Martin said. “You really are in love with her, then?”
“It isn’t that I don’t trust you, but you have a habit of meddling,” Edmond said. “I need to deal with this on my own if I am to gain her father’s respect.”
Martin nodded slowly. “You will have to say something soon. Secrets like this have a way of getting out.”
“I know. My stomach is eating away at itself about it.” Edmond grimaced. “I’m going to try and get him alone after dinner tonight, see if I can frame our union as politically advantageous.”
“Good luck. She is beautiful.”
Edmond smiled. “Yes, she is.” He cleared his throat. “Come on, let’s get settled.”