Teaser Tuesday: THE CROWN AND THE DRAGON

Another Tuesday, another appetizer of a new book, this time the opening chapter of a recent release from WordFire Press, THE CROWN AND THE DRAGON by John D. Payne, the novel based on the soon-to-be-released fantasy film from Arrowstorm Entertainment.

Click here for a link to the movie trailer, for an added teaser before you start to read.

In a country ruled by an occupying foreign empire, Elenn, an arrogant young noblewoman, accompanies her aunt on a mission to bring an ancient relic to the secret coronation of the rightful king of their people. When her aunt is murdered on the road by passing soldiers, Elenn hires a smuggler and criminal, Aedin, to escort her across the dangerous country so she can take her aunt’s place at the coronation. But when Corvus, a rogue magister of the empire, employs a dark magic to retrieve the ancient relic for his own evil designs, Elenn must find the humility and strength within herself to fulfill her aunt’s calling to unite her people before the power of the relic falls into the hands of the empire.

The novel is available in print and in major eBook formats.

Prologue

Ethelward Barethon thanked the Gods for the rain that lashed Drumney Beach and washed away the stink, sweat, and blood of battle. It did make it hard to see, though. Ethelward pushed long, wet strands of graying hair out of his face with his gauntleted left fist, wincing slightly as the motion pulled open the cut on his cheek.

“My lord,” said Meilyr, pointing, “the snake.” Ethelward had known this grim-faced man only two hours, but already thought of him as his lieutenant. Combat made fast friends. And strange friends.

“Curse these old man’s eyes,” said Ethelward, straining to see through the rain and the smoke of burning ships. Then, the momentary illumination of a lightning strike revealed distant figures atop a sandy knoll almost a mile down the beach.

“Vitalion!” Ethelward breathed, as the telltale metal scales of their armor gleamed with reflected lightning for an instant.

“Lord Barethon, what shall I tell the men?” Meilyr asked. Standing behind them on the bluff were about three score men from every corner of Deira, waiting in ragged lines for his next command. The motley assortment—none of them his own clansmen—had rallied to his red Laird’s cape in the confusion of battle.

Stroking his moustache, Ethelward frowned. To gain victory he knew they had to find the heart of the invading Vitalion army and rip it out. But where was the enemy’s heart? Ethelward had seen no sign of the serpentine standard indicating the presence of the legion’s commanding officer.

“You’re sure you saw the snake?” he asked.

“Aye, my lord,” said Meilyr.

From his clothing and speech, Ethelward knew the man to be from Renonia—the peninsula closest to the Vitalion empire. Renonian treachery was proverbial in Deira, but in the last hour the man had proved himself as faithful as any Wulfling clansman. Ethelward nodded, vowing to himself to offer Meilyr a place in his service if they both survived the battle.

“Then we attack,” said Ethelward. “Have the men form ranks, five deep. Leave no able man behind.” It pained him to quickly abandon a position that had cost them dearly to obtain, but he would need every sword and spear he could get to cut through the mess on the beach below and reach the knoll.

Meilyr bowed and turned to gather the warriors. “Men of Deira are bold,” Ethelward’s brother liked to say, “but they need shepherding.” And staying together was especially essential in a storm like this, where rain poured out from unnaturally green clouds, and wind and thunder drowned out all but the loudest shouts. In the flood of war, individual men would be subsumed, no matter how valiant.

As Meilyr shouted at the men, rousing them to stand in ragged ranks, Ethelward surveyed the beach below. Through driving rain, and a thick, tarry smoke that stank of sulfur, Ethelward looked in vain for a clear path to the knoll. Knots of scale-armored Vitalion soldiers organized in neat formations were surrounded by leather-clad Deiran warriors led by Lairds in red capes. Brightly colored and elaborately decorated with the insignia of house and personal honors, the capes were sometimes the only things that kept the Deirans fighting in units.

But these units were mere islands of order in the swirling chaos of a battle that had gone beyond any one man’s control. Horsemen rode up and down the beach, launching arrows from the saddle or riding down individual enemies. The air was full of the ring of swords, the clash of shields, and the screams of wounded horses. Men, too, voiced their cries of pain and terror—fighting, fleeing, striving, dying.

The invading Vitalion had circumvented Deira’s fortified strongholds by landing here, near the fishing village of Drumney. So, instead of fishing boats, today the beach was crowded with massive galleys, several of them burning. Before the scale-armored invaders had managed to get ashore, they had been met by thousands of howling Deiran warriors, ready to defend their homeland. The ensuing melee was a complete shambles, the sort of disordered combat that favored the fractious and unruly defenders.

This was all because of one man—Ethelward’s brother, King Elfraed. His cape and his fame had gathered warriors from every clan and every village in Deira. His intuition had set the motley army marching out of nearby Tantillion castle, in the rain, at night. And Elfraed’s heedless charge, the instant the Vitalion were spotted, was followed by every man, exhausted though they were.

It was a bold stroke, but many of the galleys had escaped to sea, including almost all of their auxiliaries, cavalry, and machines of war. Ethelward was sure they were off shore somewhere, waiting to rejoin the battle. To the east lay nothing but unforgiving rock cliffs, but perhaps they could find safe harbor further west. The treacherous Lairds of Rhona had always been happier dealing with the Scales than with their fellow Deirans. At this very minute, Vitalion heavy cavalry could be riding north to Tantillion castle, cutting the Deiran warriors off from their stronghold.

Ethelward had lost track of his brother, which was nothing new. As a boy, he had sworn to protect little Elfraed, but his brother could not be restrained. His boldness had won glory for clan Wulfling, and titles and lands for house Barethon. In recent months, Elfraed had wooed Ethelward’s bride—sweet Maiwenn—by writing daring epistles in his name. Elfraed never listened to people who told him what couldn’t be done, which was how he’d been acclaimed king. But sometimes his rashness left him in impossible positions—from which it was Ethelward’s duty to rescue him.

Ethelward turned to face his men, pulling back his cloak to let the rain fall in his face. A blow from a Vitalion mace had robbed Ethelward of his bronze helm near an hour ago. He felt naked without it, but he had not found a replacement.

“Brothers in battle,” Ethelward shouted, “hear me.”

The men turned to face him, their faces tired and anxious.

He stretched out his left arm toward the battlefield. “As the Gods send their rain to wash our lands, our king has charged us to scour Drumney beach clean of the invaders.”

There was a murmur of assent from the assembled clansmen, some of whom banged their weapons against their shields or shook them angrily.

Ethelward drew his five foot great sword and lifted it to the sky, which showed no sign of lessening its wrath. “For Elfraed! For the king!”

Several of the warriors took up his cry, but Ethelward was sad to see that not many warriors were moved by love of king. Perhaps he was too far south. Trying a different approach to rouse them, loyal Meilyr stepped forward with spear raised high and shouted, “Kill the Scales! Death to the Vitalion!”

Their response was louder this time. This was something on which they could all agree. But after a morning of bloody combat, they needed something stronger yet to get them back on the battlefield.

Ethelward gripped his great sword in both hands and thrust it heavenward with all his might. “For Deira!” he bellowed. “For home!”

The men roared the words back to him. And, for a moment, Ethelward’s voice stuck in his throat, as he saw in his mind’s eye the face of his new bride, Maiwenn, more than twenty years his junior. They were so newly married, he had not even told her parents.

“For wives and children!” he bellowed, sweeping the sword down toward the beach.

The echo of the men was like crashing thunder as they followed him down the bluff and onto the beach. They fought with fine fury, like bears, scattering the invaders before them. But Ethelward wanted them to fight carefully, like wolves. A horse would have made it easier to lead them, but his horse had been lost to Vitalion pikemen on the eastern bluff.

Ethelward kept them together the best he could, but when they reached the other side of the beach, their numbers were half what they had been. A score of scale-armored Vitalion invaders stood beneath the knoll, their spears and shields facing outward. Bodies from previous attacks, many pierced by javelins, lay in a ring around them. Above them, Ethelward saw an enemy officer whose purple cloak had been slashed nearly in half. At his side was a bony little Sarinese shaman, covered with tattoos. Dressed only in a loincloth, the shaman shivered in the wind and rain.

Ethelward could not tell what sort of devilry the two men were doing up there, but the bodies of a dozen good Deiran men lay on the ground around them. Sulphurous smoke rose from a bonfire, so pungent that Ethelward wondered how either man could breathe. Chanting, the shaman raised a glittering knife skyward.

“By the Gods,” shouted Ethelward, “let us wipe our land clean of this filth!”

Meilyr, his lieutenant, bellowed a battle cry and led the charge up the slippery, muddy slope, his spear flashing in the dim light. Though marked with wounds, the Scales resolutely crowded in and locked their shields.

As Meilyr felled one of the invaders, Ethelward saw an opening and dashed in before they could close ranks. As he rushed through, he saw no living man standing between him and the top of the knoll. The enemy officer, heavily armored in scale mail and a great helm shaped like the head of some fearsome, toothy creature, watched the shaman perform his ghastly ritual. Judging by the gold thread in his mangled purple cape and worked into his ornate breastplate, he must be a Tribune—or even a Legate.

As the shaman finished the ceremony, handing the ceremonial dagger to his master, Ethelward raced up the hill. He held his great sword high, and shouted a wordless battle cry. Above him, the gleaming metal figure of the Vitalion officer glanced in his direction. Quickly, casually, the officer seized the Sarinese shaman at his side and threw him into Ethelward’s path.

Surprised, Ethelward jerked his sword arm out instinctively to protect himself. The blade struck the shaman under the arm as he flew toward Ethelward, but it caught there and was wrenched out of Ethelward’s hand as the shaman continued to tumble down the slope.

Quickly looking behind him, Ethelward saw he had not been followed. His warriors still fought with the Vitalion soldiers, but none of them had been able to penetrate that ring. He was alone atop the knoll with the Vitalion officer, who drew his falcata—the heavy, sickle-curved sword of the legionaries.

Eyes stinging from the stinking smoke, Ethelward stooped to retrieve a great sword trapped under the body of one of his Deiran countrymen. Both hands tugging on the sword’s hilt, he couldn’t help but notice that the body was wrapped in a red cape which bore the insignia of House Barethon: a fox-tailed wolf with a barley scepter.

Tall and imposing, the Vitalion advanced with an air of unhurried deliberation, but Ethelward was desperate to free the sword and arm himself. He kicked the body over. The dead man’s chest had a terrible wound, and his face was frozen in a rictus of terrible suffering, a mask of pain and fear and death—but it was still recognizable. It was Elfraed. His king, his brother.

Dumbfounded, Ethelward slipped in the mud, tripped over his own cape, and only narrowly avoided falling backward and rolling down the slope. The misstep probably saved his life. The whistle of a blade passing just overhead tore him from his shocked stupor, reminding him that he had more immediate concerns.

Above him, the Vitalion officer smiled in the obscurity of his massive helm as he stepped over Elfraed’s red corpse, his falcata held lightly, easily in front of him. Ethelward snatched up his brother’s great sword, dodging another thrust from the officer.

“Agony,” the enemy officer intoned, speaking Deiran. His voice was a powerful baritone, calm and rich and completely assured. Despite the noise of battle and the storm, it carried clearly and powerfully and resonated in Ethelward’s ears.

“What?” said Ethelward. Why were they even talking? Ethelward knew he should have been on fire to fight the man who had slain his brother. But something about his smiling confidence turned Ethelward’s guts cold.

“What you saw in his face,” said the Vitalion, stepping forward purposefully. “Agony is the word, is it not?”

Ethelward scrambled back and to his right. He needed to move around the invader, to seize the high ground. But that was where the fire was, and the caustic smoke that stung his nose and throat.

“We need the agony,” said the Vitalion officer patiently. “We need their blood to sing. It must call out, you see, or this will all have been in vain.” His heavy sickle-sword darted out as he advanced.

Coughing, Ethelward struggled to parry. His lungs burned. How was this disturbing man not affected?

“Only suffering can give this sacrifice meaning,” the Vitalion said, his voice more melodious than ever. “Then out of this death will emerge something beautiful, something miraculous—a wonder which has not graced this land in centuries.” He paused, his face reverent.

“Monster,” growled Ethelward, swinging at the enemy officer. But he evaded with fluid grace and hacked at Ethelward’s face, quick as a snake despite the heaviness of his backwards-curved blade. Ethelward brought his sword up just in time.

“You should thank me,” said the invader. “All you poor, savage children. But you lack perspective—even your king, so-called, who I was told was a man of vision.” He sighed. “Nothing but another ignorant barbarian.”

“That was my brother!” cried Ethelward, lifting Elfraed’s great sword. But as his blade reached its apex, the Vitalion caught his eye, and Ethelward froze, unable to look away. There was something horrifying about the man’s face, dimly seen in the recesses of the great helm, behind its metal teeth—like a wolf opening its mouth to reveal a human face inside.

Ethelward trembled. His arm shook. His fingers gripped his brother’s sword until his nails dug in to his palm. This man had slain his brother, his king. This man stood between him, and his sweet bride, Maiwenn. But somehow Ethelward could not even bring himself to step forward. Quivering, helpless in the rain, he wept, his heart overflowing with rage, sadness, fear.

The Vitalion officer laughed. “You are even more pathetic than your brother. What do you call yourself, barbarian?”

“Ethelward,” he mumbled, after a moment’s sullen silence.

“A barbarous name,” said the invader. “I am Volusus Flavius, called Ambustus. Legate of the Ninth Expeditionary Legion.” He stopped, tilting his head slightly. “Do you feel it, barbarian? The change in the air?” He took a deep breath, his left hand wafting air to his mouth and nose as if to taste it.

Ethelward tasted nothing, felt nothing. He was aware that salty rivulets of rain and sweat and blood were washing down his face, but it was a distant knowledge, and dim. Despite the sting, he did not close his eyes or even blink. He merely watched, slack-jawed, as Volusus raised his arms to the clouds in exultation, rain running down the length of the falcata, dripping off his tattered purple cape and exquisitely gold-filigreed armor to the wet sand.

“It awakens!” Volusus said fervently.

Lightning struck the knoll and thunder exploded all around them. For a moment, Ethelward found himself both blinded and deafened. He staggered back, and tripped. While he struggled to disentangle himself, his sight slowly returned, and Ethelward realized that he had stumbled over his own brother’s body.

Wrath filled him, crowding out the fear. Ethelward rolled to recover his sword, just in time to dodge another hack from the Vitalion’s blade. Leaping up, Ethelward knew that he must not look into the invader’s face, lest he fall under the same paralyzing spell again.

Setting his feet and raising the great sword with both hands, Ethelward kept his eyes low. As Volusus slid closer, Ethelward realized that the man was neither tall, nor powerful. But his heavy, curved falcata was still sharp and deadly, and Ethelward had a difficult time fending it off with his own much longer blade while avoiding his adversary’s hypnotic gaze

“Afraid to face me?” Volusus laughed. “Then how will you face that which comes after me?” His curved sword flicked out, finding a gap in Ethelward’s ring mail and slicing into his left thigh.

Ethelward swept his sword out before him, but the enemy officer had already slipped away. Ethelward stepped forward, testing his leg. The wound was not grave, but he would need to shift his stance.

“Poor fool,” Volusus murmured, as he circled around Ethelward. “Slow of speech, and slow of mind.” He feinted with his sickle-shaped sword, probing for an opening.

“Shut your mouth,” Ethelward growled. He jabbed out, but the attempt was clumsy and the invader danced out of reach

“Impotent child,” taunted Volusus, “unable to think of anything but its own trifling hurts.”

Ethelward grimaced. The pain in his leg was anything but trifling. A burning pain was crawling up into his gut, like a fiery serpent. Was he poisoned?

The Vitalion officer lunged forward, his curved sword hooking around Ethelward’s and nearly tugging it out of his grasp. Ethelward stumbled backward, trying to master the crippling pain in his lower body. He cursed aloud. Why was he fighting so poorly?

Smiling, his enemy pressed his advantage as Ethelward parried awkwardly. “You waste your strength,” he said, his words piercing. “This battle is lost.”

Ethelward’s vision dimmed. Black despair seized his heart. He felt a crushing weight on his shoulders and chest. He sank to his knees, his hands trembling, losing their grip on Elfraed’s great sword. “Forgive me!” he gasped.

“Can the cobra forgive the rat?” Volusus asked, laughing. “No. But I will give you a most merciful respite.”

And in that moment, Ethelward knew that he had been struck not by a poisoned blade, but by a poisoned tongue. It was another spell. Calling out for divine protection, Ethelward rose to his feet, ignoring the wound in his thigh.

“Call on your feeble gods,” said Volusus. “They cannot save you.”

Ethelward resisted this attempt to draw him into conversation. Instead of replying, he sang a grim battle hymn to drown out the invader’s venomous words. Holding the sword in front of him like a spear, he pressed forward with a series of mighty thrusts, never ceasing his song.

The Vitalion officer retreated, putting the bonfire between them. Ethelward lifted one rain-soaked sleeve to protect his mouth and nose from the vile smoke. Then he dashed around it, marveling that even with a wounded leg he could outmaneuver a man who had moved with such fluid grace just moments before.

Singing even louder, Ethelward hammered down, like a smith pounding hot steel. His enemy gave ground as Ethelward’s punishing sword blows pushed him down the slope, toward the sea. Ethelward could not see either his men, or the Scales. Their fight must have taken them in another direction.

“You may strike me down,” said Volusus through clenched teeth. His parries had become weaker and weaker, and his footing was as halting and unsteady as an old man’s. “But your brother will still be dead and gone.”

With a wordless scream, Ethelward swung with all his might. Elfraed’s great sword plummeted down like a hawk diving for the kill. It broke the Vitalion officer’s sickle-shaped falcata and split his monstrous helm in two, knocking him to the wet sand.

Through the blood that streamed down the man’s scalp, Ethelward saw white hair, and a face that was lined and worn. The waves lapped up around the invader as he sprawled in the surf.

“I am slain,” muttered Volusus, his breath labored, “by an uncouth and unworthy imbecile.”

“No,” said Ethelward, “you are slain by the brother of Elfraed, king of Deira, which land you will soon defile no more.”

“But no matter,” said Volusus, as if he had not heard. “New life comes from all this death.” His eyes regarded Ethelward at last. “You will be witness to its birth.”

“Enough,” said Ethelward, breaking the gaze and raising the great sword.

“You have seen the truth, barbarian!” Volusus cried. Then he shrugged. “And so you have nothing to fear from me.” He smiled. “I’m just the midwife here.” He laughed, but it turned into an ugly cough.

“You speak in riddles,” Ethelward mumbled. His tongue felt thick. His wet hair had fallen into his eyes.

“How the ignorant hate knowledge!” Volusus spat. “Can’t you feel it, barbarian? Can’t you feel the change?”

“Shut your mouth,” said Ethelward, roughly. But he felt uneasy. Gritting his teeth, he fought the urge to look around, and lifted his sword once again for the death blow.

“Have you not observed that the rain has ceased to fall?” said Volusus.

Ethelward realized that it had. The wind still swirled and the sky was still darkened, but the rain had stopped.

“Look!” said Volusus. “I will show you a great mystery.” He lifted up one metal-scaled arm to the sky, unfolding his fingers slowly, as if releasing a butterfly from his grasp. Dark clouds were gathered, the odd green hue still noticeable. Lightning struck the knoll behind them, and Volusus cried, as if in pain.

“I should have been up there,” he moaned. “Oh, inglorious end…”

“If it is death you crave,” said Ethelward, “I will grant your wish.” He plunged his sword deep into the Vitalion officer’s side, sliding it between the metal scales where his breastplate did not protect him.

Volusus gasped in pain, but his smile grew even wider, and his face shone with ecstasy. “Beautiful!” he said, softly. He reached out to the clouds, his fingers grasping. “The light! It consumes me! I am… reborn!” Then he went slack.

Ethelward freed his sword, pushed his long, wet hair from his face, and rolled the Vitalion’s body into the sea. Then he walked back up the knoll until he reached the bonfire. Braving its acrid smoke, he kicked it apart, revealing charred hunks of meat in it. Ethelward remembered the terrible chest wound on his brother’s body and was sickened. Turning away, he searched the bodies on the knoll until he once again found Elfraed. Closing his brother’s staring eyes, Ethelward said a quick prayer and surveyed the beach.

Everywhere, the Scales fled, pursued by the thirsty blades of ferocious Deiran clansmen. Some were driven into the sea, where they would drown in their heavy armor. The battle was finished.

Ethelward raised his sword high and cried, “Victory!” as loudly as he could. A few battle-weary Deirans scattered across the beach echoed him, raising their weapons high in like manner. Victory.

And still so much still to do.

Ethelward wanted to ride north to his bride, but the surviving Vitalion soldiers had to be harried, or they would regroup. And someone would have to find the escaped Vitalion galleys, or send messengers to warn the Lairds of Rhona and all the Renonian coast.

With Elfraed gone, there was no one else to rally the clansmen and rouse the lairds. No one but Ethelward. Though he could not take up the crown until he could assemble the Council of Knights, Ethelward was king now. His people needed him.

As he started down the knoll, something caught Ethelward’s eye. “What is that?” he muttered to himself. In the midst of the green-black clouds, surrounded by crackling lightning, a fire burned. Had the clouds parted? No. What he saw in that gap was not the blue arch of the heavens, but flames—orange, yellow, red, blue, and even green.

So, there was a hole in the sky, and on the other side was an inferno, pouring out its evil vapors to add to the thickening storm clouds. Volusus and his shaman had been burning the hearts and livers of Deira’s finest and bravest as a sacrifice, to what evil powers Ethelward knew not. But as he remembered the Vitalion officer’s talk of birth and midwifing, he feared he would soon know. The victory was not yet won.

Running down the slope, his red cape streaming like a banner, Ethelward waved his sword and shouted. “To me! For King, for clan, for country! Sons of Deira to me!”

His tone must have communicated urgency, for all over the battlefield, Deiran warriors turned away from their individual labors—harrying the Scales, looting the dead, caring for the wounded—to rally to his side.

Lairds on horseback and their lieutenants and banner men emulated him, shouting to their own clansmen to make ready, as riders shepherded the men into place. They faced the sea—perhaps assuming the Vitalion galleys were attempting another landing. But as no enemy presented itself, they milled around in confusion, hundreds of men, all speaking at once, many of them pointing at the sky.

Ethelward flagged down a passing horseman and commandeered his mount. Standing in the stirrups atop his borrowed steed, Ethelward faced the men, holding his brother’s great sword high. The lairds and banner men shouted for quiet.

“Sons of Deira,” Ethelward called in his loudest command voice, “by the grace of our Gods and the strength of our arms, we have defeated the Vitalion here today. But there remains a greater labor to perform, and I—”

Ethelward stopped talking. The faces of the assembled Deiran clansmen no longer regarded him, but were turned up to the sky above them. In the dim light, Ethelward could see a stir of movement in the storm clouds, as when a great fish swims through murky waters, disturbing them with its passage. Then, from the nightmarish rent in the dark clouds above, a shadowy, serpentine form emerged.

As the rent closed, a terrible cry pierced the air. Ethelward had never heard anything like it, not even the scream of an eagle over Lough Aislinn. The winds lashed his hair and cloak with increasing force, and he was pelted with rain and sleet. The cry came again, louder this time. There was a great clamor as the men panicked, some of pushing their way to the edges of the crowd, trying to get away.

“Stand fast,” called Ethelward. “Stand fast!”

But even as he called the order, Ethelward saw a blur of motion as the shadowy form again descended out of the dark clouds. It spiraled down in great circles, shrieking its unearthly cry as it came. A dragon.

Chaos reigned on Drumney beach, as clansmen fled in every direction, trampling each other underfoot in the rush to escape. Horses screamed in terror, throwing their riders and galloping away, heedless of what lay in their path. Ethelward was thrown from his own borrowed mount, landing heavily in the sand.

The dragon bore down and scattered the last remnants of Elfraed’s Deiran host. Regaining his feet, Ethelward shouted commands, but it was to no avail. All about him, men fled for their lives. Ethelward wanted to do the same, to run and run and never stop until he was in dear Maiwenn’s waiting arms. But kings cannot flee.

So instead, Ethelward walked through the rain, up the slippery slope of the knoll one last time, as all across the beach men screamed and ran and burned and died. He found his brother’s body where he had left it. He kissed its forehead and carefully shrouded Elfraed in his red cape. Then Ethelward lifted his great sword with both hands and prayed.

“Gods of my fathers,” said Ethelward aloud, “let me be an instrument of deliverance and of vengeance, if you see fit to spare this land from the ravages of this infernal monster.”

Above the beach, the dragon rode on the winds of the storm, its great wings spread wide. It was a dark orange-red in color, and glittered like fire’s last embers. Its sinuous body was perhaps twenty feet long, and it moved like a dancer’s ribbon, or like an eel in the water. Ethelward saw legs tipped by glistening talons, and when it opened its fearsome mouth to utter its horrible cry, it revealed enormous silvery-white teeth.

“But if not,” Ethelward continued, “protect my darling Maiwenn. Let her know that I loved her, and that I would have come home if I could.”

The dragon raced up and down the beach, dousing everything in sight in flame—men, horses, and even the Vitalion galleys. The nightmarish black skies poured their rain down, but they washed nothing clean. The beach still burned. The dragon turned and flew toward the knoll, burning and slaying as it came.

“Let me rejoin my brother,” Ethelward said, “in the halls of my ancestors. And let not my people remember my failure, but that I stood here to the last and did not surrender. So let it be.”

He stood, like a statue atop the knoll, his brother’s great sword held ready. The wave of flame drew nearer. Apparently spying Ethelward at last, the dragon darted through the air toward him. As it approached, Ethelward took advantage of his high position and leapt off the knoll, bellowing a wordless war cry, his sword slashing down to cut the creature off at the head.

Impossibly fast, the dragon slipped out of the way, dodging his blow. Ethelward tumbled down the wet slope, and the monstrous creature opened its mouth, engulfing him in liquid flame. In agony, Ethelward Barethon passed from life and was born into unknowable worlds beyond.

***

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