excerpt of Heart of the Dragon's Realm
Her brother traded her for peace, a hundred swords and ten thousand arrows. She didn’t speak to him the day the guards came to escort her through the mountain pass and to her new home, for she was too furious with him.
“Kimri,” he said, “won’t you even give me a proper farewell?”
She patted her sorrel’s neck and swung herself up into the saddle. They wouldn’t need a farewell if he hadn’t given her away to the mountain-king like market goods. With her heels she told her horse to move on.
Her brother stood squarely in the way. “I had no choice, you know.”
She spared him a disdainful glance. It was true no one dared challenge Helsmont. The small mountain kingdom conducted its affairs as it saw fit—but in the past it had always done so quietly, involving no others. It had been her brother’s messenger who had gone there first, asking what it would take for an alliance between their realms.
She was, frankly, impressed she was worth such a price. But it was one thing for the mountain-king to offer it, and another for her brother to take it.
Dereth sighed and stroked Redwing’s face. “Just don’t try to run away. Ride safely.” He stepped aside.
Her escort waited in the yard outside the stable: half a dozen guards in leathers, standing by their mountain-bred horses. Such a small band from anywhere else would have been an insult, but Helsmont guards were famed as the deadliest fighting force in five kingdoms. Her brother’s warning had been unnecessary. She wouldn’t try to escape these men—
—and woman. One rode among them, but she didn’t seem out of place, not with her short-cropped hair, a scar on her cheek, a sword on her hip and a quiver slung over her shoulder. Helsmont, unlike Anagard, must allow female soldiers.
Kimri rode up to her. “Surety for my virginity?”
The woman fixed her with a steady look. “Any good commandant could ensure that, Princess. King Tathan trusts all of his commandants, and each of them has the obedience of his troop. You would be as safe with any of them.”
“An iron fist.”
The commandant shrugged. “He is the mountain-king.”
“I?” Her demeanor turned formal. “Commandant Beatris. I am charged with your safety until we reach Helsmont and I deliver you into the hands of my king.”
“An onerous duty indeed.” The hint of a smile crossed Beatris’s face.
Kimri relaxed at this evidence of the other woman’s sense of humor.
“The sooner started, the sooner finished,” Beatris said. “You’re ready?”
Kimri patted her saddlebags.
Beatris bowed to Dereth. “By your leave, King.”
“Guard her well,” he said from behind Kimri.
Beatris nodded and then mounted her steed. Her men followed suit, falling into a guard formation as they headed for the gate. The horses’ hooves sounded unnaturally loud in the silence that shrouded the courtyard.
She’d already traded farewells with her few friends and forbidden them to watch her leave. She wanted to maintain her dignity. But as they rode out and their pace quickened, she couldn’t help twisting around. She spied her brother standing by the gate, watching her. It might be a long time before she saw him again. She lifted a hand and breathed a sigh of relief when he echoed the movement. He kept his hand raised even as the distance stretched between them, pulling her heartstrings more taut with every stride of her horse. Then she could make him out no more.
“You should watch your path,” Beatris said, falling back to Kimri’s side. “Your horse could stumble while you look backward.”
“I didn’t tell him goodbye.” But she faced forward again, trying to ignore the pang inside her. She patted her mare’s neck. “Sorry, Redwing.” She’d gotten into the habit of talking to her horse ever since Dereth had become king and had less time for her.
“Apologies aren’t worth much to a broken-legged horse,” Beatris said.
“You’ll notice I was apologizing to a steed who’s walking perfectly well.” She addressed her mare again. “Don’t mind her. I doubt she’s used to having moping princesses under her care.”
“I thought you two spoke in the stables.”
It took her a moment to realize the commandant referred to Dereth. “He spoke. I was angry.” She still couldn’t believe how high-handed he’d been, marrying her off like this. “I miss the time when he was just my brother.”
“He’s young to be king.”
“Our father wed late,” Kimri said, suddenly defensive. “And Dereth has already grown so much older since he first took rule of Anagard. Wasn’t the mountain-king young once?”
“Never,” Beatris said.
Kimri laughed, but a little uneasily. There were many tales of Helmont’s ruler, but none she could recall of the time before him. Her betrothed must be an older man. She’d never seen him or known anyone who had, as he never strayed from his realm. Presumably Beatris could describe him, but Kimri refused to shame herself by revealing any anxiety about her future husband and asking questions about him. The kingdom, though, seemed a fair target for her curiosity—everyone wondered about the reclusive realm.
“Will you tell me about Helsmont?”
“What do you want to know?”
“They say it’s guarded by the dragon who lives in the mountains.” They said the mountain-king had tamed it and set it to this task, but that couldn’t be true, for no man could defeat a dragon.
Beatris quirked her brows. “It keeps other kingdoms, like yours, from invading.”
“The dragon or the rumor?”
Beatris smiled slightly but said nothing.
People also said a dragon slept in the river dividing Anagard and Kenasgate. The ferrymen made propitiations before the first crossing of each morning, and it hadn’t stirred for decades, according to the stories. She didn’t know how much longer the mountain-dragon had been quiet, and what the king had done to keep it so.
“What of the people?” Kimri asked.
On this subject, at least, Beatris proved more forthcoming. “It’s a small kingdom. Our king knows everyone. He trains with the guards. He helps parents name newborns if they’re too addled with joy.”
“He’s kind, then.”
“Not in practice bouts.” Beatris fingered her shoulder as though testing a bruise. “But he does well by his people.”
“And he lets women become guards.”
Beatris glanced sharply at her. “He lets them follow their paths.”
Except the odd princess of another realm, apparently. He’d demanded her as bride and not even paid her the courtesy of a courtship visit. Where was his vaunted tolerance when it came to her? But she bit back those words. Kings did strange things in hopes of heirs. Hadn’t Dereth mentioned he was considering courting that widow, some noblewoman who had already borne two children?
Instead she asked, “Can I talk to your men? I’d like to get to know them.” Perhaps one of them would let something slip about their king.
Beatris gave her a measuring look, then nodded. For the first time Kimri felt she had won the other woman’s approval. “If you want to speak with the rear guard, tell me and I’ll switch his position.”
The guards were all flawlessly polite and answered questions easily, although they asked few themselves, making their conversations rather one-sided and difficult to nudge toward her intended topic without asking outright. She ended up learning more about them than about the mountain-king: Borhin of the scarred hand and quick smile, Cheyrit with his easy balance in the saddle but stammered words, mild-eyed Damano who wore his hair in a single long braid...
By nightfall, when Beatris called a halt so they could set up camp, she still knew next to nothing about her betrothed.
They saw to their horses, ate a simple meal of pottage and then bedded down. They were taking the most direct route to Helsmont instead of wending their way through villages, and no one seemed to expect that she might prefer an actual bed to a bedroll on the hard ground, especially after a full day’s travel. Was this how it would be in Helsmont? Not a care for her comfort or wishes.
Despite the chill of the autumn night, her weariness let her slip quickly into the oblivion of slumber. Only when they reached Helsmont’s border several days later did her dreams become restless, while the mountain and the future it held loomed over her.
* * *
She couldn’t breathe. She floundered out of the shreds of one nightmare into another. A callused palm pressed over her nose and mouth, silencing her frantic cries. She grabbed her assailant’s wrists to pry them away and he uncovered her mouth, only to force in a wad of cloth before she could shout for help. She tried to twist away from whoever knelt by her bedroll, but he kneed her in the stomach and she went limp. He took the opportunity to wrap her in a blanket, trapping her limbs. Hands seized her, and then he swung her over his shoulder to haul her away. She bucked.
“Damn it! Hold still,” the man hissed as he lurched.
She threw all her weight to one side, bringing them so far off balance that her abductor cursed again and lowered her.
The blanket had slipped, so she flung back an elbow that crunched into her assailant’s face—mostly through luck, for she could barely see in the darkness. He cursed and shoved her away. As she fell she grabbed his leg, pulling him down. Then she scrambled to her feet, yanking the cloth out of her mouth and spitting out its leftover taste. Around her men shouted and swords clashed.
She dropped to her knees and checked for a weapon on the man she’d just taken down. When he tried to grab her, she threw her fist into his kidney. He gave a soft oof and strained for air, but still had the presence of mind to roll away just before she could pull the sword out of his scabbard.
“Damn it, hold still—” She bit back a sudden laugh at her echo of his own words. He gave a snort too, with the little breath he had.
She used the brief distraction to push him into another roll, bringing his sword back into reach. She snatched it up as he reached for her, but before he could grab her, she set it at his throat. They were both breathing hard, making the point of the blade waver dangerously near to nicking his skin.
Her opponent subdued, she took the opportunity to look around. She couldn’t make out any faces, but even with only twilit silhouettes she could tell who wore full armor and who had been rousted out of a bedroll. The Helsmont guards fought well despite their disadvantage in numbers, and even as she watched the scrimmage began to subside. She saw Beatris dispatch a man. Kimri looked back at her own captive. Am I supposed to kill him too?
He must have seen it in her face. He sucked in a breath and shouted, “Ransom!”
As though on cue, the sounds of battle ebbed. She heard footsteps and fading cries as men fled.
Beatris strode up, slicking the blood off her blade. The banked fire lay behind her, making her a looming shadow in the darkness. “And who are you to demand to be ransomed?”
He hesitated. “Herrol of Kenasgate.”
Kimri tightened her grip on the hilt. So Kenasgate carried the war even here. Wasn’t it enough that their relentless attacks had forced her brother into asking for arms from Helsmont, and trading her in return? Apparently not—they’d even sent the eldest living son of their king.
Beatris eyed him. “Fortunately for you, I suspect my king will have some interest in you alive. You’ll come with us to Helsmont. I have your word you won’t try to escape or cause us any harm?”
“The word of a man who attacks at night.”
Herrol offered his open palms, defenseless against the accusation.
She sighed. “Samir, watch the princeling.”
Kimri pulled the sword away. The rush of battle had worn off, and her hands shook. “He wanted the mountain-king to believe my brother had never sent me, I suppose, and for Dereth to believe you hadn’t delivered me safely. Anagard and Helsmont at war would make things easier for Kenasgate.”
Herrol did not deny it.
Someone lit a lantern and brought it over to them, then took a guard position over the prince.
Beatris turned to Kimri and took the sword from her with a brief but searching glance. “You look unharmed. I didn’t think you could take someone down like that.” She jerked her head toward Herrol.
“I grew up with a brother,” Kimri said, still winded. “When my father was off fighting, I talked him into a few lessons by saying the Kenasgate army could arrive anytime and I’d need to protect myself. I didn’t realize how true I spoke.” She glanced at Herrol and saw blood on his face. “Did I hurt you?” She tried not to sound too viciously satisfied.
Herrol gingerly touched his face. “I think you broke my nose.” His voice was muffled.
“Good. As long as you can walk,” Beatris said.
He didn’t seem put off by this callous assessment. “My men?”
“Three down, and the rest fled. There was no point in continuing the attack if you couldn’t overwhelm and silence us all, was there?”
“You were better prepared than we expected,” he admitted.
“If Helsmont hasn’t warred for years, prince, it’s not because we’re afraid to. It means others are afraid of us.”
Beatris turned brisk. “Once we’ve organized the mess you’ve made of our camp, we might as well move on. It’ll be at least dawn by then.”
Kimri decided she resented the ambush more for the sleep she’d lost than anything else. But then Herrol said quietly, “May I mourn my men?” and she remembered lives had been taken.
The commandant nodded curtly to Samir. “Let him see their bodies.”
She made arrangements for her own injured guards. None had died. One sentry had taken a knife across the cheek that left the skin and layers of flesh open. The Kenasgate soldiers had been trying for his throat to silence him.
“They frightened off the horses first, which distracted our guard,” Beatris said. “We’ll have to round them up.”
Kimri followed her to the picket line, now near-deserted. “I can help.”
“No need— Hunh.” Beatris regarded the only horse left, who calmly returned her gaze. “That’s your mare, isn’t it?”
Kimri stroked Redwing’s nose, praising her effusively for staying. “I’m good with animals.”
“Very well. Go with Cheyrit. I don’t want anyone else getting ideas about snatching you away, not when you’re under my protection.”
And formidable protection it was. Judging by the trampled ground, there had been a fair number of men in Herrol’s troop. It was hard to make out the hoof-tracks amidst all the footprints, especially in lantern light, but the guard Beatris had assigned to her knelt only briefly and then nodded to the east. “That way.” The hesitation in his speech had vanished.
They found clusters of horses, all of them nervous and sweat-slicked. She coaxed them to her one by one, soothing them with gentle words until their ears flicked toward her. They let her stroke their necks and lead them back to the hastily repaired corral for a quick grooming.
She found Beatris. “Most of them should be walked, since they’ll be tired from running in panic.”
Beatris eyed her. “Except yours, which didn’t run, hmm?”
She spread her hands in innocence. “You should train your horses better.”
The commander grinned. “If our king didn’t want you, you’d have a place in our stables.”
She spoke the words as a compliment, and Kimri managed not to bristle at the idea of a princess serving as a stable hand. It’d probably be a more interesting life than that of a king’s consort, anyway.
They didn’t build a cairn for the Kenasgate men. Herrol protested, but Beatris said, “Let at least the wild things have something out of this night. You’ve gained nothing, and I’m not sure we have either,” which silenced him.
They moved onward as soon as enough pale light came over the horizon for them to see by. Even exhausted, she found her nerves too frayed from the ambush to relax. She twitched at every unexpected movement until her mare snorted her displeasure at the spastic behavior of her rider. Kimri apologized and looked around for Herrol so she could glare at him. He walked between two guards a bit ahead of her, oblivious to her dark look.
Unable to resist the opportunity to taunt him, she overtook the latter guard so Redwing walked next to the prince. “So what do you think your ransom-price will be?”
“Not too high, I hope, or my father will never pay it.” He didn’t look at her, but his voice sounded serious enough.
She swallowed her next barb. Herrol had a younger brother, and perhaps the king of Kenasgate was considering making him heir instead. She couldn’t imagine the king being willing to leave his son prisoner otherwise. It couldn’t be a pleasant position for Herrol to be in. Losing her taste for gloating, she gave a careless shrug. “I’m sure the mountain-king won’t ask for much. He’ll be desperate for anything he can get after paying my exorbitant bride-price.”
He choked and gave her an amused glance. “No wonder King Dereth wanted to marry you off. I can see how much trouble you must’ve raised in Anagard.”
“Yes, now I can just cause it in Helsmont.”
“That’s what I’d hoped to do.”
At least he was honest about it. “How did you find out about the alliance?”
“You wouldn’t believe we simply happened to be riding through the pass and seized our opportunity?”
“There are always loose tongues,” he said. “Even in a place guarded as well as Helsmont.”
Her estimation of him rose. It was no small feat to place a spy in Helsmont. Dereth had tried. The first man had been tricked onto a horse who then carried him out of the pass, oblivious to his commands. The second had been simply told there was nothing to be said whenever he asked a question, even about the price of a loaf of bread. Dereth had given up after that.
“You’ll have to be well-watched, then, so you can’t get word to your spy.”
He sighed. “Foolish of me to have warned you.”
“Oh, I’m sure the mountain-king appreciates such helpful ransom-prisoners as you.”
Before he could come up with a retort, he tripped on a protruding tree root. The group came to a stop as he picked himself up, muttering curses. “I’m fine,” he said through gritted teeth before anyone asked, and resumed walking.
But the prince must have injured his ankle, for he began to favor one foot. His limp grew more pronounced as they went on, until she winced on his behalf with every step he took. She halted her horse. “Get on.”
He looked up at her. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll take control of the horse and accomplish what I came for?”
She scowled. “Do you want something else broken?”
His mouth quirked, but he didn’t move.
Impatient, she said, “I’m the lightest rider here, and Beatris isn’t going to call a halt to redistribute the weight on the packhorses for your sake.” Besides, she was curious about the prince.
He laughed soundlessly and took her offered hand, swinging easily into the saddle behind her.
As soon as he settled into place, she wished she hadn’t insisted. What had she been thinking, asking the prince of her homeland’s enemy to ride behind her? But telling him to dismount again would be ridiculous.
At the very least she could glean some information from him. She sought a safe topic and settled on the one that had preoccupied her throughout this journey. “Tell me about Helsmont.”
She’d caught him off guard. “What?”
“I’ve never been there. And I don’t have a conveniently planted spy, either.”
“His reports were mostly concerned with military matters,” Herrol said cautiously.
She huffed in exasperation. “No one can tell me anything useful about it. I’m almost coming to think it’s a mythical place.”
“It might as well be. It’s shrouded in legend as much as fog.”
Fog. She sighed. She liked sunlight and green woods. “What about Kenasgate, then?”
“You have to stop trying to ferret military secrets out of me.” When she twisted around to make an indignant reply, he laughed. “I know what you meant. What did you want to know?”
She thought for a moment. “What do you miss?”
“You’re assuming there’s something that I do miss.”
“Truly? Nothing at all?” She already ached with longing for familiar people and surroundings. Mostly Dereth.
“It’s been constant raiding for me. I barely remember my home.” But he relented after a few moments. “As a boy I liked to play near the river by the dragon’s spine bridge.”
Her memories didn’t reach that far back. Her father had installed archers on the riverbank by that bridge early in her childhood, when the war between Kenasgate and Anagard had intensified. Herrol tactfully didn’t mention this fact, however, and instead reminisced about how he had led an unlikely cabal of nobles’ and servants’ sons alike into various scrapes.
He reminded her of Dereth, who probably would have done the same if he hadn’t been kept busy by his unruly sister. She had heard the king of Kenasgate was intractable, but for a moment she allowed herself to entertain the notion of their two realms meeting in peace after Herrol took the throne. He didn’t strike her as a bad sort, at least when he wasn’t trying to abduct her.
The air grew thinner as they traveled onward and upward. Beatris began riding closer to her and with a warier eye. She’d heard of how some folk didn’t fare well in these higher climes and she occasionally found herself short of breath, but otherwise felt fine. Her worst complaint was of the creeping cold that led her to roll herself up in her cloak before going to sleep. Not even Beatris’s laconic, “Get up, caterpillar” in the morning dissuaded her from the practice.
Herrol didn’t fare as well, developing a throbbing headache and spells of dizziness that had Beatris threatening to tie him into the saddle. It was no idle threat, either. She brought out a length of rope.
“You’re not going to truss me up like a lamb for the spit,” Herrol protested.
“It’s a long tumble down,” Beatris said. “Will your king pay ransom for a pile of broken bones picked clean by birds?” She gestured upward at the eagle circling them as though already anticipating carrion.
Herrol paled but set his jaw. “So thoughtful. I’ll walk.”
Beatris shrugged. “Keep your hand on a pack-horse’s lead and try not to drag it over the edge with you. And I’ll notice if you try to slip away.”
He set his jaw. “I gave you my word.”
“Some temptations overcome even the most honest men’s honor.” It was clear she didn’t include Herrol among their number.
Although sympathetic to Herrol’s suffering, Kimri welcomed the delays he caused. It put off her fate a little longer.
But although their path steepened and took them into even thinner air, Herrol’s ailment eased after a few days. In good time, too, for they had to wend their way along a precipitous drop with room for only one abreast. Kimri kicked a small pebble over the edge and watched it fall a long way down.
“We’ll have to walk our horses from here,” Beatris said. “Ours are used to this path, but will yours cope?”
Kimri stroked Redwing’s muzzle. “She will.” She couldn’t help feeling a flare of pride when Beatris simply accepted her word.
They made their way past the cliff safely and crested the next peak. Her eyes widened and she leaned forward to get a better look. Their way lay gently downward now, and she could see the city of Helsmont tucked in that valley, named for the kingdom as all capitols were. They had nearly arrived.
An eagle’s shadow passed over them as though in omen: the rest of her life would be spent overcast by these mountains. Her stomach churned, but she swung herself into the saddle when Beatris did and let the guards close around her as they rode forward.