Fourteen-year-old Icabus used to dream about dragons. That was before the nightmares about the man in the well began—before the red ships came. Now, Icabus’s island village is under siege by the Authian King, Furius, and Icabus must abandon everything he knows to the answer the hundred-year-old mystery of what happened to the dragons of Apenninus. But time is against Icabus, and he must act quickly before everyone he loves are transformed into monsters to serve the mad king. Only the mysterious dragon knight, Nubis, can help Icabus find the dragons, but to convince Nubis to help him, Icabus must first prove himself to be more than a boy or a man.
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|Publisher:||Mill City Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.15(d)|
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Urms closed his gills and raised his face out of the water. Behind him, other Gilian began to surface silently in the shadows of the floating trees. Illuminated by the soft glow of their lanterns, their pale, mostly naked bodies appeared elf-like amid the hard roots of the forest lake.
Across the channel, the three ships were moored together fore and aft, forming a makeshift triangle. The humans of Arx Caeli had sent oared warships into the forest lake before, but never sailed merchant ships. Urms was surprised that, with the support of only two oars, they had made it as far as they did.
Two days had passed since the last human cry sounded over deck. What need or desire drove these men into the forest lake, Urms neither wondered nor cared. For those vessels that sought the island at the center of the lake, the path always ended the same way — in silence and fire.
The Gilian spread out, and Urms clenched his fist, drawing the air through his mouth and expanding his lungs. The pain passed as quickly as it had come, and he forced his breath out through his nostrils, severing the membranes there. Blood trickled onto his upper lip, and he washed it away in the lake.
One by one, the other Gilian opened their lungs, and Urms waded silently across the channel, resting his ear against the hull of the nearest ship. The whir of carrion flies sent a tremor through the wood; Urms drew his face away and frowned. "Bring fire and oil," he said.
The floating trees drifted toward the ships, and Urms took the anchor chain in his hands and climbed up over the deck rail. Above Urms, the furled mainsail creaked on its rigging, while the tattered foresail fretted lifelessly in the wind. Blood stains streaked the wooden deck from the aft cabin over the fore hatch railing, where the flies churned the darkness. Their chorus told Urms everything he needed to know.
"Check for signs of life and burn the ships," Urms ordered the Gilian gathering on the adjacent ships.
The planks creaked behind Urms, and two Gilian approached bearing torches. Like others of his Order, these Gilian wore only shark leather shorts.
"Here, Master Urms," said one of the Gilian, handing him a trident and a torch. Already, Urms could feel the moisture leaving his skin. If he stayed out of the water long enough, he would appear almost human.
"Cover the deck with oil," said Urms, crossing the deck and pushing open the door to the aft cabin with his trident. Soiled papers littered the table and floor. Urms studied a map drawn in coal dust on the wall.
"This isn't a map ... It's a battle plan. Get out now!"
A cloaked man appeared in the doorway. Behind him, the torchbearers lay dead, their throats slit gill to gill. Standing over them was a tall man holding a bloody sword.
"Don't move," said the cloaked man, raising his weapon. Dirt and oil covered his bearded face, but his brown eyes blazed bright with starvation or madness; Urms couldn't tell which.
"Who are you?" Urms managed to say.
"I am Atellus. He's Gurges." Atellus glanced askance to the tall man. "Our master, Furius, has been expecting you."
"You will die for this, Atellus." Urms brought his trident to bear.
"You may want to reconsider that," Atellus said.
Urms heard a creak behind him, and the cold touch of a sword point against his back.
"Time to drop that skewer of yours," said Atellus. "I won't ask you again."
Urms dropped his trident and stepped over his fallen comrades. "You're monsters."
Gurges pushed Urms to the edge of the deck, where the three interlocked ships formed a triangular pool at their center. He raised the lake boy's chin with his sword point. "Furius's dreams were true after all. You have gills and everything."
Urms regarded the captured Gilian on the other ships and lowered his eyes in shame. This was his first command and likely his last.
"I expected you to be older. You are from the Order of Arms, correct?" came a raspy voice from behind. Urms tried to turn to the speaker, but Gurges backhanded him.
"Look ahead! Speak," Gurges growled.
"Who are you?" asked Urms.
Gurges moved to hit Urms again, but the unseen man placed his hand between them. "I am Furius. I recommend not struggling."
"What do you want?"
"You'll see. Atellus."
"Toss them over," said Atellus, pointing to his men. The soldiers raised the dead Gilian overboard into the pool formed by the interlocked ships. The bodies floated and were dragged under.
"Good." Furius cleared his throat and crossed the deck to face the forest. "I would treat with Arwa, Queen of the Gilian, for the lives of these prisoners. I will begin executions in ten minutes."
"How do you know of our queen?" asked Urms, quickly casting an eye on Furius.
Furius's face appeared younger than his voice, with the gauntness of a man who might have been tortured or plagued with visions. Unlike his men, who wore leather cloaks and armor over red tunics, Furius wore silver-segmented plate and a red cape held fast across his chest by clasps cast in the shape of wolves' heads.
"I dreamed of her." Furius wiped his brow and steadied himself on the ship's railing.
Near the bow of the ship, the floating trees drifted apart, forming a long channel. A small ship, illuminated by a golden lantern, drifted forward. Standing aft were two figures Urms recognized, Queen Arwa and the shaman, Herms.
"Drop a ladder and get me a chair." Furius pointed to nearest soldiers. "We have guests."
The men did as commanded, and Furius sat motionlessly as Herms helped Arwa over the rail. The shaman's body was covered with intricate scar-like tattoos, hidden only by a loincloth and an assortment of semi-precious stone jewelry. The queen was less adorned, wearing a fitted shirt and shorts of green sea silk and a crown of braded gold partially lost beneath the bangs of her short red hair. Urms saw sadness in the queen's eyes but not fear.
"Welcome, Arwa," said Furius, drawing her attention to him. "I am Furius of Authia. These men are what remain of that brave country. Forgive our scent, savage as we are now."
"You are savage." She glared at the men around her.
"Come, come. Is that any way to treat your host?" Furius regarded her harshly and turned to Herms. "Your scars tell me you are the queen's counselor and head of the Order of Rites. I would recommend you tell Her Majesty to be nice, or I will add more blood to the water."
Herms appeared surprised and whispered in Arwa's ear.
"What do you want?" she asked Furius.
"I think you know the answer to that. Why does any man enter this Gods forsaken place? We seek the island, Apenninus, and the Citadel."
"Passage there is forbidden."
"Yes, I was told you would say that." Furius nodded to Atellus, who stood at his side.
"Minius." Atellus pointed his blade at a short, black-haired soldier on an adjacent ship. Minius stepped forward and slit open his captive's neck. A torrent of blood spilled down the lake man's chest into the water below.
"No!" Urms struggled.
"Shut up!" Gurges silenced him with the hilt of his sword.
"Please." Arwa started forward, and Atellus raised his blade to Urms's neck, staying her. "The Gods will not forgive you," she said to Furius.
"The Gods." The words sounded sour in Furius's mouth. "The Gods forsook me the day I watched soldiers of Arx Caeli burn the castle where my son slept. Shall I execute more of your people?"
Arwa lowered her face. "I will lead you to the island if you release the prisoners."
"That's better, but this is not a negotiation. Seize them."
Arwa took Herms's hands. "Save Urms, find Nubis, trust your vision."
"No, My Queen!"
"I command you." Arwa drew away and ran to the bow of the ship.
Furius's men collided in confusion.
"Get her, you fools." Atellus raised his sword.
Arwa twisted out of the grasp of one soldier and put her foot over the railing before Atellus seized her by the collar. She cried out, and Atellus threw her down onto the deck.
Furius clapped his hands mockingly. "Pathetic, Atellus, truly pathetic. Bring her here," he said.
"No!" Urms shot up, striking Gurges with the back of his head. The soldier stumbled sideways, but before he could right his sword, Herms wrapped Urms in his arms and carried him overboard into the black waters.CHAPTER 2
Wind and rain beat against the window in invisible waves. The house groaned, and Amara clutched Icabus's side.
"Do you want me to take you to Mother?" Icabus asked.
"No, I'm not scared," Amara said, peeking out the parlor window at the forest lake.
"Well, little sister, if you're not scared, then release your death-grip. Here, sit here next to me."
Amara slowly edged around Icabus and plopped down beside him, allowing her legs to dangle over the edge of the cushion. She scooted close until their hips touched.
"Icabus, what do the lake people do when it rains?"
"They go under the water I guess. What do you think?"
"I think they turn into frog fishes." She grinned.
"Really? Like this?" Icabus made his best impression of a fish face.
Amara laughed, and a clap of thunder drove her face into his side.
"You know, if you keep doing that I'm going to bruise. You have a lot of muscle for a four-year-old."
"I'm not fat."
"I didn't say that. Never mind. Look, the trees are dancing on the lake."
Icabus could sense the tension leaving Amara's body.
The hypnotic dance of the trees was the only thing Icabus liked about the rain. Otherwise, it simply meant he was trapped inside. The apple orchards sloping downward from his home to the village of Aggersel were muddy and unfit for play; the northern wheat fields, whose tall stalks normally concealed all manner of mischievous play, were wet and droopy; and in the village square, where young and old came together for gossip and an occasional game of chance, there were only mist and the memory of sunnier days.
Icabus shifted in his seat. There was another reason he disliked the rain that had nothing to do with play. The rain was a warning.
"You know why you must never go out in the rain, Amara?" Icabus asked.
Amara tightened her grip on him. "The Taker Monster."
"And where does the Taker live?"
"In the forest."
"And who lives closest to the forest?"
"We do," she gulped.
"And what does the Taker like to eat?"
"Kids," Amara said. Another clap of thunder shook the house, and Amara clutched Icabus's sides.
Icabus smiled, suppressing his own fear. "Don't worry. No one has seen it since Mother was a little girl. The Taker stays in the forest behind the wall, and we stay out here by the lake. It can't get you even if it wanted to."
"Why don't dragons eat the Taker?"
"There are no more left," said Icabus with a touch of dismay.
Amara looked at him with her large grey eyes. "Mama says there was lots of dragons."
"Were, munchkin." Icabus tickled her.
"Stop it." She wriggled away.
Amara's laugh reminded him of his mother, Lucia's. His friend Cana often joked that his sister got the best features of both his parents, Icabus having inherited his mother's pointy nose and his father's freckles. Icabus was just happy he didn't have his mother's rose-colored hair.
"Mama should get a dragon."
"What does Mother need with a dragon?" Icabus laughed.
"So, so, it can eat the Taker Monster and play castle house with me." Amara grinned.
"I don't think dragons play castle house," he said with a smirk.
Amara frowned. "Yes, they do."
"I think you need more friends."
"I have friends." She jumped down from the couch and ran to the corner of the parlor, where three hand-stuffed dolls sat at a miniature tea table. "This is Ara, this is Rada, and this is Stuffy Face. She is sick today."
"I rest my case." Icabus put his feet up and brushed his brown bangs away from his face. Amara sat close with Stuffy Face in her arms.
"Why do the trees float, Icabus?"
"They're hollow, and their roots weave together like little islands."
"Does our island move, Icabus?"
Icabus smiled. "No, we live on a real island at the center of all the other islands. Our island is called Apenninus."
"A-poo-ninus," Amara laughed.
"You're silly. I didn't say poo."
"Poo Island." Amara threw back her head in laughter.
Icabus shook his head. "You're ridiculous. Why don't you go bug Mother?"
"No. I want to wait for the red ships."
Icabus touched her nose. "The ships I told you about were just in a dream I had."
Amara shook her head and pointed to the window. "Uh-uh. The red ships are here."
Icabus looked over Amara's shoulder, and his words left him. Emerging from the mist and rain were the furled masts of three ships mounted with red standards. They crept out from the lake into Aggersel's Bay.
Icabus got up and pressed his face close to the window. "Mother! Father! You're going to want to see this!"CHAPTER 3
Come on, Father, I want to go with you." Icabus handed Atius a lantern from the dock and shielded his eyes from the sun. "These ships look abandoned."
"No, Icabus." Atius climbed out of the rowboat. "Stay onshore with your mother and sister."
"Why can Vescus go and not me?"
"Vescus is not my son. Besides, he's sixteen."
"Wow, two years older. That's nothing. What about my dream?"
"The one where the men on the red ships kill us all? That's not a very good argument to let you come."
Icabus turned to his mother, Lucia, who shook her head. "Ugh! This is ridiculous." He threw up his arms and stomped off.
Lucia lifted Atius's cloak onto his shoulders and helped him fasten it across his neck. She touched the short sword attached to his belt. "Is this necessary?"
Atius eyed the growing crowd and lowered his voice. "It's been a hundred years since the Gilian let any ship cross the forest lake. The last time the Elders even spoke with them was a decade ago. I'm taking every precaution."
"Does that include us?" Mattia called up from the boat.
"You keep my husband safe with that bow of yours, Mattia." Lucia smiled.
"Don't worry," Mattia tipped his archer's hat in her direction, "Vescus and I will keep him safe."
"My fearless and only volunteers." Atius raised his eyebrows at Lucia.
"That's right," Vescus spoke confidently. Mattia messed up the boy's black hair, and Vescus pushed him playfully. The boat rocked.
"Stop!" Piscius steadied himself. He had the rosy complexion of a man taken by cider. "I think we should be off. I'm not partial to the sun."
Atius leaned forward and kissed Lucia's cheek. "I don't think he's partial to anything," he whispered.
Lucia bit her lip, and Atius climbed down into the rowboat. He pushed off the dock pole, and Vescus took the oars, angled the boat in the direction of the ships, and rowed.
Atius pointed. "Pull up alongside the nearest of the three ships."
"They look like merchant vessels." Piscius shaded his eyes. Arrows and other signs of battle scored the wooden hulls.
"What's that smell?" Vescus pinched his nose shut.
Mattia and Atius shared an ominous glance, and Piscius gagged over the edge of the boat. Vescus rowed up alongside the lead ship, where Mattia took hold of one of the broken arrows protruding from the hull. Mattia tied Piscius's anchor to his rope and tossed it on deck. He pulled it back, fixing it firmly against the railing.
"If that's not recovered, I will add it to my share," Piscius noted.
Mattia stood up and tugged on the rope. "If there's nothing to salvage, will you take it from our hides, Piscius?"
"Can't a man do a good thing and expect fair reimbursement?" Piscius spoke with offense.
"We appreciate your help." Atius patted Piscius's shoulder. "Let's work together. Aye?"
"Aye." Mattia turned away.
Piscius hesitated. "Aye. I suppose someone must keep us all together. And if I have to do it, I will."
"Hush," said Vescus, placing his ear to the hull.
"What is it?" Atius leaned near.
"Scratching ... I'm not sure."
"It's probably just an animal." Piscius waved his hand dismissively.
"Let's find out." Mattia shimmied up the side of the ship and threw over a rope ladder.
"Thanks." Atius tested the ladder. "Are you coming, Piscius?"
"I will stay here with the boy and protect the boat. We'll be ready for a quick departure should anything happen."
Vescus stood. "Can I come onboard, Atius?"
"No, stay with Piscius till we have a look around."
Vescus sat down with a disappointed look, and Atius climbed over the railing. Streaks of dried blood covered the deck, and Atius stumbled back against the rail.
Vescus shaded his eyes. "You alright, Atius? What do you see?"
"Nothing. Keep watch." Atius covered his mouth and crossed the deck to the fore hatch, where Mattia stared into the darkness.
"Do you think anyone could be alive down there, Atius?"
Atius didn't answer.
"I wouldn't go down there. You might wake the dead," came a voice from behind.
Atius drew his sword and stepped in front of Mattia. Three men stood in the doorway of the aft cabin.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Black Scales"
Copyright © 2019 James Rudolph Agapoff IV.
Excerpted by permission of Mill City Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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