In Dragon Heart, Cecelia Holland, America's most distinguished historical novelist steps fully into the realm of fantasy and makes it her own.
Where the Cape of the Winds juts into the endless sea, there is Castle Ocean, and therein dwells the royal family that has ruled it from time immemorial. But an eastern Empire has risen, and its forces have reached the castle. King Reymarro is dead in battle, and by the new treaty, Queen Marioza must marry one of the Emperor's brothers. While Marioza delays, her youngest son, Jeon, goes on a journey in search of his mute twin, Tirza, who needs to be present for the wedding.
As Jeon and Tirza return by sea, their ship is attacked by a powerful dragon, red as blood and big as the ship. Thrown into the water, Tirza clings to the dragon, and after an underwater journey, finds herself alone with the creature in an inland sea pool. Surprisingly, she is able to talk to the beast, and understand it.
So begins a saga of violence, destruction, and death, of love and monsters, human and otherwise.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||8.30(w) x 5.80(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
CECELIA HOLLAND is widely acknowledged as one of the finest historical novelists of our time. She is the author of more than thirty novels, including The Angel and the Sword and The Kings in Winter. Holland lives in Humboldt County, in Northern California, where she teaches creative writing.
Read an Excerpt
By Cecelia Holland
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Cecelia Holland
All rights reserved.
Jeon could hear his sister screaming all the way from the other end of the cloister, and beside him the abbot was fumbling with a set of keys. Jeon wheeled on him.
"You've locked her up? How dare you lock her up!" He strode down the walkway toward the heavy door, which Tirza's wails pierced like knives through the wood.
"My lord, she is uncontrollable; she screams during prayers, she hits us —"
"She is a Princess of Castle Ocean." He tore the key from the monk's hand and thrust it into the lock. "You'll suffer for this, Abbot."
As Jeon turned the key in the lock the screaming stopped. He swung the door open, and there sat his sister, cross-legged on the cot, staring at him.
She burst into a huge smile and, stretching her arms out, leapt to her feet and ran to him, this funny tiny girl, with her wild red frizz of hair, her dusky skin, her huge blue eyes, who looked nothing like him but was his twin. He gathered her into his arms.
"My dear. My dear one."
She nuzzled him, clinging to him. She came only to his shoulder, slender as a twig, like a feather in his arms. Her hair smelled of the sea dew that flavored her bath. She wore only a long shift; he looked quickly around for other clothes, for attendants, and turned on the abbot again.
"This is an outrage."
"My lord, my lord." The abbot was bobbing up and down like a bird. "We did not know — we did not expect —"
Tirza was pulling away from Jeon, brushing her wild hair back with both hands. She gave him an intent look, and went straight out the door and through the hedge there onto the sunlit grass at the center of the cloister, and stood there, raising her hands and her face into the light and the air. Jeon said, "You mean, you didn't think we would care what happened to her." He went after his sister, now turning slowly around on the grass, her arms raised over her head. "Tirza, come along." He had to find her something to wear.
She came up to him, her eyes direct, and tugged on his cloak. "Ah," he said, and took it off, and she wrapped it around herself, her gaze never leaving his face. She gave a low, mushy growl. Her brilliant blue eyes rounded, asking something.
He had always understood her better than anybody, some shared mind. "Oh," he said. "Yes, we have to go home. Mother wants us all there. She is being married off again."
Tirza's whole face flared with temper. She shook her head at him.
"I'm afraid so. Another of the Emperor's brothers. Nobody likes him, not even Mother. And he has two sons of his own. Whom he has brought with him to Castle Ocean. You won't like them, either."
She shook her head at him again, she clenched her fist, and her mouth opened, and he put his hand over her mouth. "No, Tirza. Not to me."
She shuddered. Turning, she walked quickly away, and he caught up with her in a stride and took hold of her hand. Her fingers closed tight on his. They went on down the walkway, silent. At the door, he said, "I want to leave directly. I came overland, but there's an Imperial galley here that's on its way to Castle Ocean. That can take us home, and fairly quickly, too. The abbot has orders to pack your things. Didn't you have any women with you?"
She aimed a brief, flashing look at him, and he laughed. Six months in this place had not subdued her, and he was beginning to enjoy the idea of seeing her meet the new putative stepfather. Outside the cloister, Jeon's men waited by the wall with the horses. They bowed to him, and then also to Tirza, murmuring some greeting. Bedro was the closer of the two and bowing put him within reach, and she patted his head like a dog's.
Jeon left Bedro to collect her baggage, put her up behind his saddle, and with the other man riding in front of them to clear the way they went down through the market. Santomalo covered both banks of the river here, its rows of red-roofed houses rising up the gentle hills from the beach. The sun was high and the harbor glittered, full of ships. He pointed toward the galley drawn in against the long wharf. "That's the ship we're taking. They're trying to map the seacoast out to Cape of the Winds and then south, I think."
She was holding on to the back of his belt as they rode along; she leaned forward, looking toward the harbor. The street turned steep down into the market, a field of different-colored awnings, noisy and busy with people. Jeon's man called out and the crowd parted to let them through. Someone called out, "Monkey woman!" Jeon felt Tirza let go of his belt and swung his arm around behind him and gripped her fast. She leaned on him, snarling. They wound through the bazaar, past the rows of casks, the braided strings of onions and garlic, the bleating lambs in their withy pens. As they passed the lambs, Tirza bleated back. That she could do, make any noise but words. They were coming to the wharf.
"This is the Emperor's galley, remember," Jeon said lightly. "And the Emperor's captain." He reined up his horse on the bank beside the wharf, and she slid down to the ground, looking all around with her intense blue gaze. Jeon dismounted; his man came to collect the horse. There was no room for horses on the galley and these would go back overland. He was interested in the galley and glad to have a chance to sail on it, and he stood a moment running his eyes over it, seeing how it was built.
The galley was long and thin, with a high curled tail and a pointed head, laid against the wharf like a great wooden blade beside its sheath. The crew had gone off. No sails hung from the long diagonal yards and below the deck the oars were shipped inside the portholes, their leather sleeves like pursed lips. Down there, under the deck when the lips were plugged with oars and all the men were pulling at once, that space had to be a hot and airless hell. He stepped out onto the polished, honey-colored deck and turned to help his sister, whether she liked it or not.
The captain bustled importantly toward them. Like all the Imperial men, he put much effort into appearances. He took off his hat as he came, made a deep obeisance to Jeon, and faced Tirza.
"My lady, welcome. Whatever we can do to make your passage agreeable, you need only speak." He reached out for Tirza's hand and she drew back from his touch. With a gesture toward the foremast, he said, "You see we have made arrangements for your comfort." Still trying to grasp her hand, still bowing. Around the foot of the mast, several layers of light cloth hung suspended, enclosing a space hardly big enough to stand up in. She backed away from that, bumping into Jeon, and swatted at the captain's reaching hand. A string of barks and growls issued from her.
"My lady." The captain goggled at her, his arm dropping to his side.
Jeon said, "My sister is mute. She does not speak." To her, he said, "Go inside for now, Tirza." He had a firm grip on her arm; she was half-naked and he was determined to get her out of sight. She obeyed him, moved into the little silken room, and the veils fell between them.
* * *
She was not mute. She talked, but nobody understood her. She had said Jeon's name, back at the cloister, and he had only frowned at her, uncomprehending, his own beloved name.
She sat on a cushion in this new, prettier cell, liking the way the sun shone through the veils of the walls. One was lavender colored and the light lay on her hands like a weightless wing. She thought over what he had told her, that they were forcing her mother to marry again.
They had tried this once before. Her mother had poisoned that one on their wedding night. She wondered why the Emperor did not take the point.
The chest with her things pushed in under the bottom edge of the silky wall before her. The same unseen hands whisked the veil quickly down again. It was a warm day, and she was comfortable enough in just the shift, but if she went out like this Jeon would make her come back inside. She unlatched the chest and got out a long dark gown. Through the wall she heard someone talking, close by, and then Jeon spoke. She pulled the gown on over her head, let the laces dangle, and went out onto the deck of the galley.
Jeon and the captain stood there in the beak. The captain had a long roll of parchment in his hands, and as she came up he spread it out before them on the rail where the gunwales came together.
She looked on curiously. The monks had had such parchments, which they marked carefully with black curling lines. This was not like that: this showed more of a picture. On the left-hand side was a busy clutter of zigzags, which she knew at once were the hills behind Santomalo; on the broad expanse there was a big cross in a circle, which meant the Empire.
To the west, the picture narrowed to a single feathery line, and that line soon vanished into nothing. On the far right side, another big upright zigzag.
The captain jabbed his finger at it, and said, "That is Cape of the Winds."
She understood now, and she almost laughed. They had set down this swarm of lines to mean the world, then. But they had left out everything that moved, the wind and the waves, light and the dark; they had turned the myriad shapes into one shape, as if they were the same forever, locked on to their parchment.
In the blank spaces, the maker had drawn little pictures, as if he could not bear the emptiness, a sword, a four-pointed star, a bird, a whale, a dragon.
The captain was saying, "You see the problem. None of this is charted." His hand swept from the busy edge across the blank space. His voice was stiff. "I'd like to wait for more ships, make up a fleet."
Jeon said, "Nothing ever was charted, until someone did it. Get a chart maker and take him along."
"I can't even find a man who will pilot us along this coast." Again the captain swept his hand over the chart. He looked up with a frown, toward where the line between the land and the sea swept away straight into the west. "And Cape of the Winds is famously treacherous. Post Sanctum Malum malum, they say."
"How did you get here?" Jeon asked.
"Down the river," the captain said. "That stream I know, every current and every rock and where to put in for the night. Not ... this."
Her brother put his hand down on the middle of the parchment, as if he would seize it. "Then we will be the first."
"My lord. With all possible respect —"
"Let's go," Jeon said. He turned, saw her, and smiled at her. "I can't wait." He put out his hand to her. "Come, pretty sister; we shall walk along the deck together."
* * *
The first day, with the wind fair, they sailed out of the estuary of Santomalo and along the coast westward. On the leeward side they passed by a white beach covered with driftwood. In the evening they put into a little cove for the night and the whole crew went ashore, where they built a bonfire. Their shouts came faintly across the water to the ship. Jeon and Tirza sat on the deck, and he opened up his pack and got out their supper.
"This is another kind of invasion," Jeon said. "The ship, I mean. The damned Empire. The castle is full of soldiers. Luka will only go in and out of the castle by the seaways, so he doesn't have to pass by the guards at the door." Jeon put down his cup and took the flagon and filled it again. The sea breeze patted at them in little gusts. The moon was full, half-drowning the stars. Before them on a cloth the remains of their dinner: fish bones and tails, bread crusts, bits of cheese. Off on the shore the crew moved around their bonfire, settling down in the dark, like sleeping sea cattle. The long, narrow ship rocked gently against its anchor. Tirza was sitting next to him, her head tipped back toward the moon.
"Too bad we have no musicians," he said.
She sighed. She loved music; she let out a stream of noise that sounded a little like music.
"Anyway, Mother has refused, so far, to go to the altar, for all kinds of reasons, but mostly because she wanted all of us to be there. For a while Luka was gone, out to sea somewhere, you know how he is, but then he came home, and all she could do was claim that she could not marry until you were home, too."
Tirza gurgled, maybe a laugh. Jeon drank more wine, leaning on cushions. "I doubt this will make her like you any more, that she has to marry when you arrive."
She nudged him, and she did laugh. Between her and their mother much evil lay, which seemed to bother neither of them. He wondered, as he often did, what understandings Tirza had locked up behind the voice that would not work. He would never know what she thought, nor what she believed. Now she was looking away, the moonlight bright on her face, and babbling, perhaps meaning music. He felt a wash of loneliness, although he had her by the hand, as if he reached through a hole in the wall that surrounded her.
* * *
This is beautiful, Tirza thought, and shivered.
They had been sailing west for days, now, every night putting in to sleep in some new place. This was the next new place. A wide, placid bay stretched out before them. The eastern edge rose into a long, dark line of hills, the shore curving deeply away beneath a palisade of sheer black rock, until it swung another arm out again into the sea. Shielded from the rough ocean, the water ran dark blue toward the beach, turned pale blue and green in the shallows, foamed white at the edge. Below the foot of the palisade the constant moving margin of surf separated the water from an arc of pale brown sand.
The crew had hauled down the great triangular sail. The galley stroked steadily in toward the land, the oars rumbling in their sockets. She leaned on the gunwale, looking down over the side. As they passed over the clear, green-blue water, she could see dark clumps in the depths: reefs and rocks. There was a reef directly below their boat now, the lumpy stone waving green with seaweed and alive with fish.
The broad bay was empty, desolate. On the shore, no huts showed, no smoke rose, there were no signs of fire pits or trash. No ships rode on the sheltered water, and no trails climbed the far green slopes.
Yet as they drew closer, all along the clean pale beach, in the driftwood, she could see the sun-bleached ribs and planks of boats. Some of these chunks of wood looked burnt. Down on the bottom in the clear blue depths, as the men rowed steadily across the bay, she saw a boxy stern and part of a thwart poking out of the sand. Nowhere was there a sign of a living man, except those newly come, but everywhere she saw shipwrecks.
She saw fish, also, everywhere, great schools of them. Their silver backs blended into the pale bottom and she found them first by their shadows on the sand. A seagull wheeled above them, screeching. She thought, for an instant, she caught a note of warning in its voice.
Jeon came up beside her. "Isn't this lovely?" He was still a moment, his face grim. "I hate that they are coming here."
She said nothing, thinking of the parchment and its lines. They would turn all this into lines, too, while she and Jeon, who should protect this place, did nothing. The captain strode up the ship, calling out orders. Three men ran up to the foremast, to take down the slantwise yard. Along the sides of the galley, all the oars but two rose dripping, cocked into the air, and withdrew through their ports into the hull. The galley glided through the calm water toward the beach, the front oars rising and falling in a slow rhythm.
She felt the boat under her quiver slightly.
The captain bellowed, "Steer, will you? What's wrong with you?" He went down amidships, cursing.
From the stern came a wail. The ship hit something under the water; Tirza staggered, and when the deck tipped steeply up she slammed down into the rail.
Jeon sprawled across the deck. She flung out an arm to catch him; he struck the mast and rolled out of her reach. The ship careened sideways. The captain staggered and came up against the mainmast, buckling her house of cloth around him. Tirza was holding tight to the rail with both hands; a sailor rushed past her and dove overboard. She twisted, looking for Jeon, and saw him huddled facedown under the stern rail.
She felt her grip on the gunwale slipping. She hung over the rail. A wash of salt water broke over her. She rocked back up again into the air, gasping. Below, the water was churning and leaping, thrashed to madness, and then up through the chaos came the dragon.
Excerpted from Dragon Heart by Cecelia Holland. Copyright © 2015 Cecelia Holland. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm left ambivalent. I wish I could give 3 1/2 stars. The possibilities were great. A royal family with some connection to the sea. Wish that had been made clearer. An evil empire trying to take over at any cost. People dying/being murdered left and right. A castle that is alive and seemingly sentient. A potentially fascinating young woman who cannot speak, but has somehow never worked out any form of communication with anyone, even her siblings. And a dragon. A character of great ambiguity. Is he evil? Good? Amoral? So many pieces, but the whole couldn't contain them satisfactorily for me. I think this might have worked better as several stories with each covering one aspect of the story-line.