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Eric sat on the edge of Trog's bed, violent images of war and death lingering on his mind like maggots on a festering wound.
He'd been there since before dawn, incapable of sleep, nightmares zapping his eyes open whenever he closed them. He could only relive the horrors of the past month so many times without wanting to bash his head against a wall.
The sounds, the images, the smells. They never went away. He hung his head and fought against the sobs begging for freedom. What did he have to do to make it end? What did he have to do to not hear the castle walls exploding into oblivion, to unsee the vacant expressions of the dead, or worse yet, the ones who wished they were? How much longer would he have to endure the sudden stabs of pain in his back, a reminder of where Einar's talon plucked him from his horse like a fish from a lake?
By all rights, he should be dead. That should have been the punishment for failing in his duties as a squire. It didn't matter if he helped rescue the king from the dragon's clutches or that he fought valiantly to save his master in battle. The fact remained the dragon still lived, and David, the paladin and savior of Hirth, lay ill and unresponsive in his suite for the past two weeks because of him. Because he'd failed to protect. The sorceress, Slavandria, tried her best to console him, telling him David's comatose state was not his fault, that the sickness remained a mystery to every healer who visited. But Eric knew better. Trog was right. He was nothing more than an inept fledgling, and if he'd done what he was supposed to do, David wouldn't be wandering in his own darkness.
For the past fourteen days, Eric cursed his fate as he threw all his anger, frustration, and anguish into clearing the castle grounds. He rarely spoke to anyone, ate even less, and would often spend his nights in the forest beneath the stars, hoping something — someone would find him and remove him from his misery. But every day, he woke to birds chirping, the endless rattle of wagon convoys weighted with people and supplies, and a prevailing sense that all would be right with the world.
But not all was right with the world. Einar was out there, waiting, plotting, and the next attack would be far worse than the first. More would die, and once again, he would be called upon to defend his home and his people. Would he be able to do so? He didn't know.
Eric thought talking to Trog would help. Put some perspective on death and destruction. On war. After all, Trog had seen his share. But as Eric watched him sleep, he couldn't bring himself to wake him. The man had been through hell and back, risking his life for king and country.
And his son.
Eric fought back the surge of emotions. Out of everything that had happened since Einar attacked, finding out Trog was his father was about the same as swallowing a piece of pie laced with glass — sweet, but cutting. Trog said they'd hidden the truth to protect him. Perhaps, but a betrayal was a betrayal, regardless of the reasons.
Still, the man almost died for him, would have died for him, without giving it a second thought. Eric was not sure he could do the same. Sure, he fought when necessary, when he needed to save his own skin or impress his master, but to purposefully sacrifice his life for the life of another? That was another story altogether, and one he hoped he would never have to write.
In the corridor, booted footsteps and raised voices drew closer. Eric jumped to his feet as Sir Farnsworth burst through the door, his clothes disheveled, as if slept in all night; his hair wild and unkempt. Behind him marched four, pointed-eared Duwan guards donned in green leather armor, their dark hair long and silky about their shoulders, their expressions stern and vacant.
"What's going on?" Eric asked. "Why are they here?"
"They're arresting him."
Farnsworth glowered at the guards as they attempted to rouse Trog from his sleep.
Eric rolled his fingers into fists. "What? Why?"
"Sedition. Treason. Whatever ludicrous charge the mages can come up with."
"And you're going to stand there and let them? Are you mad? You know what they'll do to him! He won't survive one night in a mage prison. Look at him!"
"It's all right, Eric," Trog said, wincing as he stood. "I've been through worse."
Eric's gaze fell to the sutured wound that pinched and puckered the man's skin. How he'd survived the shadowmorth attack boggled the mind and defied all magical and human comprehension. The wound, spanning Trog's chest from armpit to navel, remained vicious and angry, refusing to mend despite all of the healer's potions and sleeping elixirs to keep Trog relaxed and comfortable.
"But you've done nothing wrong!" Eric said.
"Since when did right and wrong ever exist among the political elite, Eric? They need a symbol exemplifying their power. I'm it."
Eric clenched his fists, his every nerve on fire as the guards shackled Trog's bare feet. How dare they not give him the decency of a shirt and shoes! He lunged forward, his fingers prying at the Elven hands restraining his father. A guard shoved him to the floor.
Eric scrambled to his feet and charged again, but Farnsworth's grip, like bands of iron, dug into his forearm. The knight spoke low, his breath warm on Eric's ear. "Stop acting an ass and alert the king. Tell him what has happened. He'll know what to do. Go."
Eric rubbed at his arm. Of course. The king!
He sprinted from the room to King Gildore's apartment where two sentries he'd never seen before stood guard.
"Move!" Eric said, his chest rising and falling. He had no time for politeness. "I need to see the king! It's urgent."
The guards shouldered together. "His Majesty is not to be disturbed."
"He'll want to be disturbed for this, now get out of the way!" He shoved at the guards, his muscles screaming as he struggled to push the men apart.
"Be gone with you!" The sentries tossed him by his armpits across the landing.
Eric smashed against the wall.
Hammers pounded in his brain.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
Through the pain, his gaze settled upon a porcelain vase studded in rare gems perched on the table beside him. Clambering on his hands and knees, he snatched it and hurled it at the apartment door.
The guards ducked. The vase shattered. Precious jewels scattered everywhere.
The door to the apartment flew open. King Gildore stood in the threshold, his face pinched. "What in blazing dragon's breath is going on out here!" "It's this page, Your Majesty," said one of the guards. "He is unruly, refusing to listen."
Eric hastened to his feet. "I'm not a page, you imbecile!" His eyes met the king's. "Your Majesty, I apologize for the intrusion, but you've got to come. They're arresting Trog."
The king shoved his way through the two sentries. "Who is arresting Trog?" "The Duwan. They're in his quarters as we speak."
Gildore's sky blue eyes turned deep as a storm. "The High Council? They're here? Damn those warlocks!" Gildore stormed into his suite. "I told them not to step foot in my castle." He tore his sleepshirt over his head and threw on black trousers, a plum shirt, and soft leather shoes. "How dare they think they can insert their authority anytime they want!" He stormed from the room, shouting for the guards to find Slavandria.
They were met by an advisor on the sixth-floor landing.
"Your Majesty," the man bowed, "the Chancellor of the High Council has requested your presence in the upper courtyard."
"Yes, I'm sure he has."
Gildore rounded the man and continued down the steps, his jaw tight, his eyes dark and focused.
It had been a long time since Eric had seen the king so angry. It was energizing in a way, seeing him so riled. It made the idea of mages being drawn and quartered all the sweeter.
Eric squinted as they stepped into the bright sun and made their way across the courtyard through the crowd gathered around a half-dozen men with lavender hair and sapphire-blue robes — mages of the High Council.
A deathly quiet stifled the air. Even the finches in the hedgerows were still, their morning song squashed into an eerie silence. Eric tilted back his head, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun. Onlookers appeared on the higher balconies as the turrets of the castle drifted in and out of the low, wispy clouds. On the ground around him, nobles, vassals, and townspeople stood together, shoulder to shoulder, their tongues still, their eyes wide.
"What is the meaning of this?" Gildore's voice boomed around the courtyard. "On whose authority do you enter my grounds and demand arrest?" An inhumanly tall and broad-shouldered mage in the center of the group faced Gildore, his lips turned up at the corners.
Eric's breath caught in his throat. Master Pusrig, the pyromancer with eyes of swirling amethyst kissed by liquid moonfire. The lone surviving mage of the kingdom of Braemar.
"They are here under my authority," Master Pusrig said, his voice as thick and gagging as tar. "And might I add, Your Majesty, how splendid you look, considering your ordeal."
"I care less for your opinion of me. Where is my Grand Master Knight and General? What have you done with him?" The mage jutted his finger toward the palace doors. "Why, he's coming now."
Eric clenched his jaw as the guards escorted Trog toward them down the aisle of stone warriors and potted topiaries. Blood dotted the wide bandage now wrapped around his bare torso.
"It's bleeding again," spoke a girl behind Eric. "Why is it bleeding again?" Butterflies skittered through Eric's stomach. He knew that voice. He glanced over his shoulder and set his gaze upon Charlotte, the girl he met two weeks earlier, the day Einar and the shadowmorths attacked them on the Field of Valnor. She'd vibrated a chord within him then, a note no other girl had ever touched, much less played, and now that tune deepened, thrumming in his chest.
He wished he could say it was the way her brown hair melted over her shoulders, or the way her eyes sparkled as blue as the Prill Tides that captivated him, but he knew, deep within, the attraction went much deeper. Even now, seeing her dressed so unladylike in brown pantaloons, a matching vest, and an ivory shirt with puffy sleeves that ended just above her elbows, he remained drawn to her like an ocean to a shore.
Her eyes, however, were not for him, but for David, the dark-haired boy standing beside her — the lauded paladin, summoned to save the world. The savior who almost died.
When had he awakened?
The clash with Einar two weeks before left him a mangled mess. The dragon had broken almost every bone in the boy's body. It took hours for the sorceress Slavandria to fix the damage, and by that eve, David seemed well. But something happened to him mid-night. David turned ill, feverish. He lost consciousness. Both Eric and Charlotte rushed to his side, but the chalky pallor of David's skin resembled Sestian's before he died, and Eric fled, the pain of his best friend's death still too raw.
He would not return to David's side.
Charlotte, however, remained at David's side for the entire duration, and judging by the way she looked at him now, she'd be with him for as long as David would have her.
Eric swallowed his envy and turned his attention back on his father who stood as strong and formidable as a mountain, his jaw squared, his head held high. All thoughts of girls fled from Eric's mind as anger clawed at his throat. He approached the king, his fingers flicking at his side.
"Your Majesty, you've got to stop this. You can't let them take him. He isn't guilty. You know this."
"Shush, Eric," Gildore said. "We've been expecting something like this. We need to play along for now."
The king sidled around him and planted himself before the Duwan guards, blocking their path. His gaze locked with Trog's for a brief moment, before turning and addressing Master Pusrig. "On what grounds is he being arrested? I demand to know the charges."
The pyromancer withdrew a scroll from within a sleeve of his robe and presented it to the king. Gildore unrolled it and began to read as the mage addressed the assemblage. "Sir Trogsdill has been identified as a person of interest in your disappearance and the attack on Hirth. There are allegations he may have conspired with the Dragon King to dethrone and possibly murder your king."
A gasp circulated the courtyard.
"That's a lie!" Eric shouted, anger boiling his blood. How could these mages, these protectors, be so corrupt? Deceiving? Surely no one believed their words, did they? He glanced at the surrounding faces riddled with shock, confusion. Contemplation. His heart ripped in half. No. They can't believe this!
Gildore whipped around and shot him a look that could peel leather off a boot. Eric clamped his mouth shut and looked away as defeat chomped at his sanity. He couldn't let it win. He just couldn't.
Breathe. Just breathe.
Master Pusrig smirked and continued. "As such, all suspicions of treason and sedition must be investigated and tried by the Senate and the Mage High Council."
King Gildore re-rolled the scroll. "These charges are preposterous. Provide proof immediately or release him."
"You will get your proof at trial, which will take place one hour past mid-day today in Avaleen." The mage beckoned the Duwan forward.
Gildore turned and snapped at the guards. "Stay where you are! Sir Trogsdill is not going anywhere with any of you." He faced Pusrig. An air of authority clung to him. "The laws of this land provide that anyone of the royal court accused of crimes against the kingdom shall be incarcerated in this castle until a trial with an impartial jury can take place."
"Your laws are worthless," Master Pusrig seethed, "as the crime in question involves collusion between a human and magical forces. Stand aside."
Gildore's brow furrowed. "No."
Eric swallowed. His jaw ached from gnashing his teeth.
The crowd murmured.
Master Pusrig poised his hands at chest level. Tiny balls of fire danced on his fingertips. "Do not challenge me, Your Majesty, for you will lose."
Eric's heart throbbed against his rib cage. It was coming. An attack, but against who? The king? The crowd? He had to stop it. His gaze fell to Pusrig's legs. Lunge! Knock him to the ground! Gildore's voice shattered his thoughts.
"And what do you plan to do with those? Set me on fire before my people?" Master Pusrig laughed. "Oh, no. Not you. Them."
"Noooo!" Eric wailed.
With a flick of the mage's wrist, a fireball skipped across the ground. Screams ripped through the morning air as onlookers scattered, fleeing like rats through doorways and down the steps to the lower courtyard. A little girl's scream fragmented the chaos as the hem of her shift caught fire. A woman whipped her shawl from her shoulders and beat at the flames.
Eric froze, disbelief spreading like an illness through his body. Why? How?
A spindly boy, not much older than the girl, darted toward the fountain and returned within moments, water sloshing from a wooden bucket in his hands. He doused the girl, took one look at Master Pusrig, and ran, the dropped bucket skipping across the cobblestones before landing at Eric's feet. From the retreating crowd strode half a dozen men, their fists clenched, their eyes as dark and furious as an angry sea.
An undercurrent of fear rippled through Eric. He sucked in a monstrous breath. What to do? There was no way they could win, not with a cabal of mages at Pusrig's command. He had to stop them before they got hurt.
But his legs grew weighted, as if they were nailed down, and the warning on his lips froze in his mouth. Two mages stepped in the men's path, their arms tucked into their sleeves, their faces hidden in shadow by the hoods of their robes. They chanted and their words carried like rolling thunder on a whispering wind. In an instant, the men froze in their steps. Their eyes rolled in the backs of their heads. One by one, they crumpled to their knees, and then tipped face first into the unforgiving cobblestones, their bodies still.
Eric's nerves twitched. He drew a deep breath, his heart struggling like a bird trapped in a chimney. How dare the mages attack innocent people! He forced his legs to move and took a step.
Gildore jerked him aside and faced the pyromancer, his face red, his eyes fuming. "So this is how you get what you want, by assaulting the humble? The meek?"
Master Pusrig smirked. "That will depend on you. Are you willing to put them all in danger for one man?"
Gildore pursed his lips. "Get off my grounds. Now. That wasn't a request. And take your hounds with you."
Excerpted from "Rage of the Dragon King"
Copyright © 2017 J. Keller Ford.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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