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The Silver TalonCHRONICLES OF THE RENÁSU GUILD: BOOK I
By A.J. Cunder
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 A.J. Cunder
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Journey Begins
A gentle snow fell in the land of Farahdin, coating Lodus in white powder as he steered his wagon along a dirt road. He wore a brown jerkin underneath a plain woolen coat, and a wiry, jet-black beard without any trace of gray sprouted from his face like a hedge. His hair was gathered at the nape of his neck, and a small gold ring inset with a sapphire adorned his right middle finger.
A boy sat next to him in the carriage, a thin beard sprinkling his cheeks. His dirty blond hair was cut short in contrast to Lodus' mane. He wore breeches, black boots, and a simple coat. Leather gloves protected his hands, and a short sword with a tarnished silver hilt was housed in a plain leather scabbard buckled to his belt.
Lodus watched the sun fall low in the western sky. "A village lies just ahead. We will lodge there for the night and try to sell our daggers in the morning. If we attract no business, we continue south."
"I wouldn't mind a nice fire and some hot food along with a break from this weather," Arius conceded, rubbing his hands together. The road they traveled ran through the heart of Navarrowood Forest, a smaller province of the larger Roedanth Forest, named after the guardian who had once patrolled the magical woods on the back of a dragon, one of Lodus' legends purported. "Tell me again why they call it Navarrowood Forest," Arius pleaded.
Lodus laughed and ruffled the boy's hair. "All right, that story was always your favorite, so I'll recount the tale of the first dragon rider, or as the elves called him, the first Ryù." He cleared his throat. "Navarro was his name and Faleor his dragon." His voice boomed like the troubadours on feast days. "Together, they formed the Order of the Ryù and gave peace to the villages and cities across Farahdin." Lodus paused as he noticed the grin on Arius' face. "You don't believe in dragons, do you?"
"Everyone knows they only exist in legend, as do the elves, dwarves, and tales of magic you always tell." "Humph," Lodus interjected. "If you don't believe me, well, that's your prerogative. But I'll tell it to you just the same.
"Dragons were the first inhabitants of this land and remained apart from the elves, dwarves, and humans when they later immigrated to the territory we call Farahdin. They were their own separate society, sequestered behind the Rondail Mountain range far to the north. But several thousand years ago, there came a disaster. The ground shook with unearthly violence, mountaintops came crashing down, and tremors ran through the lands north of Farahdin. The crags in the Rondail Mountains where the dragons nested were threatened by this quake, and so too was the elven village just two leagues from Thiafin's Peak. The skies blackened and the heavens opened, raining down hail the size of human heads, shattering the dragons' eggs as lightning forked from the roiling clouds, flickering as it carved vicious furrows in the earth.
"The dragons tried to protect their young, but the hail ripped through their outstretched wings. Many young dragons died, and many eggs did not survive. The thunderbolts blasted nests, flinging earth and rocks hundreds of feet into the air. The sky was too dangerous for flight. Any dragon that ventured near the heavens would be struck down by the merciless lightning.
"The village didn't fare much better. The vicious storm destroyed homes and killed countless elves, the ground splitting beneath their feet. One elf, only twenty years old and named Navarro, was desperate to save his family and friends. The dragon Faleor-at the time unnamed and about the same age as Navarro-also was frantic to save his kin."
Arius interrupted, "Navarro and Faleor were twenty years old? That's not very young."
"For an immortal it is. Elves and dragons will never die from age and often live for centuries, even millennia if they're careful!" Arius narrowed his eyes, but Lodus shrugged off his disbelief.
"In any case, while they both rushed through the mountain passes, they stumbled upon each other, brushing limb against paw. Suddenly, a dream-like trance ensnared them both; the life of the one flashed through the mind of the other. Navarro and the soon-to-be-Faleor became the first dragon and rider pair, the first Ryù, joined together in the time of their most desperate need.
"With Navarro as a focal point, Faleor was able to release his innate magic and stop the hail, abate the lightning that poured from the sky, and cease the destruction that nature had wrought on both the dragon and the elven village. Together, they rescued all of the elves from their mangled homes, ferrying them on Faleor's back over a great chasm that blocked the path to safety. With elven mind power and logic, they helped the dragons rebuild their nests in the quieted air."
Lodus took a breath and wiped the sweat beading on his brow despite the chilly weather. "Without Navarro and Faleor, that village and those young dragons would never have been saved. The dragons of Exoter, the ancient land that was home to the first dragons, were grateful to Navarro and Faleor for their bravery. Seeing the special connection between the elf and the dragon, they decided to form a coalition of riders to protect the land. Taking the Old Elvish word for 'rider of dragons,' they called them the 'Ryù.'
"Collaborating with the elves, the dragons decided to enchant Faleor's offspring to hatch for an elf with the purest heart and noblest intentions. Later, after Navarro forged the Elven-Human Trade Accords, humans were also included as Ryù. When the need for another Ryù was greatest, the egg would hatch, the dragon's birth fueled by the magic that coursed through its veins. Afterward, any egg, so long as it was parented by a Ryù's dragon, would have the potential to unite with an elf or human and join the ranks of the existing dragon riders.
"This arrangement lasted for ages, with the number of Ryù steadily growing. Almost one hundred years ago, however, shortly after Navarro and Faleor vanished from Farahdin, Contemno ascended to the throne, and the dragons began to die out. As their numbers declined, so too did the Ryù. The reason for their decline is anyone's guess, but many speculate that Contemno's kingship may have had some influence."
He was cut short by the sound of horses' hooves galloping on the roadway. Arius jerked his head around. Three of Contemno's soldiers rode toward the wagon, their banners flapping. A black image was splayed across the fabrics, but the rippling motion distorted its clarity. A fourth horse followed behind them, but it lacked a rider. Lodus clamped his mouth shut and kept his head facing forward. His hands tighten around the reigns.
The soldiers grew closer, their horses easily overtaking the steady trudge of the wagon. Their shiny breastplates and red plumes pierced through the light snowfall. Two wore swords on their hips, while another boasted a greatsword slung across his back. All of their faces were stone, similar in their lack of emotion. When they were fifty paces away, Arius saw what was on the fourth horse. A young woman had been trussed up and slung over the back of the destrier. Her hands were bound, and her clothes could barely be called rags. A cloth was stuffed in her mouth, and her hair was dirty and disheveled. She'll freeze to death! Arius thought, a scowl on his face.
The soldiers galloped past, not sparing a second glance at the merchant and his apprentice. The soldier sporting the greatsword locked eyes with Arius as his horse drew level with the wagon. The boy shivered as needles of ice sprouted from the soldier's gaze and pricked his skin. The vibrations from the horses' steelshod hooves reached Arius in his seat, and he blinked. The soldier looked away, and the ice vanished. He and his companions passed, pulling along the woman on the horse, and Arius' eyes followed their path. They were headed for the village.
Lodus brought the wagon to an even slower trundle and looked back. He said quietly, "Contemno's unearthly lifespan has kept him on his black throne from then to now, with no end in sight. But we've had enough legend for one sitting. I can see the light from the village fires."
Arius pursed his lips. Could Lodus' story be true? I mean, everyone accepts Contemno as the ruler of Farahdin, even though he's survived since our great-grandparents' generation. But the part about dragons and elves must be a myth. He asked aloud, "Lodus, why did you grow quiet when the soldiers passed? And who do you think that woman was?"
Lodus glared at him, and then whispered, "Contemno doesn't like people mentioning dragons or elves. It's a good way to get yourself thrown in a dungeon. And as for the woman, she is clearly a prisoner, and prisoners are enemies of the state. They are not something to worry yourself about. Put her out of your mind, lest your tongue slip at the wrong moment."
Arius remained silent as the horse pulled the wagon the last hundred paces to the village boundaries.
THE forest pressed close against the road, the trees' branches groping at the wagon as they approached the entrance. A sentry shouted, "Halt! The City Watch protects this village." The sentry wore a burnished steel helm that obscured most of his face. His deep-set, hollow eyes peered out from beneath the face guard. A gorget and hauberk that had seen battle were fastened around his neck and frame. The three soldiers and the woman were nowhere to be seen. "What business have you in Lenoe Fals?"
"We come to sell our wares to those who are willing to trade. A warm meal and fire would be welcome too," Lodus replied. The snow continued to fall as the sky darkened and the temperature dropped.
"Very well. What wares might ye be sellin'?" The sentry stalked toward the rear of the cart. The steel from his halberd glinted in the light cast by the torches placed on either side of the village entrance. "We City Watch are hired by the king to ensure the peace of his taxpayin' villages. The king be wantin' no trouble. So go on, what wares might ye be sellin'?"
"Daggers. Knives. Weapons. People are always in need of protection. You might want one yourself," Lodus answered, gamely trying to make a sale.
The sentry glanced at Lodus for a moment before opening the back flap of the wagon. "We be having too many liars around these parts," the sentry claimed, as he opened a chest of daggers. He sifted through the pool of knives, rattling the chest. The sound reached the front of the wagon, and Lodus winced. "All right," the watchman finally said. "Ye be permitted to enter. And I'll have to pass on yer offer of sale. Coin be in short supply, even fer employees o' the kingdom."
"Many thanks, Sentry. Perchance in the future then?" Lodus offered.
"Perhaps." The sentry nodded curtly and turned back toward the road.
Arius, quiet throughout the encounter, craned his neck to watch the retreating guard. In the torchlight, black symbols blazed on the sentry's armor. The marks twisted and intertwined almost unrecognizably, but when Arius glanced at them quickly they formed a dragon. The image was similar to that on the soldiers' banners.
"What are those markings on that sentry's breastplate?" Arius asked.
Lodus cleared his throat. "This is a dangerous place to talk about such things. Better save it for another time."
Arius frowned. Lodus watched him for a moment and then relented. "What I am going to tell you, I tell you for your own protection. Speak not a word of it to anyone else, or you may end up like that woman on the horse." His eyes scanned the roadway, and finding no one within earshot, he continued.
"Those symbols mark that sentry as a King's Man, Contemno's elite guard. They are soldiers who have sworn total allegiance to our great and powerful sovereign," Lodus whispered with a scowl. "They are an entity separate from any army division or City Watch. Contemno handpicks soldiers to be a part of his Men and injects them into City Watches across Farahdin. It is his direct link to the numerous organizations throughout the kingdom. King's Men are known to be ruthless to those who oppose their leader. If any City Watch is not enforcing Contemno's laws, ridiculous or impossible as they might be, the King's Men report to Helsguard, Farahdin's capital, and Contemno can orchestrate his punishment."
Lodus adjusted the reins in his hands and looked into a passing alleyway before continuing in a hushed undertone. "Those who defy the king or his Men are often taken away for a day or two. Sometimes they return. Oftentimes they do not."
Arius grunted. There has always been noticeable tension between the government and the people, but when I think of the soldiers on the road and the King's Men's crimes, my stomach roils uncontrollably. He clenched his fists.
"Somehow, I will restore this land to the glorious paradise it was said to have been," Arius vowed.
Lodus chuckled. "A grand dream for the apprentice of a merchant."
Arius only scowled. Somehow, I will.
Chapter TwoA Message in the Night
The buildings of Lenoe Fals leaned to one side or the other more often than not, their antiquated construction sagging under years of disrepair. The citizens mimicked their homes, slouching as they walked, their faces turned down. The wealthier folk wore shawls to guard against the cold, while the lower class wrapped tattered scarves around their heads. Arius breathed deeply and nearly gagged as the stench from a refuse pile reached his nose. He scanned the street and imagined he could smell the despair drenching the roads.
As Lodus maneuvered through the avenues in search of an inn, a beggar leaped out of an alley and grabbed Arius' ankle. The apprentice started, but the man's grasp was weak, and he posed no threat.
"Please, if you have any coin to spare," he begged.
Lodus stopped the carriage and leaned over to look at him. His teeth were crooked, and he wore a patched cloth wrapped around his head for warmth. From the odor assailing Arius' nostrils, the man had gone months without a proper bath. He released his grasp on Arius' leg and said, "Please, the smallest amount you can spare."
Sucking on his teeth, Lodus answered, "Get in the carriage, my friend. We'll take you to the inn with us and pay for one night's stay."
The beggar's eyes lit up with happiness. "Thank'ee, good man. The gods will praise you for your kind deeds." Arius helped him into the carriage, pulling him by the hand. Arius marveled at how little he weighed. "The name's Aidon, by the way."
They stopped at the first inn they saw, the Silent Bear, its creaking wooden sign swinging in front of a green door, its paint peeling and flaking.
"Stay with the carriage," Lodus told Arius. "You, come with me," he instructed Aidon. Lodus hefted himself out of the seat and lumbered toward the door.
Once inside, he sought the innkeeper, a portly woman with red cheeks and an apron wrapped around her full stomach. "What may I been doin' fer ya this eve?" she asked.
"We're looking for a hot meal and three rooms for the night, if you can spare them." Lodus appraised the inn's common room. It was walled with stone, and a bright fire blazed under a mortared mantle. Aidon walked over to the hearth and warmed his hands, vigorously rubbing them together. A piece of parchment was posted on the wall, declaring a raise in the land tax to be collected by the King's Men the following day. The solid oak tables were largely unoccupied, with the occasional client glumly absorbed in his ale. A solitary flutist provided music with stale tunes on a wooden fife.
"Why certainly, sir. Right this way!" the innkeeper replied cheerily, despite the gloom. After claiming a table and asking the serving girl for two bowls of barley stew, Lodus asked the innkeeper for a spot in the stables.
"I've got a tired horse that needs resting, food, and water," Lodus explained. The innkeeper retrieved the stable boy from an obscure corner and told him to lead the patron's horse and wagon around back.
After Arius helped settle the horse and retrieved the chest of goods, which he put under the table, he and Lodus sat down with Aidon and enjoyed a hot meal of stew and a few mugs of foaming ale. Aidon laughed as Arius was only permitted to drink one. "I don't want you to be getting used to the stuff too early on," Lodus told his apprentice. "But I'll allow you one mug for the night. Warms the soul."
Excerpted from The Silver Talon by A.J. Cunder Copyright © 2010 by A.J. Cunder. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: The Birth of Destiny....................1
One: A Journey Begins....................10
Two: A Message in the Night....................18
Three: A Tale of Power....................27
Four: A Different Path....................41
Five: Destiny Reborn....................56
Six: City of the Elves....................65
Seven: A Ryù in Truth....................87
Eight: A Ryù's Training....................92
Nine: Lessons in Magic....................109
Ten: The Frozen City....................134
Twelve: The Underground City....................161
Thirteen: A Ryù's Feast....................189
Fourteen: A Dwarf's Past....................200
Fifteen: The White Dragon....................211
Sixteen: The King's Plan....................220
Seventeen: Ring of Deception....................238
Eighteen: A Traitor among Them....................258
Nineteen: To Fight a King....................277
Twenty: Dreams and Destiny....................290
Twenty-One: A New Heading....................299
Twenty-Two: Dragon Marked....................310
Twenty-Four: Servants of the Forest....................347
Twenty-Five: The Ferrier of Souls....................363
Twenty-Six: Return to Sartanae....................382
Twenty-Seven: A Familiar Place....................392
Twenty-Eight: Weighty Decisions....................403
Twenty-Nine: Calm Before the Storm....................414
Thirty: March to Helsguard....................422
Thirty-One: A Deadly Encounter....................430
Thirty-Two: A New Friend, or Two....................433
Thirty-Three: A Better Solution....................449
Thirty-Four: Closer than they Thought....................454
Thirty-Five: Arrival at Last....................461
Thirty-Six: To Discover Destiny....................466
Thirty-Seven: The Power of Forgiveness....................485