A Dragon's Ascension - A Band of Four novelAglirta is known as the Kingless Land. Once a prosperous and peaceful river valley, it has fallen into lawlessness, and its feuding baronies are engaged in a constant state of war. But the land is kingless no more, for the Sleeping King of legend, King Kelgrael, has been reawakened by the efforts of the valiant Band of Four:- Hawkril, a bold and brave warrior gifted with great strength and fortitude- Craer, the crafty and clever thief- Sarasper, the learned and wise healer and last but not least- Lady Embra Silvertree, the mystical Lady of Jewels, a powerful sorceressYet peace has not returned. In The Kingless Land, high magic and wizard kings stood in the way, while in The Vacant Throne, civil wars and backstabbing barons resisted the restoration of order. Now, a powerful warlord comes to the front to take control through military might, while the diabolic minions of the Serpent move into position for a climactic battle that will scar the Band of Four forever. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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February 01, 2003
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Excerpt from A Dragon's Ascension by Ed Greenwood
Gracious Hosts of Aglirta
The breeze was all too steady.
The leaves of the trees around the four riders rustled ceaselessly.
Craer frowned and hunched a little lower in his high-cantled saddle.
Hundreds of archers could be crouching within easy bowshot in this sun-dappled forest--Three take us, every second bowman could be felling trees for firewood, with the rest shouting encouragement!--and in all this hissing and roaring of foliage, riders on the road wouldn't know of the danger until 'twas too late, and they were all wearing rather too many arrows to ignore.
These four riders in particular: the Band of Four, Aglirta's only Overdukes. Four folk Craer suspected the barons of the realm--loyal, good, and othewise--were already heartily sick of. He glanced back, collected Hawkril's calm nod, and muttered to the placid gray beneath him, "Horns of the Lady! I've lost track of where we're headed! Why can't we call on the nearest baron and then the next, in some sane sequence, instead of riding forth and back and up and down the whole blessed Vale?"
Embra's chuckle sang in the air beside him, making his horse's ears twitch.
Craer sighed; he'd forgotten her chatter spell. The Four could whisper and murmur and yet be heard by each other as clearly as if sitting in a quiet chamber with heads bent together, not riding through this windy forest spread out to deny archers an easy, massed target.
"This way," the Lady Silvertree explained with infuriating sweetness, "my fellow barons will find it just that trifle harder to play gracious hosts by thoughtfully preparing 'accidents' for us ... or stealing away the prize we seek."
Ah, yes, the prize: the fourth magical Dwaer-Stone. Present whereabouts unknown, but held--at least on the day when they'd been made Overdukes and Embra's father Blackgult named Regent--in secret by one of Aglirta's barons.
Finding it was why the overdukes had spent far too many days riding the roads that flanked the Silverflow, crisscrossing Aglirta to visit baron after baron.
Not that Craer Delnbone had the worst task of the Four during visits. Here in the forest, as front-riding target, now ...
"Thank you, Embra," he said in the most silky tones he could manage. "Now if you knew a spell to repel lurking archers instead of eavesdropping ..."
"Gently," Sarasper's rasping voice reproved him, as if Craer were a disobedient but indulged dog. "Gently!" Treated like an unwelcome wyrm? Be then an unwelcome wyrm.
Craer growled like one of the yipping perfumed and beribboned lapdogs the Baroness Rildra so doted on, of ankle-shredding acquaintance three baronial castles back. At least he'd had the satisfaction of shaking one persistent boot-gnawing creature out a window into the moat below, under the carefully unseeing gazes of two smirking guards. What attraction even silly baronesses saw in such--
"Anything amiss, Swiftfingers?" Hawkril murmured.
Craer snorted. "An army could be tramping along beside us, hewing down trees to clear a road for their passage, and I'd hear them not." He peered ahead all the harder, as if his eyes were torches that could sear through ever-dancing leaves.
"Pray silence for the eminent Overduke Delnbone," Sarasper intoned. "Trees, attend! Winds, bow down!"
A wordless but decidedly rude sound was Craer's only reply. They were at least another day's ride away from the next baron--where once again Embra would work Dwaerindim-seeking magic from the privacy of whatever chambers they were given, whilst Hawkril stood watchful guard over her, Craer made oh-so-clever talk with stewards and guardcaptainsand seneschals, and Sarasper used his spells to ward away the harm of all poisons and venoms offered to the Four in their food and flagons.
So far, they'd failed to find the missing Dwaer-and survived two poisonings, choosing to smilingly ignore the attempts to slay rather than confront their hosts.
"We're not managing much more than to make ourselves more widely disliked and offer ourselves as ready targets, are we?" Sarasper's voice came suddenly out of the breeze nigh Craer's left ear.
"Now, don't forget the chance to see Aglirta's beautiful countryside," Hawkril rumbled. "I've been a target in worse places."
"Far too much of Aglirta's beautiful countryside, I'd say," Craer grunted.
"So we spent an extra day riding the back lanes, lost and testy-tempered. A wandering that befell when one Craer Delnbone was scouting our way, if you must remind us," Embra told the backs of her fingernails idly.
Sarasper chuckled. "Aye, some blundering heroes we are."
"Nay, my good fellow Lord of Flowfoam, we were blundering heroes-- now we're pushy Overdukes," Craer told the old healer triumphantly. "Try to remember that, and the necessary pomposity will flow far more smoothly."
Something hummed past his cheek then, so closely that it burned. Craer's horse reared with a startled sound that was almost a shriek, and the smallest of the Overdukes kicked clear of his stirrups with an alacrity that seemed suddenly far more necessary than any pomposity.
The long-anticipated arrows came leaping out of the trees in a hissing storm, flaring with enchanted fire and slowing noticeably as they reached Embra's waiting shielding spell.
"Brigands again!" Craer snarled, clawing at reins as he snatched out a dagger and tried to see exactly where the shafts were coming from and how many bows must be sending them forth. "Clear the rats from one forest, and they scurry to another!"
Embra's shielding flared into a visible glow around them as she called on her Dwaer for more strength. The arrows seeking them now hung in her spell glow by the dozens, sliding very slowly on through the air. Craer struck one aside with the edge of his dagger, freeing it from the magic--it shot away to crack and shiver among roadside stones in an instant--and ducked around the wicked point of another.
"A dozen?" he called, peering into the trees as he wrestled his snorting gray under control.
"More this side," Hawkril replied calmly. "A score, at least."
"Brigands whelm in armies these days, it seems," Sarasper grunted. "Do we try to outride them?"
As if their unseen attackers had been listening, grim-faced men in leathers sprang from the trees, leaping out from between dark trunks and twisted shrubs to block the road before the Four ... and behind.
"Twoscore, and more," Hawkril corrected himself grimly. "Fast-breeding brigands!"
The armaragor bent low over his saddle to better reach the hilt of the great warsword slung across his shoulders--and then found himself wrestling the reins of his mount as the horse danced sideways in alarm. More men burst out of the trees close at hand, and a fresh volley of arrows sped out of those rustling leaves.
Embra gasped in pain, and her Dwaer flared into sharp brilliance. Hawkril cursed and wheeled his horse, furiously slashing aside arrows with his warsword as he went. If his lady was hurt--
The Lady Silvertree was reeling in her saddle, her face twisted, though the charging armaragor could see no arrow that had bitten to cause her that pain. Sarasper, too, was clutching his head and groaning. Unseen spell-arrows, then, that struck at those who could work magic? So--wizards in the trees, too?
No matter; the Four had to get out of this, or they would be slain. The real arrows were gliding ever closer, a tightening net of glowing points drawing in around Sarasper and Embra. Hawkril growled out his rising anger and plucked at the shield bouncing behind him. It was too small to cover them all, but if he could win a few moments for Embra to hurl some mighty fire, or to snatch them out of the closing jaws of this trap, it just might befall that th-
Craer abandoned his own saddle an instant before no fewer than six shafts lanced home in the flanks of his doomed gray, sweeping aside a seventh arrow as he threw himself into the road dust and rolled enthusiastically out of the gods-blessed way. In another instant his horse would come crashing down right here, rolling and screaming and kicking, and Craer did not want to be observing its painful death from right underneath it.
The procurer didn't want to be observing its painful death anywhere,but the Three seemed to demand that a certain foursome of overdukes provide them with frequent and violent entertainment, and ... .
"The day does draw on," Craer told the dagger in his hand, as he sent it spinning into the face of a shouting archer who'd drawn a wickedly curved sword of his own, "and we seem to have fallen behind on our bloodletting. All of this peaceful riding about and feasting and polite overgoblets chatter must be to blame! Die, horseslaying dog!"
The archer gurgled, tried to reach for the dagger that sprouted in his eye, and then toppled forward without offering further reply.
Arrows were striking the ground and each other, now. Thus freed from Embra's slow-shield, they shivered along the stones underfoot or thrummed away with new vigor. Craer vaulted over one shaft, snatched another dagger from a handy sheath, and then flung himself flat to avoid another arrow as he raced back towards the hooves of Hawk's charger. Choked-off cries and oaths around him told him that some of their attackers lacked his agility.
"Ah, I suppose they're just not fit stock to be overdukes," he muttered, racing on.
"Craer," Embra snarled, something that sounded horribly like a sob in her voice, "will you be silent?"
Her next word might have been a scream, if she'd still had breath enough for screaming. It came out as a sort of horrid dry gasping, instead--that was promptly drowned out by Hawkril's roar: "Embra! Embra! Lass, speak t--"
It was his turn to groan and gurgle, and Craer risked a look up from his own deadly game of rolling and sprinting and flicking arrow-sighting glances right and left.
He was in time to see his oldest friend topple from the high dragon saddle, one armored shoulder bristling with arrows--as the huge horse under Hawkril twisted and lashed out its hooves at empty air in agony, its right flank a forest of quivering shafts.
Embra's shielding was melting away. They were going to die here on this sun-dappled road amid the beautiful and be-damned-rustling trees, beset by this army out of nowhere, and with noth--
Sudden purple lightings snarled and spat across the road, half-blinding him. Craer flung himself flat in a place he hoped no arrows would find, and wondered what magic was seeking their lives now. Gods, but Aglirtaseemed to hold an overabundance of folk eager to deal death. Couldn't they cleave to baronial style and provide a good feast laced with a little poison? Did their murthering attempts always have to involve road dust and searing spells and Three-be-damned arrows?
"I can only conclude," the strained tones of Sarasper rasped next to his ear, "that you wish to proclaim to the listening land once more your usual complaint, procurer? Too much magic, wallowing in the dust, and arrows--have I captured the list rightly?"
"Fancy yourself a herald?" Craer murmured back. "So I started shouting, eh? Pray pardon ... Embra must be still aware for the farhearing to work. I'm flat on my face, still seeing purple-and-white fire whenever I try to stare at anything--care to enlighten me as to what happened?"
"Later," the healer told him grimly. "For now, be silent, and lie still."
Something in the steely fury of Sarasper's tone made Craer obey, for once. Through slitted eyes he stared at the curling dust--just visible as lazy shadows beyond the white-and-purple fire that still danced before his mazed eyes--and waited until his sight returned enough to show him something more of what had so scared Sarasper.
Whatever it was must have slain or stunned the archers with those lightnings; the only sound was the muffled thudding of a downed horse twisting in its last throes. Craer waited tensely, dagger in hand, hoping he'd be able to see a foe before a sword or spear was driven through him.
A boot crunched on road stones very close to his head, and he heard Embra gasp. Should he fling himself wildly away, or--?
Not all that far from the roiling dust and many sprawled bodies in the road, a cautious hand closed around a knob where once a branch had sprouted, so its owner could lean around the curve of a dark, old tree trunk and peer through the rustling leaves at the few figures still moving where battle had raged moments before.
Not an arrow sang, nor did any bowman stand ready to shoot more-- yet the Overdukes of Aglirta had, it seemed, fallen far short of victorious. The thief among them lay in the road, motionless. But for a betraying ripple of tense, quivering shoulders, he might have been dead.
Wincing in a half crouch on the road not far away, his arm dark and wet with blood and transfixed by many arrows, Overduke Hawkril Anharu grimaced at a lone figure walking slowly up the road towards him. Twice the hulking armaragor tried to pick up his warsword in the trembling, blood-dripping fingers of his stricken arm ... and twice he failed.
Beyond the armored warrior, against the ferny bank that bounded the far side of the road, the healer and the sorceress lay huddled, the old man trying to shield the slumped, white-faced body of the woman with his own. He, too, glared his defiance at the lone approaching figure.
The watcher in the trees drew back, crouching low and pressing close against the concealing trunk, yet watching still.
Red mists of pain curled at the corners of Hawkril's vision. Spitting blood, he fought to hold them at bay, to keep clear sight of the man now walking towards him. Tall, slender, dark, and young. Handsome, too ... a small tattoo like a vertical drawn dagger on his left cheek, and sharp--nay, smouldering--dark eyes above. A few rings on long, slender fingers, those hands not marked by work. A dagger at belt, black hose, high boots, and a dark tunic above, richly made but bearing no device nor noble colors. Someone, Hawk knew, he'd never laid eyes on before.
The newcomer stopped just out of reach of any desperate lunge a man of the armaragor's size might make, and stared down at the pain-wracked warrior. His hands hung empty at his sides, but cupped slightly. Wisps of purple smoke studded with winking white sparks still rose from his palms-sparks that crackled menacingly as he raised his hands to point at Hawkril and Sarasper.
"Should I slay you all, Overdukes of Aglirta?" this unfamiliar wizard asked, his voice barely more than a whisper. "Or can you give me good reason why I should let you live?"
"Lord Baron," the old seneschal said nervously, "there's a man come to see you. In full armor, with sword ready and a dozen war-ready fighting men at his back. He gives as name only 'Little Flower.'"
Baron Nesmor Glarond smiled thinly and lifted one hand in a signal that stirred his guards into a brief flurry of drawing swords and stiffening into new positions, here and there about the throne room of Glarondar.
Their master cast a glance up at the gilded balcony and made anothersign. His pages saw, turned, and snapped low-voiced but coldly firm orders. Many faces of courtiers who spent hours every day along that opulently carved rail, peering down at Baron Glarond, awaiting his smallest slip--or slightest sign of favor--abruptly vanished, amid unfriendly murmur.
Glarond lost his smile. Let them wonder at why they'd been swept away. Ambitious rabble, all, best kept distant from the bargaining ahead. Only those who mattered need, or would be allowed to, stay. His "Little Flower" was a dangerous man, and would undoubtedly drive a hard bargain; if things went poorly for the Pride of Glarond, the fewer folk who were watching, the better. Baron Glarond was well aware he was not a deeply loved man.
In a matter of moments the seneschal stood forth, near the doors, and bowed to his lord; the populace of the hall was now as the Pride of Glarond had desired it. The man on the throne nodded back, lifting his hand almost idly to indicate the doors. The seneschal turned, flung them wide, and stood back without announcing who was entering.
A near shout would have been necessary to do that heralding above the sudden, rhythmic clanking that arose then: the sound of men in full coat of plate marching swiftly in step. Into the throne room of Glarondar they came, bareheaded and empty-handed, but striding as if they were masters in this hall. They ascended the dais before the throne, and there stopped as smoothly as any formal guard on parade.
The baron's guards stiffened, eyeing the new arrivals nervously. It did not take a veteran eye to judge that they were outnumbered--and probably overmatched. Most of them failed to notice brief scuffles on the balcony stairs and along the back of the hall, as procurers in leather harness, hand crossbows held ready but pointed at the ceiling, wormed their way past courtiers and pages alike, to certain vantage points. Unfamiliar men, who stared about the hall with hard, eager eyes, seeking targets.
"Be welcome, Lord Bloodblade," Glarond said calmly, rising from his throne. "Your fame precedes you."
The man at the head of the armored throng acquired a ghostly flicker of a smile that stopped far short of his eyes, and said, "No lord am I yet, Glarond, though some have called me 'warlord.' Sendrith Duthjack, at your service--if we can come to agreement."
Baron Glarond inclined his head. "I am not an unreasonable man."
Some who stood listening in that hall might have disagreed with that statement, but no one in all that tensely frozen assembly chose to do so audibly just then. The baron was also not held to be a swiftly forgiving man.
"And I," Duthjack said clearly, "honor the pacts I make. I believe you know that."
Glarond inclined his head. "I do. I am also in the habit of honoring pacts, as it happens. Shall we begin by my stating what I desire to hire you and the swords you command for?"
"Do so. No task is unacceptable to me, if we can agree on price-and mine shall be my first answer," Duthjack replied. His men turned in perfect unison, though no order or sign had been given, to face the courtiers on both sides--and their gauntleted hands clapped firmly to the hilts of their weapons.
The silence, when it came, sang as tightly as a drawn bowstring. More than one man in that hall swallowed--and found his throat dry in doing so.
"I desire," Baron Glarond said calmly, "to be King of Aglirta. Before first snowfall, I would sit upon the River Throne, undisputed master of all the Vale, all barons sworn to me or dead. Plain enough?"
Duthjack nodded. "Have you wizards to fight for you?"
The baron shook his head. "None," he said, in a tone that suggested he was about to say more. Instead, he fell silent. A sheen of sweat had appeared from somewhere to gleam on his brow, but he lifted his chin and stared at his armored visitors as if he already was king.
Duthjack said flatly, "Others will. Our losses will be heavy. Two thousand gold coins--sundars of Ragalar or Carraglan zostarrs, not Aglirtan minting--for every swordsman I bring to the fray. A written roster of my command, copies held by us both. Half paid out before blades are drawn; survivors only to collect the balance, by midwinter at the latest."
Glarond nodded slowly. "And your share?"
"One hundred Ragalan sundars, and a downriver barony. Brightpennant, I think."
"Loushoond," the baron countered firmly.
Silence fell, softly at first but then, as it stretched, rising in tension. The courtiers who remained in the hall glanced at each other, then swiftly looked away. No one dared gaze for long upon the two men facing each other at the heart of the hall.
Slowly, Duthjack nodded, his face thoughtful and withdrawn.
Scarcely believing it could be this easy, the baron leaned forward on his throne. Sweat was streaming down his face as he asked eagerly, "So-- have we a deal?"
The man often called Bloodblade smiled. Drawing off his gauntlets and handing them to one of his men behind him, whom he did not look at, he stepped forward and held out his hand.
The baron rose from his throne, descended the single step to the dais where the mercenaries stood, and reached out to clasp Duthjack's offered grasp.
Their hands met, gripped, and a look of pain crossed Glarond's face. Before he could utter even a gasp of protest, the warlord's other hand took the baron by the throat.
Fingers of iron tightened, and the Pride of Glarond made a thin, startled, throaty sound.
Duthjack's smile was as cold as his voice. "No, my Lord of Glarond, we do not. I've taken counsel with others in the Vale besides barons, and heard other views as to the best future for the realm. Why should I settle for being a baron--among so many fat, decadent, arrogant fools of barons--when I can sit on the throne of Aglirta? You need me, dear Glarond ... but I don't need you."
He drew his fingers together with sudden, quivering strength, a throat crumpled into bonelessness, and the strangled noises coming from the baron ceased. Deftly Duthjack plucked the golden coronet from the brows of the sagging Pride of Glarond-and then his shoulders tightened, muscles rippled, and the mercenary infamous as Bloodblade in a hundred bloody tales threw the corpse away from him. Limply it tumbled down the steps of the dais.
The baron's guards surged forward, hands on sword-hilts, snarls rising in their throats ... and then paused uncertainly as those little crossbows rose to menace their throats and faces, all over the hall-and the Pride of Glarond came to a stop, his lolling head staring glassily and purple-faced at the ceiling in frozen, eternal startlement.
From out of the shocked group of courtiers nearest the throne a grandly dressed man stood forth in ruby silks. Clearing his throat, he gestured with one heavily ring-adorned hand, essayed a brittle smile, and called, "All hail Baron Duthjack!"
The warlord smiled, strode forward to meet the man, and said coldly, "No. I think not."
With smooth, unhurried grace he drew his sword--and ran the courtier through. As bloody steel burst out of the man's trembling back, slicing through ruby silk with the briefest of whispers, crossbows twanged all over the hall, and courtiers groaned, screamed, gasped, or gurgled-and started to fall, dying.
"Barons have been Aglirta's curse for too long," Duthjack told an old guard who stood stiffly at attention a sword's reach away, gray-white moustache trembling in fear. "It's high time, and past time, that someone should have gone baron-hunting. Not quite as good sport as chasing stags, but hopefully more profitable. Your name, old blade?"
"Th-tharim, Lord Bloodblade," the guardsman stammered, going to his knees and presenting his sword-hilt to Duthjack.
"You're wise, Tharim," the warlord said with a cold smile, "and prudent. You may live, if you serve me diligently in one small service: tell the armaragors of Glarond I'm their lord now. Baron of Glarond, if you must. Oh, and tell them one more thing: their warlord bids them arm, make ready for war, and report here two nightfalls hence, ready to ride."
"Aye, Lord Bloodblade. Ready to ride." The old warrior rose, then hesitated, waiting.
Duthjack's wintry smile widened. "No, I'm not going to tell you where. Just say: we ride to war."
The guardsman nodded. "Hunting barons along the way," he murmured, trying an unsteady smile of his own.
Bloodblade smiled even more coldly. "Prudence is always overrated, find you not so?"
As Tharim muttered a hasty, "Yes, Lord," and turned away, his tremblings visibly returned.