Dragonlord Linden Rathan, last-born of a race of immortal weredragons, has spent six hundred years alone, searching for his soultwin while his fellow Dragonlords watch over humanity's Five Kingdoms.When the Queen of Cassori dies mysteriously, Linden and the other Dragonlords are called upon to prevent civil war as two human claimants vie for the regency.As the battle for Cassori rule escalates, Linden becomes the target of the Fellowship, a secret society of true-humans who could actually destroy his immortal life.Then he meets a beautiful young ship captain named Maurynna who may be the only one who can help Linden bring Cassori back from the brink of chaos. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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August 31, 1999
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Excerpt from The Last Dragonlord by Joanne Bertin
THE LAST DRAGONLORD
The dragon gleamed in the light of the setting sun, his scales glittering as he soared toward the castle that crowned the mountaintop. His gaze shifted to a wide, flat area ending in a cliff, wreathed in shadows cast by the dying light. A slight tilt of the powerful wings and the red dragon turned, silent, beautiful, deadly, intent on his goal.
He landed, claws scraping against stone, the sound harsh in the crystalline air. A red mist surrounded him and the great dragon became a wraith; the mist contracted, then disappeared, leaving behind the figure of a tall man.
Linden brushed a strand of hair from his eyes, his blood singing from his long flight and the magic of Changing. He crossed the shadow-dappled landing area. As he reached the first step of the long stairway that led to the castle of Dragonskeep, a voice, old but still clear and strong, rang out.
Linden paused and looked up. On the stairs high above him stood an elderly kir, his silvered fur catching the last of the sunlight, no expression on his short-muzzled face.
Sirl, personal servant to the Lady who ruled Dragonskeep and the Dragonlords, regarded him in return. "The Lady has need of you," the kir said.
Why? Linden wondered as he raised a hand in acknowledgment and bounded up the stairs, his long legs taking the steps three at a time. It had been long since he'd had such a summons.
When Linden reached the step where Sirl waited, the kir bowed to him. "If you will follow me, Dragonlord," he said. Then he turned and led the wondering Linden to the Keep.
No words were exchanged as they walked through thewhite marble halls of Dragonskeep. Globes of coldfire, set to hovering in the air by various Dragonlords, lit the way. At last they came to the tower rooms set aside for the ruler of the Keep. Sirl opened the door and bowed Linden inside. Linden entered the chamber; Sirl followed close behind, shutting the door once more.
Globes of white coldfire lit this room as well, setting aflame the gold threads running through the tapestries that covered the five walls. Dragons soaring against blue skies, sunsets, a river of stars, or among mountain crags covered four of them. The fifth, incongruously, was of a hunting scene: a stag, a pack of baying hounds, three huntsmen, all forever frozen as they raced through the forest. A reminder, perhaps, of the Lady's life before she Changed? Linden doubted he would ever know. They were the only decoration in the room, which was sparsely furnished. What few items of furniture there were looked lost in the emptiness.
The Lady sat in a high-backed wooden chair. Her long fingers cradled a cup of tea as though seeking its warmth. She looked unreal in the cold light. Even the pale albino's eyes that watched him seemed colorless. She beckoned.
As he crossed the room, he studied her. She had been very young, he knew--only fifteen--when she'd Changed for the first time. Their kind aged slowly; how many centuries had the Lady seen to give her face that delicate tracery of wrinkles? After more than six centuries, he himself still looked only twenty-eight.
Without thinking, Linden touched the wine-colored birthmark that spread across his right temple and eyelid. It was his Marking, as the Lady's icy paleness was hers. He'd hated it until he'd discovered what it meant: that he was one of the great weredragons, the lords and servants of humankind. A Dragonlord.
Linden knelt before the Lady. Setting his hands on his thighs, he bowed till his forehead almost touched the floor--the salute of a Yerrin clansman to his lord. "Lady?" he said.
The Lady studied him for a long moment. Then she said, "Yes, I was right. You will be the third."
Linden frowned slightly as he accepted a cup of tea from Sirl. And what does she mean by--
Memory returned and with it came understanding. Lleld, smallest of the Dragonlords, had been late to breakfast that morning, bubbling over with news and speculation--more of the latter than the former. Linden thanked the gods he hadn't taken her up on the wager she'd demanded when he'd laughed at her notions. Sometimes Lleld's wild predictions had a way of becoming real, and he'd no wish to lose that particular cloak brooch.
The Lady's long, pale fingers tapped against the cup. "You have never sat in judgment, have you, Linden? Then perhaps it is time, little one--" She stopped at his chuckle. "Impudent scamp, you know very well what I mean!" she scolded with an affectionate smile.
Linden hid a grin as he drank. Over six and a half feet tall in his stocking feet, he towered over everyone else at Dragonskeep. The Lady herself barely came up to his chest. But with only a little more than six centuries behind him he was the youngest Dragonlord, the "little one."
And, to his great grief, likely the last.
"You've heard by now that a messenger from Cassori arrived early this morning, yes?" she said.
Linden nodded. "Lleld said something about it at breakfast; she'd heard it from the servants. Is it about the regency? I'd thought that was already settled some time ago and the queen's drowning proven to be an accident. Wasn't there an investigation?"
"There was; it found no cause for suspicion. And now that the period of mourning is over, we had all thought Duke Beren was to be confirmed as regent. But then came this challenge, the messenger said. The Cassorin council is divided; they cannot settle the matter and many of the barons are becoming restless. Luckily the messenger came before the Saethe and I left to confer with the truedragons."
Of course; on the morrow, the Lady and the Dragonlords' own council--the Saethe--were to consult with the truedragons on a matter of grave and growing concern to theDragonlords. For there had been no new Dragonlords, not even a hint of one, since his own First Change. It explained the Lady's haste, then, in choosing judges--if Lleld had guessed right once again.
Aloud he said, "Most of the Cassorin royal family are dead now, aren't they?" Bad luck attended this reign, it seemed; he'd seen its like before.
"Yes; all save for a little boy, Prince Rann, and two uncles: the challenger, Peridaen, a prince of the blood, and Duke Beren, who has a strong lateral claim to the throne."
Linden considered as he sipped his tea. Another of Lleld's guesses confirmed. He went on, "So the Cassorin messenger came to ask for Dragonlord judgment." At the Lady's nod, he smiled. "That was Lleld's guess. She also predicted Kief and Tarlna would be sent as arbitrators, since they're Cassorin and have done this before."
"Lleld," the Lady said, sounding exasperated, "is entirely too clever by half. Someday she'll guess wrong. But not this time. Kief and Tarlna are indeed going to Cassori. And so, I have decided, are you, as the third judge required." The Lady set her empty cup on the low table to one side of her chair. Sirl appeared and took it.
Linden carefully schooled his expression to stay blank. A mission with Tarlna, who chided him at every chance for his lack--by her prim standards--of dignity as befitted a Dragonlord? Oh, joy. He wondered what he'd done to deserve this.
Yet to sit in judgment was his duty as a Dragonlord. But why him, Yerrin by birth, and the youngest, least experienced Dragonlord to boot? True, he spoke Cassorin--a talent for languages seemed to go with being a Dragonlord. But there were others far more experienced in such things. Surely one of them was to be preferred.
He held his tongue.
"The three of you will leave in the morning. Since there is no time to be lost, you will all Change and fly to Cassori. The court has not left the city for the summer yet; the claimants shall await you in the great palace in Casna." The Ladysmiled. "I know you'd rather ride Shan, but I fear Cassori cannot afford the time it would take." She beckoned Linden to rise.
He offered her his arm as she rose from her chair, and escorted her from the room.
They paused in the doorway of the hall, watching the dancing that began every night after the evening meal. The Lady leaned easily on his arm, nodding her head slightly in time to the music.
Linden said, "Lady, if I may ask ... Why did you choose me? Kief and Tarlna, yes, they are Cassorin. I'm not. So?" He waited as she considered her answer.
Finally she said, "For the sake of a feeling that I have, little one." Her soultwin Kelder emerged from the dancers and came toward them. She held out her hand to him.
As Kelder led her into the dance, the Lady looked back. "But whether this matter needs you," she said, "or you need this matter, I don't know."