Branston returns to his mission, faced with doubt.
Adorned in the dragon uniform, Branston rode through the camp atop a white horse, his black cape draped over one side and his black gloved hands gripping the reins. His stomach ached, and his breath came short.
Dragons. Facing the beasts again frightened him. He looked to his left hand. The burn was gone, but the pain not forgotten, nor the sight of his bone and muscle.
Around him, soldiers went about their business, winding between tents carrying firewood to cook-fires or water buckets to horses. Some men shouted greetings, others bowed to him or rushed across his path.
“Dragon Guard are not royalty,” his father told him, the day he was accepted. “But people will think you are. Let them, but don’t let them get to your head. You should know better; they shouldn’t.” He said it with a smile, adding, “They should always remember the beasts you can control.” That used to make Branston grin. Now he looked at his hand and shuddered.
The white tabards emblazoned with the Sun and Star marked these soldiers as Takinthad men, and Branston thought of the village in Dasoren. The men had come, and his friends killed them. Where were those people now? He frowned at thinking they were out there in the world, amid the dangers. Did they know?
As he rode on, Branston came to a Veressan section of camp. Dozens of men in green tunics baring the Crown and Tree hurried about gathering weapons and passing orders. They slung quivers onto their backs, buckled swords over coats of mail and packed supplies.
Branston steered his horse through the men, drawing rein before a Veressan captain, marked by a green cape and large steel shoulder plates.
A man stepped before the general, placing fist on heart. “General Evroor, the archers are ready.”
“Good,” said the general. “Order them north, toward the others.”
“Yes, General.” The soldier took off running.
General Evroor turned to Branston, looking up at him. The scowl slid from his face. “Dragon Guard.” He nodded respectfully. “How might I help?”
“Just curious.” Branston hardened his voice, mimicking the sound of a man of high station. “Are you heading out on a mission?”
The general nodded. “Aye, enemies spotted north of here.”
Branston looked north, over the heads of soldiers rushing around, over the peaks of colorless tents, to the forest at the edge of camp. “How far? What kind of enemy?”
Evroor shrugged. “We know very little. The King has told us next to nothing, but sent us to a man who knows our mission.”
“The King? But–” Branston clamped his mouth shut. The King’s death must be a secret.
“But what?” Evroor scratched a long gray side-burn.
Branston smoothed the shock from his face. “Nothing. Good luck to you.” With that, he continued east, passing Veressan soldiers and green banners.
He came to the forest, the border pushed back by the camp. The edge held dozens of tree-stumps, and even in the forest, a few Takinthad men hacked at trees.
A man-carved path led Branston through the trees, his eyes scanning the area. Even here, he expected an attack by wraiths or otherwise.
The path led east through the forest as the sun passed Branston by, settling near the horizon by the time he found the others.
They were dim shapes in the evening light; men atop horses watching him ride from the trees into the open field. A cluster of soldiers sat with lances pointed toward the sky, their helmets set before them in the saddle. Two of the men wore uniforms declaring them Dragon Guard. Wind pulled on their black capes, as it did Branston’s, and they spurred their horse to a walk.
One man who drew nearest to Branston before drawing rein, wore his dark hair in a topknot. The tip of his beard was tied in a point, and his wide eyes watched Branston.
The second Guard, who kept more distance, was bald. A mustache curled around his tight mouth, and a vertical scar marked one of his prominent cheekbones, similar to the scar Branston wore on his own cheek.
The closest nodded and said, “You’re new?”
Branston nodded. “I am Branston Linnelway.” He offered a hand.
“A lord, then? Correct?” said the bald Guard.
“No,” said the closest, before Branston had a chance. “The king revoked his lordship and gave his land to the Altraccis.”
Branston nodded. “I’ve been assigned to hunt dragons. Two, I believe.”
“That is correct,” said the closest man. “I am Aclaides. He is Thanorg.” The bald man dipped his head.
Branston looked past the Guards, toward the soldiers, and further past them. “I thought you might have a dragon of your own, to scout ahead.”
“I do,” said Aclaides. “He’s hunting. You may recognize him.” Aclaides watched Branston closely, studying. “He is the dragon you flew in on, that day.”
Branston’s left hand clenched the rein. He remembered the forests and hills flying by, the beat of the wings, and the agony. Much of that day was lost in his pain-fueled haze, however. “It was Bolthos’ suggestion.”
Aclaides scowled. “You know what else was Bolthos’ suggestion? Killing our king.”
“You think he organized the whole thing?” Branston challenged. “I thought he was only an agent.”
“Of who?” Aclaides lightly tugged on his pointed beard. “Of that other friend of yours? The one who was executed?”
Branston’s face hardened, his eyebrows drew down. “What are you saying? Go ahead, say it.”
Aclaides held Branston’s stare for a long second, before leaning and spitting in the grass. “We have work to do.” With that he turned and rode toward the soldiers.
Branston turned his glare on Thanorg, who rode up beside him.
Now he was closer, Branston saw signs of age. Wrinkles pulled at the corners of his eyes, and his cheeks sagged a bit. The bald man rubbed his head and muttered. “Sorry about that. My brother’s a difficult man sometimes, but he means well. In a way….”
Branston nodded, looking to Aclaides, who stared east with his back turned to the other Guards. “I’m not an assassin.” He told Thanorg.
“I believe you,” the older man said.
A steady beat sounded in the distance. Branston looked to the source, east past Aclaides. A dragon soared above the trees, landing in the field. The horses neighed and stepped away from the beast. The soldiers muttered soft words to their horses and led them away.
Aclaides led his tall brown horse to Thanorg’s side. “Ready?”
Thanorg nodded, turning a fierce eye on Aclaides. “Just quit causing trouble, got it? We have enough in-fighting as it is, Guards
don’t need to be at each others throats.”
Aclaides shot a glare at Branston before turning and riding toward the dragon, who sat on hind legs and watched.
Aclaides stared at the dragon for a moment, then it launched itself into the air, wings beating air upon them. The horses danced away, nickering and throwing their heads. Branston urged his horse still. A moment later, the dragon retreated, the dull beat of its wings sounding its distance.
“Let’s ride.” Aclaides spurred his horse toward the forest.
Branston and Thanorg rode ahead, splitting up and taking the flanks of the company of soldiers who rode behind Aclaides.
They rode into the trees at a trot, passing beneath the shadow of trees. The ground became dim, and the light fading.
Branston shuddered. Working again with the dragon who burnt his hand, with a man who thought him a traitor. Branston had run before, yes, but he didn’t intend to now. The past marked him a coward, and the present circumstances marked those he knew as traitors. Faldashir dead for killing the king, and Olivar an illegal Guard. Branston understood Aclaides’ animosity toward him. He might think the same of himself, in another man’s place.
Night came swiftly, and clouds covered the moon. An hour out and a few leagues away from the field, Aclaides called a halt.
They stopped in a spare bit of forest, tress giving shade, but not hindering any movement.
“We need to eat.” Aclaides dismounted and pulled a stake from his saddlebags. “Chygoll, prepare a horse-line.”
“Yes, commander,” said a man with one eye and a thick graying mustache. He dismounted and pulled a stake from his saddlebag. Soon a horse-line ran between two trees, the stakes driven into the trunk and a rope tied between the loops at the end.
Branston tied his horse to the rope, unburdening the animal and dropping the saddle on the ground. Pulling a leather water sack from the saddlebags, Branston went to work watering his horse, then fed it oats from another bag. The others did the same.
Soon, Thanorg had two fires blazing. Branston sat cross-legged before one, surrounded by the other Guards and three soldiers. The other soldiers sat around the other fire.
They ate light: dried meat and bread, before unrolling bedrolls and sleeping in shifts, with two men keeping watch. Doffing his Dragon Guard uniform, Branston crawled into his bedroll, wearing only his small-clothes and linen shirt. He kept his sword in hand.
He woke to a hand on his shoulder. Aclaides knelt before him.
“How long have I slept?” Branston asked. It felt only a minute or two. Indeed the sun had yet to rise, and the darkness of the woods enclosed them but for the campfires.
“A few hours,” Aclaides whispered. “It’s our watch. Get up.”
Branston stood, pulling on pants and boots. He buckled his sword to his waist, looking over the camp. Men slept soundly, some snoring. Horses curled on their joints, heads lowered and eyes closed. Their chests expanded and deflated in steady breathing.
Memories came to Branston, of he and Faldashir and Olivar camping on their way to Murindin. The snow had not allowed them comfort, he still remembered waking up to numb fingers and toes every morning, early on. Back when Vigo had been with them.
Branston had known little of Vigo, yet he felt sadness at his death. He remembered the wraith attack at the river in Dasoren. The creature caught Vigo, striking him so hard he fell from the saddle. Branston remembered the pain and terror in Vigo’s face. He remembered his own terror, and the image of the wraith running across the snow, shadows reaching toward it, never left him. That fear fueled him to this day.
And yet, it was not his worst memory.
“Where’s your dragon?” Branston asked, looking to Aclaides’ firelit gaze.
“Resting on a ridge somewhere. He’s safe.” Aclaides crossed his arms. “Follow me, will you?”
Branston settled a hand on his pommel. “Where? Why?”
“Just to the edge of camp. We need to talk.”
Branston opened his mouth, but held his tongue. Aclaides was taller than him, but not as wide, or as strong, by the look of him. But Aclaides unsettled him.
And yet Branston felt foolish. Aclaides was human, and the enemy was not. Branston shouldn’t fear the fellow Dragon Guard.
But then, Faldashir and Bolthos proved to be a threat.
Branston nodded, steeling his nerves. “Lead the way.”
Aclaides nodded. Branston followed his stroll toward the edge of camp, stopping just short of the edge of the firelight. The orange glow flickered across the trees, and the fire crackled while men snored.
“I just wanted to talk without waking anyone,” Aclaides said.
“You have a poor history with the Dragon Guard. In Sal’Tathern you lost control of a dragon, then you ran and went into hiding with your father.” Aclaides spoke softly, but not kindly. “Next, you bring a traitor and an outlaw to our fortress.”
“I didn’t know what Faldashir had planned,” Branston said, keeping emotion from his voice.
“Maybe you didn’t.” Aclaides shrugged. “But you brought him to the king. Next, you ride in on a dragon, charred to the bone in places.” Aclaides looked to Branston’s left hand, which rest on his sword. “I can’t imagine that wound was pleasant. And now I hold the dragon that did it to you.”
“I saw the fear in your eyes when my dragon flew into the field. You looked as ready to run as the horses.”
Aclaides drew a deep breath. “I think you are a frightened person. With too many issues to be effective in the field. That’s not an accusation.” Aclaides’ voice grew kinder, only a little. “It’s only an idea. It might be better if you turned back, went home. Up here, we need men ready to fight. Men not prone to dangerous allies and fleeing.”
Branston stared into the darkness, Aclaides only a shape in the corner of his eye. “Have you seen a wraith?”
“Well, I think you would be afraid as well, if you saw one. I crossed two countries to be here, with many opportunities and more days to turn away. I’m here, having seen more than many men, and I will stay.”
Aclaides looked away, staring at the darkness. “I hope you’re right. I’ll watch the other end of camp.” Aclaides crept away, his footsteps barely sounding over the crackle of fire and snoring of men.
The hours of night passed slowly. Branston peered into the darkness, pacing back and forth across the edge of firelight on his side of camp.
Aclaides’ concerns plagued his mind. He worried Branston would run, and Branston wondered that himself. The sound of the fire tugged at Branston’s ears, reminding him of the injury. That dragon lay out in the wilderness somewhere. As Branston paced, he held his hand, stroking his skin as a reminder that he was healed. He almost thought he could feel the pain still, though it was distant.
Dawn came, and the sky softened to a dull blue. The horses woke and the fires died down. He and Aclaides woke the others.
Ten minutes passed as the men stretched and ate a light breakfast of honeyed bread. Then they dismantled the horse line, saddled their steeds, and headed off.
“My dragon’s in the air,” Aclaides said, half an hour out. “He spots a river a mile west.”
The trees gave ample space to move, and they led their horses on foot, with the Dragon Guard in front. The archers took to the edges and watched the surroundings with a keen eye.
A murky fog rolled up to the company’s side. Aclaides cursed and pulled out his sword.
“You think you’ll need that?” asked Thanorg, though his voice was a whisper.
“I don’t like not being able to see,” Aclaides spat. “Not when dark creatures are prowling the land.” His head swiveled to the trees, now only dark shapes.
Branston pulled out his sword.
The fog followed them all the way to the river. The river wove slowly south. It wasn’t wide, but it was deep and calm. The trickle over rocks and against the weeds on the bank being the only sound once they stopped and removed their horses’ mouth bits.
“Where is your dragon?” Branston asked as his horse drank water.
“Some leagues north, drinking,” Aclaides responded.
The swords has been sheathed, but each man kept a close watch to his surroundings. To their right, a hill loomed, trees on the top forming vague shapes.
“He’s taken flight,” Aclaides said abruptly into the quiet. “He’s searching for villages.”
“Good,” Thanorg said. He sat on a thin tree that leaned into the river.
Branston’s horse snickered and pulled away from the water, stepping back. The other horses lined against the muddy bank whinnied and stomped the wet ground.
Branston frowned, looking to the water. Ripples headed for the shore. Many ripples ran out from the water, breaking against the mud and reeds. Branston peered through the fog, as did the others.
Dark shapes moved along the water. Thanorg stood up from the leaning tree, which shook, dropping leaves into the river. From ahead came a rhythmic swishing. Ripples sped toward the bank.
“Boats,” Aclaides muttered. Guttural growls sounded, and thumps. The dark shapes shifted in the fog; one grew taller.
Aclaides put hand to sword, and the soldiers crouched low, leveling their lances and fitting arrows. Branston squinted, staring toward the growling shapes as they inched through the fog. Yes, boats. But what creature makes a sound like that? Branston’s legs grew jittery, but he held still. More shapes emerged, half a dozen now, boats and riders moving south along the river.
A shape–a rider–shifted, and a creak groaned in the quiet.
Snap. An arrow flew toward Branston.
END OF CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR