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Authors: James Maxey

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Dragonforge

BOOK: Dragonforge
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DRAGONFORGE

Book Two of the Bitterwood Trilogy

by

James Maxey

Copyright 2008 James Maxey

The author welcomes all comments and may be contacted via email at [email protected].

For Laura Herrmann

Behold, I have created the blacksmith

who fans the coals into flame

and forges the weapons of destruction.

I have created the waster to destroy.

Isaiah 54:16

CHAPTER ONE:

THE SUBTLE ART OF FALLING

1100 D.A. (Dragon Age), the 1st Year of the Reign of Shandrazel

GRAXEN SKIMMED ALONG
the winding river, the tips of his wings teasing the water with each downbeat. The sunrise at his back cast a shadow dragon before him, a phantom companion that swooped and darted across the rippling current. The elms and maples along the riverbank had shed their leaves, papering the earth with rust and gold. In the crisp morning air, Graxen’s breath billowed out in clouds that rushed back along his scaled body, forming a wispy trail.

As Graxen journeyed west, the river grew rockier, with patches of white water. He welcomed a rare mirror-smooth stretch of river. He opened his toothy jaws and scooped up a quick gulp to refresh himself. He glided upward as he savored the icy drink, gazing down at the pink-white sky reflected on the still water. Graxen was a gray blur against this pastel backdrop. Unlike other sky-dragons, he lacked even a single blue scale. Some trick of birth had robbed his hide of the azure hue that other members of his species wore with pride. Graxen’s body and wings were painted by nature in a palette drawn from storm clouds.

Graxen knew the area below him only from his study of maps. The river he followed meandered in a serpentine path among low mountains. Soon he would arrive at the dam, an imposing structure dating from ancient times. Beyond this, a body of water known as Talon Lake filled long, twisting valleys. His destination was the Nest, an island fortress just beyond the dam. Sometimes, on the edge of sleep, Graxen could see himself as a fledgling perched on the Nest’s rocky shores. His earliest memory was of watching small fish dart about in a shallow pool as he waited for the biologians to take him away.

As an adult male sky-dragon, he was forbidden to return to the Nest. Only a select handful of males were invited to those hallowed shores. Graxen was forever excluded from those ranks by the color of his scales. Under other circumstances, he would have no chance of admittance. However, the world had changed in recent days. Graxen had a satchel slung over his shoulders, the long strap allowing the bag to hang near his hips. The contents of this satchel gave Graxen the courage to journey to a place where only his imagination had been allowed to travel.

As he tilted his wings to follow the river north toward the dam, his sharp eyes spotted dark shapes flitting high above. Valkyries, three of them. The dam was hidden by one more turn of the river, but Graxen calculated that the valkyries were circling above the structure. He wondered if they’d spotted him. His drab color against the stony river might provide some camouflage.

He negotiated the final bend and closed in on the dam, barely a mile distant. The dark shapes suddenly wheeled toward him. The valkyries were the guardians of the island, female sky-dragons trained from birth in the warrior’s art. Save for his first year of life, Graxen had never seen a living female of his own species. He knew them only from books and sculpture. Now, they seemed like creatures of myth as they hurtled toward him, their silver helmets gleaming in the sun. The polished steel points of the long spears in their hind-talons twinkled like stars in the morning sky.

Graxen spotted a dry rock rising in the midst of the river, barely large enough for him to land on. A few other rocks jutted nearby, natural landing spots for this trio of guards. He could see a strategic advantage to having this encounter take place on land. He tilted his hind-claws forward and lifted his wings to drift to a landing. He raised his face toward the valkyries and held his empty fore-talons open to show he carried no weapon.

The valkyries closed fast. It didn’t look as if they intended to land. Graxen held his ground. He was breaking no law by standing on this rock. The land outside the lake was the property of the sun-dragon king. He was as free to stand upon this stone as he was to stand by the fountains at the College of Spires.

He studied the lead valkyrie as she raced toward him. At first glance, the differences between a male and a female sky-dragon were trivial. Some primal layer of Graxen’s brain, however, was busily cataloguing the subtleties that identified the valkyries as a member of the opposite sex. Sky-dragons had heads that resembled goat skulls covered in scales, with a fringe of long feather-scales rising from the scalp and trailing down the neck. The leader’s helmet concealed some of these scales, but those that showed were a deep sea-blue, with tips that trailed off into a pale white, a pattern unique to females. The leader was also slightly larger than a typical male. Male sky-dragons had wingspans averaging eighteen feet; the leader’s wings easily stretched twenty. Her torso was chiseled from life in the sky, while most male sky-dragons possessed the softer bodies of scholars.

The valkyries unleashed powerful war cries, fierce primal shrieks that tightened Graxen’s intestines. The leader aimed her spear to drive it into Graxen’s chest. Graxen stood still as stone. He noticed that the leader had a large silver bell attached to her belt, the clapper covered with a leather hood. An alarm device to call reinforcements, no doubt. Five yards away, she lifted her neck and beat her wings. She zoomed over Graxen’s head, the tip of her spear missing his face by no more than a foot. The wind of her wake washed across his cheek. He could smell a faint aura of blackberries.

The second valkyrie darted past, then the third, close enough that he could see his gray eyes reflected in the large silvered plates that studded her leather breast armor. A pair of iron manacles dangling from her thick belt threatened to clip his cheek. He tilted his head a fraction of an inch, allowing the chains to pass without touching. Graxen possessed a keen mind for spaces and vectors. In contests of speed and reflexes he had no peer. Yet was he known as Graxen the Swift? Graxen the Nimble?

“Graxen the Gray!” the lead valkyrie shouted as she circled, coming to rest on the stone that jutted from the river before him. “Your kind has no business here! Begone!”

“I am a representative of the king,” said Graxen, half-surprised she recognized him, half-fatalistically accepting it. As the only gray-scaled sky-dragon ever to survive birth, he had little hope of anonymity. “I come as a courier of important news. I’m charged with delivering this message to the matriarch herself.”

A second valkyrie landed to his right. “We care nothing of your mission,” she growled. “The king’s domain ends at the lake’s edge.” Graxen noted this valkyrie was younger than her companions, perhaps still a teen. Despite the normal female advantage of size, Graxen judged himself taller.

“Fortunately, I haven’t reached the lake’s edge,” said Graxen. “I ask that you read the scroll I carry before you judge the importance of my mission.”

The third valkyrie, the one with the manacles on her belt, landed to his left. She was larger than her two companions and, to his eyes, more relaxed. The other two stood in stances that indicated they were prepared to defend themselves from a sudden attack by Graxen. This last valkyrie didn’t look concerned.

He turned his attention back to the leader as she spoke once more. “If the message is important, give us the scroll and be gone. We will see it reaches the matriarch.”

“The king would be disappointed if I failed to speak to with her personally.”

“Would the king be disappointed if your body was discovered on the rocks downriver?” the young valkyrie to his right asked. “Perhaps he could take comfort in knowing that we found your satchel and delivered the scroll without you.”

A silence fell as the valkyries allowed the implied threat to settle into Graxen’s mind. Graxen studied the youngest valkyrie. Her eyes were full of scorn, with perhaps a touch of fear. She looked ready to run him through with the long spear she carried in her fore-talons. He turned back to the leader. Her face was a cool mask, impossible to read.

He tilted his head to study the final valkyrie. Her eyes were cold little slivers of copper. Graxen caught his breath as he noticed a slight discoloration against her cheek. A single scale of gray, the color of fresh-cut granite, sat below her left eye like a tear. The rest of her hide was flawless; she seemed sculpted from sapphire, her lean and well-muscled body sporting graceful lines and symmetry that rivaled the statues that adorned the College of Spires. This valkyrie continued to regard him with a look that approached boredom.

With one guard showing disinterest and another looking prepared to run him through, Graxen knew his best course of action was to win the leader over to his cause. He said, “As a commander, you are obviously a dragon of proven judgment. Perhaps you should examine the scroll yourself.” Graxen reached into his satchel and produced the scroll. He stretched his wing across the watery gap to offer the message to the leader. Her fore-talon brushed his as she took the rolled parchment. This brief touch was his first adult contact with a female. He found the experience…unsatisfying.

The leader unrolled the scroll. She tilted her head and furrowed her brow, attempting to decipher its jagged calligraphy. The message had been scribed by Shandrazel, a sun-dragon. With talons twice the thickness of a sky-dragon’s nimble digits, sun-dragons seldom earned praise for their penmanship.

“What does it say, Arifiel?” the youngest valkyrie asked, impatient.

“Quiet, Sparrow,” said the dragon with the teardrop scale. Graxen guessed that Sparrow was a nickname. It was rare to encounter a dragon whose name corresponded to something in the physical world. All sky-dragons names were drawn from the Ballad of Belpantheron. The two-thousand-page poem was the oldest document verified to have been drafted by a dragon. Unfortunately, it was also a document that had defied ten centuries of scholarly attempts to decipher its mysterious language. Tradition held that it told the story of how the young race of dragons slew the older race of angels. Less poetically inclined scholars speculated that the work was schizophrenic babble granted sacred status by the passage of time.

“It does say he is to be given safe passage,” Arifiel said, rotating the scroll to a thirty-degree angle as she puzzled out the script, “but, this isn’t Albekizan’s mark.”

“Albekizan is no longer king,” said Graxen. “He died at the hands of Bitterwood following an uprising of humans in the Free City. His scion, Shandrazel, charged me with this mission.”

Arifiel tilted the scroll in the counterclockwise direction. “I guess that could be an ‘s.’ That’s probably an ‘h’ and an ‘a.’ Shandrazel is…plausible. However, all that’s here is the order of safe passage. I see no further message.”

Graxen raised his fore-talon to tap his brow. “I have the message up here. It’s too important to be entrusted to mere parchment. This is why you should provide me with an escort for the rest of the journey.”

“I see,” said Arifiel.

“Shall we grant him passage then?” asked the teardrop valkyrie, still relaxed.

“No,” said Arifiel. “Last I heard, Shandrazel was banished.”

“Who cares if Shandrazel is king now?” Sparrow growled, directing her words toward Arifiel. “Male law ends at the lake’s edge. Whatever transpires in the outside world is of no concern to us.”

“True,” said Arifiel, rolling the scroll back up. She eyed Graxen even more skeptically than before. “My gut tells me this is a trick. Desperate males try far more clever schemes to reach the Nest in the hope of mating.”

“This is no scheme,” said Graxen. “I’m marked by birth as one who will never breed. No female would ever submit to my touch.”

“Desperate dragons will attempt to breed by force,” said Arifiel.

“If I were here to resort to violence, why would I wish to journey into the heart of the Nest?” Graxen asked. “Wouldn’t a desperate dragon attempt to ambush valkyries on patrol, away from the safety of the fortress?”

“Perhaps that’s your plan,” said Sparrow. “Perhaps you didn’t expect to be outnumbered.”

Graxen found Sparrow’s tone grating. He felt that if she would only be quiet, he might have hope of convincing the Arifiel. He said, “Arifiel, do you always allow the dragons in your command to abuse guests so?”

He expected Arifiel to order Sparrow to silence herself. He didn’t expect Sparrow’s face to suddenly twist into a mask of rage as her muscles tensed, ready to strike with her spear.

“Abuse is all a freak like you deserves!” Sparrow shouted.

“Sparrow, halt!” barked Arifiel.

It was too late. Sparrow lunged. Graxen shifted his weight back on the rock, swinging his tail around for balance as he pulled his shoulders back. The spear pierced the air before him. The weapon was twice Sparrow’s height. Graxen calculated that avoiding the thrust might lead to tragedy. Sparrow was off balance, falling forward. If she toppled, her spear would reach all the way to the valkyrie with the teardrop scale. Perhaps her armor would deflect the blow, but could he take that chance?

BOOK: Dragonforge
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