Saturday, June 11, 2016

Part 1 - 1.3 Swallowtail


1.3.1 Discovery of the Horde

Astrid pushed her empty plate from her. She had come home for a late dinner after a day of exploring the Spine and began another argument with her mother.

“Please, mother.”

“Not alone.”

“But hunting is poor. Only for one night.”

“You’re fifteen, hon, and it’s too dangerous outside the valley to be by yourself.”

“I’ve been over every inch of the mountains, mom. It’ll give me a better start tomorrow morning. Please, mom. Little Wing will be there to protect me.”

“No. Not unless you bring Selina or another female Rider.”

“But they’re on duty. Mom, please.”

“No.”

Astrid pursed her lips and turned. “We’ll see,” she mumbled and slammed the door of their little cottage. Just outside waited her dragon and without so much as a hello, she mounted and took off.

Little Wing carried her along the volcanic core of the Spine, the impassable mountain range which divided North from South. The late spring meant poor hunting: the deer stayed under shelter and the smaller game like rabbit and fox remained too exhausting to track. The clouds to the west warned that a hard rain would come tomorrow, so she planned to use the window of good weather to explore. But her mother would not let her venture so far alone. Instead, they joined the dragons on the highest peaks to watch the sunset and make their plans.

The clans called them Swallowtail when Astrid and her dragon flew together; partners but not Riders. Every Rider had a part to play in village life as hunters or couriers to neighboring valleys. But they did not invite her and she did not expect them to: Riders thought her too independent, and she thought them too arrogant and condescending to the dragons. Except for her oldest friends, Selina and Finn, she rarely crossed paths with Riders.

She was happy as long as she remained free and not constrained within the high cliffs surrounding Inverness, and each day found her further from home. But now a day’s ride presented the same barrier to her explorations as the valley walls once did. The constraint produced another fight with her mother and another reason to run away.

To give herself time to think, Swallowtail joined the dragons to enjoy the dramatic sunset signaled by the oncoming storm clouds. Two gentle kicks from her heel told Little Wing to roll over and dive a thousand feet to a high ridge with a clear view west. They landed and jostled the others for position.

As the sun approached the horizon, an older dragon flew erratically before the group, and then dashed away to the northeast. Astrid and the dragons watched but did not follow. The old dragon came back and squawked for attention, and this time all but Little Wing took off and pursued him. When the old one came back a third time, it was clear what he wanted, and Swallowtail followed.

The old one sped to the northeast, high above the Blois River. This is where she wanted to go but was told not to, and never overnight. Even if she turned back now she would still be late and needed an explanation for her mother. But I had to, mother, she thought. The old one clearly wanted us to follow him. Someone may have been injured or required help. Mother will understand. She pursed her lips. And if she doesn’t, well...

One-by-one the other dragons returned home or landed to enjoy the setting sun until Swallowtail followed alone. At sunset they neared the northern edge of the mountain range where the Blois spilled over the falls into the foothills of Cherryth. There were no true borders here, only ragged lines on the maps indicating where passage south was dangerous for all but trained climbers.

Little Wing carried Astrid past the hills and over regular rows of conical tents and flickering orange campfires. Beyond the fires, they glided over a plain where men slept in the open. In the dim light of Fures, the smallest moon, they glided toward a dark funnel that meandered across the field. But her dragon pulled up short when they hit a wall of flies which choked them both and left them unable to see. Her dragon fluttered to a landing and snorted to clear his nose.

Astrid dismounted and recognized the funnel as a tornado of crows with vultures circling higher overhead. She walked toward it and stepped on something soft. A gust of wind swept past and the stench of rotting meat struck her like a blow, and she realized where she stood. This was a field of battle where the fallen men and horses lay unburied. Unable to control her revulsion, she retched.

A few meters away red eyes lifted from their work tearing at the bodies below them and moved slowly toward her with low growls. Wild dogs, she thought and remembered the warnings that dogs were not shy of humans like wolves. Terrified, she ran to Little Wing and mounted. As he took off, his claws raked the wild beasts that jumped to bite his legs.

Little Wing settled on a hillock near the old dragon. After retching what little remained in her stomach, she crawled to the edge of the cliff to observe. She could not discern the dark shapes moving in the gloom she sat and waited for another moon to rise.

When moonlight from Lon flooded the scene below, Astrid gasped. Thousands of armed men wove their way through the foothills and up the Blois River Valley, the same river which passed through Inverness many miles to the south. Huge machines crowded the narrow mountain trails: engines of war known only from stories, projectile weapons that could loft stones the length of three hundred men.

Astrid turned to the old dragon. Why the urgency? she wondered. She would certainly tell the Inverness Council of the battlefield and the invaders, but they were still many leagues from home. Why would the old one bring me here? She had no answer for him and prepared to mount Little Wing and return home when a piercing shriek sent chills up her spine—the cry of a dragon. Immediately she put her hand on Little Wing’s muzzle to stop him from crying out in response. 

After Elen, the third and brightest moon, rose above the horizon Astrid recognized a frail and sickly dragon struggling against the heavy chains which bound him. The old one that had brought them looked at her and cocked his head as if expecting her to explain this horror or stop it.

Astrid shook her head. “There’s nothing I can do.”

The old dragon took off, and she mounted Little Wing to follow.

A single wingbeat aloft the chained beast wail again, and her dragon replied before she could stop him. Soon after she felt something hit her saddle and her dragon screeched. She reached back to find a crossbow bolt embedded in the thick leather behind her leg, pulled it out, and stuck it in her boot.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

There was a history before History ...



“...There was a history before History,
Of a time before we wandered the land like beasts,
Before we descended into chaos,
When Juro wore our civilization like a crown
And women flew like birds;
A time when we knew the ages of the stars,
Before we forgot who we were.

"It is our task to remember,
If not what we once knew,
At least to remember that we once knew it
And to remind others so that we will
Not descend so deeply into chaos again."

This is a passage from the convocation ceremony of the College of Singers. On this day, Astrid  became a Journeyman and took her stage name as Singer.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Political Map of Juro

Our setting for the Singer Saga approximates the Middle-Ages in Europe - but with dragons!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Maps of Juro: 1 Overview

Here's a map of Juro, the setting for Singer saga, to orient you. I'll post a map of the political boundaries soon. A larger size is posted to the right.

I'd appreciate any comments you have.

... Ray

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Part 2: The North, 2.2 Escape



“Dee!” her mother called. “To me!”

Diana stumbled out of bed, groggy after her birthday party that had stretched into the evening.
With one hand on a rapier, her mother reached out with the other and took Diana’s hand. “Hurry, child! To the tower.”

Diana looked back to see dark men with heavy swords break down their front door and put their home to the torch. She tore loose from her mother's hand and ran back to her bed to retrieve her new bow and quiver.

A dark man raised his sword and Diana cowered, but a rapier parried the sword, and her mother thrust the point into his chest. Diana watched the man stagger back, his eyes fixed on hers and his hands on the bleeding wound in his chest. He groaned and sat hard on her bed and fell back. Kathryn pulled Diana behind her as another attacker swung his blade and Kathryn ducked.

“Run!” her mother ordered and Diana ran outside and hid behind the open door, her hands over her ears so she could not hear the sounds of clanging blades and death.

Kathryn ran outside the door and looked for Diana. She closed and latched the door and found Diana behind it and reached out her hand again and they ran to the tower.

A thin fog hid their escape. But when they reached the moat, the tower was in flames, still bravely defended by her father’s archers.

A neighbor in mail approached with blankets. “Milady, the archers are a diversion,” he said. “It cannot hold. We must ride to Richard and the militia.” They stole through the forest to waiting horses upon which the small band fled, running for her father’s camp fifteen leagues to the east.
Richard's camp was too far for the horses at gallop without resting, so nine leagues from the camp they stopped at the estate of an ally for fresh mounts as a thick fog began to rise. Diana’s mother dismounted, ran to the house, and banged on the door while the guards formed a cordon around the front. Lights flashed from inside and her mother’s brother William came to the door.

1.1.1.Diana Flees to Uncle’s Home


“Katie,” her brother said, “what in heaven brings...”

“No time, Will,” Kathryn interrupted. “Our home is in flames. I fear they are close behind.”

“Eddie!” William yelled to a ranch hand. “Fresh horses!” He turned to Kathryn and stepped aside. 

“Come, inside with you.” He turned his head and called the housemaid, “Julia! Bring blankets for our guests.”

Kathryn and Diana entered the great room and warmed themselves by the fire.

“Where are Elsa and the kids?” Kathryn said.

“Staying in Wikkert with Uncle Ed. It will only be us and the ranch-hands to defend.”

Before fresh horses could be saddled, the dark men caught up to them. Kathryn stuffed Diana under a heavy desk and then helped defend the house. It was all a jumble of “There!” and “Duck” and the ‘thunk’ of arrowheads in wood. Diana knew she was of no help with her bow and arrow and so helped by bringing arrows to the defenders and staying out of the way.

When fire reached the rafters, they knew the house was lost.

“The roof will only last a few minutes, Katie,” her uncle said to her mother. “They only need to keep us pinned down inside while the house collapses around us. There’s a hatch under the kitchen pantry. When you close the hatch, it will hide itself. That will give you about ten minutes.”

“You can’t stay here, Will,” her mother asked.

“We’ll make for the horses and take those nearest to glory.”

“It’s suicide. Come with us.”

Will shook his head. “Not enough time,” he said. “Your escape needs to be defended or there will be none at all.” Will grabbed Kathryn and hugged her. “This is not your place to die, sis,” he said, then looking at Diana, “or hers.”

Without another word, Kathryn kissed her brother, grabbed a firebrand, and led Diana to the escape tunnel. She opened the hatch in the pantry floor and they climbed down a ladder to a dirt tunnel. When she closed the hatch, debris fell on top to hide it.

“Diana, when we surface we’ll not be able to talk. Keep your eyes on me. Do you remember the signs?” This was a child's game to communicate during hide-and-seek using the same hand signals as the militia in battle. Diana nodded. And Kathryn signed, Never surrender. Promise me. Diana nodded again and crossed her heart.

1.1.2.Diana and Mother Hide in the Woods (POV:D)


The tunnel led them through a quarter of a mile of tangled roots and warrens. When they rose through the exit hatch, Diana looked back through the fog to see the house and barn engulfed in flames. Kathryn grabbed her hand and they raced for the safety of the forest. Just after reaching the edge of the trees, Diana heard a ‘whoosh’ and her mother fell hard. Kathryn rose to one knee but needed Diana's help to get on her feet.

“What is it?” Diana asked using the hand signs.

“OK,” Kathryn replied in sign. “Hurry! Hurry!” But Diana knew something was wrong.
Without horses, they could not outrun the attackers. Exhausted and stumbling through the darkness, Diana’s mother found the hollow trunk of a burned out tree in a thicket at the bottom of a dry stream bed far off the trail. At Kathryn’s instruction, Diana gathered brush to sweep their tracks and used it to hide the entrance to the hollow trunk. And there they hid. Kathryn pulled her cape around them both to keep the chill of the cold rain and fog away.

“Did your father tell you of the dragon riders?”  Kathryn asked.

“Yes, mother,” Diana said.

“Did he tell you of a dragon rider named Astrid?”

“No, mother.”

“Well, there was a beautiful young girl who rode a dragon named Little Wing…”

Diana listened to another of her mother’s fairy tales and shivered in her mother’s lap until Kathryn’s voice softened and they drifted off to sleep.

***

Diana awoke in silence in the dark, still in her mother's arms. She felt the wetness on her left shoulder and reached behind her to feel the sticky fluid. It was blood. Her mother did not respond when Diana prodded her and she was ready to cry out, but then saw torches approaching through the brush outside their hiding place. She raised her bow and stuck the arrows in the dirt next to her, point down.

At the sound of footsteps in the nearby brush, she quietly nocked an arrow. She was no good at ten yards, no good at two, but she might have one shot, one chance at a target a few feet away. When the boots of an attacker stopped in front of their hiding place—boots of soft leather tooled at the heel—she struggled to pull the arrow back, aiming at the entrance to the hollow trunk. Her fingers hurt and shoulders trembled, but she held her position until she heard the sound of boots no more.
When the attacker had passed, Diana relaxed the bow and felt the pain in her fingers and shoulder. Her mother remained quiet and needed help quickly, but Diana was bound to their hiding place, knowing the trackers would capture them if she tried to escape. There was nothing she could do but wait helplessly in the cold mist and cry quietly.


...to be continued ...
(c) 2015 B. R. Strong, Jr.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Part 2, The North: 2.1 The Troubles/Pastoral



2.1.   Troubles

2.1.1.Diana and the Sheep

“Mother, when!” Diana asked. It was her eleventh birthday and she'd not had a proper party in at least, well, at least a year.

“Soon dear, patience,” her mother said.

Patience was not one of Diana strengths and she meandered through their farm house in her party dress. Dawdling about her mother's bedroom, she inspected the dressing table and the jewelry box with ivory inlay that always fascinated her. Mother told her the inlay was carved from dragon tooth, and father wove fantastic stories of dragons and the brave heroes who rode them and their palaces of carved stone and wood in the high mountains to the southeast. They were only stories of virtue and adventure for little girls, but she still wished they were true. She held the box in the sun to see the opalescent sparkle and smiled, then put it gently back in its place.

Wandering outside, Diana walked the small trail to the coral and pasture in the Amboise hills, still green from the late spring rains. She snuck into a tent erected for visiting stockmen, found the farm manager, Ted, and sat next to him. He faced six men: three appeared to be farmers from Limint to the north with rough hands and open-faces, three others were perhaps from Cherryth in the east with dark skin and short stature who surveyed her with narrow eyes.

“For my son and his new wife,” said a ruddy faced man from Limint. “We need a flock to keep them away from the town.” The others smiled

“And the groom away from the tavern wenches, I’ll wager,” his companion added and they laughed.
Ted cleared his throat. “There’s a lady present, gentlemen,” he said. The men turned in surprise to see young Diana in her party dress while the dark men scanned her without turning their heads.

“Why, thank you, sir. No one has ever called me a gent before,” a man from Limint said with a big smile which raised more laughter. He dipped his head toward Diana. “Beggin’ your pardon mam, no offense intended,” he said. Diana nodded though she did not know what he apologized for. The men turned back to their conversation.

“Ah, then. How long will it take,” the first man asked. “How long before the heard will be self-sustaining?”

“Four years,” another said. “It will take four years for the herd to support your son and his new wife.”

“Two,” Diana said idly. The men ignored her with indulgent smiles and the dark men scanned her again.

“Four years,” the man repeated loudly to the group without looking at Diana. “Three litters in four years, two per litter.” The other men nodded their heads in agreement.

“Two years,” Diana said just as loudly. “You start with one male and two females. Two years and you will have four extra rams and one sheet of wool to trade. The rams are food except for the alpha. You'll start with one acre...” The men interrupted her and began to argue loudly, some seeming to agree, others to disagree.

The first man laughed at her, unable to ignore her . “Keep to your needle point, little girl. This is man's work.” he said.

Diana flushed with anger and stomped her foot, but the men ignored her and returned to their discussion. Ted was quiet but smiled at Diana's pique. Infuriated, she walked to the side of the tent and opened the tent flap with a view of her large flock of healthy sheep. She whistled for her dogs which immediately came to sit at her side. The men turned at the whistle, rose, and went to admire the sheep.

Richard de Cherbourne, Diana's father, entered the tent and the visitors immediately complimented him for the flock, but he waved his hands to quiet them.

“Please sirs, if your interest is sheep, the owner stands there,” Richard said and pointed to Diana who still stood at the open tent flap. “But I must steal her away for a while first.” He walked over to Diana. “Hon, it's time for your party,” he said and leaned over to pick her up to carry her to the house.
Before they left the tent, Diana looked over Richard's shoulder to the astonished stockmen and, avoiding the temptation to stick out her tongue at them, said, “Ted can negotiate the terms of sale...”
But the dark men did not reply.

1.1.1.Richard Gives Diana a Birthday Gift


Outside the tent, Richard spoke to Diana. “I need to ride east, hon, and will miss your party,” he said and handed her a long package wrapped with colorful parchment and ribbon. “Happy Birthday.”
Before the wrapping paper hit the ground her gift was exposed, a small version of the bow and arrows her father’s archers bore, though without fancy decoration or colorful string or fletching.
“It's not a toy, girl,” he said, “just a start. We can practice when I return.”

It was perfect. “Oh, thank you, papa!” She hugged him hard and kissed him on the cheek and forehead.

“Lass, I must go now,” he said. “Let's hurry, or you'll miss your party.” Richard walked her to their house, kissed her and rode away.

Diana could hear the children gathered for her party and took a step to join them, but the bow fascinated her and she went back outside to the coral to test it. Standing three yards from a post, which she thought to be a suitably large target, she nocked an arrow and raised the bow. The bowstring was stiff and thin and hurt her fingers. Her shoulders were not strong enough to pull it to her chin, so that when she released the arrow it fell to the ground only a few feet in front of her. Papa was right, this is no toy, she thought. After failing a second attempt as well, she stared at the bow with a frown.

With pursed lips she glared at the bow. “We are not done, you and I,” she said, looked at the bow, and walked to her bedroom. She put the bow and quiver in the middle of her bed where her guests would not find them and left for her party.

...to be continued ...
(c) 2015 B. R. Strong, Jr.