Or actually first novel, I wrote this before The Demons, but I have needed to edit it a lot more.
I am pretty busy right now trying to get this novel into some sort of publishable shape, so posting is going to be somewhat slow for a while. But I am going to be posting a few sample chapters of this novel too. Ah, the nameless one… well, it doesn’t even quite have a name yet, I have been calling it On Dragon Paths so far but I think I am going to change that. Maybe.
Anyway, the first chapter. Which I am not quite happy with, it’s mostly an infodump and gives some of the background in order to make what follows understandable – the story is a portal fantasy, and the first version was written completely from the viewpoint of the protagonist, an Earth woman who ends up in some other, parallel world where magic works, and you began to understand the world at the same rate as she did, and it just didn’t work very well, so after a while I added the parts from the viewpoints of some of the other characters. But I don’t think I am going to began a complete dismantling at this point. Maybe I should, the general advice is, after all, that you should only put forth your best work.
On the other hand I have been playing with this so damn long already that starting that all over again just doesn’t feel right. It is what it is. I don’t know if polishing will make that much of a difference now. Complete rewrite might, but that I am not going to do.
But anyway, here we go:
A few hours earlier, somewhere else:
The shackles chafed his wrists and neck, the night air froze on his bare skin. Otherwise he was in good shape. The Mershan would not hurt them, not yet. Not before the ceremony.
Prince Theran, Keeper of the Black Sword and Defender of the Realm – and with a score of other pompous titles none of which he much liked – walked on.
He tried to hope. The enemy’s custom was to give some sort of a fighting chance for their sacrificial victims. It was supposed to raise the energy – hope, anger, despair, to have them all present in a victim was much better than a victim who had already given up, so the Mershan would play with their victims. At least in theory that might give him and his men the break they needed. They would be kept well enough before that, no beatings and enough food and water. Again, for the sake of the power the enemy hoped to raise… Most of his men who had survived the capture were unhurt so if only a couple of them could break free the odds might not be completely impossible. Especially as most of the Mershan present during these ceremonies, if the knowledge their spies had given them was right, didn’t carry weapons.
Theran bent his neck to hide the fleeting, bitter smile.
Yes, and if he and his men could just sprout wings about now…
He couldn’t believe in hope. But he would not give up, not before they tore his heart out. He had beaten the odds before.
Of course the odds had never been quite this bad before.
At least the Black Sword was safe. He rarely carried it unless the mission was one where he thought he would need it. The Swords were highly visible to magic, hiding one took constant work, and he had not thought he’d have much use for magic when inspecting the Borderland Dukedoms on the far side of the Dragon Mountains as a representative of the High King, as was the custom to do once every year. Those dukedoms were in the more dangerous parts of the borderlands, sure, but there hadn’t been all that much enemy activity for generations even here, and his party had been thought to be sufficiently large and well armed. So he hadn’t taken the Sword. It was still safe.
And Lania… she had been one of the warriors who had stayed to guard the Sword. The thought that she was safe offered some comfort.
He wondered if the Mershan knew who he was. They had not implied that they did. Of course whether they knew or not didn’t matter much anymore. They knew how strong his Talent was. Like the Sword that was something hard to hide, impossible after they had gotten this close to him.
There were a few others with exceptionally strong Talent among his men. That might have been what had lured the Mershan to come after them in the first place, whether they had recognized him or not. Far more power could be taken by killing the Talented than from the more ordinary sacrifices.
What worried him the most was that the Mershan had not done anything like this for so long… there were not supposed to go that far inside the Free Lands, not in this day and age.
What was going on? Were the Free Lands as a whole at risk? Or just the Dukedoms?
He hoped there would have been some way to warn his people. But they had been too well warded. Perhaps…
The line of prisoners was brought to a halt so abruptly that Theran almost fell. An enemy soldier near him guffawed and Theran glared at him, noting absently that the boots the man was wearing were his. Had been his.
When he looked past the man he saw that they had reached a clearing in the forest, one surrounded by a broken wall. There was a low hill to one side. The rising moon was near full, its light bright enough to show the door leading into the hill clearly.
Well, it looked like they had arrived. End of the line.
He had been schooled to conceal his emotions since he was a child. He was confident nobody could have told what they were at the moment. That was good. Because he was very, very scared, and probably the only thing left for him was to die with dignity. That much he still owed to his men.
And to himself.
“You done yet, uh, it was Laura, right?”
Laura Thomas, down on the floor on her knees, looked up at the tired face of her coworker, an older black woman, and nodded.
“Almost. Just have to get a few more of these chewing gum stains off. You go ahead and leave if you’re done.” She reached with her left hand to push a few of the escaped strands of her long hair – sort of blond at the roots, very blond at the tips, badly in need of some hairdresser care – away from her face, ended up wiping some sweat off too. Not that the work was all that tiring – well, it could be, but in truth her sweating might have had more to do with her weight. Which was a bit more than it should have been.
The other woman hesitated, then nodded. “You remember everything you should do when you leave?”
“Well, all right, but remember you have to be out in half an hour.”
“Don’t worry,” Laura said and smiled.
The woman didn’t look totally convinced but smiled back anyway.
Fine job, Laura thought, cleaning up the messes of supermarket customers. Not that she hadn’t had worse ones. Cleaning cheap hotel rooms, for example. At least here she wouldn’t have to deal with things like used condoms or vomit. Not often, anyway.
On the other hand, here she wouldn’t find tips left on the table either.
Wonderful life… What the hell has my guardian angel been doing lately, probably off somewhere drinking… or that job order got misplaced years ago.
She waved goodbye to the woman. She shouldn’t actually have left Laura alone, her being the new one and not considered quite trustworthy yet. The older cleaner had family though, kids waiting at home. She was in a hurry. Laura had no pressing needs. Except for sleep.
Laura couldn’t remember the woman’s name. She had been told it on the first night, a couple of days ago, but she’d forgotten and been too ashamed of that to ask again. She’d have to figure some way to find it out if this work became permanent. Like she had been sort of promised. If she proved herself out.
Proved that I’m willing to work my ass off for pay which isn’t enough by itself to keep me in my apartment and eating, and that I’m law-abiding enough that I won’t steal even that food which is past its ‘best before’ date and will be thrown away anyway.
She took a few steps to the next gum stain and kneeled again, feeling disgusted. This one was fresh. Less easy to get off than the older, well hardened ones.
Well, this helps to pay the bills. As long as I also have that waitressing job.
At least there the pay was almost decent. An actual restaurant, at least according to the owner, but definitely on the low end of the scale. But yes, they did pay the staff fairly well, and the tips could be good. She just couldn’t get enough hours there to make a living with only that job. Even with the tips.
Her knees hurt. She decided for the umpteenth time to try and get rid of at least some of that excess weight, it was beginning to affect her freedom of movement. Not to mention her social life. Or her job prospects… at the restaurant her boss had been given hints about that lately. Her figure had been really great once, a classic hourglass, with the muscles of a trained dancer. With that figure guys had once mostly seemed to ignore the fact that she pretty much was what usually got called ‘horse-faced’. Not really ugly, mind you, just not quite model material… but with that figure she had been a stunner, in spite of her less that beautiful face.
Now… she hadn’t danced for years. Now she was getting past the point where a polite way to describe her figure would be ‘full’ well into where the only fitting word was just fat. And men didn’t seem to be particularly interested anymore. At least not those types of men she would have liked to meet. Who’d be interested in a fat and horse-faced menial worker?
Not that she had any time for social life. And even when she worked most of the time she was awake there never seemed to be enough money. She should never have taken those loans… only back then she had thought she had a really bright future.
Laura sighed and tried to push her hair out of her eyes once again. She really wanted that visit to a hairdresser, but she wasn’t sure if she could afford it this month. Or next one, either. Her real color was blond but a rather dull and sort of dirty looking blond. As a golden blonde she looked good. Or at least she had used to look good with that color, who knew if it did fit her that well now.
Maybe she should start thinking whether she might be able to handle a third job again. A part time one, only on two or three days during the week maybe? Finding one was of course a different matter.
She had studied prelaw once. Before things had started to go to hell. Sometimes she still hoped she could get out of the hole her life had become. Other times she just hoped to endure it. Simply paying those bills she couldn’t avoid, food, rent, electricity, gas for her old car, was hard enough, and when you added trying to pay off that goddamned old student loan, and the other one, it meant working most of the time she was awake and that left very little chance for improving things. She kept trying to find better paying jobs, but while she did have enough education for at least something she never seemed to be able to give a good enough impression at the interviews she managed to get. She had tried to study, but most of the time she was simply too tired.
Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself, there are people much worse off…
Laura grinned at herself – well, she was sure that complaining, mental or vocal, was probably good for you, at least sometimes, but maybe she really had done enough of that for tonight – then bent her head and stopped the familiar mental jeremiad, concentrating again on the job.
Several chewing gum stains later Laura finally rushed out of the employees’ door, having gotten out with only a few minutes to spare. After a nervous look around the badly lit parking lot she headed towards her old Toyota, one of the few cars left there, digging for the keys as she walked.
Maybe she wouldn’t go to bed right away. There was that paperback novel she had found in the used books store… a little bit of derring-do by a well-muscled hero hunting a dragon might be exactly what she needed to unwind tonight.
Maybe just a chapter or two.
And then, with no warning, it happened.
The sound was high, an unbearably sweet rising and falling note. Young Prince Aran, High King Arakan’s second son and heir to the Crown, turned restlessly in his sleep, then awoke with a start. His eyes searched the room before finally setting on the large black sword on the table opposite his bed. Slowly he got up and walked to the table.
The sound was still echoing around the large bedchamber. Somebody, probably one of his bodyguards, was shouting something from the other side of the door. He paid the voice no attention.
The sound was definitely coming from the sword. He reached for it and then paused. He had never touched the Black Sword before, and it was something more than just a weapon. Yet there was supposed to be no danger.
The boy took up the sword, then drew it from its scabbard. He just barely managed to do that. He was only eleven, after all, and this was a grown man’s weapon. When the sword was out the sound got clearer, and then abruptly ended after a triumphant high note. He almost dropped it.
The pounding on the door got louder.
“I’m fine,” he shouted, then carefully lowered the sword back on the silk-covered table. “Wait just a moment, I’m coming!”
There were several anxious faces on the other side, all his nightshift bodyguards and several of the other guardsmen working on the same floor. Even one of the servant girls, holding a broom she had probably grabbed from one of the closets for a weapon. Nobody would be cleaning the floors at this hour of the night. The boy almost laughed at the fierce look on her face. Well, she was well trained, but ayway… it just looked funny. It took an effort to keep his face serious.
“I’m fine, as I said before. But something probably very important has happened. Go and wake the king. I think his presence is required here.” He thought he was sounding quite grown-up and felt a fleeting sense of satisfaction before something occurred to him.
“Jemar,” he pointed at a guard who had often worked as his valet when he was traveling. “Come inside and help me get dressed.”