After the Dragon

(Excerpt ony)

Wendy Palmer





After the Dragon by Wendy Palmer cover









BooksForABuck.com

January 2008

After the Dragon

Wendy Palmer

Copyright 2008 by Wendy Palmer, all rights reserved.

No portion of this novel may be duplicated, transmitted, or stored in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental

Published by BooksForABuck.com

ISBN: 978-1-60215-063-8



Map of Bourchia and Lavania

After the Dragon Map




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Chapter One

* * * *

Trick held his sword lengthwise against his leg and kept walking. He knew he was being followed. He even knew who was following. This had been coming for a long time.

First I'll be slammed against the wall, he thought. Then they'll say something clever, and then--

They took him from behind and spun him into the wall. He went off it lightly but Randulf grabbed his shoulders and shoved him back against it.

'Don't you know it ain't safe to walk the streets alone at night?' Randulf said.

Not particularly clever after all. He rolled his eyes and got his head thumped into the wall. A bright explosion of light behind his eyes blinded him.

'We're sick of you thinking you're too good for us, mate.' Randulf looked behind him and the pack of men made a mutter of agreement.

Trick looked over at them as well and brought his sword up between Randulf's legs. He saw them recoil, felt the bigger man freeze and suppressed a vicious surge of triumph.

'Where did you get the idea I'm the victim of bullies?' he asked, the blade of his sword sharp and hard in his attacker's groin. Their eyes met. 'You need to back up, soldier.'

Randulf eased backwards until he could get off his toes. Trick waited, knowing he should have castrated the man. Red in the face and breathing hard, Randulf drew his own sword. His little gang shuffled into a circle enclosing them.

Trick sighed and pushed off the wall. His first swing glanced off the other man's blade and he danced away. He had given Randulf his chance and now he wanted to end it quickly. He dropped his sword back beside his leg and raised his left arm defensively in front of him. In the dim lamplight he looked unarmed, though Randulf knew intimately that wasn't so.

If he had underestimated the man, he would lose the arm.

He had taken worse bets and won.

Randulf went for his upraised arm--too tempting a target. Trick turned with the blade, coming under and past the swing, and then chopped his own sword at Randulf's defenceless back. A great gush of blood spurted out and Randulf shrieked.

Trick turned on the other men, but they grabbed their leader and ran down the street, clattering on the cobblestones and splashing through puddles. When the noise faded, Trick sat down in the empty, blood-splattered street, holding his sword loosely between his knees. His head hurt where it had bounced off the wall. He touched the spot, finding a lump and maybe blood.

'You're just not a nice man, are you, Trick?' he said. His words hung in front of him. He might have used the flat of the sword rather than trying for a kill. But then he'd still be fighting, and who knew when the others would have joined in. He had done the right thing. It didn't make him feel any better.

Footsteps disturbed him, echoing in the quiet street. He was not alarmed. It was late, but Port Told never slept and it was only one set of footsteps. Not alarmed, he still took a tighter hold of the sword hilt.

They stepped out of an alley a little way down the street. He had been wrong--there were two of them, a man and a woman. The woman was almost as tall as the man and wore a heavy black hooded cloak covering her body and face. But he knew she was a woman, from the fall of the cloak over her body and the way she moved. She walked so quietly that the steps of the man beside her drowned any noise she might have made.

The man watched him as they walked towards him. He looked familiar and Trick for a moment thought he knew him. He realised his feeling of recognition came from the man's pale and icy blue eyes and blue-black hair. He was an Ullwyn.

Trick turned his head, closed his eyes and pushed the tips of his fingers into his eyelids, taking his hands from the sword until he choked back the impulse to cut the Ullwyn's throat.

'Let it go, Trick, let it go,' he said under his breath, willing calm.

'Hello, cousin.'

Trick uncovered his eyes and looked up at him. The man was plainly suicidal. 'You're no cousin of mine, lordling.' Don't touch the sword, Trick.

'Your mother misses you, Patrick.'

He bounced to his feet, sword at the Ullwyn's throat before he knew what he was doing.

The Ullwyn went ashen and the woman leant over and pushed the blade away. Her fingers were long and pale. Trick followed them up to her cloaked face. 'Are you another one of them?'

She pushed back the hood. Trick froze, his mind a dichotomy. One voice, rimmed in panic, said, That's a DarkElf, that's a DarkElf female. The other voice said, She can't be, you would already be dead.

He lowered his sword and stared at her, barely aware he was staring. Black hair like silk streamed down her back, and her silver eyes were startling in her white face. Like all Elves, her eyes were all iris, no whites. The pupils were like black cracks in two mirrors. She looked back at him, silent and aloof from anything human.

He felt it, the powerful attraction that made these creatures so dangerous.

Then the Ullwyn pulled him away, though not deliberately. 'What was all that about?'

Trick forced himself to look at the Ullwyn and away from the DarkElf. He thought this reputed cousin might just have saved his soul.

'Other soldiers.' He shook his head, stole a glance at her and then set himself once and for all not to look at her again. 'They don't like me.'

'I wonder why?'

Trick's eyes narrowed but there was no real hostility in the Ullwyn's voice. 'You think you're going to get some points by bringing home the maverick cousin?' He thought he'd better sheath his sword.

'Guess again, Patrick.' The Ullwyn smiled at him. 'You're going to help us get down to Ardmore.'

Trick clasped his hand together, knowing it made him look stupidly demure and also knowing he wanted to throttle this man. He let a sly smile slip over his face, the one that had made Randulf and his friends so angry with him.

'Don't tell me you're eloping? Maybe I misjudged you.'

That wiped the self-satisfied look off the Ullwyn's face. He looked scared instead. Trick watched him glance aside at the DarkElf but didn't follow that temptation.

'Don't be ridiculous,' said the Ullwyn, his voice sharpening. 'She wants to go to Wyvern Forest.'

Trick felt her watching him and it made his stomach twist. 'Does she? And is she assassin or spy?' He expected her to strike him down but he saw no movement from the corner of his eye. Maybe you never saw movement when they struck.

The cousin said, 'Shut your mouth, Patrick.'

Good, thought Trick. Got to him. 'Name's Trick.' He rubbed at his eyes. Her gaze made him more and more unsettled and his head hurt badly now.

He turned, dazed, and started to walk away. As always when he was tired or stressed, the ghost of his dead wife tried to wrap him in her arms. He shook off the sudden wish to throw himself on the blades of the DarkElf. 'Time enough for that later.'

He didn't know he had spoken aloud until the Ullwyn said, 'What?'

They were following him. 'Look--' He stopped and looked at the other man.

'Faustus,' said the Ullwyn. 'And this is--' It was his turn to falter on the edge of words.

The DarkElf spoke for the first time. 'Mizuasobi--' She hesitated, then added, 'DarkChild.'

Her voice was honey and cream and smoke. Trick saw the way Faustus stared helplessly at her and realised no one had been around to save his soul.

For his own soul, Trick still wouldn't look directly at her. He caught moonlight glinting off her hair--like silk, another part of him continued to insist.

'Mizzle.' It wasn't right but it was as close as he could come. He addressed her but did not quite look at her. The very traditional personal name was a clue, but her clan name betrayed her entirely. 'Child of the Dark, and you're running away from Daddy, is that it?' He thought it more likely she acted under orders from the Dark, leader of the DarkElves.

'Patrick.' Faustus breathed the word, hugely upset.

'And you've settled on poor besotted Faustie to take you off to Wyvern Forest where the LightElves will slaughter you.'

Mizzle said nothing.

Faustus said, 'Nonsense. She picked me because I'm Ullwyn--All Friend. They'll listen to me.'

'You were All Friend two hundred years ago, cousin,' said Trick. 'Now you're just a pack of inbred overfed soon-dead nobles who the Elves don't remember and don't give two--' He contained himself. 'They're not going to fall on their knees to you while she acts against them.'

'You know nothing.' Faustus was coldly furious but Mizzle remained impassive.

'You know less,' said Trick, temper threatening, keeping his hand well away from his sword. 'Ask yourself why, by the blue eyes of Fortune, a DarkElf would want to go to Wyvern?'

The DarkElf moved suddenly, catching his eye. 'My reasons,' she said, 'are not your business. You will do as your cousin asks.'

He looked away sharply. 'Look, both of you--' but speaking entirely to Faustus. 'I don't know what you're doing but I'm not getting involved. So go find yourself another puppy to play with.'

'Patrick.' Faustus was apparently regaining his composure. 'You help us or you'll be conducting tomorrow's morning service.'

'Big threat, Ullwyn,' said Trick, pleased to hear only scorn in his voice. The thought of being made High Priest of Fortune gave him the night sweats but Faustus didn't need to know that. 'What're you going to do, drag me back to the manor yourself? Try, I'd like that.' Faustus had seen the blood on his sword when he had held it to the arrogant bastard's throat. 'Or run and fetch some house guards, Faustie. I'll wait, I'm sure.'

'You're not hard to find, Patrick.'

Trick turned his back and kept walking. Faustus was smug about it, and so Trick was concerned about how they'd found him. He suspected they might have been shadowing him since he had left the inn, hidden by Randulf's noisier gang. As to how they found him at the inn, a few judicious questions at the barracks, perhaps. It didn't matter. He could be damn hard to find and damn harder to hold on to. Just ask older and wiser Ullwyns.

They trailed along behind him. He felt the DarkElf's eyes on the back of his neck and it made the skin between his shoulder blades itchy.

'It was clever, cousin,' called Faustus. 'Hiding under our noses like this. We've been looking in Livania for you. Who knew you'd join the Bourchian army?'

Trick smiled, knowing they could not see his face. Even he had not known he'd join the Bourchian army. He had come to himself some time after Linnet had died--was murdered, said the whisper of his dead wife--and found himself in the Port Told barracks. His smile faded. Faustus was being very smug about finding him. Fine. He asked at the barracks and found him at the inn. But--

'How did you find out I'd joined the army?' he asked, turning. Did not want to enter into further conversation but had to know.

Faustus gave him an insufferable smile and Trick's hand twitched on the hilt of his sword. 'Fortune told me.'

'Fortune?' Trick did not hide his disbelief.

'Yes.'

'The Goddess Fortune appeared to you in a vision just to tell you where I am.'

'Yes.'

Trick looked at his boots and back up. Fortune was an important part of the power and influence of the Ullwyn dynasty but She did not pop up to share gossip with minor twigs in the family tree.

'Right.' He walked on, thinking.

The city gates were closed but he knew of other ways out. It would be difficult to take Bet and Skye with him, but he could get another horse on the road if he had to leave them behind. Was it worth returning to the barracks at all? He had his sword and a few coins, and--he was Lucky but it never hurt to give Fortune a nudge--his marked cards and loaded dice in his pocket. What else did a soldier and a thief need?

A hand on his shoulder stopped him dead. He started to turn, instantly enraged at Faustus, and came face to face with Mizzle just as he noticed how cold that hand was. Their eyes met and locked. He could not look away. He found himself not really wanting to try.

'Stop it,' he said while he could still speak.

'You will help me,' she said, all smoke and mirrors.

His intent was to say No but his mouth said, 'I will help you.'

She let go of his shoulder and his mind. He stepped back, stumbling, taking a quick glance at Faustus, whose face was a picture of fear and awe. A sudden rush of fury at the Ullwyn overwhelmed him--that the man had deliberately sought him out to drag him into this. And then at Fortune, for apparently telling him to. He had no anger for the DarkElf, though. He didn't think that was possible. The only thing he could hold in his mind in respect to her was a desperate need to help her. Although that was her doing, his mind skittered away from blaming her.

'Damn it,' he said. And, 'Cousin,' spitting the word like an insult at the Ullwyn's feet. 'What am I supposed to do for you?'

'You're a thief, aren't you? Used to furtive activities.' Faustus was calm again but Trick wasn't going to forget the look on his face. 'Take us out of the city and down to Wyvern without being caught.'

'By who?' This, Trick felt, was an important question. The thought of other DarkElves on their trail made him shudder.

'By anyone.' Faustus looked around the dim street as if expecting enemies to fall on them.

You blind, impotent little fool. But he didn't want them to see the coiling anger in him. He kept his voice light and insolent. 'You don't know, do you?'

'Let's get moving and we'll never find out.'

Trick shrugged it off. It was more important to run than to quibble about the pursuer. 'Do you have horses?'

Faustus hesitated, looking uncertain. 'One.'

'You ran out of the manor with your pet horse and a handful of pocket money.' He kept his tone flat and neutral.

Not neutral enough, for Faustus flared up. 'Look, Patrick, unlike you, I've got sense of chivalry and--'

Mizzle gestured sharply and he went silent.

Trick sighed to see his complete slavery. 'I've got two more horses, but then we have to get them out the gate. So we're going to be quiet and we're going to listen to me and do exactly what I say.'

Faustus was reluctant to reply but Mizzle gave one curt nod, expressionless.

That blank face, so still and so very beautiful, chilled him but he let the need to help her swallow him and did not surface again until they reached the barracks.

Trick recognised the man on duty at the gate. 'Evening, Walton.' It was well after curfew and he waited.

The other soldier scowled at him. 'You just about killed him, you know.'

'I should've tried harder, then' Trick said, deadpan. Let them think he was too dangerous to cross. Fortune alone knew it was almost the truth.

Walton fidgeted with his pike, eyes hard, but he turned and shoved the gate open. 'They can't come in.'

Walton couldn't know Trick was coming back out. He turned and looked at the two standing behind him. Belatedly, he remembered the elvish aversion to iron. No sign of pain or fear marred Mizzle's smooth face but he guessed she might be relieved at an excuse not to go in to this iron-weaponed stronghold. If she could feel something so human as relief.

'That would be a good idea,' he said, making it not quite a question. And Mizzle crossed her arms and nodded. Faustus made not a sound of protest. Trick suspected he would not have left Mizzle's side even if he had known Trick was going out the back way.

He crossed the yard. Noise spilled out of the mess hall as he went soft-footed past, but the stables were almost deserted. One young stableboy slept in an empty stall, sweet with the smell of hay. Trick did not wake him. New recruits were assigned to the stables but the boys seemed to do most of the work.

He greeted his two horses, rubbing their noses as they nuzzled him over the stall doors. They were yet another source of conflict between the other soldiers and him, when only officers owned horses and no common soldier was allowed to keep theirs. They could not accept that he cared for big Bet for a friend, and that the pretty mare Skye and the special treatment he received was simply a stroke of Fortune like many of the events of his Goddess-blessed life. This latest affair was not one of those blessings. Perhaps Fortune had finally grown tired of him and was granting his wish to join his wife.

He was still undecided. Mizzle's willingness to wait outside gave him the chance to get away but he was reluctant to leave the horses. He would have to wait a long time before the Ullwyns stopped watching the walls and the barracks and he could safely return to the city.

'Curse Fortune and her stupid--' Trick cut himself off, not wanting to wake the stableboy. Stupid Fortuna, stubborn Goddess, insisting that he be Her next High Priest. He had been on the run from the Ullwyns since he was twelve, since the night the old priest had died. He couldn't count the number of times they had dragged him back.

Not again. And no matter how he longed for his dead wife's embrace, he wasn't going to throw his life away following the DarkElf around. 'I could wish for a cleaner death.'

He headed towards the rear of the stables, where a narrow window would let him out against the back wall of the barracks compound, an easy climb. Instantly, his chest constricted and his legs went weak. He went over, clutching at his throat and heaving for breath.

When his vision cleared, he found the stableboy leaning over him, wide-eyed. He pushed the boy away and got up. No wonder Mizzle hadn't blinked about letting him come alone. Her influence had caught him deeper than he suspected, throwing his body into utter panic at the thought of deserting her even as his mind planned escape.

Trick looked to the boy, who stood silent and staring. He remembered this one now. He had arrived a quarter-moon ago and had never said a word. 'Go back to sleep, Mouse.'

The boy nodded, but went and perched himself on one of barrels against the wall, watching. Trick dismissed him. Mouse had no voice to call for help, and if he tried to stop him or run for the guard, Trick would incapacitate him.

He saddled Skye, then Bet. Mouse brought over the tackle while he tried to decide what to do. The hypnotic effect of the DarkElf's eyes had long-lasting effects but surely he would not be imprisoned forever. The feeling would fade and he would be able to escape.

'I just have to be patient,' he told Mouse, who nodded wisely. Trick was surprised into a laugh. 'All right, Mouse. Don't tell anyone.'

He led the horses out of the stables. The boy followed him to the door and came trailing after him as he went towards the gate. Trick glanced askance at him but he seemed harmless enough.

He expected Walton to be sullen and suspicious when he got back to the gate, and hoped Faustus would respond to whatever ruse he had to use to get out of the barracks again. But the guard wore the same expression that he suspected he did.

He looked from Walton's glazed eyes to Mizzle's blank face. 'What did he do to deserve that?'

'She didn't do anything,' said Faustus. 'What's that boy doing?'

Trick turned. Mouse stood by Bet's side, stupidly small against the bulk of the big horse. 'What harm is he?'

'We must go.' Mizzle turned away from them. Trick sensed great impatience behind the mask of impassivity.

Faustus was already following her when Trick had a spark of an idea. 'Just wait a little longer.' He ran back into the compound.

On the other side, apart from the mess hall and sleeping quarters, were the officers' quarters. In the darkness, Trick slipped inside and went up the stairs to Field Marshal Gowan's office.

A few days ago he had been called in here to be given another mild dressing-down, ending in utter leniency. He had read the contents of her desk upside down. A map of the continent had lain open, showing various strategic locations in Bourchia, Livania and Ardmore. Though Trick knew ways across the borders that weren't on this map, he had seen routes into Wyvern Forest marked on it. These were certainly speculative but could be useful, even if he insisted to himself that he would be gone long before they got near Ardmore.

He eased open the door, holding his breath. Sometimes the Field Marshal worked late into the night. He had seen lamplight spilling from her window as he crept into the barracks, out after curfew again. But the office was dark and deserted and the map still on the desk. A moment later, it was folded and tucked into his tunic and he was down the stairs.

Halfway to the gate, he detoured again, this time to the kitchen. Troops were moving tomorrow to reinforce the border against what were euphemistically called threats to Bourchia's north--DarkElves. They were more likely to trade for what they wanted than raid for it now but Bourchians had long memories. In the kitchen, sacks of food were ready to be packed in the morning. He took two, heavy and hard to carry.

Mouse still stood at the gate. Trick looked hard at him before shaking his head and brushing past him. 'We can go now,' he said without a moment of regret for the comrades he was leaving behind.

Mizzle nodded and they walked away from the barracks with never a murmur of protest from Walton. Trick slung his sacks over Bet's saddle and took the reins from Faustus. He looked around once and saw that Mouse trailed along behind. Again, he shook his head, unable to fathom what the boy was playing at. Again, he considered chasing him off. Again, he could not see the harm. If Mouse wanted to turn him in for desertion he had had ample opportunity.

Faustus led them away from the city gates and towards the river. After one turn, Trick noticed Mouse was gone. He wished he could flee too. 'Faustie, you think I'm going to the manor?'

'I need to get my horse,' said Faustus. 'Don't be such a coward, Patrick.'

'And is your horse in the manor?' Faustus could insult him all he liked but he wasn't putting himself into the hands of the Ullwyns.

'I've got him in a stable nearby.' Faustus looked at him with practiced contempt. 'I paid a stablehand to wait up for us to let him out again tonight.'

True enough, they stopped a few streets away from the Ullwyn Manor at a well-appointed livery stable. Faustus went in and came back with a large black stallion that laid its ears back at the other horses.

'Keep Blackie under control, cousin.'

'Blackie?'

'That's the name of your horse, isn't it?' Trick shot him a deliberately insolent grin.

'No,' said Faustus, sounding annoyed. 'It's Coal.'

'Ah,' said Trick, still grinning. 'That's different, then. Keep him under control.'

They set off again, to Trick's relief, away from the manor and towards the city gates.

'The gates are shut for the night. How are you planning on getting out?' He already suspected Mizzle would play her hypnosis game again.

Faustus looked at him. 'That's why you're with us, Patrick.'

Trick stopped. 'What do you expect me to do?'

'What? You're a thief, aren't you?' The Ullwyn's voice rose.

Mizzle watched them both.

'Which doesn't include walking up to the city gates and demanding to be let out.'

'Think of something.'

Trick couldn't help himself. He turned to Mizzle. 'Why don't you do something?'

She looked back with her cat's eyes. 'There is more than one, yes?'

He took a moment to get what she was asking. 'More than one guard on the city gate? Yes.'

'Then I can do little.'

Trick looked at her a moment longer. So she had an honest streak, to admit such a weakness to someone she had to know was not her friend. And while he stared at her he remembered he was no threat to her at all. He shook his head and looked away so he could think. They needed a way out the gate. Now, what had he heard? What had he heard?

'Cousin?'

'Shut up, Faustus.' Something was coming to him. In the inn scant hours ago, he had overheard a conversation between two men. One of them was telling a long convoluted story which ended with the obscure punchline, 'And I'll be damned if the password hasn't been changed to catsbane.' Both of them had found this immensely funny.

Trick frowned. Why had that come to him? Because Catsbane was the name of Field Marshal Gowan's dog and the man in the inn was wearing the uniform of the army messenger service.

Messengers for the army camps on the Bourchian-Livanian border and up north watching for--Trick looked at Mizzle again--northern threats were allowed out the gates at any time.

'Right,' he said. 'Right. Let's go to the gate.'

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