In celebration of the release of my second self-published novel, She’s All Thaumaturgy (which you can get FREE 6/29/20 – 7/3/20), I wanted to share the first chapter with you, like I did with The Korinniad. Enjoy, Dear Reader!
Like most things, on the subject of the origin of dragons there is some argument: zealots claim they are the gods’ first creation, alternative zealots claim they are abyssal creatures from the godless gorge of which they dare not speak, and a bold few* claim they popped, fully-formed, out of the aether itself. However, the most learned historians in Maw have concluded that dragon ancestry was founded in the nation of Heulux, developing over many, many years.
Located long ago in the center of the Falholm Expanse, the island of Heulux was set in motion—quite literally—and dragged across the sea by magical means where it met up violently and permanently with the continent of Yavarid, an event known as the Aegnap. The fossil record shows that dragons were at first tiny things, no larger than a crow, but began to grow to colossal sizes upon Heulux’s absorption into Yavarid—they’re exactly like goldfish in that way—until they could swallow grown men whole if they didn’t sear off their flesh with fiery breath first.
Though its inhabitants were savages, the humans of Yavarid had at the very least the good sense to blot out the beasts from their skies shortly after the island was assimilated, and dragons became naught but legends. As any modern reader will know, the extinction of dragons didn’t last—it, of course, never does—but for that time when they were only myth, humans would say they were much better off, and elves would disagree.
– from Midvalian Monsters and How to Slay Them, Edina Oglethorpe, pub. 1987 PA
*By “a few,” we mean that old coot Jacobin Blacktower, and what does he know, really?
Perhaps it would have been more exciting had the weapons not been blunted, or had an enchantment not been placed across the field to dull the players’ magic, but as it stood, the Crowned Prince’s Royal Melee was, to Elayne, rather stupid. Though, to be fair, who could hit whomever else the hardest had never really impressed her. Elayne Orraigh wasn’t like other girls in that respect, it was important, if tiresome and boorish, to note. While the other highborn ladies filled the tourney stands, expertly catching the eye of competitors with knowing looks, laughing coyly at their missteps, and gasping animatedly at their recoveries, Elayne had her nose planted firmly between the pages of a book because, she would tell you, she simply did not give a shit.
“I can’t believe you,” Rosalind grunted at her side.
Elayne glanced up from the yellowed parchment and over to her friend. Rosalind was frowning. “What?”
“A History of Hallowmarch? That place doesn’t even exist anymore!” The woman plucked at the cover in Elayne’s hands then gestured to the field below, a massive oval that had been raked down to dirt, surrounded by stands decorated in the colorful banners of every duchy and county in Yavarid, save for one. From their spot at the highest point in the stands they could just make out a squire neither woman knew charging madly out across the field, a wooden sword held above his head, his chest exposed. Another squire Elayne might have seen a time or two hanging around the stables was standing squarely in his way, shield held firmly at his side, covering nothing of value but his non-dominant arm. They’d come to blows in a short moment.
Elayne shrugged. “I suppose I just don’t know how to appreciate all this…brawn.”
“I don’t know how you can tune it out.” Rosalind flicked the tip of her friend’s long, pointed ear.
Elayne was quick to tuck it back into the mass of dull hair she’d knotted at the back of her head. “Quit that!”
The squires crashed into one another, bringing their weapons down onto hastily-raised shields. There was a gasp from the crowd, Lady Aowen even jumping from her seat and clutching at her chest. Then a dim yellow spark shot out from between the squires, throwing them off of one another. The crowd roared.
“Did you see that?” Rosalind’s face brightened, and she sat up straighter, her fists balled up on her knees as she teetered on the edge of her seat.
“You could do better.” Elayne turned the page with a shrug. “You’d never have left yourself open like that.”
Rosalind took in a sharp breath then elbowed her friend with a laugh. “Stop, you’re gonna make me blush!”
Elayne doubted that very much—she didn’t think she’d ever seen Rosalind turn any shade of pink—but avoided complimenting her further to save her arm from another friendly tap. Rosalind probably thought she’d been gentle, but with the height of a grown man and just as broad shouldered, the woman packed a wallop she often forgot.
It wasn’t untrue though, Rosalind probably could have done better: she was as big as any of them and had twice as much heart, but she wasn’t a mage in any sense of the word, even compared to the novice squires. Elayne had tried to teach her despite being fairly certain her own skills weren’t something she could pass on, but humans were either gifted or they weren’t, it seemed, and Rosalind had proved only talented in what was considered the most useless form of magic there was: dinky conjuring. She’d taken to that like a sword through soft cheese—it didn’t belong there, but it certainly got the job done.
“Look at that idiot,” Elayne hissed, leaning in toward Rosalind as one of the squires picked himself up and ran. “At least he’s leading with his head: when he gets hit nothing of value will be lost.”
Rosalind let out a snort. “I knew there was a good reason to drag you to this thing!” She laughed, a bit too loudly as was her way, and had attracted the attention of some of the ladies down front. Vyvyan glanced back at them with an upturned lip, and Elayne quickly dipped her head back into the pages of her history text. She would have preferred invisibility, but as far as she knew neither human nor elf had mastered that yet, and so the book would have to do.
The taunting was both better and worse now that they were older. Mocking nicknames shouted across halls and blatant tripping in stone corridors had turned to quiet snickering in shadowed archways and bumps that could easily be explained away as accidental. But of course Elayne’s face hadn’t changed over the last decade—if anything it had gotten worse—and while the whispers weren’t loud enough to make out, not knowing what was being said allowed her own imagination to bully her worst of all. But she didn’t always have to imagine.
Just between Elayne’s nose and the book, a fissure drew itself through the air, opening only wide enough to afford a small glance at the swirling blues and purples in the heart of the aether, that chaotic place where all magic was formed. It was always jarring, no matter how many times one saw it, but that was to be expected of magic—if it were mundane, then it would just be science.
Out from the slit in space itself, a tiny creature scrambled. It wasn’t really possible to count how many legs—or were they arms?—the creature had, and more impossible still would be to count its eyes as they seemed to appear and sink back into the amorphous blob that was its body constantly, but the thing was identifiable nonetheless as a dinky. Elayne started with a gasp at its sudden appearance, then sighed as it raised a bluish-black leg-arm at her.
“Hey there,” she replied, failing to muster any enthusiasm. She told herself long ago that the dinkies couldn’t be held responsible for the messages they delivered even if they were usually a bummer when they showed up. In fact, so little was known about dinkies, that no one was really sure if they knew what they were doing at all when instructed to travel in that unseen place that was pure, chaotic aether, carrying messages to people that otherwise it would be impossible to reach. Because of this, their employ had not been made by older generations—the dinkies were new and mysterious and untrustworthy—though someday it probably would be, and surely at that point it would be abused by some tyrannical overlord, but for now the dinkies existed as not much more than a plaything for those who could manipulate the magic.
Elayne watched as the strange, little being floated in the space between her and her book. It squeezed all of its currently visible eyes shut then let out a little squeak as, from what one optimistically could call its mouth, erupted a fine, silvery thread that wove itself before her eyes. There, hanging before her in an elaborate script read the words: What are you laughing at, crossblood?
She couldn’t help but glance over the edge of her book to catch the eye of Vyvyan once more who smirked back, her cronies devolving into laughter as she flipped long, golden locks over her shoulder and turned away.
Elayne ground her teeth. Coaxing a dinky out of the aether and imparting to it the correct recipient and message didn’t take an insignificant effort, so being on the receiving end of an incredibly wasteful expenditure of magic really told one something, and in Elayne’s case it was clear: they hate you.
Her hand found the pendant she wore around her neck, and she squeezed it, feeling a heat in her palm, but then a small voice in the back of her mind reminded her that Vyvyan wasn’t worth it, and she quickly tucked the crystal back into the neckline of her dress.
“Oh, finally!” As Rosalind slapped her arm, the dinky and its message were swallowed up into the aether once more, and Elayne was thankful her friend didn’t see. There was no use in them both being upset, and Rosalind would have most definitely retaliated: she never wasted the opportunity to use what little magic she had. “Here they come!”
From the stables at either end of the field, horseback soldiers emerged. From the barn with an entryway swagged in white and gold curtains, four knights from the lesser counties led by the Crowned Prince of Yavarid, Quilliam, took to the field. Their horses were dressed in red and gold, and Elayne was pleased to see they looked just as stupid as she thought they would when she was helping to embroider the sigils on their smocks.
Prince Quilliam sat straight atop his steed, his clean-shaven jaw set hard as he turned to the crowd and waved. He wasn’t the brightest future leader Yavarid would ever have, and he wasn’t the most skilled either, but the continent had entered into a largely peaceful stretch about a hundred years prior—except for, of course, that thing that had happened ten years ago—and there likely wasn’t much he would have to do anyway. The empire of humans could do much worse for their future king, said most of them, and he would be the first to agree.
At the field’s other end and the slightly less opulent, but still gaudy barn, another group of riders emerged. These Elayne recognized, some of the youngest knights of Yavarid proper, named by Quilliam himself when he got the right on his sixteenth nameday. At the back were the Sarvius twins originally from the southern coastal duchy of Breen, Sir Cayleb and Sir Jayceb, though which was which was anyone’s guess. Sir Legosen, one of the few elves who had served at Yavarid since turning up a few years prior out of the Trizian Woods, rode ahead of them and parallel to Sir Voss who raised a hand to the crowd and elicited an abundance of feminine cheers. The loudest cheer came from his sister, Vyvyan, though she was likely screaming, instead, for Sir Frederick who led them.
Elayne jerked her book up in front of her face, but not so high that her eyes could no longer trail the riders. Sir Frederick was not pandering, his eyes locked on the prince from across the field, but he was grinning, his teeth bright white and gleaming. He did have nice teeth. Then he saluted the prince playfully and dismounted with a single flourish. There it was, she thought, the showmanship everyone else seemed to eat up. Bloody ridiculous.
His party would lose, of course, no one would beat the crowned prince, and yet the crowd was roaring as the prince also dismounted and strode out before the rest of his men. The horses were led off the field by sweating, muddied squires. So much for the hours of labor surrounded by less than amicable ladies, and the many stabbings Elayne’s fingers had taken for those smocks. The men finally dropped into exaggerated bows to one another, and Rosalind shouted something borderline obscene, but was drowned out by the rest of the crowd.
Elayne chuckled, lowering her book a bit more. It was all very silly, but Frederick and Quilliam were both mages in their own right, and it had been some time since she’d seen magic in action.
Quilliam unsheathed his sword first, a long, broad piece of metal that would have been too big for him if not for the blue stone embedded in its hilt. He gripped it with two hands and flexed all of his fingers, and a blue glow ran up the length of the steel, enveloping the sword in a hazy flame.
Across from him, Frederick’s hand fidgeted over his own hilt, an emerald embedded there. His eyes were trained on the prince who gave him a nod, and when he unsheathed it, the sword lit instantly with its own green glow. Human mages were born with the gift to manipulate aether, usually passed down through family lineages. Most mages utilized stones or gems previously embedded with aether by another while the rarer mage could pull chaotic aether right out of the world around them. Soldiers were most frequently the former, but despite his actions on the field, Elayne knew Frederick could do both.
“There’s an enchantment, right?” Elayne placed her book in her lap. “Dulling everything?” The sun caught the metal of the other swords being unsheathed, gleaming unlike the squires’ wooden ones.
Rosalind nodded. “Yeah, yeah, of course.”
The prince held his weapon aloft and called out, and the crowd jumped to their feet. The teams charged one another, and like a choreographed dance, each met with their match, leaving their leaders stark still.
The crowd went wild at the metallic cracks ringing over the field, and Elayne found herself craning her neck to see around the highborn ladies and gentlemen who were flailing their arms and shouting below. Frederick and Quilliam then broke from their spots and ran into the fray.
In the grandest view of time, humans hadn’t had magic for all that long, but it had been more generations than most of their history books bothered to go back, so that was as good as forever. Human magic, though, was new to the rest of Maw, and it sometimes went a bit weird, especially since they didn’t always seem to understand it. Even the wizards who were lauded as the best human wielders of magic, who could capture aether in worthy containers, bend it to their will, and even imbue their writing and words with it were cloudy at best on its working. Despite that they could silently conjure up enough magic to wreck your whole day, if one asked how any of them did it, one would not get a very good answer, and that was exactly how they insisted it was supposed to be. Elves, on the other ear, couldn’t exactly give you a straight answer either, but at least they were all born with some semblance of a gift that allowed them to work with the natural world. In contrast, they did not pull chaos out of thin air, conjuring fire with a snap or packing an extra unseen ten pounds behind a punch, but each one could forge a special connection with aether that existed in trees or creatures, and that felt a bit more orderly.
All of this ran through Elayne’s mind in a jumble that translated itself to “oh shit!” as she watched a bolt of chaotic aether ricochet from between Frederick and Quilliam’s crashing swords. Colors flashed on the field below, and Elayne was unsure who was truly a magic caster and who was purely brawn as bodies went flying. It was wild and frightening, and no one seemed to be pulling their punches.
Elayne snapped her book shut and slid to the edge of the stand. Rosalind shouted from her side, “Kill the arsehole!” though it wasn’t obvious for whom her very clear instructions were meant. The action on the field was chaotic, messy, and yet stilted and odd. Elayne pulled her eyes from the scene to look out on the rest of the crowd, those who’d fought to get as close to the action as possible. These were people who would soon be walking stiff-backed with chins in the air, who would look down on Rosalind when she walked by with dirt on her face and sweat on her brow, who would mock Elayne for not looking how they imagined someone properly should, and yet here they were, looking and acting absolutely foolish themselves. She growled in the back of her throat and threw herself back, slamming her book open again with a huff. So damned bloody ridiculous.
Then there was a collective gasp from the audience, and Elayne shot her head up again. The crowd fell silent as Frederick and Quilliam fell against one another. Their teammates lay scattered across the field in mock loss or triumph, two from either side standing or sitting atop their opponents, all looking on. For a moment, Frederick seemed to have the upper hand, his shining green blade darting about the prince in a hypnotizing pattern, but then the prince struck out, a flash of blue coming off his sword and sending the knight skidding on his back across the dirt. With a flourish, he flipped back up onto his feet, bringing his shield before him and hunkering down behind it. His back raised and fell with deep breaths, and he flipped sweaty, brown strands from his eyes.
Quilliam raised both of his arms then and abandoned his own shield, taking up his hilt in two hands and leveling it before him. The highborns hollered praise for the prince, citing his impressive bravery, and Elayne cocked her head: wasn’t this all going to plan? Still her heart thumped a bit harder when she saw Frederick toss his own shield to the side as well.
The men ran, their swords coming together with a clang. The sound echoed across the tourney field and the crown called back to it. Over and over the two seemed matched, a thrust here, a parry there, they clashed, they sweat, they threw one another across the dirt, until Quilliam dodged a jab, spun, and brought his own sword down on Frederick so hard that the knight fell to one knee and braced his weapon above his head with a gloved hand around his own blade.
Elayne found herself on her feet at the sight, her book abandoned, and had clasped Rosalind’s hand in her own. The prince forced Frederick down further until the knight had fallen onto both knees. Both men’s chests heaved, they pressed against one another, and the colored flames of their swords had gone out. This was simply steel on steel now, and Elayne held her breath.
With a flash and a slice, Quilliam’s sword slid down Frederick’s, knocking the knight onto his back and his weapon dancing across the dirt. The prince slammed a boot firmly down onto the knight’s chest, and he leveled the point of his sword at his neck. The Crowned Prince Quilliam of Yavarid had won.
A roar rose up around Elayne as she sighed, falling back down onto the stands. Placing a hand on her chest, she felt how her heartbeat had quickened and screwed up her face in disgust. She rolled her eyes and focused on the sky instead where a group of hawks were circling high above in the clear blue. Elayne cocked her head, watching the birds with a suddenly sharper gaze, not sure if the odd feeling in her gut was annoyance at her own reaction or—
“Amazing!” Rosalind slapped Elayne on the back, and the girl nearly went flying forward into the cheering crowd below.
Steadying herself on the bench, she glanced up to her friend. Her eyes were sparkling, and a smile was spread across her face. “I’m glad you’re happy, Ro,” she managed, catching her breath.
With a quick look back out onto the field, she could see Prince Quilliam offering a hand to Sir Frederick and the two throwing an arm around one another before the prince’s horse was brought to him. He mounted the steed, muddying the embroidered dress the animal wore, and lapped the tourney field to wild applause.
“Grieg will be sorry he missed this.” Rosalind propped her fists on her hips, nodding out over the field.
“I’m sure there will be another.” Elayne stood again, clutching her book to her chest. “And another…and another. It’s Quillie’s naming moon, and he’s getting the crown at the end of it.”
Rosalind looked around conspiratorially though they had been sitting quite apart from the others who were already exiting the stands. “I don’t…I don’t think you should call him that.” It was a hard habit to break, dropping the nicknames they’d known one another as in childhood, but as they entered adulthood, and especially as Quilliam prepared to take the throne, slip ups couldn’t happen. Not that it mattered much, she thought, as she watched a gaggle of unwed highborn ladies clamor about at the edge of the tourney field: she’d barely spoken a word to the prince—or to any of them—in almost a decade. Elayne cocked her head. “I suppose not.”
If you enjoyed that, there’s a whole novel more! Pick up She’s All Thaumaturgy free on Kindle Unlimited or just $2.99 for the ebook here!