Authors: John D. Payne
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Sword & Sorcery, #Science Fiction & Fantasy
A Novel by John D. Payne
Based on the screenplay “The Virgin and the Warrior,”
by Anne Black, Justin Partridge, and Kynan Griffin
The Crown and the Dragon
Copyright © 2013 Arrowstorm Entertainment
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.
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WordFire Press Digital Edition 2013
Electronic Version by Baen Ebooks
Ethelward Barethon thanked the Gods for the rain that lashed Drumney Beach and washed away the stink, sweat, and blood of battle. It did make it hard to see, though. Ethelward pushed long, wet strands of graying hair out of his face with his gauntleted left fist, wincing slightly as the motion pulled open the cut on his cheek.
“My lord,” said Meilyr, pointing, “the snake.” Ethelward had known this grim-faced man only two hours, but already thought of him as his lieutenant. Combat made fast friends. And strange friends.
“Curse these old man’s eyes,” said Ethelward, straining to see through the rain and the smoke of burning ships. Then, the momentary illumination of a lightning strike revealed distant figures atop a sandy knoll almost a mile down the beach.
“Vitalion!” Ethelward breathed, as the telltale metal scales of their armor gleamed with reflected lightning for an instant.
“Lord Barethon, what shall I tell the men?” Meilyr asked. Standing behind them on the bluff were about three score men from every corner of Deira, waiting in ragged lines for his next command. The motley assortment—none of them his own clansmen—had rallied to his red Laird’s cape in the confusion of battle.
Stroking his moustache, Ethelward frowned. To gain victory he knew they had to find the heart of the invading Vitalion army and rip it out. But where was the enemy’s heart? Ethelward had seen no sign of the serpentine standard indicating the presence of the legion’s commanding officer.
“You’re sure you saw the snake?” he asked.
“Aye, my lord,” said Meilyr.
From his clothing and speech, Ethelward knew the man to be from Renonia—the peninsula closest to the Vitalion empire. Renonian treachery was proverbial in Deira, but in the last hour the man had proved himself as faithful as any Wulfling clansman. Ethelward nodded, vowing to himself to offer Meilyr a place in his service if they both survived the battle.
“Then we attack,” said Ethelward. “Have the men form ranks, five deep. Leave no able man behind.” It pained him to quickly abandon a position that had cost them dearly to obtain, but he would need every sword and spear he could get to cut through the mess on the beach below and reach the knoll.
Meilyr bowed and turned to gather the warriors. “Men of Deira are bold,” Ethelward’s brother liked to say, “but they need shepherding.” And staying together was especially essential in a storm like this, where rain poured out from unnaturally green clouds, and wind and thunder drowned out all but the loudest shouts. In the flood of war, individual men would be subsumed, no matter how valiant.
As Meilyr shouted at the men, rousing them to stand in ragged ranks, Ethelward surveyed the beach below. Through driving rain, and a thick, tarry smoke that stank of sulfur, Ethelward looked in vain for a clear path to the knoll. Knots of scale-armored Vitalion soldiers organized in neat formations were surrounded by leather-clad Deiran warriors led by Lairds in red capes. Brightly colored and elaborately decorated with the insignia of house and personal honors, the capes were sometimes the only things that kept the Deirans fighting in units.
But these units were mere islands of order in the swirling chaos of a battle that had gone beyond any one man’s control. Horsemen rode up and down the beach, launching arrows from the saddle or riding down individual enemies. The air was full of the ring of swords, the clash of shields, and the screams of wounded horses. Men, too, voiced their cries of pain and terror—fighting, fleeing, striving, dying.
The invading Vitalion had circumvented Deira’s fortified strongholds by landing here, near the fishing village of Drumney. So, instead of fishing boats, today the beach was crowded with massive galleys, several of them burning. Before the scale-armored invaders had managed to get ashore, they had been met by thousands of howling Deiran warriors, ready to defend their homeland. The ensuing melee was a complete shambles, the sort of disordered combat that favored the fractious and unruly defenders.
This was all because of one man—Ethelward’s brother, King Elfraed. His cape and his fame had gathered warriors from every clan and every village in Deira. His intuition had set the motley army marching out of nearby Tantillion castle, in the rain, at night. And Elfraed’s heedless charge, the instant the Vitalion were spotted, was followed by every man, exhausted though they were.
It was a bold stroke, but many of the galleys had escaped to sea, including almost all of their auxiliaries, cavalry, and machines of war. Ethelward was sure they were off shore somewhere, waiting to rejoin the battle. To the east lay nothing but unforgiving rock cliffs, but perhaps they could find safe harbor further west. The treacherous Lairds of Rhona had always been happier dealing with the Scales than with their fellow Deirans. At this very minute, Vitalion heavy cavalry could be riding north to Tantillion castle, cutting the Deiran warriors off from their stronghold.
Ethelward had lost track of his brother, which was nothing new. As a boy, he had sworn to protect little Elfraed, but his brother could not be restrained. His boldness had won glory for clan Wulfling, and titles and lands for house Barethon. In recent months, Elfraed had wooed Ethelward’s bride—sweet Maiwenn—by writing daring epistles in his name. Elfraed never listened to people who told him what couldn’t be done, which was how he’d been acclaimed king. But sometimes his rashness left him in impossible positions—from which it was Ethelward’s duty to rescue him.
Ethelward turned to face his men, pulling back his cloak to let the rain fall in his face. A blow from a Vitalion mace had robbed Ethelward of his bronze helm near an hour ago. He felt naked without it, but he had not found a replacement.
“Brothers in battle,” Ethelward shouted, “hear me.”
The men turned to face him, their faces tired and anxious.
He stretched out his left arm toward the battlefield. “As the Gods send their rain to wash our lands, our king has charged us to scour Drumney beach clean of the invaders.”
There was a murmur of assent from the assembled clansmen, some of whom banged their weapons against their shields or shook them angrily.
Ethelward drew his five foot great sword and lifted it to the sky, which showed no sign of lessening its wrath. “For Elfraed! For the king!”
Several of the warriors took up his cry, but Ethelward was sad to see that not many warriors were moved by love of king. Perhaps he was too far south. Trying a different approach to rouse them, loyal Meilyr stepped forward with spear raised high and shouted, “Kill the Scales! Death to the Vitalion!”
Their response was louder this time. This was something on which they could all agree. But after a morning of bloody combat, they needed something stronger yet to get them back on the battlefield.
Ethelward gripped his great sword in both hands and thrust it heavenward with all his might. “For Deira!” he bellowed. “For home!”
The men roared the words back to him. And, for a moment, Ethelward’s voice stuck in his throat, as he saw in his mind’s eye the face of his new bride, Maiwenn, more than twenty years his junior. They were so newly married, he had not even told her parents.
“For wives and children!” he bellowed, sweeping the sword down toward the beach.
The echo of the men was like crashing thunder as they followed him down the bluff and onto the beach. They fought with fine fury, like bears, scattering the invaders before them. But Ethelward wanted them to fight carefully, like wolves. A horse would have made it easier to lead them, but his horse had been lost to Vitalion pikemen on the eastern bluff.
Ethelward kept them together the best he could, but when they reached the other side of the beach, their numbers were half what they had been. A score of scale-armored Vitalion invaders stood beneath the knoll, their spears and shields facing outward. Bodies from previous attacks, many pierced by javelins, lay in a ring around them. Above them, Ethelward saw an enemy officer whose purple cloak had been slashed nearly in half. At his side was a bony little Sarinese shaman, covered with tattoos. Dressed only in a loincloth, the shaman shivered in the wind and rain.
Ethelward could not tell what sort of devilry the two men were doing up there, but the bodies of a dozen good Deiran men lay on the ground around them. Sulphurous smoke rose from a bonfire, so pungent that Ethelward wondered how either man could breathe. Chanting, the shaman raised a glittering knife skyward.
“By the Gods,” shouted Ethelward, “let us wipe our land clean of this filth!”
Meilyr, his lieutenant, bellowed a battle cry and led the charge up the slippery, muddy slope, his spear flashing in the dim light. Though marked with wounds, the Scales resolutely crowded in and locked their shields.
As Meilyr felled one of the invaders, Ethelward saw an opening and dashed in before they could close ranks. As he rushed through, he saw no living man standing between him and the top of the knoll. The enemy officer, heavily armored in scale mail and a great helm shaped like the head of some fearsome, toothy creature, watched the shaman perform his ghastly ritual. Judging by the gold thread in his mangled purple cape and worked into his ornate breastplate, he must be a Tribune—or even a Legate.
As the shaman finished the ceremony, handing the ceremonial dagger to his master, Ethelward raced up the hill. He held his great sword high, and shouted a wordless battle cry. Above him, the gleaming metal figure of the Vitalion officer glanced in his direction. Quickly, casually, the officer seized the Sarinese shaman at his side and threw him into Ethelward’s path.
Surprised, Ethelward jerked his sword arm out instinctively to protect himself. The blade struck the shaman under the arm as he flew toward Ethelward, but it caught there and was wrenched out of Ethelward’s hand as the shaman continued to tumble down the slope.
Quickly looking behind him, Ethelward saw he had not been followed. His warriors still fought with the Vitalion soldiers, but none of them had been able to penetrate that ring. He was alone atop the knoll with the Vitalion officer, who drew his falcata—the heavy, sickle-curved sword of the legionaries.
Eyes stinging from the stinking smoke, Ethelward stooped to retrieve a great sword trapped under the body of one of his Deiran countrymen. Both hands tugging on the sword's hilt, he couldn't help but notice that the body was wrapped in a red cape which bore the insignia of House Barethon: a fox-tailed wolf with a barley scepter.
Tall and imposing, the Vitalion advanced with an air of unhurried deliberation, but Ethelward was desperate to free the sword and arm himself. He kicked the body over. The dead man’s chest had a terrible wound, and his face was frozen in a rictus of terrible suffering, a mask of pain and fear and death—but it was still recognizable. It was Elfraed. His king, his brother.
Dumbfounded, Ethelward slipped in the mud, tripped over his own cape, and only narrowly avoided falling backward and rolling down the slope. The misstep probably saved his life. The whistle of a blade passing just overhead tore him from his shocked stupor, reminding him that he had more immediate concerns.
Above him, the Vitalion officer smiled in the obscurity of his massive helm as he stepped over Elfraed’s red corpse, his falcata held lightly, easily in front of him. Ethelward snatched up his brother’s great sword, dodging another thrust from the officer.
“Agony,” the enemy officer intoned, speaking Deiran. His voice was a powerful baritone, calm and rich and completely assured. Despite the noise of battle and the storm, it carried clearly and powerfully and resonated in Ethelward’s ears.
“What?” said Ethelward. Why were they even talking? Ethelward knew he should have been on fire to fight the man who had slain his brother. But something about his smiling confidence turned Ethelward’s guts cold.
“What you saw in his face,” said the Vitalion, stepping forward purposefully. “Agony is the word, is it not?”
Ethelward scrambled back and to his right. He needed to move around the invader, to seize the high ground. But that was where the fire was, and the caustic smoke that stung his nose and throat.
“We need the agony,” said the Vitalion officer patiently. “We need their blood to sing. It must call out, you see, or this will all have been in vain.” His heavy sickle-sword darted out as he advanced.
Coughing, Ethelward struggled to parry. His lungs burned. How was this disturbing man not affected?
“Only suffering can give this sacrifice meaning,” the Vitalion said, his voice more melodious than ever. “Then out of this death will emerge something beautiful, something miraculous—a wonder which has not graced this land in centuries.” He paused, his face reverent.
“Monster,” growled Ethelward, swinging at the enemy officer. But he evaded with fluid grace and hacked at Ethelward’s face, quick as a snake despite the heaviness of his backwards-curved blade. Ethelward brought his sword up just in time.
“You should thank me,” said the invader. “All you poor, savage children. But you lack perspective—even your king, so-called, who I was told was a man of vision.” He sighed. “Nothing but another ignorant barbarian.”
“That was my brother!” cried Ethelward, lifting Elfraed’s great sword. But as his blade reached its apex, the Vitalion caught his eye, and Ethelward froze, unable to look away. There was something horrifying about the man’s face, dimly seen in the recesses of the great helm, behind its metal teeth—like a wolf opening its mouth to reveal a human face inside.
Ethelward trembled. His arm shook. His fingers gripped his brother’s sword until his nails dug in to his palm. This man had slain his brother, his king. This man stood between him, and his sweet bride, Maiwenn. But somehow Ethelward could not even bring himself to step forward. Quivering, helpless in the rain, he wept, his heart overflowing with rage, sadness, fear.
The Vitalion officer laughed. “You are even more pathetic than your brother. What do you call yourself, barbarian?”
“Ethelward,” he mumbled, after a moment’s sullen silence.
“A barbarous name,” said the invader. “I am Volusus Flavius, called Ambustus. Legate of the Ninth Expeditionary Legion.” He stopped, tilting his head slightly. “Do you feel it, barbarian? The change in the air?” He took a deep breath, his left hand wafting air to his mouth and nose as if to taste it.