The One Rider (Ashandor Chronicles)

BOOK: The One Rider (Ashandor Chronicles)
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The One Rider

by D
aryl
J. Yearwood

 

 

 

Copyright
2012

Daryl J. Yearwood

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

Original Artwork

by: Helen Kerr

I could never have completed this project without the support and encouragement of my wife, Karen.  Thanks for all of your help.  I also want to thank my children for giving me the time I needed to work away from home.  Thanks, guys.  You are the best family in the world.

PROLOGUE

 

"With dreadful speed,

through the skies

t
hey come.

Swift is venge
ance

on the wing.

Killing all

who break the peace.

A mournful tune

their riders sing."

 

-
Epic Poem

"Dragon Guard"

 

 

A
mighty rush of air engulfed the moonlit clearing as the dragon landed roughly, rolling on his side and sending his rider crashing to the ground. The dragon struggled to his feet, balancing with his wing-tips and favoring his wounded leg. An arrow as thick as a man’s thumb was lodged deep in the muscle. Rivulets of blood coursed from a dozen or more holes where arrows had pierced the dragon’s wings. The broken shaft of a lance stuck out from the right side of his chest, and great drops of blood glistened in the moonlight. They clung to the edge of his scales before slipping off and falling to the ground. The dragon moaned under the pain.

Vaelor scrambled to the dragon’s head. "Quiet," he whispered. "They will hear you. The darkness can only hide us if we keep quiet."

Horns sounded below them in the forest as the pursuers beat their way up the mountainside, crashing of the underbrush growing steadily louder. Vaelor realized they would soon be discovered, but the dragon was too weak to carry him any farther.

"You must go," he said. "Flee into the mountains and hide yourself.” Vaelor fingered the hilt of his sword as he stared down the hillside into the darkness. The sounds of pursuit grew louder. “I will hold them off as long as I can."

The dragon let out another mournful wail, and the rider stroked his massive head. "I know. They will probably kill me, but not before they pay a price." The rider removed the saddle from the dragon’s neck and began to sing in a low voice. The notes came softly to his lips as he stroked the face of his friend. Vaelor sang more strongly, and the dragon joined him in a surreal duet of vowels that accompanied the doleful, unsettling melody.

Their voices multiplied in the moonlight. The sound was like an inhuman choir echoing through the trees, the morbid yet wondrous music filling the night air. Each note from the rider was harmonized and embellished by the dragon’s deep baritone. Their song grew in strength, covering the mountainside in the most ominous chorus of dragon and rider, the Battle Song of the Dragon Guard. The final notes hung in the thick, moist air, and Vaelor wiped tears from his face.

A deathly stillness covered the forest. Even the insects were silent. The rider smiled at the thought of his enemies cowering in fear, watching the sky for signs of an attack. He looked into the dark eye of the dragon. Gold flecks shimmered against the blackness of the massive orb, and scarlet veins fanned out from the large, vertical slit of his pupil. "You must go. Fly as far as you can and hide.” He slapped the dragon on the snout. “Go!"

Vaelor stood back and watched the huge beast leap from the ground. Massive wings beat the air to gain room over the trees, and strong winds stirred up dust and leaves. Small branches snapped high in the treetops as he powered his way across the night sky. When the dragon finally melted into the darkness, Vaelor turned toward his fate. The dragon rider made his way down the slope through a tangle of trees. His face was darkened with anger.

Each step brought searing pain from the savage wound to his leg. Blood ran warm as it streamed from around the broken arrow still lodged in his thigh. Every breath was a fire in his chest, and he knew that his ribs were broken.

Vaelor saw an opening through the thinning trees. His enemy crashed through from the other side and poured into the clearing. Vaelor stumbled and fell. He struggled to his feet, drew his sword, and charged into the clearing.

The Morts were surprised by the sudden appearance of their quarry. They drew back like an ebbing tide at the sight of the enraged dragon rider. Many of their faces searched the dark skies in fear of an attack from above. Morts are large, monstrous beasts who serve as the King’s army and personal guard. A single Mort is a formidable enemy for even the most accomplished warrior. Vaelor now faced two dozen of the beasts. The enemy leader stepped into the moonlight, and the dragon rider got a good look at his adversary.

A head taller than a man, shoulders as wide as a plow horse, and arms as thick as tree trunks, the Mort smiled revealing rows of sharp teeth yellowed and cracked from age. Curved tusks rose from both sides of his mouth and turned in toward his cheeks.

“Hold your ground,” he growled at the others. Unusually long arms ended in strong hands clutching the hilt of a sword that was over six feet long. His armor consisted of a thick breastplate, leather bracers, and a hammered, brass helm. Scars crisscrossed his dark-gray, mottled skin.

"So, Vaelor, the Dragon Guard comes to an end.” Thick muscles rippled beneath the skin of his arms as the Mort tightened his two-handed grip. Light winds carried a sharp, pungent odor that reminded the dragon rider of rotting flesh.

The Mort spoke around a thick tongue. His slurred speech gave the impression that he was a slow and dull creature. That error had cost many a man his life. Morts are terrible enemies; strong, fast, and tireless.

“Where is that miserable beast of yours?"

"You have killed him," Vaelor answered, "and he has gone off
to
die.” Vaelor lowered his stance. He slowly edged toward the Mort commander. “Now I will kill you." The rider’s hand held a long curved scimitar, the weapon of the Dragon Guard.

"You will be the one dying today, Guardsman." The Mort’s charge was fast and ferocious.

Vaelor turned to the side, ducked under the Mort’s arm, and slashed in an upward cut that left the monster in two pieces on the ground. The sudden death of their leader stunned the other Morts. Vaelor seized the opportunity and vaulted among them. He sliced and stabbed. The dragon rider cut a swath of death deep into the enemy ranks. He drew his dagger and added its sting to the deadly sweep of his curved sword.

Suddenly, as if awakening from sleep, the Morts charged. They pressed too close for the rider to wield his sword. Vaelor the Great, last of the Dragon Guard, fought for his life. The Guardsman repeatedly buried his dagger in the mountain of flesh that crushed him to the ground.

 

CHAPTER
1

 

"A dragon's breath

is strong and hot.

A dragon's breath

i
s sweet.

The one who smells

a dragons' breath

will soon

h
is maker meet."

 

-Children's Rhyme

 

 

V
alaron rummaged through his pack. Inside the leather shoulder bag was everything he needed for the hunt. He checked the contents of his firestarter tin and made sure the pot and plate were clean. A separate leather pouch held extra arrowheads, sinew, and fletchings. A small work-knife was lashed to its side.

He strapped a wool blanket to his pack and another to the side of his quiver. A water-skin hung from the bag’s leather strap. Valaron put his bone-handled hunting knife on his belt, slung the quiver of arrows over his shoulder, and took the longbow down from over his bed. Leather bindings creaked softly when he pulled the bowstring to full draw, so he took out a jar of tallow and oiled the leather to silence it for the hunt.

Valaron raided the kitchen. He wrapped food and loose tea into leather bundles that he stuffed into his bag. Cortain was in the village buying dry goods, and Valaron knew that his uncle would not return from Frensville until late in the evening. A note on the table told Cortain of the young hunter’s plans. Once outside, he filled his water-skin and trotted across the meadow toward the mountains. The foothills of the Grands stood in front of him.

Valaron came out of the meadow behind the barn and climbed the path that led to the top of the ridge. Smells of the farm quickly gave way to the clean air of the forest. The musty odor of dirt was replaced with fresh scents of new leaves and budding flowers.

The young hunter increased his pace up the rising trail, turned south at the top of the ridge, and made his way across the angled peak. Two large stones flanked the path that led down into a small glade. Valaron passed between the granite markers and trotted down the winding trail.

He crossed the glade and began watching for deer sign. His keen, blue eyes swept the ground and quickly found tracks from a small herd of deer that led into the forest across from the trailhead. Valaron began the slow process of the hunt.

He followed the tracks for several hours over rough terrain through towering hardwoods and pockets of underbrush. Valaron worked to stay downwind. His shoulder-length blond hair twisted in the light breeze that would so easily give away his presence. He stalked the herd up the mountain until the shadows grew long.

Tired and hungry, Valaron found a small clearing to set up camp for the evening. Behind the clearing was a spring that bubbled from a low rock outcropping before disappearing back into the soft ground. Valaron drank from the spring and filled his water-skin with the sweet water.

He struck a small fire and laid out his blankets. The mountain air was already cooling. He would be glad to have his wool blankets when morning came. Digging in his bag, he took out strips of dried meat and flat bread. Water boiled for tea, and darkness settled into the clearing.

Valaron spent a long time watching the night sky. An occasional shooting star lit the air and flashed overhead. Green and white tendrils lingered for several seconds before finally fading away. His thoughts slowly gave way to the realization that he was singing the Dragon’s Parting Song that the old storyteller, Skarson, had taught him. He stopped in the middle of the chorus yet he could still hear the song coming from up on the mountainside. At first he thought it was an echo, but the melody carried on in a deep, baritone voice.

Valaron held his breath. He listened closely, but the song faded away into the night. Breathless and confused, he lay still for a long time straining to listen past the night sounds of the forest. "I must be hearing things," he finally said to himself. “All the dragons are gone.” Valaron turned over on his side and passed into a fitful sleep.

He was up and packed at first light. Before moving on, he stared up the mountain and thought about the sounds he had heard in the darkness. He shook his head. The young hunter put his mind to the task of stalking his prey up the mountainside.

The game trail narrowed, and the hunt turned slow and tedious. Briarweed forced Valaron to move in a low crouch. He quickly grew weary of fighting through the undergrowth. It was early in the afternoon when he decided to circle around and make his way up the mountain in hopes of rejoining the trail above the thickets. He broke out of the brambles and sprinted up the mountainside. Valaron’s legs pumped in a tireless rhythm. Trees flashed past in a blur. He was faster and stronger than anyone in the village, winning foot-races by ridiculous margins. The others eventually refused to compete if Valaron was running.

He located the tracks in a stand of pines just as twilight began to fall, so he picked a spot to make camp for the evening. This time the dried meat and bread were accompanied by cheese that he had bought in the village. He admired the blue streaks that ran like small veins across the yellowish-white cheese. Its pungent odor and sharp flavor added well to his fare. Even though he ate a simple meal, it always tasted better beside an open fire.

Valaron lay in his blankets and watched the night sky come alive with twinkling stars. Cool air carried the familiar smell of pine mixed with the musty odor of nearby mushrooms. Sounds of the night grew louder in the deepening darkness. A spring frog bellowed his manliness, and the rustle of leaves announced a small visitor just outside the firelight. It was a little early in the season for brown snakes, but he made sure not to camp too close to rock outcroppings. His body heat would be enough to entice one from its lair, and the bite of a brown snake meant certain death. Another rustle of leaves caught Valaron’s attention. He focused his eyes in the direction of the sound and caught sight of two
small
eyes glowing in the firelight. The tiny creature darted out of sight. Valaron chuckled. “I saw you,” he said. “You will need to be more careful or you’ll be someone’s meal.”

The young hunter lay relaxed in that state where sleep has not yet come. His thoughts focused on a distant sound, and his eyes snapped open. Valaron was instantly alert. Once again, a song came floating down the mountain. The music was distant and faint, but there was no mistake. Someone was singing
a wordless version of
the Dragon’s Death Song.

This time, hearing it more clearly, Valaron did his best to determine the direction of the sound. He resolved that at first light he would try to find the source of the singing. The song finally faded away. Valaron lay awake long into the night wondering and listening. All thoughts of the hunt had vanished.

BOOK: The One Rider (Ashandor Chronicles)
8.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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