a short excerpt
Gary Baker, December 2013
(possibly the prologue to Kingdom's Rise)
“Ride high! We've almost got him!”
Vaughn kicked his stallion into gear and charged faster to clear the dust of the prince's gilded mount. The warm saddle shifted as he swung his hunting pike, a long double-hilted shaft of the finest hardened oak that ended in a lightning-like double spike, and pulled closer to his king's heir.
Ahead the drake sped like a hare being chased by a hawk, though with none of the ragged misdirection. It was young, that much was obvious. It's opalescent gray armor shone in the light of high noon, almost reflecting the vast green of the broken plains around them. Vaughn found it inspiring to watch the beast sprint like never before, as it's muscles grew taut as it leapt forward and how they bunched into massive hunks of glistening smoke-gray mounds as the beast landed.
The beast began to veer off to the left, trailing toward a series of jagged cliffs that arose from the grassy hills as though broken by the hammer of god. This was where they would do it, he knew. This was where the beast would die.
“Lithomir!” He shouted over the ever-present thunder of the group's stallions pounding the earth beneath their feet. The prince looked over, excitement showing in his deep green eyes, his golden hair held back in a long tail over his chrome-armored back, and grinned. It was his tell-tale sign that he was up to something again. Vaughn, captain of the boy's personal guard, knew this look all too well. The blasted heir knew.
He must have planned this from the start.
Vaughn dug his heels into his mount's hips and pushed closer to the silvery white horse armored with plated gold and steel over intricately woven crimson wool, noting the series of weaponry that the heir seemed so attached to. Though everyone knew he wasn't one, the heir carried them like a Centurion: always ready for anything, prepared to fight until the last breath with whatever he had on him. In Lithomir's case, however, the boy seemed to think this meant he should carry more should he drop anything, instead of the usual mantra that followed along “a man's blade is his life, lose it and death will be there waiting.”
The guard captain looked back over his shoulder to gauge the depth of the playing field as they closed in on a corner in the cliffs. The others had fanned out to give the heir more room, and took unspoken orders from the boy to block off the passage should the beast turn and flee. Their own mount's shuddered with the growing energy: Huira's murky dappled mare cantered as he slowed near the far wall, his pike drawn and ready, Kilnar's jet-black mount pushed ever harder against the reins as he flanked off to the right, crossing with Jilai as they rode onto the rises that overlooked the coming arena. Vaughn had to admit that the arena was well-planned, too. At the far end it rose with a sheer wall of granite over three stories high, and tapered out on either side with not much room to spare other than the not-quite-circular clearing where they were headed. The flooring was well-packed with plenty of grass to soften falls without losing too much traction, and the bottleneck would give the drake just enough of a view into the arena to expect an outcropping where it might leap with it's ungodly strong hind legs and escape.
There wasn't any such ledge, in truth, but the young beast didn't see that until the group was following it into the corner.
Instantly Vaughn spotted the continuing crevice where the two sides had collided into each other, and would have been traversable for a while longer for a man on foot. The drake made for this only to crash against solid stone against either shoulder before it spun to get out and found itself flanked on all sides. Kilnar and Jilai then dropped bolts of weighted arrows here and there to keep the drake in the furthest point in the corner until the prince and heir could become the gatekeeper of the bottleneck and prevent it from escape.
Vaughn and Grishe then slowed to a trot and watched from the opening as the would-be king swung his pike side to side to loosen his arms. “You think he's ready for this?” Grishe grumbled under the ear-piercing cry of the trapped drake, timed so the heir wouldn't hear. His brown stallion heaved it's head side to side as it fought to run again, but stayed put as the rider quickly yanked the reins twice consecutively.
The captain held his breath for a moment and felt his pulse quicken as he watched the arrogant young man move from wall to wall while flashing the blade in an attempt to intimidate the beast that must have been scared half to death by now. “It's possible,” he admitted uneasily, “he is the King's boy, after all.”
Grishe nodded at that, snapping a fist to his heart in salute to the great leader's mention, and turned back to watch the display. There were a couple of wayward attacks from either side as the game moved into showoff mode and the heir grew visibly cocky, throwing obvious swings to merely antagonize the beast into another pointless charge. “I hear he's been training with Master Ghera's centurion's,” he glanced across to Vaughn from under his scarred right eyebrow, his dirtied helmet barely hiding his deep black curls that fell along the sides of his face, “what might yon Captain Vaughn Heirsguard think of that, eh?”
Vaughn pressed his lips tight as he fought to intervene in the boy's display of bravery and show. “The men of the empire will never follow a man who is weaker than they, Grishe, you know that.” He gripped his pike tighter and brought the shaft into his lap atop the saddle, distractedly fingering the dark, carved oak while expecting the beast to land a fatal strike at any moment. It made him twitchy, watching this. Each time the wingless, gecko-shaped dragon launched forward, it's horned spines gnashing the air, Vaughn kept thinking his future king was about to be gored before ever reaching the age of two-hundred and twenty new moons. “The boy has to fight harder than any of us, Grishe, and I'd be hard pressed to say his training hasn't done him some good in the last fifty or so, other than this increased bravado.”
Just then the drake leapt off the ground, using those toad-like hind legs to send it full force into Prince Lithomir's face. They all witnessed as the boy brought up a hand just in time to deviate the beast's maw before the two tumbled in the grass. The heir's stallion then did what all Celestial mounts were trained to do in such a situation and shot quickly out of reach where it could not be harmed in the ensuing fray, taking with it the boy's only means of escape.
Vaughn inhaled suddenly, his lungs becoming solid as his grip tightened on the lower hilt of the pike, as his eyes searched through the cloud of dust to find his charge.
Finally the air cleared just enough that they could see the prince now standing in the corner with the drake between himself and his guards. Vaughn moved to kick his horse into action when the prince held a hand and stopped him mid-way. “Stay!” The boy shouted, “he's mine!”
Jilai barked a laugh that echoed down from the plains above and mocked the horseless heir. “Would you look at that! The wittle bwayby pwince feww off his howse!”
Kilnar joined in, then, with a “you know the rules!”
“No remount!” Grishe joined in with a static grin towards his captain.
“Take him on foot!”
“Show him who's the true heir to the empire!”
“Fight like a man!”
Vaughn scowled as the scene deepened into greater feats of callous manliness and show. Personally, he felt that a man should prove his strength in battle against his fellow men, not in a self-made arena against a young, just-off-the-teat drake. Yet the odds seemed even more against the young heir now, as the beast was easily as tall in the shoulders while on all fours as the heir was standing as tall as he could.
The problem now was that the drake was in it's natural element whilst the heir was weighed down by several blades, his armor, and the heavy cavalry pike in his hands.
Yet Lithomir grinned at his cliff-top comrades and dropped the majority of the weapons into the soil before he began to spin his pike in circuitous motions until it became but a blur of silver and two gold-framed hilts churning the dust once again. He moved to the side, the beast watching him and doing the same, and lashed out twice before the drake reared back and slapped the pike high into the arena walls. Suddenly the boy was on his own with nothing but an ornate dagger at his hips and a short-sword on his back.
“How could you not block that?!” Kilnar mocked.
“Lithomir!” Vaughn scoffed, “pay attention!”
“Hey, Kingsheir!” Jilai sang. “You dropped your pi-ike!”
Grishe brought himself a few paces closer. “Now what would your father say, if he heard about this, eh?”
Kilnar bellowed with laughter from his perch, “he'd be shamed, he would!”
Vaughn found his eyebrows cinching toward each other, burrowing as he watched the fangs appear and the spines flare out from the beast's body to make itself even more fearsome. “Lithomir do not let this break you!” He pushed his mount as far in as Grishe's and brought the pike back out and to the side, ready to swing should the need arise. “Focus, man!”
It was obvious to the captain as the boy began blindly boasting and laughing off about the drake's inferior speed and mobility, that the heir, too, was scared out of his wits. “Look at him!” The heir shouted, “if he were human he'd be crying!”
“What a bwayby!” Jilai taunted.
Kilnar added in, then “does the wittle thing want his mommy?”
Seeing the heir's lowering sense of bravery and thus his narrowing ability to survive this event, Vaughn, too, played along to keep morale high. “Hell if I was it's mother I'd tell it to lay down and die already! So weak!”
“Well let's just be glad you're not!” Jilai retorted. “This is the most fun I've had in weeks!”
Lithomir lashed out, then, using standard Centurion slash and dodge techniques. He swung the sword low to clang against the solid armor of the drake's outer elbow, and side-stepped the beast's whip-like tail as it spun to slam it into the grass. Vaughn felt the earth shudder as the tail hit home, knowing that had it hit the boy there would have been no going back. Every bone would have been crushed by that blow.
He was lucky this time.
This went on for a handful of further attacks by both the heir and his target when finally the boy made contact with penetrable points in the underside of the drake's shoulder, as well as another gash into it's chin. Neither were of any significance, but the beast had started bleeding and that was the point. Now the grass was becoming redder and redder as the minutes wore on, with the traction loosing quality as blood was churned into the soil to become a brutal, gory mud. Vaughn raised his chin at the sight, seeing all too many memories of battles waged against the various surrounding territories as the centurions had vanquished all opposition in the age of expansion. Nowadays the broken plains that surrounded the empire's capital was as bloody in history as the arena in which the heir was finding his manhood, though the plains had long ago overgrown the thick rivers of gore while this corner was just getting a taste for it.
When the drake had been gashed enough to cause it to lose balance a few times and stumble on it's own feet, it charged full-force, much to the captain's dismay. Unexpectedly, and just like a battle-seasoned centurion, the heir shifted on his feet and grabbed one of the four arm-length head-adornments to swing himself up and over the beasts neck and onto its back. Instantly the boy was riding the wild drake as though he'd gotten atop of a wild stallion, fighting to stay on as it bucked and rolled to get him off.
“Haha!” Howled Jilai. “Look at him! Our prince – a bonafide dragon rider!”
Grishe rubbed his chin with his free hand, watching the show with overly excited bouts of laughter and howling. “Why, I'll be that one day they'll call him 'Lithomir, Lord of the Drakes'!”
The captain rolled his eyes angrily. Each second that this went on for was another second in which the beast could impale the boy on a stray horn, or worse: on his own weapons that still lay end-first in the grass at the far end of the arena. “Lithomir, get it over with!” He hollered through cupped hands, “I'm hungry for good meat and you're doing nothing but serving to make it bitter!”
The heir made eye-contact with his guard captain, then, and grinned as wide as Vaughn had ever seen the boy grin. Cockily, he reached down with his dagger as the drake charged toward Grishe and Vaughn to break their lines at last, sending the whole group charging after him, and slid the blade up along the young dragon's throat. It stopped in mid-stride as he did so, seeming to know what was about to happen, and reared back onto it's hind legs one last time. It was an ungodly sight for Vaughn to watch as the heir rode the drake's flaring form even as he brought the blade through the beasts spraying neck and against the armor scales along it's spine. The whole sight then ended with the beast falling, headless, atop the king's heir in a heap of gore just beyond the entrance to the broken cliffs.
Vaughn leapt from his horse just as the mount brought him close and sprinted to the headless dragon's side where he'd last seen the king's son. Neither the head nor the boy were anywhere to be seen for the longest time, until finally the boy stumbled out from behind the mound with a gory dagger in one hand and the drake's head dragging along the ground in the other. He was painted in blood as though he'd just been swimming in wine, though he limped on one side where Vaughn instantly spotted the bone spike jutting from the heir's left side.
No one spoke for the longest time.
Grishe seemed cowed for once, and the two jokers in their gleaming chrome armor stared with slack jaws from atop their horses. The heir looked from one man to the next with his opalescent teeth the only contrast to the steaming gore. Even his now-crimson hair was so drenched that it had fallen from the ties. The heir appeared more like a child soaked in the innards of a sweet cherry pie than he did a man with a drake's horn rammed through his kidney.
At such a sight Vaughn felt a beaming smile of his own creep over his cheeks as he cupped the boy's chin in a dark-gloved hand. “You're an arrogant bastard, you know that?” he guffawed, “just like your father!” Together they all fell into a fit of raucous laughter.