"Flight of the Viper"
a brief excerpt
Gary Baker, December 2014
Lithomir was riding hard with the guardsmen at his heels when the newly banished kings heir caught the sight of a viper in the distance. At first it was just a smoothness in the rugged bog where none should have been, possibly a hill made of wind-swept soil and debris, yet it turned to something much more deadly as he looked closer.
The beast was as much a dweller of land as it was sky, with a long serpentine body fitted with a pair of broad sinewy wings that could fold up as neatly as though they were never there. Undoubtedly it was caught unawares as the beast was completely visible even as Lithomir watched it tuck in its wings and bunch up its neck like a bolt waiting to be released.
The young heir grit his teeth and aimed Vaughn's steed toward the predator letting the mount carry him further south than was necessary just to align the course properly. He swung his head down and glanced beneath his right arm to the riders coming closer behind him with pikes already drawn and swung out for the heir's reaping.
They hadn't seen it.
Lithomir inhaled deeply and kicked the mount into a greater stride, lowering himself to the animals neck while lifting his lower torso off its back. Centurion training had taught him about how a rider might hinder his mounts movements by interrupting the wave-like motion of the spine and how knowing how to undo such hindrances could keep even a plainsdrake from making the wrong kill. As soon as his hips were in the air above the saddle, the mount kicked into a higher pace as though steeling itself against a hail of arrows.
They grew closer yet the young dragon slayer couldn't help but watch as the viper almost completely vanished into the shape of a handful of low laying mounds. Its eyes glazed over and the snout flattened, the only indicative mark being that of its bunched up neck as an oddly-shaped patch of grass sticking from the deep black muck.
"Almost," Lithomir told himself, having only heard stories of such an attack from about a pyre. He remembered old Tsuyir from the northlands drunkenly giving the tale as if he'd seen it himself. The bard had gotten quiet just then, leaning toward his eager listeners to whisper, then suddenly snapping back to shout "AVAST" just when the beast had supposedly shot out toward the valiant hero. Lithomir had only been a babe then, barely seven, yet he remembered just how Tsuyir had claimed this hero evaded the impossibly quick strike.
Then the viper ahead, too, struck out with ungodly speed from an entire bowshot out. The flat snout turned instantly into a pointed spear trailing a long neck like a banner while the wings snapped out to carry the beast through the air soundlessly. More instinctively than he expected to, Lithomir yanked hard on the reigns to shift the mount just aside and swung his empty right arm over and across just in time to slap the viper with his forearm along its lower jaw as it swelled out from the tip.
In awe Lithomir barely caught sight of the barbed talons of the viper's inner cheek which would ensnare a victim before the jaws could set to work. Had even one of those flesh toned hooks taken hold, the heir knew he would have been done for. Instead his forceful blow had prevented the mouth from opening completely and gave him an opening through which to ride passed. The heir yanked hard to the east again and kept on even as the wings sailed overhead, even as the sounds of chaos broke behind him.
He almost laughed at the insanity. In the last day he'd not only slain a plainsdrake single-handedly, but had survived the strike of a fully grown viper while on an overburdened stallion. The only problem was that he no longer had a single soul with whom he could celebrate.
The mount attempted to slow but he kept it running at a breakneck sprint, sure that the viper hadn't completely taken care of his handful of assailants. The mountains ahead were getting closer and he'd been riding for hours; he wanted to reach the foothills more than anything. Once there he would slow down, maybe even make camp, but not until then. The mount was bred for this sort of riding and he was not about to let it relax until the beast had fully proven its worth.
A loud war horn broke the wind with a deep bellow followed by the scream that only a slain horse could make, clashes of folded Centurion steel rang out and then the echo of flapping wings as the viper took to the air. Lithomir bit his lip and kicked the mount hoping it could go one bit faster as he craned his neck over to see the massive thing spiral high trailing blood as arrows were loosed.
Eyes wide he looked to the ground below and discovered that these so-named guardsmen were ranked out like skilled drakeslayers with pikes ready and bows drawn. Only one had been downed, it seemed until the king's heir glimpsed a horseless guardsman kneeling on the ground awaiting the beasts ultimate landfall with a battlepike and shield held at the ready.
The kingsheir snapped back forward and kept on. These men following him were no guardsmen, that much was now obvious. With battle skills and steadiness like he'd just seen of them, there was no way they were anything less than Rangers: fabled mercenaries from beyond the Northern Pass.
For the time being, the newly banished heir chose to set such thoughts aside and survive to see another day. The time to understand what was truly going on here would come later.