Shadow of the Overlord, chapters 1 and 2
(please keep in mind that these are very rough, unedited versions)
The wind keened, high and sharp, through the leaves of the few trees to either side of the path which led from the smattering of farms into Cuularan. Though early in the day still, the dual suns had risen over the towering Spine of the World mountains in the west more than an hour ago.
Crimson Kaustere sat slightly above his black cousin, Asmodere, and both served to bake the hard ground. Taliesimon wondered idly if one could fry an egg on stone in the heat of those twin orbs.
The floorboards beneath her creaked as the flat bed of the wain leaned to one side on the uneven path, then jounced to the other without warning. She fell, cracking her knee against the sturdy, if weathered, oak.
“Blast it,” she muttered, massaging her knee. “That’s going to bruise.”
“Maybe that will teach you not stand in the back of a moving wain,” Father said gruffly.
He meant well, of course. She knew that. But he would never understand. Could never understand. She was too excited to sit.
Today is The Day, she thought. You’re content to be a farmer, father, but not me. Oh, no! Not me! I’m going to be a warrior, see if I don’t!
“Don’t know what you’re so excited about,” Jalaisen said. “They only agreed to let you test to shut you up. They don’t let girls into the Dragoons.”
“You take that back!” she shouted.
“I will not.”
“Take it back, Jay!” she yelled, pitching her voice even higher, her small hands clenching into fists at her sides. Somehow, she wasn’t sure how, exactly, she had gotten back to her feet. She glared at her older brother.
He glared right back, arms folded. “I will not. It is truth. You shall see.”
Taliesimon thrust her small fists against her hips. “I will be a dragoon, Jay. You’ll see. I don’t care if they’ve never accepted a girl before. I’ll be the first.”
Jalaisen scoffed. “We’ll see, little sister.”
She clenched her teeth in frustration. I’ll show them all, she thought. They’ll see.
“Don’t pout, little one,” Father said.
She ground her teeth. “I’m not.” She hated when that whiny note crept into her voice.
Father shook his head. “Are you certain you want to do this, Taly?
Father sighed again. “Jalaisen, stop antagonizing your sister. She’s made her choice. She’ll stand or fall by merit of her own skills. Nothing you can say or do will change it.”
“Yes, Father.” Jalaisen turned his attention back to the road and took a few jogging steps to pull up even with Father on the bench at the front of the old wain.
Taliesimon did her best to push her outrage to the back of her mind. That was pride in his voice, talking about my skills, wasn’t it?
The wain jounced again, leaning wildly to one side as the wheel feel into a rut in the path.
This time, Taliesimon slid her feet with the motion and managed to stay standing.
Her grin broadened.
* * * * * *
Cuularan was large. Easily the biggest place Taliesimon had ever seen.
Like most of the Free States, Cuularan had no fence, no walls, and no gate. The forest had been cleared for a full league around the outbuildings— to aid in defense, she supposed —and a three-span wide stream cut through the center of town.
Arching her back and neck, Taliesimon counted as many of the brick, stucco, wood, and stone buildings as she could. When she was young, she had realized with delight that she could count beyond ten by using her fingers multiple times. All she had to do was use a raised finger to denote each repetition of ten.
She used the trick now, and added a raised two within her soft, doeskin boots when she ran out of fingers.
At two-hundred she stopped, being out of tricks to help her count higher, and marveled. These were only the buildings she could see from out outskirts, which was obviously only a small part of the total within. Nevermind that there were many more that she didn’t have an accurate way to count!
Woodcutters, mills, storefronts, inns, taverns, guard towers, gem cutters, tanners, bone shapers, coopers, wainwrights, this place had everything!
“Papa, where do you think the testing grounds will be this year?”
“Same as always.”
She chewed her lip nervously.
“Don’t worry, Taly,” Father said without looking back at her. “I’ll get you there. As soon as we unload these wine casks at the Birdsong Inn, We’ll head that way.”
She nodded. It seemed silly, nodding when his back was to her. But she knew that somehow he knew she’d nodded. Somehow, Father always seemed to know. A part of her suspected he knew everything.
Ahead, the road seemed to level out and the usual ruts in the road vanished.
Why don’t they keep the ruts out on the whole road? she wondered. Surely, that would make the trip into town far more pleasant for everyone.
Without warning, the wain’s wheels hit… something. Something hard and unyielding. The wain rose in a high bounce and Taliesimon pitched forward. The back of Papa’s bench flew up toward her with sickening speed and bashed her in the face.
Her cheeks felt wet. She rolled over and looked up into the bright midday sun. Her eyes burned with moisture.
Father’s and Jalaisen’s faces broke her view of crimson Kaustere. Concern showed in their eyes, but though their lips moved, no sound penetrated the high, sharp ringing in her ears.
Did I black out? she wondered.
She didn’t know how to tell if she had or not. She hadn’t dreamed. She hadn’t seen blackness overshadow her sight. She remembered her fall and even the impact— she winced at the memory. It was similar to being struck with a shield or the flat of a wooden blade.
Now, however, her face just felt numb.
She reached up to feel her cheeks, chin and nose. Her fingers touched wetness and cold flesh— was her nose crooked now? —but it was as though she were touching someone else’s face. The flesh had no sensation at all.
She couldn’t help thinking it was a bad sign.
Father and Jalaisen looked worried, their expressions drawn.
“Father,” she tried to say, though she couldn’t hear her own voice over the ringing in her ears either, so she was not at all certain she was speaking at all. “I can’t hear you. But I think I’m okay. My face feels numb.”
Quillliaurran looked up from his meal of blood oranges, wild carrots, and diamondwood bark. Sindorriaunna was always the first to make sport of him for eating the bark, as she was doing now, but he knew it to be great for adding sparkle to the scales.
“I know you are only trying to steer me toward better health. But truly, the bark is the most nutritious part of the meal.”
Sindor scoffed. “What you need, my dear clutch-mate, are eighteen or twenty good haunches of venison. That would sharpen those teeth and claws right up and add a brilliant sheen to those purple scales.”
“And yet,” he said placidly. “My scales sparkle more than yours do.”
She scowled. “What would you know,” she muttered.
Quill beamed at her, a grin splitting his snout.
“Truly,” she said as a purple streak flashed seemingly from nowhere to strike the side of his head with an audible crack which spun his head down to one side. “You must learn to be less trusting, less kind. This world will eat you alive if you don’t learn this lesson.”
Quill spit deep violet blood from his mouth to splatter the rocks near Sindor’s paws. “Thank you for the lesson.”
The larger wyrm nodded to him and turned away, stalking into the deeper forst. A few paces before disappearing from his sight, she turned her head, twisting around to watch him. “I almost forgot, you have been commanded to take audience with the Underlord today at midday.”
“B-b-but,” he spluttered. “But that’s less than an hour from now! And the Underlord is all the way across the strait on Thorutia!”
“Then you’d better hurry,” she said sweetly.
Quill opened his mouth to argue further, but the glare she shot him made him close it again. He nodded as he recalled who it was he was dealing with.
While it was true that sometimes Sindorriaunna could be reasoned with or persuaded, the Underlord was another matter. The enormous malachite wyrm who ruled Thorutia in the Overlord’s name could not be persuaded. She could not be reasoned with. That one lived in a reality all her own, in which anything she desired was hers and all things she opposed were punishable by death.
“Do you know what it’s about?” he called belatedly, after Sindor had disappeared into the woods.
“Not sure,” her voice came back on the wind. “Might have been something about your bonding.”
“What?” Quill breathed. “Bonding?”
What could it possibly have to do with my bonding? he thought. I’m still far too young to be bonded. What use would I be in the union?
Quillliaurran shook his head violently, to clear the questions. It was only partially successful.
He dove back into his meal and gulped down the last of it in three large bites. There was no more time to dally, he knew. While it wasn’t a long flight across the strait, it was long enough that his arriving on time was still far from assured.
He wiped a thin stream of blood orange juice from his jaw and leaped into the air, snapping his wings out at the zenith of his leap. With several thrusts of his wings, he climbed to cruising altitude.
Even after seeing it hundreds of times, Quill was still in awe of the beauty of the landscape below. The trees of the Verdant Forest were eternally green and blanketed the hills with thicker foliage than seemed possible, especially for a wold so recently out of a years-long winter.
Seasons didn’t seem to affect the Verdant Forest like it did other forests, though. Even with half a wingspan of snow covering the land, the Verdant forest had been thick and green.
A short distance ahead, a flight of blackbirds broke from the cover of the trees and raced away from quill in all directions.
He laughed heartily. I’m not going to hurt you, little birds. Other dragons may choose to make a tender morsel of you, but not me.
In some places, the trees ended less than a wingspan from the eastern shore. The treeline zigged and zagged up and down the coast. The one consistency, however, was that by the time one was a wingspan past the treeline into the woods, the density of the trees became overwhelming.
Once he passed the beach, Quill dipped lower in his flight. Ordinarily, he didn’t enjoy flight any more than he did walking. It was boring and tiring. well, except for the majestic view over the Verdant Forest. That was an experience all it’s own, but could be done without the effort of traveling in flight.
Sea spray, though. That could only be felt in flight. Certainly, one could catch the occasional spray hovering over the water, but the constant spray of droplets in his face? That could only be felt with traveling over the ocean at high speed while less than a wingspan above the surface of the water, where the waves would almost touch him.
Sea spray in the face was the ultimate feeling. Sometimes, when the waves would crash just the right way, instead of droplets, the spray would come up as a fine mist. That was the best. The tiny droplets making up the mist could get under his scales to touch the hot flesh beneath, cooling it just a bit.
Thinking of it made him tingle with anticipation and he dropped lower toward the water.
Almost immediately, the droplets sprayed upward to splash on his belly and underjaw. He shivered with pleasure at the sensation. The droplets cooled the heat in his scales and almost… tickled.
Tickled wasn’t quite the right description of the sensation, but Quill could come up with nothing more accurate.
After several minutes, a tall wave came up to just graze his lazily hanging rear claws and he grinned in anticipation.
An instant later, when the wave crashed back to the surface of the water, a spray of mist flew up just in time to envelop the lowest tenth of his tail. He squirmed with the pleasure of it.
Okay, that’s enough, he thought after a minute. Time to fly like the wind. I need to be standing in front of the Underlord by the stroke of midday.
Rising higher, Quill pumped his wings harder and faster. To the very edge of his endurance, he pumped his wings faster and faster.
It wasn’t that he was afraid of the Underlord, exactly. It was only that he preferred not to face the consequences of failing to obey her.