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KND Freebies: Bestselling epic fantasy THE ROYAL DRAGONEERS is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

Discover this bestselling epic fantasy series while Book 1 is just 99 cents!

“The action is fast and furious…adventure, discovery and magic…exuberant style…a fun book that I heartily recommend…”

With action so intense you’ll forget to breathe and intrigue around every corner, The Royal Dragoneers is an adventure not to be missed.

The Royal Dragoneers (Book One of the Dragoneers Saga) (Dragoneer Saga 1)

by M. R. Mathias

The Royal Dragoneers (Book One of the Dragoneers Saga) (Dragoneer Saga 1)
4.2 stars – 291 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

After struggling for more than two centuries to tame the inhospitable islands where they washed up, the descendants of the survivors of a lost passenger ship are now striving to tame a more substantial “Mainland” they have found. For as long as mankind has been stranded, dragons have been their sworn enemies. But no longer…

Sixteen year-old Jenka De Swasso wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a King’s Ranger. But when he one day finds himself surrounded by vicious trolls, a young pure-blood dragon comes to his rescue and they become bond-mates.

Meanwhile, the goblins have a new king, Gravelbone, and have allied themselves with the tainted “mudged” dragons to drive mankind out of its lands. Setting his sights on a vast manmade wall, Gravelbone and his wicked hell-born Nightshade, seek to poison the entire human kingdom and enslave any survivors.

Jenka and his companion, a druida warrior named Zah, soon realize that they and their bonded dragons are mankind’s only hope for survival. Forced to defy their arrogant king’s wishes, the pair set out on a desperate quest to stop Gravelbone’s forces and save mankind from its terrifying fate.

Praise for The Royal Dragoneers:

“…a mythic world of awe-inspiring escapades, wild battles, exciting characters…at a breathless tempo.”

an excerpt from

The Royal Dragoneers
(The Dragoneers Saga, Book 1)

by M.R. Mathias

Copyright © 2014 by M.R. Mathias and published here with his permission

PART ONE: The Frontier
Chapter One

Jenka De Swasso peeked through the thick leathery undergrowth he was hiding in. The forested hills were lush and alive with late spring growth. The birds and other small creatures were busy making their symphony of life. It was a welcome cacophony, for Jenka was on the hunt, and it masked the noisy sound of his breathing.

Jenka was trying to see which way his prey was going to move. The ancient stag, once a beautiful and majestic creature, was now past its prime. One of its long, multi-forked antlers was broken into a sharp nub near the base. The other antler was heavy and looked to be weighing the weary creature’s head over to one side. All around its grayish-brown furred neck were scars from the numerous battles it had fought over the years defending its harem from the younger bucks. A fresh gash, a dark trail of blood-matted fur leaking away from it, decorated the stag’s shoulder area. Since there were no does moving about, Jenka figured this old king of the forest had lost his most recent battle, and his harem as well.

Jenka was sixteen years old, and he moved through the shadowy glades – between the towering pine trees and the ancient tangle limbed oaks – with the speed and dexterity of well-fit youth. He was dressed in rough spun and leather, brown and green, and when he stopped still he blended into the forest like a bark-skinned lizard on a tree trunk. His face was well-sooted and the shoulder-length mop of dirty-blond hair on his head looked more like a tumbleweed than anything else.

Like any good hunter who aspired to be a King’s Ranger, he was determined to get close to his prey, to get a good angle, and to make sure that his arrow went deep into the stag’s vitals. A creature as undoubtedly experienced in surviving as this one could probably travel for a day or more with any lesser wound. Jenka knew that if he didn’t make the right shot the creature would bolt away and not slow down. If that happened it would end up getting dragged down by trolls or wolves long before he could catch up to it.

Jenka shivered with a mixture of excitement and sadness. If he could kill the animal, then he and his mother could eat good meat for the rest of the spring. He could also get a handful of well-needed coins for a shoulder haunch from the cooks at Kingsmen’s Keep. It was a better death for the noble creature than to be stalked and shredded by hungry predators anyway, at least that was what Jenka told himself as he drew back on his bow to take aim.

The stag stopped in a small canopied glade carpeted in lush, green turf. The area was well illuminated; several slanting rays of dust-filled sunlight had managed to penetrate the leaves and branches overhead. The stag wearily bent its head down, pulled a mouthful of grass from the ground, and chewed. A pair of tiny, lemon-yellow butterflies fluttered away from the intrusion, their wings flashing like sparks as they flitted through one of the golden shafts of light.

Jenka had the stag perfectly sighted in. He was about to loose one of his hard-earned, steel-tipped arrows when the old animal looked up at him. Their eyes met, and for a fleeting moment Jenka could feel the raw indignity the creature felt over having lost its herd to a younger male. The stag beckoned him, as if it wanted to meet its end, right there, right then. Jenka took a deep breath, resolved himself, and obliged the animal.

The arrow flew swift and true and struck the stag right behind its foreleg. Jenka squinted as the animal went bounding away. He saw that only the arrow’s fletching was protruding from the stag’s hide. It was a kill shot, and he knew it. The arrow itself would grind and shift inside the stag’s guts as it fled through the forest, bringing death that much swifter.

The hunter’s rush came surging into Jenka’s blood then, and after marking the first crimson splashes of spilled life and the general direction that the stag had fled, he had to sit down and work to get his shaky breathing back under control.

Hopefully the animal would fall close; he would have to call for help as it was. It would take four grown men to haul the meat back to Crag after it had been quartered. Not for the first time today, Jenka wished his friend Grondy were there to help him. Normally Jenka and Grondy hunted as a team, but Grondy had recently been bitten by a rat while working in his Pap’s barn. His hand was swollen to the size of a gourd melon. Jenka would have to track this kill himself, then run back to Crag and round up some help before the sun set and the scavengers came out to feed.

The first step was finding where the stag went down. Jenka took a few deep breaths and tried to drown his excitement in the reality that there was still a lot of work left to do this day.

Groaning, he got back to his feet and set out to follow the blood trail. It wasn’t hard to see; the splashes were large and frothy. Even the tinier drops were a bright scarlet that stood out starkly against the forest’s myriad shades of brown and green. That the stag had been able to keep moving after losing so much blood amazed Jenka. It amazed him even more that the stag had fled upward into the deeper foothills instead of down towards the thicker growth around the valley stream. If the stag went too far into the hills, Jenka might have to give it up. Little gray goblins and bands of feral, rock-hurling trolls had been ranging down from the higher reaches of the Orich Mountains as of late, and Jenka wanted no part of that. An ogre had been seen just three days ago by a well-respected woodsman from Kingsmen’s Keep. There were also wolves and big tree-cats that hunted the area, but they were growing scarce as the troll sightings increased.

Jenka was an aspiring King’s Ranger and knew he was already far enough up into the hills to warrant paying a little more attention. Heaving from exertion, he was none too pleased when he finally found the stag’s broken body. It was lying at the bottom of a shallow, but steep, ravine; the creature had apparently staggered right over the edge and fallen into a heap at the bottom of the rain-washed gully.

Jenka had wasted far more precious daylight than he had wanted tracking the hearty animal. Now he had a choice: hurry back to Crag for help, or stand guard over his kill for the night. Jenka was torn.

Had he the energy left in him to run all the way back to the village he probably would have, but he was exhausted from the long, uphill trek. If he left immediately and had the luck of the Gods on his side, the help he gathered still wouldn’t make it back before full dark, not even if they returned by horseback. If he started looking now, however, Jenka was certain that he could round up enough deadfall to keep a fire blazing through the night. That would keep the chill of the higher elevation off of him, as well as keep the predators away. He wasn’t all that keen on spending the night way up here in the hills, but he wasn’t about to let the vermin have the meat of the once proud and mighty animal he had worked so hard to kill. Diligently, he went about rounding up sticks and branches and tossed them into a pile down by the stag’s carcass.

While he searched for firewood, he let his mind wander. After pondering the shape of Delia the baker’s daughter’s breasts, and weighing that curiosity against the size of her father’s well-muscled arms, he decided that he should worry about something else for the moment. That was when his mind wondered to the subject of ogres. More specifically, he thought about terrible old Crix Crux. Now he was glancing up every few heartbeats, scanning the area for the mythical, flesh-eating creature. Crix Crux was an ogre who was supposedly bold enough to venture down close to the villages built in the lower foothills around Kingsmen’s Keep. He was responsible for the disappearance of at least six people that Jenka knew of, and probably dozens more from the other towns built along the base of the mountains.

Master Kember, Jenka’s mentor, once told him that Crix Crux wasn’t real, that the fabled old ogre just got the blame when someone went missing. Most of the time, he said, being killed swiftly by a hungry ogre is a better death for the family to think about than the truth might be. Someone freezing to death because they fell asleep at their fire without building it up didn’t make for good gossip. That, and the ‘Crix Crux tale’ was good for keeping young boys from wandering too far away from the villages. Jenka laughed at himself. Crix Crux wasn’t lurking in the thicket.

At least he hoped not.

At the last bit of daylight, Jenka climbed down into the gulch. He gutted the stag, dragged the pile of innards a good way down the gully, then hurried back to the carcass and used his tinderbox to start his fire.

Darkness slid over him like a tavern-wench’s flattery while he struggled with his small, inadequate belt knife to cut himself a hunk of meat to roast. He tried not to think about all the wild and horrifying campfire tales he had heard over the years. It was no wives’ tale that many a man had met his end in the Orich Mountains. Jenka knew all too well how treacherous and inhospitable these hills could be; his father had died up here. But if he ever wanted to be a King’s Ranger he had to master his fear and learn to deal with the danger. Spending days at a time alone in the foothills was part of the Forester training he would someday have to take.

By the time he had his hunk of meat cooked, he was so scared that he had no appetite, and by the time he finished forcing the food down his throat, he was fighting to stay awake. Luckily, he remembered what Master Kember had said about Crix Crux, because it reminded him to throw some more wood on the fire before he fell asleep. The added illumination the new fuel lent the area allowed him to catch a brief glimpse of something gigantic moving about out in the shadows.

It might have been an overlarge tree-cat, because its movements were sinuous and silent, but Jenka couldn’t say for certain. A visceral knot of fear had clenched tight in his gut. He was far too terrified to think now, and he had to fight the base instinct he was feeling telling him, quite plainly, to flee. The slithery thing had amber eyes like windblown embers, and they danced with the fire’s reflection. They hovered at a height close to his own, yet the thing had been moving hunched over on all four limbs like a bear or a wolf. Whatever it was, it was huge, and uncannily quiet. Reaching for his bow, Jenka swore that if it came any closer he would try to shaft it. He just hoped a mere arrow would be enough to deter the thing.

Eventually, the beast slid back into the darkness, leaving Jenka to wonder if he had really seen anything at all. Needless to say, he wasn’t sleepy anymore. He built the fire up even higher, and once again wished that Grondy, or Solman, or any of the other young hunters from Crag were there with him.

Jenka’s mother was Crag’s village kettle-witch, and she would be worried to death about him by now. Amelia De Swasso didn’t have much coin, and a lot of people were a little afraid of her, but she had the respect of the other common folk. Nearly everyone in Crag had come to her over the years for a healing salve or a potion of one sort or another. Jenka knew that she would have Master Kember, Lemmy, and all the other hunters rousted out of bed before the sun was even in the sky. She might even send to Kingsmen’s Keep for help from the King’s Rangers. They wouldn’t dare refuse her. Jenka’s father had been a King’s Ranger, and when Jenka was very young, his father had died in these hills saving the Crown Prince. A painted portrait of him hung in the keep’s main hall alongside paintings of Captain Renny and Harold Waend. All three had died on that terrible Yule day hunt, saving Prince Richard from the band of ferocious trolls that had attacked the group. Because of his father’s sacrifice, everyone that knew Jenka went out of their way to look out for him. If it got out that he didn’t come in during the night, it wouldn’t surprise him if half of the village and a half dozen rangers came looking for him.

Jenka didn’t let his guard down. He knew in his heart that the creature was still out there in the dark somewhere, lurking, waiting for him to fall asleep. He divided most of his remaining wood up into three even piles, until he felt certain that he would have fire until well after the sun came up. He lit one end of a remaining branch and tossed it down to the other end of the gully. He then took the wood that he hadn’t put in his three piles and heaped it onto the flaming brand, so that he and the stag’s carcass had a fire burning on each side of them.

Being that he was in a somewhat narrow gully surrounded by earthy ravine and fire, Jenka felt reasonably sure that he would survive the night. He sat to rest from his exertion and his exhausted body come crashing down from the rush of adrenaline he had been riding. He was just starting to relax when a sleek, scaly beast came lurching down out of the darkened sky.

It was a dragon, Jenka realized, and he turned and bolted. He ran as fast as he could go down the gully into the darkness. He managed to grab up his bow as he went, but the primal urge to be away from the thing kept him from even considering using the weapon. He ran, and ran, and ran. Only after he stumbled over a tangle of exposed roots and went sprawling into some leafy undergrowth did his mad flight come to an end.

While he lay there heaving in breath, he considered what had just happened. He couldn’t believe he had just seen a dragon, but he had. It was a small dragon, maybe fifteen paces from nose to tail, but he was certain of what it was. Master Kember had taken him and a few of the other boys out with the King’s Rangers one afternoon to look at the carcass of a dragon that had crashed into a rocky prominence during a storm. It was considered an honor to be invited on such a trek, and Jenka had gone eagerly. The dark, reddish-gray scaled dragon had stretched forty paces from tail to nose, and had a horned head the size of a barrel keg. Its teeth were the size of dagger blades and twice as sharp, and its fist-sized nostril holes were charred at the edges from where it breathed its noxious fumes. Master Kember had guessed its age at about five years, which made Jenka think that the dragon he had just seen was probably little more than a yearling. He decided that if he could master his fear, he might be able to sneak back and kill it. If he did, he could claim the long-standing bounty that King Blanchard paid for dragon heads, as well as bring himself to notice so that he could begin his Forester apprenticeship sooner.

Jenka crawled to his feet and hesitantly looked around. It was dark, but the trees up here in the hills weren’t nearly as dense as they were in the lower forest. Enough starlight filtered through the open canopy for him to see. He started back the way he came, and when he neared the hungry young dragon, he dropped to his knees and crawled as quietly as he could manage, until he could plainly see the scaly thing feeding in the firelight.

It was amazing. Its scales glittered lime, emerald, and turquoise in the wavering light as it ripped huge chunks of bloody meat from Jenka’s kill. Its long, snaking tail whisked around like a cat’s as it raised its horned head high to chug down the morsel it had torn from the carcass.

Jenka decided that he couldn’t kill it with his bow and arrow. He probably couldn’t even wound the thing. Further consideration on the matter was rendered pointless when a heavy, head-sized chunk of stone suddenly crashed into the young dragon’s side. It screeched out horribly and flung its head and body around just in time to claw a gash across the chest of a filthy, green-skinned, pink-mouthed troll as leapt down from the gully’s edge into the firelight.

The troll fell into the smaller of Jenka’s fires, sending a cloud of sparks swirling up into the air. Another troll bellowed from the darkness, and from another direction a second rock came flying in.

The dragon leapt upward and brought its leathery wings thumping down hard. It surged a few feet up, and then pumped its wings again. It was trying to get clear of a troll that was leaping up to grab at its hind legs. The dragon wasn’t fast enough to get away.

Like a wriggling anchor weight, the troll began trying to pull the dragon out of the air. As hard as the young wyrm flapped its wings, it could do little more than lift the clinging troll a few feet from the ground.

Jenka wasn’t sure why he did what he did next, but it was done. He loosed the arrow he had intended for the dragon at the dangling troll. The shaft struck true, and when the troll clutched at its back, it let go of the dragon and fell into a writhing heap. The dragon flapped madly up into the night, leaving Jenka dumbfounded and looking frightfully at not two, but three big, angry trolls.

He turned to run, and actually made it about ten strides back down the gully before one of the eight-foot-tall trolls appeared from the darkness to block his way. It laid its doggish ears back and gave a feral snarl full of jagged, rotten teeth. Jenka whirled around to go back, but found another of the yellow-eyed trolls waiting for him. He started a mad, scrabbling climb up the side of the gulch, but found little purchase there in the rocky, rain-scoured earth. He clawed and pulled with such terror and urgency that the ends of his fingers tore open and some of his fingernails ripped loose, but he couldn’t get away. He was cornered.

More of the huge, well-muscled trolls were leaping down into the gully now. Their filthy, musky-scented bodies were silhouetted by the dancing flames of the fire and they threw long, menacing shadows before them as they came. Not knowing what else to do, and as scared as he had ever been in his life, Jenka put his back against the gully wall and turned to face the grizzly death that was closing in on him.

He saw that his bow was lying back where he had dropped it. His knife wasn’t at his hip either. Beyond the flames, he saw the shredded remains of the stag’s carcass. The dragon had torn half the meat away in only a few seconds. The trolls would have the rest of it, he figured. After they had him.

A fist-sized rock slammed into his chest, knocking all of the wind from his lungs. Other stones followed, and the primitive troll beasts soon went into a frenzied ritual of howling and savage fighting over feeding position. Luckily for Jenka, a well-thrown chunk of stone bashed into the side of his head and spared him from having to see himself being torn to pieces. All he could think of as he slipped into unconsciousness was that he would finally get to see his father, and he hoped his mother would never have to gaze upon what the trolls left of his body.

After that was nothing but blackness.

Chapter Two

In the swimming world of liquid darkness where Jenka found himself, he felt like a tiny fish caught up in a powerful current. He had no memory of how he had gotten to wherever he was, or how long he had been there. There was a fleeting terror still lingering in the back of his mind, but he had no inkling of what the source of his fear might be. All he knew was he was tumbling helplessly through a vast, serene emptiness.

After some time, he opened his eyes and was shocked back into reality by the blood-dripping, horn-headed visage looming down over him. Slick, iron-hard scales sparkled like emeralds as they reflected in the fire’s dancing light.

Like some curious, amber-eyed child, the young, green-scaled dragon leaned over Jenka’s prone body, locked gazes with him, and then spoke.

“Thank you,” it hissed in an unnaturally soft and slithery voice. “The trellkin almost had usss. They almost had usss, but we have besssted them.”

Jenka’s temples pounded and the world spun crazily with his effort to accept what was happening. His eyes closed for a moment, but he didn’t let the dark current pull him back under just yet. “How are you speaking to me?” He asked the dragon. He didn’t remember much of what happened, but here he was, somehow speaking to a wyrm that had ribbons of torn and bloody troll flesh dangling from its pink, finger-long teeth. It was incredible.

“I just am.” The dragon responded, more into Jenka’s mind than audibly. “I’m not supposssed to go near your sort. My mamra says that, though you are small and tasssty, you are a dangerous lot. She says that you like to kill our kind. But I wasss drawn to you. You saved me from the trellkin, ssso I saved you in turn. That makes us friendssss, doesss it not?”

“Friends then,” Jenka agreed, thinking with perfect clarity that such a friendship could never be. King Blanchard hated dragons. Everyone in the kingdom hated them. The wyrms had been completely eradicated from the islands. Now, out here in the mainland frontier, when a herd was pilfered or a lair was found, the King’s Rangers always went hunting and tried to find and destroy the creature responsible. Jenka figured that it would be that way until the entire frontier, the Orich Mountains, and even the Outlands were cleansed of the deadly creatures.

“My people are wary of your kind as well,” Jenka said matter-of-factly. His head and side hurt terribly and it was anguishing to speak. “Make your lair deep in the mountains where men cannot go, and don’t ever get caught by the King’s Rangers, because they will try their best to kill you.”

The dragon nodded his understanding with closely-knitted brow plates, and then snorted out two curling tendrils of acrid smoke from its nostrils. “Nor should you ever wander too far into the peaks. I have a feeling that we will sssee each other again. Thisss happening was no coincidence. I will be pleased when that time comes, but other dragons, the wild onesss, will feast on your flesh, ssso be wary.”

“Do you have a name?” Jenka asked with a shiver at the thought of being eaten. “Mine is Jenka De Swasso.”

“My name is impossible for you to sssay, but you can call me Jade. It isss the color the sunlight makesss when it reflectsss from my scal…”

A savage roar echoed through the night from a great distance away and caused the young green dragon to look up and give a call of its own.

“That isss my mamra calling,” Jade explained. “If I don’t go, ssshe will come looking. I must leave you, my friend, for both our sakesss.” The dragon stepped away from Jenka and poised to leap into the air. Before he went, Jade gave Jenka a curious look. Yellow, jaundiced eyes flashed first to amber, then into cherry-red embers. Jenka felt the dragon’s gaze tingling over his skin. Then he quickly sank back into the peaceful and painless current of liquid darkness from which he had just come.

*** * ***

“Jenka! Jenkaaaa! Where are you?” a familiar a voice called over the angry chirping and indignant cawing of several feasting crows.

Jenka’s face felt warm and slick. He tried to pull himself free of the clinging emptiness that still gripped his mind, but he couldn’t quite get loose of its grasp. He felt something small and hairy crawling across his chest and a pair of fat, black flies kept buzzing around his nose. The air smelled coppery and sweet.

“Jenka! Jen … ” The voice was closer now, and it suddenly stopped in a sharp, gasping intake of breath. “By the Gods, man! Look at this!” The man paused a moment, then started calling out with a more vigorous urgency. “Over here! He’s here, Lemmy, he’s alive! It looks like he’s killed a half a dozen trolls. Hurry man! Hurry it along!”

The excited voice belonged to Master Kember. He was a former King’s Ranger who had taken a crippling injury to his thigh in a fall several years ago. He was now the village Crag’s Head Huntsman, and the unofficial mentor and Lesson Master to Jenka and a few of Crag’s other miscreant boys.

Marwick Kember had known Jenka’s father well. He’d been there when the trolls had gotten hold of him. Jenka thought that maybe Master Kember had pledged an oath to his father to watch over Jenka, or to protect him, or something of the sort, because Master Kember did both efficiently.

Jenka was glad he could register who was yelling for Lemmy. It meant that his mind was starting to work again. He only wished he could find the strength to respond, or at least to brush the little crawly thing from his chest. He hoped it wasn’t a scorpion, or a blood ant.

He tried to open his eyes and was rewarded with a searing pain that flashed from his eyeballs deep into his brain. It was bright outside – mid-day he guessed. He squinted and saw Master Kember back-sliding himself gingerly down into the gully. A fit of coughing overtook Jenka then, reminding him of the heavy stones that had smashed into his head and ribs. He rolled to his side and vomited. All of the exertion caused his head to pound with powerful surges of more sickening pain.

“Don’t try to think, lad,” Master Kember said as he knelt next to Jenka and went about inspecting his wounds. “Lay it back. Your head’s been bashed in, and your arm bone looks bent.” The look on the old huntsman’s face graduated from attentive concern to pure pleasure after he saw that Jenka was in a survivable state. Looking around at the carnage the dragon had left behind, the old hunter shook his head in wonder. “How, by all the Gods of devils and men, did you survive what happened here?” Then he looked directly into Jenka’s bloodshot eyes. “What did happen here, Jenk?”

“It’s a long story, sir,” Jenka managed before another bout of heaving overtook him. When the debilitating fit subsided he said, “I think my cage is cracked.”

A heavy clod of dirt came thumping down near the two of them, causing Jenka to reflexively curl up into a fetal ball. It wasn’t another troll attack. It was only Lemmy trying to get Master Kember’s attention. Lemmy was nine or ten years older than Jenka, and he was a mute. All of the women in Crag seemed to marvel over his wheat-golden hair and his easy manner. Though he seemed like a dunce a lot of the time, Jenka knew that he was as smart and able as they come.

“Lem, go find Solman and Rikky, and point them our way,” Master Kember ordered. “I’ll throw some green on them coals over there and make a smoker to mark the way. Then you take a steed and you ride back to Crag and figure a way to explain to Lady De Swasso that her young dragon is alive and well enough for wear. Let her know that we’ll have him home by dark fall.”

Jenka heard the words “young dragon” and most of the previous night’s terror came flooding back into his brain; the stag he had killed, the trolls, and Jade. How he knew the dragon was called Jade he couldn’t quite work out, because the conversation they’d had seemed more like a wishful fever-dream than any sort of reality, but the memory of those magical, amber eyes was vivid enough.

After Lemmy grunted acknowledgment of his orders and loped off to carry them out, Master Kember stood and better took in the scene around him. Here was a troll torn completely in two, both halves ripped open where savage claws had gripped it. Down the gully was another troll that had no head, and only one arm. Lying half-scorched in an exhausted fire was a troll that had been ripped open from shoulder to groin, and right beside that one another with one of Jenka’s expertly fletched arrows buried deep in its back. Master Kember knew the Fletcher’s work because he purchased the steel-tipped arrows himself down in Three Forks every fall. He awarded them to his young hunters when they achieved the goals he set for them. Jenka had earned quite a few of the good shafts. The decimated remains of a sizable stag lay shredded and strewn amid all the gore, and upon closer examination, Master Kember found another of Jenka’s arrows. He walked around, shooing the noisy crows, and studied the scene a bit longer. Then he stopped altogether and cocked his head. He saw something glinting emerald in the sun. The retired ranger paced across the gulch, stooped and pulled the object from one of the troll’s clawed hands. Looking closely at what he had found, he let out a long, low whistle.

“You, my young pupil, might be the luckiest boy in the entire kingdom,” the old hunter started. “Killing that troll by yourself is certainly a feat of notability, but surviving the battle that took place after is simply amazing. Did you see it? Did you see the dragon that finished them?”

Jenka started to say yes, that he had even talked to the creature, but common sense bade him do otherwise. He didn’t want everyone to think he had lost his mind, and he certainly didn’t want a bunch of the King’s Rangers up here trying to hunt Jade down and kill him. “I’m not sure what happened after I was hit in the head,” he replied flatly. “I thought I was done for.”

“You should be troll scat right this very minute, boy,” Master Kember scolded. “What were you thinking, following that old stag all the way up into these hills? You should of ran back to Crag and found me or Lem.”

“It was too late in the day,” Jenka groaned as he slowly sat up and brushed the irritating bug out from under his shirt front. “I didn’t want the tree-cats to have it. It just … ” He leaned to the side and went into another bout of coughing. After he spit out a mouthful of mucus and blood, Master Kember grimaced.

“Lay it back down, Jenk. Be still.” The older man moved in to hover over Jenka and began feeling roughly along his sides. “Looks like you did crack your cage. Maybe a rib’s poked a hole in your gizzard. You’re gonna be a long while healing from this, but by the Gods, boy, after killing a troll single-handedly, and surviving a dragon attack, you’ll make Forester this year for certain. You’ll be a King’s Ranger before you know it!”

Before you could become a King’s Ranger you had to be a Forester for two full years. Outside of performing a “rare feat of notability,” — one that was worthy enough to find the king’s ear — the only way to make Forester was to place in the archery competition or to kill the stag in the hunt at the annual Solstice Day festival on King’s Island.

Jenka tried to smile. He had been training for both events most of his life, he had just never had the coin to get himself ship’s passage across to King’s Island. This year he had finally saved enough, but now he probably wouldn’t need it. This was definitely a “rare feat of notability” and since it involved a dragon, the king would most likely hear about it. Since Master Kember had helped save Prince Richard from the trolls the day Jenka’s father died, the king would listen to anything Master Kember had to say.

Jenka decided right then and there that if he was going to keep a good part of what really happened here to himself, then he might as well lightly embellish the rest of the story to protect Jade. “I think I got the dragon in the brow,” he wheezed. “The trolls tried to scavenge my kill. I tried to stop them, but the dragon came tearing through. It was as dark as the forest itself and fast as lightning, but I think I got lucky and got it in the eye. Tell the Rangers to look for a black-scaled wyrm with only one eye.”

“That’s my boy, Jenk.” Master Kember praised proudly as he used a kerchief and water from a canteen to wipe some of the gore from Jenka’s face. “I bet you did get it in the eye. I bet that’s why it fled, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Jenka coughed some more. “My head hurts, and I can’t remember everything that happened. It’s all jumbled up in my mind.”

“Just rest, boy. Don’t try to talk, or even think right now,” Master Kember spoke soothingly. He saw that the wound on the side of Jenka’s face was already healing, but he paid the unnatural phenomenon no mind. “We’ll get some hands to haul you up out of this ditch, and a travois to drag you home so that your witchy mother can fill you full of her herbs and her horrible tasting potions and whatnot.”

While they waited for help, Master Kember went over the scene again. He saw that something heavy had stepped on and smashed Jenka’s long bow. He decided that maybe he would take the boy down to Three Forks and help him pick out a new bow. He figured Jenka was growing and needed a heavier draw now anyway. He then decided that as soon as Jenka healed a little bit he would take him all the way to King’s Island. There he would get an audience with King Blanchard and tell him firsthand of what happened here so that the gossipmongers didn’t get the tale stretched out too far. A knot began to form in his gut telling him it might not be the right thing to do, that he had some heavy decision making to do soon. Jenka’s father probably hadn’t wanted his son to be a mere King’s Ranger. It was a short-lived profession for most, but a well-paid one. Either way, it had always been Jenka’s dream, and Master Kember was sure that Jenka’s father would have wanted him to be happy. He would think on the matter, and he and Jenka could talk about it later.

“Master Kember!” a distant voice shouted. Jenka figured it was Solman and probably Rikky too. Grondy wouldn’t be with them because of his hand. Jenka knew Grondy would have tried to come look for him with the others, but his ma would have corralled him in the farm house, and then thumped him good for the effort. Jenka started to chuckle because he was certain that he was right. Grondy was probably locked in his room this very moment, rubbing the knots on his head and wondering if Jenka was all right.

Jenka was surprised that it didn’t hurt when he laughed. He poked at his scalp where he had felt hot blood pulsing out of him the night before and was further surprised to feel nearly healed scar tissue where a fresh raw scab should be. His fingertips were healing too. A vague memory of Jade’s eyes flashing crimson and the tingling of his skin under that intense gaze made him wonder. Had Jade magicked him? His mother might know.

Master Kember heaped an armful of green, leafy foliage onto the ashy remains of Jenka’s larger fire. Nothing happened at first, but slowly smoke started rising up and branches began to pop and crackle in the heat. Soon a billowing pillar of smoke was roiling up and out of the gulch, only to be sheared off by the wind when it rose above the treetops.

“Spotted!” Rikky’s distant voice called out proudly. Of the small group of hunters that Master Kember looked over, he was the youngest. At thirteen summers old Rikky was probably going to end up being the best of them all.

Jenka and Grondy were born the same year and were the next youngest. Solman was the oldest student, but Lemmy was the oldest of the group save for Master Kember himself. Lemmy was more of an assistant than a pupil, though. He earned a wage, and he tracked as well as anyone in the whole frontier. Every once in a while, the King’s Rangers would come over from the keep and ask Master Kember or Lemmy to help them with something or another. Unlike the village folk, the King’s Rangers favored Lemmy for some reason. They treated him with the utmost respect, which had always piqued Jenka’s curiosity. The King’s Rangers had more or less accepted Lemmy as one of their own, which, in the past, had sometimes made Jenka a little jealous. Even though his father’s picture hung in the keep’s main hall, the Rangers were never partial like that to Jenka. They made sure that he and his mother were well fed, but they treated Jenka like any other village boy. He would have asked Lemmy about it, but it embarrassed him watching Lemmy struggle to convey a message without being able to speak.

Things got bad for Jenka for a while. Solman and Rikky were anything but gentle when they half hauled, half dragged him up out of the gully. The long, bumpy ride on the travois was even worse. Though he shouldn’t have felt as confident about it as he did, he decided that he probably could have just ridden one of the horses, but the idea that his friends — and his mentor — might shun him for having been magicked by a dragon caused him to keep his returning strength and vigor to himself.

He felt his head wound again, and he was sure that he was feeling partially-healed scar tissue now. By the time they finally made it into Crag, Jenka was starting to think that the dragon really had done something to him. Jenka’s wild, gray-haired mother came hurrying out into the street to greet her son, but was waved off by one of the young rangers gathering around his travois. Without a thought, she shouldered the King’s Ranger who had waved her away to the side and, after kissing Jenka on the forehead, she poured a vial of foul-smelling liquid down his throat.

“You killed a half dozen trolls, then?” Captain Brody, the head of the King’s Rangers, asked over the worried mother’s shoulder.

Two of the other rangers were razzing the one she had just bullied aside, but stopped cold when they heard their captain’s words.

“Here,” Master Kember handed something that was green and shimmering to his former commander. “The boy said it was a black, but I found this. It was dark.”

“Dragon scale,” Captain Brody took it and gave Jenka a dubious look. He reached out and touched the pink scar under Jenka’s blood-matted hairline and, after glancing down at the discarded vial of kettle-witch potion, he gave a short snort of disbelief. To Master Kember he said: “I’ll send a message by swifter hawk to Commander Corda down in Three Forks. He’ll get a message to King Blanchard that will be on the next boat to King’s Island.” Then in a more commanding and enthusiastic tone he said: “Digger, you and Balkir go round up the Rangers. We’ve got us another dragon to hunt!”

Chapter Three

The King’s Rangers combed the area around the carnage, but they never found Jade. They did find another dead troll over the ridge. There was a pinky-sized piece of broken dragon claw stuck in its wound. The young Ranger who had tried to hush Jenka’s mother had it drilled and put on a leather thong for her as an apology. She scoffed at him, but didn’t hesitate to put it in her pocket. It would fetch a pretty penny down in Three Forks in one of the hawker’s lots.

Jenka played the wounded young boy as long as he could fake it, which was only about four days. He limped around and groaned a lot, but since the morning after they had dragged him home he had been feeling better than he ever had in his life. Because of his seemingly quick recovery, several of the rangers were buying potions from his mother now.

One day, Jenka came in from helping the baker chop down a bothersome tree and found the small table he and his mother shared laden with meat and savory smelling vegetables. He thought that she had just decided to splurge until she turned from her iron pot and started swatting at him and urging him out to the trough to get cleaned up for dinner. It turned out that they were going to have guests at their table this night.

It was only Master Kember and Lemmy who were going to dine with them, but they were as welcome in the modest, thatch-roofed hut as the king himself would have been. The old hunter had come to ask Amelia De Swasso’s permission to take Jenka to Three Forks and then on to King’s Island, where they would spend a few weeks in an inn and attend the Solstice Festival, and hopefully get an audience with King Blanchard. He explained that Lemmy would be staying behind and would come by and take care of the heavy chores so she wouldn’t be inconvenienced too much by Jenka’s absence. He told her that Solman and Rikky were going with the group to compete in the contests. “We will be travelling in a well-armed group. It will be a safe and informative journey for Jenka, I assure you,” Master Kember finally finished.

“I’ll let him go, Marwick Kember,” Jenka’s mother said harshly. “But don’t you tell me them roads is safe and all that. I know better. Don’t even try to pull the wool over my eyes or I’ll shrivel your stones with a hex. Them trolls are getting riled up ‘bout something, and there’ll be sneak-thieves and Outland bandits betwixt Three Forks and Outwal, and pirates once you’re out of the harbor at Port. I was born out on Freemans Reach and I spent my middling years on King’s Island brewin’ potions for a Witch of the Hazeltine. Any fool who thinks a journey across the frontier is going to be safe will pay their price. Now you tell that handy dimwit of yours to keep me stocked in cut wood, meat, and bear scat while Jenka’s away, or when you return I’ll … ”

And so it went until the table was cleared. Master Kember was happy to be on his way. He wasn’t used to being scolded and harped at, and it showed plainly that his patience was worn completely through.

During dinner, Lemmy seemed to fade into his own shadow and did a good job of staying unnoticed, but within minutes of the serving dishes being removed from the table, he had the horses ready to go.

To Jenka, the prospect of the journey was more exciting than anything he could have ever imagined. The group was to leave at the end of the week on horses the King’s Rangers would provide. An escort made up of two green Foresters and one seasoned old Ranger named Herald, who Master Kember always spoke highly of, would ride with them to Three Forks. That would take about four days. From there they would hire a wagon and travel for another day with an armed caravan until they were on the other side of the Great Wall that separated Port and Mainsted from the wild, mainland frontier. In Port, they would board a ship and sail to King’s Island. Then there was the audience with the king, and the Solstice Festival to look forward to. It was all Jenka could do to keep still. His only regret was that Grondy wouldn’t get to go with them.

The morning before the group was planning to leave, Jenka walked out to his best friend’s farm to tell him goodbye. Grondy’s hand was healing nicely, but his father needed him on the farm. They had gotten a contract to grow hay and corn for some ranchers down in Three Forks. Grondy’s destiny, it turned out, wasn’t with the King’s Rangers. It was behind an ox and a thresher in one of the foothill’s golden valleys. Jenka didn’t want to taunt his friend with what he would be missing, so he held back with his description of the coming journey. Even so, Grondy confessed that he wanted to go more than anything. It was a sad parting, and Jenka spent a few long moments after he got down the lane from the growing farm studying the trees and wiping the dust from his eyes.

Later that afternoon, a group of King’s Rangers came riding into Crag all bloody and raving about a kill. “We got that dragon!” they bragged. “Felled him way back in Calf Horn Valley.”

They had come to fetch Master Kember and Lemmy, but when they stopped by Jenka’s hut to purchase some healing potions from his mother, they drew Jenka into it too. He was lucky that Master Kember waved him over and handed him the reigns of the horse intended for Lemmy. Lemmy was nowhere to be seen, and Jenka was too worried that the rangers had just killed Jade to care about anything else. He mounted the offered animal and followed Master Kember and the rangers out of Crag and up into the hills. They rode until dark, then the rangers lit torches for them to see by, and they rode some more. Jenka figured that they were already deeper into the foothills than he had ever been before.

The group came out from under the sparse trees and topped a ridge overlooking an open, starlit valley. Off to one side of the open space, along what appeared to be a washed-out stream bed, there was a cluster of softly glowing yellow flowers. The petals were bigger than any Jenka had ever seen before, almost as big as bed sheets. It would have been quite beautiful had there not been the long, broken-winged body of a small dragon lying sprawled across the earth nearby.

Jenka’s heart was thudding in his chest and the lump in his throat was the size of a gourd melon. The dragon was the right size to be Jade, but Jenka wasn’t close enough yet to be able to tell for certain. As they drew nearer, the dragon’s scales began to shimmer a deep, greenish color. Jenka’s chest clenched with sadness, but then Captain Brody stepped up out of nowhere and quickly said, “Hurry! Close your eyes until after the flash.”

“Whimzatta,” a faint girlish voice spoke with a tongue-tangling inflection. Suddenly, a sphere of stark, white light the size of a man’s head was hovering in the air a dozen feet above the dragon’s twisted corpse. The air became full of humming, popping static and took on the clean smell of the sky right after a lightning storm. Several of the rangers shied away from the orb as if it were contagious. The dainty, hooded figure underneath the magical globe seemed to think that was funny.

This was the first time Jenka had ever seen anyone use High Magic, and it was a little bit disconcerting. He had never seen one of the secretive druids that the rangers sometimes spoke of either. The Order of Dou supposedly had a monastery or a temple somewhere deep in the mountains. Some folks said they were elvish, but Jenka wasn’t sure he believed that. Due to their common interest of the forest, the druids sometimes helped the rangers, but they had no sworn allegiance to King Blanchard or the kingdom.

Jenka cringed when he saw a pale, tattoo-lined feminine face peering out from under the hood directly at him. The druida’s gaze cut right through him, and he felt his scalp tingling as if his hair were standing on end.

“Is that the one?” Master Kember asked. He put his hand on Jenka’s shoulder, breaking the spell he had fallen under. “It’s still got both of its eyes.”

Under the bright magical light, Jenka saw that the dead dragon’s scales were the color of a deep, blackish-blue bruise, not green. He knew instantly that it wasn’t Jade. He was surprised at how relieved he felt. He hadn’t expected to be so worried about a creature that he had only spoken to once. Sure they had saved each other’s lives, but the truth of it was they were supposed to be natural enemies. Nevertheless, he was glad that it wasn’t his friend lying dead in the glade.

“Maybe I missed?” he shrugged. “It’s almost black.”

The druida’s magical light suddenly disappeared. In the momentary blindness everyone experienced while their eyes adjusted to the darkness, she moved impossibly fast and slid up close to Jenka’s side.

“Liar,” she almost purred the word into his ear, causing his blood to tingle with both fear and arousal at the same time. Her breath smelled of cinnamon and ginger, and she radiated a soft inviting heat like a woodstove.

“Master Kember, I would like a word with our young troll-slayer if you please.” She gave a respectful head bow to punctuate her request.

Master Kember’s expression showed the unease he felt at being this close to the eerie — yet exotically beautiful — tattooed girl. On the islands, and in Port and Mainsted, the practice of the arcane was more commonplace. There were witches and charm-makers on every corner, but out here in the frontier it was rare – and sometimes shunned. Jenka’s mother used magic of a sort, and he saw how people were afraid of her for it, but it was nothing like the High Magic that this druida had just been using. Master Kember gave Jenka’s shoulder a compassionate squeeze and hurried away, leaving Jenka and the druida alone.

“It’s all right, Jenka De Swasso,” her voice was sweet and liquid, and it dripped into Jenka’s ears and flowed into him like honey. She looked surprisingly young; barely a woman. She had four thin, blue-green lines running diagonally across the bridge of her nose. There was an intricately-decorated circle on her right cheek, a similar square on her left, and on her forehead was a silvery triangle that pointed down at the tip of her nose, giving her brow a permanently sinister look. A few tendrils of snow white hair trailed out of her hood. Her eyes, though. Her eyes were pools of sparkling lavender that were so deep a person could drown in them.

“My name is Zahrellion, but you can call me Zah,” she said. “Why did you lie about the dragon?”

Jenka was answering before he could stop himself. “Because Jade saved me from a certain death at the hands of the trolls. I can never forget that.”

“Jade? You know its name? You spoke with this wyrm?”

“Yes I did, and I don’t care if you believe me or not. Just don’t tell … ”

She cut him off. “Oh, I believe you, Jenka.” Her eyes grew wide with a girlish excitement that she deftly quelled the second the emotion showed. Looking around to make sure no one was listening in on their conversation, she hooked her arm in Jenka’s and led him away from the dragon carcass. “I’ve talked to a dragon too, way up in the icy peaks. They choose to aid people every now and then when things come to a head. A time like that is at hand. Crystal told me that something evil has awakened in the hills. Most likely, you and Jade will meet again.” Her brows narrowed as the direction of the conversation took a sour turn. “We have a common enemy, dragons and men. The trolls don’t like the humans, and we are spreading and populating the frontier like field mice. King Blanchard won’t make the move, but he has planned it all out for his son. When Prince Richard takes the throne, the kingdom seat will shift to Mainsted, here on the mainland, and once that happens, there will be no hope for the trollkin.”

The word trollkin was a slang term that included the little, gray-skinned goblins, the larger, black-skinned orc, and of course the trolls themselves. After hearing Jade call the trolls trellkin, he decided that maybe it wasn’t a slang term after all. Ogres, Jenka had deduced, were another sort of creature altogether.

“They are starting to figure this out,” Zahrellion continued. “Already they’ve been forced into the higher reaches where the ogres and dragons reign. Soon there will be nowhere left for them to go. The dragons, on the other hand, can always nest out of man’s reach. Only a very few of the most foolish wyrms get their selves killed, those are usually the mudged, like this one. There are hundreds of dragons in the deep of the mountains, Jenka. Some of the wyrm are older than you can imagine.”

Jenka stopped her and shook his head to clear it. He had lost her words in the feel of her dainty hand on his bicep, in the warmth of her smile, and in the conviction of her voice.

“I’m telling you that we have to find a way to make King Blanchard or Prince Richard understand.” Her voice showed that she was becoming agitated, if not a little angry.

“Understand what?” Jenka asked stupidly.

She jerked her hand away, let out an exasperated girlish huff, and clenched her fists at her sides. “That the dragons want to help us when the trolls start their war! They’re in the hills gathering and planning as we speak.”

“War?” Jenka didn’t understand. “Is it the Dragons or the Trolls who are in the hills planning right now?” Jenka had no idea what she was talking about. He was entranced by her very existence though, and couldn’t get his mind to focus on anything other than her beauty.

She stared at him for a few long moments. “You’re daft,” she finally said. Her eyes were brimming over with tears of disappointment as she turned and stalked away.

Jenka stood there, slack-jawed, staring at the darkness until Master Kember came over and started speaking to him. “Fargin women’ll twist your thinker till it pops.”

“What?” Jenka asked.

“Never mind, boy. What did she say to you?”

“That the trolls are gonna start a war with us. That the dragons want to help us prevail, and that King Blanchard has to know about it so that we don’t keep killing wyrms.” Jenka couldn’t believe he had retained all of that, but ever since the beautiful druida had stalked away, Jenka had been thinking more clearly.

“That’s nonsense,” Master Kember shook his head with disgust. “Fargin trolls can’t fight with any sort of form or muster. They end up fighting each other. By the hells, they’ll stop fighting to feed on the dead while you’re cutting them down. I’ve seen it. You didn’t tell her we were going to King’s Island, did you?”

“No, sir,” Jenka answered. “Is the kingdom seat really going to move to Mainsted when Prince Richard takes the throne? I mean, I sort of understand the expansion and all, but where did we come from before the Dogma wrecked on Gull’s Reach? No one ever talks about that much.”

“That’s a good question,” the old hunter nodded. “There’s an age-old saying about it. It goes like this: Don’t worry about how you got here. You are here, and if you want to survive you have to keep doing everything that needs getting done.”

“What does that mean?” Jenka shrugged.

“It means that only a few historians even care where we came from, boy. A few dozen people survived a shipwreck that washed up on Gull’s Reach. From that meager beginning, we populated all three islands and set up the strongholds on the mainland. Then we built that fargin wall to keep the wilderness out. Now we are trying to tame the land between the wall and the mountains so that we can grow more crops and build more cities and towns. We have achieved everything you know about. We’re not going back. We’ve been here two hundred twenty some-odd years. We are going to settle this frontier, and the trolls and dragons can be damned if they oppose it.” He let out a tired sigh and changed the subject. “We’ll have to postpone our journey for one more day. It’ll be dawn by the time we get back to Crag.”

Jenka was only mildly disappointed by the news of the delay. He was busy pondering Zah’s beauty and what she had told him. The ride home was wrought with anxiety and excitement. Several times he started to ask Master Kember a question but caught himself. The idea that Zah might be right, that the trolls would defend their homeland, couldn’t be purged from his mind.

He fell asleep back in his mother’s hut as the sun was just starting to paint the horizon, and he dreamed that he was flying high in the sky on the back of an emerald-scaled dragon. They flew across the oceans, over mountains, deserts and plains, until they found the mother land. It was crowded and noisy, and a haze of filthy air hung over the people like a cloud. There were no forests or fields, and the river that turned slowly through it all was clogged and thick with muck. Even the sea around the land was black and shimmering with an oily sheen. There were factories, and shops, and buildings, and so many people that Jenka couldn’t stand it.

Jenka wasn’t befuddled with Zah’s beauty when he woke up late the next day. He was contemplative and distant. He could imagine Crag a hundred years from now, all crowded and busy, and he wasn’t sure if he liked the idea of it. He finally forced all the negativity from his mind, like he sometimes did when he was hunting, and was decidedly the better for it.

Beyond being as tired as he could remember, he was also beside himself with a giddy, childish glee. He was about to go on a grand adventure, and after being invited with the King’s Rangers last night, he felt he would make Forester this year for sure. He had just decided that things couldn’t possibly get any better, when he learned that beautiful Zahrellion and another of the Druids of Dou were going to be traveling to King’s Island with their group. After hearing that news, Jenka spent the rest of the evening floating around as if he were on a cloud.

Master Kember was none too pleased about the unwanted additions to his group, but he kept his opinions mostly to himself. Captain Brody had asked him, and ordered the King’s Ranger named Herald, to escort the druids as a personal favor. He also asked that Master Kember help them gain King Blanchard’s ear. Master Kember didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all, but he was willing to do it for the captain. Crippled or not, he was still a King’s Ranger at heart.

Jenka said goodbye to his mother early in the morning, and promised to deliver a written message to her former employer on King’s Island. Visiting a true Witch of Hazeltine wasn’t one of the things Jenka had planned to do, but he loved his mother and couldn’t possibly consider refusing her simple request. After those tears were dried, he went and found Solman and Rikky at the stables. They both had their long hair chopped at the shoulders like Jenka’s, and they were doing what they could to help the two Foresters get the horses ready.

As the sun was coming up and losing its battle to light the sky, the group of nine travelers gathered outside the stable in a light, dreary drizzle. They all had their hoods pulled up high on their heads and their cloaks fastened tightly. Not even the inclement weather could dampen their spirits though, especially Jenka’s. He had been assigned the pleasant duty of personal attendant to Zah and her older male companion for the journey.

“Starting a journey is always such a thrilling feeling,” Master Kember said optimistically to his three students and the two young, uniformed Foresters. Jenka, Solman, and Rikky all cringed, expecting one of Master Kember’s windy proclamations. They were saved from a lengthy discourse on the beginning of journeys by the grizzled old King’s Ranger, Herald. He harrumphed loudly over Master Kember’s voice, spat a wad of brown phlegm from a slit in his dark tangle-shrub of a beard and snorted, “It’s just the possibility that we might not ever make it back home that makes it thrilling, Marwick. Now let’s get this cavalcade moving before the buzzards fly down and eat us where we sit.”

With that, they started out of Crag moving south toward Three Forks.

Chapter Four

By midday, the late spring sun had burned the clouds away, and though the lightly rutted road was soft under the horses’ hooves, there hadn’t been enough precipitation to make it muddy. Birds fluttered about and called out merrily from the thinning copses of tangle oak and pine trees that dotted the roadway, and a light breeze kept the travelers from getting too warm. The chink and jingle of the tack and the oc