SNEAK PEEK: Dracona’s Rebirth by V.J.O. Gardner

Dracona’s Rebirth by V.J.O. Gardner

 

 

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SYNOPSIS

 

As Eamon lay dying he made his dragon Haskell swear to watch over and guide his son Bryant. After Eamon’s death Haskell needs Bryant’s companionship as much as Bryant needs his, but Bryant needs more than a dragon’s company. Haskell knows Bryant needs both a mate and citizens for Dracona. His mate tells him that Dracona must be reborn or there won’t be anyone to care for the eggs for they are the last of the dragons. She tells him that Bryant is the one that will claim the enchanted sword that was forged centuries ago in dragon’s fire without it killing him, but first he must open his heart and accept his true heritage.

Bryant Donley is a man with a dark past. As the last lord of Dracona he rules over an empty kingdom. He is feared by the neighboring villagers and abandoned by his family. As Lord Dracona it is his duty to marry, but what woman would willingly accept his proposal and a future in a dead kingdom? When he investigates a campfire in his forest, he has no idea how much his life is about to change.

Sonje is the crown princess of her people who are in search of a new home before their valley is destroyed by volcanoes showing signs of erupting soon.  While hiding from the man who murdered her mother Sonje’s father is bitten by a snake. The feared Lord Dracona demands that Sonje live with him in payment for saving her father’s life. When she arrives in Dracona she finds Lord Dracona to be both handsome and kind but is he the answer to her quest? The empty town needs citizens but when she meets Haskell she wonders how her people will feel about living with dragons.

 

EXCERPT

 

In the silence there were voices. In the darkness there was light. In the stillness there was life. In the cold there was warmth. Yet he was lonely.

 

Chapter 1 – The Last Lords of Dracona 

It was late in the evening when Bryant finished weeding the garden. He was tired and hungry, but not eager to return to the empty castle. His father had been gone for a couple of days to check the forest for trespassers. Bryant had decided to remain at the castle since he and Father had spent a lot of time arguing over the past few weeks. Life at the castle was hard and lonely.

He went inside to fix a cold supper when he heard Haskell’s voice in his mind say, ‘Eamon’s horse fell crossing the creek near the village. He’s been injured!’

Bryant felt like his heart had stopped.

“If they find him alone and injured they’ll kill him!” he responded out loud as he quickly went back outside and headed for the stables.

His mind went through what else he would need to bring and he went instead towards the armory to get the sword he seldom carried.

He found it and was headed to the stables when Haskell said in a worried tone, ‘A villager he doesn’t recognize has found him.’

“No!” Bryant cried as he stopped in the center of the courtyard.

He ran to the stables to get his horse saddled. He was nearly finished when Haskell spoke again.

‘The villager has offered to help him. He doesn’t even have a knife.’

“He’s still in grave danger! I’ve got to get to him now. The horse might not be fast enough!” Bryant responded as he buckled on his sword.

‘The villager is stitching the wound shut. Eamon says he is safe and wants you to go find the finest yearling bull and cow from the mountain pasture and mark them with the old mark. Meet him tomorrow at the south clearing midway to the village.’

The images that accompanied Haskell’s words told Bryant exactly where he needed to meet his father. Bryant gathered some food and a couple skins of water so he could leave at dawn. He found some rope to make two halters from. He was surprised that Haskell had spoken to him. It was the longest conversation he had ever had with his father’s dragon. After a restless night he saddled his horse and was soon on his way to the mountain pasture. It took him some time to find the two cattle. He took them to the castle and found the tool he would heat and use to mark them with. He trapped first the bull, then the cow between the wall and a stall door so he could press the tool he heated in a torch to their left shoulders. When he was finished both were marked with what looked like two mountains with a line between them, but Bryant knew it symbolized a dragon. Like the clasp on his cape it was a reminder of the duty that bound him and his father to remain in the empty castle and town caring for the last two dragons; Haskell and his mate Evelina.

He mounted and started down the trail back to the town. They clattered though the empty streets breaking the silence that hung heavily in the abandoned town. The memories of the awful incident that emptied the town and castle of Dracona were still all too fresh in Bryant’s memory. He had run through the chaotic streets filled with people running from burning houses screaming in terror and in pain. When he reached the fields surrounding the town he found his father clutching Uncle Rolf’s body in his arms with his sword still in it. Not far away Haskell had Uncle Rolf’s dragon, Mackin, by the throat as the dragon fought a losing battle with death. Bryant had sunk to his knees and cried with his father as the smell of smoke, blood and burning flesh filled the air.

Entering the forest broke through his thoughts and brought his mind back to the present. Bryant arrived in the clearing a couple of hours before supper to find his father waiting for him next to a small fire.

“Are you alright?” Bryant asked as he noticed the scabs on father’s horse’s knees. “What happened?”

“I’m sore, but I’ll recover,” Father said as he held out his arm to reveal a long gash that was stitched shut. “I didn’t expect any help, but a young man who just moved to the village came running into the forest to find me when he heard me fall. He’ll soon get married and the cattle are for him. I had you mark them so we would know they belong to him and not keep any.”

“When Haskell told me you were injured, I was terrified that you would be killed before I could get to you,” Bryant admitted as he sat down.

“The man who helped me is named Langward. He is about your stature with dark curly hair and eyes that are very dark. He understands that we are not evil, but just wish to be left alone. He mentioned he has his own past that he wishes to forget.”

“Did he say what it was? Certainly it can’t be as shameful as ours.”

“He told me enough that I know he understands the pain in my heart,” Father said. “His kindness gives me hope that someday you will be free of the shame my brother has brought upon us both. Meet him tomorrow at dusk near where I fell and give him the cattle. He’s expecting you. He will need his own cattle if he is to support his new wife and any children she bears him.”

Bryant nodded knowing Father would tell him no more.

“Have you eaten?” Bryant asked and Father shook his head.

Bryant opened his saddlebags and gave his father some meat and bread. He was worried about Father. It had been close to a hundred years since Father had to kill Uncle Rolf, but he still carried that shame and guilt. It was long enough that most of the villagers certainly didn’t remember what happened, but they still remembered the fear. The villagers only lived about seventy five to a hundred years, but Bryant was far older than that already and would live to be seven hundred to a thousand years old. Although Father was only five hundred and sixty right now he looked much older.

Bryant’s mother had fled with the rest of their people across the mountains to establish the village of Merton on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean, but Bryant and his father were bound to remain in Dracona. They were the last two men in their family and the last to bear the title of Lord Dracona passed down from their ancestor who had founded Dracona. Bryant knew little about where Lord Fanchon came from and even less about the strange language that he had spoken. Bryant missed the days when the villagers had lived in the town and his family lived in the castle, but after that horrible day everything had changed forever. The village and the castle sat abandoned, frozen in the past.

“I know that look,” Father said suddenly breaking through Bryant’s thoughts. “You can’t dwell in the past.”

“For us there is no future,” Bryant said bitterly. “This is all there will ever be. We will live and die alone. We will be shunned, hated and finally forgotten.”

“I know,” Father said softly. “Still, I pray that your fate will be different than mine. We should go visit Merton. You need to spend some time with the living instead of being stuck here where reminders of death are ever present.”

“When I visit Merton I feel awkward and out of place. Even people I used to be friends with barely speak to me,” Bryant said with a sigh.

“Someday you will be their leader, Bryant,” Father said. “You can’t forget that. They will look to you for leadership and guidance.”

Bryant considered his possible responses knowing each one would only start the age old argument that there was no way for either of them to win. They sat in silence watching the fire slowly die. He could tell Father was talking with Haskell from the expression on his face. Without Haskell, Father probably would have taken his own life after burying his brother. Bryant had often wished for a brother, but that was as likely as the town being repaired and repopulated.

“I’d better be heading back to the castle,” Father said. “It’s a long walk and I don’t want my arm to start bleeding again.”

“Take some of this food and a skin of water,” Bryant said. “You’ll get hungry before getting back to the castle. Perhaps you should wait here until dark and get Haskell to take you back to the castle. I’ll get your horse and bring it back to the castle for you.”

“Perhaps that would be for the best,” Father said with a sigh. “I’m going to sleep. I’m still tired from walking.”

Father moved over into the shade and lay down. Soon he was snoring. Bryant watched the cattle and horses graze while he wondered what to expect when he delivered the cattle to Langward. The last few contacts they had with any of the villagers hadn’t gone well at all. One had gone completely crazy after seeing Haskell. They finally had to give him a sleeping draught and took him to the edge of the forest near the village. Bryant had watched over him until he woke and found his way to the village. Soon his family found him and calmed him. A couple of years later two men were found dead in the armory. The box containing Fanchon’s Sword was opened. Bryant had been told to never touch it. The sword lay still in the box, but not cradled in its proper place. He had tapped the side of the box and was relieved when the sword settled back in place so the lid could be shut.

That time instead of returning a live man to his family, Bryant and his father had returned the bodies to be buried by the mourning families. Bryant had made certain that they were laid out so they would fit in the coffins for burial. He didn’t want them to appear to have been simply carelessly left there. He knew it would be traumatic enough for the families to find them dead. Again he had watched over the bodies until they were found by their families. He quietly left to join his father as the wails of the women faded in the distance. These were memories that were still painfully fresh in his mind. Equally painful was the aching loneliness and hopelessness that seemed to be his constant companions. Even with his father he felt alone.

The remainder of the day went by slowly and night was welcome relief from the heat. Soon after dark Haskell arrived and he helped Father to mount.

“I’ll see you in a couple of days, Bryant,” Father said. “You can trust Langward.”

“Be careful dismounting,” Bryant said before jumping down to the ground.

He walked around to Haskell’s head and stood facing the dragon.

Haskell put his head down and Bryant said softly, “Get him home safely.”

Haskell nodded slightly and pushed Bryant gently back with his nose. Bryant went over to the animals and watched Haskell launch into the air. Bryant watched towards the castle even after the trees hid the dragon and his father from his sight. When he finally settled down to sleep his dreams were troubled and he woke tired. It would be a long day. He stayed in the clearing until afternoon before heading towards the village. Soon he found the designated meeting place and could see the creek bed had been disturbed where Father’s horse had stumbled. After tying the cattle to a tree he tied his horse to another and ate some more bread.

He found a place to sit and wait as he watched the village through the trees. The people worked in the fields as children played and laughed. He saw women bringing water to the men working in the fields. It was a hard life, but they seemed happy. For Bryant it was almost as painful to watch as the memories that had erased all hope for such happiness from his life. He was glad when the people went into their homes to eat. He stood as he saw a lone man with dark hair walking along the edge of the forest coming from the south west. His hair was curly and his shoulders broad as he held his head higher than any of the villagers. He was obviously not accustomed to stooping over to work in the fields. He knew this must be Langward. When the man stopped just outside the forest Bryant stepped forward to be visible to Langward in the shadow of the trees.

“You are Langward?” Bryant asked.

Langward nodded and he gestured Langward forward. Langward followed him to where his horse and the two cattle were tied.

“Thank you for helping my father,” Bryant said. “He has been so bitter towards the villagers. He did not expect anyone to help him when he was injured. He thought at first that you would kill him.”

“I am a peaceful man,” Langward said. “I have heard some about you and your father, but I know that what is seen and said is sometimes not the entire truth. Know that I am willing to be of assistance, you only need to ask.”

“Always mark your cattle as these two have been marked,” Bryant said as he handed the lead ropes of the two cattle to him. “We will drive them out of the forest and not keep any.”

“Thank you,” Langward said as Bryant mounted his horse. “I will not tell anyone of meeting you. They probably wouldn’t believe me. I’ll say that I found these two coming out of the forest.”

Bryant nodded and turned his horse deeper into the forest leaving Langward standing there with the cattle. He had been surprised that Langward had volunteered his assistance. It was the first time anyone had made such an offer. Langward had seemed completely unafraid of him. Bryant returned to the clearing where Father’s horse waited. The following morning he took a more direct route to the castle in spite of having to pass through the center of town where the most burned buildings stood. The brick structures remained along with some of the charred wood. The dark windows and missing doors made the homes seem like skulls reminding him of the death Rolf’s rampage had brought to Dracona.

Once in the castle courtyard he took care of the horses and turned them loose in the tiny pasture inside the castle wall before taking his saddlebags inside. Although the castle was dark, he didn’t bother lighting a torch or candle. He went up the stairs to the fourth floor to his room and his bed. His dreams were troubled and he woke to his father shaking his shoulder.

“You were screaming again,” Father said. “Same dream?”

“A little different, but pretty much the same,” he said with a sigh as he sat up. “This time you were injured too and I was left completely alone.”

“A part of me did die that day,” Father said softly as a tear ran down his face. “My greatest fear is leaving you alone. You should get married Bryant. You need someone besides me here with you.”

“To bring a woman here would be cruel,” Bryant replied. “Besides none of the women in Merton will speak to me unless I speak first. It seems they answer only out of politeness and quickly excuse themselves. Only Brenndah is friendly to me and she doesn’t speak to anyone. I know she of all women would not want to return to Dracona. There’s no sense in even trying to speak to any of the village women and risk repeating the past.”

“Try to get some sleep. We’ll leave in the morning for Merton. Haskell can take us since I really don’t want to ride on horseback with this arm,” Father said as he stood up.

Bryant lay down as his father shut the door behind him, but just couldn’t sleep with all his emotions jumbled up. He sighed and sat up knowing it was still several long hours to dawn. He lit a lamp and got out his journal. He began to write about what had happened and how he felt about it. Soon tears were pouring down his face as he tried to put his heartache into words. He was startled as a hand was placed on his shoulder. He shut the journal quickly.

“I know, Son,” Father said softly. “I know. I couldn’t sleep either. Let’s get packed and go.”

Bryant quickly gathered some fresh clothing together. He was packing the saddlebags when Father returned.

“All black? Why don’t you wear something a bit less somber while visiting Merton? At least pretend you still know how to smile.”

“It wouldn’t change how I feel inside and the moment I say something it is obvious how I feel. What’s the use?” Bryant said bitterly.

“At least wear this shirt,” Father said as he drew a dark blue shirt out of Bryant’s closet. “It’s still almost as dark as your mood, yet not black.”

Bryant took the shirt and shoved it into the bags before pulling on his boots. He followed Father out to the courtyard where Haskell waited. Once his father was safely mounted, Bryant mounted behind him seated on his saddlebags. He seldom rode with Father on Haskell and really wasn’t very comfortable being so far off the ground. It was a cold ride to Merton and Bryant was glad to be safely back on the ground. They were greeted by Bryant’s mother who hugged them both tightly warming Bryant’s heart. Brenndah stood nearby waiting to check Father’s arm.

“I’ve been so worried,” Mother said. “Come in and have some breakfast. I know you two didn’t eat before leaving.”

They sat around the table eating breakfast while Bryant’s parents talked. Bryant answered his mother’s questions, but mostly just listened. Once he had finished eating he excused himself and went outside. He was surprised that Brenndah followed him. She pointed to him then traced from her eye down her face.

“Yes, I haven’t gotten over that day any more than you have,” Bryant said with a sigh. “Father wants me to get married, but I still have nightmares and it would be cruel to take a woman to live in Dracona. So much reminds me of that day, that nothing will ever be the same. Nothing will bring back the lives lost or erase the terror and shame that has emptied the town and the castle. Dracona will die hated, feared and finally forgotten.”

He looked down at the ground as he struggled for control over his emotions. She put her hand gently over his heart and he looked up. She motioned for him to follow her and she led him to her home. There she got out some paper, pen and ink.

‘It is hard to not be bitter over it,’ Brenndah wrote. ‘I don’t know if I dare let anyone into my heart for fear of losing them, watching them die.’

“I figured you’d understand better than anyone. I try talking to my father, but it just starts the same old argument.”

‘There are things about me I dare not tell anyone else. Things I feel and things I can do. I think people would not understand, would fear me if they found out,’ Brenndah wrote.

“I know that the villagers fear me and I think some of our people do too. I don’t want to be hated and feared.”

‘Someday you will be our leader. Without leadership we would not survive. Eventually you will need an heir to take your place. You need to start thinking about the future.’

“I know, but it’s difficult to think about living when surrounded by so many reminders of death,” Bryant said as his throat tightened and he tried keep from being overwhelmed by the emotions.

His head hurt and his eyes were losing focus. He felt dizzy as a red glow further clouded his vision and he let his head drop onto his folded arms on the table. He heard footsteps and felt a gentle touch on his head. His head quit throbbing as he felt his back patted. He fell asleep as he heard Brenndah’s footsteps fading.

* * * * *

Bryant woke to quiet talking. Brenndah came over with a bowl of soup for him and a questioning look on her face.

“I feel a little better,” he replied to her unspoken question. “Perhaps someday we can both find what we need.”

Brenndah nodded as his mother and father sat down at the table. Brenndah brought soup over for them and herself as well. They ate in silence since there really wasn’t much to say that hadn’t been said so many times before.

“Bryant,” Mother said as she set down her spoon. “You do need to find a wife.”

“I know Mother, but right now I don’t know if I can let someone into my heart. I don’t know if I am capable of loving a woman in that way yet.”

“Don’t give up on love, Bryant,” she said as she stroked his face. “You deserve to be loved.”

Bryant got up and headed for the door.

“Bryant!” Father’s voice had a commanding tone to it, but Bryant opened the door anyway and left the house.

He stood at the cliff edge looking out at the ocean. He knew that the surface hid a whole world full of fish, strange plants and creatures just as his somber appearance barely hid the emotions churning within him. He had to find a way to push his emotions down so they wouldn’t surface so easily. He didn’t respond as a hand was placed on his shoulder.

“Perhaps you should stay here with your mother for a while,” Father said.

“Who would take care of you?” Bryant asked. “I don’t belong here, I belong in Dracona. Even if I am the last Lord Dracona I belong in Dracona. I’m full of uncertainty about myself and my future, but I know I need to remain in Dracona now. The very thought of marriage terrifies me right now. Somehow I know that if I do get married, I haven’t met her yet.”

“I know by your tone I can’t change your mind,” Father said with a sigh and Bryant turned to look at him. “I also know that nothing will convince anyone here in Merton to return to Dracona no matter how difficult life is.”

“I want to start repairing the homes in the town,” Bryant said. “I know it seems like a waste of my time, but someday someone might want to live there. It would give me something to do that will show progress instead of doing the same things over and over again.”

“It would give you something to do to work out your frustrations. I haven’t wanted to touch them, but perhaps it would help both of us.”

They stayed for another day before returning to Dracona. Bryant began working on one of the houses and found it was hard work that left him exhausted enough to sleep through the night. Father’s wound slowly healed to a scar. Sometimes he would help Bryant, but mostly let Bryant work on the buildings. Sometimes they would take a couple of days to camp in the mountains overlooking Dracona.

As the years passed, Bryant sometimes would check the forest and stop to watch the villagers. He noticed Langward with his wife and a small daughter but he suddenly seemed to vanish. About the same time Father started getting sick frequently. Bryant studied what books they had in the library on the healing arts and began making medicines. On one trip to check the forest, Father was bitten by a snake. Bryant was glad he knew how to make the medicine to save Father’s life. After that he made some to keep in a vial in the healer’s cottage that he had been using to make medicine.

* * * * *

It had been a long harsh winter in Dracona. Bryant’s father had fallen ill and just never completely recovered. With the spring Bryant hoped that Father’s health would return. He made new medicines with the tender young herbs from the healer’s garden, but nothing seemed to be helping. As Bryant watched Father eat some soup and bread, he noticed how frail he looked. The bones of his hands were so prominent that they looked like there was no muscle left. He only finished half the soup.

“I’m tired,” Father said as he set down the spoon next to the half eaten bread.

“You need to eat more, Father,” Bryant said gently. “You can’t heal if you don’t eat.”

“Help me get to bed Bryant. Maybe I’ll have more later.”

Bryant helped his father to bed, gently covering him then went down to consult the books on healing again. He found nothing to give him any hope. Slamming the books shut one by one didn’t make him feel any better either. All too soon Father would die leaving him completely alone. He went down to the kitchen and dished up a bowl of soup which he ate standing in the kitchen before washing the bowl. Not wanting to return to where his father lay dying, Bryant went out the kitchen door and around the end of the castle along the pasture.  He ignored the horses and made his way to the stairs hidden behind the armory along the castle wall. Once at the top he went to the corner of the battlements and stood watching the coming night slowly cloak the valley in darkness. The silver moon rose like a scythe ready to cut the harvest among the velvet night sky sprinkled with stars.

Turning his back on the moon he returned to the dark castle and climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. He stopped at the first window to look at the mountain side and the black openings that dotted its surface. Father’s dragon, Haskell, stood motionless as though keeping his own watch. Bryant hurried down the hall to the very end and opened the double doors. The low lamp light revealed Father lying in the bed. Bryant’s heart leapt as his hand motioned him forward.

“I’m here Father,” Bryant said as he crossed to the bed and took Father’s hand in his own. “Do you want to eat more?”

“No,” Father said softly. “It’s time for me to go Bryant. I wish I could stay and not leave you alone, but it’s time. Find a wife. That’s more important than anything else.”

Bryant shifted and drew Father up into his arms.

“I love you Bryant,” Father said. “You’ve been a good son, but it’s time for you be begin to live again.”

“How can I live without you?” Bryant whispered as tears poured down his cheeks. “I need you Father.”

Father didn’t respond. His breathing was slow and shallow as Bryant held him, loosing track of time. As the silvery dawn began to light the room Father quit breathing. The moon had set taking its harvest with it.

“No.” Bryant whispered. “Don’t leave me alone.”

He sat clutching his father’s body tightly to him just as his father had clutched his own brother’s body. His heart felt torn in half. The sun was fully up before Bryant could lay Father’s body down and leave the room. Bryant’s footsteps were heavy and slow as he made his way down the long hallway and the even longer staircase to the great hall that sat silently as a tomb. He walked to the carpenter’s shop that he had been using and began the grim task of building a coffin for his own father. By the time he was finished building the coffin and lid he was tired and hungry. He carved a wooden plaque to put on the grave before going to hitch up the horses to the wagon. He ate some bread before taking the wagon to get the coffin. It wasn’t easy to lift the heavy awkward box by himself but eventually he got it into the wagon.

When he reached the room where his father’s body lay he realized he should at least dress him. Bryant didn’t know if it really mattered, if there was anything after death but somehow it didn’t seem right burying his father in the night shirt he had been wearing for several days. Bryant got Father’s best shirt and suit out of the closet and dressed the body. Bryant felt it important to polish the scuffed and worn boots even though he was the only one who would ever see them. Before picking up the body, he combed Father’s hair. As he carried Father’s body down to the waiting wagon he realized how light it was as though Father’s illness had eaten away at him until there was nothing left but skin and bones.

Tears started running down Bryant’s face again as he nailed the lid on the coffin. He climbed to the seat of the wagon and flicked the reins. The horses went slowly as though they understood what was in Bryant’s heart. When they reached the cemetery he found a spot next to his grandparent’s graves and got the shovel out of the wagon. He began by cutting around the outside and rolling up the grass covering the spot before beginning to dig out the dirt. Bryant was angry that he would have to dig the grave on his own, that he would be the sole witness to the burial. There would be no comfort from friends and family, only a silent empty castle surrounded by an empty town. Now he would be surrounded by death and silence until his own death with no one to care for his body or mourn his passing. He chopped at the dirt savagely with the shovel and threw it out of the grave with just as much force until the grave was the proper depth before climbing out only to collapse exhausted and empty next to the grave.

* * * * *

‘Bryant,’ a deep voice called drawing him out of unconsciousness as something pressed against his shoulder. ‘You need to wake up.’

Bryant groaned and turned away from the pressure.

‘Wake up!’ the familiar voice persisted, breaking through the darkness that surrounded his heart and mind.

‘Why should I?’ Bryant replied in his dream. ‘What is worth waking up for? Leave me alone!’

‘Evelina says your life is very important. There are things she sees that only you can do, but you can’t do them if you don’t wake up!’

Something large pushed against his chest and rolled him back over onto his back. When he tried to push away whatever had pushed him, his hand was met by an unexpected texture that was both smooth and bumpy. He finally opened his eyes to find Haskell’s nose on his chest.

“What are you doing here?” Bryant asked out loud.

‘You were dying,’ Haskell replied. ‘If you had rolled over any farther you would have fallen in the grave.’

Bryant sat up and found that he was a lot closer to the grave than he remembered.

“Maybe it would have been,” Bryant began but Haskell cut him off.

‘No it wouldn’t. You need to live. Evelina and I need you. You are Lord Dracona.”

“A title that is as empty as the castle and town,” Bryant said bitterly.

‘A title that has meaning and responsibilities. Eventually you will understand that. Let’s get Eamon buried.’

Bryant stood up to find the horses had wandered off, but they suddenly lifted their heads from grazing and returned to bring the wagon beside the open grave. Bryant watched as Haskell carefully slid the coffin out to rest in his curled forefoot. Haskell then spread his wings and lifted the end of the coffin out of the wagon using his wings to help him balance with the extra weight. He then carefully dropped the coffin into the grave. Bryant began shoveling the dirt back into the grave while Haskell scraped dirt in with one forefoot. It still took some time for the grave to be filled. Bryant knelt and put the wooden marker at the head of the grave. He felt the tears start again.  Haskell nuzzled his shoulder gently.

‘I sent the horses back to the castle,’ Haskell said. ‘I’ll take you back.’

“I’d rather walk.”

‘I know you’ve never been comfortable flying, but it’s time for you to get used to it. Climb up on my shoulders. You can sleep in the cavern near my den tonight so I can watch over you.’

Bryant stood and began walking away only to have Haskell nudge him back around to where he would mount.

“Alright, I’ll let you take me back to the castle,” Bryant said realizing it was useless to even try to argue with the dragon.

He mounted without further protest and closed his eyes as Haskell launched into the sky. Haskell landed on the courtyard wall and Bryant carefully dismounted and climbed down to the battlement. As he went down the stairs Haskell left. Bryant took care of the horses and wagon before entering the dark castle. He went up to his room and bathed before taking a quilt and a pillow down to the great hall. At the back of the great hall he turned the mechanism to open the massive doors in the back wall to access the cavern behind the castle. The walls of the great cavern glowed softly allowing him to find the steps to the left of the doors that led to a ledge lined with tunnel openings. After leaving the bedding on a ledge near Haskell’s den, he left to get some food. He ate the last of the soup and bread before washing the dishes as darkness began closing in with the coming of night.

As Bryant made his way to the cavern his boot steps echoed in the great hall making him hurry to the soft sands of the cavern. Haskell was laying half out of his den on ledge above the hot sands in the center of the cavern. Bryant fixed himself a bed and lay down before covering himself with the quilt. He laid awake wondering if there would ever be more to his life than repairing the deserted town and maintaining the empty castle until his death. When he finally slept he dreamed of being a tired frail old man who stumbled through the forest only to die in the fields surrounding the village. He watched as the villagers rejoiced at his death then woke crying.

‘That won’t happen,’ Haskell said.

‘No, but I will die and won’t be found until I am nothing but bones and a tale to scare children with,’ he replied bitterly as he cried.

After putting away the bedding, Bryant ate some fruit before going to work on the house he had been repairing. There really wasn’t anything else for him to do. His life fell into a routine of repairing the houses and tending the herb garden along with the vegetable garden at the castle. He cooked his own meals, cleaned his own dishes and washed his own clothes. When he visited his mother she tried to get someone to return to Dracona with him, but no one volunteered and he told her he didn’t need anyone. He still guarded the forest against trespass, but avoided watching the village. The few times he had found someone in the forest, the mere sight of him had sent them running for the village.

Months passed as did the seasons with Haskell as his only companion and link to life other than when he visited Merton about once a year. Haskell even began helping with the repair work by helping to haul the wood and lift pallets of shingles onto the roof for Bryant to nail into place. At night Bryant collapsed into bed exhausted, but he still had frequent nightmares. He had long ago given up hope that anything would ever change before he finally died alone and forgotten.

 

Chapter 2 – Problems and Promises

“No,” Bryant groaned as Father quit breathing. “Don’t leave me alone.”

Bryant felt the tears running down his face as he held Father’s body tightly in his arms. He knew what had to be done even though he dreaded doing it, but there was no one else to do it.

‘Bryant! Wake up!’ Haskell’s voice intruded into his dream.

Bryant woke with a start to find himself in his own bed. After five years he had hoped the memory would fade, but he still dreamed the same awful dream several times a month. His heart was still just as empty as the town and castle.

A heavy sigh escaped his lips as he stood up next to his empty bed. He dressed in his riding clothes and then stood in front of the polished shield next to the window. As he combed through his sleep tousled hair, he caught a movement in the corner of his eye. A thin column of smoke rose from a small meadow in the forest.

‘I’ll start there this morning,’ he thought as he carefully shaved.

* * * * *

A heavy sigh escaped her lips as she examined the small handful of herbs she carried in a piece of bark. She would need much more than that if she were to have any hope of helping her father. As she turned to continue her search, she heard the sound of hoof-beats approaching. She ran quickly back to the small clearing where she left her father to find the source of the sound.

The tall black horse shook its head defiantly as its rider brought it to a sudden halt. At the sight of the rider, her breath caught in her throat and her heart seemed to freeze in her chest. He was tall and dressed all in black with scarlet trim. For an instant a voluminous black cape floated behind him like an ominous black cloud. Against it his blond hair glinted in the sunlight.

“Keep away from him!” she ordered as she sprinted across the clearing to her father’s side. “I’m here, Father.”

Father’s only response was a low moan.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Trying to save my father’s life,” she answered defiantly.

* * * * *

He dismounted and walked over to where she knelt beside her father.

“What happened?” he asked as he felt for a pulse at the man’s neck.

“A snake bit him this morning,” she answered.

“What did it look like?”

“Brown, like a stick, with a red stripe down its back.”

“How long ago?”

“Just about ten minutes ago.”

“Stay here!”

Before she could even respond, he had mounted his horse and galloped off into the trees. His mind raced ahead to the herb garden and the small cottage adjoining it. Although it was now uninhabited, he still used the cottage and its herb garden for when a healer was needed. The empty cottage bespoke of happier times long past. With a sudden turn, his horse leapt from the forest and onto a weed grown field. Soon the dirt path gave way to a cobbled street. He brought his horse to a sliding stop in front of the arched gate of the garden. Quickly he dismounted and ran to the cottage. Blinking in the sudden darkness of the cottage, he found the vial he came for and hoped it was enough to save the man.

On the return trip he wondered what had made him help her instead of chasing them away as he had with previous trespassers. Perhaps it was the look of open defiance on her face as she stood her ground, as though it was he who was trespassing. He vaulted off of his horse as it burst into the clearing and ran to the man’s side.

“Drink this, quickly!” he ordered as he pressed the mouth of the vial to the man’s lips.

The man swallowed once, then again.

“We wait now,” he said.

“Will he live?” she asked with a frightened look on her face.

“I have done all that can be done. All we can do now is wait.”

“You are the young Lord Dracona,” she stated as she looked up from her father.

“I am the last Lord Dracona,” he said looking back into her emerald green eyes. “I usually run trespassers off rather than help them.”

“So my sister said in her letters,” she answered back as she stared at his chest and the clasp that held his cape.

It was in the shape of a dragon whose wingspread reached from one shoulder to the other.

“Why didn’t you run us off?”

“I am the lord of this land and I do as I please.”

He noticed that her hair was the color of spun gold and found himself wondering what she would look like with it falling loosely around her shoulders rather than in the tight braid that encircled her head like a crown.

“If your father dies, you can go, but if he lives I will come to get you and you must come to live with me,” he said, “forever.”

“That is a steep price, but my father is the most important person in my life,” she replied. “I agree to your terms.”

He was surprised at the quickness of her acceptance, but he didn’t let his excitement and surprise show. He had noticed the man’s color beginning to return to his face. He would live.

“Gwladys?” the man moaned.

* * * * *

“I’m here, Father,” she said as she took his hand in hers.

“You found the herbs?”

“No, Lord Dracona brought the medicine.”

“But, Cherie and Olvan said . . .”

“I know what they said. Lord Dracona does as he pleases.”

“You will be weak for a day or two. I will return with a wagon. Don’t forget your promise, Gwladys.”

With that he turned to fetch his horse.

“What promise?” her father asked as he watched Lord Dracona mount and leave.

“That if you lived, I would live with him.”

“No daughter of Auberon should be forced to make such a choice.”

“Father, the choice was made for me,” Gwladys answered, holding her left arm so he could see the glowing band on her wrist.

“I still don’t have to like it,” he said. “Just be careful. Since your mother was killed, you are our last hope. Cherie has failed already.”

“I will continue the quest. It is my sacred duty.”

As they waited for Lord Dracona to return they discussed what they should do. Eventually they began to wonder if Lord Dracona would actually return and what they should do if he didn’t. It was just past noon when they heard Lord Dracona approach. A matched team of horses pulled the wagon that looked well used and repaired. Gwladys watched as Lord Dracona lifted her father from the ground into his arms and carried him to the wagon. He set Father in the bed of the wagon.

“You’ll want to remain lying down for the journey. I brought a quilt to cushion you from the wood,” Lord Dracona said as he unfolded the quilt and laid it out in the bed of the wagon.

He helped Father to lie down and fastened a gate up across the end of the wagon bed. He then helped her load the saddlebags before climbing up to the wagon seat. She was surprised as he offered her a hand. His hand was strong as he pulled her up until she was able to sit on the seat beside him.

Father and daughter were silent during the trip through the forest, each wondering what the future would bring. The stillness was only broken by the hoof-beats of the matched team of tan horses and the creak of the wagon wheels. It was late afternoon as they came out of the forest and entered the small village. As they passed, the villagers stopped to see who had come, then ran for their homes. Their passage was marked by the slamming shut of doors and shutters.

“The third house on the right past the well,” she said dreading what she knew she had promised as she watched the villager’s reaction to their arrival.

He drew the horses to a halt in front of the house. Cherie stood in the doorway as her son and daughter peeked from behind her skirt.

“Cherie!” Gwladys cried as she leapt from the seat beside him.

“Where’s Father?”

“In the wagon. He was bitten by a snake.”

“Is he . . .”

“No, he will be all right. He is just weak.”

Lord Dracona gently lifted their father from the wagon and carried him into the house.

“It is a cruel thing to take a man’s daughter from him,” Father said as Lord Dracona laid him on the bed.

“I will return for her in two weeks,” Lord Dracona said as he turned to leave.

“What did he mean by that?” Cherie asked as Gwladys carried in the last of their belongings from the wagon.

“It means that I will be living with Lord Dracona.”

“Why?”

“Because he saved Father’s life,” Gwladys replied as she held up her left arm. “The choice was made for me. I don’t know why, but I am meant to go to his castle.”

“Do you know what you’re dooming yourself to? I’ve heard that cattle wandering onto his property disappear right out of their tracks leaving only a few spots of blood behind. The only man ever to go to his castle and return alive came back a babbling idiot. Others were found dead, laid out next to the forest.”

“If he wanted me dead or crazy, he wouldn’t have saved Father and he would have killed me already.”

“Daughters! What is done is done, and already a part of fate’s tapestry. There is no use arguing about it,” Father said before he turned over and went to sleep.

Gwladys and Cherie walked outside and sat on the bench just outside the door.

“You didn’t reveal yourself to him, did you?”

“No, he knows me only as Gwladys. Yet, I don’t think that he is being completely honest with me either.”

“I’m sure of that,” Cherie said as she watched her husband walk towards them. “Olvan, tell Gwladys what you know about the Lords of Dracona.”

“The legends say that once our people lived in harmony with Dracona, but something tragic happened. Our people that survived settled here. It has been an uneasy stay. We used to see the old Lord Dracona herding off a cow into the woods occasionally, but no one has seen him in the last five years.”

“He is dead,” Gwladys said. “Young Lord Dracona said that he was the last Lord Dracona.”

“Young Lord Dracona?” Olvan asked in surprise. “You spoke with him?”

“He saved Father. Now I must go to live with him. He will come for me in two weeks,” she answered.

In the following days they tried to forget the dark cloud hanging over Gwladys’ future. It was decided that Auberon would stay with Cherie and Olvan, at least for a while. Soon the dark day came and many sad farewells were exchanged. The entire village turned out to bid her farewell. All of them expressed their concerns for her safety. All heads turned and silence fell as Lord Dracona approached leading a horse that was as white as his mount was black. She stood calmly in the center of the road holding saddlebags containing her belongings.

Her heart leapt as she saw him ride towards her. He was startlingly handsome in spite of his somber clothing and ominous black cape. He stopped his horses and dismounted. He led the white horse before her then turned to offer his clasped hands to her so she could mount the side-saddle. She placed her foot in his offered hands and mounted. Her heart leapt again when his hand touched hers as he handed her the reins. He met her eyes with expressionless, piercing blue eyes briefly before turning to meet her father’s eyes. No words were spoken as they stared at each other for a couple of long minutes. She recognized the stern, angry expression on Father’s face. Abruptly Lord Dracona turned to mount his own horse.

She noticed that the path they were following was curiously wide and smooth. They stopped for a moment at a stream to let the horses drink. She noticed that the stream passed under the path, flowing through a stone hole. She realized that the path was really a stone-paved road like she had seen in some of the cities that she had visited.

* * * * *

He had been surprised that she had been waiting for him when he had arrived in the village. He hoped she had not noticed the tremor that went though him as her hand brushed his when he had handed her the reins. He glanced over at her and found she appeared very comfortable on the horse.

“You sit well on a horse,” he said. “Have you ridden before?”

“Yes. I have ridden quite a bit,” she answered.

“Good. I want to reach the castle before dark.”

With that, he urged his horse to jump the stream and galloped up the path. To his surprise she had followed him and began riding at his side. He had not expected her to follow without persuasion. It was not the fastest route to the castle, but it was the easiest. They reached the edge of the deserted town just as the sun approached the top of the forest.

* * * * *

“This town looks deserted,” she said as they slowed their horses to a trot. “What happened?”

“It is a long story for another day,” he replied cryptically.

She noticed chairs left by doorways and toys left in the dusty walks as though their owners would return momentarily. Closer to the castle she noticed several houses with charred remains where their roofs should have been. Here was a mystery to keep her busy in the long days that lay ahead.

The castle appeared just as deserted as the town had as they entered through the porticos. Unlike the other castles that she had visited, this one sat silently. The loud clatter of their horses’ hooves seemed to irreverently break the silence that hung over the castle. The castle had four above ground floors. This seemed unusual to her. Most of the castles that she had visited had only two or three floors above the cellars and dungeons. There were no towers or spires either. All of the windows were dark.

They dismounted in silence and led their horses to the stables on the right of the large courtyard. They groomed the horses before turning them loose in a tiny pasture within the castle wall.

She felt very tired as they entered the main castle through a pair of doors that were actually part of a tall pair of doors whose tops were just below the fourth floor of the castle. They paused just inside the doors as he lit a torch. She followed him closely in the darkness for fear of being swallowed up by the enclosing gloom. They climbed what seemed to be an endless staircase broken into three sections and walked a long hall on what had to be the fourth floor. She wished that she could shatter the darkness with light, but knew it was best that she didn’t. Finally he opened a door that protested with a loud creak. Once inside the room he lit a torch just inside the door, and then others around the room. She breathed a sigh of relief to be out of the darkness.

“There is a bathing chamber through that door and a closet through the smaller one. Leave the window shuttered at night. There are many things that fly at night in these mountains.”

With those instructions he closed the door behind him. She heard the lock turning to lock her in but she was too tired to care tonight. She dropped her saddlebags next to the bed as she fell into it, asleep almost before her head reached the pillow.

* * * * *

He almost unlocked the door as soon as he had locked it. Almost. The memory of her paled face and frightened eyes stuck in his mind. It was cruel to bring her to such a dark and lonely place. He shook the picture and thoughts from his mind as he opened the door to his room and put on the fur lined jacket and gloves that waited for him. Swiftly he returned to the main chamber and walked straight to the unseen doors at the back of the great hall. Putting the torch in a bracket, he began to turn the mechanism that opened the massive doors that were twins to the ones at the front of the hall. Once the doors were open far enough for him to pass through, he covered his torch to put it out and entered the doors. He had entered the large cavern, turned to the left and climbed the stairway that was carved into the rock wall. At the top of the stairway he paused to look over the sandy floor. He counted seven spherical mounds in the sand. He shook his head.

“Eggs!? How am I going to manage?” he muttered to himself. “I barely manage now. If only I could ask Langward, but I haven’t even seen him in the village for years. Now with the girl . . .”

‘What girl?’ Haskell asked from the tunnel he was standing in front of.

‘The one I told you about,’ he thought back.

‘Maybe she can help.’

‘How?’

‘I can’t say, but something will come up.’

‘You’re an optimist.’

‘Are we going?’

Bryant heard Haskell’s claws on the stone floor of his den as he shifted impatiently.

‘Yes.’

 

Author Photo

AUTHOR BIO

 

Writing under the pen name V.J.O. Gardner, Valerie is an award wining author of full length fractured fairy tale fantasy novels. She has self published Blood of Ancient Kings which won an award in the very first contest she had ever entered. Her second book, Dracona’s Rebirth, is published by Ink Smith Publishing.

Always fascinated by both medieval times and sci-fi she was an avid reader and enjoyed a wide variety of literature and authors. She began writing in in the late 1980’s after graduating from Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, where she studied Fantasy Lit and Writing. Valerie is a member of the League of Utah Writers. Although she thought she was writing a short story when she began Dracona’s Rebirth it blossomed into the full novel it is today.

The good values Valerie was brought up with she instilled both in her children and in her writing. One of her first professional reviews commented that the story reminded him of the Boy Scout Law. While Valerie has been both a Boy Scout leader and a Girl Scout leader the story was written before then.

 

Website: www.vjogardner.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/TalesofAsculum

 

 

 

 

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