Being a Dragon Knight in the mysterious valley of Tyr might sound like an exciting and enjoyable life – unless your elder sister is
a venomous snake the Queen of Dragon Country. Gwynneth Jadefellow has never gotten along with her snotty royal sibling and it was only seconds after the crown sat atop her stupid head that she sent Gwyn off on an impossible quest. The Heaven’s Dawn? Why would the Queen want a fabled flower from a children’s tale as a wedding present? It probably doesn’t even exist! Oh. Oh, that’s the point, isn’t it?
Driven into effective exile, Gwyn finds herself thrown into a whirlwind scramble to save all of Welland from sinking into the vicious magical lake on which it rests. (Who decided to build a country on a well of erratic Ether, anyway? You’d think they’d have a bit of foresight!) She and her band of misfits escape a runaway forest, help out an Evil Lord in need, and uncover the best kept secret in the whole world.
Does she find that dratted flower for her sister? Perhaps. Does she grow up a little and learn to be a bit more accepting along the way? Definitely. The Dragon Knight finds that there are more pressing concerns in life than a quarrelsome sibling and that maybe shutting oneself up in a happy valley of ignorance is not the best way to avoid magical disasters.
KEYSTONE CALAMITY is 85 000 words of adventure, growing up, groan-worthy puns, lots of teeth gnashing, and an unintentional fantasy romp through the lush and perilous world of Welynfar – or Welland to all of us common folk. Care for a bit of a taste? Read on for the first two chapters!
“Lady Gwynneth Jadefellow, Princess of the Dragon Crown, Dragon Knight of Tyr!”
She was sweating down to her knees. It was all she could think about as the herald called her name and station to the gathered crowd and she had to clank forward in her horribly discordant armour to kneel before her elder sister. Yes, the polished ceremonial Armour of the Dragon Knight was very impressive with its spiky pauldrons and scaled greaves, but by the Light of Vanis, did it make a racket. Gwyn much preferred the scale mail she wore on patrols; it offered ease of movement while still protecting her from any annoying sword points. Though uncomfortable and unwieldy, she had to admit that she felt quite like a wondrous hero right out of the legends of Tyr as the noble lords and ladies tittered around the room at her presence.
“You may rise, Gwynneth.”
Only her elder sister had the power to make her proper name sound like someone about to spit up their breakfast. With a creak the whole court heard, Gwyn stood up.
You’re just being paranoid, she scolded herself. Surely she was imagining the malevolent flash in her sister’s eye and the knowing smirks of her ladies-in-waiting. She swallowed the growing lump in her throat and said what she’d come here to say.
“Congratulations on your matrimony. You bring good tidings to our realm, sister.” No matter how many times she practiced in front of the mirror in her lavatory, the traditional words still sounded stiff and rehearsed. It would take more than a few pretty speeches to transform the coarse warrior into a courtly lady.
The wedding and coronation were many months away, delayed by pedantic negotiations of power between their Queen and her prospective mates. However, Gwyn had an unhappy suspicion that she would not be around to see the joyous affair.
As it so happened, she was right. The Dragon Queen Lillisanne Jadefellow rose from her horned bronze throne and descended the stairs carpeted in rich forest green.
How does she keep a straight back under all that gaudy jewelry? Gwyn wondered sourly. Twisted chains of gold and platinum were weighed down by pendants of whole emerald gemstones and gold coins. She had chunky bangles rattling at her thin wrists and enough pointed onyx rings on all of her fingers to cut someone’s face with merely a caress. She was covered in so much finery that she sparkled with each dainty step as she approached.
The worst of it was the twisted Dragon Crown of Tyr atop her elder sister’s head: a familiar sight to Gwyn and the whole royal household by now. Though she was not yet crowned queen, Lillisanne preemptively donned the sharp bronze diadem and all of Tyr was content to bow to her whims. In fact, Lillisanne had been armed with both royal crown and sceptre since Gwyn could remember, waving the damned golden rod around like a club. It was not easy to make an escape on chubby little toddler legs while your elder sibling tried to put a few dents in your head.
“Why, sister,” Lillisanne began and there was no mistaking her chiding tone, “you didn’t even bring me a wedding present.”
She kept a neutral face as the nobility – people she’d known since she was born – laughed softly behind their sleeves and fans at her. The lords and ladies could mock her all they wanted; at least it gave her some time to think up her reply! Humiliation at her sister’s hand was almost more common than rain in the soggy province of Tyr, though in truth, both sisterly wrath and precipitation had been worsening over the last decade.
“You know me, your highness.” Her shrug was followed by the groan of metal. “I don’t know anything about this stuff.” And it was true. Lillisanne had always been the one interested in the matters of court: proper titles and greetings and the cloak-and-dagger tactics of betrayal were her sister’s bedtime stories. Gwyn was happy to play in the dirt with her wooden sword, smacking her older brother on his noggin when he wasn’t paying attention to her.
Torr was here today, though quite a bit taller and able to fight off a wooden sword attack without too much difficulty now. As Lord Commander of the retaining army of the Dragon Knights, Torrence Jadefellow suffered in his own burnished ornamental ensemble; the breastplate was alive with a colourful scene of an enormous dragon in-flight. The sweat dribbling down his long face could have been the cause of his grimace, but it compounded onto Gwyn’s growing pile of trepidations. As the middle child, Torr was too good and too honest to hide his thoughts from his sisters. Though he was a brilliant tactician whose enemies cursed his unfathomable visage, Gwyn knew that furrowed brow too well to discount the ominous mood that covered the court like a fine film.
With a lazy sweeping gaze, “Yes, that is very true,” Lillisanne conceded, turning back to her throne in a whirl of silk and chiffon. “I suppose it falls to me to teach you proper etiquette again.” Gripping the clawed arms of the great chair, she perched upon its cushioned rest once more to consider her younger sister.
“When someone gets married – whether they be royalty or peasant – you get them a gift. Especially if they are your sister.” There were a couple of snickers again, rippling along the rows of courtiers gathered in the Great Hall of Tyr. The sun slanted through the swirling panes of dragonglass to make rainbows on the dark stone floors. In a hall wrought of beauty and splendor that stood from the time of the great warrior Dragon Queen Arindhe, they were arguing about presents. Again. Every birthday, every Yule – why did it always come down to the presents? Lillisanne was the pickiest heir apparent in quite possibly the whole world.
A pinch of pain started between Gwyn’s brows. This must be one for the records: a personal best. Only twenty minutes in her sister’s company and it was the beginnings of a Migraine of the Dragon Queen. Siblings were tedious. Especially sisters.
Still, Gwyn was at court, in front of the whole ruling procession of Tyr; she couldn’t exactly throw a honeycomb of bees at her sister to make her stop being so vile. That had only worked once, anyway. She was here in glinting special armour, proudly representing both her family and her rank within the Dragon Knights of Tyr, so she had to rise to her sister’s bait, though she did so with a weary sigh.
“What does the Queen desire? I will venture however far until it is in my possession so that I might present it to her with my fondest regards.” Gwyn fought the shudder that threatened to turn her stomach. She might be laying it on a little thick, but if anything, her schmoozing coaxed a shining smile from the scowl that had clouded her sister’s face. Being honourable and thoughtful was a lot harder than it looked. Oooh, how easy it would have been to put ants down Lillisanne’s underthings instead. Her hand twitched on her sword hilt.
“Oh great Knight – ” Why must she be so patronizing? Why can’t I throw something at her? “- I only require a single blossom – the Heaven’s Dawn – and this slight will be much forgotten.” The sunny smile gave way to the secret smirk that only Gwyn could read after years of tricks and tattling. That can’t be good, she thought, but the silence stretched on and she had to make her reply.
“The what?” Of course, you weren’t supposed to talk to your sovereign that way, so before she dug herself right into the dungeons, Gwyn cleared her throat and tried again. “I am sorry, but – ”
“You haven’t heard of it? The whimsical flower with soft white petals spotted with violet? It is said to grow in mountainous regions and when the mist of dawn touches the light of a new day, its petals open…”
Oh, no. Oh, no no no. She’d heard of it after all, Gwyn realized, as the memory was wrenched up from some dusty cobweb corner of her mind. Puffing with indignation, she decided that the dungeons were better than exile.
“It doesn’t even exist! You’re really sending me off on some blasted quest to find a flower from a children’s story?”
Her brother Torrence was already at her elbow, talking her down.
“You need to calm yourself,” he whispered under his breath, but everyone was talking now and the rest of his warning was lost in the cacophony of uttered curses, moaning ladies-in-waiting, and the general displeasure of the court. The sisters were used to bickering, but such belligerence was unheard of at royal affairs.
No amount of gnashing her teeth together would make Gwyn glower any less. Lillisanne jumped up from her seat again, pointy chin out and ready for a fight with the nastiest smile she’d sported since Gwyn was nine and she’d pitched her wooden horse off the castle wall and into the moat.
“You asked me what I wanted, dear sister,” the Dragon Queen said and the silky whisper hushed the gathered crowd into order once more. “Do you not wish to honour my marriage?”
Her armour was so ornate that no one could see her deflate, which was probably better for her pride. Gwyn gave a stiff salute and bowed her head.
“As you wish.” With a spin of her heel, she marched out of the hall, clanging all the way. Her brother was not far behind.
“It was either this or exile,” he told her. That was not a very good way to start a conversation that was supposed to cheer her up. She prised her helm off so that she could glare at him.
“So instead, she sends me off to find some ridiculous flower that doesn’t even exist? That’s not much better!”
He matched her clanking stride and they found themselves outside in one of the dusty courtyards of the castle. Meant as a place of contemplation, most of the outdoor sections of the royal grounds were austere and minimalist. Ancient carved statues were their company as Gwyn struggled to bend her knee joints so that she might sit on the stone bench.
“It won’t be that bad. Some time apart will see you two on better terms when you return. When you’re exiled, you can’t come back, Gwyn. I’d say this is a much better alternative.”
Gwyn cradled the shining metal helm in her lap, tracing the flared nostrils of the fearsome snarl of an unnamed dragon lord of old.
“I try to get along and she just wants to send me away! Why is she doing this?”
“Lord knows that you’ve always been at each others’ throats for the pettiest of things.” While that may have been the case at one time, Gwyn had since found restraint in her training with the Dragon Knights. Secretly, she hoped Lillisanne would find the same discipline within the preparations for her ascent to the throne of Tyr. Somehow, she’d gotten worse instead.
“But Torr, I don’t want to leave.”
In truth, he was her superior at arms and Commander in full, but all at once, the two hardened soldiers of Dragon Country were brother and sister again. This scene had played out countless times before: in courtyard, in cupboard, in the crabapple trees that grew along the river. He always found her in the end and draped his arm around her shoulders while she sniveled about some new cruelty Lillisanne had inflicted upon her.
Tyr was the only home Gwyn had ever known. Sure, wandering bards would entertain in their halls, filling her head with wonders and marvels beyond the Windy Pass, but once the fires dimmed and it was time to call it a night, Gwyn was happy to snuggle into her bed and still just be another Dragon Knight of Tyr. There might be dreams of going on vast adventures and saving helpless peasants from a rampaging cockatrice, but they were only dreams.
Now, she was being ousted – forced from the comfort of her life and home by her own flesh and blood, when all she wanted was to do her patrols, laugh with her fellow Knights at supper, and spend time with her loved ones.
“You get to see the world, little sis. By the leave of the Queen, no less.”
“Well, you go then! You find this stupid flower and I’ll stay right here, thank you!”
But of course, that was not an option. The Queen-to-be would see her packed, saddled up, and ready to depart in a week if she was lucky. It would be as good as exile; her pride would not allow her to come back without that damned flower in hand. She would spend her days – however many they numbered – wandering some foreign land, without purpose or hope.
Why, she just couldn’t wait to be on her way!
Yes, this looks familiar! is what you tell yourself as you stumble through the thicket, but you’re probably just grasping at straws. That branch and this branch are very familiar. This is a forest, and all of these trees look the same. You are lost. But of course, it’s much more encouraging to tell yourself that this is the right way to go and that was exactly what Pan was doing.
Being a bard gave you options. You didn’t have to fight any wars (not that there were any wars to fight), you didn’t have to manage a household (not that he had a house), and you didn’t have to fight any dragons (not that he had met any dragons). If you could play, you could earn your bowl of broth or pile of straw, and in exchange, the world was one whole uncharted territory.
As a master of his own destiny, there were no goals or quotas to meet; I must walk thirty leagues today was not on his to-do list. Unfortunately, I must eat something today was at the very top of his list and picking at the golden harp slung across his back wouldn’t rain dinner rolls from the sky. Any attempt at foraging was out of the question. As it turned out, the purple prickly plants that had looked so succulent and full of nourishment were not edible. If he hadn’t collapsed onto the property of an understanding and capable farmer, he would have probably suffocated on his rapidly swelling tongue. He began taking notes after that.
Was it more than a day ago that he ran out of the supplies given to him by the farmer’s wife? It was hard to tell the day’s light under the shadows cast by the giant branches of these ancient trees. Soon it would be dark and he could add shelter to the growing list of things he didn’t have. Still, he followed where his feet took him and it was staring down at his soft-soled leather boots that he failed to see the large leafy mouth open and waiting for him.
“Oh. Oh my,” he said, settling down to cross his legs. Night had fallen rather abruptly! Groping in the darkness, his fingertips brushed the soft supple confines of his prison. A sweet syrupy scent wafted around him so that he swooned against the silky walls, which sprouted tiny barbs of teeth. He let out a shriek.
“Help! Help!!” He shouted and called, thrashed and kicked, hoping to tear his way to safety. Though the walls were soft and yielding, they held fast against his clawing hands.
“Someone, help! I’m being digested!”
A great roar rumbled the ground beneath him and the walls peeled away with a woomp. He found himself at the centre of a giant flower that would have almost been pretty if it had not tried to eat him. The tiny teeth receded into its flowery folds and a foul-smelling ooze seeped out to stain Pan’s trousers.
“Are you getting out of there or not?” Someone snapped. “It will only be stunned for a bit. You sure are easy prey.” His saviour was not very kind, but bards in distress shan’t be picky. With careful, ginger steps, he found his way out of the giant flower’s maw. He turned to thank the one who’d freed him but was greeted by an even more gruesome monster!
“Aghhh!” Pan stumbled backwards, almost falling into the injured plant he only recently escaped. A menacing armoured dragon loomed before him. Surely it rescued him so that it might grab the crunchy snack for itself.
“Is that Stupidspeak for Thank you?” Pan did not realize that dragons were telepathic as well as testy, for its mouth did not move at its words.
Pan was about to say something else besides Aghhh when the great horrible beast began to peel away its face scales. Oh good gods in the blessed meadowlands! This was some sort of undead dragon straight from his most horrific nightmare! Would it barbecue him and peel his skin back too before swallowing him whole? “Aghhh!” Was all he could manage in reply.
“I don’t know if you are intelligent enough to understand this, but I’ll tell you anyway,” it said, though with its skin peeled back, it was beginning to look like a normal human woman. She bent down by the giant flower, still recovering from her assault and leaking violet liquid from its centre.
“This,” she enunciated carefully, exaggerating her gestures toward the plant, “is a snapdragon. It will eat you.” She gnashed her now normal human teeth together and then rubbed the shimmering scales on her belly. All he could do was blink.
“Don’t step in them. If you do, find a way to hit their stems.” She pointed to the thick green stalk under the languorous petals and chopped her hands in the air like scissors. “Hit them like this and they’ll open.”
He was going to ask the she-dragon how he could reach the stern stalk from the confines of its petal mouth – for future reference, of course – but he found that whenever he opened his mouth, no sound came out. Mouth flapping like a fish out of water, he stood there staring at the mystical creature who had saved him.
The woman glanced quickly over her shoulder and stood up. “You look like you’ve seen a goddamned grave-ghast,” she sighed.
“Are you a dragon…?” He finally managed to ask, but it came out weak and wavering. Suddenly, he very much wanted to sit down. He resisted the urge, though. In this forest, his choice of chair would likely turn into a man-eating stump.
“Are you absolutely daft?” The woman who apparently was not a dragon snorted. “What sort of dragon walks around on two legs and wears armour? Do you even know what a dragon looks like?”
“So… you’re not a dragon?”
“Of course not!” She waved her face – the one she’d peeled off – in his own. “Have you never seen a mask before? With all the bugs flying around out here, it’s a wonder anyone can get around without one.” She gave him an appraising look. “Though, you look like you’ve swallowed one or two stupeflies yourself.”
“But why does it look like a dragon?”
“I am from Tyr.”
“There’s only one Tyr, as far as I know,” she responded coolly, and resumed her labourious inspection of her gear. Suddenly a lot of her equipment made sense to Pan. Scaled mail, pauldrons ending in the horned snout of a sleeping dragon. In greater light, he was sure there would be other details on her leather boots and leggings, all boasting the proud and mysterious heritage of Tyr.
“What brings you out this way?” He leaned against a tree, but changed his mind after the bark coated his shoulder in a sticky salve. Yes, he was very much a woodsman.
Most people didn’t stop for a chat in the middle of a sinister forest, probably surrounded by plenty of evil creatures waiting for the cloak of night to descend so they might pounce. Beside them, the snapdragon had recovered and quivered at their proximity. The woman ignored the plant’s danger to humour him.
“Well, in all honesty, I am a bit turned around.” Clearly she did not see Pan as a threat; perfect strangers did not often admit such weaknesses, but with a hand resting on the pommel of her short sword, she looked very capable of cutting down any adversary.
“This forest isn’t even supposed to be here according to my map,” she went on, shaking the ragged parchment in her other fist. “This damn map is probably more than a decade old…” Was it the fading light or did she look exceptionally bitter?
“I suppose that’s why the farm wife didn’t mention its existence,” he agreed, though she couldn’t possibly have followed his train of thought. “Where are you headed?”
“Riven, the City of Mages.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of the place myself. I don’t think it’s far from here,” he told her. Again, the twilight might be fooling his eyes, but she perked up at the news. Along the road traveled, he’d passed signs painted with the name and during his brief stay at the farm house, he’d overheard mention of the city a few times.
“So you know where it is?”
Know was a stretch, but he had a very vague idea. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he felt it was distinctly that way. His arm shot up behind him, pointing into the dark thickets of brush.
“It’s back the way I came, if local tell is to be trusted.”
“Could you lead me out of this forest? It will be dark soon and it was treacherous enough in the daylight.” In afterthought, she added, “I could pay you.”
Could he lead her out of the forest? Anything was possible. Should he lead her out of the forest? Probably not. Pan wasn’t even able to lead himself anywhere in particular except for around in circles. However, without this woman (who looked suspiciously like a dragon), he would still be digesting in a plant (that suspiciously did not look like a dragon, despite its name). The inhabitants of this forest were doing a very good job of mixing up his lexicon. Since this was likely the only way he could show his gratitude, his face split into a wide smile and he nodded.
“Consider it payment for my life! I’d be glad to walk the forest with you, if you know which plants not to step on.” He turned to face the direction he’d pointed out and they set off into the dusky forest.
Yes, I have a very good feeling about this direction.
That’s it, that’s all, there is no more. Well, there is, but that’s the end of the preview! Thank you for your interest in KEYSTONE CALAMITY!
Are you craving more? (Mwahaha, my evil plan worked!) Eh? Oh – *clears throat* – nothing, nothing. No evil plans here.
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