Dave Smeds: The Schemes of Dragons

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Dave Smeds The Schemes of Dragons
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    The Schemes of Dragons
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Dave Smeds


The Schemes of Dragons

Prologue

Keron could smell the battle coming. Clouds brooded, promising a long, heavy torrent. Below him, the troops of both defending and invading armies stirred like angry ants, with only the width of the river to separate them. It will be now, Keron thought. The rains would bring floods, and winter would keep the channel swollen. If the Dragon was going to establish his foothold, it would happen before the storm broke, while his forces could still cross the ford.

"Hail, King of Elandris!" the herald announced as Keron stepped out of his pavilion. Two pikemen automatically fell into place at their sovereign's heels.

"Where is the crown prince?" Keron asked.

"At the observation post," the herald replied.

Keron strode off at a pace that his men had a hard time matching. In his mid-fifties, the king was lean and strong, with not a strand of grey in his hair. Wizard's blood, his subjects would whisper. The years flow slowly for the sons of Alemar. Yet now there were sharp lines in his face that had been faint traces less than four years earlier, when the Dragon's offensive had begun.

He passed beside the smithies, assailed by the sounds of hot metal being quenched, of hammers, of voices murmuring spells that would bind carbon to iron. On the other side of the path, fletchers were feverishly attaching both new and salvaged points to arrows and complaining about the inferior quality of the feathers they had to work with, their pace still vigorous in spite of days and nights of constant work.

Keron flagged the armorer, a hirsute, barrelchested Tamisanese with arms and face scarred by a lifetime of smelting and shaping metal.

"Let the forges cool. You'll need to be ready to move the equipment if the Dragon's army overruns us."

The armorer fixed an antagonistic gaze on the king, as if to deny the prospect that Tamisan might be overrun. "Aye… Your Majesty," he said finally. The pause before the honorific was intentional.

One of his pikemen stiffened, but Keron held up a calming hand. It was not the time to argue over etiquette. The king continued on, past racks of freshly made swords and shields. He recognized a man at a grindstone as one of his own Elandri craftsmen, and nodded. The man lifted the sword he was sharpening in a brief salute, then set it down again into a shower of sparks. Elsewhere among the workers, among the native Tamisanese, Keron was met with glares and narrowed eyes. He could sense their thoughts: You're the one who brought this doom upon us. The Dragon came to this land on your heels. Like the armorer, they were not happy about his presence.

Allies bickering among themselves. Small wonder Gloroc's invasions had been so successful.

As he climbed the knoll to the observation post, he spotted his son. Val, young, strapping, and magnificent in his armor, was standing beside Treynaf, Keron's cousin.

"Father," Val called, "we've been expecting you."

Keron clasped his offspring by the forearms, smiled, and turned to scan the view. Down in the valley, the invading army was assuming its formation, readying for the command to plunge into the river. On the near bank, the men of Tamisan were lining up behind their barricades. On the left flank they were reinforced by Keron's army of exiles, on the right by a small contingent sent by the shah of neighboring Simorilia.

Keron was surprised to see Treynaf. His dour relative seldom emerged from his quarters for any reason, as shown by his pasty complexion. As usual, he had the globe of Alemar nestled in his palms, and was staring into it. Curiously, he lifted his gaze every few seconds toward the battlefield, as if comparing the scene in the valley to that within the talisman.

"What do you see, cousin?" Keron asked.

"The sultan has deployed too many men to the flanks," Treynaf replied with surprising certainty. "He has weakened the center."

Keron had only been half-listening. It was a joke among the Elandri refugees, from the common troops to the king himself, that Treynaf only foresaw the obvious. This was not the prince's usual type of prediction.

"That's ridiculous," Val said. "There are plenty of men in the center. The sultan has to place some elsewhere. The Dragon's army won't all cross at the ford. They have boats. See for yourself."

There were dozens of dinghies and canoes among the Dragon's entrenchments. As they watched, soldiers carried more to the front.

"Well, Treynaf? What is your answer to that?" Keron asked.

"I see no boats," he replied. He was looking in the crystal ball, not at the river. Keron could smell an acrid, narcotic aroma each time his cousin exhaled. Treynaf was so drugged it was a wonder he could still talk.

"The Dragon is moving quickly," Val said. "I'd say they'll mount the charge within a quarter hour."

Keron scanned the increasingly organized rows on the far bank. "Better get down there. Enret will need you."

One of the pikemen brought Val his mount. "Keep in mind what Treynaf said," Keron added as his son climbed into the saddle.

The young man barely disguised his disdain. "I will," he said respectfully, and snapped the reins.

His countrymen would take heart to see their crown prince riding among them. Keron envied Val that role. As king, Keron could only look down and note how insignificant his band of refugees seemed beside the battalions of fresh, never-defeated Tamisanese. He had barely more than ten thousand men left after the fall of Elandris and the Dragon's subsequent campaigns through Thiagra. Down on the plain the sultan emerged from his pavilion. This was a Tamisanese fight now. Keron was little more than an old navy man driven to dry land.

He ran his fingers along the length of his scepter. He could feel its sorcery, latent, waiting for him to activate it. It was tangible evidence that the Dragon had not won everything. The talismans of Alemar Dragonslayer were still in free Elandri hands. The scepter was with him, the globe with Treynaf, the belt with Val, the amulets and the gauntlets with Alemar and Elenya, and the other, as yet inactivated articles kept by the royal cadre of sorcerers. Gloroc might yet be destroyed, and the wizard's dynasty returned to power.

Keron held on to that thought as tightly as he held the scepter. Perhaps the tide would turn here, in this land that even the Calinin had not been able to conquer.

The Dragon's army was not moving, though it had long been gathered into position. The horde was waiting. For what? Suddenly Treynaf snapped out of his meditation.

"'Ware the eastern sky," he said.

A dragon plummeted out of the clouds, its huge, batlike wings half-tucked at its sides, serpentine tail trailing arrow-straight behind. It streaked toward the defenders on the Tamisan side of the ford, toward their barricades, siege towers, and rows of upraised pikes. High-pitched screams rose as men caught one brief glimpse of the beast's deep, indigo eyes. Dragonfire obliterated the front ranks.

Keron gasped. Gloroc himself! The Dragon had come inland! Away from the sea, the source of his magical power.

The attackers rushed into the river, driving toward the opening the Dragon had created. No one took to the boats. They dropped the craft on the banks and concentrated their manpower into a single phalanx. Treynaf had foreseen correctly. The attack was not spread widely. It would pound the center, where there were not enough defenders to bear the full brunt of it.

The Dragon blasted the barricades. This time some of the sorcerers of Tamisan overcame their shock and managed to erect wards. But the flames they deflected merely struck elsewhere, and at least one ward failed altogether. It was a rare wizard who could fend off a direct bolt of dragonfire. Archers shot their pitiful missiles at the Dragon's hurtling body, but if by some miracle their aim was true, the Dragon's own ward thwarted them.

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