Chapter 1

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The ox bellowed and strained against the harness as a stick cracked across its back. Another crack and it staggered to the side, colliding with a waggon wheel and snapping a spoke. A whip cracked over its head and it let out another roar as it tried to get away from the lashing pain but it was stuck. Nobody was going anywhere, at least not in a hurry.

For the better part of two days, a line of waggons and hand-pulled carts had wound their way up from the valley floor to the high pass and the eastern gate. It was a ritual repeated every autumn as the lands surrounding the hidden valley brought their finest wares hoping to buy another year of peace. The people entrusted with the task knew the price of failure but still bridled under the mocking gaze of the soldiers on the wall. They laughed and hurled abuse as the drivers fell to bickering amongst themselves desperate to free their waggons from the melee.

In the space before the massive gate, drivers shouted and jostled for space, scraping wheels against the steep walls. A short driver shot up in his seat, screaming as he lashed out with a whip at a pair of shaggy horses blocking his path. It quickly broke into a fight with both the men trading blows from their seats. It was chaos but for the guards, it was sport and a few bet on which of the drivers would come to blows. 

Torches sprung to life along the exposed trail, sputtering in the cold wind falling on them from the snowy peaks. The last of the lengthy line of waggons was finally in sight of the gates, the end of a journey that for some had lasted a thousand leagues and seen them cross deserts. Slaves did the work of unloading while the drivers ordered them about from atop the waggons, aware that setting one foot inside the Dragon Kingdom, even by accident, meant death.

Rell took a drink from the flask as he watched from his lofty spot, far removed from the tumult. He brushed his chin and let his grey eyes drift over the scene, observing the differences among the clothing and the snatches of words he could hear. His own clothes were plain if threadbare, a woollen shirt, untucked over brown britches. Tendrils of steam radiated from him as the sweat cooled in the chill wind.

He counted the waggons still to unload, at least a dozen in the narrow pass and many more lining up behind the cliff wall. A groan escaped his lips and he stretched his back, working at the knot that had formed during his labours. The sun was dipping low soon to vanish behind the peaks, plunging the valley into darkness. The rate they were going, they would still be up at the sorting house counting sacks of grain when the stars came out. Rell was tired and bored, a usual state, but today was worse since he was unable to sneak away. Normally he would find a corner in his father's shop and take a nap or pretend he was on an errand and vanish down the pub but today there were too many eyes watching him and he'd been forced to do his share of the work. He was an apprentice and as such required to offer his services during the tithe at one of the three gates that controlled access to the valley. The southern was the quietest, but Rell never managed to swing that gate.

The tithe comprised a little of everything that the subjugated lands produced, textiles and pottery, cheeses and wines, grains, and metals. A selection of the best that each land produced, given in tribute to the people that ruled the high valley. Among the goods delivered were also human cargo, hundreds of men and women forced into slavery and marched up into the mountains. Most were taken in war, but some were put in chains by their own people. Too poor to bribe an official or too much of an outsider to count on the group's protection.

It was these same slaves that did the bulk of the work that day and performed the manual labour in the kingdom. They climbed aboard the waggons and lifted the sacks and the bolts of cloth, all while working under the gaze of their masters and in some cases their former countrymen. Chains rattled as a steady stream of them passed through the gate, dropping the goods off in the storehouse before going back to the waggons.

Rell watched them as they worked, interested in where they had come from. A tall man caught his attention, straight-backed. A recent addition, Rell thought, not yet resigned to his life. Rell had been raised in a household that owned slaves, but it sat uncomfortably with him. To trust that fear alone would keep someone from attacking you when you slept or from poisoning the food as they brought it to the table, was not something that Rell ever grew accustomed to. Much better to pay for someone's loyalty than demand it at the end of a whip.

He studied the man with interest, noting the urgent way he moved his head, searching for a face he recognised or a sympathetic ear. Rell leaned out over the stone wall to get a better look. A chain ran from the slave's neck to a manacle around his left ankle, hobbling him enough to stop him from running away. He wore a thin shirt that did little to protect him from the cold. The slave caught the eye of a small man crouched on the back of a waggon and wrapped in a green cloak. Two workers struggled with a large wooden chest while the man ordered them to be carefull. Rell switched his attention and wondered where he had come from. He would have loved to have talked to the stranger, to any of the drivers, but as they were forbidden entry to the kingdom so was Rell to leave. The guards that watched the gate would have stopped either of them if they tried to pass through the gate.

The waggoner shifted uncomfortably and scowled as slave approached him waving him off and ignoring the outstretched hand but the slave wan't about to give up and attempted to give a letter to him. The driver struggled with him but froze when he saw Rell watching from the battlements. He shoved the slave away before cursing loudly in a language alien to Rell. The waggoner then stared up at Rell to see what punishment was to befall him. He couldn't flee, not with his waggon stuck in the line as it was. The slave followed his gaze, panic gripping him when he realised one of his masters had been watching him, and he hid his hand behind his back. Rell watched him dispassionately and mused over what he had seen. A spy perhaps, attempting to pass information back to his king? Or was it a husband or a son desperately trying to get word to his family? Rell was at least thirty yards away, but he could see the fear in the slave's eyes and maybe something more. Pleading? Rell returned the slave's gaze and then nodded towards the waggoner, they both looked surprised by Rell's clemency and when the slave passed the slip of parchment over, they both looked to the gate, expecting the guards to come swarming out.

The two slaves appeared from the rear of the waggon carrying the chest between them and the waggoner, slipping the paper into a pocket under his cloak, jumped up onto the driver's seat and focused on the two horses before him. The slave spared Rell a last look before returning to his work.

“You’ll catch a death standing out here like that,” Barris boomed as he emerged from the stairwell. “Thought you might want this.”

“It’s too damn warm in there, I had to get some air.” Rell took the proffered coat gratefully and draped it over his shoulders letting it hang open so that the cold air could reach his chest.

Barris rested his meaty forearms on the wall and started counting the waggons. He let out a deep groan when he realised just how many there were left to process. He was a bear of a man, with wild black hair and a beard that must have been a hazard around the forge where he toiled. He was only a year older than Rell's nineteen, but the blacksmith's apprentice had an air of solid dependability about him that most would say Rell lacked.

“It’s a good haul so far, but the grain is of poor quality.” Barris held his hand out for the water flask, Rell passed it and nodded to the gathering below.

“Do you think they look up at us with envy or hatred?” Rell watched his friend closely as he took a deep swig.

Barris wiped his mouth with the back of his hand frowning at the procession of waggons. “I think, if I were them, that I would look up with both. It's better to be behind the wall than stuck outside and any of them given a chance would gladly swap places.” Barris corked the skin bladder and hung it from a hook by the door. “Are you thinking of trading places?”

“Rell go out into the world?” a skinny young man said from the stairwell. “I wondered where you two were hiding. I just had to recount the tithe from Messen, the sneaky bastards tried to pass off some jars full of sand as the genuine thing.”

“Good you caught it, couldn't let them get away with trying to dodge the tithe.” Rell's words brought a frown from both his friends.

“Every bloody time with you.” Tanis shuffled past Barris and stood with his back to the wall. The city was hidden behind a curve in the road, but from there he could see the spines of the volcano that spread out across the valley they called home. His eyes lingered on a set of stone buildings that made up the monastery, pale blocks against the black rock of the cliff. They clung to the steep sides, one building above the other, connected by a single road cut through the sharp rock and lined with pennants fluttering from poles. The throng of people gathered at the gate to the largest of the monastery buildings were barely discernible at that distance but Tanis could make out a group coming forward onto the road. “When will you learn that it doesn't matter how much you complain about this duty, you can't get out of it? Besides,” Tanis gestured for his friends to lean in close, “I’ve made us a deal.”

“What have you done?” Barris said in a tired voice.

“Only what we agreed in the pub,” Tanis said as if that was explanation enough. Barris’ frown grew even deeper. “I’ve put aside a little something that we can sell later.”

“When did we talk about this?” Rell asked slipping his arms into his coat.

“Last night, in the pub, you were on your second to last drink and Barris was off having a piss.”

“Oh, that.” Rell didn't have the slightest memory of any conversation about stealing from the tithe. “And remind me what do I have to do for my share?”

“Well, nothing, but...”

“But...” Rell echoed.

“We agreed that while the plan isn't actually illegal, it might get us in trouble and that the three of us would share any blame and thereby lessen any punishment.”

“You mean my family name will give this the air of a sanctioned deal,” Rell said as he came round to Tanis’s plan.

“Exactly. But there’s no need to worry since Master Actus already caught me.” Tanis stared intently at the monastery and the group of tiny figures emerging from the far gate. They were running down the steps, jostling each other for position.

“He caught you?” Barris thundered and Tanis brought his hand up quickly, trying to hush the bear of a man before anyone looked over. The guards were only a few yards away and weren’t against pushing apprentices from the wall.

“He did, but that's a good thing, turns out quite a few apprentices take from the tithe and as long as it's not too much and he gets a cut he’s more than happy to turn a blind eye. The way he sees it none of us gets paid to be here so why not pay ourselves for all our hard work.”

“Hmmm, so too whom are we selling these goods?” Barris asked Tanis.

“Well, you and I will take them to this old guy I know. We can get it after the work's done,” Tanis said.

“What will I be doing?” Rell asked a bit annoyed at being excluded. “Is this a secret friend of yours?”

“You can come if you want to, but I thought you’d be busy watching your sister join the ranks of the dragon riders.”

Rell nodded along and then it hit him. “That's now, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes.” Tanis pointed to the monastery and the runners that were winding their way down the steep paths. “They left a minute ago.”

“Oh, Gods no, I thought I had time.” Rell stepped to the edge of the walkway, the drop to the yard below was over a dozen feet. He spared a glance at the crates and barrels still to be processed.

“Go, we’ll cover for you,” Tanis said waving for his friend to leave.

“It’s not like you do any actual work anyway,” Barris said and then gave a deep chuckle. He folded his arms across his thick chest. “Go and see our Ariella win.”

Rell nodded and then turned and ran past the guards on the wall. He spared the column of waggons a quick glance before skipping down the stairs and dashing past the slaves lumbering under their burdens. Heads turned as he sprinted away, envious of his freedom.

“If only he could work as fast as he runs from it,” Tanis said as Rell sped down the road.

 

Rell dodged around a trio of guardsmen trudging up the steep path. One shouted a greeting, but he was focused on not tripping on the loose stones or falling from the narrow bridge spanning one of the many gorges cut into the mountainside. His coat billowed out around him, and he fiddled with the buttons as he kept up the pace.

The vista opened up and the city with its forest of towers came into view. The buildings rose impossibly high, anchored by deep foundations plunged into the layers of volcanic rock that served as the very fabric of the city. Bridges crisscrossed ravines cut deep into the ground, and steps led to different levels of the city. It was a maze, but it was the only city that Rell had ever known, and he knew every part of it.

The road turned and followed the course of a canal as it took the foul waters from the city after having come in from a glacial field further up the mountains. Factories, built with black stone, lined the banks, occasionally dumping their effluence directly into the water. In yards backing onto the river men and women hefted cleavers and chopped at enormous slabs of meat. Stray dogs prowled the streets, fighting over the scraps dropped on the floor. Men worked in pairs to stack bones almost as long as them into rows by the road, where ravens squawked and fought over the flesh still clinging to them. The road ran past a mound of needle-sharp teeth as long as Rell’s arm, and he made sure to give them a wide berth not wanting to trip and get impaled.

A crowd cheered from somewhere to his right and he caught sight of the main road through a gap in the buildings. The runners had made it to the edge of the city, and he was now running parallel to them. Leaving the factories behind, Rell entered narrow streets with tall buildings on either side. Black stone leeched the sunlight but also threw what colour there was into stark contrast with the walls. Windows stood out with brightly coloured panels lit from within by oil lamps. Noblemen and women walked along the centre of the road dressed in fine fabrics, bright and clean, while the common folk dressed in muted colours and courser cloth. Rell noted a woman's dress with a professional eye but he didn't have time to ask after her seamstress.

On the ground floor of most of the buildings that Rell passed were shops selling all sorts of goods, bootmakers, candles, and wine merchants. There was always something to buy in the dragon city and many with the coin to do so. A few people walked the streets, going about their business, disinterested in the yearly race that was taking place near to them. A distinguished man walked in front of two slaves, the collars joined to each other by a short chain. They both bore baskets of goods and were careful not to walk faster than their master. Rell twisted as he shot past them and received a curse from the man.

The side streets were blocked by groups of people watching for the runners to pass. Children leaned out of windows and townsfolk called out encouragement, shouting the names of those they knew. Rell snatched a glance down each as he passed, searching for any sign of Ariella, sure he'd be able to make her out from the rest of the pack. He quickly passed the bulk before coming upon a tight cluster in the lead. An even mix of men and women, each one of them at the peak of fitness and driven to win. Rell was certain his sister would be in there somewhere, counting those in front to make sure she was in the winning group.

Rell put his head down and drove himself onwards, darting around carts and almost colliding with more than one group of townsfolk. He was intent on reaching the square before Ariella arrived. He wanted to see her succeed, for her to achieve her dreams, but most importantly to see the face of their father when Ariella received the mark of the dragon riders and become what Corbett could never be. Anger filled Rell's body, and he turned it into fuel. The shouts of the crowd fell back, and he sped past side streets and turnings, barrelling down alleyways and through yards, trusting to the fates that his way would remain clear. The blood pumped loudly in his ears, and he could hear nothing but the heavy beat and the steady breathing. This level of being was the rare place where the world fell away and all the nonsense that construed Rell's life just receded into the background, he was no longer the son of a traitor, the motherless boy, the gambler and the good for nothing, he was the wind and the fastest man alive.

He burst into a large square with a steep cliff dominating one side. At the top was the centre of worship and resting place for the city's honoured dead. The house of skulls was a large domed building surrounded by jagged towers with only one path leading to it. Hundreds lined it, taking advantage of the elevated position so that they could be the first to see the runners as they entered the square. The rest of the population crowded together in the square straining to see over heads.

Rell ran as far as he could but the crowd soon grew too thick and he was forced to push his way through. He shouldered past a group of men dressed in dark fur coats and large hats only for one of them to shove him in the back knocking him into an open area. Putting his hand down onto the wet flagstones to steady himself, Rell turned to hurl an obscenity when he saw everyone staring at him. They all stood back leaving a clear stretch to the centre of the square.

A woman shouted for Rell to clear off, her voice swiftly joined by a chorus of boos and a call for the guards. Rell turned on his heel and sprinted for the finishing line. He could now see the podium and behind it several rows of tiered seating. Awnings strung over the seats provided some protection from the elements, but the men and woman seated wore thick furs and had charcoal braziers scattered about to keep the chill off. They formed the council and were a hundred of the richest and most powerful people in the city. Rell’s father had once been among their number, but now he stood with the common folk.

A trio of guards stepped forward onto the path, and Rell darted to his right. A man grabbed for his collar but Rell ducked and caught his sleeve before spinning around and swapping places with him in the crowd. Rell moved as quickly as he could, slowing as he went deeper, glancing over his shoulder to make sure his pursuers had given up following.

From his high vantage point, he could see across the forest of heads and around the tall fur hats to where his family would be standing. He saw the statue, an ancient lord, powerful and dressed in ceremonial armour, a spear in his hand and gaze set firmly upon the volcano. His elder brother, Kynon, stood on its step in a similar pose, but his portly form and sallow skin set him apart as a different breed of man.

Rell could quite happily have stood to one side and watched the race on his own, but he needed to keep up appearances and while he was apprenticed to his father's business he had to play along. It would only be for an hour or two, he told himself, and then he and Ariella would be off toasting her victory. Rell covered the distance quickly and nodded a greeting to his uncle Victor. The man smiled, but he was the only one from the extended family present to even spare him a look. Kynon grunted a greeting but kept his eyes fixed on the temple street. Rell hopped up onto the step and peered over his shoulder.

“They were just behind me,” Rell said breathlessly as he reset his coat and smoothed back his sweaty hair.

“If only there was a way for you to use your single talent to the benefit of the family,” Kynon said scornfully.

“You mean other than delivering father's messages?” Rell was happy to act as an errand boy when his father had something important to be delivered. It got him out of the shop and away from his older brother.

“There!” Kynon said as the first runners shot from the street and onto the plaza. “Where is she?”

“Ariella won't be in the lead, she’s too smart for that.”

“She has to be in the twenty at least.”

The runners were bunched up and more than one elbow was used as they jostled for position. With a hundred yards to go Ariella came into view, she'd been tucked behind a large man easily twice her bulk but with the end in sight, Ariella dug deep and shot past him, narrowing the gap on the lead group.

“Is that enough?” Kynon gasped, but Rell was too caught up to answer. He couldn't count the fast-moving group; he was sure it was more than the twenty that could pass on to the next test. Rell bunched his fists and stood on the tips of his toes. He wanted to be there beside her, urging her onwards, but this was her race and all he could do was watch. She vanished somewhere into the back of the group as it turned and sprinted down the final stretch.

Rell and Kynon had an unobstructed view of the finish line and saw the first five cross over and then a flurry as more sprinted across and then Ariella, her black hair tied back, made it across the line.

“Sixteen? I counted sixteen.” Kynon said excitedly.

“Fifteen, I think. She could have done better, but it will do.”

“If only it mattered a damn,” Kynon said, and it seemed to Rell that all the excitement that had previously animated his older brother drained from him.

“Of course, it matters, she’s through to the next trial.”

“The decision was made as soon as her name entered the list. They've tried to block her at every turn.” Kynon turned to look at Rell and for a moment the wall that had grown between them over the years was removed. “It’s a testament to her ability and determination that she made it this far. They've been moving against her since she first put on the white robes and entered the temple.”

“Who? I don't understand.”

“Don't be naive,” Kynon snapped. “Them.” Kynon pointed to the stage and the hundred men and women seated there. “Who else? They can't allow the daughter of a traitor to enter the Dragon Eyrie.”

Rell focused on their sister as she left the group of panting runners, clasping at her sides and trying not to look too winded. She watched each of them from the corner of her eye, not dropping her guard despite her need to rest. Rell didn't want to believe Kynon’s words, he could put it down to jealousy or to the hatred that sometimes bubbled between them but there was something to it. Kynon was the firstborn of his father's children and five years separated him and Ariella. Rell was only a year younger than Ariella and he was the last from their father's first marriage, their mother dying shortly after giving birth to Rell, something his father had never forgiven him for. It sometimes seemed to Rell that his older brother shared the feeling. Rell had grown up in the care of nannies and servants, and he had no illusions about the caring nature of the hidden kingdom. It was a hard and brutal place, often cruel and vindictive, it wasn't a place of charity or giving but it was supposed to be a meritocracy at heart. No king or queen claimed rightful control of the valley, no despot ruled, deciding who would live or die. Those found worthy were given a chance to sit on the council, and all could try for a place in the hierarchy. Rell couldn’t believe that the council would be so short-sighted as to turn away one as driven and as capable as his sister.

Rell sat down on the cold stone and leaned back against the plinth. He could hear his father and uncles talking business behind him. The old man gave his decrees, and his siblings executed his commands. Rell should by rights have gone to greet him, but he was too tired to play the game, so he hid behind the statue and did his best to drown out all the noise.


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