Azera left the war council in anger. She was sure they noticed her exit, but all the same she was just as sure it did not trouble anyone - her father least of all. He brought her on this expedition, and then he did not listen, no matter what she said. She found she actually trembling she was so furious.
The halls of the fortress were empty save for the guards who stood rigid when she passed them. The floors were of ancient stone, and they had been swept but not very thoroughly. Kerak was a border stronghold, and not often occupied by an army. It had a threadbare feel that was not reassuring.
She could not stand to have her slippers on any longer, and she kicked them off and left them behind. She half saw her maids scurry to gather them up and restrained herself from shouting at them. They were not the targets for her frustration. Barefoot, she felt the sand gritting under her feet and it pleased her, made her feel closer to the barren soil outside. This place felt closer to the real world than her polished chambers far away in the palace. It was invigorating and alarming at the same time.
There was no more hallway, and so she opened the narrow door and found herself in a tight stairway winding upwards. She climbed, took three turns and came to another door. Her robe dragged and caught at the stone and she gathered it up, pushed through the door and out into the sun.
She flinched, quickly drew her veil down over her face. The sun was setting and the light was both faded and more intense, colors bleeding through. She squinted, and she almost turned back, but then she heard the heavy exhalation of a dragon. A voice said “akan soke
” and a shadow fell over her.
Azera blinked and looked up, saw the scaled bulk of the beast crouching on the battlements, one wing extended to drape over the wall and shade her from the sun. The dragon was a deep russet – almost red – with jagged black stripes like lightning bolts down its back. It lifted its head from the warm stone and looked at her sleepily, the black membrane sliding away from the dark eye.
The rider stepped from the shadow of the wing, his face as dark as basalt under his helm. “The sun is fiercest at sunset, Highness. You should keep your skin hidden from it.”
She almost reprimanded him for presuming to instruct her, but she stopped herself. “I thank you for the shade, dragon master.”
He looked out from the walls. They were on the upper wall of the inner keep, and below them the outer wall looked very small indeed, like a toy fortification. Beyond it the desert glowed red and black, the shadows sharp as blades. Close by the ground was rocky, the formations shaped by the stone quarried from them to build the fortress. Beyond they became all undulating forms, the immortal sands that seemed to go on forever.
“I was born in lands like this,” he said. “But I do not like them very much. It is not a place for men.”
“What is your name, dragon rider?” she said, curious. It was unusual for the men to speak to her so easily.
“I am Shabako,” he said. “Highness.” He smiled, his teeth very white in his black face. “Forgive me, I do not speak to lords, so the courtesies do not come easily to me.”
Azera stepped closer to the battlement and leaned on the stone, feeling the heat radiating from it, the long breath of the desert afternoon. “It does not seem like a place for men, or for anyone. I wonder that anyone could live here.”
“Yet they do, the nomads and their allies,” he said. “We will see them soon.”
She sighed. “My father says we will wait here for them to attack.” She was almost talking to herself.
“Yes, Master Arik said that as well,” he said. “He said they do not know how to siege a fortress - they are horsemen, so they will be useless when they attack us here, and the dragons will burn them away and scatter their mounts.” He stroked the heavy scales on his beast’s foreleg, ran his hand over one long claw.
She looked at him, wishing she could take off her veil. “And what do you think of that?” she said.
He shrugged. “Me? I am not experienced in these matters. I have never been to war, have you?”
“No,” Azera said, annoyed by the fact. “But I have studied all our past wars. I have read everything I can read.”
“So what do you think?” he said. She almost did not notice he had not answered her question.
“I do not like being bottled up in here,” she said. “We have too many men forced into too small a space. If they lay a siege, we don’t have enough food or water for very long.” She sighed. “But he is probably right. With the dragons overhead, they will not stand a siege. They will attack the walls and be repulsed, the dragons will scorch them, and when they break and flee we will chase them down.” She rubbed her hand on the stone and brought it up, feeling the grit between her fingers.
She looked at him as he took off his helmet and put it down on the stone parapet. He was younger than she had thought, sweaty from the afternoon heat. He took a cloth and wiped at his brow. She found him agreeable. He did not seem to hang on her every word, or secretly wish to get away from her. “What do you think about it?” she said.
He shrugged again. “No one asks me, Highness,” he said. “But I hear stories of this war-lord that leads them. Karkemish, they name him. They say he is a sorcerer, and even if I do not believe that, his followers will. They will go where he leads. I have heard the stories of the attacks he made on Naqua, and on Edon. Walls did not stop him there.” He paused to take a drink from his waterskin, and then he offered it to her.
Startled, she took it from him, noticing how he looked at her pale hand, but not too long. She considered the ill propriety of this for a moment, then she decided she was thirsty and lifted her veil enough to take a few swallows. The water was warm and tasted of leather, and it had a heady smell. She gave the skin back. “You think he has some plan,” she said.
Shabako slung his waterskin over his shoulder and picked up his helmet. He tucked it under his arm and looked out across the desert. “I think if it were a wild tribe come to raid, this would work. But this one? This one has plans.” He shook his head. “I think he would not come here, unless he was ready.”
Azera nodded, squinting as the sun burned down over the horizon. There was a darkness there, like a storm just at the edge of the sky. “Then you and I are thinking alike.”Hope you like this little sample scene. The book still needs to be funded! So click here and help!