Excerpt: Heart of Steel
The Queen’s Dragon Rider by Cora Walker
As Merryn shifted his wings and lurched downwards, Tess instinctively dropped her hand back to the saddle horn. Her training taught her how to deal with the feeling of her stomach rising, the little rush of heat that went through her chest every time they dove, but this was their first long solo flight, and he kept catching her by surprise. Tess took a moment to adjust the dwarven-made glass goggles that kept the wind from thrashing her eyes. She adjusted her seat in the saddle, checked the straps holding her in place—the finest leather and metalwork—and checked her sword and her spear. When she shifted her weight, she felt that new, strange presence brush against her mind, a query asking permission to enter, perhaps an expression of concern, and Tess denied him that. The presence retreated, always too close but relenting for the moment.
Below, the Rockwood seemed to stretch for miles. Merryn ducked out of the cloud cover again, allowing Tess to see the marble forest that reached from the farmlands to the base of the looming mountains in the distance. Tess had seen them once, as a child following her father on a visit of the towns and villages he was responsible for overseeing and defending. She remembered how similar to living trees they were—down to the finest details of their bark—but they were white, hard as stone, and frozen in time. To fall onto their many branches as she and Merryn were riding over them would be as bad as landing on the jagged rocks along her coastal home. She thought briefly of the ships she’d once seen bashed onto the rocks outside her home town by the single, powerful gust of a storm, and how they had broken into splinters. Some sailors had been rescued by the large fluffy dogs that were as essential to her coastal home as dragons were to the kingdom itself, but most of the men had been lost against those rocks.
She thought about how her training taught her how to use the trees when she fell and how little that applied this far into Rockwood. She and Merryn would be bashed against stone if they fell—countless sharp spires of rock. Even the mountains would be better ground to fight over if they encountered trouble. At least they wouldn’t be skewered.
Tess took another deep breath, tilting her head to shield her face from the wind. As she leaned into the wind, the freshly cut ends of her hair brushed against the tips of her ears, and it made her sad all over again.
She’d liked short hair as a youth, but wearing long hair in Legion training had been the one vanity, the one tiny point of pride she allowed herself as one of the two girls in the academy of mostly boys. But after Merryn chose her, what was difficult to maintain as a soldier became dangerous as a dragon rider. Thousands of feet up in the air, long hair posed too many risks.
At least now it reminded her of being a young girl and fighting her mother to keep it in a bob. “You look like a page boy,” her mother once snapped, and Tess remembered thinking back on that with pride the day she’d been set to get her shield.
Lost in thought, she felt Merryn’s foreign presence nudging inwards at the edge of her mind. She was still learning how to decipher the depths of his intellect—from the polite, almost tentative nature of the call, she gathered that he wanted to comfort her. She pushed him away by imagining a stone wall rising out of the ground. It wasn’t a defense she could hold for long, but it was enough to convey her message.
Not only had her career in the Legion of the Bold been smashed like that ship from her childhood, she now constantly had to contend with the presence of another. Her mind, her heart, anything could prompt Merryn to try and speak to her. Tess did her best to only communicate with him for the simplest tasks, only the necessities of surviving while in the air.
Tess relaxed back into the saddle and watched the Rockwood fly beneath her in a blur. People said that somewhere down there, there were simple animals—solid as rock, white as marble, and frozen in time like the forest was. Tess imagined a petrified squirrel at the top of one of those trees, a deer at the base somewhere, with one hoof raised and head turned towards the source of the calamity. All animals were as they had been in the moment before the spell fell.
Tess had always wanted to visit the forest, but she imagined herself riding through it on horseback—a knight of the Legion.
She’d still earned her shield, but along with it came a pair of unwanted wings.
The mountain that had seemed so small on the horizon now loomed beneath them, the snowy top scraping the clouds to their right. The ghostly pale trees became fewer and fewer, only occasionally spotting the mountainside.
Somewhere they had crossed into the Mountain Principalities, overseen above and below by the dwarves, and friends of Tess’s own human kingdom and Queen Leona, her regent. Tess could already see the smoke from the border towns. The sun would set soon, and Tess looked forward to the reds and pink that would splash over the snow when it did.
A thunderous noise echoed through the mountainside, and Tess felt it shake the inside of her ribcage. Merryn was as alarmed as she was, and Tess found herself instinctively reaching down to the smooth, scaly shoulder next to the saddle. She opened her mind, the wall she’d brought up earlier now hastily deconstructed.
The Heartless Knight by Heather Morris
Isi had been off balance all day, warm and muddle-headed and slow, and that was before Prince Tom decided that the chief aim of the night would be getting everyone scandalously drunk. The Frog and Feather was their fourth stop of the night—”We must have four,” Tom had slurred early on in the evening, “for luck and glory!”—but at least it would be their last. Isi usually imbibed at a slower rate than his friends, but even he was already drunk enough that time seemed stretched like molasses candy.
As they stumbled their way to their usual spot amidst the din of the public house, Isi tripping over his suddenly too-large feet, Isi tried to categorize the state of his friends. Emery Pin was giddy, hopping around like a giant, uncoordinated bird. Sol Bright was bleary-eyed and edging towards morose. Walter Ames was handsy—hanging all over some blonde girl they’d picked up at the last place. “Want to see my big sword?” he kept asking her, and, well, Isi might have been drunk and inexperienced in the finer points of seduction, but even he knew what Ames was really talking about, and it wasn’t the sword at his hip.
But Tom was definitely the worst off—or best, depending on the perspective—of the bunch.
The prince was well known to enjoy a drink or four, but tonight he was flamboyantly, spectacularly drunk.
And Isi was right there with him.
Normally he kept to the sidelines, where he could keep control of his actions and emotions while the others had their fun. But tonight was different. Tonight, he was officially a knight of the Court of Four, one of the oldest institutions in Skel, raised so far above his station that he could hardly think straight. He wasn’t sure yet how to feel about this, so he’d decided that he may as well get hammered.
Sloshed. Malty. Pickled. Smashed. Take your pick. Since landing on the shore of this bewildering isle at the age of nine, Isi had made a habit out of collecting all the ways Skellans said things, and the words for drunkenness were among his favorites. Mheztil just called a drunk man a fermented fool and had done with it. As with everything else in their language, Skellans gave drunkenness scope.
Prince Tom took the national passion and made it something of a personal mission. Six nights of seven, he could be found winding through the inns and ale halls of outer Skelhome, boosting the local economy with his surfeit of coin. It wasn’t that he was a drunkard, precisely. Everything was a matter of degrees. But Tom did enjoy any excuse for a celebration.
Well, tonight was certainly a celebration. And for once, Isi was keeping up with Tom and the others. Drink for drink.
Sozzled. Isi wasn’t entirely sure if that was a real Skellan term, or if he’d simply made it up to add to his store of drunken words. No matter. He was quite fond of it.
He was thoroughly sozzled.
“To our liege lord!” Emery proclaimed in toast. No, Sir Emery proclaimed in toast. He hefted his tankard high. “Our notorious, disreputable, wool-brained, impious, scandalous prince!”
And what was Isi to do with that excellent chain of words but add to the chorus of Heres and take another swallow of The Frog and Feather’s finest ale?
“To my knights!” Tom roared in reply, causing another swell of agreeable shouts about the room. “May they long live as emblems of justice in this flawed world, and protect my pretty head for years to come.”
“Pretty empty,” Anne Derry teased, ruffling Tom’s already-disordered, overlong black hair. His bastard half-sister, she was probably the only person in Skel who could get away with such a taunt.
Grinning sloppily, Tom thrust his half-empty tankard her way. “You know, I think it’s high time that someone made a lady out of you. Perhaps one of my new knights can indulge us. Sirs! Which of you shall take up my dearest sister as your paragon of virtue and love? For the sake of poetry, and chastity, and all that fairytale rubbish.”
A refrain of guffaws answered, the loudest from Anne herself. Isi recalled the rawboned girl he had first met on the riverbank ten years ago. In short order she’d thrown stones at the Skellan boys making fun of his accent, taught him four excellent cusses that she swore could get him out of any knotty situation, and then dragged him into the mud to hunt caimans with her, though she had only heard of caimans in the penny adventures and was not clear on what they looked like, as they did not live in this part of the world. Even now, at nineteen, she was still more boy than lady, any day.