(A short story that takes place before Dragon Rider’s Gift)
Roark glanced at the pile of ingots, debating how many were lead painted with gold versus the real precious metal. Not that it mattered. His interest lay in the innocuous wool pouch tossed haphazardly onto the winnings by the Piceus peddler seated across from him. His true purpose in enduring five tedious hours of gambits.
Narrowing his eyes, Roark evaluated the multi-level playing board and the few pieces remaining. A quick calculation confirmed he needed one more circuit of his piece from the first level to the fourth to win the game, a path of sixty-four squares required on each level. However, that depended on the remaining cards. He eyed the deck and then the cavalry second-year guard, too inebriated to be much of a challenge, seated beside him.
Odds were in his favor. The second-year needed three circuits, and even with an excellent draw each time that wouldn’t deliver him a win. The peddler was a harder read, hanging behind Roark by only twenty points.
Black elven stink from the man invaded Roark’s nostrils, but he swallowed back disgust and withdrew five cards from the deck. He spread his full house on the table; missing the satisfaction an excellent hand usually produced. The vibration from the pouch was too distracting. Electric charges rippled from his fingers to his toes with a punch over his chest that vibrated like an external heartbeat.
Dark eyes gleamed at him from the peddler’s pudgy round face. Roark held back a snarl. Dark magic swirled around the man, black magic.
The second-year guard roused enough to draw and advance his piece one circuit.
Seven more turns, and Roark breathed relief as he lay down his cards for a two-point win over the peddler.
Prepared to reach for his winnings, Roark froze as the guard jolted out of his stupor and slammed his knife, point first, into the table. His strike landed between the outstretched fingers of the peddler, sneaking ingots in full view. It was enough to get a man, even an elf, killed.
“You didn’t win. Now pack your stinking bag and leave this town before we have you thrown out.”
“You cannot make me leave,” hissed the peddler. But he’d vacated his seat and retreated several feet from the table, shooting a narrow-eyed glare between the guard and Roark.
“I won’t need to bother. Two of the Vernu Alfar elves arrived an hour ago. They don’t much like your kind. Do they?”
Roark didn’t stay to watch the animosity play out, but swept the ingots into his satchel, pocketed the pouch in his leather vest, and headed for the table by the back door. Biting several ingots to test for gold, he dropped ten solid ones on the table before the gambling hall owner. A generous tip guaranteed more than just goodwill. He glanced over his shoulder toward his table.
“Don’t worry, soldier. We’ll delay the Piceus long enough to give you a head start.”
With a nod, he offered thanks and slipped out the door. It had been a year since he’d resigned from the border guard, much less worn his uniform, but many people along his posts still recognized him. A fact that worked in his favor, most times.
Roark pulled his coat’s collar tighter against the late night chill and headed along the winding cobblestones toward the gatehouse.
Three miles and forty minutes later, he paused in the isolated mountain pass and listened.
No sounds registered, but his gut twisted. A sign he never ignored. The next few yards would bring him to an overlook of the desert of Ouahe and a shear thousand-foot drop. Not somewhere he wanted to be trapped.
He glanced up. A rigorous climb would take him out of the pass, but he wouldn’t risk it at night. Backtracking to the last trail held risk as well, but he resisted going forward as if there were physical restraints around his body.
He’d turned and walked several yards when he heard the roar. Flinging himself to the ground, he glanced up in time to see the fireball whip past him and explode against the rock ahead. He rolled to the side of the pass. A check behind revealed the peddler crouched along the higher rocks, the claws of his fingers and toes gouged into the pass’s wall for purchase. His eyes flickered red before the next two fire balls spit from his mouth.
Roark dodged the first wad of flame, but rocks showered on him from its collision.
The second engulfed his coat. Busy wrenching his arms from the sleeves, he failed to see the next deluge of rocks. Pain splintered along the back of his head and down his spine. He flung the coat as he dizzily dropped to his knees.
Sensing the black elf’s approach, he collapsed to the ground.
He feigned unconsciousness during the kick to his ribs, and the following shove that rolled him onto his back. He even resisted reacting as the grimy claws frisked through his pockets for the pouch. Then the elf pulled aside Roark’s vest to the reveal his medallion.
“A dragon rider. My mistress will be most pleased, but it is your head she desires.”
At the blood-curdling scream, Roark froze in his grab for the peddler’s throat.
Above Roark one minute, and several feet away on his back the next, the peddler held his hand to his chest, spitting obscenities. He tried to roll up to sit, but only his shoulders left the ground before he flopped back like a fish. Each struggle to rise, forced the elf into a backward scramble.
Roark walked to him and planted his boot on the elf’s chest, while he gingerly dug in the man’s pants pockets for the pouch.
“You’ll never make it from this mountain alive, Rider.” The peddler muttered a garbled incantation with a smug expression then screeched in delight as a flash of flame struck the ground and dissolved to reveal a tall, broad shouldered woman with hair the color of pitch and flashing red eyes.
“What mess have you wrought now, Dirkus?” she asked.
Roark stepped aside and poured the contents of the pouch into his hand. The dragon lace sparkled in the dying moonbeams. With minor interest, he listened to the peddler ramble nonsense to his liege lady of the Black Alfar court and watched the man point toward him.
“A rider, my mistress. As you wished.”
She glanced Roark’s way. Her eyes widened as they took in the medallion now hanging outside his vest. Then they narrowed as her gaze swept over the dragon lace. With an open hand, she turned and struck the elf across the head.
“You idiot. He has them both. We can’t touch him once the medallion and lace are in his possession. We can’t even touch the lace after it has chosen a dragon rider. You’ve wasted a precious and expensive opportunity.”
Dirkus cringed, jumping to his feet and backing away. “I did as you wished. We have him, my mistress.”
“We have nothing.” She grabbed him by his ear and with a high-pitched whistle began to spin. Mistress of the Black Alfar and her captive servant both rose in the air as the winds increased and the dust billowed around them.
Roark covered his face and turned to the rock wall, safeguarding himself against the violent dust storm that followed in the wake of her spell.
Minutes later, the black elves gone, he coughed to free his lungs and dug his way out of the dune that had engulfed him. He risked one more examination of the dragon lace before sliding it into the pouch and buttoning it back in his vest.
Picking up his coat, he shook it as he took stock. The sigil inside the coat had saved the fabric from disintegrating, though it wouldn’t have protected his flesh. An error he should remedy. Fortunately, the magical tattoo on his arm had repelled Dirkus’s attack. And the dragon lace, once matched with a dragon rider’s medallion, had taken on the weight of mountains. Only he could now wield them both.
With a satisfied smile, he skirted the piles of sand and resumed his journey.
He still had a dragon to find and a kingdom to save.
Copyright 2012 KH LeMoyne
Dragon Rider’s Gift is an adult fantasy romance, the first in the dragon rider trilogy and a Portals of Destiny Tale.