The early morning light coming into the loft was tinted yellow by the sulfurous plumes that rose from the smokestacks. Jandra had been in Dragon Forge for a week now and still wasn’t used to the stench, the rotten-egg aroma of coal burning continuously. One of the furnaces had been transformed into a crematorium, adding a black, oily soot that coated every exposed surface and smelled disturbingly like charred bacon. The bacon-stink of the crematorium swirling together with the egg-stink of the foundry left Jandra certain she’d never want breakfast for the rest of her life. She leaned against the window, looking out through the wavy glass, her forehead touching the cold pane as she gazed toward the low hills beyond the walls of the fortress. The last of the snow had melted off, leaving the landscape a mucky, reddish brown.
She was waiting on the second floor of the central foundry, in a high-roofed loft with exposed ceiling beams and baked brick walls. The floors were thick, oily timbers, worn smooth by centuries of constant use. Half a dozen tables had been lugged into the space and all were covered with sheets of parchment scribbled with Burke’s notes and diagrams. Across the room, coals glowed cherry red in a large open fireplace. The room was chilly despite this. She sank her hands deeper into the pockets of her ridiculously large, ill-fitting coat. It was a dark green coat from an earth-dragon’s formal guard uniform, designed to fit a creature three times as broad across the shoulders as she was. Beneath the coat she wore a man’s cotton shirt and baggy britches. When she’d arrived at Dragon Forge, she’d been wearing a bloodstained blanket and a dress torn down the back from neck to waist. Everything she’d worn had been so ripped or filthy she’d wound up burning it all. The only things she’d kept were the large silver bracelet on her left wrist and her knee-high black leather boots.
Behind her the elevator chattered. The iron cage rattled as the lift chains locked into place. The door squeaked open and Burke the Machinist rolled his wheeled chair onto the thick oak planks of the floor. Burke’s eyes were bloodshot; he’d obviously worked through the night. His long dark hair was normally pulled into a tight braid, but this morning his hair hung freely around his shoulders, revealing numerous streaks of gray. Burke wasn’t ancient; he was only in his fifties, in reasonably good health despite his broken leg. A member of an ancient race known as the Cherokee, Burke possessed a sharp-featured face with a strong jaw that gave him an air of authority. The symmetry of his features was broken by three parallel scars along his right cheek. Behind a newly-fashioned pair of spectacles, Burke’s eyes glimmered with excitement. In his lap, he carried an iron rod, the final product of the night’s work.
“We’ve done it,” Burke said as he handed the long rod to Jandra. He winced from the movement. Despite the mobility allowed by the wheeled chair, Jandra could tell his broken leg was a source of agony. He clenched his jaw and drew a long breath through his nose, then said, “It’s a fully functioning prototype.”
Jandra took the device from Burke. The rod was four feet long and quite heavy despite being hollow. One end was open, slightly flared, sporting a perfectly circular hole almost a half-inch across; the other was fixed to a triangle of wood that served as a handle. The steel was lightly engraved with a scale pattern at the open end.
“So this is a gun,” said Jandra, turning the weapon every which way as she examined it. She stared down the shaft bored into the center of the tube. Could this weapon really change the world?
“More specifically, a shotgun,” said Burke. “And I wouldn’t look down that hole. It’s loaded. I’ve got the safety on, but there’s no reason to press your luck. Going forward, I’ll remember to mention this before I hand it to people.”
“So how does it work?” Jandra asked, examining the trigger.
“It’s a flintlock,” Burke explained, wheeling his chair around to get closer. He pointed at the small iron hammer that was pulled back, held in tension by a spring. A small sharp splinter of flint was held at the tip. “When you take off the safety and pull this trigger, the hammer snaps shut and the flint strikes a spark into the flash pan, here. That creates a small explosion and lights this fuse, which then triggers the black powder packed into the rifle itself. The black powder is loaded into the barrel from the front and jammed tightly with the ramrod beforehand.” He tapped a thin iron rod attached to the underside of the barrel.
“Oh,” said Jandra, not certain she could envision the process. She pulled out a small pad of paper from her coat pocket. “This sounds like something I should be writing down.”
“I doubt you’ll have the luxury of checking your notes in situations where you’d be using this,” said Burke. He showed her two white cotton sacks, each about the size of her thumb. “To speed the loading process and to keep the powder compact, I’ve sewed up the appropriate amount of powder into these bags. Each charge provides a serious kick. The other bag holds small lead spheres and is jammed in front of the charge bag. The explosion will produce an expanding force of hot gas that propels the spheres down the barrel at great speed.”
“The balls of lead will come out of the barrel at about ten times the speed that an arrow flies off a bow. It’s going to make a crack like thunder.”
“Yowza,” said Jandra.
“Yowza?” asked Burke. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that expression.”
Jandra frowned. “I haven’t either. It must be something she would have said.”
Jandra nodded, then sighed. She already had enough problems connecting with other humans, having been raised by a sky-dragon. The fact that her most recent adventures had left her head jammed full of alien memories only added to her sense of isolation and loneliness. Of course, having the memories of a thousand-year-old woman from a far more technologically advanced society had a few benefits. She now knew the long-lost recipe for gunpowder, for example.
Burke looked concerned. He was a member of the Anudahdeesdee, a Cherokee clan dedicated to remembering the secrets of the once dominant human civilization that existed before the Dragon Age. His people had a long history of confrontations with Jasmine Robertson, the so-called goddess, the woman who had altered Jandra’s brain.
“So, what are these scale marks along the barrel for?” She was eager to change the subject away from her jumbled memories.
“I often design my inventions to resemble creatures in the natural world, like my spy-owl, my chess monkey, the time-frog, etc. I was going to call the gun the Noisy Snake, but the scale pattern was taking too long, so I gave up halfway. It had no bearing on the function.” He shook his head as he looked at the gun. “My grandfather used to scold me for being more concerned with making sculptures than machinery.”
Jandra smiled. “Your daughter showed me the spy-owl. I liked the attention to detail in the feathers. You’re a talented sculptor. The fact that you’ve only needed a week to design and build a shotgun from scratch shows that you’re an equally talented engineer. ”
Burke didn’t look cheered by her words. “I’m putting a lot of trust in you, placing this in your hands and sending you outside the fortress. If the dragons capture this and figure out how it works, it could forever change the world. Are you certain you can get your powers back?”
“Nothing in this world is ever certain,” said Jandra. “But, the sooner I leave, the better the odds are that no one has taken the genie.”
Burke nodded. “Anza’s anxious to leave as well. She says she’s tired of the way this place smells. She should be here in a moment. Let me—” Before he could finish his sentence, shouting erupted outside the window.
“Get it!” someone yelled.
“Circle around!” a man called out. A dozen other excited voices chimed in.
Jandra went to the window. She raised the pane and leaned out. The action was taking place only fifteen feet below her. A crowd of men were chasing a tiny green earth-dragon. The earth-dragon was the smallest she’d ever seen, barely a foot tall, obviously a child. Unlike adult earth-dragons, wingless beasts who moved in a slow plod, the earth-dragon child was darting back and forth like a jackrabbit. Despite its speed, it was pinned in by the crowd, and quickly found itself with its back to the wall directly beneath Jandra.
The men gathered round, keeping a slight distance as the small dragon opened its turtle-like jaws wide and hissed. Its tiny claws flexed as it took up a defensive stance. Its long, skinny tail whipped back and forth like a cat ready to pounce.
Jandra recognized the leader of the men, a white-haired, bearded fellow named Frost, a blacksmith from the foundry. His eyes were wide and he was smiling, as if chasing this young dragon were great sport.
“Frost!” Jandra yelled. “What are you doing?”
The crowd looked up. Whispers ran among the men. Jandra caught the word “witch” among the murmurs.
“We found this lizard hiding in a cellar! We’re going to cook it!”
In response, the earth-dragon yelled, “No eat! No eat!”
Jandra felt her stomach turn at the thought of what these men were going to do. A month ago, the drop to the street would have looked imposing. But, in a process similar to the reshaping of her memories, her body had also been retuned, leaving her with a physical prowess that rivaled even the legendary Bant Bitterwood. She leapt from the window, shotgun in hand, and landed in a crouch between the crowd and the dragon child.
“Back off!” she said. “The new rule is: if it talks, we don’t eat it.”
The men looked wary. Jandra knew it was due to her reputation as a witch… a reputation that, at the moment, was completely undeserved. Once, she’d commanded the elements, and would have been able to summon a ring of fire to shield her, or simply turn invisible to escape a fight. Unfortunately, she required a device known as a genie to use her abilities, and her genie had been stolen. Until she got it back, her “witchcraft” was nothing but bluff.
She stood, pulling back her shoulders. The green wool coat she wore hung down to her ankles. She hoped that the bulky coat and the thick heels on her leather boots helped hide the fact that the smallest of these men outweighed her by a hundred pounds.
Frost was the largest of them, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, with biceps like hams. His face was speckled with a constellation of scars, pale white splotches from a life spent hammering hot metal. While some of the men looked nervous after Jandra’s sudden appearance, Frost didn’t show the least flicker of intimidation. He said, “Even if you are Ragnar’s sister, you have no authority to declare what is and isn’t food.”
Jandra put the shotgun to her shoulder, imitating the firing stance she’d seen in Burke’s sketches when he’d designed the gun.
“I think you’ll find this gives me the authority,” she said.
Frost didn’t look impressed.
“Is this more of your magic, girl?” Frost mocked. “Where I’m from, we burn witches. Perhaps we’ll cook the lizard over the fire we build from your bones.”
The dragon child grabbed Jandra’s coattails. He cowered behind her legs and yelled, “No eat! No eat!”
Frost took a step forward.
“Not one more step,” Jandra growled.
Frost took another step.
Jandra raised the barrel of the shotgun, targeting the empty air above Frost’s head. She pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. What had Burke said about a safety? She examined the intricate firing mechanism.
Frost reached out to grab the gun. Jandra slipped aside the metal latch that kept the flint from falling. She pulled the trigger again as Frost’s fingers closed on the barrel. The hammer clicked down. For half a second, there was a flashing light and a sizzle, plus a lot of smoke.
At least, it seemed like lightning, with a bright flash and a thunderous boom. The butt of the shotgun slammed into Jandra’s shoulder, knocking her into the wall. Everyone in the crowd jumped in unison, wide-eyed.
Frost released the gun and spun away, cursing. He raised his hand to his right ear. Jandra had meant to aim above his head, but the gun had fired in a more or less random direction after Frost grabbed it. When Frost lowered his bloodied fingers, his ear was gone. Only a few shreds of bloody flesh dangled where it had been.
Jandra was disoriented. She hadn’t expected the gun to be so loud. She looked around, uncertain where the dragon child had gone. Her arm was numb from the impact of the shotgun.
She couldn’t help but wonder why the goddess had worked so hard to rid the world of guns. Of what use was a weapon that crippled its user?
The crowd grew deathly silent as Frost recovered his wits. He narrowed his eyes in anger.
“Witch,” he snarled. Jandra could barely hear him over the ringing in her ears. “The last time a woman scratched me, I tore her nails out!” He lunged toward her, arms outstretched.
Before Jandra understood what was happening, something human-sized dropped down from above, landing between her and Frost. The crowd sucked in its collective breath.
There was a loud SNAP. Frost shrieked.
Jandra blinked her eyes. The person who had jumped in front of her was Burke’s daughter, Anza. Anza was dressed in black buckskins and had at least a dozen blades strapped to her body. It was said that Burke had trained Anza in the art of combat from the day she’d learned to walk. Frost fell to his knees in front of Anza. Anza shifted her body slightly and Jandra could see that she had Frost’s middle and ring fingers in her grasp, bending them back much further than unbroken fingers could possibly bend.
Anza pushed Frost away and stood between Jandra and the crowd, drawing a long slender sword from the scabbard slung over her back. The razor-sharp edge gleamed like a mirror in the smoky light.
Men at the back of the mob looked around and wandered off, as if suddenly remembering other appointments. Some of the nearer men looked down at the ground as they, too, walked away.
Only two men remained behind to help Frost back to his feet.
Frost looked as if he were on the verge of spitting at the two women. Then, his eyes flickered upwards. Burke was at the window above, looking down sternly.
Frost growled, “Wait until Ragnar learns of this!”
“Why don’t you go tell him?” said Burke. “He can come to me if he wishes to discuss the proper punishment for a man your age threatening teenage girls with violence. I’m disappointed in you, Frost. You’re one of the best fighters I know. But there’s a fine line between a fighter and a bully. I would advise you to learn where that line is.”
Frost glared as he turned away, leaving the two women alone.
Anza gazed up at her father, a smug look in her eyes.
“Don’t feel proud,” Burke scolded. “You just ruined the hand of one of my most experienced blacksmiths. And Jandra, that was a damned stupid thing to do. Why didn’t you let them eat the varmint? It may be small and cute, but it’s still an earth-dragon. We killed them by the thousands to take Dragon Forge. What’s one more dead lizard?”
“This is only a child!” Jandra protested. “He’s innocent! He’s more frightened of us than we are of him.”
“Where’d the lizard go?” Burke asked. He was still in his chair, and couldn’t look straight down.
Jandra studied the area. Had the dragon slipped away while she was distracted? Finally, she noticed a shadow on the wall, and a peculiar outline. She knelt and reached toward the shadow.
The outline on the wall shifted color slightly. The eyes became visible as they looked at her. The chameleon-like camouflage vanished as the dragon shifted back to a deep green hue, almost black. It held a skinny arm toward her, the claw at the end outstretched like a human hand, though it had only three fingers. These digits ended in claws that any bobcat would have envied.
“No eat?” the dragon child asked.
“No eat,” said Jandra, taking his hand. “I’ll protect you.” She lifted the dragon child up and hugged him to her chest.
“Good boss,” he cooed.
It was late morning when Vulpine, the Slavecatcher General, drifted down to the rocky bank, his eyes drawn to the blues-caled corpses being picked at by black-feathered buzzards. The buzzards hopped away as he landed, some taking to the air to perch in the branches of nearby pines, others, more bold, backing up only a few yards to glare at him. Even though the faces were mutilated, with the eyes torn away and the flesh around the mouths pecked and peeled, Vulpine recognized these dragons, fellow slavecatchers, good and honorable defenders of order. He shivered as a chill wind stirred his feather-scales.
There were human corpses as well, similarly mutilated by the buzzards. Vulpine recognized them as Hemming and Terpin. The world was no worse off without them. He noted that Shay wasn’t among the corpses, nor was there any sign of Chapelion’s stolen books.
Had Shay somehow managed to kill three slavecatchers? It made no sense. It was plain that all three dragons had been downed by arrows. He’d heard about the new bow that had caused the massacre at Dragon Forge, a weapon with more than twice the range of a longbow. Dragon Forge was barely ten miles distant. Had these slavecatchers fallen victim to a rebel patrol?
He noted something odd about the arrows. He reached out and plucked one from a corpse and held it to better catch the light. His eyes weren’t playing tricks. These arrows were yard-long, perfectly straight shafts of living wood. The fletching at the end wasn’t feathers, but fresh green leaves growing in perfect symmetry. Stranger still, the killing end of the twig showed no trace of an arrowhead. The wood simply narrowed down to a hard, thorn-like point. What tree grew such twigs? One final artifact of the arrow disturbed him. The shaft couldn’t have been in the corpse for more than a day, judging from the condition of the bodies. Yet, the part of the arrow that had been buried in the body was covered with white, threadlike projections, as if the arrow had been taking root. The shaft sported several fresh pale bumps, like it was budding.
Vulpine snapped the shaft. The bark that peeled away from the jagged break was bright green and full of sap. He sniffed the wood. It was an unremarkable odor; he still couldn’t identify the species. The biologians back at the College of Spires perhaps could assist, though his gut told him that this was something new under the sun, that no one had ever seen living arrows before. Most biologians were rationalists, but Vulpine was old enough and wise enough to suspect there were invisible forces beyond the comprehension of dragons. Most slaves believed in magic, in ghosts and witches, angels and demons, and Vulpine had some sympathy with these beliefs.
He felt a chill creep along his spine as a shadow passed over him. The long fringe of feathery scales along his neck stood on end. He looked up, then immediately let out his breath and chuckled. It was only Balikan, a young slavecatcher he was training, drifting down from the sky to join him. The vultures skittered back even further, but Vulpine was glad of his company.
Balikan wrinkled his nose in disgust at the odor. The corpses weren’t rotting yet, but their bowels had emptied, and the gallons of blood that had seeped into the gravel had its own aroma. Vulpine had barely noticed; he’d been around corpses so often the odor had little effect on him.
“By the bones,” Balikan said softly. “Who could have done this?”
“That, my young friend, is an excellent question.”
“I don’t see Shay’s body. Could he—?”
“Doubtful,” said Vulpine. “Shay’s never held a bow in his life. Nor has he displayed much in the way of a spine. He probably groveled for mercy when the slavecatchers caught up to him. Someone else killed these dragons. They must have been hidden in the trees.”
Balikan scanned the steep bank, his eyes darting from branch to branch.
“I don’t think they’re still around,” said Vulpine. “These corpses are at least twelve hours old. Maybe sixteen.”
“How can you tell?”
Vulpine nudged the twisted talon of the nearest corpse with a hind-claw. “They plainly didn’t die today. The bodies are cold and stiff—it takes several hours to lose body heat, although one cold night on a damp bank can do it. Rigor mortis sets in little by little—the degree these limbs are contracted tells me it hasn’t reached its peak. I also know it’s not been more than a day because the buzzards haven’t made much progress.”
Balikan shuddered. “I’ve never been around this many dead bodies.”
“Get used to it,” said Vulpine. “You’ll see many more in the coming days.”
“King Albekizan kept this kingdom stable for almost half a century. Now he’s dead, and his son didn’t last a month before a human assassinated him. The humans have taken advantage of all this instability and captured Dragon Forge, just to the west of here.” He pointed to the brownish tint in the sky, evidence of the distant smokestacks. “I suspect that’s where Shay is, along with Chapelion’s books.”
“Then he’s escaped for good,” said Balikan.
“Nonsense,” said Vulpine. “I’ve had a few slaves vanish on me over the years. I can’t claim a perfect record. But I’ve never let a slave go when I still had a lead simply because pursuing that lead was dangerous. Dragon Forge is a magnet for slaves. Shay and these two fools were among the first to hear the rumors and make a break for it, but they won’t be the last. Our jobs are going to be much more difficult if the humans are allowed to hold on to Dragon Forge. It’s imperative that we sky-dragons act now to strangle this revolution while it’s still in its cradle.”
“But, the humans defeated an army of sun-dragons!” said Balikan. “They slaughtered earth-dragons by the thousands. Why will we fare any better?”
Vulpine chuckled. “Besting an earth-dragon isn’t so hard. In my experience, the average human is twice as smart as an earth-dragon. Sun-dragons might be as smart as the humans, but they’re also bullies. They’re used to winning fights due to their size, but if a few of them get hurt, the rest turn tail and run. They don’t know the first thing about real courage—and next to nothing about strategy—because they don’t need it. When evolution has left you with the deadliest jaws in the food chain, you get used to solving all your problems with your teeth. We sky-dragons are made of different stuff. Our brains might be half the size of sun-dragons, but we actually bother to use them. We study the world. We learn things. Brute force failed to break the rebellion at Dragon Forge. It’s time for a more thoughtful approach.”
“You have a plan in mind?”
“The rough outlines of one, yes,” said Vulpine. “This isn’t something we’re going to be able to do alone, however. We should go consult with Chapelion.”
“So it’s back to the College of Spires.”
“No,” said Vulpine. “To the Grand Library of the High Biologian. That’s where Chapelion will be by now. He’s bringing some order to this chaos.”
Vulpine ignored him. “Our second priority should be reconnaissance. Let’s study the area and gather the information we’ll need to solve this problem once and for all. They say the new bows can reach out up to a mile… but there’s a lot we can learn from over a mile away.”
Balikan looked puzzled. “Our second priority? What’s our first?”
Vulpine looked down at the bodies of the three slavecatchers. “We should build a pyre and cremate the remains of our brethren. I’ve known Zernex almost thirty years. He deserves a more noble end than to be pecked apart by buzzards.”
“Of course,” said Balikan, sounding embarrassed that this had required explanation. “What of the slaves?”
Vulpine shrugged. “Let the birds have their fill.”
Comments on Chapter Two: This chapter had two seemingly contradictory goals. First, I wanted to recap the previous book, to bring new readers up to speed and to remind returning readers of what went before. The second goal is the goal of all chapters: I have to move the story forward, laying the groundwork for what's to come instead of dwelling on what's behind.
Hopefully, I found the right balance. The dialogue between Jandra and Burke is sprinkled with information about what's happened previously, such as when Burke reminds Jandra that they killed thousands of earth-dragons to take the fort. In the Vulpine scene, he has a full paragraph where he tells Balikan about the political turmoil of the last two books. But, all of this is backstory unfolds in the context of the present. By breaking it up and keeping it brief, I hope it reads like seamless dialogue instead of an infodump.
Fans of the series will, I hope, be pleased to see Jandra back in a central role in the book. The conclusions of the two previous books have been hard on Jandra. In book one, she loses her "father." In book two, her best friend betrays her. But I like Jandra because the tragedies she experiences don't shatter her, but instead leave her a little tougher and wiser. She has every excuse to hate dragons following the events of the previous books, but her core instinct when she sees the young earth-dragon in danger is to protect him. We'll be seeing a lot more of the young-earth dragon by the way.
The other protagonists returning from Dragonforge are Burke and Anza. Burke and Anza are sort of a symbiotic unit in the second book. Burke is the brains, Anza is the brawn. Though, brawn obviously isn't the right word. Anza is precision and grace, sort of a Cherokee ninja. One of my goals for the characters in Dragonseed is to split these two characters up so that they can develop more on their own. We'll get to see Anza use her wits to think through problems, and Burke will wind up in a fight or two without his buckskin-clad guardian angel watching over him.
This chapter introduces a new character, Vulpine, the slavecatcher general. Vulpine is perhaps the most dangerous dragon antagonist I've yet introduced. Blasphet was smart and evil, but he believes his own hype. He's overconfident in his complicated schemes. Vulpine is just a dragon with a job, and that job is to keep humans enslaved. He happens to be very good at it. But, he's not egotistical; he sees himself as a servant to civilization itself, a dragon with a duty to the world. He doesn't want other dragons to sing his praises. He just wants to put the world back into its natural order, with dragons on top. I hope readers will grow to like him, despite the really awful things he's going to be doing as the book unfolds.
Rereading the chapter this morning, I note that both the Jandra scene and the Vulpine scene dwell around new weapons. Jandra gets to learn about guns. I'm nervous about the guns! I expect letters from actual black powder gun owners telling me I'm getting the technology wrong. And, I am: While I did do some research into early guns, I'm also working under the assumption that Burke has tweaked the technology some. I'm not trying to describe an actual blunderbuss, but instead Burke's reinvented device. If you are an actual user of black powder guns reading this, feel free to chime in. It's obviously too late to change anything in this book, but I'm always keen to learn more.
The other weapon we examine in greater detail is Bant Bitterwood's living arrow. Jazz, the goddess, gives him a living bow strung with her own hair in the previous book, and a quiver that continuously replenishes itself. In the last book, there's so much going on after Bant gets his bow that I don't really stop and focus on what a wierd and wonderful weapon this really is. The arrows also have an interesting symbolic value. In the first book, Bitterwood's signature is that his arrows are fletched with the feathers of dragons. The weapon helps build up his mystique as a dragon-slaying ghost. In this book, Bitterwood's arrows are green things locked in an eternal spring. Perhaps this says something about Bitterwood's mental state in this book. I should say no more.