With exactly one month left until the official release date of Dragonseed, I plan to post one preview chapter each Monday until the book actually hits stores. I'm going to follow each chapter with a brief "director's commentary" feature, where I'll briefly discuss my creative process behind the chapter. I'll try to keep the commentary section spoiler free; mainly, I will be discussing things such as why I chose a particular POV character, what I know about the larger setting that didn't make it into the book, etc.
Hope of the Slave
Clouds the color of bruises stained the winter sunset. Shay hoped that the yellow-brown sky meant they were near the foundries of Dragon Forge. He wasn’t certain Hemming would make it if their journey lasted another day. Shay, Hemming, and Terpin were at the edge of a pine forest on a steep hill leading down to a slow muddy river. On the other side of the water a broad, flat field had been trampled to muck. Shay wondered if this was evidence of the retreat of Shandrazel’s army. Thousands of earth-dragons had fled on foot. The ground would surely bear witness.
“I don’t think I can go on,” Hemming whined as he slid down the bank, landing on a bed of gravel beside the river. Hemming was the oldest of the three slaves, a stooped, white-haired man in his late sixties. In a perfect world, Hemming’s age and experience would have endowed him with wisdom and toughness, but in actuality it had left only a fragile shell of a man with an unceasing passion for complaint. “My blisters have popped,” Hemming moaned. “My boots are filled with blood.”
“All the more reason to keep moving,” said Terpin, sliding down beside him. Unlike Hemming, a house slave, Terpin had worked the grounds of the College of Spires. He was a short man, but heavily muscled. His wispy hair clung in a band around his ears, as white as Hemming’s more ample mane, though he was at least twenty years younger. Terpin’s face was a mass of wrinkles and he only had teeth on the left side of his jaw. His voice was authoritative and gruff as he said, “Walk while you still can, old man. If you can’t go on, we’re not going to carry you.”
Hemming’s lower lip quivered. “Y-you’d leave me behind? After we’ve come this far together?”
Shay cleared his throat. He still clung to a skinny tree on the steep slope. The last ten feet down to the river looked particularly treacherous. He couldn’t get the memory of the horse’s broken leg out of his mind. He announced, “We’re not leaving anyone behind. I’ll drag you both if I have to.” He was the youngest of the slaves, only twentytwo. He was lanky, tall despite his hunched posture, with a thick head of orange hair bright as the scales of a sun-dragon. Unlike the drab, threadbare outfits of the older men, Shay was dressed in a long red coat with shiny brass buttons. His black boots were scuffed and muddied from walking, but the upper parts still showed their former polish.
Shay had led a more privileged life than either of the older slaves. He’d been the personal attendant to Chapelion, the skydragon scholar who oversaw the College of Spires. Few humans knew how to read, but Shay’s precociousness had been recognized at an early age and encouraged by Chapelion, who’d seen advantages in having a literate slave. Chapelion had thought that his bright-eyed favorite had been smart enough to recognize the benefits of life in his service. Instead Shay’s relatively easy life in the face of the hardships of his fellow men had only made his status all the more intolerable.
Not that his life had been easy—as a slave, he’d been subject to beatings for minor mistakes. His back bore scars from the bite of whips. When news of a human rebellion at Dragon Forge had reached the College of Spires, Shay instantly knew that he belonged there. He’d persuaded Terpin to accompany him, because he liked Terpin and thought the tough, worldly slave knew a thing or two about surviving in the world. They’d taken Hemming because the older man had eavesdropped on their plans and asked to come, and they’d both been certain he would betray them if left behind.
“Hemming, I’m as tired as you,” Shay said. “I want nothing more than to stretch out on the ground and drift to sleep. But look at those clouds. That has to be the smoke from Dragon Forge. I’ve heard the sky above it is always tinted this way at sunset. We’re close.”
“It’s Terpin’s fault we don’t have horses,” Hemming grumbled.
Shay sighed to hear this argument brought up again.
“Oh lord,” Terpin groaned, throwing his hands up.
“If you’d listened to me, we’d be there already,” Hemming said.
This was arguably true, but Shay didn’t think it mattered. They’d left with two horses, with Hemming and Shay sharing a mount. On their first day out, they’d pushed too far. Terpin had assured them the horses could go another mile, then another, and he’d beaten the horses with branches to keep them moving. After hours of rough treatment the horse that carried the two of them fell dead, its heart burst. The next morning, they’d taken turns with the last horse, and as Terpin rode down a ravine the horse had stumbled and broken its leg. Shay knew they had made mistakes that cost them dearly, but he couldn’t see any advantage in dwelling on them, not when they were so close to freedom.
“What’s past is past,” said Shay. “We’re all cold and hungry. Dragon Forge will have fireplaces, and food to fill our bellies, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s whiskey as well. It’s worth another hour of walking, even in the dark.”
“Whiskey gives me heartburn,” Hemming grumbled. “And you think they’re just giving out food? You think they’re going to welcome three runaway slaves with open arms?”
“It’s a rebellion. They need soldiers, and workers, and cooks, and any other talents we can bring,” said Shay. “They’ll feed us. Especially once they see what I’m carrying.”
He tapped the leather pack slung over his shoulder. It had been a heavy burden to tote all this way, but he thought the contents were the most precious thing in the world. He held onto the faith that Dragon Forge would welcome them with the same certainty that dawn would follow the night. Hemming didn’t look convinced.
“You youngsters think you’re immortal,” Hemming said. “But if we’re stumbling around out here in the dark with numb feet, we’re likely to break our legs. You remember the horse, don’t you? You remember the way that bone jutted through the hide, the way that blood shot out in a fountain?”
Shay did remember this. Any time he closed his eyes, he could see it. This was one reason he was still clinging to the tree instead of jumping down to the gravel.
Perhaps sensing he was touching Shay’s fears, Hemming went on: “None of us can see worth a damn in the dark, but the slavecatchers can. They’ll find us while we’re lying there in the open field with broken legs. Those bastards have eyes like cats.”
“Our ears are rather sharp as well,” said a voice overhead.
Shay looked up, his heart in his throat. Perched in the gnarled branches of a towering pine, he spotted a pair of golden eyes glowing in the last rays of the sun. The blue wings of a sky-dragon unfurled against the dark sky as the beast rose and glided down to the gravel bed, landing ten feet away from Hemming. The old man trembled. A highpitched cry erupted from his lips, a sound like a rabbit shrieking in the jaws of a hound.
The slavecatchers were frequent visitors to Chapelion’s chambers, and Shay recognized this one as Galath, a fairly young and inexperienced member of the trade. Perhaps they still had a chance. Hope faded as a second sky-dragon glided down to join Galath. This was Enozan, a much older and more experienced slavecatcher. Still, it was two against three; not all hope was lost. In the air, sky-dragons were much larger than men, with their twenty-foot wingspans and long whip-like tails. On the ground, however, standing on their hind-legs like oversized blue jays, the two slavecatchers were no taller than Hemming. Perhaps this gave Terpin courage because, as Hemming fell to his knees to beg for mercy, Terpin grabbed a fallen tree branch and wielded it like a club.
“Stay back!” he shouted. “Or I’ll knock your brains out!”
There was a rustling in the tree behind Shay. A third dragon had landed in the branches. Shay recognized him immediately—Zernex, one of the most feared slavecatchers employed by the College of Spires, second in cruelty and cunning only to Vulpine, the infamous Slavecatcher General.
Zernex spread his wings wide and stretched his neck as he stood on the swaying branch, perhaps for balance, perhaps to emphasize his size. While sky-dragons were small compared to sun-dragons, they were still fearsome beasts. Their heads were the size of a large ram’s, with jaws that could open wide enough to close around a human throat and sink into it with gleaming rows of saw-like teeth. Their talons may have been little larger than a man’s hand, but they were tipped with sharp-hooked claws that could slice through flesh with ease. Zernex raised the fringe of long feather-scales that ran along the back of his neck as he snarled at Terpin. “Drop the branch, slave! I’m paid the same whether I bring you back alive or dead. I won’t hesitate to gut you.”
Shay shouted at Zernex. “If you don’t care if we’re alive or dead, why bring us back at all? Leave us alone! The College of Spires won’t miss three slaves!”
Zernex glared at Shay. “Do you think we’re fools, boy? You’re running off to join the rebellion. You think we’re going to let you go get armed with a bow and arrow so you can kill dragons? Besides, we both know you aren’t merely escaped slaves… you’re thieves as well.” His eyes fixed on Shay’s leather backpack.
Despair welled up within Shay like a black fog. He looked at Hemming, groveling on the damp gravel, his hands clasped behind his head. A small hard knot formed in Shay’s belly. He’d never been in a fight in his life. He’d never even thrown a punch. But he’d been running away to become a rebel, hadn’t he? He spotted another fallen branch on the slope below him. He let go of the tree and slipped the leather pack from his shoulders. He jumped down to the gravel, grabbing the branch. He stood back to back with Terpin and shouted, “You’ll never take us alive!”
“Take me alive, please,” whimpered Hemming.
The branch that Shay had grabbed was damp and half-rotten. He cast his eyes about for another weapon, but it was too late. Apparently emboldened by Shay’s defiance, Terpin lunged, hacking out with his more sturdy club. It was a powerful swing, but easily anticipated. Galath, the target of the blow, flapped his wings once and darted backward as the club passed through the air where he’d stood.
Terpin, off balance, didn’t show a similar talent for evasion. Enozan’s toothy jaws shot toward him in a serpentine strike, clamping onto the bald man’s windpipe. Terpin unleashed a gurgling yelp as the dragon shook his head back and forth. Enozan kicked out with a hind-talon, sinking his hawk-like claws deep into the man’s belly. In seconds the fight was over, as the dragon dropped Terpin’s lifeless body from his jaws.
Shay fought to keep from dropping to his knees as the older man fell.
“Oh god oh god oh god,” prayed Hemming, his head pressed into the gravel.
Galath hopped forward and opened his reptilian jaws wide. He snapped them shut on Hemming’s skull with a horrible crunch. Hemming’s whimpers suddenly went silent.
“Why?” Shay shouted, dropping his useless branch, clenching his fists. “Why’d you kill him? He wasn’t fighting you!”
From the branch above, Zernex answered. “It’s a long way back to the College of Spires. It’s easier to carry just the heads.”
Zernex dropped from the branches onto the bank, grabbing the leather pack Shay had dropped. He held it up, his eyes fixed on it hungrily as if he appreciated the importance of its contents. “This is what Chapelion cared about most. And while I won’t hesitate to kill you, Shay, I think your master would prefer to see you alive. I imagine he’d like the satisfaction of watching you flayed. Honestly, you’ve known Chapelion your whole life. Did you truly think he’d let you get away with even a single book from his private library?”
“I know the truth about those books!” Shay protested. “They were written by men! For men! In a time before the Dragon Age! They shouldn’t be part of a dragon’s library!”
“If dragons can own men, why can’t they own their books as well?” Zernex asked in a condescending tone.
“You can’t own us!” Shay shouted, reaching down and grabbing a smooth river stone the size of his fist. “You can only enslave us!”
Shay hurled the stone with all his strength at the hated slavecatcher. Zernex lifted the leather bag in his fore-talons, blocking the stone before it collided with his chest. Shay knew he had no chance in a fight. He turned toward the river. He didn’t know how deep it was. Could he dive and swim downstream? Lose his pursuers in the dark? Or would he only freeze to death in the icy water? What choice did he have? Better to drown a free man than ever to face the lash again. He darted toward the water.
Behind him, there was a hiss as a dozen feet of leather sliced the air. His charge was brought to a sudden halt as the tip of a whip curled around his neck like a noose. His feet flew out from under him and he slammed to the ground on his back.
Zernex loomed above him. The other two slavecatchers drew close, forming a rough triangle as their golden eyes looked down. Above their shadowy forms, a few dim stars glowed through the haze of clouds. Shay clawed at the loop of leather around his windpipe, trying to pry it free. He couldn’t breathe. The gravel beneath him was ice cold as dampness seeped through his coat.
“Hmmph,” Zernex sneered, looking down. “Chapelion should have known teaching a human to read was a waste. Even if your kind is smart enough to recite the words, you plainly lack the capacity to understand them. A truly educated being would have known that nothing but death awaited him if he stole from his master. I think there’s a famous quote from a human holy book about this, isn’t there? ‘The wages of sin are death?’”
Shay had heard the quote, but wasn’t in a position to discuss its significance. His eyes bulged and his lips felt numb as he found the tassel at the end of the braided leather around his neck and tried to untwine it. No matter how he pulled, it only grew tighter.
The dragons chuckled softly as they watched his struggles. He could barely hear them over the pounding of his heart. When a new voice from the trees spoke, he heard the words almost as if they were part of a dream. Unlike the reptilian voices of the dragons, the new speaker was plainly human, a male, his voice chill as the winter wind.
“Nothing true in this world has ever been written in a book,” the man said. The three dragons whirled toward the slope, looking for the source of the voice. Black spots danced before Shay’s eyes as he suddenly found a way to tug the whip that produced slack. He fumbled with trembling fingers and worked the leather loose, until he drew a long gasp of damp air.
“Death has nothing to do with sin,” the man continued, still invisible in the shadows of the trees. “Death claims the righteous as surely as the wicked. It awaits the slavecatcher as certainly as the slave.”
“Who’s there?” Zernex growled. “Show yourself, human.”
“These have been the last words of many of your kind,”’ answered the voice.
“Spread out,” Zernex commanded Galath and Enozan. “Search the hillside. I would like to meet our mysterious philosopher.”
Galath spread his wings, flapping, rising up ten feet. A whistling sound rushed through the air and his wings went limp. He fell to the gravel bed, unmoving. The bloody tip of an arrow jutted from the back of his skull, having come all the way through after entering his eye.
Shay kept still, wondering if the dragons even remembered him.
Enozan leapt into the air. There was a second whistling sound, and he, too, fell to the gravel, though he was still alive. He was only a few feet away from Shay, down on all fours. An arrow was buried deep in his left breast.
“What?” Enozan gasped, looking confused as he twisted his neck to study the shaft that jutted from him. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but the fletching on the arrow looked to Shay like living leaves. They were bright green, as if they had been plucked in spring. It was the dead of winter. What tree had fresh green leaves this time of year?
Enozan spasmed. He coughed and pink saliva sprayed from his toothy jaws. His strength failed him and he collapsed, one of his broad blue wings draping over Shay. The dragon shivered; blood gushed from his wound with each heartbeat.
Zernex snarled. Shay was dismayed to discover he hadn’t been forgotten after all. The slavecatcher reached down and grabbed him by the collar of his bright red coat. He yanked Shay to his feet, pulling him around to serve as a living shield.
“You obviously care about this slave!” Zernex shouted, his foretalon pressed against Shay’s jugular. “Show yourself, or I’ll slit his throat!”
From the dark hillside there was no sign of movement.
“I mean it!” Zernex screamed. The dragon’s claws hooked more deeply into Shay’s flesh. A bead of blood slid down Shay’s throat.
Zernex’s demands were met with silence. Cold sweat trickled down Shay’s face as Zernex’s eyes darted back and forth, searching the shadows. “Come out,” he said, fear reducing his voice to a trembling whisper. “Your surrender is this slave’s only hope.”
In the branches of tall pines, a shadow separated itself from the others rising, taking on the form of a man.
“Do not speak to me of hope,” the dark figure said. “I am not the hope of the slave. I am the shadow on the stone. I am the black unbroken silence. I am the Death of All Dragons.”
“Bitterwood?” Zernex whimpered, sounding as terrified as Hemming had moments before. His claws began to tremble. His grip slackened. Seeing his chance, Shay grabbed the talon and pushed it away, dropping down, freeing himself. He leapt away as Zernex spread his wings to take flight. The slavecatcher let out a pained grunt. Shay tripped on the gravel and rolled to his back. Zernex had an arrow in his left leg, buried in the meatiest part of his thigh.
“Bitterwood?” Zernex whispered again, sounding like he was in shock. Terror flashed into his eyes. He craned his neck heavenward, and beat his wings in a mighty down thrust. He lifted from the ground, his tail swinging around toward Shay. Acting on pure instinct, Shay grabbed the slavecatcher’s long tail and yanked hard, with his full weight. Zernex was thrown back to the gravel bed, landing on his left wing with a sickening snap.
Shay rose to his knees and saw a smooth river stone before him nearly as large as a skull. With both hands, he lifted it above his head and hurled it at the slavecatcher, who was struggling to stand. The heavy rock caught the dragon in the side of his jaw. Zernex’s head was knocked back to the gravel. He still wasn’t dead. He lifted his long, serpentine neck, his jaw bleeding and broken, and looked toward Shay with murder in his eyes.
In a flash, there was an arrow sprouting between those eyes, the green, leafy fletching shuddering from the sudden halt of its flight. Zernex’s golden eyes crossed as they tried to examine the object between them. Then they fluttered shut, and the slavecatcher’s head dropped. Shay grabbed another good-sized rock and lifted it, holding it for a moment above his head, waiting for any sign of life. At last, he dropped the stone before him. Zernex wasn’t breathing. The dragon would never catch another slave.
Shay rose on unsteady feet. He was breathing hard, his heart racing. The last five minutes of his life seemed disconnected and unreal. The bodies of three dragons and two men sprawled before him, their dark blood blending with the gathering shadows. He saw the leather satchel and lifted it, slinging it back over his shoulder.
He looked up toward the hillside, searching for any signs of movement among the black branches of the pines. The shadow he’d seen earlier was gone.
“A-are you really Bitterwood?” he asked.
No one answered.
“Are you… are you going to Dragon Forge? To join the rebellion? I’ve read about you. You fought at the last rebellion. At Conyers.”
Shay listened hard, certain he heard movement.
It was, perhaps, only the rustle of trees in the winter night. Shay waited for several minutes, until the cold set his teeth chattering. He knew his only hope of surviving the night was to keep moving. He turned up the collar of his coat against the breeze. He rubbed his windpipe, feeling the indentations on his throat where the slavecatcher’s claws had been. When he lifted his fingers, the tips were red and wet. He turned toward the west, and saw the clouds above the distant foundries glowing brightly, reflecting the furnaces of the rebellion.
Shay took one last glance at the pines, shifted the pack to better balance it on his back, and walked toward the glow on the horizon. The foundries of Dragon Forge burned like an eternal sunrise. This was the hope of the slave. With numb feet he staggered forward, freedom bound.
Director's commentary: Readers may be surprised I opened with a new character, given the already large cast available to me. I had several goals in mind when I created Shay.
First, I wanted to make the book easy to read for new readers to the series. As a new character, Shay is useful since, as he meets the existing cast in the next chapters, he'll provide a convenient gateway to explain these characters to new readers, as well as perhaps refreshing the memories of readers of the previous book who read it last year.
Second, I felt like my core cast of Bitterwood, Jandra, Hex, and Burke are all a bit larger than life. This is fine, I designed all of them to be dominated by certain traits. Bitterwood, obviously, is defined by his hatred of dragons and his talent for killing things. Jandra is meant to be a peacemaker, a character who straddles the divide between humans and dragons and longs for a world of justice for all races. Hex defined himself in the last book as a warrior philosopher, and will continue this role, both as a big toothy monster who is good at chomping his enemies, and also as a political radical who distrusts anyone who claims the right to rule over others. Burke, of course, is defined by his inventiveness and his rather complex relationship with his daughter Anza, who he has trained from birth as a warrior. All of these characters have their roles to play, but Shay is someone who doesn't come into the book with any special powers or abilities (well, aside from the fact he can read). He's brave and idealistic, but this doesn't make him any better with a sword. He's an ordinary man swept up in extraordinary circumstances. I think readers will quickly grow to like him.
Third: Speaking of the core cast, I wanted to open with a Bitterwood scene, to establish that Bitterwood is still out there killing dragons. I think some of Bitterwood's best moments in the trilogy come when we see him (or fail to see him) through the eyes of others. I enjoy the moments when Bitterwood performs for his victims, quoting scripture to them before he riddles them with arrows. Shay gave me a good witness for Bitterwood in his Ghost Who Kills mode.
Fourth: Slavecatchers! As an escaped slave, Shay gave me a great excuse to introduce one of the books main villians. Why I mention human slavery in the previous books, I really don't dwell on it in any great detail. I decided to change that in this book, and explain more about the roles that slaves fill in dragon society. I decided that there would be a special class of enforcers among the dragons, the slavecatchers. I didn't want to give the role to an earth-dragon, since I wanted the chief slavecatcher, Vulpine, to be really brainy (he's mentioned in this chapter, and will play a major role throughout the book). The job also seemed like it was a bit beneath the dignity of a sun-dragon. So, while I'd said that all the male sky-dragons were scholars, I decided I'd allow for exceptions in their ranks for the career of slavecatcher. I really think that the Vulpine will prove to be the most formidible foe the humans have yet faced. I really can't wait for you to meet him.
Finally, I think that Shay's reference to the books being from the "human age" should raise questions in the minds of new readers. As for what books the pack might contain... stay tuned!