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Day 1, Minus 12
Kertram was tending the ripped wing of a dragonling when he heard the Kai-bats. As usual, he heard them before he saw them, and fear gripped his heart: Not now.
He didn’t fear for his life, although the bats could kill him if the swarm was large enough; no, his fear was that they’d kill one or more of the dragonlings in his flock, cutting his profit. He needed the money desperately, now that he was about to become a father to twins.
That was Kertram’s other fear. He needed to get home immediately, and Benigree was late. If Kertram was delayed any more, he might miss the children’s births and the reading of their Spans. If that happened, Kertram, though normally a non-violent man, thought he might just kill Benigree.
Kertram stood and scanned the sky. He was at the edge of a large lake, letting the flock of 23 dragonlings drink deeply. There it was, from the south: the low buzzing of the approaching Kai-bats was still soft, but unmistakable. As the buzzing got louder, the volume of the sound told Kertram he’d be facing a dozen Kai-bats, maybe more. He’d never encountered more than eight at once, and that particular clash hadn’t gone well for him.
A forest was nearby, just two or three crossbow shots north of the lake. That was a good place for the dragons to be; it made the Kai-bats’ attacks less coordinated, as they floundered among the branches. But could he get the flock in the forest in time? The dragonlings were scattered all around the shore. They were parched, and tended to be slow and lumbering when filling their bellies with drink.
The buzzing got louder, closer. Kertram turned and sprinted toward the forest, until he was halfway between the lake and the trees. He turned to the flock, put his fingers in his mouth, and whistled three times, high and shrill. The dragons turned their heads to him, recognizing the danger call. He waved wildly into the air, pointing at the sky, then headed toward the woods at a full run. The dragons’ heads turned upward in fear for a moment. They heard the buzzing, then turned and ran after Kertram, just as the Kai-bats appeared over a low rise behind them, sounding like a giant swarm of locusts bent on destruction. The male dragons turned green and brown, the colors of the earth, to blend into their surroundings for protection. The young females didn’t have that ability, but they were bigger than the males, and covered the ground faster.
The dragons crashed into the forest, throwing up rocks, sticks and earth, leaving a dust cloud in their wake. Their fear of the Kai-bats, their natural predators, overcame their sluggishness. As Kertram entered the forest, he started preparing for the attack. He unslung a small wooden shield from his back, pulled his sword from its sheath, and reached into a pouch at his side. Inside was a dark, sap-like substance that he smeared on the sword. Dropping the blade, he took out a small knife and flint, scraping the knife over the flint and sending a shower of sparks onto the sword. The sappy substance caught a spark and ignited, blazing to life and turning the sword into a flaming brand. The whole thing took less than a minute; Kertram had learned that every second saved could be the difference between a live dragon and a dead one.
1. THE PLAN
The Blood King wanted to start a war.
Strike that. The Blood King needed to start a war. Fortunately, the most important thing he’d learned in more than 200 years of ruling Walkland was that wars were relatively easy to start, if one knew how. Men loved two things more than any other: power and fighting. That bit of knowledge made it a rather simple thing to start a war, if one had the means.
He had the means.
The war he needed to start now was with neighboring Desnu, to the east. Desnu, that nation of carrion-eaters and cowards, traitors and raiders. A nation needing a new leader, someone who would rule them with an iron rod and sharp teeth. A leader who would teach them the meaning of obedience.
People did not know what was good for them, what was in their best interests. But the Blood King knew, and he would soon make sure all of Desnu knew. Since they were too blind and stubborn to simply acknowledge his rule and kneel before his throne, a war would be required.
This war would need to be decisive and overwhelming. Desnu would have to be subjugated as quickly as possible; if the war dragged out, its people might develop hope that a victory was possible. Hope could not be allowed.
That’s why the war had to be short. Crushing Desnu in less than a year would breed despair among its people, and that was the key. Despair murdered any possibility of hope; a despairing people would accept his rule without question. Then their children would accept it, not even realizing they’d done it. Thus, the despair would be passed down through future generations. It would become as inborn as eye color or foot size.
Generations of despair. What a thrilling prospect.
The Blood King pondered these things as his top general, Ejenn, stood before him. Ejenn was rigid as a tent stake, arms locked against his sides. A trickle of sweat rolled down the general’s temple.
Good. The Blood King liked his generals to stand for a long time at attention. Suffering in silence was good discipline.
After a few minutes, Ejenn saluted again, as he had when he arrived. “You have orders for me, Lord Fathim?”
Lord Fathim stroked his gray beard and wondered if Ejenn called him “The Blood King” behind his back. If he did, Fathim wouldn’t mind. He liked the name, once he’d learned (through Hoffson, naturally) that some of his officers and highborns had begun calling him that.
“The Blood King” had a poetic feeling to it. And more than a hint of fear attached. Also good. No one had ever called him “The Blood King” to his face; they assumed, quite correctly, that such a salutation would warrant a sword through the chest. Still, there was power in that name.
Chapter 1: The Transfer
The first thing the boy wanted to do when he awoke from the Transfer was throw up. Since he lay flat on a table, it was easy: tilt head to side, open mouth, let fly. Too late, he realized there was an old woman in front of him.
The woman tried to jump out of the stream’s way, but her expression said she didn’t quite make it. Then she walked around the other side of the table, the side that was vomit-free. The boy turned his head and followed her. What was her name again? Valem… Manev… It came to him: Mavel. Mavel the Span Seer. Why was Mavel here? She was here because of… the boy. Mavel was here because of him.
But who was he? He was sure he had a name. Everybody had a name, after all. He just didn’t know what his was. Did Mavel know his name? The boy thought Mavel was very, very, very old. Her face looked like a tree root, dark and withered and twisted and lined. But she was here to do something. Do something to him…
Ah, yes. The Transfer. Mavel had done a Transfer. What for? Um… to save his life. That’s right. The boy was near death, and the Transfer saved him. What was his name again?
Mavel took the boy’s face in her hands. The Span Seer, who seemed a thousand years old, searched his eyes. “The Transfer was successful,” she said, with a bit of distaste. He assumed it was because some of his puke was on her dress. “Kertram has absorbed Melchon’s Span.”
Kertram. Right… he was Kertram. He was Kertram, and he was, uh… 10 years old. Yes. And he was going to die very, very soon. But now, because of the Transfer that Mavel had done, his life would continue for a long time yet. And, to show his appreciation, he’d thrown up on Mavel.
Kertram looked around the large room. That man and woman to his right, they looked familiar. He knew them, knew them well, had seen them often… his parents. They were his mother and father, right, and they had arranged this Transfer to keep him alive. He saw his mother crying, quiet tears of – what, elation maybe? – dribbling down her face, when Mavel announced a successful Transfer. His father kept his head bowed. Was he not happy, like his mother…?
He looked at the table on his left, a wooden table the same size as his. On it lay a boy who wasn’t moving. He was older than Kertram by at least a few years, although he had a young, gentle face. The boy was dead. Kertram knew that. Then it hit him like a fist: this dead boy was the reason he was alive. He knew the boy’s name… Melchon. Yes, that’s what Mavel had called him. “Kertram has absorbed Melchon’s Span.”