Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often cruel world. There are humans on Paradise but dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden, and of war. Armored knights ride dinosaurs to battle legions of war-trained Triceratops and their upstart peasant crews.
Karyl Bogomirsky is one such knight who has chosen to rally those who seek a way from the path of war and madness. The fact that the Empire has announced a religious crusade against this peaceful kingdom, the people who just wish to live in peace anathema, and they all are to be converted or destroyed doesn’t help him one bit.
Things really turn to mud when the dreaded Grey Angels, fabled ancient weapons of the Gods who created Paradise in the first place come on the scene after almost a millennia. Everyone thought that they were fables used to scare children. They are very much real.
And they have come to rid the world of sin…including all the humans who manifest those vices.
The Dinosaur Knights is the second in Victor Milan’s lush, exotic tale about knights riding dinosaurs—available July 5th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Chillador, Squaller, Great Strider.…—Gallimimus bullatus. Fast, bipedal, herbivorous dinosaurs with toothless beak. 6 meters long, 1.9 meters tall at the hips, 440 kilograms. Imported to Nuevaropa as a mount. Bred for varied plumage; distinguished by a flamboyant feather neck-ruff, usually light in color. Frequently ridden in battle by light-riders, as well as occasionally by knights and nobles too poor to afford war-hadrosaurs. Extremely truculent, with lethal beaks and kicking hind-claws.
—THE BOOK OF TRUE NAMES
Somewhere in central Francia:
Unseen, the hunter crouched in dense brush, watching with scarlet eyes.
Her belly rumbled so loudly with hunger that she feared it might give her position away. Her every instinct raged at her to strike, to rush down, snap the tailless two-legs in half, kick over their wooden shell-on-wheels, sink her teeth behind the frill of one of the hornfaces tied to it and rake its belly open with her powerful hind-talons.
But she would not. Could not.
Her mother, her lost mother for whom the longing was a constant ache, had taught her well. She must not kill two-legs, no matter how hungry she was or how tasty they were. Not unless ordered to by her mother, who wasn’t here to do so. Or unless they attacked her.
The Allosaurus was cunning, intelligent for her kind and in her fashion. That did not equip her to persuade herself that her mother would, if present, give her leave to eat two-legs because she was hungry. Her thoughts were simple as a blade and direct as an arrow’s flight.
Besides, she had learned the hard way that if the two-legs spotted her, they were liable to turn out armed with spears and bows and torches, in numbers too great even for her to think of killing them all. They were persistent and resourceful, worse even than horrors. Like those vicious little raptors, they could endanger even a full-grown matadora if enough of them attacked.
So, breathing shallowly, the monster stayed crouched, and let the small trade-caravan wind its way out of the copse of saplings through which the narrow track ran without attacking it.
When they were gone she rose from the brush and stepped out on the road. As she looked longingly after the carts, she saw a small figure standing atop one of the wooded gentle hills that dominated the terrain: a two-legs with a strangely pointed head.
Her mother could put on different heads at will, she knew. Her mother was a great sorceress. Though she knew it was not her mother, the hunter had come to recognize this two-legs and its peculiar head. And as always happened when she saw it, a hint of her mother’s long-lost scent reached her nostrils. Joyous certainty filled her, that somehow she was coming closer to her mother, day by day.
A shift in the wind brought her a whiff of fresh nosehorn. Wild ones, from the tang of ferns and berries, not the tame beasts hitched to wagons and fed on gathered fodder and grain. A small herd grazed somewhere nearby.
She was a good girl. She had not eaten the two-legs. And she wouldn’t go hungry much longer.
She allowed herself a soft, happy cry: shiraa.
She turned. Despite her tonne and a half of weight and eleven meters’ length, she flowed back into the brush like a fish among water-weeds, making little more noise.
“I can’t take it anymore.”
Letting the reins fall in the middle of a sun-dappled forest roadway, La Princesa Imperial Melodía Estrella Delgao Llobregat clutched her hair with her fists and screwed up her face in misery.
That hair was dungeon-depth black now. Pilar had slipped into a town and bought dye to hide Melodía’s distinctive dark-wine hair. Her own hair, a black so deep as to seem blue in certain lights, she left as it was; she was insignificant, the only reason for anyone to identify her being that she was the fugitive princess’s companion. And anyway her coloring wasn’t exactly rare here in the south of the Empire of Nuevaropa. Her eyes, startling emerald green, were a problem. But not even her gitana wiles offered any means of disguising them.
Pushing their mounts as hard as they dared, the young women had quickly crossed the border from Spaña into Francia. Avoiding the major Imperial High Road they then made for County Providence as rapidly as they could. There they hoped followers of Melodía’s lover Jaume’s doctrines might shelter them. It was a thin strand, but the only one in reach.
Once her first flush of mad elation following her escape had faded, Melodía traveled in a state of floating numbness. The physical pain of the rape by Falk had gone away even before that. She didn’t think, she didn’t feel. She mechanically did what Pilar told her. It was as if her senses, her body, even her mind had been swaddled in down.
But now, without warning, the numbness had vanished. Sudden weight crushed her like an anvil falling. It drove the breath from her, the strength. And tears.
“I miss Montse,” she said in a voice like a fistful of pottery shards. “I miss Daddy. I miss my friends. I miss sleeping in a bed. I just can’t stand this.”
Pilar stopped her white ambler and turned back.
“Princess,” she said gently. “We need to move. We don’t want to be caught here in the open.”
Both were dressed as hidalgas, in loose silken blouses and linen, with boots, belts, and broad-brimmed wayfarers’ hats. Master plotter Abigail Thélème had suggested that looking like young women of consequence was the least risky of bad options for their flight from the false accusations of treason that had led to Melodía’s imprisonment, violation, and desperate flight into exile.
To start with they were well mounted, suspicious for the lower orders. If they seemed affluent they admittedly risked being robbed or grabbed for ransom. But their apparent breeding would still likely win them a measure of respect for their persons, for reasons of habit as well as potential reward versus risk.
But as commoner women traveling alone they’d run terrible risks of rape, enslavement, or murder—and not just by the bandits who swarmed the Imperio’s byways.
They carried a few weapons Pilar’s coconspirators had provided: smallswords for each, a shortbow and arrow quiver for Melodía. Pilar was at least a vigorous, determined young woman, while Melodía had been well trained to use weapons. But as far as Melodía was concerned right now they might have been wet blades of grass: dank, limp, useless.
“It’s just so hard,” she sobbed. “What’s the point, anyone? We don’t have a chance. Not really. Everyone’s against me. They’re just going to chase us down like rats. Or bandits will swoop down on us and gobble us like a flying dragón. I’m tired and dirty, and my legs and butt ache all the time.”
“Come along, Princess,” Pilar said, grasping for the reins that slung slack over Melodía’s pommel. “At least let’s move off the highway. Please?”
Melodía batted her hand away. “I can’t take it anymore! Don’t you understand? Aren’t you even listening?”
Pilar pressed her lips and drew a deep breath. “Very well. Then listen to me, and listen well. You need to grow up now, Melodía. You’re not a Highness anymore. You’re not a princess. You’re a fugitive criminal, a renegade with a price on her head. You’re also a young woman on the road, with the Fae alone knowing what is following you, amidst a countryside crawling with bandits. We’re in deadly, constant danger.”
Melodía stopped sniffling, dropped her hands, sat up and blinked. Her serving-girl’s voice, always pleasant and deferential before, now cracked like a whip.
“I know you’re intelligent. Lots more than you’re showing now. You’ve got all the strength of will you could ever need too. I know you better than anybody—even your sister; I’ve known you longer than she. But you need to grow some sense, and in an Old Hell of a hurry, and bend that intelligence and that will to something bloody useful. Because both of our wits and wills together won’t be too much to keep us alive to reach Providence.
“So if you want to live—if you want to clear your name, reunite with your sister and your father, reconcile with Count Jaume who loves you, and get vengeance on that filthy belly-crawler Falk, you need to straighten up and you need to do it now.”
At last some sensation broke through the squishy and previously impermeable layers of Melodía’s self-pity. Lightning outrage flashed through her brain, down her throat to the pit of her belly.
“How dare you? How dare you speak to me that way?”
“Because I still serve you,” Pilar said. “And because I’m your friend.”
Meravellosa had briefly tried reaching back to reassure her mistress with a lick on the cheek. Finding no success at that, she dropped her head to crop the lush green grass that grew beside the crushed tufa, the long-frozen volcanic foam that metaled the roadbed. Now she pricked her ears and whickered low in her throat. Pilar’s mount and their cranky bay pack-marchador began to snort and sidestep.
“Shit!” Pilar said. Around a bend in the forest road behind them a horse whinnied greetings to others of its kind. “Quick, now, into the brush—”
But the riders were on them before Pilar could do any more than make another grab for Meravellosa’s reins.
There were seven of them: six men-at-arms on coursers, led by a splendid young knight on an extravagantly ruffed blue and yellow Great Strider. They wore dinosaur-leather jacks over light tunics, and high boots lined with felt to keep from chafing bare legs. All carried long spears and yellow shields with red nosehorn heads on them. The knight wore a morion with a poofy yellow plume nodding above the crest. His horsemen made do with peaked steel caps and less splendidly tooled boots.
Melodía and Pilar had been overtaken by your basic baronial bandit-hunting patrol.
Melodía’s heart felt like a small bird trying frantically to escape through her throat. We’re caught! she thought. Her despair of a moment ago now seemed mere childish tantrum. Now I’ve got something to cry about.
“Ladies,” the young knight said courteously. His goatee and moustache and the hair that hung to his shoulders from beneath his helmet were a yellow only slightly less gaudy than that on his shield. He was handsome and slim, and his facial hair couldn’t conceal the fact he was little if any older than Melodía.
Dropping the butt of his spear into a holder by his saddle he swept off his helmet and bowed low. “Mor Tristan of L’Eau Noire, at your service. I ride for Baron Francis of La Licorne Rouge. Whom have I the honor of addressing?”
The riders were all around them. Pilar had pulled her ambler up alongside Meravellosa. Fortunately the two beasts were at peace with one another, and didn’t flatten their ears and try to bite or kick.
Pilar shook back her heavy hair and sat up straighter in the saddle. “I am Lucila, la Baronesa de la Castilla Verde, off to visit my cousin Montador Cédric, who serves Comte Modeste of Tempête de Feu.” Which happened to be the next county but one along the way to Providence.
“And who might this beauty be?” asked Mor Tristan, eyeing Melodía appreciatively.
“My maidservant Marta,” Pilar said. She spoke Francés flawlessly but with a strong Spañola accent—such as any self-respecting Spañola noblewoman might affect, even if she could speak without the accent. All the Towers of Nuevaropa, Mayor y Menor, were equal before Imperial law. But the Spañoles were, as the saying went, more equal than the others, and appearances must be preserved.
“She’s been weeping,” Tristan said.
Even in her surprise and terror and renewed outrage—a servant, am I?—Melodía felt fresh discomfort. This young knight was uncommonly observant for his kind. Which could be uncommonly inconvenient. Or fatal.
“The impudent wench spoke back to me,” Pilar said. “Do you believe? I let her feel the edge of my tongue. And she responds like this. The weakling! But that’s the lowborn for you. They have no steel in their spines.”
Tristan tipped his head to one side. “It’s been beaten out of them, over time,” he said.
“Say,” said one of his men, bending close to Melodía. “Don’t these two look like the fugitives we were told to look for?”
Melodía’s outrage was suddenly sidetracked by a sensation as if her heart, that fluttering flier in her throat, had turned to lead and dropped straight to the pit of her stomach.
“Perhaps so, Donal.” Tristan rooted in a saddlebag and produced a handbill printed on springer-skin parchment for durability. “The Princess Melodía of Torre Delgao, no less—the Emperor’s daughter. Apparently she’s been very naughty. And her own serving wench.”
He looked at both of them. “But it’s hard to tell anything from these damned secondhand scribblings. And anyway, the renegade princess has red hair. It says so clearly here. Whereas neither the Baronesa nor her slattern shows so much as a glimmer of red.”
“Slattern?” Melodía yelped. “Why, you dirty—”
Pilar backhanded her across the face.
It was a smart blow, driven by a strength surprising in one who hadn’t had the extensive physical training afforded to women of the upper class. Although perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised Melodía, given a servant’s life spent washing and lifting and carrying. But more than arm-strength it was the sudden pain in cheek and nose, and sheer shock that it even happened, that knocked Melodía off her saddle and into the crunchy light gravel between her horse and Tristan’s dinosaur.
The strider gobbled alarm and hopped back like a startled bird. Tristan fought to control it as the horses shied away. Melodía had landed on her butt, which though padded well with muscle was already sore, and gotten a jolt to her spine, adding both insult and injury.
“What the Hell do you think you’re playing at?” she shouted at her serving-girl.
Or started to. When she opened her mouth Pilar brought her riding crop down in a whistling-vicious slash. It took Melodía across the crown of her head. It hurt like fuck, despite the cushioning of hat and hair. She flung up both hands protectively.
“How dare you talk back to me?” Pilar yelled. Even in a seethe of pain and indignation it rang uncomfortably familiar in Melodía’s ears. “I’ll teach you to be impertinent.”
And leaning from the saddle she proceeded to thrash Melodía most thoroughly on her upflung arms, and then her back and shoulders, until the Princess collapsed, sobbing helplessly, in the pumice.
“There,” Pilar said in satisfaction.
Looking up through a waterfall of tears Melodía saw her servant straighten in her saddle and let her crop—which she had never used on her actual mount—dangle by a strap.
“She’ll remember that lesson a while, don’t you think, Mor Tristan?” she said, smoothing her hair and white blouse.
Tristan bowed low again. “I shall certainly remember it, Mademoiselle,” he declared, and Melodía could hear unmistakable irony in his voice. “It would be our honor to escort you to the border of our county.”
“Stop sniveling,” Pilar said imperiously. It actually took Melodía a moment to realize she was talking to her. By sheer process of elimination, mostly, at that: she was the only one sniveling after all. “Pick yourself up and get back on your horse. Or I’ll give you something to really whine about—and at the next farm I’ll sell that mare, who’s much too fine for the likes of you, and buy you a bony nag far more in keeping with your station.”
Melodía’s arms and back blazed with unaccustomed pain. Her pride hurt scarcely less. But that pitiless voice sounded as if meant what it said. Feeling older even than la Madrota, the unbelievably ancient Queen Tyrannosaurus of Tower Delgao, she picked herself up, pushed away Meravellosa who was trying to nuzzle her comfortingly, and hauled herself onto the saddle with approximately the same grace as she would have loaded on an equivalent weight of meal in a sack.
The unlikely cavalcade set out again. The “Baronesa” rode knee to knee with the handsome young knight, gossiping with cheerful malice about what Melodía realized were thinly veiled personalities from the Corte Imperial. Having never seen young Tristan’s face at court, Melodía knew he’d have no way of recognizing they weren’t really hangers-on of some bent-centimo magnate of La Meseta.
Young Mor Tristan restricted his contributions to agreeing gallantly with whatever had fallen most recently out of Pilar’s mouth during her infrequent pauses. As Melodía’s pains and passions settled back from the boil she found her perceptions unnaturally keen: the rustle of the broad splayed leaves above them, the smell of the forest and the sweating beasts, the usual chittering debate overhead between toothy birds and furred fliers, the feathery touch of a breeze on her face. Which now felt as if a red-hot iron mask had been clamped over it.
The men riding behind her also spoke, pitching their voices low. “Did you see the rack on that Baroness? Shitfire or not, I’d love to bury my cheeks between them.”
“I’d pay to see you try, Corneille. Me, I’d rather try to screw a red-feathered horror. Safer in the long run.”
“How about the wench, then?” persisted Corneille, who was manifestly hornier than was good for him. “She’s almost as hot.”
Almost? Melodía thought. She carefully kept her shoulders slumped and eyes downcast. But she did wish for soldier ants to bite Corneille most enthusiastically on the genitals at the next stop.
“You’d be almost as great a fool to lay a finger on her,” said the other man. “Me, I’m afraid to touch anything that belongs to that she-spider. Even her shadow.”
Copyright © 2016 by Victor Milán
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