Three dragons wreak havoc throughout Mirabay—eating livestock, killing humans, and burning entire villages to ash. It was nearly impossible to kill one, using a legendary sword and the magic of the mysterious Cup; to tackle three, Guillot dal Villerauvais will need help.
The mage Solène fears having to kill again; she leaves Gill to gain greater control over her magic.
The Prince Bishop still wants Gill dead, but more than that, he wants the Cup, and he’ll do whatever he has to to get it, even sending his own daughter—a talented thief and assassin—into the dragons’ path.
As secrets mount on secrets and betrayals on betrayals, both Guillot and Solène face critical decisions that will settle not only their own fate but that of all Mirabaya.
Knight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. Hamilton will be available on November 19. Please enjoy the following excerpt.
Bernard pushed the wooden pin into place, securing the gate, and counted his herd again. He always counted twice, and had done ever since the hiding his father had given him when
he was eleven, for coming home one short. After the beating, he had spent the whole night scouring the foothills looking for it, not returning home until dawn, when he had to break the news to his father that the wolves had gotten it. It had been a hard lesson, and not one he had forgotten. To leave one of the cattle out in the pastures at night was to condemn it to the wolves. Usually you could hear them start howling as soon as the sun went down, but they were silent tonight. Bernard didn’t know whether to be glad or to worry more. Wolves were wily beasts. At least when they were howling, he knew where they were.
Satisfied that every cow was accounted for, he gave the pin one last check and one final tug on the gate before heading for the farmhouse. He always worried his way through the summer. There was no getting around taking the cattle up to the high pastures every day if he wanted them at their best come market time in autumn. It was why he loved the winter—his herd were tucked up in the barn, safe from wolves, bears, and belek. He had never had much trouble from the latter two—perhaps the idiot noblemen of the county had hunted them to extinction—but the wolves were an ever-present threat.
There wasn’t much waiting for him at home—just a pot of broth heating on the fire, stale bread, and cheese. He had some wine, but he had to make that last until he went into town at the end of the month. Like as not, he wouldn’t see another soul until then. It was a lonely existence, and as he was rapidly approaching thirty, long past time he started trying to find himself a wife. He had no desire to end up like one of the crazy old herdsmen in the mountains, driven mad by the hardship and solitude.
He thought of Martina, who worked at the post office in Venne. She had danced with him at the spring fair, and he wondered if it was worth asking her to step out with him. He didn’t have much to offer her, although his house wasn’t bad—well built by his father and well cared for by his mother. He’d done his best to maintain the place since they’d both passed, and he didn’t think he’d done a bad job. It was pretty up the valley, and he thought Martina might like it here. Only one way to find out, he thought. He wondered if he should make his monthly trip to Venne a little earlier than usual. Tomorrow perhaps? He scratched the thick brown stubble on his chin, and realised he’d need to tidy himself up a bit before he went. A lot, if he had any hope of Martina stepping out with him.
Inside, Bernard took off his cloak, sat on his chair by the fire, and reached for the pot of broth. It had been a long day, and he was hungry. There was too much to be done around the farm for one person—a wife and family would certainly help with that. And with the loneliness.
Bernard woke with a start, and the half-eaten bowl of broth on his lap clattered to the floor, splattering its contents as it fell. He had no idea how long he had been asleep. There was no light coming through the cracks in his window shutters, so it could not have been overlong. The time would better have been spent in bed, however. He kneaded his stiff neck as he surveyed the mess made by the broth, and debated with himself over whether he should clean it now, or wait until the morning. Sleeping in the chair never did much to rejuvenate him, and he couldn’t think of anything he wanted more than his bed at that moment. However, dry broth would be harder to clean. It was only then he wondered at what had woken him.
He stood and stretched his back. As the confusion of sleep cleared from his head, he realised there was noise coming from outside—from the cattle pen. Wolves. He knew it. When his gut told him something was amiss, he was always right. Bernard went to the trunk by the door and opened it, pushing aside the various things that had accumulated atop the object he sought—his father’s old crossbow.
It had been a long time since the bow had been out of the trunk, but everything seemed in working order to Bernard’s inexpert eye. He wound the string and pulled the trigger to test it. Satisfied that it was firing properly, he grabbed a lantern and a handful of bolts from the quiver in the trunk, and set off to shoot some wolves.
As soon as he stepped outside, the magnitude of his task made itself known. It was a moonless night and he could barely see his nose in front of his face. How could he hope to shoot something he couldn’t see? He swore, stuffed the quarrels into his pocket, slung the bow over his shoulder, and worked his flint to light the lantern’s wick. Once its warm orange light began to grow, he lowered its glass cover and picked up the pitchfork he had left leaning against the wall by the door. It might come in handy if a wolf attacked him.
The commotion from the cattle pen was far louder now—the rough stone walls of his house did a very good job of keeping the noise out. It sounded as though the herd had clustered at the far end of the pen, but there was noise at the near end also—the sound of beasts feeding.
Bernard had raised each and every cow in the pen from the moment its mother had birthed it, often with his help. That one of them had been savagely killed and was being devoured enraged him. He let out an angry shout, knowing it was unlikely to scare off the wolves but needing to give voice to his frustration.
“Go on! Clear off, you filthy bastards!” He shook his pitchfork in as threatening a fashion as he could muster.
Though he neared the pen, he could still see nothing; the lantern’s light did not reach far into the gloom. But he could hear: the tearing of sinew, the cracking of bones, the grinding of teeth. Why hadn’t the beasts reacted to his challenge? He had expected a growl at least, if not more. Then it occurred to him that the feeding didn’t sound like wolves. It sounded like something larger. A bear? A wave of panic swept through him. A belek?
Bringing his pitchfork to guard, Bernard backed away a pace. If it was a belek, it was welcome to the cow. That didn’t make sense, though. Belek loved the cold, and it was summer. Even in the winter, it was rare that one of the enormous, cat-like creatures would come down into the valleys—only in the very coldest of years. Belek were said to love the hunt, too, and slaughtering captive livestock wouldn’t be of much interest to them. They were vicious beasts, as big as a bear, and he had heard it said one night in the tavern in Venne that they had the intelligence of a man. Now Bernard half smiled at the memory of the joke he had told, that beleks couldn’t be all that smart, going by most of the men he knew, but the memory couldn’t extinguish the fear the thought of the beast instilled in him.
The air was filled with the hideous, sickening noise of a carcass being torn apart—a sound that every living thing would instinctively flee from. Why was he fool enough to challenge it, to draw whatever lurked out there in the dark to him?
If he didn’t, who would look after his cows? Everything he knew spoke against it being a belek. If it was a bear, his best chance was to frighten it off.
“Go on!” he shouted. “Off with you!” He let out a roar, a brave challenge that went against everything he felt. Perhaps the lantern’s light would keep whatever it was away? He wanted to run back to the house, shut the door behind him, bar it, and hide there until daybreak.
“Off with you!” he shouted again. He shook his pitchfork once more.
The sound of feeding stopped. If anything, the silence was more terrifying than the noise. A small tendril of flame appeared in the darkness, casting a pool of light. Two great yellow orbs became visible, staring at him, their oval irises as black as the night. The ovals narrowed until they were barely more than slits. Slits that were locked on him. Bernard dropped his lantern, which spluttered out, leaving him in darkness. He clutched the pitchfork with both hands as though his life depended on it.
The beast’s eyes sat above and to the sides of a long snout containing the most wicked-looking set of teeth he had ever seen. The flame, almost hypnotising as it danced, cast a buttery sheen on the edges of the scales that covered all that he could see of the beast.
He knew what it was. He had heard rumours of one having appeared several villages over, but like everything that was said to have happened several villages over, he thought the stories were most likely to be untrue. He knew what it was, but he could not bring himself to say the name, even in the quiet of his own head. He felt warmth run down the inside of his legs, but ignored it. His eyes were fixed on those yellow orbs that seemed to study him so intently. He knew what it was. Something from legend, from a time when the tales of men merged with fantasy.
The flame disappeared and the night was plunged into darkness once more. He heard nothing. Had he frightened it off? He thought of Martina, probably tucked up in bed only a few miles away. If he looked to his right, he could probably see the village’s lights, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away from the inky black where the dragon had been moments before.
A thought came to him—if he couldn’t see it, perhaps it couldn’t see him. He took a step back, as quietly as he could, tensing every muscle to react if he stood on a twig or anything else that would reveal his location.
The flame at the end of the beast’s snout returned, larger now, casting a greater pool of light. The sight of two more creatures behind the first one filled Bernard with a sense of utter despair. They had killed a cow each—despite the danger he was in, he could only think of how he recognised the markings on one, and could remember the day he pulled her out of her mother by the hooves during a difficult birth.
The other beasts ignored him, but the first, the one with the gentle stream of flame coming from its nostrils, kept its eyes locked on him. Bernard thought of shouting again, of shaking his pitchfork at them, but something told him it would make no difference. Something told him nothing would make any difference. Tears streamed down his face; he wished that he’d asked Martina to step out with him at the spring dance. When the jet of flame hit him, he wondered who was going to look after his cows. He felt growing heat for a moment, then nothing.
Copyright © 2019 by Duncan M. Hamilton
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