I woke up today sick as a dog, but I managed to get this story out! I’m excited for it, it is sort of my take on steampunk, alchemy, and bards (I know, I have an addiction to musicians…they are so much fun to write about!) I even got time to sketch out a quick pic of the three bards – though I will have to eventually scan it in with a real scanner as I cannot seem to snap a picture that’s not blurry I hope to steal my dad’s map making program and whip up a map of the world to include – so the place names will eventually make more sense. Hope you enjoy!
The Great Work
“All things began in order, so shall they end, so shall they begin again according to the Ordainer of Order and the mystical mathematics of the City of Heaven.”
Book 1: Dragon’s Blood
Chapter 1: Blood Ties
28 Years Ago
Low Hollow Inn, Rieth Moor
The Low Hollow Inn was a ramshackle affair, all but sunk into the ancient Rieth Moor which lay nestled between the mountains of Dibennor. A low-slung roof, which sagged disheartingly in the middle, only partially hid the ancient and crumbling masonry. Its windows stared back out at the black trees with sad and broken eyes. Still, as it was the only refuge for the few who travelled the moor, it never was without a few patrons.
Rain lashed angrily at the window above his head, the rhythmic drumming lulling the young lad beside him into a light slumber. The gray-haired man patted the boy’s dark head affectionately, closing his eyes as the thunder sent shivers running down the wall behind him. Since they had sought refuge within the long sloping walls of the inn, the storm had only grown in intensity. He spared a brief moment of pity for the poor souls yet caught out of doors, left struggling against Nature’s fury. As if in response to his thoughts, the thick wooden door burst open violently and a tattered form stumbled a few steps inside. The thick smell of wet goat permeated the room and Aldan’s nose wrinkled involuntarily as the sharp smell of copper mixed in with it. Blood.
“Please,” the wretched figure wheezed, “please, you must help her.”
The pile of rags shifted and Aldan noticed for the first time a woman huddled at his feet. Her raven hair was plastered to her face with rain and blood, a slender ivory arm draped weakly along her swollen belly. Her beautiful face contorted as a spasm rippled through her body. Ignoring his aching bones, Aldan shook the boy roughly as he started towards her.
“Wendell! Fetch my bag,” he barked gruffly at the sleepy lad, whose hand darted more out of instinct than intent to snatch the worn leather bag from beside him before scrambling after his master.>
As he knelt beside her, the woman’s eyes, glazed over with pain, locked on his. “Master Alchemist,” her voice, though strained, had a lilting tilt he could not place, “my baby…”
Turning, Aldan searched for the cloaked shadow that had dragged her in. When he realized the figure was gone, he cursed under his breath and directed his attention back to the woman. Shouting orders at anyone who dared approach, Aldan struggled to aid the mysterious woman as labor pains wracked her body. His apprentice used a large block of chalk to mark along the floor until she lay within an intricate circle of symbols; as her spine bent beneath a new paroxysm, the strange cyphers seemed to shimmer slightly. His task complete, Wendell stood near her head, the white chalk held limply between his fingers. Unable to meet the young lad’s troubled gaze, the old alchemist busied himself with laying fresh towels on the brazier to be sterilized. “Summon a sprite lad,” between the contractions, he regarded the tormented form with sorrow, “best offer her what solace we can.” Deep lacerations crossed her body, the angry red eyes gaping up at him. It was a miracle the woman was still breathing.
“Her wounds no longer bleed,” the somber eyes of his apprentice were fixed on the jagged edges of the wound beneath his hands, “she’s lost so much blood.” His deft fingers manipulated the small mechanisms of the elemental orb. The seal binding the elemental blazed a deep azure as the normally belligerent sprite lent its power willingly. As the lines etched into the woman’s face eased somewhat, the sprite seemed almost to cry, its thin arms stretching out to the woman from behind the bars of its cage. The globe was cradled gently in Wendell’s hands, the light emanating from the elemental casting his face in an eerie light. He spoke in a low voice, his fingers tightening slightly on the sprite’s chamber. “She isn’t going to make it, is she.”
Aldan was almost relieved as another wave of contractions prevented him acknowledging the boy’s statement. A harsh cry was torn from her throat as her baby fought its way into the world. Gently as he could, Aldan eased the child along until at last the soft cry of the babe joined her mother’s. Quickly, he swaddled the child and laid her beside her mother.
“You did well lass, you and your husband have a beautiful daughter.”
Her hand locked about his wrist with surprising strength. “No…no father…dead.” The woman opened her clenched hand to reveal a delicate gold and glass pendent twisted into the form of a dragon biting his own tail. Quicksilver swirled beneath the scales, causing the dragon to dance in the low light. Her fevered gaze held his as she pressed the amulet into his hands. “This…will be her…guide…”
The old alchemist seemed to have aged a decade in one evening, the furrows creasing his brow deepening as he watched the last vestiges of life ebb from the unknown woman. Her face was turned towards her daughter’s and she seemed to be whispering to her in a frenzied delirium. “Quickly now lass,” his voice cracked slightly as he felt her hand grow cold beneath his, “tell me her name.” She was so still he worried he might have asked too late, it was an ill omen for a child to be born without a Naming and this poor girl would need all the luck she could get. Then from between her parted lips, she breathed her orphan’s name.
The Conservatory, Evenheim Valley
The Conservatory was a giant stone fortress rising imperially from the emerald forest surrounding it. For five hundred years, aspiring bards had flocked to its marble halls. Many a young child was recruited to come and study the arts of storytelling, music, oration, and acrobatics. Beginning as Scops, they labored for years to attain the rank of Minstrel before finally graduating as versatile Balladeers or the more lithe Jongleurs. Still, it took years more of travelling before one could earn the prestigious rank of Troubadour. The Conservatory’s members were known for offering their services as skilled entertainers, diplomats, and even, it was rumored, as spies.
Aldan leaned wearily on his walking staff as his gaze roamed the courtyard of the Conservatory. In a shaded corner, young Scops ran inexperienced hands nervously along their instruments as they watched the Balladeers intently. A few veteran Troubadours, only recently returned from their travels, lounged along the fountain’s steps. The quiet murmur of the water not enough to mask the lively tales spun for the enjoyment of the young ones huddled at their feet. A couple of Minstrels hovered along the fringes, doing their best to appear unimpressed with the vivid accounts of the far-away lands and colorful peoples they had yet only read about.
The old alchemist frowned and turned to the young man beside him. His broad shoulders were bent over the mechanized innards of the automaton, ignoring the sprite that seemed determined to distract him. It squealed at him in a high-pitched voice, lashing out in its strange tongue mockingly, as he painstakingly retraced the miniscule symbols painted on the metal’s surface.
“Wend, lad, do you see?”
Wendell tilted his face towards his old master. Behind the rounded lenses, his stormy eyes were distorted so they seemed almost to bulge out of his face. Rapping the elemental’s orb brusquely, he jerked the goggles off his head, causing his bronzed hair to stand up haphazardly. Scrubbing a hand along the rough stubble of his cheek, his gaze flicked about the yard. He gestured impatiently towards a young Jongleur in bright turquoise silks before he turned his attention back to the seal, muttering under his breath.
The young woman flicked her raven braid over her shoulder as she spoke to the students before her. Swinging her arms down, she bent slightly at the knees, carefully balanced on the balls of her feet, before springing, stretched tight as a drum, into the air. Her knees tucked lightly into her chest as her body spun in an effortless arc, then straightened as the ground rushed up to meet her dainty feet. Her body bent faintly, absorbing the impact of the landing, before uncurling in a flash. She stood still as a statue, her arms spread before her in a flourish, the swaying of her braid the only indication that she had stirred.
As the old alchemist called out her name, the woman turned, a warm smile dimpling her cheeks. The pendant at her neck flashed as it caught the sunlight. In the red glow of the dying day, the dragon appeared to undulate against her pale skin, its eyes flashing as its fangs sank further into the quicksilver scales of its tail.