Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Local Writing Competitions and Book Launches

Calderdale Council are running three local writing competitions - The Ted Hughes Short Story Competition, The Elmet Poetry Prize and the Ted Hughes Young Poet Award.  To view full details see

Also they have two book launches at The Hebden Bridge Library - Amanda Dalton Poetry collection 'Stray' Friday 11 May 7.30pm and Paul Barker 'Hebden Bridge: a sense of belonging' Thursday 17 May 7pm.

For my new followers on Twitter, I am re-posting my first three chapters of my YA fantasy novel 'Thorde: the keeper of the trysk' for them to peruse:




Be careful what you wish for

They were coming at dawn.  The elders had consulted with the truth-seekers and they had foretold of a mighty battle.  Fearless warriors would ride upon their mormoths and scaranx.  I had heard tell of these creatures many times around the fire.  Tales of their size, ferocious teeth and claws bigger even than wyverns, which could snap a man in two, or cause the blood to leave your body as a river bursts its banks.  It was said that they had a ring of fiery fur around their necks and the devastation wrought by their long tails with its spiky ball at the end, was legendary.  I had heard of many men that had died that way.  As if that was not enough to chill my blood, the truth-seekers also prophesised that the sky would flood with the beating wings of the pterodyls carrying men who could swoop down upon all with swift and terrifying accuracy.  I was eternally grateful that I had not been born a truth-seeker (to have to live with visions and futures that you could not alter was a heavy burden) but not being one held no comfort either.

I know what you are thinking?  How do I know so many things that only Kings and trusted servants would know?  Am I born of noble blood or work high up in the castle echelons?  Hardly!  Or do I hang around like a thief in the night, watching and waiting to hear things I should not be privy to?  Well no, that’s not it either; I am just Thorde, the keeper of the animals.  Now I’ll bet you are thinking ‘that’s nothing’, but I assure you I use my position to its full advantage.  The Knights all use my services and I even have full access to the King’s noble steed, the highest honour someone like me could have.  That’s how I find out the things I do and sometimes, like now, I really wish that I didn’t. 

They have told the people, obviously, because we’ve to be ready for battle, but they have not warned us who and what are coming, only that they are.  The King has announced that all must fight and when I say all, I do mean all.  They thrust a helmet upon my head and gave me a sword and a shield.  Me, who has never held a weapon in my life and the worst thing is, I know what’s coming and I know we don’t stand a chance.  Mormoths are bad enough, I’ve seen them, standing three times taller than our strongest stallions, but pterodyls and scaranx, well, best weapons a man can have in his armoury other than a wyvern.  I can only hope that their truth-seekers have not mastered the language of the beasts, only the truly gifted can do that.  But what if they have?  What if they have a fire-talker or a Dragon Master?  We can use the boiling oil, the flaming arrows, all our best defences from behind the castle walls, but to have the power of fire in flight, that is a weapon indeed.

For now dark covers our world, a comforting blanket, but it will not be long before tendrils of light reach out across the sky.  I glance down at my shield and sword for what seems like the hundredth time and I feel the helmet slide forward on my head.  It doesn’t really fit properly, but then it wasn’t made for me.  I don’t want to think about who it was made for or why I could now be the new owner, because that had lots of possibilities and none of them could be good.  It did not do to dwell on these things.  What I need is a distraction, for I now know for sure that I am not going to get any rest this night.  Nothing calms me like the company of horses.  Most animals hold an attraction for me, but horses are the most calming and I know, the most understanding.  For they, unlike me, have seen many battles.  I know it isn’t a distraction exactly, but surely it’s better to be forewarned in this battle, because hiding or fleeing is not an option.  There are eyes everywhere and the whole castle is locked down like the fortress we now needed it to be.

I make my way carefully to the stables, passing many sleeping comrades, I envy them their rest.  But I am by no means the only one awake at this ungodly hour.  Many are sat staring into space, fear etched plainly on their faces.  From what I can see in this section of the castle, we are a very rag-tag bunch indeed, hardly a match for the Arberians. In the distance I can just make out the sounds of our Knights, blade upon blade singing with the power of their conviction.

I hear the snorts and gentle neighs of the horses before I see them and I know they feel my need, welcome my presence.  I hold my breath as I enter the stables, ready to leave at a moment’s notice if it turns out I am not the only one here.  I do not want anyone witnessing what I’m about to do.  I have long ago learned the language of the horses.  It is a fascinating and complex method, but once you break down the basics, you can indeed converse with them.  What seems like random neck, head, ears or even mouth movements are in fact a form of communication that yield more than just friendship with one of God’s most beautiful creatures.  We understand each other completely and some of them I count as my closest friends.  You don’t come into contact with many people in my job, well, people that would want to talk to someone like me anyway, but in my experience, horses can be a lot nicer than the majority of people, so I don’t really feel like I’m missing out.  In many ways I am far luckier than most.  I have a job, which means enough money to eat well most days and a roof over my head. This means I’m not as invisible as most, so I was instantly seen as a potential fighter when news of the battle necessitated new recruits.  That, and the fact that I have no parents to stand up for me, had sealed my fate, as it had many others.

Peros is the first to greet me.  He’s the tallest and strongest of the horses and as such, you won’t be surprised to learn that he is the King’s steed.  Black as the darkest night, mane long and luxurious as a fine maiden’s hair, his proud neck touches mine and I close my hands at my sides to I acknowledge the welcome.  At this, my nerves begin to abate and I feel calmer than I have since I learned the terrible news.

Silently we converse and I learn more of the mormoths, scaranx, pterodyls and even the Arberians, well, Peros’ opinion of them anyway.  Unsurprisingly, it is not good.  When he exhales, his ears press right back into his head and looking deep into his eyes, I swear I can almost see the battle where he lost his brother, though I know he was not there.  Arros had been a brave stallion.  He’d stood a couple of hands smaller than Peros, but had matched his brother in many ways.  He had warned him of the scaranx, for Peros had never met one in battle.  Arros had learned through trial and error how to escape with your life when faced with such a foe.  Unfortunately, there had been nothing Arros could do against the power of the wyvern and he had not stood a chance.  I knew Peros’ fear matched my own.  Although the truth-seekers had not spoken of the wyverns, this weapon could not be ruled out.  There were those among many tribes that harnessed this gift.

Over what seemed like an age, Peros and his friends taught me all they knew.  I’d received lessons from them before, but never had it been so vital.  I thanked them for their kindness and Peros advised me to seek out a human to show me the basics in the way of battle.  They could not help with swords and shields and although I thought I knew what to do with the shield (you hold it in front of you and use it to stop someone from killing you right?), I had absolutely no idea how to wield a sword.  I had seen the Knights jousting, which looked terrifying (and that was not even a real fight), but I had never actually held one until now.  I did not have much time, the truth-seekers had spoken of dawn and it would take time to find someone suitable. 

I had already spent much of the night conversing with my friends and their counsel would be invaluable, but I knew this was just as important.  In my haste to leave the stables unseen, I tripped over my own sword and ended up sat in a pile of something foul-smelling.

“Well, that’s one way to get the enemy not to come anywhere near you,” I heard from the shadows before a skinny boy showed himself in the meagre light from the small torch he was holding.

Rising in as dignified a manner as I could manage, considering the circumstances, I faced him with a pithy reply hovering on my lips, as he swung his sword in a perfect arc and aimed it directly at my chest.  I took a step back in alarm.

“No, I think you’ll find it’s not working,” he said before bursting into laughter, though he was trying to hide it behind his free hand.

To my immense relief, he retracted his sword, placed it against the stable wall and held out his hand.  Hesitantly, I took it.

“Sorry about that, I just couldn’t resist.  Anybody would think you’d never held a sword before.”  The twinkle in his eye broke my composure; after all, I am sure I did look pretty stupid.

“That’s because I haven’t.  Nor a shield, or wear a helmet, I’m a stable-hand” I laughed and shook his hand warmly.  Let’s face it, I could probably do with his help; he, at least, looked like he knew what he was doing.

“Ah, that explains it then.  Well, let’s see what we can do about that.”

He came closer and pushed my helmet back, tilting it slightly.  I could see much better now and although it still didn’t fit, it no longer felt like it was going to fall off my head at any moment.

He handed me my shield and sword and then wielded his own in a very convincing manner.  I copied him as best I could, but then I yelped as his sword connected with mine and I felt the power of it reverberate up my arm.

“Ow,” I yelled, thinking that that would make him stop, but he only came at me harder.  I danced around like a jester trying to field the blows with both my shield and sword.  Every time his weapons collided with mine, I felt it down to my very bones.  My arms were getting more and more tired and I swear the sword and shield got heavier.  I was out of breath, sore and more frightened than before, because it seemed I was definitely not cut out for this.

“Saran,” he shouted over the sound of our swords colliding.

“What?” I yelled back dodging a particularly low blow.  If I didn’t know any better I would think he was trying to distract me.

“Saran’s the name, blacksmiths son” he qualified as he easily dodged my feeble attempt at getting a blow in whilst he was answering the question.

“Oh, Thorde,” I answered, “nice to meet you, I think.”

To my relief, he stepped back and lowered his weapons.  He’d a large smile across his face and I had to mentally convince myself that he wasn’t laughing at me.

“Not bad,” he murmured and I felt myself blush; I knew I was rubbish, but it was kind of him to say that.

“Tried my best but it’s obvious I am not going to last very long in this battle,” I admitted, putting my shield and sword down so I could rub my arms where they were aching like they were on fire.

“You’ll do alright,” he said, “you fielded all my blows well to say you’ve never done this before.  Need to build up your stamina as you’re out of breath already and I can see that your muscles need working more-“

“Well that’s not going to happen is it?  They’ll be here at dawn.”

“We better keep at it then,” he smiled as he pointed his sword at mine, “pick them up.”

I reluctantly did as I was bid and we began again.  He was good and I was awful and the concentration on his face intensified the more blows that I fielded.  I was beginning to worry that he actually wanted to land one.  My arms were stretched with the weight of the shield and sword, my lungs felt like they were bursting out of my chest and for a moment, I thought that I might be better off if a wyvern came and got me before the warriors arrived; at least that way it would be quick and therefore more painless.  As I thought this, my opponent swung his sword and it connected with my helmet before I’d chance to stop it.  My head felt weird and I could hear a strange swooshing sound in my ears.  To my amazement, Saran stepped back and swung away from me, his shield and sword raised in protection.  That was when I saw it, even through my hazy vision, it was unmistakable.  A wyvern, flying towards us with its mouth wide; the swooshing sound was its wings and he seriously looked like he was going to let loose with the flames.  I know they say be careful what you wish for, but this was ridiculous.


Can anyone else hear that screaming?

I quickly adopted the stance of my new friend, because so far he knew better what to do than I, peering out from under my shield and sword.  The wyvern was swooping down with fire streaming upon the shield of my companion.  I could not tell if he was okay.

“You alright under there?” and hoped that an answer would be forthcoming.  I was under no illusions; I would need him if I wanted to get out of this.

“Yeah, but now I know what a pig feels like on a spit; it’s so hot under here.”

I was amazed that he was still alive, but at least it proved that cowering under these things was the way to go.

“Try and distract it or something and then I can attack it whilst it chases you.”

“Oh yeah like that’s a good idea?” I mumbled under my breath.  I mean, I was sorry it was aiming at him, but then again, I was glad it wasn’t raining fire down on me.  Not to mention the teeth glistening behind the waterfall of fire.  However, Saran had helped me, so I came out from under the cover of my shield and held up my sword in my best knight stance.

“You leave my friend alone,” I yelled, trying to ignore the fact that my sword was shaking.  To my surprise and obviously Saran’s, the wyvern closed its jaws and I distinctly heard Saran drop his weapons. Before I had time to register this fully, the thing landed next to me and to my shame, I took one look at it and began running like I have never run before. 

I didn’t make it very far of course, it was a lot faster than me and it had wings, but as I cowered before it waiting to die (and yes, with my eyes closed); I hoped Saran would be able to do something, anything, to help me.  I could feel its hot breath on my face and knew that any minute now I’d be burned to a crisp - or it could just rip me to shreds with those nasty-looking claws, or eat me, its choice I guess.  As the buzzing in my ears (fear I suppose) accelerated, I heard another noise,

“Do that again,” I heard distinctly.

“Do what?” I answered, sure that this was not what I wanted to be the last thing I heard before I died.

“Tell it to stop.”

Had he lost his mind?  I opened my eyes to tell him just that, when I stupidly looked up.  The wyvern was looking down at me with its huge mouth open, its head off to one side.  But it didn’t look like it wanted to eat me; it looked like it was waiting for me to say something.  Well, obviously I had lost my mind too, because before I could stop myself I found myself saying,

“Yes stop that, we haven’t done anything to you.”

The magnificent creature bowed its head and leaned forward, looking for all the world like it was acknowledging my request, before raising its eye level to mine once more.  Now I was certain that I had gone mad.  What was the last thing I could remember as being true?  When the knights had forced the helmet, shield and sword upon me, I think.  Well, that explained it.  I’d got so scared that I had lost my sanity, or I’d fallen asleep and was having some crazy fear-induced dream that I would wake up from soon.  I closed my eyes and opened them again, but the wyvern and Saran were still there.

“You didn’t say you were a Dragon Master,” Saran exclaimed and his face told me that this time (and probably the only time, so I ought to make the most of it) he was the one in awe of me.

“I didn’t know I was,” I admitted reluctantly (well, I knew it wouldn’t last).

“We definitely stand a better chance with a wyvern and a Dragon Master, even an inexperienced Dragon Master, on our side,” he crowed running to my side, “surely the great army of Arberia cannot deal with that so easily.”

“If the truth-seekers are to be believed, we’re going to need more than one wyvern to stop them,” I sighed, “what we need is a plan.”

The wyvern let out a mighty screech that hurt our ears, rattling the very teeth in our heads.  Saran and I tried to cover them to block the noise to lessen the damage, but in our distraction, we did not notice it move.  In a flash, we had each been grabbed by a vast talon and were being lifted away from the castle. 

“What did you do that for?” Saran yelled at me over the sound of the wind and the wings beating.

“I didn’t do anything, it did,” I shouted back.  I was holding on tightly to my shield and sword but I wasn’t sure whether the helmet would stay on my head.  Saran looked quite relaxed considering the circumstances and he glanced down,

“It looks so small from up here.”  He looked at the shape of the castle disappearing into the night, “I never thought I would see it from this angle.”  He was grinning, he was actually grinning.

“Yeah, who thought we’d ever fly,” I mumbled, not really caring whether he heard me or not.

“We're flying!” he bellowed and I suppose if I wasn’t quite so frightened of the beast dropping me, I might find have found it fairly exciting too. 

I mean I wasn’t dead, I wouldn’t have to fight now and it appeared that I was not just a stable-hand after all.  I was a Dragon Master.

* * * *

It is harder than you might imagine, to try and hold a conversation whilst flying under a wyvern, if the sound of its wings doesn’t muffle the words, the air whistling past does.  We tried for a while, but when it became obvious that all we were getting were sore throats, we stopped trying to bellow to each other over the noise.

Looking down wasn’t an option either, because the sky was still dark and we were going so fast, I think it’d all be just a blur any way.  Then again, maybe it’s best not to know where we are, because that way I can’t panic any more than I already am.

Yes, back at the castle we were destined to come under attack at dawn, but being held in the clutches of a wyvern flying at top speed was not such a picnic either.  I could not get the image of it dropping me out of my mind and although I was clutching on for dear life to my shield and sword, I was convinced that at any moment I was going to lose them or my helmet.  The way things were going, I was definitely going to need them some time soon.

It was hard not to think about how the wyvern had understood me.  Was I really a Dragon Master?  I had never even seen a wyvern egg, let alone a real fire-breathing adult and I was sure that I would have noticed if a Mystic had given me powers.  There were few Mystics now, the Arberians had seen to that, but I know there are some out there somewhere, but surely if I’d come across one and they had gifted me powers, they would have mentioned it?  I would also like to think that the truth-seekers might have mentioned that I was going to be snatched into the claws of a wyvern and flown off into the night.  I laughed out loud; clearly I wasn’t important enough to warrant a conversation, let alone a vision.

My stomach lurched as the wyvern plummeted downwards in what seemed to me like a death fall.  I didn’t know how far away the ground was, but I prayed that it was not jagged rocks or freezing sea beneath us.  Then I realised that water was probably the best option as this thing was going to land and I’m no expert, but I assume they land on their legs.  Because it was dark, I had no chance to judge distances enough to jump off at the last minute, even if I could untangle myself from the sharp claws.

Before I‘d chance to come up with a good plan, or for Saran to try and shout any advice, we were unceremoniously dropped onto the waiting padding of a large hay bale. 

I readjusted my helmet and picked up the shield and sword that I’d dropped in the slight fall and searched for Saran in the darkness.  He was further along the hay bale but intact.  This was strange, because I could definitely hear screaming.

So if the screaming wasn’t Saran and it wasn’t me (even I would know if I was screaming because it would usually be accompanied by running), where was it coming from?  Or, more to the point, who was it coming from?

It was hard to see, but I was sure that the noise was coming from above me and I knew the only things above me were the sky and the wyvern, but wyverns don’t scream right?  They screech, if earlier was anything to go by.  I really wished I had a light but of course we could be anywhere and I’m pretty sure that if there are hay bales, we’re probably in a field; hopefully not ruining the crop of some poor farmer.  The wyvern let out a long flame of fire and the screaming got louder and thanks to the light of the fire, now I could see why.  There, on the middle of the wyverns’ tail, was some idiotic person clinging on for dear life and screaming as if their life depended on it – which it probably did.

“Where did you come from?” Saran yelled from beside me and for a moment I thought he was talking to me, but then I realised he was also looking up at the person holding on to the thrashing tail.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I meant no harm, I just - I needed to talk to you.  Please can you call your dragon off?” came the muffled voice from somewhere on the wyverns tail.

“It’s a wyvern and I don’t think it is really mine,” I answered, wondering as I said it, if it indeed was, “but why should I?”

“Please, just tell it to stop.  I don’t think I can hold on much longer and it’s a long way to the ground,” the voice sounded scared and high pitched.  Did I sound like that when I was scared?

I looked at Saran to see whether he thought calling off the wyvern was a good idea and he shrugged, which I took as a yes, but as I commanded the wyvern to release, he faced the newcomer in a defensive pose.  Great, it appeared I now had a wyvern and a protector.

“Who are you and what do you want?” Saran demanded with menace and as I knew only too well how good he was with that sword, I hoped that this would not end badly.  I wasn’t sure I was ready for the sight of blood just yet.

“I am Edla and I need your help,” she answered through the billowing fronds of her hair and if Saran was surprised to learn that she was a girl, he did not show it.

“You will need more than his help if you don’t explain why you followed us,” he promised.

‘Followed us’ was a bit of an understatement, but I guess he had a point.

“I am a truth-ling and I foresaw your escape from the Castle,” she announced with no trace of fear left in her voice now considering the sword Saran was wielding.  If anything, that just seemed to make Saran angrier and he took a deliberate step closer.

“A truth-ling?  You could be anything, a spy, a traitor or even an Arberian.”  His sword, now aimed squarely at her throat, did not move an inch, “Prove it.”

She closed her eyes and I thought she was going to faint, but then she opened them and stared at me and whispered,

“The dawn is almost upon us, the sun will rise from the East and we will journey through the forest that is at the edge of this place to a stone altar.”

It was a strain to hear her and as she closed her eyes once more, the sky did indeed begin to lighten towards the East, but that didn’t seem to have placated Saran any.

“Why, I could have guessed it would be light soon and the sun usually rises in the East.  You need to be more specific,” Saran sneered as the light slowly gave shape to our shadows.

The girl opened her eyes and snapped,

“It doesn’t work that way!  I can’t pick and choose what I am given; I only see truths that are meant to be seen” and her wide blue eyes spat fire at Saran and that just made him angrier.

“Hey people, let’s just wait it out for now-” I began, trying to calm the situation, because honestly she didn’t look like a threat.

“No way, she could be a traitor, an Arberian-” Saran argued, waving his shield erratically as if to emphasise his point.

“And if she is?  She has no weapons; there is nothing she can do to us.  If she is indeed a truth-ling, she might be useful.”

“Fine,” he muttered, “but I’m going to check her first,” and he thrust his sword at me.  I aimed it in her direction somewhat half-heartedly.

The girl stood as still as a statue, with an expression of barely concealed rage on her face, as Saran proceeded to check her for weapons.  When he was satisfied that she had none, he at last allowed me to lower his sword.  I gave it back to him reluctantly, he still didn’t look as if he trusted her and I wasn’t sure if giving it him back was such a good idea.  They were now stood far apart and eyeing each other suspiciously, so I guessed it was up to me to smooth things over.

“So Edla, you foresaw that I was going to escape the Castle-“

“I knew you were going to summon the wyverns and leave before the battle, yes,” she agreed, eyeing Saran warily.

“Wyvern,” I corrected pointing at it, “and I am not sure I summoned it.”

“You did and it in turn summoned more of its kind to protect the Kingdom in your absence as you requested,” she told me, “as was foretold ‘the sky filled with the beating of many wings’ and I knew the fire-talker would make his escape on Lumina the queen of the wyverns.”

Lumina, so that was her name and as I thought this she lowered her mighty head to mine and I looked her in the eye.

“Thank-you Lumina,” I murmured as I stroked her surprisingly soft neck.  The light on her scales made them shine a purple-green and though they looked like they should be hard and dry, they were easily as soft as Peros when he had been groomed.  I found it hard to look away from her expressive eyes; they were the most golden honey-colour with a glint of light to them that softened me.  How had I ever been afraid of her?  I turned back to Edla to tell her that if I was a fire-talker I would surely know it, but before I could, I distinctly heard the sound of hooves and scarier, heavier footsteps.  I could see nothing, but I knew this wasn’t good.

“It’s the Arberians, run!” Edla yelled and taking her at her word, I set off at breakneck speed towards the trees.

“Some truth-seeker,” Saran complained loudly as he ran, “oh sure, you knew there were trees, but you didn’t see that coming.”


The forest of many shadows

The forest was dense and the leafless branches sharp, but we kept running, too afraid to stop or even look back and somewhere along the way we had lost Lumina.  My sword and shield were heavy and I kept stumbling over roots and catching myself just in time, but during the times the helmet allowed me to see properly, I noticed the others had no such problems.  Saran seemed unencumbered by the weight of his and Edla had nothing to slow her down.  They were both as lithe and graceful as cats and I felt slow and awkward in comparison.  I could hear no other sounds over that of my heavy breathing and I began to wonder if we’d lost them. 

It had just been coming light when we had started running and now we were in the cluttered trees, what light there was had been diminished substantially and I guess that’s why I didn't notice that Edla had stopped until I ran full pelt into her.  We tumbled to the ground in an embarrassing tangle at Saran’s feet.  I couldn’t get off her and upright fast enough and as I held out my hand to help her up, my apologies fell from my lips in fast succession.  She stared back at me blankly and that was when I realised she was ‘seeing’ another truth.

“They did not see us and could not hear us over the sound of the retreating and screeching wyvern.  They aimed their weapons to bring her down but she was too fast.  They will not enter the forest of many shadows.”

She closed her eyes and I looked at Saran.  ‘Did you believe her?’ he seemed to be asking me with his expression and to be honest with you, I wasn’t quite sure.  One minute she says that we were going to journey through a forest and the next minute the Arberians nearly find us.  Now she wanted us to believe that they were not coming after us.  Saran was right, it could be a trap.  I mean, we did go through the forest even if it was at breakneck speed and I couldn’t hear the marching any more, but that did not necessarily mean that we were safe and I for one had never heard of the ‘forest of many shadows.’ 

So it had been here a long time, that wasn’t a good enough reason for Arberian warriors to decide not to go into the forest, even if they hadn’t heard us.  It just didn’t add up.

“The forest of many shadows?  Are we supposed to believe that’s where we are?  My father told me many tales of the forest of many shadows and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t look as harmless as this,” Saran declared scornfully and I wondered how I had never heard of it until now.

“Your father has been to the forest of many shadows?” Edla asked incredulous and I began to worry that they were going to argue again.  What was it with them?  They seemed to enjoy tormenting each other.

“Well no, but there are many tales of creatures not of this realm that speak to each other in strange tongues and there are few who have made it out alive.”

Well if this was indeed the forest of many shadows, it explained why the Arberians wouldn’t follow us in.  If few came out alive, no-one would ever want to go in.  This was when it dawned on me that if she was telling the truth, we should not be here.

“If there are few who made it out alive, how can there be many tales of it?” she asked not unreasonably, but I‘d had enough of their bickering.

“Let’s say for arguments sake that this is the forest of many shadows, where are all the creatures not of this realm?” I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know the answer, but it was a distraction to them at least.  Saran adopted his ‘warrior’ pose (as I now thought of it) and Edla turned slowly around with her arms spread-out wide.  It was a miracle she didn’t cut herself on the vicious branches reaching toward her or Saran’s outstretched sword.

“I can feel eyes watching us, but I do not feel a threat,” she announced calmly as though that was okay.  If there were eyes watching me that I couldn’t see, I certainly felt threatened and I looked around me to see if I could spot anything.  Thankfully I couldn’t.

“What do we do now?” I wanted to know.

“We can’t go back, that’s for sure; we don’t know if the Arberians are still there.  I could feel the threat of the mormoths and scaranx; we are not safe to travel that way.”  Edla certainly looked sure and I wasn’t prepared to chance anything that would mean I would come face-to-face with one of those things.  I really wished Lumina was still with us, but I couldn’t see anything in the pockets of sky that I could make out between the gnarled branches of the trees overhead and I guessed she would have flown far away from the threat of the Arberians.  Then Edla said something that made my blood run cold.

“I feel the eyes are on you,” she looked me squarely in the eye and I blinked lest my fear betray me, “They are watching the fire-talker.”

“My name is Thorde and I am not a fire-talker.  I am just a stable-hand-“

“A stable-hand who just happens to be a Dragon Master,” Saran scoffed, “who’s to say that you’re not a fire-talker too?  It’s not as if you knew you were a Dragon Master until Lumina came along.”

I suppose he had a point, but I would have noticed if I was a fire-talker.  Although I didn’t have access to a Dragon at the Castle, I had seen many other creatures and had been unable to converse with them.  The only ones I had talked to were the horses, but that was without using words and anyone could learn to do that if they just took the time. 

“You are a fire-talker, soon you will see,” Edla’s cryptic words seemed to settle the matter.

“So now we don’t have the wyvern, how are we supposed to get to the stone altar if that’s where we are supposed to be?” Saran asked and I shrugged.  I didn’t know where I was now, so finding somewhere I’d never been before was an impossibility.

“We don’t know which direction to go, except we can’t go back, so I guess that means we go forward.” 

“Works for me,” Saran agreed and we began walking once again.  It had not escaped my notice that Saran was watching Edla and Edla was watching Saran.  They obviously didn’t trust each other at all.

Soon we came to a break in the trees where rocks were strewn amongst the dying moss of the ground.  It was hard going to walk over or around them, but we kept going all the same.  Who knew if we were going in the right direction but as each check of the sky proved fruitless, I assumed we just had to forge forward.

“Watch out,” Saran yelled, “there’s mud ahead and we don’t know how deep it is.”

Sure enough, instead of moss, now there was murky brown liquid between the uneven stones, but at least the stones gave us a way to get across the mud.  I found it hard to balance with my sword and shield on the now wobbly stones, but the others did not seem to be having problems.  I couldn’t tell if they were just adept at choosing the least wobbly rocks or if they just had a better sense of balance, but they were moving more quickly than me and I didn’t want to get left behind.  This was not the kind of place where anyone wanted to be alone.  The weather was cold and the air felt damp, but worst of all was the distinct feeling that I was being watched.  I couldn’t decide if it was paranoia or what Edla had said, but now I actually felt like I was being watched.

My foot snagged on a rock and I felt the squelch of mud on my ankle and I tugged to try and free it, but it wouldn’t budge.  I looked down to see how to loosen it, but I wasn’t caught on a rock.  A brown hand had closed over my ankle and was trying to drag me into the mud.

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