Everybody Loves Dragons
I don't boast often, but when I do it's because everybody knows it.
Just like everybody loves dragons.
Here is my boast:
I am amazing at hand-selling books. There. Now you know too. I usually sell out at any signing or convention I go to. Once, down at Archon, I sold out on the first day, then helped other authors sell their books to unsuspecting con-goers. Besides a litany of tactics I use (including wearing my kilts ;) ), I love to come up with silly slogans on the spot for each of my books and then shout them at passersbys. While there's a slogan for each of my main books, I'm pretty sure my favorite one is what I shout for The Grey Isle Tale: "EVERYBODY LOVES DRAGONS!" I cry. I'm not afraid to make it personal, either. I'll pick out someone unfortunate to make eye contact with me and then shout, "YOU LIKE DRAGONS, RIGHT?" The crowd swivels their eyes toward the unlucky soul until they sheepishly admit the truth that yes, they do like dragons too.
Don't worry, it's all in good fun :)
Something about The Grey Isle Tale has made that little novella of mine a clear best-seller in my growing series of fantasy books. It has the most reviews too. My literary writer brain tries to dissect why this is so. Is it the pacing? The short but not too short length? The awesome cover done by my illustrator, Laura Faraci (Thanks, Laura!)? Whatever the reason, that book is always the first to sell out at any event. I find this all weird because while Rienspel took me almost a decade to write, The Grey Isle Tale took me maybe four months. It was just a toss off. Some idea I scribbled down early during the Rienspel writing days. After I finished Rienspel, I wondered what I should work on next until I stumbled across my earlier Grey Isle Tale scribbles. One summer later the rough draft was finished.
If you haven't read it yet, here's a teaser (just for you):
The sea breeze rustled through the pine forest where Janos stood, watching the hazy coastline extend for miles. Here and there, merchant vessels or little fishing boats bobbed along the iron-grey froth of the Ocean Vaste. The metal circlet balanced firmly on his head felt unnatural. Janos constantly had to fight the urge to swipe the damn thing off. He had to also restrain a similar urge with the heavy, overly-encrusted silver saber hanging from his waist.
“Your Highness, are you completed with inspecting the Tower Oros?” asked the local captain.
Janos wracked his mind briefly for her name… “What was it, again?” his memory had always been terrible. Every so often Janos tried to practice the memory games his etiquette tutor had suggested… but the trouble with forgetfulness is…
“Now what was I thinking about again? … Hmmm… It’s Gisele. Captain Gisele Perrault.” Prince Janos remembered with sudden relief. Turning to address the raven-haired captain, he smiled and nodded his approval. “Yes, Gis… Captain…” Janos cleared his throat over the etiquette mistake.
Captain Gisele blushed but still stood like a straight razor, raptly attentive.
All around them now, the salty sea winds brushed against their lips and ears. A gust caught in the prince’s long cape tangling it in the captain’s curly black hair.
Janos fidgeted. He didn’t like being embarrassed. Unbidden, the prince could still hear his father’s gruff words, “So long as they’re not faction heads from the leading Scypiasians, Ulians or Brutaejians families… it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” Giving the massive Watch Tower of Oros one last perceptive glance, Janos untangled himself from the captain as best he could and asked, “Forgive me, but you… you’re…”
Gisele’s reaction confused the prince. She appeared to grimace, flex, and grin all in a flash before quickly masking back behind her usual military poise. “Brutajian, by birth – if you must know – Your Highness.” She looked down and away for a moment, “We’ve been serving as the Watch for this coastline among the Towers since your grandfather, I believe. But I…” Suddenly she leaped at Prince Janos, knocking him flat against the hard timbers of the watchtower’s deck. “GET DOWN!”
A large ballistae bolt sunk deeply into one of the dark roof beams nearby, still quivering violently.
Captain Gisele’s saber – lean, sharp, and plain was out in a flash. Janos felt a sudden pang of envy as he slowly realized someone had just tried to kill him. “Protect the prince! Soldier, get the Hastati deployed now!” She ordered a nearby guard who was still staring rather shocked at the embedded projectile mere inches from his pale face. Captain Gisele poked her head hesitantly up to peer over the battlements after the stunned soldier finally scurried off obediently…
Thunk Thunk Thunk!
A series of arrow-shots peppered the stonework inches from her face.
“Hastati?!” cried the prince incredulously. “But where are my Imperial Legionaries?”
Down below, the ringing clang of metal on metal drifted up, mingling with the ceaseless rush from the nearby surf below.
“Right now Prince Janos of House Ulian – I don’t care if you’re used to dragons guarding you! Hastati is what the Ulian family – your family – allows us to garrison here. And we need to move now, because half-trained, conscripted eighteen-year-old Hastati are all we’ve got at the moment. This way!”
The prince and the captain began crawling towards the entrance to the tower’s spiraling staircase. Near the relative safety of the opening, another shower of silvery arrows sailed through the exposed turret’s open-air deck.
“Ah…” cried Janos… momentarily pinned by his arrow-bitten sleeve.
As Gisele yanked the arrow out and tossed it aside, Janos felt a faint trickle of blood seep down his arm, staining the wood near his boots. “I hope Ulians are made of tougher stuff than that.” said the captain with a wry smile, as she half-dragged the prince down into the dark tower.
Onwards they plunged into the dim and the dank of the musty old sea tower. Every now and again, they were forced to flatten against the old stone walls as squads of half-frightened, half-excited recruits jangled past towards the none too distant sounds of fighting. Soon the prince and the captain could both smell the unmistakable smell of burning clashing with the cool coastal air.
Captain Gisele groaned, “Don’t tell me the bastards lit the place on fire… my men and I scrubbed this mangy place for a week and a day for your ruddy inspections…”
“My dear captain, I…” began the prince.
“Oh shut up, Your Highness.” barked Gisele, brushing a stray lock of dark hair from her face.
Janos looked mildly surprised at the tone this local captain was taking with him. By every right, he was her prince, after all. The sentiment was not lost on Gisele, either… “If we live through this you can throw me in the stocks for a week – I really don’t care. Right now, I need to find the right brick. Move.” Shoving Janos aside she began furiously hitting the stone wall with her free hand. “Well,” Gisele said impatiently after Janos continued to stare at her, shocked by this back-water captains’ impertinence. “Are you going to help me or not?”
“Sure.” said the prince, becoming more and more confused and flustered. Unsummoned, a voice in his head rather like his mother, the Queen, began fussing, “Just imagine it… my son alone and unescorted in the presence of some common Brutajian girl… filthy creatures…” Silencing the internal voice with little difficulty, Janos began hitting the wall at random… though he was still not entirely sure what exactly it was they were looking for in Tower Oros’ gloomy, moss-ridden interior.
With an unexpected crunch, the large brick Janos had been pushing slid back into the wall. For a moment, nothing happened. The prince shot the captain a sarcastic look.
“Well… give it a minute,” grumbled Gisele impatiently, as she hesitantly sheathed her sword.
Down and around the long, dim corridor the sounds of fighting could be heard clearly now, growing louder with each passing moment.
“I don’t think we have a minute, captain.”
“Well, it worked just fine last week when I oiled the gears from the other side…”
Finally, with agonizingly slow speed, the wall began creeping sideways, then sliding and swing inwards, hitching itself onto some hidden latch. Before the duo lay a billowing, pitch-black tunnel which stank like seaweed. It was all Janos could do from making a face. “I wasn’t even aware Oros had a secret passage…” he muttered.
Gisele rolled her dark eyes, “Well… My Prince … that’s sort of the point about secret passages, you know. They’re secret.” She said exasperatedly as if explaining sums to a toddler. “Besides… it was the Brutaejians who built these towers a stone at a time… or perhaps their royal majesties, the House of Ulian, have forgotten…”
With a clash and a clatter, two armed men erupted around the far corner of the tower’s hallway.
“There HE is!” cried one, brandishing a long silvery spear.
“Friends of yours?” asked the prince apprehensively.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” muttered the captain as they both drew their weapons.
But before either of them could react, a third figure leaped around the corner, tackling the two assassins to the grimy stone floor. With a few swift strokes, the new man whipped out two long steel daggers and slit their throats. After nonchalantly cleaning his bloodied blades on one of the now dead men’s cloaks, he gingerly rose from the floor.
“Legate Avors!” cried Prince Janos.
“My Liege! Oh, it is good to see you, sir! I tried to warn you about leaving your bodyguard behind like that…”
The two friends embraced like old comrades.
“How were you not killed, and where are the rest of the men?” asked the prince.
Captain Gisele narrowed her eyes and did not lower her blade, “Yes, Legate Avors,” she said taking a step closer now, “how exactly did you make it all the way up here unscathed?”
The jarring sounds of fighting were still uncomfortably close. The trio peered down the ominous secret passageway for a moment. The faint torchlight, feeble and groping, did little to illuminate even the entrance’s tangle of weedy moss and ancient patchwork stone walls which led on, deeper into the darkness of its own oblivion.
“I’ll tell you all once we get moving – your garrison is about to be overrun by Scypiasian soldiers... ninth legion, if I had to guess.”
The prince and the captain eyed each other knowingly. It was common knowledge among the realm of the Grey Isle about the legendary fighting abilities of House Scypiasian’s ninth legion. “Right” Janos nodded, “Captain, after you.”
Gisele rolled her eyes but moved forward despite her obvious mistrust, snatching up a nearby torch off its bracket, and proceeded into the inky tunnel. “One of us has to be the brave one here…” she muttered just loud enough so the other two could still plainly hear.
“What was that, captain?” The legate asked coolly.
“If you two think just because you’re of House Ulian you can…”
Prince Janos saw it too, “Avors, you’re bleeding – are you sure you’re alright?”
The Legate looked down at his far side, which had, until this moment been shielded from view. A deep gash seeped with a crimson tide of blood, slowly leaking onto the floor. “I…” Avors tried to speak, but a wave of dizziness swept through him.
The prince caught the soldier just before he toppled over.
“Get him inside before anyone finds us…” barked Gisele, as she sheathed her sword once more.
Together, the pair just managed to drag the imposingly large body of the legate out of the light. The captain tugged at a small inconspicuous lever and the opening re-sealed itself as if it had never existed. The trio was immediately plunged into near pitch dark. The sounds of the last bits of stout resistance appeared to die away… replaced now with new sounds of dripping water and a faraway rush of echoing tide.
“Legate? Avors, can you hear me?” Janos asked worriedly as he forced some wine from his flask down his friend’s throat.
Avors choked and spluttered. “It was the ale.” He managed finally. “My men were reposing…err… standing guard outside Oro’s gates near the courtyard… poisoned. It’s…” he coughed again, “It’s a good thing I was late… eh, prince?”
Janos tried to put on a brave smile, “You were double checking the manifests again, weren’t you? You worry too much.”
The legate grimaced, “Not nearly enough, it would seem…”
Through the frail yellow torchlight, Gisele could just be seen frowning. “If I patch you up, do you think you can walk?”
Avors nodded. “Get to work, then, captain.” He turned again to Janos, “Something’s not right… It’s been that way for months now. You know it’s true… extra supply orders… more armed men on the roads…”
“Yes, legate, I know… It’s why we’re even out here on the utter edge of the eastern coastlands in the first place… inspecting towers… pah… rubbing shoulders Brutaejians, who would have thought?” Janos joked.
Gisele purposefully cinched the bandage around Avor’s waist tight, eliciting a grunt from the legate. “I AM Brutaejian, in case you snotty Ulians forgot. If you would rather I hit that switch and march you both out for all your charming Scypiasian friends to fawn over… What is the third great house of Rumunjia of the Grey Isle doing here at all, anyway?
Avors took a sharp, painful breath and stood up with a lurch. “I don’t know, do I… captain? They’re certainly not here for your apple harvest festival in Trennin, that’s for sure.”
Slowly, the group began stumbling down the dim tunnel. After a few minutes, they came to a sudden fork in their path.
“Well Captain Gisele, is it right or left?” the prince asked, suddenly hesitating.
Gisele narrowed her eyes and sheathed her sword. “Look, do you aristocrats even trust me or not? Because last I checked, I did just save your life, legate. AND yours, Your Highness.”
Legate Avors narrowed his eyes. “Speak in that tone of voice one more time to your prince, brute, and I’ll…”
“You’ll what, Avors?” said Janos. “Bleed on her?” He took a few steps forward and peered down each identically sable tunnel in turn. “Look, I don’t really like it any more than you do. But if it means getting out of here, getting you to a proper doctor or chirgeon… I don’t really care. She did save my life. And probably yours, too, my friend.”
Avors looked at them doubtfully.
Captain Gisele rolled her eyes, which glistened in the wan torchlight. “My parents did always warn me against strange men…” She picked up two stone from the rocky floor and handed each companion one of them, “Prince, chuck this down the right hallway if you please – Legate Bleedy, you chuck this down the left one… you nobles do know your rights from your lefts, correct?”
“Why?” they both asked.
“Just do it” she ordered.
“I am not Legate Bleedy, you worthless peasan…” retorted Avors, but Prince Janos cut him off.
“Just throw your rock. We all know your real name…” Janos turned to Gisele, still struck by her lovely dark eyes, and winked.
Avors threw his rock down the left chasm, careful to avoid stressing his newly bandaged side. After a few seconds, there was a watery crash. The legate sniffed.
“Alright, my turn,” said Prince Janos hefting his rock and chucked it down the right corridor. Almost immediately, there followed a noisy skittering sound which died faintly away.
“The right hallway will lead out of the hills to a secret entrance near the edge of Trennin’s apple orchards,” Captain Gisele explained. “The left has a nasty drop before leading out to our sea-cave. If I had actually wanted to kill you, I would have led you down the left and let you walk right off the edge - if the rocks hadn’t of ended you, the breakers would have.”
Janos clutched his arm. “Oww. Well, I trust you, Gisele… but oh… I had forgotten this was the arm the arrow bit me in…”
“My Lord?” asked Avors.
Avors slowly nodded as he began hobbling off, “I’ll go investigate the right passageway, then.”
“It’s nothing, eh?” Gisele said with a smirk Janos could just distinguish through the dark. “Take off your shirt.”
“You heard me. Take it off. I have to make sure you actually are ok. Seriously… it’s a wonder you bumbling Ulians ever made it to power in the first place…”
The prince starred at this upstart Brutaejian captain. In his mind, other voices murmured about the impropriety and breach of correct decorum given the situation. “It’s dark and there’s nobody else around…” Janos mentally apologized. Hesitantly, he tugged his laced silk shirt up over his head.
After a moment, he could feel a gentle finger tracing the scars on his chest. “That’s not my arm, captain.”
“Shut up, my prince. I have to make sure none of the arrows hit you anywhere else… You don’t want to end up all loopy like Legate Bleedy…”
There in the dark, the two lingered together. The crash of the breakers still echoed… and still, Gisele’s surprisingly delicate hands searched out for wounds.
“I saw you once before… you know,” she finally managed.
“Is that so, captain?”
Gisele smiled, “Once upon a time, your father, the King, had summoned all the captains and advisors to his… or should I say your royal palace of Senokia… all the damsels of the land too… for a royal ball…”
The prince smiled and nodded in the darkness. “My eighteenth birthday party seemed like ages ago… in another life… Why, did we dance or something?”
The captain gave the prince a light shove. “Nope. Your royal highness apparently doesn’t have time to mingle with peasant brute captains from Oros… oh, but how I watched… and dreamed.” Her hands slid up to his neck where a curious necklace glittered dimly out of the blackness. “There it is, too.”
“What, the Wardstone? Yep, that’s it.”
“The stone of light which keeps evil at bay – taken from a holy place of the elves of the mainland… given to your family after the liberation of their coastlands beyond the Great Forest.” Her fingers caressed his neckline until… They were only inches away from each other now. Janos could feel the captain’s quivering body next to his… Through the feeble, flickering flames, he caught a glimpse of Gisele’s entrancing face once more.
The captain could feel her heart pounding away in her chest. In that moment she knew they were both contemplating the same question, “did they dare?”
Suddenly she gasped and pulled away. In one liquid motion, Captain Gisele whipped out her sword. “GET BACK, CREATURE!”
“Gisele, what’s wrong?”
“YOU KNOW WHAT’S WRONG, MONSTER.”
Prince Janos held up his hands. The buzzing voices in his head grew louder, but with an effort, he managed to subdue them. Janos could feel a trickle of moisture where the captain had brushed against the numerous death wounds where his skull connected to his spine. “Gisele, I know how this may seem…”
“So,” the captain said as she began circling the prince slowly, “all my men… dead. This was your scheme all along. And I suppose… I suppose the Scypiasians who were attacking my tower were actually good, loyal soldiers, just trying to stop you.”
The prince backed against one of the stone walls. The dripping water felt shockingly cold against the smattering of death-wounds which dotted the lower back of his neck and spine. “Gisele, it’s not that simple. Please… I…”
“Don’t you dare call me Gisele, you undead… thing.” With a swift thrust, she drove her sword into the prince’s heart.
Janos only smiled softly, as an aching sadness filled his longing eyes. Gently but firmly, he wrenched Gisele’s hand away from her sword hilt. With a squelch, he slid the captain’s sword out of his chest and calmly cleaned it for her with a spare pocket handkerchief. “Ah captain, if only you could…” and returned Gisele’s weapon into her shaking fingers.
The crunch of sand and pebbles announced the return of Legate Avors. “Turns out the bloody brute is right… there is an exit not far down the right corridor, Your Highness.”
Gisele drew back and away from Prince Janos as if splashed by scalding water. Struggling to remain a personally acceptable regal semblance of decorum, Janos struggled awkwardly to pull his shirt back on. The fabric slid down, concealing yet another dribbling death wound just as Avors neared the pair.
“Something the matter, prince?” asked Avors curiously.
“It’s nothing.” Both Janos and Gisele blurted simultaneously.
“Ummm… well, right then. This way.” replied the mildly suspicious legate.
Together, the trio soon found the exit from the endless crushing night of Tower Oro’s secret escape tunnel. Exiting through a particularly dense patch of curtained green ivy, they stumbled out through the ivy-covered cave mouth into the warm light of day. The prince still felt rather sorry for the captain… it was apparent she was still slowly recovering from her shock. The legate, though, trudged onwards, leading the way – politely oblivious as ever.
It wasn’t the first time Janos had seen the Five Points during their apple festival. The five nearby towns, or Five Points, which dotted the distant wooded hills gathered together each autumn in Trennin, the central town nestled in a nearby pleasant, bowl-shaped valley. All around the trio, the orchards, dotted with bountiful red and golden apples, waved serenely in the breeze. Somewhere vaguely behind them, the air still retained its faint sea tang.
The captain scouted the area, moving more on muscle reflex than active will. Prince Janos scared her... terrified her, even. But all the same, she saw the longing sadness in his eyes. Gisele remembered the way she had been smitten by him during the royal dance… how Janos had seemed so far away… inexpressibly distant across the ballroom and layers of social strata. As far as the northern horizon is from the southern… she felt herself sigh.
All was still around her. Gisele forced herself to turn and reluctantly headed back to where the two men stood, blinking in the buttery afternoon sunshine. “Seems safe enough,” she reported neutrally, trying to sneak a glimpse at Janos and failing. Sweeping back her raven black hair, Gisele turned right and started off towards Trennin, soon overtaken by the obstinate legate.
Every now and again, the surrounding silence would be interrupted by the gentle thud where a ripe apple fell to the earth. The group now hurried along the strangely quiet orchard lands, along sun-dappled grounds and past wicker baskets left brimming with the ripe promise of a good harvest. But nowhere was a soul to be seen. The salty wind sighed through the ancient, creaking bows all around them. The band’s fears, transformed during their recent underground journey gripped their hearts again with tensile strength once more. A lingering, shadowy omen, invisible, yet still all too tangible, dogged their hesitant steps like a specter.
The trio strode through the apple orchard. A crystalline mist was beginning to pool in the little dells all around them now, as the sun at their left began slowly slipping down into the east behind the far distant peak of Mount Silvertine. The captain shivered involuntarily after catching a glimpse of the prince again.
Janos noticed Gisele’s shudder and sighed. “You have no idea what it’s like, you know.”
Gisele pretended not to hear and picked a ripe yellow apple instead, which glinted in the sun-slanted fog.
Janos’s foot hit a loose white paving stone – which sent the hard rock bouncing and skipping along the ruts and roots of the ground in front of them. “I feel… I… I feel this poison coursing through my veins more than my own blood most days. I have to fight the memories of all my worst moments. Always…” The prince stole another glance at the beautiful, rugged captain trudging along a little behind him. For all the two spaces between them – Janos felt in his heart as if the distance of oceans lay between them instead.
After a moment, Gisele squared her firm shoulders and without turning to the prince, replied, “You’re wrong.”
“Huh?” The prince stopped short.
The captain kept walking past him, on through the dappled sunlight which cut through the wood-shadows of the apple branches dangling high above their heads. “Don’t stop. And don’t act surprised, either. If you’re… infected – then, however, whatever it is … your… melancholy is a part of it, too.”
“I… Oh.” Janos resumed his shambling pace.
“My father would watch the western seas, you know… I… I don’t really know why I’m telling you this, but it doesn’t really matter… as a little girl, I would sit on his lap as he watched by the great signal lights… and I would ask him why he watched. And I’ll never forget what he would say… my father would say ‘We watch in the night not for ourselves, but for others.’ I always figured if everyone watched for others, that way we’d all maybe be taken care of one day, you know?”
“Who watches for me, then? Who even would now… considering my condition?”
As quick as lightning, Gisele swiveled and chucked her uneaten apple straight at the prince; Janos, who was still morosely absorbed in his thoughts, failed to duck in time.
The yellow fruit hit him squarely on the nose.
“Ow?” the prince said after a pause. “You know, I don’t exactly feel pain anymore.” He said as he busied himself with resetting his nose in more or less the right angle.
“Oh, that was for me, Your Highness.”
“So I see,” Janos replied, patting his face. Satisfied, he shook his head and sighed. The prince couldn’t help but smile a little over the captain’s quirkiness.
For a time they trotted onwards, steadily making their way north through the golden mist and endless rows of trees ripe for harvesting. Keeping the sun on their left hand, the prince and the captain eventually caught up to the heavy footfalls of Avors as he went tromping through the flickering leaves and tall auburn grass. “Your Highness, the town is just ahead… they have all gathered for the harvest festival now – which is why the fields are as empty as the gra… are quiet.”
“Any sign of the Scypiasians, legate?”
Avors shook his grizzled head, “No, thankfully not. It’s odd, though. It’s as if nobody here even realizes the extent of what’s going on… I don’t like it.” He turned to Janos, “Sire, we need supplies and news – I need to probably change my wound’s dressing and we need to plan our next moves. If you must come into town, I would highly suggest taking great care to disguise yourself.”
Janos nodded. He felt the better part of him wishing it really was just a fine autumn festival day here amid the golden apple trees. But the other part of Janos knew better. Almost instinctively, the dark part of his mind whirled with all the negative, sick reasons why they were really here, walking under the misty tree limbs laden with fruit… Janos caught Captain Gisele’s concerned expression. For a moment the two parts of him wavered – both equally balanced as if on the head of a silver pin – and then the brighter part of the prince won over. She was watching for him. Watching and watching like the guiding pinprick of a lighthouse shining out for lost ships upon a midnight sea.
Legate Avors tossed Janos and Gisele a burlap festival shawl each. The Prince caught his own absentmindedly. “When at the Trennin Apple Festival…”
“Do as the Trennians do.” finished Gisele, donning her own burlap festival shawl with a grin...
There are both regular and special illustrated Grey Isle Tale versions scattered about indie bookshops in St Louis and Albuquerque - have at! If you're in the Hannibal, Missouri area there are some down at Java Jive too. You can also purchase them here, here, and here. Leave a review once you're finished - I'd love to hear what you think!
(You do love dragons, right?)
Until next time,